Vernuccio’s View: Trump Seeks Change in Defense Strategy

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The Trump Administration is seeking a dramatic but little-discussed shift in American defense strategy, and has made its intention clear in the 2019 Executive Budget Request.

According to proposed spending plan, the National Defense Strategy “prioritizes major power competition, and in particular, reversing the erosion of the U.S. military advantage in relation to China and Russia.” Specifics include increasing end strength for the Army, Navy and Air Force (+25,900), continuing the Department’s Missile Defeat and Defense Enhancement initiative, increasing procurement of preferred and advanced munitions, modernizing equipment for the second Army Armored Brigade Combat Team, buying ten combat ships, increasing production of the F-35 aircraft and F/A-18 aircraft, enhancing deterrence by modernizing the nuclear triad, Increasing funds to enhance communications and resiliency in space, supporting U.S. Armed Forces with a pay raise of 2.6 percent, and  increasing the emphasis on technology innovation for increased lethality.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was mistakenly assumed that the era of great-power military confrontations was over as the Kremlin’s forces went into virtual hibernation.  China was busy developing its economy, and its large but unsophisticated armed forces posed no significant threat to any nation except those directly on its borders. North Korea had yet to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran’s significant military had not developed the missile technology nor the basics of atomic weaponry that could pose a significant threat beyond its own immediate neighborhood.

In response, the American military changed in character. Following 1991, it was substantially reduced. Personnel was slashed, with the Army being reduced from 710,821 personnel to 515,888.  The Navy went from 570,262 to 319,120. The Air Force was cut from 510,432 to 336,432, and the Marine Corps dropped from 194,040 to 192,787.

The Navy best symbolizes the extraordinary change.  It floated approximately 585 ships in 1991, and now has only 285.

The world, however, has changed again. Russian President Putin, who considers the end of the USSR the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, has moved to restore Moscow to military dominance. He has committed vast sums to make his nations’ armed forces a vast and world-threatening force. His nation now leads the world in nuclear armaments. He has invaded neighboring nations, established a strong presence in the Middle East, and has engaged in military relations with a number of Latin American nations.

China’s rate of military spending has increased faster than either that of the USSR or the USA at the height of the Cold War, and those funds have produced results.  Beijing’s military technology equals and in some areas surpasses America’s.

Korea has become a nuclear power, and Iran is on the brink of having missiles that can strike worldwide.

Great power rivalry is again a reality, requiring an enlargement of America’s depleted military.

Last year, the White House Executive Budget request noted that“The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one…” It then altered the strategy that had prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union, which had largely geared the U.S. military to fight smaller conflicts against less capable forces such as those possessed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

That perspective began to change in the 2018 budget, when the White House noted that “Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities … These competitions require both increased and sustained investment, reflected in the Budget request, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future. Concurrently, the Budget requests funding for sustained DOD efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while ensuring these approaches are resource-sustainable. The Budget ensures the United States can maintain a joint force that possesses decisive advantages for any likely conflict, while remaining proficient across the entire spectrum of conflict.”

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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