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Trump and Civil-Military Relations

It seems clear that both parties to the civil-military bargain need to reexamine their mutual relationship because it is mutual trust ultimately that lies at the heart of healthy civil-military relations.

Americans don’t often think about civil-military relations and that’s a good thing. It means that paratroopers are not seizing communications centers and tanks aren’t rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. But since U.S. civil-military relations are generally healthy, when Americans do talk about them, they often do so in apocalyptic terms. Each example of civil-military tensions, it seems, portends a crisis.

Civil-military relations under President Donald Trump are a case in point. Most recently, The Atlantic published a piece based on anonymous sources stating that the president denigrated fallen Americans two years ago during a visit to France to commemorate the end of World War I. Named sources denied the charge but the dustup fed the narrative that Trump routinely disparaged the military.

Contradictory criticisms of President Trump’s handling of national security issues began at the very outset of his presidency. On the one hand, detractors charged that he was a potential warmonger who was going to spark a conflict with Iran or North Korea. On the other, they fretted that he was weakening the U.S. position in the world by reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Europe against the advice of his military commanders.

The same contradictions applied to his military appointments. On the one hand, critics charged that the number of retired officers he appointed to high office violated the principle of civilian control of the military. On the other, they argued that these military men would provide a check on a mercurial president.

An extreme example of the latter position was expressed by Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and senior Pentagon appointee from 2009 to 2011who commented in Foreign Policy shortly after Trump’s inauguration that “one possibility is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.” She continued that, for the first time, she could “imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: ‘No, sir. We’re not doing that.’”

No matter what one thinks of President Trump, the idea that active and retired military officers should form a phalanx around the duly elected president for the good of the country smacks of “praetorianism,” something I have warned against previously on this page. Do we really want to normalize the view that the military is the protector of republican government?

I have argued that U.S. civil-military relations constitute a bargain that is constantly being renegotiated as circumstances change, something that has been going on since the founding of the republic. There are three parties to the bargain — the civilian leadership, the uniformed military and the American people. In discussing U.S. civil-military relations, commentators often forget the last party to the bargain. The people may be wrong, but anyone who tries to conduct security policy without taking into account the citizens of the United States will fail.

President Trump seems to have his finger on the pulse of the American people more firmly than the national security “community.” They are tired of the stalemate in Afghanistan. They are leery of continued adventures in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It is also the case that the military often seems to forget that the president bears the responsibility for establishing U.S. policy. The military provides advice but do not have the right to “insist” that the president accept it. U.S. history also illustrates that the military is not always right, even when it comes to military affairs, as Vietnam makes clear.

Both the uniformed military and the president bear responsibility for the current state of civil-military relations. The missing element is trust, the mutual respect and understanding between civilian and military leaders that enables the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process. It seems clear that both parties to the civil-military bargain need to reexamine their mutual relationship because it is mutual trust ultimately that lies at the heart of healthy civil-military relations.

This article originally appeared in Providence Journal.

Greatness Agenda

F-35 Plagued with Problems, Poles Dump It

Right now the hugely expensive fighter jet is riddled with enough defects to make it the wrong choice to quarterback our air fleet.

A controversy in the U.S. national security establishment threatens to damage American air power now and into the immediate future. It also is having an impact on a U.S. NATO ally.

American Greatness has previously covered the problems with the F-35 program.

To recap: The aircraft has major issues with reliability and that makes the service life of the airplane considerably below first reports. For example, the U.S. Marines bought the F-35B variant. It was advertised to have an 8,000-hour service life. Realistically it now appears that it will be closer to 2,100 or lower.

Maintenance? The goal of hitting 80 percent of field metrics standards is not being met. Known cyber issues with the plane remain unresolved. There are myriad other problems both large and small with the F-35.

The problems are so prevalent and pronounced that the Polish Ministry of Defense late last month opted out of the F-35 program entirely.

A ministry spokesman told Defence24.com, “Proposals that we have received have not been adequately meeting the Polish requirements, furthermore they did not satisfy Poland considering the cost-effect ratio.”

For Poland, a close American ally and a NATO member, to turn down this U.S. aircraft reflects badly on the F-35 program as a whole.

But the wider issue is the downgrade to NATO interoperability as a whole.

When different nations within the alliance use various weapons platforms not coordinated with each other it can lead to massive issues with communications, control, and supply.

An example is the NATO round. The bullet is a 7.62x51mm rimless bottlenecked rifle cartridge that was developed in the 1950s for use in the small arms of all NATO nations. Its supply and use make ammo production and resupply standard among NATO countries and thus speeds its use on the battlefield if ever needed. The same was true of vast quantities of NATO equipment and aircraft during the Cold War.

The Poles pulling out of the F-35 takes that precedent and turns it on its head thus making battlefield integration of air assets and operations that much more difficult. Poland must have had very good reasons for its decision, as the nation historically sits between two powerful and antagonistic countries, Germany and Russia. Poland likely has not forgotten, nor have other states in the region, that World War II in Europe officially started over Poland.

So to separate itself from its allies in this vital regard, especially with Putin’s Russia doing everything it can to increase its power in the area, cannot have been an easy decision. Such are the problems with the F-35 that Poland was left with no reasonable alternative.

The latest twist to this saga could happen early next week, as rumors fly in D.C. and the Pentagon that other NATO Eastern European members such as the Czech Republic, Romania, and perhaps even the Germans will follow suit and drop out of the F-35 program.

If that happens, it would leave the alliance at a major impasse just when it needs it least, as tensions with Russia have not subsided and the Middle East is heating up.

It also presents a major challenge to the U.S. Congress: Should it continue to fund the F-35 program to the tunes of billions a year or put its money in an upgrade to the currently much more reliable F-15X program?

The F-15 Eagle has been a mainstay of American and NATO defense for decades. With a new avionics suite and with recent improvements to communications, weapons, and airframe systems it likely can handle the job until the F-35 comes up to snuff.

This is where D.C. funding games come into play. The F-35 has powerful allies on Capitol Hill. That’s because, as is common practice, production for the aircraft was placed in the districts of influential members of congress. The U.S. Air Force hierarchy are the sort of military brass who rarely meet a shiny new system they don’t like. So they are also committed to the F-35 as they see the fighter as its future.

That may be true . . . in the future.

Right now the F-35 is riddled with enough defects to make it the wrong choice to quarterback our air fleet. If the United States Air Force does use it as such then our air crews across the globe could pay a very high price for that very risky decision.

News

Navy SEALs Told Trump: ‘Nobody Knows What They’re Doing’ in Afghanistan

According to a new book about President Trump’s foreign policy, the president held a number of private meetings with U.S. servicemembers to talk about what was going wrong with the Afghanistan War, Business Insider reports.

The book, “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos,” is written by national security expert Peter Bergen. According to Bergen’s account, these meetings began shortly after President Trump took office in January 2017, and consisted of multiple servicemembers who had been deployed to Afghanistan, including Navy SEALs.

The move was largely unprecedented, since presidents usually discuss the workings of war with high-ranking officers rather than enlisted members. However, President Trump specifically said that when it came to these meetings, he didn’t want “any generals” or “any officers…I just want enlisted guys.”

As such, those he met with were free to speak of the war in much more critical terms, as did several SEALs who, in one meeting, called the war “unwinnable,” and described NATO as “a joke,” also adding that “nobody knows what they’re doing.”

These meetings most likely contributed to President Trump’s continued promises to reduce American involvement in Afghanistan, reinforcing a skepticism that Donald Trump has long held since he was only a candidate for president. Most recently, he has taken steps to withdraw approximately 4,000 U.S. troops from the war-torn country, where the U.S. has been for 18 years in what is by far the longest war in American history.