What a Biden win or four more years of Trump might mean for the military

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jason N. Bobo helps secure the helicopter landing zone as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter prepares to land in preparation for the extraction of Afghan and U.S. soldiers following a key leader engagement Dec. 29, 2019, in southeastern Afghanistan. Both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden favor reduced American overseas involvement, an expert said, with Trump seeking a faster withdrawal than Biden of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and those based in friendly countries like Germany.


By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: September 3, 2020

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Pentagon policies under the future Donald Trump or Joe Biden administration would likely diverge on social issues, like naming military bases after Confederate generals, but probably coalesce around the top challenge facing the United States: China.

Experts on military policy anticipate there will be differences in both style (defense policy by tweet under Trump) and substance (maintaining U.S. troop levels in Germany under Biden).

But the guiding star for the Pentagon since 2018 has been the National Defense Strategy, formulated by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that identifies China as America's principal adversary. That's likely to carry over to the next administration no matter who's in charge, say defense strategy experts Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Relations.

"I anticipate more continuity than change," Harrison said.

The imperatives of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic collapse and the summer's social upheaval over police brutality and racial inequality have relegated defense to a lower priority than in past elections. Yet the Pentagon still spends about $700 billion a year, by far tops among agencies with discretionary budgets rather than entitlements like Social Security. History also shows that a foreign crisis or terror attack can vault the Pentagon to prominence in an instant.

Where do Trump and Biden differ most when it comes to defense?

Foreign interventions and troop numbers

The difference between Trump and Biden's approach is to some extent a matter of degree, Eaglen said. Both favor reduced American overseas involvement, she said, with Trump seeking a faster withdrawal than Biden of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and those based in friendly countries like Germany. The Pentagon and White House announced in July plans to remove 12,000 of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Germany where they, among other duties, help deter Russia.

Biden, both Eaglen and Harrison said, would likely reverse course and keep those troops in Germany as a check against Russian aggression in Europe.

In Afghanistan, Trump has advocated peace negotiations between the government and Taliban insurgents that would allow a continued withdrawal of troops. U.S. troops have been in the country since 2001. He told Axios about 4,000 troops would remain by Election Day, which would mean cutting the current force in half.

While Trump talks often about bringing troops home – particularly from Afghanistan – he has overseen an escalation in the number of U.S. attacks by air to historic levels. In 2019, the U.S.-led coalition backing the Afghan government against Taliban insurgents and other extremists dropped more bombs and missiles from warplanes and drones than in any other year of the war dating to 2001. Warplanes fired 7,423 weapons in 2019, according to Air Force data. The previous record was set in 2018, when 7,362 weapons were dropped. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, that figure was 1,337.

U.S. forces in warplanes or flying drones remotely face fewer risks than ground troops, but casualties among civilians can be unavoidable.

Biden would likely abide by the traditional "conditions based" approach to reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Eaglen said. That generally means a reduction in violence and semblance of stability, two long-sought and elusive goals there.

Biden has also condemned Trump for failing to act against Russia over reported bounty payments made to Taliban fighters for killing American troops. Trump has said intelligence reports have not substantiated Russian involvement in bounty payments. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified July 9 before Congress that the government lacked proof that bounties were tied to U.S. casualties but said it was still being assessed.

Confederate symbols

Trump has resisted calls, even from the Pentagon, to consider changing the names of 10 bases that honor Confederate generals. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has changed policy to ban the display of Confederate emblems by troops.

Biden supports changing the names to reflect the country's diverse heritage and leadership.

Personnel issues: Transgender troops

Biden would likely reverse Trump's policy banning transgender troops from serving in the military, Harrison said. Trump caught the Pentagon unawares in 2017 when he announced by tweet that he would bar transgender people from serving. It took more than a year, and some modification, before the measure restricting service by transgender people went into effect in 2019.

The RAND Corp., a nonpartisan think tank, conducted a study in 2016 for the Pentagon and found fewer than 10,000 transgender troops among the more than 1 million active-duty troops. The cost of treating transgender troops and their effect on readiness to fight were negligible, RAND found.

Style as commander in chief with NATO allies

Biden, as Eaglen pointed out in the conditions-based approach to foreign interventions, would hew toward the more traditional role of commander in chief. Expect more conciliation and less confrontation, with America's traditional allies under a Biden administration.

Trump undercut Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Pentagon, which had maintained the reduction of U.S. troops in Germany was meant to shift forces to confront China. Trump called it payback.

"They take advantage of us on trade, and they take advantage of us on the military. So we're reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills," Trump said in July. "It's very simple. They’re delinquent."

In fact, it's not that simple. Neither Germany nor any other NATO country owes money to the United States for maintenance of the alliance.

NATO countries have committed to spend at least 2% of their annual gross domestic product on defense. Germany has not yet reached that goal. The country did spend 1.36% of its gross domestic product on the NATO alliance in 2019, though, because of its size, the country spends more on its military than its European neighbors.

Biden has long voiced public support for NATO and is unlikely to denigrate it as Trump has, Harrison said.

Common ground: China

The Pentagon will remain focused on China under either administration, Eaglen said. Both men favor innovation and technology, such as hypersonic weapons, resilient computer networks and artificial intelligence, over expensive traditional weapons systems such as aircraft carriers.

China for years has increased its military presence and operations in the South China Sea, a crossroads of international commerce and a region rich in petroleum. China has built islands on reefs in the sea and fortified them. During the Obama administration, the Navy asserted its right to operate there by sailing near the islands, and those missions have continued under Trump. China objects to them and often sends warships and planes to shadow U.S. vessels.

Biden seems more likely to favor cooperation and competition over confrontation with China, Eaglen said. She pointed to the Obama administration's focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which would have banded together Pacific nations in an economic alliance to compete with China. The deal was more important than the military approach to Obama and Biden, she said. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2017, saying it would, among other problems, damage U.S. manufacturers.

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