THE PENTAGON — Much is still unknown about how President-elect Donald Trump will approach defense and foreign policy issues upon taking office in January, given the less than clear and at times contradictory campaign rhetoric over the past 17 months.
However, Trump and two likely senior members of his administration have given some broad outlines to how the administration will approach persistent national and maritime security concerns and given some sign as to how policy will be shaped after January’s inauguration.
Statements from Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) — likely Navy Secretary nominee — and Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-Ala.) — a long-term foreign policy advisor during the campaign — further shed light on how Trump may approach his responsibilities as commander-in-chief, though there are some notable differences in the men’s stated positions on policy areas like deterring Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Here is a look at what Trump, Forbes and Sessions have said about their maritime security positions.
Trump kicked off his September speech by saying “we want to achieve a stable, peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground. I am proposing a new foreign policy focused on advancing America’s core national interests, promoting regional stability, and producing an easing of tensions in the world. This will require rethinking the failed policies of the past. We can make new friends, rebuild old alliances, and bring new allies into the fold.”
Still, he made clear the need for military might, saying “history shows that when America is not prepared is when the danger is greatest. We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength.”
That military strength, he said, will come through an increase in the size of the Navy and Marine Corps.
The Marines, who today plan for a 182,000-man force to support 24 infantry battalions, would balloon to 36 infantry battalions, which Trump cited the Heritage Foundation as calling the minimum requirement to deal with major contingencies. Trump did not specify an overall end strength he would aim for or what kind of increase would be needed in aviation and logistics to maintain a balanced Marine Air-Ground Task Force. Providing additional ground power, the Army would grow by 50,000 soldiers to around 540,000.
As for the Navy, Trump said in the speech that he wants a 350-ship Navy, compared to today’s stated goal of 308 – which is set to increase when the Navy releases an updated Force Structure Assessment later this year. That large fleet would emphasize ballistic missile defense. Trump called for modernizing all 22 cruisers, which he called “the foundation of our missile defense capabilities in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He said upgrading each ship to the latest Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system would cost $220 million (in FY 2010 dollars) per modernization. Eleven cruisers had already undergone upgrades, and four more have been inducted into the phased modernization plan since Congress mandated that two ships a year be modernized, with the work taking no more than four years per ship and no more than six ships being worked on at any given time.
Trump also said he would “procure additional modern destroyers that are designed to handle the missile defense mission in the coming years.” The Navy is currently buying two destroyers a year, split between the Ingalls Shipbuilding yard in Mississippi and Bath Iron Works in Maine. Bath has struggled to balance both the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers Trump was likely referencing with the high-tech Zumwalt-class destroyers the yard is building concurrently. USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) commissioned this fall, but Bath will have to balance the two destroyer programs – and their competing requirements for electricians and other skilled labor – until about late 2018 when DDG-1002 delivers.
Trump said he would ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester to help pay for this larger military. Spending caps remain in place through 2023 unless Congress acts to repeal them for the defense and/or domestic discretionary funding budgets. Trump suggested that the removal of the spending caps, plus “common sense reforms that eliminate government waste and budget gimmicks” and government-wide reductions in bureaucracy, would be sufficient to pay this larger acquisition and operations bill, though he has not yet provided any detailed numbers.
On the international side, Trump said “China has grown more aggressive, and North Korea more dangerous and belligerent. Russia has defied this Administration at every turn.” Despite those global challenges – which, along with Iran and global terror networks comprise the Pentagon’s CRIKCT threats (China, Russia, Iran, Korea, counter-terrorism) – Trump has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. should expect its partners and allies to pay more for regional security.
“Early in my term, I will also be requesting that all NATO nations promptly pay their bills, which many are not doing right now. Only five NATO countries, including the United States, are currently meeting the minimum requirement to spend 2 percent of (gross domestic product) on defense,” he said. “Additionally, I will be respectfully asking countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to pay more for the tremendous security we provide them.”
The United States military has forces stationed at these locations and others around the world, with the host nation often paying much of the infrastructure and operational costs of the bases American troops live in and operate from. It is often less expensive for the U.S. to station troops forward rather than keep them at home and pay travel costs for every overseas exercise, training opportunity and partnership-building activity – plus the U.S. gains a quicker response time and a better understanding of the environment by having troops already in theater.
Forbes has served as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee since 2012 and of the readiness subcommittee for two years before that. The congressman from the Hampton Roads area lost his primary election after redistricting pitted him against state delegate and former Navy SEAL Scott Taylor.
During his tenure as subcommittee chairman, Forbes made it clear that he cared deeply about growing the size of the Navy fleet and projecting power in the South China Sea.
It is unclear how his favored path forward with China would be received by Trump, who has both taken a hardline on China and vowed to stand firm against the country economically, and who has more recently called for a de-escalation of tensions around the globe.
Forbes said as recently as September that the U.S. military needed to have a more aggressive posture in the South China Sea. “While I approve of very few of this administration’s foreign policies, I do believe that their early instinct to devote more resources and attention to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region was correct. That said, more than rhetoric is required to counterbalance China’s growing military power and assertiveness,” he said in his opening statement of a hearing on the South China Sea.
“Last year, myself, Chairman Thornberry, and 27 other Members of this chamber signed a letter to the President and the Secretary of Defense calling upon them to take a stronger stance in the South China Sea, to increase U.S. military presence in this critical region, and ramp up our Freedom of Navigation Operations in disputed waters. I have been pleased to see that some of that has occurred,” he said, but added that more needed to be done.
“Beijing still is laying claim to almost all of the entire sea. Work on China’s artificial features continues apace, with much of it clearly military in nature. China’s military and paramilitary forces continue to wage a campaign of ‘gray-zone’ aggression and increase their presence and activity in the region. All in all, the trends seem to be toward China’s de-facto control of this vital body of water. With the end of the Obama administration approaching, I believe we are entering a time of both vulnerability and opportunity. I am concerned that Xi Jinping may see President Obama’s last few months as a window of opportunity for establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone, expanding reclamation activities to Scarborough Shoal, accelerating the militarization of the artificial features, or some other move that will test our resolve. I think it is critically important that we deter such activity in the months ahead.”
In July, Forbes also called for a heavy U.S. Navy presence in the region, saying that “If China continues to flaunt international law and world opinion, however, I firmly believe that the surest way of averting another devastating conflict in the Asia-Pacific region will be for the United States to remain present, engaged, and capable of projecting decisive military power in the region. Might does not make right, but it can be used to deter threats to peace, prosperity, and the rule of law. That is why I have been pleased to see an increase in U.S. naval and military presence in the region and an increase in the frequency of our Freedom of Navigation Operations.”
As for the size of the Navy, Forbes has made no secret of his desire to increase the number of surface combatants, submarines and amphibious ships, and to boost their capabilities through weapons system upgrades and through additional resources like unmanned vehicles. Forbes has often denounced the “false choice” between capacity and capability of the Navy and said in April that “the indisputable reality is that we need more of both.”
Forbes helped push through a Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that funded 10 ships instead of the seven asked for by the Obama administration – with an additional Littoral Combat Ship, destroyer and amphibious transport dock – totaling $20.6 billion in shipbuilding and conversion spending. In July he called for increased attack submarine production, asking for two Virginia-class SSNs in FY 2021 instead of the planned one – something the Program Executive Office for Submarines is already looking into – and has called for increased amphibious ship production to help get more Marines at sea instead of being land-based.
“The Navy will always answer the nation’s call,” he said in a May hearing.
“If we require it, the Navy can and will run its ships and sailors ragged, and send them into battle without all the weapons and training and maintenance they should have. But we don’t want to do that. We want to take care of our men and women in uniform, and maintain peace through strength with a Navy that is robust and ready to deter potential aggressors.”
“We need to prevent our force from shrinking, but we also need to prevent it from being hollowed out, and I am pleased that this subcommittee is doing both,” he reiterated in April.
“By increasing new construction and retaining existing force structure, I believe we are taking the first steps toward the 350 ship Navy that our country truly needs for national defense.”
Sessions is the junior senator from Alabama and serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. Sessions, who joined Trump’s team early as a foreign policy advisor, has made clear through his statements that he is deeply skeptical of global organizations that limit the United States’ freedom to choose its own path forward.
In June, Sessions and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) wrote to President Barack Obama to argue that the viability of NATO “is contingent upon economically prosperous allies in Europe taking on more responsibility for their own defenses.”
The letter notes that the U.S. shouldered the burden of European defense for decades after World War II devastated the continent. Today, the senators wrote, the U.S. still provides the bulk of essential capabilities like aerial refueling, ballistic missile defense, airborne electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“Further concerns arise when the U.S. authorizes billions of dollars in additional funding to ‘reassure’ our allies in Europe through various forms of defense aid as part of the European Reassurance Initiative,” they wrote, referring to a major Obama administration foreign policy initiative, which included sending four ballistic missile defense destroyers to Rota, Spain, and establishing Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and eventually Poland.
“The failure to meet even this basic threshold commitment (of 2 percent GDP) is unacceptable,” they wrote of about half of NATO that does not currently spent that amount of their own budgets on national and regional defense.
“It is simply inconceivable to most Americans that their hard-earned tax dollars are used to reassure financially capable allies who have failed to meet decades-old commitments. These are no longer the economically fraught post-WWII days of Europe. Twenty-First Century European nations must face – and are capable of deterring – an economically and politically vulnerable Russia while addressing an immigration problem largely of their own making.”
Four days before signing the letter to Obama, Sessions released a statement on the United Kingdom’s so-called Brexit vote, to leave the European Union. Saying that “often, Britain makes changes that precede U. S. action,” Sessions added, “now it’s our time. The period of the nation state has not ended. No far-off global government or union can command the loyalty of a people like their own country. Vague unions have no ability to call on the people to sacrifice for the common good. They seem incapable of making decisions, and when they do, they have difficulty executing the decision.
“In negotiations and relationships, national leaders should first ensure they have protected the safety and legitimate interests of their own people. This principle has been eroded and Brexit is a warning for America. Our British friends have sent the message loud and clear,” he continued. While specifically talking about a governing body that the Trans-Pacific Parternship would create, Sessions warned against a “governing body that would exercise power and make decisions that the United States Congress would be effectively powerless to block. Like the EU, each nation gets one vote. Brunei and Vietnam get one vote as does the President of the United States. … I applaud yesterday’s strong and patriotic action taken by America’s special friend, retaking its independence. I know that moving forward the deep and historic ties between Great Britain and America will grow ever stronger. I believe the American people too will choose independence this November.”