The Trump Administration on Dec. 18 released an America First national security strategy that promotes domestic economic growth as fuel for beefing up the military, modernizing its weapons and projecting might abroad.
Instead of isolating the United States, the document calls for a policy of “peace through strength” in which the United States does not shrink from its global responsibilities, engages from a position of power. Both diplomatically and militarily, the U.S. will prioritize its own interests without abandoning allies who shoulder a proportionate burden for collective defense.
Mirroring many of President Donald Trump’s public remarks both on the campaign trail and since taking office, the strategy focuses heavily on U.S. economic strength and protecting the homeland over international engagement and military intervention abroad.
Trump launched the strategy with a speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., underscoring the central role economic growth plays in the plan.
“For the first time, our national security strategy recognizes that economic security is national security. Economic vitality, growth and prosperity at home is absolutely necessary for American power and influence abroad,” Trump said Dec. 18. “Any nation that trades away prosperity for security will end up losing both.”
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the priorities set forth in the strategy “set good goals, but they do not even begin to hint at a strategy. There are no specifics, no broad plans, no summary indications of costs and resource, and no timeframes for action.”
“Like the President's campaign goals for increasing U.S. military forces, and calls for further increases in defense spending, it is not enough to set broad goals when they are not tied to specific missions and specific plans,” Cordesman said in a commentary posted online.
House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) praised the strategy as “based in America’s national interest and grounded in common sense.”
“The strategy depends on the U.S. military maintaining its edge over our adversaries, remaining agile and deployable, and retaining the ability to reassure our allies and deter our enemies,” Thornberry said in a prepared statement. “To achieve that goal, Congress has to stop asking our military to do more with less and pass adequate and reliable funding for our troops. This strategy is a good start, but only sufficient funding for our military can make it real.”
The strategy is supported by four pillars, each of which encompasses specific challenges and suggestions for overcoming them, though even the “priority actions” consist of generalities and vague prescriptions.
Pillar one is “protecting the homeland, the American people and American way of life”, which includes “pursuing threats to their source” and buttoning up the homeland to prevent illegal immigration and infiltration by terrorists.
In this section the strategy describes a foreign policy of foreign engagement from a position of strength rather than necessarily cooperation, what Trump described as “partnerships, but in a manner that protects our national interests.”
“We are declaring that America is in the game and America is going to win,” he said.
Pillar two, Promote American Prosperity, focuses on rejuvenating the U.S. economy to fuel a rebuilding of the military and “national power.” It calls for a complete rebuilding of American infrastructure and “embraces a future of energy dominance and self-sufficiency,” Trump said.
The strategy prioritizes investment to ensure the U.S. remains a global leader in “research, technology, invention and innovation.” It does not specify how those investments will be funded.
China, Russia and Iran appear repeatedly in the strategy document as the nations that threaten both U.S. security and its military and technological edge. Pillar three promises those potential adversaries that the U.S. will “preserve peace through strength.”
“Unrivaled power is the most certain means of defense,” Trump said.
As he has repeatedly, Trump touted his plans to boost military spending up to $700 billion in fiscal 2018, which he called "a record." However, federal law under the 2011 Budget Control Act caps Pentagon spending at $550 billion and while Congress has passed a defense authorization bill for fiscal 2018, it has not OK'd a budget to fund that wish list.
The strategy calls for modernization of the entire military, singling out missile defense and nuclear capabilities. It also calls for not only a reversal of the reduction in military endstrength but prescribes an unspecified increase in troops.
“To retain military overmatch the United States must restore our ability to produce innovative capabilities, restore the readiness of our forces for major war, and grow the size of the force so that it is capable of operating at sufficient scale and for ample duration to win across a range of scenarios,” the strategy says.
Before throwing money at expensive procurement and modernization programs, the strategy insists on doing as much as possible to maintain and sustain legacy weapon systems.
“In other areas we should seek new capabilities that create clear advantages for our military while posing costly dilemmas for our adversaries,” it says. “We must eliminate bureaucratic impediments to innovation and embrace less expensive and time-intensive commercial off-the-shelf solutions. Departments and agencies must work with industry to experiment, prototype, and rapidly field new capabilities that can be easily upgraded as new technologies come online.”
Another competitive advantage the strategy seeks to renew is the nation’s defense industrial base, which the administration says has suffered at the hands of an “erosion of American manufacturing” and years of both war and budget uncertainty.
“The ability of the military to surge in response to an emergency depends on our Nation’s ability to produce needed parts and systems, healthy and secure supply chains, and a skilled U.S. workforce,” the strategy says, “The erosion of American manufacturing over the last two decades, however, has had a negative impact on these capabilities and threatens to undermine the ability of U.S. manufacturers to meet national security requirements.”
Prescribed actions to breathe new life into the industrial base include an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses to identify areas where investment is needed. The government under this strategy will “promote policies and incentives that return key national security industries to American shores.” The government also will enhance U.S. business competitiveness by cutting regulations.
Acquisition reform through “new approaches to … make better deals on the behalf of the American people” will be necessary for the government to afford the necessary modernization, the strategy says. As the administration and Trump have repeatedly requested, the new plan insists on avoiding cost overruns and development delays while cutting back bureaucracy. It also calls for an increased reliance on commercial-off-the-shelf technologies and non-developmental platforms.
In a departure from Obama-era national security policy, the Trump strategy brings nuclear weapons to the forefront, calling them the “foundation of our strategy to preserve peace and stability by deterring aggression against the United States, our allies and our partners.” Nuclear weapons are key to preventing not only a nuclear attack but any non-nuclear strategic offensive or large-scale conventional conflict, the strategy says.
The strategy promotes a military capable of “full-spectrum” operations to include air, sea, undersea and land. Space is specified as a “priority domain” in which both military and commercial endeavor should be explored.
In all, the prescriptions for the military are a tall order given the looming threat of sequestration – “We are going to get rid of that,” Trump said – on top of a Congress that is serially incapable of passing a multi-year budget. The impending tax reform bill includes historic revenue cuts that could further stretch the federal budget and confound any plan to significantly boost military spending.
National security officials recognize the possibility that the military will not achieve all of its technological goals before it must go to war with a near-peer nation. Sophisticated weaponry like guided missiles continue to threaten the U.S. military’s technical edge and could result in it having to fight without assured dominance, the strategy points out.
“The Department of Defense must develop new operational concepts and capabilities to win without assured dominance in air, maritime, land, space, and cyberspace domains, including against those operating below the level of conventional military conflict,” the strategy says. “We must sustain our competence in irregular warfare, which requires planning for a longterm, rather than ad hoc, fight against terrorist networks and other irregular threats.”
Finally, the fourth leg of the strategy is to “advance American influence” abroad. Cordesman read it as “a call for joint international action with America's allies and strategic partners throughout the world—not a retreat from the world or form of isolationism.”