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Donald Trump says if he becomes President, and as such, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, he will build new ships and planes, increase the army by 50,000 soldiers, and grow the US Marine Corp.

That’s fighting talk. But who does he think he might fight?

Obviously the timing of his comments, made in a speech in Philadelphia, is due to the upcoming Presidential debates with his rival Hillary Clinton, but they also come at a time when the idea of ‘Big Wars’ has returned, front and centre, to the thinking of the military chiefs of staff.

Ever since 9/11 the leaders of many NATO powers have been using words such as ‘nimble, and ‘flexible’, as they talk of a ‘light footprint’ and beefing up special forces in an era of asymmetric warfare, counter insurgency, and terrorism. Planning for a serious conflict with a major nation state using conventional warfare was put on the backburner. Now however, the resurgence of the Russian military machine, and the surge in Chinese military spending has changed that and for the first time in a quarter of a century the American high command is again thinking in terms of ‘Big Wars’.

Indeed, when Mr. Trump spoke of a policy of ‘peace through strength’ you could hear an echo of the late President Reagan at the height of the Cold War. “I am proposing” he added “a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world,”

To do this he said that under his presidency the U.S. Navy would have at least 350 surface ships and submarines, 1,200 fighter aircraft, a 36 battalion marine corps, and 540,000 soldiers. This focus on numbers was a departure for a candidate who is known for being heavy on rhetorical flourishes but light on detail. As well as developing a ‘state of the art’ missile defence system, he also pledged to modernize 22 Navy cruisers at a cost of about $220 million each. To counter threats to America, he said, will require “military warfare, but also cyber warfare, financial warfare, and ideological warfare,”

He also said that within 30 days of winning the Presidency he would require the Pentagon to deliver a plan to ‘destroy’ the Islamic State group. While claiming that ‘Our adversaries are chomping at the bit’ he singled out ISIS, North Korea and China as specific threats.

F-35

F-35

Although Mr. Trump said he would have a ‘very, very good relationship Putin’ his defence advisors will have briefed him that current NATO thinking is that a major war with Russia in central Europe has again become a possibility. Earlier this year NATO approved the stationing of 4 extra multinational battalions of about 1,000 troops each in Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Those numbers are small, but hark back to the thinking of the Cold War era in that they would be part of a ‘trip-wire’ triggering a full mobilization.

Mr Trump, and many others believe the threat from an unstable North Korea is real. Most military analysts are also concerned that the arms buildup in the South China Sea, involving multiple nations, is a flashpoint which could explode even if no single nation actually wants war.

Of course pledges to massively bolster defence (to an audience of veterans) is ‘Campaign Talk’ in the heat of the campaign. Political wisdom states that appearing soft on defence issues goes down badly with American voters. The realities of power may be different. Just as it is unlikely Mexico would pay for a wall to be built on its border with the USA, so Congress may not over turn the sequester and Lockheed Martin may not be able to curtail spending on the latest generation F-35. However, as a statement of intent the candidate’s proposals are worth taking seriously.

He is positioning himself as a potential hawkish commander-in-chief, and appears to buy into the concept that ‘Big Wars’ are back. Under President Obama America tacked back towards its periodic isolationist position, Mr. Trump doesn’t seem like the kind of leader who would actively seek to re-assert the USA as the ‘world’s policeman’, but it seems that strategically he intends to keep it as the absolute dominant military power, and temperamentally he appears the sort of President who would use that power.

Adapted from an article first published at Forces TV.

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7 Comments on "Trump and the Return of ‘Big Wars’"

  1. The capacity for ‘big war’ is certainly not there at the moment for the USA or I suspect anybody else for that matter. Whilst US armed forces are huge ‘on paper’, it is the same units that continually bear the brunt of the work. For example the B1 bomber is quite an old aircraft but it was the workhorse in Afghanistan and the Middle East and was used to the point that the crews had missed out on air to air combat refreshers and the planes were overdue cockpit upgrades. Indeed the USAF had retired a number of B1s only to have to call them back into service again. One of the follies of the Bush era which saw national guard personnel called upon for what were in global terms small scale conflicts was that it showed up a lack of resilience in the US military structure.

    I would say it is doubtful in the case of a war with China that the US manufacturers could manage to replenish aircraft or naval losses suffered or indeed the required level of munitions that kind of conflict would require, especially if their was a ground element in S Korea. Then of course there is the two years it takes to train a new pilot to replace personnel losses. If you are really planning for a big war then you are going to telegraph it early by not only expanding your weapon and munition stockpiles but also shortening your training requirements which of course gives your opponent the chance to respond in kind.
    I’m not sure the well off people of the West would tolerate a big war continuing for long once they realised what it entailed.

    • mahatmacoatmabag | 9th September 2016 at 10:56 pm | Reply

      Rob, the training of pilots is a long & costly process, that’s why the USA & Israel are the leaders in building more highly armed long range drones to offset the problem. If Trump becomes POTUS the USA will begin the process of catching up, if Hillary becomes POTUS the military will be cut once again & a weakened US military gives countries like Russia, China, Iran & North Korea the green light to carry out even more aggression globally. When you wrote the West you should written the EU, because it is the bankrupt EU that has lost the will to defend itself, not just against external threats but from the internal one it inflicted upon itself. As for the UK, I see May as continuing Blair, Brown & Camerons policy of denuding the armed forces of both troops & equipment to pay for the NHS behemoth that is swallowing our economy up as our over crowded Island creaks under the strain of our unrestrained immigration policies since Blair became PM in 1997

  2. Trump’s big war is against the Mexican immigrants. If we analyze his speeches over the last few months, we will find that “Mexicans” are the enemy number one in Trump’s mind.

  3. Am I the only one who’s terrified about the prospect of Donald Trump as Commander in Chief?

    • mahatmacoatmabag | 12th September 2016 at 10:04 pm | Reply

      No Peter, Soros, Obama, Michele, Joe, Bernie, Hillary & Bill are all terrified about the prospect of Donald Trump as Commander in Chief.

  4. Mahatma, you raise a good point about drones though the problem with the heavy long range ones at the moment is their slow speed which means that any sortie against a decent air defense system would be a one way trip. I think the reaper comes in at about $15 million at the moment compared to $800,000 for a cruise missile so until capabilities improve they aren’t likely to be the go to long range weapon of choice against a strong adversary. What is very interesting is the development of the small LOCUST drone program the USN is developing whereby a large number small expendable low cost drones are used to overwhelm enemy air defences, trials have shown that a relatively small number of drones can score hits on an Aegis destroyer. As of yet these low tech drones also have a low range and small payload capacity. The USN are also working on swarming with ‘drone’ patrol boats too to protect from suicide attacks. Interesting times and I can see both air borne and underwater drones eventually making high value military assets like aircraft carriers obsolete. This is of course good news if you are China and bad news if you are the USA. The main problem with the UK armed forces isn’t the budget but the huge waste in procuring useless equipment while manpower is cut to the point that there is barely anyone left to operate the stuff anyway. Realistically we would struggle to put 30,000 troops in theatre if we were engaged in a major conflict tomorrow.

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