America’s military personnel will have a new commander in chief come January, whether they like it or not, and the two most likely choices could produce two drastically different militaries over the next four years.
In a Donald Trump presidency, the military could see dramatic growth in manpower and equipment but not necessarily in missions. He has openly questioned U.S. involvement in a host of global hot spots and the nation's participation in foreign military alliances, a course that could reduce America's military footprint overseas.
By contrast, if Hillary Clinton wins in November, she has indicated that diplomacy and the use of so-called soft power would be priorities, not military growth, even as she focuses on smaller-scale interventions across the world. She has also advocated for social change within the ranks, praising policy changes that welcomed gay and transgender individuals and opened more military jobs to women.
Scrambled Party Lines
It’s not a clear cut choice for many troops, who have voiced their displeasure with both candidates. A poll of the active-duty force conducted in mid-September by Military Times and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that 85 percent of those surveyed were dissatisfied with Clinton as the Democratic choice while 66 percent said they were unhappy with Trump as the Republican pick.
To be sure, the two have scrambled party lines on national security, staking out positions often at odds with traditional Republicans and Democrats.
Trump has denounced past attempts at “nation building” and elicited concerns from foreign allies accustomed to Republican rhetoric of a more active role for the U.S. military. “He’s a non-interventionist,” said Doug MacGregor, a retired Army colonel who is now a consultant in Virginia. “In broad terms, he promises a break, not just from the last eight years but the last 25 years, in foreign and defense policy. We’ve been engaged globally for all sorts of reasons — how has this helped us? It's bankrupting us, not helping us.”
Clinton sits closer to the status quo, promising a military that is historically small but high-tech and lethal. Few Democrats have more consistently favored the use of military force. “She would be the more muscular internationalist of the two candidates,” said Michael Noonan, a defense expert with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank in Philadelphia. “She’s a bit more hawkish than Trump would be. It’s completely useless to discuss foreign and defense politics in terms of liberal or conservative. Those discussions mean nothing. It’s really about restraint on one hand and internationalism on the other.”
There are other big differences. Trump wants to befriend Russia, which would mark a stunning shift in U.S. foreign policy and would change the role of the U.S. military in Europe. Clinton is skeptical of spending $1 trillion to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, an issue that will soon require tough decisions. They disagree on whether the U.S. military should adhere to international laws when pursuing terrorists. Both have promised to force lawmakers to end budget caps on defense spending, but plan on allocating that money in very different areas.
Conventional wisdom in Washington suggests the next commander in chief will have limited control when it comes to dramatically reshaping the military. Congress still controls the defense budget, and will have final say over force growth or reductions. But with both chambers up for grabs in November (the Senate more so than the House), troops can view the election in terms of how their votes could impact the military they know. Either choice will come with new leadership at the Pentagon, a new set of defense priorities and a new reality for those in the ranks.
Force Size & Military Spending
For much of the presidential campaign, critics have hammered Trump as being intentionally vague and offering fewer specifics than Clinton. But when it comes to the size of the military, their roles are reversed. Trump has outlined a host of manpower and equipment targets, while Clinton has pledged generally to maintain the “best-equipped and strongest military the world has ever known.”
In September, Trump outlined plans for an active-duty Army of 540,000 soldiers, up about 50,000 from today's level. The Marine Corps, under Trump's plan, would grow by 10,000 troops and be composed of 36 battalions, up from 23 now. Both would represent dramatic reversals of President Barack Obama’s efforts to draw down the number of service members as the military's commitments waned in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump pledged to build “a Navy of 350 surface ships and submarines” and “an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter aircraft.” For the Navy, that plan represents a 27 percent boost in the fleet size. The Air Force boasts nearly 2,000 aircraft today, but a little more than 1,100 are readily available for missions, so Trump’s plan appears to be an increase in that inventory too.
“Russia has much newer capability than we do,” Trump said at the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. “We have not been updating from the new standpoint. I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they're old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not keeping up with other countries.”
The message from Trump’s campaign is clear: As president, he’ll push for a larger military. Whether he can pay for it is another question.
“We buy products for our military, and they come in at costs that are so far above what they were supposed to be, because we don't have people that know what they're doing,” he said during the debate. Yet the National Taxpayers Union Foundation has estimated that growing the Army, Navy and Marine Corps alone would add more than $75 billion to the defense budget in the first five years, an almost 3 percent increase each year. Offsets like eliminating waste and civilian workforce attrition would not come close to covering that cost.
That means a Trump military budget would almost certainly breach the defense spending caps in place for the next five years, and require a long-term budget deal with Congress that has eluded Obama.
Clinton’s military plans could fall within those budget caps as she has not committed to any specific increases, like Trump has.
At the American Legion's annual conference in August, Clinton said that America “cannot lose our military edge, and that means giving the Pentagon the stable, predictable funding it needs to make smart investments.” But instead of promising more troops or platforms, she pledged to “create a defense budget that reflects good stewardship of taxpayer dollars” including “investing in innovation and capabilities that will allow us to prepare for and fight 21st century threats.”
That appears in line with Obama’s effort to forge a leaner, more tech-centric military, one that's focused on small-scale special operations missions and increasingly reliant on unmanned aircraft. Clinton, like Trump, has promised to find defense savings through cutting waste and fraud.
Clinton also has emphasized using “diplomacy and development on the front lines, solving problems before they threaten us at home.” That could translate to more dollars directed to State Department initiatives rather than military investments.
The Use of Military Force
Trump and Clinton have sketched out vastly different philosophies about the U.S. military’s basic purpose and its role in the world.
Clinton envisions an activist military that’s deeply involved in advancing her notions of American interests and international law, relying on troops deployed with allies overseas “so we can respond quickly to events on the other side of the world,” she said in June.
Her campaign has highlighted Clinton's hawkish views and apparent willingness to initiate military interventions or expand those already underway. She voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she backed the 2009 surge in Afghanistan, and she advocated for the 2011 intervention in Libya. Clinton espouses a belief in American “exceptionalism” that resonates with some Regan-era Republicans, and she has drawn support from several Bush-era neoconservatives as a result.
During a major foreign policy speech in June, she threatened action against Iran. “The world must understand,” Clinton said, "that the United States will act decisively if necessary, including with military action, to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”
Trump, on the other hand, is a Republican unlike any other in recent memory. His skepticism of military intervention evokes a political posture historically in step with the Democratic Party. He's been outright critical of today’s armed forces and its leaders, describing them by using words like "disaster" and saying the generals under Obama have been "reduced to rubble." Trump also has promised to prioritize the country's financial security and that of American families, eschewing its leadership role around the globe.
To that end, Trump has signaled he would be cautious about using American military force abroad and defer instead to regional powers. He suggested the U.S. should let Russia take the lead in fighting the Islamic State group. He’s said countries like Saudi Arabia and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons programs to help contain adversaries.
Trump has repeatedly criticized Clinton’s experience and her support for military involvement overseas. “Sometimes it has seemed like there wasn’t a country in the Middle East that Hillary Clinton didn’t want to invade, intervene or topple,” he said in September. “She is trigger-happy and unstable when it comes to war.”
Though he's vowed to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” Trump says he'd use military force only when absolutely essential. He’s critical of broader U.S. policy in the Middle East and has suggested taxpayer money would be better spent at home. “We've spent $6 trillion in the Middle East,” Trump said while debating Clinton. “We could have rebuilt our country twice. And it's really a shame. And it's politicians like Secretary Clinton that have caused this problem.”
Relations with Russia reveal the clearest distinction between the two nominees. Clinton supports deploying more troops throughout Europe to challenge Moscow’s ambitions. “I think a president Clinton is going to be far less solicitous of Russia,” said Michael Rubin, a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.
Yet Trump has raised concerns about the costs and value of the NATO alliance. Trump’s friendly overtures toward Russian President Vladimir Putin suggest he may seek to fundamentally reshape the U.S.-Russian relationship, said Omar Lamrani, a military expert with Stratfor, a Texas-based firm that provides geo-political intelligence to the private sector. “We might see more of an opening for a Trump administration to make more accommodations with Russia.”
Social Policy & Environmental Fears
Beyond such sensitive geopolitical issues, the next commander in chief will have to decide who carries out his or her orders. In eight years as president, Obama has overseen a number of historic changes in military personnel policy. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was repealed, allowing gay men and women to serve openly. More recently, he's opened all combat jobs to women, the Pentagon announced this summer plans to lift its ban on transgender troops.
Clinton has praised the transgender decision and suggested that women should have to register with Selective Service, which would implement a military draft should the need ever arise. She has also promised to upgrade the service records of gay veterans dismissed under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy approved by her husband, President Bill Clinton, during the 1990s.