What a holiday, eh? Just before our alleged year-end vacation, President Donald Trump announced he’d had enough and was ordering all U.S. ground troops out of Syria and half of the 14,000 American troops out of Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest. The outcries arrived quickly and in force, yet the president held firm, arguing that he was fulfilling a campaign promise to get America out of “forever wars.” And he elevated to acting defense secretary Mattis’ relatively unknown deputy, Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive with no prior military or government experience.
By New Year’s Eve, Trump was frustrated at the “bad press.” He tweeted, “It is Fake News and Pundits who have FAILED for years that are doing the complaining. If I stayed in Endless Wars forever, they would still be unhappy!”
But as the new year began, even retired general Stanley McChrystal had heard enough. In an interview, the widely regarded former JSOC commander called Trump a liar and an immoral leader. The president, of course, hit back: “‘General’ McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!”
In other words, the final two years of the first Trump administration begins a lot like the first two years, with the president disparaging the media, questioning military leaders, and promising to pull out of wars while remaining in them. Here are the key questions for 2019:
How long will the new acting defense secretary last?
A wave of criticism by foreign-policy leaders about Trump’s decision to yank U.S. troops out of Syria became a public-opinion tsunami after Mattis abruptly resigned with a letter rebuking Trump’s worldview and declaring his intention to leave after February’s NATO ministerial. The president reacted by shoving his once-beloved defense secretary out the door two months early — no honors ceremony, no farewell — and said Shanahan might remain acting SecDef for “a long time.”
“A long time” means up to 210 days, according to federal law, before a Senate-confirmation is required. But if Shanahan is nominated to fill the post permanently, he could face stiff headwinds on Capitol Hill. Although he has already received Senate confirmation for his current post of deputy, his lack of military and government experience, and any discernible foreign-policy vision, will not reassure lawmakers shaken by Mattis’ departure. The Pentagon’s policy staff under Trump has been precariously thin and inexperienced, and several key staffers to the secretary quit their posts after November’s midterm elections.
It’s a sure bet that when Defense Department leaders sit for budget hearings in the early year, they will face sharp questions about Trump’s shift from Syria, and U.S. war plans there and beyond. In 2019, Trump gets a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Gen. Mark Milley, and several leadership posts are due to rotate, including the chief of the Army, the Marine Corps commandant, new top commanders at U.S. Central Command for all troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and at U.S. Special Operations Command.
Mattis himself may be called to Capitol Hill to testify, by Democratic lawmakers who want to hear him detail his decision to leave.
Any more withdrawals?
With Syria and Afghanistan drawing down, how much further will U.S. foreign policy change under Trump? What about U.S. troops fighting and advising similar counterterrorism conflicts in Somalia, Libya, or Yemen? The president has publicly expressed ambivalence about nearly 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea and the U.S. commitment to NATO. Trump has been relatively silent on North Korea but Kim Jong-Un said in his annual New Year’s Day speech that he was willing to continue nuclear talks — or “choose a new path” if the United States “pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure.” In Europe, NATO is planning no major ceremonies to mark its 70th birthday after last year’s tense heads-of-state summit and amid Trump’s continuing jibes about allied defense spending and trade relationships.
Pentagon watchers took note of an interview by Los Angeles Times reporter (and Defense One alumnus) Molly O’Toole with Trump’s recently departed chief of staff, John Kelly. The retired four-star Marine general and combatant commander said he helped keep Trump from acting on his urges to withdraw forces around world.
Separately, the fallout over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to burn on Capitol Hill. His death threw gasoline on lawmakers’ simmering frustrations with U.S. support to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s punishing campaign in Yemen.
What fate for Syria?
After four years of fighting, U.S. troops are now slated to pack up and pull out of Syria in four months. (No word yet about the years-long air campaign by the U.S.-led coalition, or ground operations launched from outsides the country.) The big question is: what happens to the country now? The Geneva peace process is dead. Trump’s withdrawal ended the dream — always far-fetched — that the United States and its allies would somehow muscle out Russia and Iran, lead the warring parties to negotiations, depose Assad, and forge a new Middle Eastern democracy. But it also shook America’s allies and partners to the core — starting with the Syrian Democratic Forces — and may have lost for decades Washington’s long-held hope for democracy in the region.
Whither National Defense Strategy?
Does Trump actually believe in his National Defense Strategy, which prescribes a strategic pivot from a counterterrorism focus to countering China and Russia? Some say the Syria withdrawal means it’s already been tossed out the window.
What now for the defense budget?
It’s incredibly rare that an administration’s internal budget deliberations play out in public, but that’s what’s happening when it comes to the Pentagon’s 2020 spending request. The Trump administration had planned to ask for $733 billion next year. Then Trump ordered a surprise 5-percent cut, which would lower the request to $700 billion. Congressional defense hawks objected; it’s been reported Trump has OKed $750 billion. No matter which of those three it is, there’s one problem: defense spending is capped by law at $576 billion in 2020. Add $73 billion for the annual war slush fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO account, which is exempt from the caps, and it brings the rough total to $650 billion — still about $100 billion less than Trump’s number. Expect a fight between the White House and a split houses of Congress that will heat up toward the end of the fiscal year in September.
Here comes Adam Smith
With the change of power in the House, Rep. Adam Smith goes from ranking Democrat to chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The representative from Washington State is an unpredictable speaker and will have a lot to say in shaping defense policy over the next two years. He’s already laid out fundamental differences from his Senate counterpart, Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, in his views on U.S. threats abroad, appropriate spending levels, and his role in overseeing the Pentagon. Smith could alter the Pentagon’s plans to buy new nuclear weapons and slow purchases of other expensive arms.
Finally Space Force?
Trump’s surprise call for a new, sixth branch of the military came in March. Now it will be up to Congress — including a skeptical Smith — to decide whether it believes a Space Force is necessary. The Pentagon has already pressed ahead with something a bit less, a U.S. Space Command, as a new combatant command that includes members of all of the military branches, and has started preparing a legislative proposal that called for an independant military service. But then the White House asked if a smaller Space Force within the Air Force was a better idea, like the Marine Corps inside the Department of the Navy. That appears to be the top option on the table now.
Great Power Tech: Hypersonics, Space, and Data
The Defense Department in 2019 will look to show that it also can pivot technology development toward great power competition countering Russia and China and not just fighting terrorism in Middle East. Look for news in hypersonics (missiles and aircraft that fly five times the speed of sound), space (beyond Space Force), and data storage.
Hypersonics has emerged as a key area of research for the military across the services. In March, the same week that Vladimir Putin famously announced his country would create an “invincible” missile, (some recent tests suggests he’s succeeded) Defense Department representatives announced that they would accelerate research into hypersonic capabilities. In 2019, the ambitious hope is to ground-test an experimental new combined cycle propulsion engine, (or air breathing hypersonic engine) as part of a program DOD is pursuing with NASA. The Pentagon also hopes to test its tactical boost glide hypersonic weapon next year.
The Defense Advanced Projects Agency, or DARPA, will push ahead with recently announced plans to develop new materials to help aircraft survive high speeds. They’re also pressing forward with a plan for counter-hypersonic weapons in 2019 (assuming that’s even possible.)
China and Russia are ahead in some key respects of hypersonics, observers note. Russia claims that it successfully tested a hypersonic missile in 2018 and will deploy it this year. China also conducted tests of three different hypersonic missiles in 2018. They also have more test ranges, U.S. officials have acknowledged.
It should be an interesting year for space developments, also. SpaceX, working with the Air Force, is on track to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket, the first launch for a government customer following the rocket’s successful debut last February. That launch is expected in “early 2019,” according to the company, but “early” could extend out to March, some believe.
The U.S. Army will press ahead with its announced modernization priorities that include new combat vehicles, computer networks, long-range big guns and personal gear for soldiers. Look for big announcements in 2019 on visual displays inside soldier helmets, sometimes called heads-up displays, Army officials told Defense One on a trip to open the Army’s new Futures Command headquarters in Austin, Texas.
Behind those efforts will be data, a lot of it, much of it moving to a large commercial cloud storage provider, likely either Amazon Web Services, who is the favorite, or Microsoft. The Pentagon is set to award its massive, controversial JEDI cloud in April.
The future of cloud storage is going to play a big role in the department’s plans to link ships, soldiers, jets, drones and commanders together in a massive data web. That, in turn, will help the department use artificial intelligence more effectively, or at least that’s the hope. Look for new versions of Project Maven to show up across different service components.