The Trump force

Trump has from the outset indicated that he would seek a sharp hike in defence spending as part of his America First vision.

 Trump, Donald Trump, US National Security Strategy, Manoj Joshi
Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian

President Donald Trump signed a budget bill last Friday which will lead to the US Department of Defense’s (Pentagon) biggest budget. The defence expenditure will go up to $700 billion this year and $716 billion in 2019. This year alone, the Pentagon will get $94 billion more than last year. Unlike the past when wars led to a jump in defence spending, this time around the increase is aimed at a range of overhauls and upgradation — training, high-tech missile defences and nuclear weapons.

There are many critics of this massive expenditure, some who point out that infant mortality rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. The US has many other problems that could do with the money — a crumbling infrastructure, opioid epidemic, poor healthcare services for the poor. But Trump has from the outset indicated that he would seek a sharp hike in defence spending as part of his America First vision.

But the US is also driven by its self-image as the world’s hegemon and in its new national defence strategy last month, the US Secretary of Defense called for more money to ensure that the US retains its military edge globally. Following the US National Security Strategy issued in December, the defence strategy says that the challenge now is that of states like Russia and China who are trying to undermine American power.

This puts an end to the limits on defence spending placed by the so-called process of budget sequestration initiated in 2013 under the Budget Control Act of 2011 to tame America’s budget deficits. Under this, defence spending would be cut $500 billion in a 10 year period. Spending would be cut evenly between domestic and defence programmes with half affecting non-discretionary expenditure like weapons purchases, base operations and construction work, and the rest to mandatory spending such as regular payments, social security and Medicaid.

Though subsequent bipartisan deals in the US Congress ensured that the cuts were not drastic, they nevertheless put US expenditures at what we could call austerity levels. In any case war funding was not affected by the sequester and since this was not well defined, it was used to get around the sequester. Also pay and allowances of military personnel and some of their benefits were exempted.

So, over the years exercises were curtailed and the repair of bases postponed and new weapons purchases delayed. All this was the outcome of the Republican Party’s theological belief that deficits were bad for the economy.

But Trump has been a critic of the BCA and said, not only would he undo it, but boost defence spending dramatically. So in their budget negotiations, the Democrats have insisted that budget relief for the Pentagon should come along with an equal relief to the social programmes. Such is Trump’s command of the Republican Party that it has tamely gone along with the new budget proposals, with little or no concern for the deficit.

In the last few years, the pressure on the US to spend more of defence has been growing on account of China. Speaking while introducing the new National Defense Strategy, US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis noted, “If you don’t get resources, then your strategy is nothing more than a hallucination.”

The US Department of Defense says that it needs larger stockpiles of munitions, more modern and effective systems to defend US bases in Asia, more sea and airlift to project forces and move them about in the vast spaces of the Pacific, upgrade their AWACS and battle management systems, more ships and fifth generation aircraft. On a longer term, they need to keep up their technological edge in the face of Chinese advances in AI and cyber.

Over the years the Chinese have developed an impressive capacity to raise the cost of the US intervention in areas close to the Chinese mainland through what is called the Anti Access Area Denial (A2/AD) systems. Just like India, the Americans have been busy using their military to fight terrorism, meanwhile their adversaries like Russia and China have created networks of long-range missiles, radars, cyber and space systems that are designed to keep the Americans from projecting power to their shores.

The American military is by far the most powerful today, but what the Chinese and the Russians have done is to increase the cost they would have to pay to intervene in regions like the Baltic Sea or the South China Sea. They would make the US to hesitate to intervene on behalf of, say, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam and open them up for greater bullying by China.

In 2014, the US announced that it would come up with an offset strategy emphasising futuristic systems using AI and machine learning. But this is touch and go, because Russia and, more so, China, have also invested hugely in these areas. Fighting what the Chinese call “informationised” wars will be at the heart of military conflict. Everything will crucially depend on the dominance of the electro-magnetic spectrum.


This commentary originally appeared in Greater Kashmir.

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