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Will Donald Trump rein in US’s military’s overreach?

Whilst Donald Trump has spoken of reducing waste in the US military procurement system, ultimately if his administration is going to bring defence costs under control it needs to draw back from the US's excessive military commitments.

One of the most striking – though unreported – aspects of Donald Trump’s interview with The London Times and Bild-Zeitung is what Trump had to say about the state of the US military and of the US defence budget.

It is hardly a secret that the US has completely lost control of its defence spending, and as a businessman conscious of the importance of controlling costs, Trump has homed in on this.  His immediate target has been the troubled F-35 fighter bomber programme – about which he has tweeted repeatedly – whose costs have spiralled out of control, and whose capabilities are questioned by many experts.

Here is what Trump had to say about this issue, and about the way he obviously thinks chronic mismanagement has degraded the effectiveness of the US military

Afghanistan is, is not going well. Nothing’s going well — I guess we’ve been in Afghanistan almost 17 years — but you look at all of the places, now in all fairness, we haven’t let our people do what they’re supposed to do. You know we have great military, we’re gonna have much greater military because we’re gonna have — you know right now it’s very depleted, we’re gonna have great military, but we haven’t let our military win.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin are you know big contractors for this country and we have an F-35 program that has been very, very severely over budget and behind schedule. Hundreds of billions of dollars over budget and seven years behind schedule. And, uh, they got to shape up.

(bold italics added)

It is striking that the person Trump is putting in charge of the US Defence Department is not a civilian administrator with close ties to the US defence industry but a military officer – General James Mattis – who has a reputation for being at one and the same time both something of an intellectual and a forceful combat soldier.  It seems that Trump does not trust the military industrial establishment to reform itself, and has turned to a combat soldier to do it.

Whether Trump is right to think this is another matter.  Combat soldiers do not always make the best managers and the US’s military industrial complex has always up to now successfully resisted every attempt at reform.

There is also a good question whether the waste and corruption within the military industrial complex is the ultimate source of the problem, or is rather the result of a more profound problem.

It is striking how two completely different articles by two completely different writers – the Saker and Christopher Preble writing in The National Interest – coming at the problem from different directions, come to the same conclusion: the US military is far too big, and is trying to do far too much, which is the real reason its costs are spiralling.

As the Saker puts it

I submit that the purpose of a military force is to achieve a specific political objective. Nobody goes to war just for the sake of war and “victory” is not a military, but a political concept. So yes, war is the continuation of politics by other means……

So, if the purpose of a country’s armed forces is to achieve specific and political objectives, this directly implies that saying that some country’s armed forces can do anything, anywhere and at any time is nonsense…..

Yet, what we see, especially in the USA, is [this wrong approach]. It goes something like this: we have the best trained, best equipped and best armed military on earth; no country can compete with our advanced stealth bombers, nuclear submarines, our pilots are the best trained on the planet, we have advanced network-centric warfare capabilities, global strike, space based reconnaissance and intelligence, we have aircraft carriers, our Delta Force can defeat any terrorist force, we spend more money training our special forces than any other country, we have more ships than any other nation, etc. etc. etc. This means absolutely nothing…..

Yes, the US armed forces are huge, bloated, they are the most expensive on the planet, the most technology-intensive and their rather mediocre actual performance is systematically obfuscated by the most powerful propaganda machine on the planet. But does any of that make them effective? I submit that far from being effective, they are fantastically wasteful and amazingly ineffective, at least from a military point of view…..

(italics in the original)

Or as Preble puts it 

There is a wide and growing gap between what officials in Washington demand of the military and the resources made available to execute its missions…..

We can afford to rethink our foreign policy and reorient our military, because primacy, the strategy that the United States has pursued for decades, isn’t necessary to defend vital U.S. interests, and will become increasingly difficult to sustain, given low public support for it. The American people have consistently questioned the need for a vast, forward-deployed military, focused on defending other countries, most of whom can and should defend themselves. The latest polls merely confirm what we’ve known for a long time…..

Even if President Trump does not carry through on his promises to focus on “America First,” and even if he doesn’t revisit our global military posture, he can still fulfill his pledge to make the Department of Defense operate more efficiently. This will not be easy. It will require him to take on entrenched interests that defend the status quo.

However, the obsession with eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, though widely popular (who, after all, is a member of the “Waste, Fraud and Abuse Caucus” or gives money to the “Waste, Fraud and Abuse PAC”?), shouldn’t divert our attention from the central dilemma: America’s overly ambitious and under-debated grand strategy.

What is fascinating is that what Preble suggests as the solution for the US military’s over-stretch crisis is a military posture which is strikingly similar to the one which according to the Saker Russia’s military is already following: a concentration on the defence of the homeland combined with an ability to project power to defend vital national interests when this is actually needed.

Here is how the Saker describes Russia’s existing military posture

For one thing, their mission, to defend Russia, is commensurate with the resources of the Russian Federation. Even if Putin wanted it, Russia does not have the capabilities to built 10 aircraft carriers, deploy hundreds of overseas bases or spend more on “defense” than the rest of mankind combined. The specific political objective given to the Russian military is quite simple: to deter or repel any attack against Russia.

Second, to accomplish this mission the Russian armed forces need to be able to strike and prevail at a maxial distance of 1000km or less from the Russian border. Official Russian military doctrine places the limits of a strategic offensive operation a bit further and include the complete defeat of enemy forces and occupation of his territory to a depth of 1200km-1500km (Война и Мир в Терминах и Определениях, Дмитрий Рогозин, Москва, Вече, 2011, p.155) but in reality this distance would be much shorter, especially in the case of a defensive counter-attack…..

Numerically, the Russian forces are, indeed, much smaller than NATO’s or China’s. In fact, one could argue for the size of the Russian Federation, the Russian armed forces are rather small. True. But they are formidable, well-balanced in terms of capabilities and they make maximal use of the unique geographical features of Russia….

……the Russian soldier also knows that the use of military force is not the first and preferred option of his government, but the last one which is used only when all other options have been exhausted. He knows that the Russian High Command, the Kremlin and the General Staff are not hell-bent on finding some small country to beat up just to make an example and scare the others…..

This means that in spite of being tasked with an immensely difficult mission, to prevail against any possible enemy along the 20’000+km of the Russian border and to a depth of 1000km, the Russian armed forces have consistently shown that they are capable of fulfilling the specific political objective of either deterring or defeating their potential enemy, be it a Wahabi insurgency (which the western pundits described as “unbeatable”), a western trained and equipped Georgian military (in spite of being numerically inferior during the crucial hours of the war and in spite of major problems and weaknesses in command and control), the disarmament of 25’000+ Ukrainian (supposedly “crack”) troops in Crimea without a single shot fired in anger and, of course, the Russian military intervention in the war in Syria were a tiny Russian force turned the tide of the war…..

At the end of the day, the outcome of any war is decided by willpower,…..

There are plenty of things the Russian military cannot do, but unlike the US armed forces, the Russian military was never designed to do anything, anywhere, anytime (aka “win two and a half wars” anywhere on the planet)….

(italics in the original)

Compare this to what Preble recommends for the US military, and it looks exactly the same as what the Saker’s claims for the Russian

The United States needs to make better choices. The Department of Defense is misnamed. If we were serious about defending the United States, we could have a very different military, with very different missions. It would be a smaller military, based in the United States and its territories. It would deploy to places as needed, not attempt to be everywhere, all the time. A different grand strategy, what I and others call restraint, would involve the U.S. military in fewer wars. And a restraint-oriented military, while still the finest in the world by a wide margin, would be far less costly than our current one.

We can afford to rethink our foreign policy and reorient our military, because primacy, the strategy that the United States has pursued for decades, isn’t necessary to defend vital U.S. interests, and will become increasingly difficult to sustain, given low public support for it. The American people have consistently questioned the need for a vast, forward-deployed military, focused on defending other countries, most of whom can and should defend themselves. The latest polls merely confirm what we’ve known for a long time.

The point the Saker and Preble are making is that because the US is currently accepting no limits to its “defence” commitments, it can never match those commitments with actual resources, which will always fall short however far they are increased, leading to systematic budgetary overspending combined with a lack of actual military achievement.

It is a hyper variant of Frederick the Great’s famous dictum that “he who defends everything defends nothing”.

Note also the importance that both the Saker and Preble give to will-power.  Both question the willingness of the respective populations of Russia and the US – at present the world’s two strongest military powers – to sustain a hegemonic posture involving unlimited military commitments and imperial overreach anywhere and everywhere, whilst emphasising the populations’ willingness to support a military posture focused on defending the homeland and the nation’s real interests.

Whilst it is fascinating that two such different writers have reached the same conclusions, the extent to which a Donald Trump administration would be prepared to undertake the massive exercise in military retrenchment that both the Saker and Preble in their different ways think would be best for the US, must in the final analysis be open to doubt.

Donald Trump has however spoken at times as if he might think in this way.  It will interesting to see if he is willing to put such ideas into effect, and if he does whether the US foreign policy and military establishment will let him do so.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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