Revitalizing Our Military: Suggestions for President-elect Donald Trump

Revitalizing Our Military: Suggestions for President-elect Donald Trump

It is important that the Trump Administration not simply buy back what was cut – future wars will not look like those of the past. 

The U.S. defense community, as well as partners around the world, are searching for clues as to how President-elect Donald Trump will reshape the U.S. military. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to repeal the Budget Control Act (BCA), raise defense spending, and reverse declines in military readiness and capabilities. He proposed building a 350-ship Navy, returning Army active-duty end-strength to at least 540,000, increasing the Marine Corps to more than 200,000 personnel, and maintaining more than 1,200 combat-coded Air Force fighter aircraft. “Peace Through Strength” will require spending above the President’s FY 2017 budget request, which exceeds the BCA caps by more than $100 billion over the next five years.

Although the BCA-mandated cuts forced the Services to shed capacity, it is important that the Trump Administration not simply buy back what was cut – future wars will not look like those of the past. The transition team, however, has yet to articulate a vision for when and how the United States should use military force, which is critical for shaping military modernization.

The Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) recently hosted a joint think tank exercise that explored these issues. A full report can be found here. Teams from CSBA, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Center for a New American Security, and the Center for Strategic & International Studies participated. Although the topline budget requests and specific choices differed, every team save Cato agreed on three key principles: First, the next administration must recognize the growing military threat posed by Russia and China to U.S. forces and those of our partners. Second, the U.S. military cannot continue trading near-term readiness for long-term modernization. Finally, there is an emerging consensus among outside experts on modernization priorities for the U.S. military, which is still relying on systems designed in the 1970s.

After decades of use, many platforms procured during the Reagan build-up are approaching the end of their useful lives, are increasingly costly to maintain, and may no longer be capable of confronting increasingly sophisticated systems fielded by U.S. rivals. Further, frequent deployments have taken a toll on America’s service members and shortages are emerging in critical career fields, such as pilots, unmanned aircraft crews, and planning staffs. Additionally, as U.S. forces prepared for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, training for high-end conflicts slowed. It is only beginning to resume as military pressure from China and Russia mounts. By being forced to trade between readiness and modernization, the U.S. military is neither equipped nor ready for tomorrow’s potential conflicts.

In addition to restoring readiness, the Services must also adapt to the increasing technical sophistication of potential adversaries. Access to information technology and commercial innovation has allowed rivals to develop and field systems with the range, coordination, and lethality to challenge current U.S. military practices, like the dependence on close-in airbases for strike-fighter operations. Looking for new ways to operate, whether through incorporating new technology or simply using what we already have in novel ways, could allow the United States to be more effective while possibly rendering the investments of rival countries obsolete. Instead of funding increasingly marginal and costly enhancements, the U.S. military should look for advantages that are likely to endure despite the best efforts of other countries.

To address these concerns, the next administration should consider the following recommendations, categorized by Service. Each recommendation was supported by at least three of the five teams in the exercise.

The Army should:

  • Expand and forward-base ground-based missile forces to enhance Army “multi-domain operations” capabilities to target enemy air, naval, and ground forces;
  • Increase Active Army emphasis on armored forces and forward-base additional armor units and/or equipment in Europe;
  • Enhance unit survivability by investing in active-defense systems, camouflage kits, decoys, and electronic warfare equipment;
  • Expand air and missile defenses, focusing on short-range, high-capacity systems to protect maneuver forces and key installations, while also investing in new technologies like directed energy and precision gun-based defenses; and
  • Stand-up purpose-built security advisor units to provide long-term assistance to partners, while simultaneously protecting combat unit readiness.

The Air Force should:

  • Accelerate development of a globally responsive and adaptable family of long-range strike aircraft by expanding B-21 bomber procurement and pursuing future unmanned systems capable of long-range strike and reconnaissance missions;
  • Enhance global command, control, and communications by exploring new satellite architectures, data relay and processing methods, back-up airborne layers, and/or enhancing opportunistic networking and data sharing;
  • Increase global weapons reserves to prevent shortages of critical munitions;
  • Improve U.S. access to and invest in partner bases to support forward U.S. forces;
  • Pursue low-cost systems for use against terrorist and insurgent groups like the OA-X concept to mitigate an emerging fighter shortfall and free up 5th generation fighters for more complex missions; and
  • Address shortfalls in pilots, support personnel, and unmanned system operators.

The Navy should:

  • Expand submarine procurement to enhance maritime strike and reconnaissance capabilities, despite adversary missile threats;
  • Explore growing opportunities offered by unmanned underwater vehicles and payload modules;
  • Strengthen forward-deterrent posture by procuring and forward-basing small surface combatants and eventually unmanned surface vessels;
  • Increase the Combat Logistics Force fleet of resupply vessels to facilitate dispersed naval operations while simultaneously improving overall resiliency against attack;
  • Invest in directed energy weapons, low-cost interceptors, and gun-launched projectiles to help naval vessels defend against small boats, unmanned systems, and missile attacks; and
  • Invest in a longer-range carrier-borne unmanned strike aircraft to facilitate carrier operations beyond the range of shore-based weapons.

All the teams agreed that the Marine Corps should remain America’s crisis response force. Although teams differed as to the proper size of the Marine Corps, they thought that it should emphasize forces suited for rapid response and dispersed operations in coastal environments.

Rebuilding America’s military in an increasingly dangerous world should not mean doubling down on yesterday’s capabilities. The next administration could preside over a crucial inflection point in U.S. military force and capability development. As CSBA’s joint-think tank exercise showed, there is a surprising amount of consensus on the broad directions the Services should take regarding future modernization, even if the details differed between teams. The commonalities between the approaches in the joint-think tank exercise, and outlined here, provide guidance to balancing today’s needs with tomorrow’s challenges.

Jacob Cohn is a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, conducting research and analysis for both the Strategic Studies and the Budget Studies programs. His primary areas of interest concern trends in the overall defense budget and specific acquisition programs, long-range strategic planning, and the utilization of wargames to develop future operational concepts.

Ryan Boone is a Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In addition to research, he assists in the design and analysis of CSBA’s operational-level wargames and concept development workshops.

Image: U.S. Navy