2018 in defense: 5 major issues the Trump administration needs to tackle
The past year has been a mixed bag of defense issues for President Trump, who came into the presidency and immediately experienced a botched raid in Yemen, an increasingly volatile North Korea and a chemical attack on civilians in Syria.
As the year progressed, so did a campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The war in Afghanistan continued with an updated strategy, and new threats from the African continent emerged.
Now, going into his second year as commander in chief, here are the five most pressing defense issues Trump will need to deal with in the new year.
There was a major increase in tensions between the U.S. and North Korea in 2017, with a dramatic escalation in missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, cyberattack accusations and ramped-up rhetoric between Trump and the reclusive nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
The Trump administration tried to curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions with verbal threats — most notably Trump’s “fire and fury” comment — an increase in military drills in the area, economic sanctions and pressuring China to cut off trade with the nation.
But North Korea has remained defiant and largely ignored the pushback, proceeding with intercontinental ballistic missile tests throughout the year — most recently with a launch in late November — and an apparent hydrogen bomb test in September.
The North Korea faceoff will likely remain front and center for the Trump administration in 2018, and will soon be thrown even more into center stage with the upcoming Winter Olympics in February. The Games take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, roughly 50 miles from the Demilitarized Zone with North Korea.
Trump has repeatedly said the frequent missile launches are “a situation we will handle.” So far, however, he hasn’t offered much on what exactly the White House will do beyond current diplomatic efforts, ongoing military exercises and an increase in missile defense funding.
Experts expect the North Korea situation to likely get worse in 2018.
The defense budget
During the 2016 presidential race, Trump promised a massive buildup in the size of the military, with tens of thousands more troops, a 350-ship Navy and at least a hundred more combat aircraft.
As of late, he has boasted of the $700 billion defense budget the Pentagon will soon reap to start the buildup in fiscal 2018.
But the commander in chief has neglected to add in the crucial details — while Congress has indeed authorized a nearly $700 billion defense bill, appropriators have yet to agree on how much of that will actually be funded.
The White House also needs Congress to lift the caps that currently rein in defense spending.
All of this is complicated by the administration’s yet unseen National Defense Strategy. Due in January, the strategy is needed to help justify why the military needs a boost.
Adding to the issue, the recently passed tax bill — which could add about $1.5 trillion to the deficit — may potentially squeeze defense spending and throw a wrench in the Trump administration’s efforts to bulk up the military.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has said the military needs 3 to 5 percent budget growth each year to pay for a sustained increase of the armed forces. But unless Trump secures an agreement from Congress to appropriate the increases in his new bill, it won’t become a reality.
Ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to end “nation-building” missions such as efforts to train Afghan troops and stabilize the Afghan government so they can one day handle the Taliban and other militant groups on their own.
But over the summer, Trump changed his tune on withdrawing from Afghanistan, announcing a new strategy in August that includes an indefinite time commitment and sending thousands more troops to the country.
The Pentagon started to send about 3,000 additional troops to the country in the second half of 2017, with 2018 looking to be a closely watched year for how the fledgling strategy shapes out.
For now, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said that the war in the country is “still in a stalemate.”
Meanwhile, ISIS — while ousted from its onetime twin capitals of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, by U.S.-backed forces — remains a threat in the Middle East. The group may be on the run, but it still holds pockets of territory and inspires and encourages lone wolf attacks.
Defeating ISIS is only part of the battle. Efforts to create lasting stability in the two countries is now next on the agenda for the administration.
Syria’s civil war and its leader Bashar Assad will likely be a challenge for Trump in achieving such stability. Empowered by Russian and Iranian allies, Assad has unleashed atrocities on his own civilians, including an April 4 chemical weapons attack that was met with Trump ordering a missile strike on an airbase in the country.
The administration also has yet to articulate what the U.S. role in Syria will be or how long U.S. forces will stay.
The transgender troop ban fight
Trump in July blindsided top military brass when he wrote on Twitter that the Defense Department would bar transgender people from enlisting in the military and oust those already serving.
The White House followed the announcement by issuing a memo in August outlining the plan, which looks to bar transgender people from joining the military starting Jan. 1.
But the move has been blocked in court, with two rulings last week that rejected the Trump administration’s request to stall the enlistment.
The military, for now, must continue to follow the policies established by former President Obama’s memo that allowed transgender individuals to enlist, but Trump administration lawyers are appealing the courts’ decision.
The military will be unprepared to begin accession on Jan. 1, the Justice Department argues.
Expect the fight to continue in the new year.
Terrorist threats in Africa
Terrorism and jihadist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS remain a major threat across the Sahel, the belt of nations that run across Africa immediately south of the Sahara Desert and includes Chad, Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and, most notably, Niger.
That nation holds more than 800 U.S. troops within its borders and is the location of a botched U.S.-involved reconnaissance mission that led to the death of four American soldiers in October.
The U.S. presence, largely unnoticed before the incident, reveals a greater extremist threat in the region and urgency within the Trump administration to quell the militant groups.
To that end, the U.S. has been pushing to use armed drones in Niger, and Trump has given the military more authority to conduct strikes and raids in Yemen and Somalia.
But military leaders have stressed that the armed route is only a short-term fix, and the administration will need a diplomatic strategy to stave off terrorist groups.
2018 is likely to bring new challenges for the administration in dealing with threats on the continent.
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