1 March 2017

Trump should be spending on warships, not soldiers


President Trump has said that he is going to seek an increase in US defence expenditure of $54 billion, a 10 per cent increase in the current total of $596 billion.

It is not yet clear to what purpose these additional resources will be put. The US military is, already, by far the most powerful in the world. America has been described not as a superpower but as a super-dooper power; the only one there is.

Perhaps the increase is to impress America’s potential enemies and discourage them from military adventurism. Frederick the Great memorably remarked that “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”. Both the Kremlin and Beijing will have taken note of the proposed increase in the size of the US military and will be pondering the implications.

The US’s Nato allies in Europe should also be sleeping sounder in their beds. If Trump wants to “make America great again”, he is hardly likely to preside over the disintegration of the most powerful military alliance which the world has ever experienced; an alliance of which the United States is the unchallenged leader.

Trump has made it clear that US continuing support for Nato will depend on the European member states paying their way. That is a fair criticism. Apart from the United Kingdom and a handful of others, most have made little effort to meet the target of 2 per cent of GDP to which they are all committed.

Several, including Germany, have already promised to improve their ways. If they do, that will do more to impress Vladimir Putin than any rhetoric from the White House.

There are problems , however. At the Munich Security Conference last month, I was told by a German colleague that such is Germany’s growing GDP, that to meet the 2 per cent target for their defence spending thy might have to increase the defence budget by around 50 per cent.

This sort of increase might rattle some of their allies as well as their enemies. I recall a conversation with a German general who reminded me of his country’s history and said that Germany’s problem was that they were expected to have Armed Forces which were large enough to deter Russia without upsetting Luxembourg!

It is, though, difficult to believe that the US needs to spend so much more on its military in order to make Mr Putin behave better. Current US defence spending, at around $600 billion is about ten times as much as Russia’s, which, at $66 billion, is not that much more than the UK’s $55 billion.

In any conventional war, the US could defeat Russia without too much difficulty if it applied its full capability. Nuclear weapons are obviously a different matter: both the US and Russia have far more than they need to destroy the world several times over.

Yet, President Trump has talked of using these additional resources to enable the US to have 60,000 more soldiers and 12,000 more Marines. While such statements read well, it isn’t clear where he would expect to use them. There might, however, be a good case for increased US military spending on naval and maritime power. And the target would not be Russia – it would be China.

China, until recently, was never a serious naval power. Throughout its history it has been more concerned, until the 19th century, with invasion from across its land borders, hence the need for the Great Wall of China.

Until the 1980s, its navy was for coastal protection and had little interest in a “blue water” strategy. But that has dramatically changed. Over the past 30 years, China’s naval strength has increased to an extent that has already made it Asia’s largest naval power. Further expansion is planned including aircraft carriers, submarines and other classes of fighting ships.

That naval power is already being used in the South China Sea, where China has territorial claims that are resisted by all its neighbours, including Vietnam, and Indonesia. Simultaneously, China is in angry dispute with Japan over islands further north. It also threatens to use its navy to attack and invade Taiwan if that island ever declared its formal independence from China.

Such is the nervousness of all China’s neighbours that India and Japan have conducted their first ever joint naval exercise. The Chinese, of course, would like to become the dominant naval power in the Pacific, which would mean replacing the US for whom the Pacific is their western border.

But the US has a far larger Navy than the Chinese. The Americans, for example, have 12 aircraft carriers; the Chinese have one. The problem for Washington is that although its Navy is far larger and more powerful than anyone else’s, so are its obligations.

US warships have to patrol the Atlantic as well as the Pacific. They are needed in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. They are in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. That is why President Trump should use any additional defence resources he obtains in expanding his naval capability.

Of course, he might be thwarted by Congressional resistance. Although defence expenditure is usually popular, especially with Republicans, the President has promised, alongside increased defence spending, additional expenditure on domestic infrastructure and other programmes. He is also committed to major tax cuts. How all this is going to be paid for is very vague.

All Presidents over the years have found it difficult to deliver on the bold promises that won them favourable headlines when first announced.

President Trump has already shown himself to be a serial offender with speeches and pledges that have hardly survived the sun going down. On this occasion the best advice to the world is not to watch his lips but to wait for the delivery.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary between 1992-97. He Chaired the Intelligence and Security Committee with oversight over MI6, MI5 and GCHQ from 2010-2015