You may have noticed those U.S. aircraft carrier task forces repeatedly entering the South China Sea to challenge Beijing or the increased arms sales to Taiwan and the special visits high Trump administration officials have paid to that island (another way to challenge the Chinese leadership). I'll bet, though, that you didn't notice when the USS John S. McCain slipped into Peter the Great Bay in the Sea of Japan. That "freedom of navigation" float-a-thon that purposely crossed Russia's claimed maritime border there was ended only when a Russian warship, the Admiral Vinogradov, challenged the Navy destroyer. Or, for that matter, did you notice that American special ops guys, usually associated with the never-ending U.S. war on terror, were firing M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (transported to Romania from a U.S. air base in Germany) 25 miles into the Black Sea as another kind of challenge to the Russians?
I know, I know, you must think that previous paragraph is ancient, that the young Tom Engelhardt wrote it 40 or 50 years ago in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no such luck. I wrote it this very week and all of the above happened in 2020, not the 1970s. Indeed, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, points out today, with the Trump era drawing to a particularly chaotic close, the Pentagon seems deeply committed to one thing above all else: entering a twenty-first-century version of the Cold War. As it turns out, America's forever wars (still ongoing, though perhaps finally winding down) may be succeeded by wars that none of us will ever forget. Tom
Trump's Pernicious Military Legacy
From the Forever Wars to the Cataclysmic Wars
By Michael T. Klare
In the military realm, Donald Trump will most likely be remembered for his insistence on ending America's involvement in its twenty-first-century "forever wars" -- the fruitless, relentless, mind-crushing military campaigns undertaken by Presidents Bush and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. After all, as a candidate, Trump pledged to bring U.S. troops home from those dreaded war zones and, in his last days in office, he's been promising to get at least most of the way to that objective. The president's fixation on this issue (and the opposition of his own generals and other officials on the subject) has generated a fair amount of media coverage and endeared him to his isolationist supporters. Yet, however newsworthy it may be, this focus on Trump's belated troop withdrawals obscures a far more significant aspect of his military legacy: the conversion of the U.S. military from a global counterterror force into one designed to fight an all-out, cataclysmic, potentially nuclear war with China and/or Russia.
People seldom notice that Trump's approach to military policy has always been two-faced. Even as he repeatedly denounced the failure of his predecessors to abandon those endless counterinsurgency wars, he bemoaned their alleged neglect of America's regular armed forces and promised to spend whatever it took to "restore" their fighting strength. "In a Trump administration," he declared in a September 2016 campaign speech on national security, America's military priorities would be reversed, with a withdrawal from the "endless wars we are caught in now" and the restoration of "our unquestioned military strength."
Once in office, he acted to implement that very agenda, instructing his surrogates -- a succession of national security advisers and secretaries of defense -- to commence U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan (though he agreed for a time to increase troop levels in Afghanistan), while submitting ever-mounting defense budgets. The Pentagon's annual spending authority climbed every year between 2016 and 2020, rising from $580 billion at the start of his administration to $713 at the end, with much of that increment directed to the procurement of advanced weaponry. Additional billions were incorporated into the Department of Energy budget for the acquisition of new nuclear weapons and the full-scale "modernization" of the country's nuclear arsenal.
Far more important than that increase in arms spending, however, was the shift in strategy that went with it. The military posture President Trump inherited from the Obama administration was focused on fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a grueling, never-ending struggle to identify, track, and destroy anti-Western zealots in far-flung areas of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The posture he's bequeathing to Joe Biden is almost entirely focused on defeating China and Russia in future "high-end" conflicts waged directly against those two countries -- fighting that would undoubtedly involve high-tech conventional weapons on a staggering scale and could easily trigger nuclear war.
From the GWOT to the GPC
It's impossible to overstate the significance of the Pentagon's shift from a strategy aimed at fighting relatively small bands of militants to one aimed at fighting the military forces of China and Russia on the peripheries of Eurasia. The first entailed the deployment of scattered bands of infantry and Special Operations Forces units backed by patrolling aircraft and missile-armed drones; the other envisions the commitment of multiple aircraft carriers, fighter squadrons, nuclear-capable bombers, and brigade-strength armored divisions. Similarly, in the GWOT years, it was generally assumed that U.S. troops would face adversaries largely armed with light infantry weapons and homemade bombs, not, as in any future war with China or Russia, an enemy equipped with advanced tanks, planes, missiles, ships, and a full range of nuclear munitions.
This shift in outlook from counterterrorism to what, in these years, has come to be known in Washington as "great power competition," or GPC, was first officially articulated in the Pentagon's National Security Strategy of February 2018. "The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security," it insisted, "is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers," a catchphrase for China and Russia. (It used those rare italics to emphasize just how significant this was.)
For the Department of Defense and the military services, this meant only one thing: from that moment on, so much of what they did would be aimed at preparing to fight and defeat China and/or Russia in high-intensity conflict. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it to the Senate Armed Services Committee that April, "The 2018 National Defense Strategy provides clear strategic direction for America's military to reclaim an era of strategic purpose... Although the Department continues to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, long-term strategic competition -- not terrorism -- is now the primary focus of U.S. national security."
This being the case, Mattis added, America's armed forces would have to be completely re-equipped with new weaponry intended for high-intensity combat against well-armed adversaries. "Our military remains capable, but our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare," he noted. "The combination of rapidly changing technology [and] the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous period of combat in our nation's history [has] created an overstretched and under-resourced military." In response, we must "accelerate modernization programs in a sustained effort to solidify our competitive advantage."
In that same testimony, Mattis laid out the procurement priorities that have since governed planning as the military seeks to "solidify" its competitive advantage. First comes the "modernization" of the nation's nuclear weapons capabilities, including its nuclear command-control-and-communications systems; then, the expansion of the Navy through the acquisition of startling numbers of additional surface ships and submarines, along with the modernization of the Air Force, through the accelerated procurement of advanced combat planes; finally, to ensure the country's military superiority for decades to come, vastly increased investment in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, hypersonics, and cyber warfare.
These priorities have by now been hard-wired into the military budget and govern Pentagon planning. Last February, when submitting its proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2021, for example, the Department of Defense asserted, "The FY 2021 budget supports the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which drives the Department's decision-making in reprioritizing resources and shifting investments to prepare for a potential future, high-end fight." This nightmarish vision, in other words, is the military future President Trump will leave to the Biden administration.
The Navy in the Lead
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).