Almost completely overshadowed by the immigration fiasco, Trump released an executive order last week that so far has drawn very little comment. It is an order to the Secretary of Defense which Trump claims will launch the “great rebuilding of the armed forces” that he promised in one of his bumper-sticker policy statements during the campaign.
It does no such thing. The order is, in fact, an utter waste of time that will accomplish nothing.
First, the order directs General Mattis to conduct a 30 day review of the readiness of the armed forces to combat ISIS. The Secretary does not need an order, nor does he need 30 days, to come up with any readiness report on the capability of the military to combat ISIS. As anybody with even a modicum of familiarity with military operations would know, such a report is already prepared in excruciating detail by every unit in every command every single day, with a comprehensive consolidation placed on the Secretary’s desk, and probably included in the President’s daily briefing – if he know what to look for. Asking the Secretary to prepare a report on this subject is merely asking the Secretary to read and summarize the reports that are already under everyone’s nose. It is an indication that Trump does not know any better, and worse, does not have anybody on his staff that he can turn to before putting his foot in his mouth.
Second, the order directs the Secretary of Defense to come up with a plan to rebuild the military in 60 days. In fact, there is a precondition that has to happen first before any plan can be prepared – whether in 60 days or 600 days. The President has to tell General Mattis how much money he can spend.
The blunt facts are that the combined troop levels of all forces of the U.S. military have been reduced from a high of 556,000 in fiscal 2011 to 490,000 in fiscal 2015. The figure is heading toward 450,000 or perhaps even 420,000 by 2019. The reductions are all due almost entirely to the sequester of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act passed at the insistence of the Republican Congress in 2011.
A thorough study that examined the military from the end of WWII was completed in 2010. A Defense Strategic Guidance was based on that study, released in 2012. Under the DSG, the first mission of the military was defeating terrorism through counter terrorism and irregular warfare. The second mission was to deter and defeat aggression by any potential adversary in conventional warfare. It is hugely important that this second mission statement no longer demanded maintaining two or more large scale operations under conventional warfare as necessary to the mission of U.S. forces. The land wars of Korea and WWII, and what the United States had accomplished in WWII in defeating both Germany and Japan were no longer as relevant under the expectations of modern warfare. The change in mission was a crossroads for Obama. His hand after that date was guided by the differences in mission and differences in expectations expressed in that release.
What Obama has been trending towards was to live within the means dictated by the Budget Control Act. This would entail the acceptance of a reduction in standing forces, a reduced ability to sustain large scale combat operations for any length of time, and increased reliance upon allies and coalition operations. The “leading from behind” pejorative arose from Obama’s recognition that the U.S. could not always expect to go into hotspots first and heaviest; sometimes it was more prudent to take a supporting role and allow an ally to lead the way. Further, that the time may have come for the United States to pick its battles, and not respond automatically with military force anywhere in the world anytime an international event was touched off, without assurances of allied support going in.
This means that before the Secretary of Defense should be expected to come up with any plan on alternatives to improve readiness in the military, someone has to answer this questions: (a) must the Secretary work within the budget constraints demanded by the BCA, or (b) may the Secretary expect more funds for defense, and therefore a change in the basic approach? One ought not to need a separate study to choose option (a) or (b) as presented here.
Finally, the executive order directs the Secretary of Defense to work with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to revise the funding requests. But this directive is the wrong way around. Asking the military to come up with what it wants before the President has established limitations on what it can spend is like expecting some parents to rely upon their five year old’s letter to Santa Claus to set their budget for Christmas. This is just plain not the way it is supposed to happen.
Even with the budget reductions to date we still spend more than the next eight countries of the world combined on our military and its operations. We spent close to $600 billion on defense in 2015, while China spent around 1/3 and Russia 1/10 of that amount. By all measures, we still have the strongest military force ever assembled. If Trump wants a larger military than the existing budget will allow, he must be the one to declare it so. He has yet to tip his hand on what he intends in this area, but until he does, his directions to the Secretary of Defense are pointless.
The upshot here is that this executive order as written is pure malarky. A piece of paper to assuage Trump’s base that he is acting on a campaign promise, and has good intentions, but that, in fact, is otherwise worthless. It is, in the word of the Bard, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”