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.
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.