The What If of a Trump Presidency in Defense

By Danny Lam

Trump is proposing a fundamental reappraisal and reassessment of U.S. foreign and defense policy that questions core assumptions and consensus in the U.S .foreign and defense policy establishments.

It is not surprising that many in these establishments have made their opposition known, even prior to a possible Trump Administration.

But what would Trump do based on his perspective, and orientations?

There has been little published on this topic other than rhetorical attacks on his positions.

Taking Trump’s ideas seriously but critically and sympathetically evaluating them reveal that there are viable, practical, and plausible pathways for Mr Trump to simultaneously achieve the seemingly contradictory goals: increasing US Military capabilities; bring well-paying jobs back to America; without large increases in Federal expenditures.

These goals are feasible providing that longstanding core foreign and defense policy goals are restructured and alliance commitments renegotiated as Trump proposed.

This conclusion is arrived at by examining Mr Trump’s track record as a businessman, and assessing “what if” he applied the same methods and means, philosophy and acumen demonstrated during his business career to lead the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

“Win-win” deals might well be very popular in the U.S. can be achieved and the spinoff benefits generated.

Though Trump’s terms will be less well received abroad.

How might he proceed?

We can look at history and look at the case of Sir Jacky Fisher, when faced with the dilemma of modernizing the Royal Navy at the turn of the 20th Century, did not have the option of sharply increasing the Navy budget.

Instead, he reorganized the Navy to fund his modernization from exiting budgets.


The Royal Navy was transformed from a far flung scattered force to a core force concentrated against Britain’s most likely rival Germany, with trade routes protected by lesser vessels.

Existing vessels were divided into sheep, goats and llamas.

Sheep were obsolete ships that are still battle worthy and kept with a skeleton crew in reserve.

Goats were scrapped or sold, and Llamas are “undecided.”

This, and the reduction of manpower and operations and maintenance, enabled Fisher to fund the HMS Dreadnought: the vessel that set a new standard for lethality per tonne displacement, per crew, per UKP expended.

Sir Jacky Fisher’s new Royal Navy became a far more powerful fleet for the same money before the outbreak of World War I.

The Trump Administration can reprise this strategy to meet his commitments to the American publicsimultaneously to  hold the line on defense spending, modernize and rebuild the military with the best by realigning American foreign and defense policy.

Clearly, Donald J. Trump’s election would be a watershed event.  

He is challenging, or at least questioning longstanding assumptions about American Foreign Policy since the 1940s, which in turn, dictates what defense capabilities are required to support and sustain the policy.

The question is, how will commitments and  capabilities change under President Trump?

Trump explicitly rejects the globalist / liberal internationalist agenda of the foreign policy establishment in favor of “America First”.

He is not isolationist, but calling for a much more cautious approach to the use of America military power, which he see has taken on too many missions, many of which the U.S. does not do well.

Trump disagrees with the idea that the U.S. can uncritically export democracy, and the use of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W Bush to achieve goals like nation building.

Allies, who have benefited from American protection, must pay their fair share for defense.

Trump pledged to rebuild the U.S. military into the world’s strongest.

Prima facie, it is difficult to see how such goals can be reconciled with the fiscal constraints that Congress imposed on the Administration.

Part of the answer is clearly working with Congress to remove some of these constraints and any threat of sequestration.

If she remains true to her past, a President Hillary Clinton will be one of the more aggressively interventionist governments, a “super hawk” more willing to achieve policy goals with the use of military power compared to the Obama Doctrine.

A Trump Administration will likely make fewer, or at least prevent the growth of new demands on the US military from day one.

That, however, leaves many questions as to how President Trump will operate as Commander in Chief and to achieve his stated goals and square the budget circle.

The Foreign Policy establishment, Democrat and Republican, argue somewhat rabidly it cannot be done.

That stance ignores that he has in mind major changes to US Foreign Policy.

Historically, new Administrations have failed to make a dint in the operations of the vast labyrinth of the US Government.

Many government functions still operate much the way they did in the 1940s, impervious to reform as politicians have chosen to expend their political capital on more urgent priorities like passing laws that are notable for its poor implementation.

Therefore, the opportunity is there for Donald Trump to repeat his success on a grand scale by deploying the core skills of senior businessmen: recruit and retain talented administrators to implement his agenda.

Shaping a Way Ahead in the Redesign of U.S. Defense Policies

Central to Donald J. Trump’s ethos that he demonstrated throughout his career is “more for less”.

Trump will be intensely interested in how a different businesslike approach, as opposed to the present highly politicized system, might help in rebuilding U.S. defense capabilities and those of the allies.

But here is where another piece of the Trump agenda fits in: jobs for Americans.

The only ready way to stimulate jobs, especially in manufacturing in a big way in the short run is in defense.

Defense represents nearly 54% of discretionary spending and is the only pie big enough to make a difference in the short run.   Jobs in defense are relatively well paying and many are in manufacturing protected from trade.

Bringing back coal mining (except stimulating exports) may be downright impossible given the advent of cheap shale gas, but bringing defense sector manufacturing jobs that ex-coal miners can do is a viable and feasible path.

Problem is, much of defense expenditures are already committed to existing programs and obligations.

How would Trump free up defense spending?

Retirement of many legacy systems and their replacement with newer equipment designed to reduce both manpower requirements and maintenance is a logical step that serves many purposes.  

Trump is no stranger to this.

He did this for buildings in real estate and personally witnessed the transformation of his own businesses by technology.

Headcount (both government and contractor), the most expensive component of American military power, will have to be freed up either by downsized or redeployed to other tasks.

Likewise, the exorbitant expense of maintaining and operating legacy systems and updating them will be slashed when replaced with newer equipment.

Freeing up resources tied up by legacy systems also enable a new round of procurement of up-to-date systems that pack far more punch per dollar.

Re-equipping the Military

Foreign and defense policies are inextricably linked.

Clausewitz famously observed, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

With resources freed up from retirement of obsolescent equipment, the Trump Administration’s next dilemma is to what to buy to re-equip US forces in alignment with Trump’s foreign policy, and in parallel, how to reform the procurement process to streamline and simply the system.

Procurement reform is an issue that require will require Trump acquire persons with extensive familiarity with the existing system, but yet, is able to step back and complete a reform from within.

A difficult issue that is beyond the scope of this essay.

Thematically, expect Trump to focus on what made him successful: labor saving administrative, management and technical innovations (i.e. reduce manpower requirements through the use of automation / unmanned / robotics);   questioning and seeking alternatives to forward bases that are increasingly costly to defend and operate, especially those operations that are largely symbolic.

The Trump Administration will likely move in parallel to re-equip the U.S. military to deal with the very different range of threats “offshore balancing” presents.

Cleaning out the “inventory” will allow the U.S. to leapfrog major changes that historically had the U.S. entering World War II on December 7, 1941 with more battleships than carriers, and resorting to refitting surviving battleships that primarily operated as anti-aircraft and amphibious landing support ships rather than purveyors of naval superiority.

Replacement platforms that greatly improve on lethality vs. cost, simplify operations and maintenance, however, are well known and largely proven, but their adoption have been slowed by the inertia of existing in-service systems, lack of developed doctrine and tactics and uncertainty as to how to piece together the right technologies, training, doctrine, for effect.

Trump, the consummate entrepreneur, will likely run many experiments in these areas.

Once resources are freed up by defense reforms, many projects can be funded and tried – an era of experimentation very much like the dawn of aerial combat or the advent of aircraft carriers.

As with Trump’s business experiments, many will fail, but enough of them will work to improve America’s power vs. the default of minor changes at the margins.

Expect Trump to simultaneously focus on emerging domains of conflict like space, bio, cyber and other forms of warfare.

He will likely ask tough questions as to the validity and viability of post-war constructs like treaties limiting use of space for war, Biological Weapons Convention, or the likely viability of quaint regimes like INF and MTCR.

Trump has already made clear he intend to closely look regimes like the Geneva convention and seek changes.

Significant changes in each of these issues have the potential to fundamentally reshape and alter the defense of the United States and allies.

Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.


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