If we had written this State of Defense report two months ago, it would have been almost entirely different. For better or worse, President Trump brings the nation into 2019 with a new attitude and attention to the U.S. military’s ground wars.
His sudden decision in December to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria was so radical a departure from his own previous policy — and so opposed by his own team leaders and many if not most national-security professionals — that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis finally decided he’d had enough of his erratic commander in chief, and resigned in protest. So followed Brett McGurk, the president’s envoy to the ISIS war. Both wrote scorching exit notes that explained what the United States should be doing to keep the influence it bought with blood and treasure in Syria, that geographic and strategic crossroads of Russia, Iran, Middle East powers, and the West. Mattis in particular urged a strong American presence abroad and strong alliances, the two things Trump most often threatens to quit.
By presidential order, 2019 will be the year the U.S. ground war in Syria ends. Trump also reportedly wants a drawdown in Afghanistan, but hasn’t started planning for one, and was looking into restricting U.S. special operations forces fighting across Africa, though U.S. combat in Somalia appears to be escalating. In fact, in 2019, the sprawling footprint of the U.S. military from southwest Asia to north Africa may not change much at all.
Trump’s tweets and jolts have U.S. allies in Syria throwing their hands up — pledging to stay in the fight, but wondering what the United States will do next. Their participation in the global war on terror is directly linked to the United States’. Even if they wanted to stay and fight where Americans leave, their smaller forces provide specific capabilities to a coordinated coalition, and they rely on American support in all domains. Without it, Trump leaves them little choice. If the United States pulls back, the world pulls back.
Clearly, Trump enters his third year in office emboldened — whether by the arrival of a national security adviser who shares his disdain for collective action, by the swirling of the many investigations of his sphere, or simply by having settled into the job. Decisions to limit America’s military interventions could eventually force drastic changes to the military services’ sizes, shapes, fleets, and arsenals. To make those decisions, Trump will have a new defense secretary (likely Patrick Shanahan, who wants to remove “acting” from his title), a new Joint Chiefs chairman, three new service chiefs, several new combatant commanders, and, presumably a new round of Pentagon policy staffers to replace a wave of departures.
Trump also faces a new Democratic majority in the House, eager to challenge his Pentagon team on the record and on camera. For two years, defense leaders hid from the public, avoided interviews, and were even restricted from public appearances, in part to keep from saying anything to contradict or disagree with Trump’s erratic policy swings and tweets. But less than one month into the new Congress, DOD officials forced to testify are already getting into trouble. After Defense Undersecretary John Rood’s Jan. 31 appearance before the House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., suggested that Rood may have broken the law by not disclosing Pentagon plans to increase troops at the Mexico border. Then the Pentagon’s top civilian in charge of special operations forces publicly disagreed with the president’s Syria pullout order. Why did he say it? He had to. A member of Congress asked him under oath, on camera.
Shanahan already has said that he won’t travel as much as past secretaries, which would severely limit his press availability and the most intimate time for defense secretaries and reporters to build relationships, but he may do more public events. Unless he withdraws his restrictions on other senior leaders, the E-ring will remain in the shadows. The HASC and other committees promise to bring much greater attention to all Pentagon policies and proposals, from missile defense increases to updating 18-year old authorizations for deploying U.S. troops abroad, the fate of ISIS war detainees, and whether Trump will request a bottom line of more $700 billion or $750 billion, or somewhere in between.
Trump might have used his State of the Union address to explain his bolder path, but instead said little new in the 82-minute speech. A White House press release declared that Trump’s national-security accomplishments were, roughly, keeping defense spending high, caring for troops, cajoling NATO allies to spend more, shrinking ISIS territory, calming North Korea, and hurting Iran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal and enacting additional sanctions. He also promised, within months, to offer a new plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Most importantly, the release said Trump was “fulfilling his promise to stop the cycle of endless wars that have burdened our nation.” In other words, the United States will bring an unspecified — one suspects, undecided — number of U.S. troops home.
Nobody knows how. Nobody knows when. Perhaps their positions on the front lines will be filled by America’s allies and partners.
The messages from the administration remain confusing. The day after the State of the Union, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened officials from the 74 member countries of the counter-ISIS coalition. The meeting aimed, in part, to determine which countries may step up to replace exiting American troops and capabilities. In a brief appearance at the meeting, Trump touted the loss of ISIS territory, but declined to repeat his earlier assertions that the group was defeated and that U.S. forces would immediately withdraw. Pompeo said the president “has also made clear that we’re ready to come back in full force if ISIS reorganizes and reemerges.”
But the next day, Pompeo suggested to Fox News that nothing had changed at all. “That’s the challenge, I think, for our time. In Syria, we will simply do the same mission we’ve had for my two years in this administration,” he said. “It’s to identify, make sure we understand where they are, and go after them, whether that’s us directly or through our partners and coalition partners.”
Pompeo’s Syrian-policy dance follows his Mideast tour last month where he similarly and clumsily argued that the Trump administration would keep America engaged in the region despite troops withdrawals and empty embassy offices. Trying to please allies, sound tough, and retreat at the same time will remain a hard sell for Trump’s security team.
In next month’s budget hearings, expect service leaders to argue that too much is being asked of too-few troops with too-few resources. But that means some hard choices and some exciting ones. The Navy’s top officer is having a come-to-John Paul Jones moment, conceding that the fleet is simply not going to get its requested 355 ships. So, if you can’t get the ships you want, maybe you can get the next best thing: robot ships. Also, throw on new lasers, new naval aircraft, and make sure you’re buying things that keep your edge over your fast-growing adversary, China. The Marines aren’t counting ships as much as they’re counting months – as in too many months spent deployed. Corps leaders worry the pace is unsustainable and are watching Trump closely; if he draws down deployments, that’s good news for dwell time and training.
In the Air Force, set to grow by 4,000 airmen this year, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein is focused on developing the networks that are changing how air war is fought. And he too is awaiting the Syria drawdown, anticipating that fewer troops on the ground will mean more drones keeping watch from the air.
Meanwhile, the Army has thousands of troops coming or going in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Korea, Somalia, and…Texas…all while recruiting showed struggles, retention rules are changing, and a raft of new leaders will take the reins.
Read more details of what to expect from all the Defense Department’s four service branches below in this year’s State of Defense. Next year, it could be five. (Space Force!)
America’s largest service is updating weapons and doctrine for a “big war.” But first, recruiters will have to keep the Army from shrinking.
By Ben Watson
Thousands of U.S. soldiers began 2018 facing a possible ground or tunnel war against North Korea. Thousands of others were soon headed to Afghanistan. Hundreds more had just set up shop in Somalia for the fight against al-Shabaab. A few thousand looked forward to returning home from Iraq while the counter-ISIS war in Iraq and Syria slowed. Others were still rotating in. And the U.S. just sent weapons to Ukraine, helping to escalate Kiev’s war with Russian-backed separatists.
And back home, there was a worrying, if hardly unforeseen, development: for the first time in 13 years, the U.S. Army failed to reach its annual recruiting goal. It needed 76,500; it added only 70,000, and finished the year at 476,000 active duty troops. (Worth noting: That’s still is the largest increase since 2010, which points to retirement and retention as a growing concern.) Complicating the task: the decline in immigrant recruiting that began in 2017 and accelerated last year. And it’s not like this shortfall came out of the blue — the Army’s top recruiting officer predicted a rough 2018. But the service has much ground to make up — it needs to add 11,500 soldiers this year to avoid shrinking.
Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley, at least, is unfazed. Earlier in January, Milley told reporters that the Army would fill all open billets in “operating units” worldwide by year’s end — and hit 105 percent manning in 2020. How will they do it? In part by boosting recruiting efforts in in what have been traditionally referred to as “liberal leaning” cities, the New York Times reported. (Find the full 22-city list, here.) It will take more than a few months to determine the success of that new approach, which already has its skeptics.
Another mandate in 2019: growing the Army’s Security Forces Assistance Brigade units, the soldiers who volunteer to train a host-nation’s military. Last year saw the Army’s first-ever SFAB unit deploy to and return from Afghanistan. (Defense One spoke to the commander of that unit, Brig. Gen. Scott Jackson, from his offices in Gardez, Afghanistan, back in September. Find that interview, here.) There are currently three SFAB units available, Milley said in January. Ultimately, he wants six of those brigades: one for each of the five combatant commands, plus an additional brigade for the National Guard.
Shaking things up somewhat, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis implemented a so-called “deploy or get out” policy back in February — an act Milley said in January helped lower the Army’s non-deployable rate from 15 down to six or seven percent today. Senior NCOs told Defense One said that caused some consternation among troops who were habitually “not ready” to deploy. Should that status remain, those folks are expected to be out by the start of the fiscal year, in early October. That may compound some of the attrition problems mentioned above.
The Army piloted a basic training extension in 2018, as well as longer infantry and AIT courses “to reduce attrition and injury,” according to Milley.
Extended AIT programs are expected to grow in 2019 (to armor and engineering schools, for example). Soldiers will also test mule packbots, and new squad weapons and night vision gear. Field testing for a new, more thorough fitness assessment will expand ahead of its scheduled 2020 implementation. And the Army opened its own new four-star Futures Command in August. The goal: innovate quicker by linking up with tech startups in the Austin, Texas region to help deliver things like exoskeletons and emerging tech applications a little bit faster.
The Army has six dominant priorities for 2019. “Long-range precision fires is number one,” Milley said in his January address. Also referred to as “precision mass fires,” this emphasis concerns the Army’s ability to attack targets from a great distance. That means “new artillery weapons — missiles, howitzers, shells and rockets — that are more precise and more lethal over a longer range.” The Army’s second priority is the quest for its next generation combat vehicle. Third, the service’s plan to develop helicopters for tomorrow, referred to as “future vertical lift”; number four on the list is the Army’s new tactical communications network; fifth is emphasis on air and missile defense; and finally, increasing “soldier lethality,” which is where the weapons, packbots and NVGs come in.
And Milley’s plan for the future? Brace for a big war. That’s the first point in Milley and Army Secretary Mark Esper’s new “vision” the two drafted in 2018. It consists of three elements:
- Build readiness “for high intensity conflict against a strategic global competitor.”
- Modernize doctrine, equipment, and formations for joint operations “to maintain overmatch” against foes.
- And “reform the Army” to more efficiently direct resources where they need to go more quickly — almost a legendary problem for the Army, the U.S. military’s largest service.
There are a number of questions that confront the Army in the months ahead. Among those:
- Where will the next SFAB units deploy?
- Who comes after Milley now that he’s Trump’s pick to replace Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford?
- When will the thousands of troops redeploy from the U.S.-Mexico border? (The current mission extends through the end of the fiscal year.)
- Will the price of concertina wire increase in 2019?
- Will Army Rangers still be needed in Syria if Trump wants the U.S. out?
- Will the U.S. reach a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan? Word in Washington is the president wants that war finished before the 2020 election.
- Will Trump pull the U.S. out of NATO? Enormous implications there for American troops and allies alike.
- Are the nearly 30,000 American troops in Korea going to be there in 2020 given (1) the upcoming second Trump-Kim summit, as well as (2) the fact that it took the Trump administration 10-plus negotiations since March 2018 to finalize a deal on Korean basing (and even then the deal reportedly only spans a year instead of the usual five)?
- There were reports of a U.S. troop reduction for Somalia in December; though that seems to have been put to bed. The war against al-Shabaab, however, does not.
- And how exactly will the Army’s new Futures Command contribute to what the service is trying to accomplish in the year ahead — without breaking the bank?
Milley is expected to be the next Joint Chiefs Chairman, if his December nomination is approved by Congress. In the meantime, he’s taking a long view on the Army’s future mission in conflicts and battlefields abroad. In remarks that may surprise no one, Milley told the crowd in January that America’s foreign internal defense missions (the SFAB mission of training a host nation’s military — a task the U.S. Army’s Green Berets have traditionally shouldered since the early 1960s) “will be with the United States [Army] in various forms no matter where it is for many years to come.” So there will always be a mission for the U.S. Army, even if it doesn’t get that “high-intensity conflict against a strategic global competitor” Milley wants them all prepared for.
The service is growing, adding new planes, training for great-power conflict, and wondering where their space assets are going to wind up.
As Capt. Dave Goldfein taxied his F-16 to the runway at Nellis Air Force Base just north of Las Vegas in the 1990s, the U.S. way of war was far more siloed.
To lead 100 warplanes into a mock battle in the skies above the U.S. Air Force’s premier training rage, Goldfein and his other Weapons School classmates had one basic piece of communication technology: a radio.
“It was a very mechanical process by which we would choreograph this large force going in to do to do a mission,” Goldfein, now a general and the Air Force’s top officers, said in a broad-ranging Jan. 18 telephone interview from Nellis.
“I was just responsible for orchestrating 100 aircraft to get into and out of a heavily defended target area,” he recounted. “Then determining through the combination of radio calls and radar tapes and other things just piece it all together so we can learn from it.”
It’s a far cry from that now, as technology is preparing the Air Force for the potential battles with Russia and China described in the National Defense Strategy, a year-old document that guides just about every decision military leaders make today, hoping it helps them win the battles of tomorrow.
Those battles — which Goldfein, as the Air Force chief of staff, is responsible for making sure airmen are properly trained and have the right equipment — are not just expected in the air, on the ground or at sea, but all those area at one in addition to space and cyberspace. The Air Force is investing in weapons that enable what Goldfein calls the the “joint penetrating team.”
Today at Nellis, and other bases, the Air Force’s wargames are a much more networked affair than the ones Goldfein flew more than 25 years ago. Instead of that radio, pilots in the cockpits of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters have a far better picture of the battlefield being pumped in from satellites, planes and other types of airborne sensors. That battlefield picture allows the plane to act as a “quarterback,” allowing the pilots to guide other aircraft to their targets, much like its predecessor, the F-22 Raptor, has done in the skies over Syria.
“There’s no figuring out through radio calls and other things — it’s right there,” Goldfein said of display presented to F-35 pilots. “When we call the F-35 the quarterback of the joint team, it’s because it’s this fusion machine that brings it all together and they do that right here at Nellis on these ranges and bring in virtual and constructive as well with the simulators. It’s a different game. It’s truly a joint fight and it’s an all-domain fight. And they do that here at Nellis every day.”
No country on the planet can place a block of wood over themselves to keep us out. Any adversary on the planet, the best they can do is a block of Swiss cheese.Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfien
Growth on the Horizon
After calling for growth in recent years, it’s happening, albeit at a modest pace. The Air Force plans to add 4,000 to its ranks in 2019, bringing its end strength to just over 329,000. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson last year announced even more ambitious plans to add 40,000 more airmen and 74 new squadrons by 2030. Service officials are expected to offer more details about that goal in the coming months.
In 2018, the Air Force locked in deals for new pilot training jets and security helicopters from Boeing. It just received its first KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, also built by Boeing. In secret, Northrop Grumman is building the service a new stealth bomber, which completed a major design review late last year.
“The secretary and I right now are focused on precise execution and to ensure that we continue to deliver on time and on budget and where we can under budget,” Goldfein said.
Being able to strike targets that are guarded by advanced surface-to-air missiles and electronic jammers is how the Air Force views the future, which is driving how its investing its money now.
“No country on the planet can place a block of wood over themselves to keep us out,” Goldfein said. “Any adversary on the planet, the best they can do is a block of Swiss cheese. There are holes that can be exploited and it’s our job to know where they are and how to get in and how to hold targets risk and to ensure that we can do so. And there’s nothing our adversary can do about it.”
Thus, the Air Force is spending its money on weapons built for that type of scenario.
“You’re going to see a significant investment in that penetrating capability across the Air Force portfolio,” Goldfein said. “It’s an all-domain portfolio.”
Among the projects he mentioned: space assets, manned and unmanned aircraft, F-35s, F-22 upgrades, the B-21 bomber — all part of the “joint penetrating team.”
“When you take a look at what National Defense Strategy tells us we need to prepare to do, I think you’re going to see a significant investment in those capabilities,” he said.
By year’s end, the service’s F-35 fleet, currently north of 165 aircraft, will surpass the 183-plane F-22 cohort.
The Air Force is still short pilots, partly due to demand from airlines which offer more predictable schedules, but the service will train 1,300 new pilots this year, up from 1,100 last year, Goldfein said. That should rise to 1,400 next year and 1,500 in 2021.
“I’m the 21st chief. [The 22nd chief] after me is gonna still deal with it a bit,” he said. My goal and the secretary’s goal is that Chief 23 won’t be dealing with this because we’ll have produced and brought into the Air Force the number of pilots we need to sustain the force.”
Goldfein, who in his two-plus years as Air Force chief has pushed to delegate authority to squadron commanders, wants to “make flying in the United States Air Force as rich an experience for the pilot and the family as we possibly can.”
High Operational Tempo
For more than four years, the Air Force has been at the center of the airstrike campaign against Islamic State militants. As U.S. ground forces in Syria prepare to carry out President Trump’s unexpected December 2018 order to withdraw, Air Force drones will likely be among the eyes overhead keeping watch.
“What naturally happens is that we become top cover for forces that are on the move,” said Goldfein, who commanded coalition air forces in the Middle East during the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
“I actually plussed up forces in 2011 to provide top cover for our orderly withdrawal,” he said. “I’m expecting that we’ll do the same over time going forward.”
But after years of surges to meet the insatiable demand from commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force trimmed its drone operations in 2015. The change helped to alleviate staffing problems and to normalize a career field of thousands of airmen that was born out of battlefield needs.
Goldfein recently visited Creech Air Force Base, where most Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones are remotely piloted. He said the career field has made a “significant improvement,” but that there is “still work to be done.”
“As we’ve been moving to normalize this community, the demand signal has not gone down,” Goldfein said. “In fact, it’s gone up and there’s a good chance it will go up even further” to support the drawdown in Syria.
“As we as we complete the strategy of removing ISIS as a physical caliphate, I think history will show that the MQ-1 [and] MQ-9 community ... has had a significant role to play on you know how to find, fix and finish and take bad people off the battlefield to ensure we accomplish our objectives,” Goldfein said.
The general touted the “innovation that I saw [at Creech] and what they're coming up with on how to use that weapon system in ways that we actually never envisioned when we designed it.”
Last year, a Reaper, which was originally built to capture video of the battlefield below and drop guided bombs on enemy targets, shot down a small drone during a test.
Airmen are “looking for ways of using that weapon system differently,” Goldfein said.
The Space Force
One big wildcard facing the Air Force right now is Trump’s calls to create a Space Force, a new branch of the military. Congress must approve such a move and it’s unclear whether it would support such a move.
The Pentagon had been planning to ask Congress for an independent service, with a secretary and chief of staff, however, a Defense News report indicated it would be included within the Air Force, just like the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy.
A formal Space Force proposal is expected to be part of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget request, which is supposed to head to Congress in February.
What the Corps needs in 2019: new gear and more time at home.
By Kevin Baron
Is the Marine Corps overstretched? That’s a question not seen in many headlines since the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, when Marines were used to supplement the shortstaffed U.S. Army. But it was the central concern of a stark new assessment in January given by the Marine Corps’ top planner.
If the United States wants the most ready-to-fight Marine Corps possible, the service needs to upgrade its weapons, fleets, vessels and vehicles, said Lt. Gen. Brian Beaudreault, deputy commandant for plans, policy, and operations. The service needs new skills, technology, and flexibility to keep experimenting with the shape and size of the force. And if the United States wants rested and ready Marines, then it needs to let them slow down.
“We’re going to need to decrease our operational commitments,” said Beaudreault in a Jan. 16 speech to U.S. Navy and Corps leaders gathered near the Pentagon.
An ideal “dwell time” would allow Marines three months at home for every month deployed, he said. Currently, that ratio is just 2-to-1.
President Trump’s oft-stated desire to end some U.S. military operations abroad would seem to offer hope for a lighter load. But one month into 2019, there is little clarity about how long or how often the commander in chief will keep deploying Marines for America’s wars, counterterrorism ops, or other missions. At present, Trump has directed the Pentagon to plan for a withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, and decrease forces in Afghanistan and Somalia.
As ever, the Marines are planning to meet whatever mission is asked of them.
“I’m kind of the guy that makes sure the Marine Corps can deliver today,” Beaudreault told reporters after his speech. “So, we’re doing what the nation needs us to do today, be that in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, but if we can recover those forces back to the United States, it gives us an opportunity to work higher-level training.”
Politics is already changing some Marine Corps training. While Trump put large exercises in South Korea on hold as part of his outreach to North Korea, the United States plans to inaugurate massive Pacific exercise from February through April to rehearse long-distance amphibious warfare skills with the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. It comes amid the Marines’ neverending plans to move forces out of Okinawa and distribute them across Guam, Hawaii, and Australia, in part to be less of a single target in a conflict.
In his final annual message to the Corps, outgoing Commandant Gen. Robert Neller outlined a series of hard choices and changes he said the Marines must make to remain the most ready and lethal possible.
“Our legacy of fighting and winning is not attached to any piece of equipment, but to our creativity and resolve to defeat our enemies,” Neller said in his Jan. 25 message. Everything from vehicles to squad sizes to drunkenness and alcohol use need reviewing, he said. That’s a long list for whomever Trump picks as the next commandant.
The year ahead for the Marine Corps does not appear to have any major weapons changes but some familiar storylines continue. An internal Pentagon report reportedly said in January that the F-35B, the Marines’ version of the fighter that can land vertically, may only last a fraction of its planned service life. The service will continue to test and request upgrades and variants to the forthcoming Amphibious Combat Vehicle, or ACV, which will replace the legendary Amphibious Assault Vehicle. And controversy hangs over the decision and cost to replace the M4 rifle with the M27 from foreign gunmaker Heckler & Koch.
As Neller looks toward his final months as commandant, he said the Corps is doing some things well, others need work, and others were, well, “challenges.” The good news: recruiting is great, Marines can deploy into battle wherever they’re needed, and they’re adapting to modern needs by networking the force from F-35s to individual riflemen.
Our legacy of fighting and winning is not attached to any piece of equipment, but to our creativity and resolve to defeat our enemies.Commandant Gen. Robert Neller
But Marines can do better at being ready to deploy with better training and better self-care, including “fitness and medical readiness.” His message came about the same time as the service revealed its suicide rate had hit a 10-year high.
If the average American read any news about the Marine Corps in 2018, however, it likely was about Marines behaving badly. Neller wrote passionately of his concerns about the example Marines set for Americans, and its effect on readiness.
“When the American people hear or read about Marines who don’t meet our standards of honor, courage, and commitment, they are both confused and disappointed.”
“Specifically, we must eliminate the conduct that prevents us from going to the next level. Behaviors such as drunkenness, sexual assault, sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct on social media, hazing, recklessness, and general lack of discipline do nothing to help our readiness. The relationship between alcohol and destructive behavior cannot be denied or ignored. We have to change our views of alcohol and have adult conversations with our Marines about drinking responsibly.”