What it means:
There are currently some 1.3 million active-duty service members, making the U.S. military the third largest in the world. The National Security Strategy (NSS) emphasizes the need “rebuild” and to grow the size of the force so that it can “win across a range of scenarios.”
Context: The size of the active duty military has decreased in a consistent overall trend following the last spike in personnel during the height of the Vietnam conflict in 1968, when there were 3.5 million active service members. Institution of the Budget Control Act in 2011 disrupted long-term planning because of its hard caps, although the U.S. retains its status as the most powerful fighting force in the world, according to almost every independent military expert.
Think about it: Defense officials may be eager to seize the moment under a growth-friendly administration, but neither the National Defense Strategy (NDS) nor the NSS have outlined how to grow the force effectively. Growth for the sake of growth won’t help make the force readier if there is no methodology to the expansion.
“You can just keep feeding [the military] money, but you can only get so much out of a force of a certain size. Growing the size of the force… is going to be pretty hard, and it’s the long way around to try and get a readier force because it takes so long to build your capabilities,” Barry Posen, director of the MIT Security Studies Program said.
Bottom line: There is a distinct echo here of the old “2 ½ wars” readiness approach that dominated the U.S. military thinking during the Cold War. The President appears to be opening the door for a new “great power” face-off with Russian and China, while still “policing” the world for terrorism. The military expense may be the least of the consequences in that event.
What it means:
Ever since two deadly naval collisions made headlines over the summer, the ability of individual military units to successfully carry out assignments has come under the microscope. This has led to calls for increased funding of the military to cure what some defense hawks are calling a “readiness crisis.” Military readiness today is defined in large part by the consequences of the “longest sustained armed conflict in our nation’s history,”—The War on Terror—according to the NDS.
Context: Blame for the inability to modernize the military and maintain personnel standards has largely been placed on the Budget Control Act of 2011, a bipartisan agreement establishing budgeting caps that constrain military spending. The BCA fixes a ceiling for the growth in military spending that has little to do with any real-world needs or changes in circumstances. Combined with the general inability to nail down budgets early in the fiscal year, this leads to erratic training cycles, shortfalls in supply, and a general sense that the basics of the military business are not being met.
“Even when they get a little bit of extra money, they don’t get it exactly when they need it so periodically they are tying up ships or standing down training or whatever they are doing to try and address the money they are actually going to get,” Posen said.
Think about it
: But even so, the Overseas Contingency Operations fund has served as a loophole to the budget caps. This “emergency spending” fund — approved separately from the normal Defense Department budget — allows important expenses to be essentially hidden, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis. This in turn plants the seeds for what critics call “the never-ending war
”—if the DOD runs its critical operations with money meant for fighting wars, the only way to justify its expenses to the OCO is by continuous engagement in conflict.
“Recently, Congress and the President have designated ‘OCO’ funds for a variety of activities that had previously been contained in the Department of Defense base budget. By designating ongoing activities not directly related to contingency operations as ‘OCO,’ Congress and the President can effectively continue to increase topline defense, foreign affairs, and other related discretionary spending without triggering sequestration,” according to a CBO report.
Bottom line: The BCA & the OCO have together muddied the picture of military readiness, which is a nebulous term in the first place.
What it means: Both the NDS and the NSS announced that the new focus of U.S. defense will be countering the threats posed by “revisionist” superpowers China and Russia rather than those posed by terrorism in the Middle East. While the president spent most of his speech on ISIS, he left out a lot of the strategy focused on in the NDS and the NSS.
What the president did not mention in his speech is that the U.S. has identified China and Russia as world powers with the potential to restructure the global order established in large part by the U.S. and its allies after the Cold War. China’s military buildup and exploits in the Pacific have frustrated the administration, and the policies they have crafted in response have the potential to create a trade war between the U.S. and China. On top of the Russian disinformation campaign and cyberattacks that interfered with U.S. elections, Russia’s activities in Crimea, troop deployments to Syria and military exercises close to NATO borders have made the U.S. and its allies uncomfortable.
Think about it: Because the U.S. is China’s top trading market, and Russia is occupied with a backpedaling economy, all-out war between superpowers is relatively unlikely. Where it becomes tricky is the potential for proxy wars to play out on the Korean Peninsula or in the Middle East, locations where current alliance structures pit the U.S. against Russia and China.
Bottom line: In a great power competition, the least of the consequences is probably increases to the defense budget. Declining international influence, loss of markets, the opportunity cost of capital, entangling alliances, etc., all could weigh more heavily on the US than mere military spending.
What it means:
The president is referring to the threats posed by North Korea and Iran, which the NSS and NDS define as “rogue nations” for pursuing weapons of mass destruction programs and sponsoring terrorist activities.
Context: Complicating the situation is the potential for conflicts with these “rogue nations” to catalyze revisionist-power conflicts. China has a tenuous alliance with North Korea, and Chinese nationals were recently caught providing aid to North Korea, violating United Nations sanctions. There has also been speculation that once North Korea establishes its capabilities, it could sell its WMDs to Iran. Russia also has a somewhat shaky alliance with Iran, and both nations have a military presence in Syria. The U.S. military is also operating in Syria. U.S-backed Kurdish militia are also frustrating neighbor nation and U.S. ally Turkey, which has always been at odds with the Kurds.
Think about it: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster believes that traditional deterrence strategies won’t work against a regime like Kim Jong Un’s in North Korea. Trump has regularly disparaged the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated under the Obama administration, as a shoddy agreement that allows Iran to continue its development of WMDs. Iran has said that it will not accept any renegotiation of the deal. At the same time, there is a relative lack of specific data describing the extent to which these “rogue nations” have developed WMDs.
“Even the best open source efforts present serious problems in terms of access to accurate data on North Korea and in estimating the ability to characterize the real0world effectiveness of current and future weapons programs, and these challenges may limit even the best intelligence efforts,” Anthony Cordesman, strategy chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in his testimony to a joint House Foreign Affairs subcommittees meeting.
Bottom line: Since nuclear weapons are the only direct strategic threats the U.S. faces, the country has an obvious interest in holding down proliferation by so-called rogue states. But hard-lining rogue nations, or initiating a “bloody nose” preemptive strike—as the Trump administration has suggested—could escalate the situation beyond return.
Trump discussed his military efforts in the Middle East disproportionately in comparison to his administration’s National Security and Defense Strategies, which largely focused on Russia and China. But even his slight references to “rival” and “rogue” nations as well as his calls to “rebuild” and “modernize” the military reflect his adminstrations complicated strategic position, which could result in a costly and expensive buildup of the armed forces and engagements in conflicts abroad.