While much is unpredictable about President Donald J. Trump, for defense policy observers, there is an unmistakable and consistent focus of his Administration on simultaneously increasing soldier readiness, modernizing defense systems, reforming Department of Defense (DoD) administrative policies, and strengthening American alliances and partnerships.

The organizing guide is the 2018 National Defense Strategy, released in January 2018, that highlights the direction forward for the Armed Services, moving from years of unconventional warfare with insurgency and stabilization missions across the middle east and into an era of great power competition, with what experts are calling the 2+3—Russia and China, plus Iran, North Korea, and transnational violent extremism.


Increasing Force Readiness

In late May, Secretary of Defense James Mattis made headlines when he told the U.S. Air Force Academy graduates to prepare for war. But for anyone who follows defense news, this is nothing new in this administration. In fact, it’s a theme.

For the Army, its one of Secretary Mark Esper’s talking points, claiming that the Army will hit its readiness target by 2022 with things like new high-intensity training by the 2nd Cavalry based on the lessons learned from the Ukrainians in the Don Basse, increased demand for maintenance on Abrams and Bradleys, reforms to Basic Training emphasizing field time and de-emphasizing online trainings, getting back to standardized training/deployment schedules, increasing the quality of soldiers by returning the allowance of Category IV recruits to two percent, among other things.

Despite the higher standards, Esper said the Army will have no trouble meeting number goals for the total force as part of increasing readiness. “We’re seeing the highest retention numbers we’ve seen in a number of years,” Esper said, adding that by consequence though, it has hurt Reserves and Guards number given that many soldiers will often roll over to those services after an active-duty stint. Still he said, they should be able to meet the 7,600 soldier increase this year, despite a strong economy.

In the Air Force, readiness is also the first priority for Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. With a goal of hitting its full-spectrum readiness goal of 80 percent, Secretary Wilson could be found making the talk show rounds saying: “The most important thing we have to do is to restore the readiness of the force” and calling on Congress to lift continuing resolutions and sequester that cap spending. If those spending caps are reimposed, according to Wilson, it would limit Air Force actions to aircraft flying for combat and spinning up to train for combat “and pretty much the rest of the Air Force would be parked on the ramps.” The Air Guard has also requested growing from 106,000 to 110,000 airmen, mostly to accommodate maintenance demands.

Across the USAF, grim warnings have been issued about the 2,000 pilot shortage, composing 10 percent of the 20,000 pilots that are needed. Across all the services, the shortage is more drastic, with 25 percent of spaces open, according to an April GAO report. Last November, Wilson said the deficit could “break the force.” Many leaders cite long, frequent combat deployments driven by 27 years of ongoing combat operations (causing the deploy-dwell ratio to drop from one month deploy to five month at home to 1:2 or higher for some people). “It’s like a rubber band that’s pulled to the absolute limit,” Wilson said.

But leaders and analysts say that inadequate pay and benefits and better-paying commercial airline jobs from a thriving economy may be the root cause, a trend that a RAND report noted has underlied periods of shortages for decades.

In the release of the Navy’s FY2019 budget, Rear Admiral Brian “Lex” Luther, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget, stated that one of six major dimensions is “building a ready fleet.” The budget proposal outlines ways that it funds “key readiness programs” such as funding air depot maintenance, flying hours, and ship depot maintenance at their maximum executable amount, funding ship operations at 100 percent of requirement, and facilities sustainment is funded at 80 percent of the sustainment model. It also funds eight construction projects to restore warfighting readiness.

A September 2017 GAO report said prior analysis showed “that the Navy has increased deployment lengths, shortened training periods, and reduced or deferred maintenance to meet high operational demands, which has resulted in declining ship conditions and a worsening trend in overall readiness.” Of the ten recommendations that have been suggested by the GAO to improve the Navy’s readiness in three reports from May 2015 to May 2018, only one had been implemented as of August 2017, despite partial or full concurrence on all recommendations.

Based on the recommendations of the GAO and other reports—the Strategic Readiness Review (SRR) and Comprehensive Review (CR)—the Readiness Reform Oversight Council (RROC) was set up in January 2018. The RROC is in charge of undertaking all the recommendations made by the GAO and the other reviews. The Navy is working on all of the recommendations and it expects to have 85 percent of the recommendations implemented by the end of 2018, with the rest being implemented in 2019, according to the Navy’s Chief of Information’s Office CDR Scott McIlnay.

“Implementation does not equal completion,” McIlnay said. “Each implemented recommendation will be evaluated and assessed to determine if it is achieving the desired effect. It is only after a positive assessment that implemented recommendations will be passed on for sustainment.”


Accelerating Force Modernization

The services have been equally as clear in focusing on force modernization/recapitalization.

The Air Force has clear priorities on many major programs, like the F-35, KC-46 Tanker, B-21 Bomber, in addition to other projects like the T-X trainer, JSTARS replacement, nuclear deterrence, and space.

In September 2017, the Air Force announced a yearlong review to update its science and technology (S&T) strategy to focus on “how the Air Force conducts and manages research, and where the service should prioritize research for the next decade and beyond.” Wilson said a month later that the review could result in new structures, organizations, and ways of doing business with outside partners, like universities.

The modernization has been fraught with problems though in many major projects. On June 5, 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a major report indicating that Lockheed Martin needs to fix critical technical issues before moving forward with full-rate production. And regarding the KC-46 Tanker program, Secretary Wilson has expressed fierce frustration with the continual delays by Boeing.

Notwithstanding the problems with the tanker program, the Air Force pushes forward on it other priority programs. The Northrop Grumman B-21 Bomber is into the testing phase and the USAF plans to announce the winner of the T-X contract in July between proposals offered by major contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

The Navy and Marine Corps have also made clear their force modernization priorities.

For the Navy priorities are focused on getting the first four Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers out of the shipyards, buying more F-35s, continued progress in the AEGIS Ashore ballistic missile defense site in Romania built around SPY-1D(V) air-search radar linked to three 8-cell Mark-41 Vertical Launch Systems armed with Raytheon Standard Missile 3 interceptors, as well as the further development of surface-to-air SM-6 missiles.

The Navy also has several aviation modernization goals from F/A-18E/F Super Hornet service life extension, procurement of F-18 Block III upgrades, E-2 early warning aircraft, submarine-killing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes, CMV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial systems, and development of the MQ-25 unmanned air system and a next generation jammer.

For the Marine Corps, priorities include the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter development, the MUX UAV, completion of the H-1 upgrades procurement program featuring UH-1Y “Venom” and AH-1Z “Viper” helicopters, the next generation of Marine Corps utility and attack aircraft, maintaining lethality of legacy F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, and other non-aircraft priorities such as adding and Army radar used on its SHORAD air defense system and Stinger missiles on a Joint Light Tactical Vehicles to replace Humvees, new Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), a Ground-based Air Defense (GBAD) laser system, and upgrading the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to have three times the current range.

To meet the new cybersecurity, information, sensor-deprived requirements of great power competition, the Marines have also added an Information Group in the three Marine Air Ground Expeditionary Forces and information warfare capabilities down to company-level command.

The Marine Corps is also working in close coordination with the Army, according to Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, the Deputy Commandant for Combat Development and Integration, given many of their priorities overlap with the Army’s Big Six: 1) Long-range precision fires; 2) next-gen combat vehicle; 3) future vertical lift platforms; 4) army network; 5) air and missile defense; and 6) soldier lethality.

Army leaders have already been reviewing their major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) on a monthly basis to ensure their alignment with their new priorities. In April, Esper announced a new review that would entail combing through all 800 acquisition programs looking for places to “kill programs” and redirect resources around the Big Six. According to Secretary Esper, the Army has realigned 80 percent of S&T spending “to make sure that everything that our great researchers, our scientists, our engineers are focused on are focused on those six priorities and we don’t have stray electrons going out in other areas that are of lower priority.”

The Army is requesting a significant boost in funding to support its ambitious modernization. In FY2019, the service went from the $27.9 billion requested in FY2018 to $32.1 billion, mostly driven by a $3.4 billion increase in procurement funds. Research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) would receive a massive increase, from $9.4 billion requested in FY 2018 to $32.1 billion in FY 2019.

As for the actual systems, according to the Army, the M109A7 howitzer and the XM-1113, a 155-millimeter insensitive munition high explosive rocket-assisted projectile, were tested in March as the basis for future long-range precision fires, hopefully doubling the range of their ATACMS rocket artillery system.

Hypersonics are also a major priority. CNBC has reported that US Intelligence believes that Russia’s new hypersonic weapon will likely be ready for war by 2020. In March, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the SASC that “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”

The DoD awarded Lockheed Martin a $928 million contract in April to get the US up to speed with its hypersonic capabilities. Further interviews or information on the topic have been halted for the near future.

The Army is also moving forward on the development and fielding of next-gen combat vehicles, especially with the Mobile Protected Fire (MPF) light tanks by requesting products with guns that can shift vertically and navigate narrow streets for potential megacity combat. BAE Systems and General Dynamics have both reportedly submitted for the contract. The Army is also prototyping various vehicles to replace the Bradley and Abrams.

Future Vertical Lift (FVL) is perhaps the most ambiguous priority. As DSJ reported on from the Army Aviation Association Summit in April 2018:

“In contrast to the clarity in overall Army priorities, among the most muddled messaging coming from Army leadership at the moment regards FVL program structure, timing, and long-term budget. While the Service has been adamant that it plans to first procure a medium-lift helicopter (Cape 3) within the FVL program, the Service has recently signaled that it is more open to consider a lighter aircraft early in the program capable of attack reconnaissance (Cape 1), which is regarded as the leading Army aviation capability gap.”

Regardless, Army acquisition priorities have stayed consistent and, according to Secretary Esper, he and the Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark Milley have made a “blood oath” never to change them, hoping that that level of commitment and consistency will direct private industry to innovate in these areas and help the Army achieve its goals.

More broadly, Michael Griffin, under secretary of defense for research and engineering, testified before the Senate, saying that the Office of Emerging Capability and Prototyping, which is under Griffin’s office, is executing the DOD-wide Rapid Prototyping Program (RPP).

The Pentagon is also using Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) with bringing “agile methodologies” to the modernization of systems like the Cobra Dane radar and the F-22 Raptor.  

In the end, all DoD modernization efforts are at the will of Congress and its control on the purse strings. As recently as last week, the Senate debated  legislation that could force a broad review and impede some of the major acquisition programs, especially if Mattis does not embrace it.


Reforming DoD Acquisition & Management

The administrative overhead of the DoD has long been a target of politicians for reform.

Leaders have renewed the call, aided by Congressional Republican leadership, because “we need savings to go into the hands of the warriors” as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said, adding we need more out of the tail and into the tooth as the saying goes.  

The “fourth estate” as it is often referred as, makes up about 18 percent of the DoD’s half a trillion dollar budget. In December 2016, reports uncovered $125 billion in bureaucratic waste.

At the top, the first-ever audit of the DoD was requested in December. While criticized for its extreme expenses — the DoD expects to spend $367 million this year just to conduct the audit and another $551 million to fix the problems its auditors find — Thornberry has defended the move.   “The purpose of an audit is to find the problems,” Thornberry said. “It’s very important not to punish for finding problems, but we need to hold [the DoD] accountable to solving those problems.”

Although the final report isn’t expected until November 2018, the report has already turned up significant problems, including one instance where the DoD lost $500 million.

In his original markup of the National Defense Authorization Act, which allocates the budget of the DoD after the top-line number is agreed to by the entire Congressional body, Thornberry proposed cuts to seven agencies and a 25 percent reduction in personnel in an effort to return the centralized support services back to the individual services.

Critics, including most Democrats in Congress, point to the rationale for why the administrative departments were originally established (the desire for a centralized place to handle the support services), while other think tank reports claim that these reforms would be ineffective in curbing spending, instead proposing other reforms, such as modernizing military healthcare, tracking civilian contracts, or IT management.

Meanwhile, the services are also endeavoring in many other reforms to assist in the modernization.

The Army is establishing a fourth command, Army Futures Command to “modernize the Army for the future.” It “will integrate the future operational environment, threat, and technologies to develop and deliver future force requirements, designing future force organizations, and delivering material capabilities.” According to Secretary Esper, a commander has already been chosen and a location is being narrowed in on. The Army is down to Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, Raleigh, and Philadelphia.

Another key reform area has been on efficiency and speed. So much so, IARPA Program Manager Jeff Alstott said at an event at the Center for New American Security, “I haven’t been at any sort of public meeting with regards to technology … that did not state the US government should be faster and more agile.”

Increasingly, the DoD has looked to Silicon Valley to increase speed.

The Pentagon launched the DIUx program in 2015 as a “fast-moving government entity that provides non-dilutive capital to companies to solve national defense problems,” in an effort to get closer to Silicon Valley.

The massive JEDI “cloud” contract drew scrutiny from industry who said it was designed for Amazon. While there’s no specific budget request for the JEDI program, the DoD is seeking $393 million for cloud computing in FY2019, expected to expand to $500 million in 2020, before dropping to a sustainment level budget of about $250 million from 2021 through 2023. Overall, the five-year contract is worth $1.6 billion.

The Air Force contracted SpaceX to help with the development of its Raptor rocket propulsion system. A recent industry report from PwC found that Silicon Valley may actually be a strong threat to the traditional defense industry thanks to low R&D investment levels by the A&D industry.

The private defense industry has also been beefing up venture funds for partnerships or acquisitions to increase innovation. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus have all started venture funds.

But still, major hurdles remain, in some cases with new ones being added.

DoD procurement has been impacted by renewed strict compliance with the Buy America laws in the wake of President Trump’s April 2017 executive order calling for “scrupulous” monitoring, enforcement, and compliance with Buy American Laws, which give preference for American-made offerings.


Strengthening Alliances and Partnerships

The goal of strengthening alliances and partnerships may be the most conflicted. Military and diplomatic leaders have often found themselves undercut by the President.

With regard to NATO, Trump, even as recently June 10, was condemning the Alliance for not contributing enough, while simultaneously claiming they were ripping off the US on trade.

This posturing comes amidst Secretary of Defense Mattis pitching NATO on a 30-30-30-30 readiness plan—the proposed assembly of 30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 combat vessels able to be deployed in 30 days or less by 2020—aimed at deterring Russia, consistent with the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

On the other hand, this administration has also demonstrated a willingness to expand arms deals, loosening rules in an April Presidential Memoranda that will provide “expanded opportunities,” according to Peter Navarro, Assistant to the President for Trade And Manufacturing Policy, who said that the measure “reforms the myopic 2014 policy of [Trump’s] predecessor.”

The new policy could even mean “strategic advocacy” on behalf of the American defense industry, according to Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow.

Thornberry, striking a similar note as Navarro, has said that the Obama administration “slow-walked” arms deals in the past, even though other studies show that arms deals reached their highest level since the late 1990s in the latter Obama years.

Arms deals can often be a way to expand alliances and partnerships. For example, following the beginning of a protectracted border dispute over the Doklam region in the Himalayas in 2007 between India and China, US arms deliveries to India grew by 557 percent between 2008 and 2017.

But China has also been expanding arms deals. According to a report, China’s arms exports increased by 38 percent and its arms imports decreased by 19 percent in 2013-2017 compared with 2008-2012, including major arm deliveries to 48 countries in the past five years, led by Pakistan and followed by Bangladesh and Algeria.

Although most of the strengthening partnerships comes at the higher level, with NATO meetings, State Department diplomacy, or even commercial trade deals, there are still many efforts going on within the services.

The State Partnership Program establishes connections between state Air Guards with our overseas partners. According to Wilson, the first of which were in the three Baltic States in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Wilson said currently there are 74 such Guard-state partnerships from the Colorado Guard with the Jordanians, the Rhode Island Guard working with Iraq and India to support their development of airlift capabilities, and the Alaska Guard supporting Mongolia’s newly-established Air Force since 2016.

“These are enduring partnerships,” Wilson said.

The Air Force will also be opening up the opportunity of United States Air Force Base Training to more allies from just Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom to other allies like France, Germany, Japan, and possibly others.

The US also hosts the joint euro-NATO jet pilot training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. The Afghans train at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. The Singapore Air Force flies its own F-15s out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho.

But, as with the other priorities, strengthening alliances and partnerships has not succeeded without hitch.

As a whole, relations with our European NATO partners have been strained by several events, from the US backing out of the Iran Nuclear Deal to Trump-imposed steel tariffs that he has justified on grounds of national security to the President’s willingness to look the other way on the Russian annexation of Crimea to even the withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.

Furthermore, in December, Turkey, a crucial NATO partner as a physical intermediary between Russia and the Middle East, announced it had reached an agreement for the purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which is not interoperable with NATO air defense systems. According to the U.S. representative to NATO, it marked the first time that a NATO partner bought a weapons system not interoperable with NATO’s other systems.

In the Pacific, India is also moving forward with the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, despite threats of sanctions, and traditionally strong-U.S. partners like the Philippines have demonstrated increased proclivity toward China through actions like military equipment shipments, closer coast guard cooperation, and law enforcement assistance. According to experts, the Philippines isn’t the only country, many others from Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia are all turning toward China.

China has also grown significantly in strength in Africa, especially in places like Djibouti where Djibouti has seized a port owned by a Dubai-based firm to reach an agreement with a state-owned Chinese one (which sparked reports and hearings in Congress) and Ethiopia where the Chinese have poured billions of dollars of investment into energy, railway, telecommunications, and manufacturing.  China is already the largest investor in the Arab region as of 2016.

Russia, on the other hand, has also been expanding its influence in the Middle East with countries like Syria, where it has kept the Assad regime afloat, but also with other things like the Eurasian Economic Union, which consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, although results have been mixed.


Moving forward

While much is unpredictable about President Trump, for defense policy observers, there is an unmistakable and consistent focus of his Administration on simultaneously increasing soldier readiness, modernizing defense systems, reforming Department of Defense (DoD) administrative policies, and strengthening American alliances and partnerships. Look for much of that to stay consistent for the future.