Trump’s Military Plans Require Deft Hands

By Craig R. McKinley
Historians will record the 2016 presidential campaign as memorable in many ways, even though in some ways its actual conduct made most Americans happy to see it conclude. But, conclude it did and on Jan. 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump of New York will be sworn in as the next president of the United States.

He will face many challenges. But certainly one that will need immediate attention involves the budget situation. Trump will find that the budget regime established by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, which includes caps and the potential for sequestration, is still in place. Moreover, the issue of raising the debt ceiling, which largely precipitated the BCA, will return to the stage after having been pushed beyond the Obama administration. It will be interesting to see if the Tea Party wing of the Republican party will resist raising the debt limit.

Why is this important to the defense industry? Simply put, eliminating or significantly raising the BCA caps, which only apply to discretionary spending in the federal budget, will have to be enacted before any major programs, either defense or domestic, can be pursued. In addition, increased spending combined with a major tax cut will certainly explode the current deficit levels, which have been slowly declining over the past few years. Such an outcome will be hard for the “fiscal hawks” to accept, even if they would prefer to be “defense hawks” given the strategic situation.

As a candidate, Trump identified several very specific defense steps he would take as president. He advocated increasing the Army’s active duty manpower from 490,000 soldiers to 540,000 — close to the levels the Army had at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Such an increase would expand Army force structure by a third, from 30 to 40 brigade combat teams.

Trump advocated increasing the Navy from the currently planned 310 ships to 350, and presumably continuing recapitalization efforts of the nuclear submarine deterrent. He has embraced adding about 100 fighters to the Air Force, and increasing the number of Marine Corps infantry battalions by 50 percent while increasing the number of Marines to the highest levels since the Vietnam War.

All of this, of course, costs money — a lot of it. Cost calculations indicate that executing this program would require an increase to the defense budget of over $100 billion annually, a level $60 billion above President Obama’s proposed defense spending level, one that is itself $30 billion above the BCA caps. Getting to these levels will require considerable heavy lifting in the political domain.

But let us assume that Trump succeeds in lifting the caps, and securing support for what will clearly be a major defense buildup with significant modernization and recapitalization well beyond that currently planned.  Executing this will require experienced and dedicated management from a Pentagon acquisition team that understands both the myriad details and requirements of the acquisition process as well as the capabilities and capacities of the defense industry. But identifying these people and attracting them to government service will be a challenge.  

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall has served in his position for nearly seven years and has done a tremendous job. For the coming effort, should it materialize, the Defense Department will need personnel with senior executive experience in industry — hopefully who also have an understanding of government. However, current ethics rules generally require that job candidates largely divest themselves of assets earned in industrial careers and to take other steps reducing conflicts of interest — or even the appearance of conflicts of interest. Such executives, therefore, have to take a significant loss of net worth or income to serve the government, and they must also accept a lengthy prohibition from employment in the industry even after leaving government.

These rules, which have been driven by the office of government ethics, the White House — where presidential nominations are vetted — and the Senate Armed Services Committee  — where presidential nominations are confirmed — currently present a major barrier to service.

Several great industrial leaders have served as defense secretary and deputy secretary over the years including Charles Wilson, Robert McNamara, David Packard and Donald Atwood. We will need individuals with backgrounds similar to that represented by this group as we go forward with this coming defense expansion — should it happen.

Whether we want to accept it or not, our military forces have entered a new era. Each of the military services, in their own way, has entered into a period of capital and technological intensity that has substantially altered the old “American way of war.”  We no longer seek to overwhelm an adversary with numbers, we now seek to do so with technology. And, as has been demonstrated frequently over the past 30 years, our armed forces have mastered this approach.

But since our potential adversaries have noted this change, and are taking steps to either match or counter it, the search continues for the next discontinuous advancement in military technology, which may originate in the commercial world. In essence, this is the search for the “third offset strategy” that DoD has been seeking.

Finding the third offset has been and will remain a challenge and a work in progress, but I am certain we will find it. But once it is in the target reticle, it will have to be purchased and fielded, and that will require increased funding distributed and managed by talented acquisition leaders capable of representing the Pentagon while understanding and communicating with industry.

Securing the funding will require the Trump administration to reset the nation’s badly frayed budget process. But, it will also require it to attract the right people to government service, those having the skills and backgrounds to turn ideas that are now largely residing in the heads of scientists and engineers into operational reality.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Innovation

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