Where We’re Headed in 2018

By Kevin Baron, Caroline Houck, Patrick Tucker, and Marcus Weisgerber

January 1, 2018

In lieu of reviewing the top stories of the year gone by, Defense One presents a look ahead. Here’s what to expect in 2018.

Commander in Chief Trump

At 7:21 a.m. on New Year’s Day, you were probably still knocked out from the champagne after kissing 2017 goodbye. President Donald Trump (who doesn’t drink) got up and threatened Pakistan, which is arguably America’s most important regional ally against terrorism, other than Afghanistan. “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” Trump said in a tweet, “and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!”

And so begins 2018. The commander in chief publicly dresses down Pakistan — a country which has tallied far more civilian victims and military casualties from terrorism than the United States. A country that, yes, keeps frustrating American leaders by refusing to just kill terrorists the American way. A country Washington needs on its side. What will Trump tweet about NATO? North Korea? Iran? Russia? Syria? Global terrorism? Cyber attacks? Will he ever tweet a bad word about Russia? Because he will tweet. And tweet. And tweet. 

Never mind that $33 billion figure, wherever that came from. Trump is frustrated with the world. So are his supporters. They made that clear in the 2016 campaign. His approach to foreign policy entering his second year continues to reflect that frustration. Trump shows no patience for the wink-and-nod state of affairs in places like in Pakistan, or with China’s help on North Korea, or NATO members not paying their share of the bills. It also reflects his lack of knowledge of some of the important history, nuances, and diplomatic threads amid many of the globe’s ongoing conflicts. Or maybe he just doesn’t downright care. Trump wants change. And he is right, Pakistani military and intelligence leaders deceive the United States, they play coy, and they simply refuse to be mansplained by Americans in Washington about their own citizens, ethnic conflicts, and threat priorities.

None of it mattered on New Year’s morning to the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military. It does matter to the thousands of Americans who work in national security. It matters to the generals and admirals, troops, intelligence professionals, diplomats, Senators and staffers, White House aides, and the defense industry that supplies them all. In 2018, many will work under new leaders, such as at Pacific Command, and under Trump's newly installed Navy and Army secretaries. They all have to interpret the president’s words and intentions into policy decisions and actions, from the door-kickers on night raids across the Middle East to the nuclear commanders in silos underground in the Midwest. The workforce now has a National Security Strategy, which by many reviews is a pretty middle-of-the-road approach to global security. For all of Trump’s promises to blow up the international system and get America “winning” again, there’s not much there there. So far. Until his next tweet. And the next. And the next.

McCain’s Health

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the venerable chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the GOP’s guiding voice on military policy and legislation, goes into 2018 fighting for his life. The Vietnam War hero is battling aggressive brain cancer. His health will shape the national security agenda in Washington, D.C., and any absences, whether in spirit or missed hearings and votes, could alter the national security agenda in Congress, and weaken the entire body’s power-stance, unless one or more moderate Republican leaders stand up to Trump with the same fearlessness McCain, the Maverick, has shown in recent years.

McCain has been an unhesitant critic of various presidents' foreign-policy moves — including Trump’s — and has helped shepherd the annual defense policy bill through even the most vote-averse Congresses. He has championed Pentagon reforms and demanded strategies for the overseas wars. In recent years, he has held up the confirmation of Pentagon nominees to force the building to communicate more with the Hill.

Though he’s continued actively serving as chairman while undergoing treatment, McCain has been noticeably late to a few committee hearings. He has also missed a couple floor votes for medical care, including the major tax reform bill at year’s end. His absence could also have serious effects on the 2019 defense authorization bill’s prospects, said Todd Harrison, budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

If McCain takes a step back — or ultimately steps down — it would leave a hole in the GOP’s leadership on national security. The party has foreign policy voices, but none as seasoned or vocal as McCain. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma is in line to re-assume the Armed Services gavel next. Many Beltway watchers point to the young Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who the White House reportedly considered naming as CIA director and was on some parlor-whisperer short lists for defense secretary last year. Cotton is no McCain. Nobody is.  

Anti-ISIS Coalition’s Next Steps

With the Islamic State routed from over 98 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, the question for 2018 is whether the international coalition can secure and stabilize the areas it’s regained. “I would say that we've had a very successful 2017 in the military campaign,” said U.K. Army Maj. Gen. Felix Gedney, the coalition’s deputy commander of strategy and support. “We haven't created a win; we've created an opportunity.”

For the security forces involved, 2018 will mean focusing on clearing IEDs, hunting down ISIS sleeper cells, and keeping the peace, plus a much larger, non-military effort to return civilians to their homes and re-establish local governance and industry.

Several warning signs of the coalition’s tough road ahead: The United Nations already identified five areas in Iraq that are at high risk of backsliding into extremists’ control. And ISIS militants are “moving with impunity through regime-held territory” in western Syria where the coalition won’t strike, Gedney said Wednesday — a troubling indication about where the extremist group might find safe haven and continue plotting foreign and domestic attacks. Then there’s the still-simmering regional issue of the Kurds’ future.

West Africa

By mid-2018, 5,000 multinational troops could be operating in hotspots around Central and West Africa, combating terrorism and other illicit activity as part of the new G-5 Sahel Force. The initiative brings together the five regional countries — Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania — with key support from the international community. It’s been in the works over the last year, but has encountered funding and operational difficulties in standing up.

France is taking the lead in the international community: President Emmanuel Macron hosted a donor conference earlier this month, securing a $130-million commitment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE that brings the total pledged contributions to about half what the force said it needs to operate in its first few years. The U.S. isn’t as involved — Trump’s advisers and other administration officials attended the donor conference in America’s place, not the heads of state who attended for several European nations — but America did pledge $60 million to the force earlier this year. It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has about 800 troops operating out of one of the nations: Niger.

Strategies and Budgets

Now that the National Security Strategy is done, a host of more strategies are expected this month: the National Defense Strategy, a Ballistic Missile Defense Review, and a Nuclear Posture Review. That all leads us to February and the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal. Remember, Pentagon officials over the past year have said this is the budget plan that will include the Trump-promised military buildup. But before we get to that, the Pentagon still does not have an approved 2018 spending plan, which remains in limbo, along with the rest of the federal budget. Oh, and the defense budget for 2018 is capped at $549 billion, well below the nearly $700 billion authorized in the NDAA. Is 2018 the year Congress repeals the federal budget caps?

Changes in Industry and the Pentagon

Nearly one year in office, Trump administration appointees finally are starting to fill out top positions at the Pentagon. Pay attention to this one: the Defense Department will split up the powerful position of undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics into two separate undersecretary offices. Ellen Lord, the current undersecretary, will become undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment. Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator, has been nominated for the other post, as undersecretary for research and engineering. To oversee the reorganization, Lord has hired Ben FitzGerald, a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. In the defense industry, Chris Kubasik takes over as CEO of L3 Technologies. And Eric Fanning, the former U.S. Army secretary and Air Force acting secretary, becomes the CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, the defense industry advocacy group.

Big New Defense Contracts

The Pentagon is poised to award a number contracts and launch some new weapons projects in 2018, for new planes, tanks, and ships. Here’s the breakdown: the Air Force plans to chose the winner to build a new pilot training jet, called the T-X, and a new helicopter to replace the old UH-1 Hueys that carry the security teams that protect intercontinental ballistic missile fields in the northern U.S. The Navy plans to award three conceptual design contracts for a new frigate and the new MQ-25 Stingray refueling drone. The Marine Corps plans to select a winner for a new Amphibious Combat Vehicle. Finally, Army leaders are about to solicit bids for a new light tank.

New Missiles Deploy to the Pacific

As North Korean tensions continue, by the end of 2018, U.S. missile defense in the Pacific will get a boost as the Missile Defense Agency begins deploying the SM-3 Block IIA. It is designed to help Aegis-equipped destroyers intercept mid- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles of the sort North Korea might fire at Japan or Guam.

The U.S. is developing the missile with Japan and Raytheon. Last February, the Pentagon announced it had successfully tested the missile against in a ballistic target off of Hawaii’s Western Coast. But in June, the missile failed its second test when the person serving as a tactical datalink controller misidentified the target as a friendly aircraft. More cameras and sensors will help the military increase its confidence about what to shoot at. That’s one area where pairs of F-35s could help by feeding targeting data to Aegis ships, as a recently-revealed 2014 test showed. In November, 12 Air Force F-35s deployed to the Pacific, where they joined Marine Corps F-35Bs that had been in the region since January, escorting B-1B bombers. In 2018, South Korea will receive its first deployment of F-35s. So if Kim Jong-Un continues his pattern of controversial missile tests, expect more U.S. flybys, possibly with F-35s.

There’s more. By the end of July 2018, Boeing, General Atomics. and Lockheed Martin will each have built prototype drones that can fire a laser to shoot down ICBMs, part of a program called the Low Power Laser Demonstrator. The Missile Defense Agency will select one of the three companies to go on building and testing, with flight tests tentatively scheduled for 2020 and beam tests scheduled for 2021.

A Critical Year for Cyber Command

The new year will also mark the debut of U.S. Cyber Command as a full combatant command, split off from the National Security Agency. Before Cybercom can formally do so, the head of both agencies, currently Adm. Michael Rogers, (though that is hardly an indication he will be the nominee to lead either Cyber Command or NSA going forward) will have to convince Defense Secretary James Mattis the new organization is strong enough to stand on its own.

Also by September, all 133 of the Cyber Mission Force Teams will reach full operational capacity. Their job is to carry out the Defense Department’s 2015 Cyber Strategy: Defend the department, support commanders leading troops into battle, and defend U.S. critical infrastructure from cyberattacks, working under the Department of Homeland Security.

Army’s Modernization

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has ordered the Army to streamline the way it builds and buys weapons through a new Army “Futures Command” scheduled for standup by the summer of 2018. The new command will focus on long-range precision fires, a new battlefield communication network, and a new fighting vehicle, among other priorities. The hope is to speed up the way the Army buys and equips in order to better match China and Russia.

Our recent focus on fighting wars of insurgency and terrorism allowed our adversaries to make improvements on their modernization efforts and erode our advantages enjoyed since World War II,” said Milley in an October memo obtained exclusively by Defense One.


By Kevin Baron, Caroline Houck, Patrick Tucker, and Marcus Weisgerber // Kevin Baron is the founding executive editor of Defense One. Baron has lived in Washington for 20 years, covering international affairs, the military, the Pentagon, Congress, and politics for Foreign Policy, National Journal, Stars and Stripes, and the Boston Globe, where he ran investigative projects for five years at the Washington bureau. He is a frequent on-air contributor and previously was national security/military analyst at NBC News & MSNBC. Baron cut his muckraking teeth at the Center for Public Integrity and he is twice a Polk Award winner and former vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. He earned his M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University, his B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond, and studied in Paris. Raised in Florida, Baron now lives in Northern Virginia. // Caroline Houck is a staff correspondent at Defense One. She previously was an Atlantic Media fellow. // Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years. Tucker has written about emerging technology in Slate, The Sun, MIT Technology Review, Wilson Quarterly, The American Legion Magazine, BBC News Magazine, Utne Reader, and elsewhere. // Marcus Weisgerber is the global business editor for Defense One, where he writes about the intersection of business and national security. He has been covering defense and national security issues for more than a decade, previously as Pentagon correspondent for Defense News and chief editor of Inside the Air Force. He has reported from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and often travels with the defense secretary and other senior military officials.

January 1, 2018

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