The business of defense under President Donald J. Trump

Now that we’ve had a super Tuesday, it’s Groundhog Day. Perhaps Hillary and The Donald are seeing their shadows, and we’ll have another six weeks before the big parties’ nominees are absolutely known. And yet, I’m feeling a sense déjà vu after reading another round of anguished editorials: the front-runners are still the front-runners. As Clinton’s defense plans can be more-or-less assumed, it’s worth ruminating now about the prospective policies of a possible President Donald J. Trump. We’ve heard few specifics from him, but his affection for dealmaking and disposition for business-like solutions suggests that he might take some radical approaches to managing the Pentagon.

As he frequently intones, Trump wants a military “so big, powerful, and strong” that no one would dare attack Americans anywhere. The Germans, the Japanese, and the South Koreans—clearly beneficiaries of alliances with the United States—should naturally help pay for all this. After that, details get scarce. He likes armor, even if he has confused armored Humvees with MRAPs. He definitely appreciates nuclear weapons—“the power, the devastation” are very important to him. He clearly hates the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Indeed, following his public pronouncment of “not very good” and $160 billion over budget, one could imagine a President Trump quickly capping the program and moving on. The weapons he wants, he insists, are those requested by “the generals and the troops,” not contractors and congressmen.

The trouble with Trump’s assessment, of course, is that whatever the relative merits and the opinions of its test pilots, the F-35 is actually the plane that most of the Air Force generals want. But that gets to my point: what the military leadership finds essential or just comfortable might not matter much to a man who enjoys firing people. In contrast, Trump’s views on defense administration might squarely clash with the Pentagon’s ways of doing business, which he likely regards as no way to do business. Whether or not the Pentagon actually can be run like a business isn’t the point; Trump’s avowed contempt for “stupid politicians” indicates his disinterest in standard theories of public administration. So if the businessman actually gets elected, what else might he consider essential business reforms for the military? Just to start, I offer four possibilities:

Constructing auditable accounts. Contemplate that this was first ordered by the Congress in 1992. In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described his department as “an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results.” It’s no wonder that he couldn’t get answers to questions like “How much money did you spend?” and “How many people do you have?” It’s not just that this is no way to run a business. In business, it’s not an allowable way to run anything more than an ice cream shop. Gates’ opinions about the irrelevance of Trump’s business experience notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine President Trump sitting through meetings like the ones that drove Gates mad.

Closing all the depots. Regardless of what the advocates of organic repair capacity argue, no one coming from business would today choose to in-source this activity to government. American industry could take over the assets lock, stock, and barrel, rationalize the infrastructure, and offer competition where allocation has long reigned. Perhaps President Trump would need a 2017 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. He’d definitely need a repeal of Section 2466 of Title 10 of the US Code. As Speaker Ryan reminds us, it’s the Congress that writes the laws—but Trump does deals all the time, right? Even the Pentagon agrees that it has excess real estate calling out for redevelopment.

Ending lock-step promotion and the twenty-year retirement. The Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980 was written fully 16 years after Gary Becker’s Human Capital, but Capitol Hill seems not to have gotten the message. Up-or-out reviews and retirement at 38 or 42 is recklessly wasteful of talent and money. Several Republican senators recently and roughly questioned prospective assistant secretary Brad Carson over his desire to reform the system, but the issue isn’t going away. Even Microsoft no longer does business this way. I’m fairly confident that the Trump Organization LLC doesn’t either.

Delayering management. At the same time, the military has been allowed inexorable bracket creep in its rank structure. In the Second World War, the US Navy had about thirty ships for every admiral. Today, it has closer to two ships for each. With so few flag bridges, the admirals have retreated ashore, to become veto players in a Parkinson’s navy. Now, as Gates lamented, “it takes five four-star headquarters to get a decision on a guy and a dog up to” the defense secretary. So as much as candidate Trump professes to respect the brass, there are whole levels of management in the military that a hard-headed President Trump could show the door.

While badgering allies, building walls, and cutting deals, a President Trump would not quite have time to serve as his own defense secretary. So whom might he choose to implement any reforms? I can imagine that he might want another huge personality, with the track record in business that he extols, the governmental experience he seeks in a running mate, and the military service that he lacked, at least after high school. He might want a real showman like himself. Perhaps he’d even want one with a penchant for big cigars. If he asked Governor Schwarzenegger, we’d at least stay entertained.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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