Trump and the Pentagon

Under the president-elect, America's military can expect more of everything. What then?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 November 2016
Paul Ryan, Donald Trump and Melania Trump. Alex Brandon/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Paul Ryan, Donald Trump and Melania Trump. Alex Brandon/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The assault on Mosul in northern Iraq has been eclipsed somewhat by the aftermath of the presidential election in the United States. A stuttering military campaign and a messy transition process, however, are also two parts of the same reality. Decisions now being made in Washington seem bound to bring them closer.

Mosul has now been fought over since mid-October. In the early phase, Iraqi government forces were able to move speedily through the less populated outer districts. There, air power could be used repeatedly, but this is less available when close urban fighting is required. This is one reason why the Iraqis' advance into the eastern part of the city has slowed to a crawl.

Reuters provides a graphic illustration of the campaign's difficulties. It reports that the Iraqi army has insufficient special forces able to operate in the current environments, forcing reliance on regular army units. But these often cannot cope. ISIS paramilitaries in some cases have been able to destroy T-72 tanks.

ISIS's own preparations and range of tactics have helped ensure that the coalition's progress is so far intermittent. The exception is Shi’a militias moving towards Tal Afar, northwest of Mosul. Here, though, there is another problem: if these militias do overrun that bitterly contested town, Turkey may intervene ostensibly to protect the local Turkmen population. Ankara has already deployed hundreds of tanks on its side of the border.

These developments cast doubt on notions that before January 2017, Mosul would definitely fall and even Raqqa might be under threat. Without sudden breakthroughs, Donald Trump will thus face an immediate and unavoidable security issue when he takes office on 20 January. In turn, this focuses attention on how his attitude to the military will take shape.

"War", in other words

During the campaign, there was a widespread assumption that Trump would be something of an isolationist. But this could never be predicted with any certainty, and the early indications since his election point in other directions. Among them is that he retains the view that Barack Obama's administration was a disaster in its practice of micro-managing security issues, and of being far too cautious in Syria and Iraq.

Trump would want to reverse this and give the Pentagon its head. It can be expected with reasonable confidence that the Pentagon, in response to such an offer, would opt for increased activity – especially if the new president does overcome some opposition and fulfil his promise of growth in military spending.

But career-orientated senior military offices would see opportunity here. If an increased budget with new kit and extra personnel is welcome, they would want it to serve a purpose rather than stand idly by – otherwise why fund them?  That then raises the question of whether the budget really will increase. Here, evidence is beginning to emerge of what is being planned for the United States military in all its branches.

Where the US army is concerned the evidence admittedly is indirect. But Trump does take the view that there has been too big a decline in its size. He wants to halt the current plan for a drawdown and see army personnel increase to 460,000 by the end of 2017 and then up to 540,000. That rise alone is not far short of the present total size of the entire British army.

With the US airforce too, a lot more weaponry and people could be on the way. Sources close to the Trump camp, says the Air Force Times, channel recommendations from the right-wing Heritage Foundation. These include an increase of a hundred in frontline aircraft, 9% up from the current figure of 1,100, with commensurate increases in staff, partly to rectify a claim that the airforce is 700 pilots short.

Towards the US navy there is a similar view. The Navy Times headline captures the mood: “Donald Trump wants to start the biggest Navy build-up in decades”. The precedent in question is the Reagan administration in the peak years of the cold war. Then, in the early 1980s, talk was of building a 600-ship navy: a figure never reached, though the number did peak around the 500-mark. The current navy has 272 ships, and the intention is to increase that by around a quarter to 350, which will take more than a single term.

Trump’s team have also talked about a major expansion in the size of the US marine corps. This would be particularly significant, since the marines are the people specifically trained and equipped for overseas intervention.

In all of this there may be an element of giving Trump increased options in a time of evident crisis. But the fact remains that this will be a substantial expansion at a time when the Republicans control both branches of the legislature. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that if Trump’s first term runs into trouble, not least from inability to deliver on domestic campaign promises, then that would be the kind of circumstance where an overseas adventure – “war” in other words – might become rather attractive. What these various expansions mean is that in such circumstances the military will be in a stronger position to oblige.

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