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.
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.
Clinton has made “full equality" for the LGBT community a key pillar of her campaign, vowing to expand upon changes made by the Obama administration. Her campaign has promised regular town hall meetings with gay troops and military families to hear about their ongoing concerns and challenges.
Trump hasn’t weighed in directly on most of these issues, but he has spent most of the last year promising to upend “political correctness” in federal policies and programs. He has expressed opposition to gay marriage and backed local laws limiting transgender individuals' access to public bathrooms and locker rooms. His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, was an outspoken supporter of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.
The Republican party platform approved this summer (which Trump’s staffers had a hand in authoring) includes language opposing “the use of the military as a platform for social experimentation.” It says that the services' mission readiness and need to retain a quality workforce should guide all military personnel decisions, not the desire to advance a “social or political agenda.”
It's unclear whether that could result in an attempt to rollback Obama's efforts. Those in Congress who are critical of such changes have acknowledged that reversing these policies would be near impossible, given the number of job changes and dismissals it would require. But decisions still loom on how to implement such change, and whether new policies are needed to advance them further.
The debate over climate change also looms large over the military. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, for instance, concluded that rising oceans threaten to submerge 128 military bases by the year 2100, fallout from warmer global temperatures. Obama has framed climate change as a significant national security issue, sparring with Congress over the use of renewable fuels in military vehicles and warning that the demand for natural resources will feed unrest and create more terrorist breeding grounds around the globe.
Clinton has echoed that argument of climate change as a national security issue, and during the first presidential debate accused Trump of ignoring the science behind it. “Some country is going to be the clean-energy superpower of the 21st century,” she said. “Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. I think it's real.”
Trump countered, saying that environmental issues are a concern but not to the extent that Clinton has suggested. He also accused Obama and Clinton of advocating energy policies, including public investment in solar energy, that are “putting a lot of people out of work” and said he believes these efforts need to be dialed back.
NEW WEAPONS & NUCLEAR UPGRADES
At first glance, the candidates look like traditional Republicans and Democrats on the issue of defense spending. Trump has called for increasing the Pentagon's budget — though it’s not clear by how much, or how he’d pay for it. Clinton has signaled support for Obama’s approach and rarely voices concern about military readiness.
Yet many military experts say the new commander in chief may have little control over the next few Pentagon budgets. The next president will arrive at the White House facing sequestration, the law imposing spending caps or across-the-board spending cuts through 2021. It’s like a legal “meat ax,” as former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta liked to say. Moreover, it's unlikely any call for a surge in defense spending will become law.
“The budget situation does not change in January 2017 regardless of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald trump is inaugurated president,” said Christopher Preble, a defense expert with the CATO Institute. He predicts that Tea Party Republicans, who oppose most government spending, will block the congressional consensus needed to increase Pentagon funding. “The impasse we’ve seen since 2011," Preble added, "that doesn’t change.”
Clinton opposes sequestration and has voiced support for the approach to military spending laid out by the Obama administration: incrementally exceeding the current spending caps in hopes of raising them over the next several years. The gridlock in Washington would pose a problem for Trump, who has vowed to “rebuild” the military.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon's top brass warns that these tight defense budgets could threaten overall readiness and a host of specific modernization programs, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Air Force’s B-21 Long Range Strike Bomber and the Navy’s long-term ship-building plans. The next president will have to evaluate these and other programs as they move from concepts into the Defense Department’s official budget process, but it's not entirely clear where either nominee stands.
Clinton has suggested she would oppose planned spending for new nuclear weapons, specifically the Pentagon’s goal of investing $1 trillion to modernize the U.S. arsenal — spending that includes new bomber aircraft, new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new fleet of ballistic-missile submarines. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” Clinton said in January. She has also voiced support for nuclear disarmament measures.
Trump has suggested he might use nuclear weapons. " Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn't fight back with a nuke?" he said on MSNBC in March. And he's repeatedly said it's important for a president to be "unpredictable" regarding nuclear weapons.
The lack of specificity is frustrating those with the most at stake. “We’re talking about the largest agency with the largest budget, in charge of making sure the country is safe," said Mandy Smithberger, a military analyst for the Project on Government Oversight, nonprofit in Washington. "And there’s been very little meaningful debate about either candidate’s plans for the future.”
One thing is certain as the presidential campaign heads into it’s final stretch: Military professionals are not happy with the options. “The consensus is: ‘Are you ready to go to the polls and hold your nose?” said one recently retired admiral who said the topic comes up often among military officers, both past and present. He said many worry about Trump's temperament while Clinton's improper handling of emails at the State Department is seen as an egregious and unforgivable error among those who work with classified information every day. “Neither candidate," the admiral said, "passes anyone’s test.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Tilghman covers the Pentagon for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.