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Joe Biden’s Pentagon To-Do List

It’s Long … and He’s Checking It Twice
(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

After four years in Sea State 9—waves approaching 50 feet high—under Skipper Donald Trump, the Pentagon and the U.S. national security establishment are hoping for calmer waters under President-elect Joe Biden. While challenges are on the horizon, their thinking goes, they won’t be self-inflicted.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be waves.

Whether you agreed with his policies or not, Trump’s words and actions over the past four years, including six different secretaries of defense, have sown chaos both inside the Pentagon and among allies. Calm waters would make for a refreshing change. But it’s frankly doubtful that Biden’s ol’ pol tendency to default to the center, in an effort to win bipartisan support, will be enough to give the Pentagon the shock therapy it needs.

One thing Biden will be well-suited to do is to cajole his former colleagues on Capitol Hill to earn their paychecks. Biden served in the Senate for 36 years. Given that experience, he’ll have standing to scold lawmakers for their failure to do the real business of government: passing appropriation bills on time, declaring—or voting not to declare—war, and scads of other tasks. It would be striking to see a president act as a catalyst pressing Congress to get more involved in governing, and lawmakers less involved in petty obstructionism yielding little more than gridlock. If the GOP keeps its hold on the Senate following the pair of Georgia run-offs on January 5, Biden will likely have to tack to the center to get much done, muting progressive clout in Congress. But there’s a chance progressives and conservatives could join in an alliance of convenience to trim executive power and rein in Pentagon spending.

His Team

Biden seemed to indicate a desire for a no-drama Pentagon on December 8 when he announced his nomination of retired Army General Lloyd J. Austin III as secretary of defense. Austin is a soft-spoken combat veteran who avoided the spotlight during his 41 years in uniform, which concluded in 2016. That’s something Biden will appreciate once in office. Austin will bring both pluses and minuses to the Pentagon’s “E” Ring. He’s well-regarded as a steady hand by superiors, and beloved by his troops. But he has scant experience with China, which is the most urgent military (and economic) challenge for the U.S. Austin also gets credit for breaking through the Pentagon’s brass ceiling to become the first Black American to head U.S. Central Command, and also, assuming confirmation, will be the first to serve as defense secretary.

But he does have two strikes against him. There’s a law barring retired military officers from serving as defense secretary until they have been out of the service for at least seven years. Austin hung up his Army greens only four years ago, in 2016. “I hope that Congress will grant a waiver to Secretary-designate Austin,” Biden said in an Atlantic piece explaining his choice. But it raised concerns that tapping retired military officers to serve as the Pentagon’s top civilian could become commonplace. While Biden didn’t mention it, President Donald Trump sought, and obtained, such a waiver for his first defense secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis. But Mattis got the waiver, at least in part, because so many lawmakers were unnerved by Trump. Just as critically, Austin sits on the board of Raytheon Technologies, whose missiles sold to Saudi Arabia have played a major role in Yemen’s civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.

If you’re seeking radical changes in U.S. defense policy, the Biden administration is not the place to look.

A second signal of what a Biden Pentagon will be like is the roster of experts he has tapped as part of his Defense Department’s “agency review teams,” designed to smooth the transition from one administration to the next.

If you’re seeking radical changes in U.S. defense policy, the Biden administration is not the place to look.

He gets credit for inclusion—15 of the 23 original members of Biden’s Pentagon transition team are women. But as with Austin, the defense industry—and think tanks supported by the defense industry—is also well-represented.

Defense Spending

The defense budget has fattened under Trump, but it’s likely to trim down under Biden. Progressives are calling on Biden to cancel Trump’s Space Force and kill major new weapons systems like Ford-class aircraft carriers and a land-based nuclear missile. There’s little chance, however, that such wholesale changes will happen. Chances approach zero if the Senate ends up in GOP hands.

Unfortunately, what’s likely to happen is that the U.S. military, rather than cutting missions and the weapons needed to carry them out, will trim pretty much everything else. That’s already underway. The Army didn't meet its 2020 recruiting goal of 492,000 soldiers and had to settle for 480,000, largely due to a hot pre-pandemic civilian economy. This unintentional cut will likely be followed by more deliberate ones. The Army is already preparing to fight those efforts, making the questionable claim that it needs more soldiers. “I think as we start to come below those numbers, we accept a risk that I would not recommend as chief staff of the Army,” Chief of Staff General James McConville said November 19.

The Air Force and Navy will fare better than the Army in the looming budget debate because their ocean-spanning reach is better suited to confronting a rising China, widely seen as the biggest challenge to U.S. security and hegemony (funny how those two seem to always travel together). The Air Force programs most vulnerable to budget paring are two legs of the nuclear triad—the B-21 bomber and the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the inartful name of a new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile. The Navy and the Trump administration talked about expanding the fleet from its current 300 ships to 500, but that is a non-starter in a defense budget sure to shrink amid skyrocketing bills for pandemic relief and a Democratic White House.

The Post-9/11 Wars

Biden inherits the nation’s two post-9/11 wars, still smoking and flaring after an investment of almost $7 trillion and nearly 7,000 American lives. Regardless of the errors made by previous presidents, Biden is going to be in the spotlight if either Afghanistan or Iraq falls apart (more than they already have).

As vice president, Biden was the most senior dissenting voice against a surge of 33,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency. There were still 68,000 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan when the surge wrapped up in 2012, and the U.S. remains in a stalemate with Taliban forces nearly a decade later. Trump wants the 4,500 still there reduced to 2,500 just days before Biden takes the helm. “By May, it is President Trump’s hope, that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said November 17, shortly after Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced the drawdown.

Regardless of the errors made by previous presidents, Biden is going to be in the spotlight if either Afghanistan or Iraq falls apart (more than they already have).

While Biden wants to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he’s willing to keep a small cadre of counter-terrorism forces there. “There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners,” Biden wrote last spring in Foreign Affairs. “Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically.” Biden’s memory of Iraq plays a key role in that calculation. Obama pulled all U.S. forces out of the country in 2011, only to reverse course in 2014 following the rise of the Islamic State, which seized much of western and northern Iraq. That is a mistake the new president does not want to repeat in a different country.

Trouble on the Horizon

For better or worse, Afghanistan and Iraq are yesterday’s wars. Iran and North Korea are possibly tomorrow’s. The first pair makes clear that open-ended conflicts are not supported by the U.S. public. The second shows that neither Tehran nor Pyongyang is willing to bend to decades of pressure from the U.S.

Biden has said he would be willing to return to 2015’s multilateral nuclear deal—abandoned by Trump—if Iran agrees to go back and accept the original restrictions. Following Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the U.S.’s killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January, Iran has moved closer to having a nuclear arsenal. It now has 12 times the low-enriched uranium that had been permitted under the 2015 deal. Trump has also discussed attacking Iran on his way out the door. Reportedly dissuaded from that approach, he has imposed new sanctions on the country that could complicate Biden’s efforts to renew the nuclear pact. The November 27 assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, will likely complicate the deal’s renewal. Israel is the prime suspect in that attack, as well as in an air strike on the Iraq-Syria border that reportedly killed a commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over the November 28-29 weekend (Iran denied the report).

The U.S., Japan, and South Korea would like to defuse Kim Jong Un’s nuclear arsenal without warfare. In contrast with Trump’s relationship with Kim—the president has called the North Korean leader a “friend”—Biden has labeled him a “thug.” Kim, who has referred to his and Trump’s relationship as “special,” has called Biden a “rabid dog.” The best, albeit unsatisfying, North Korean option remains patience, abetted by a little help from China, North Korea’s key benefactor.

Great Power Competition

The latest Pentagon buzz phrase, after tiring of the Global War on Terror, is a renewed Great Power competition. This time, instead of a Cold War pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union, the struggle for global clout is between the U.S. and China, with Russia playing only a supporting role.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and the Open Skies treaties with Russia, claiming the Russians have been cheating. The sole remaining nuclear pact with Russia is 2010’s New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which will come to an end February 5 unless both sides agree to extend it for up to five years. The Trump administration and Moscow have been unable to strike a deal to do that, but Biden has said he will seek to extend it without new conditions. The bigger challenge will be expanding future arms control deals to include China.

Biden wants the U.S. and its allies in the western Pacific to counter Beijing’s ever-more capable military and its expansion in the South China Sea. He won’t be as bellicose as Trump, who placed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars on products imported from China. He’ll likely seek to work with Beijing on matters of mutual interest, such as global warming and the pandemic. Unlike Trump, Biden won’t be calling the coronavirus the “China virus.”

Nuclear Weapons

Biden is likely to follow the same path as Obama when it comes to nuclear weapons, seeking reductions while modernizing at least two legs (submarines and bombers) of the nuclear triad. The fate of that $100 billion Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent replacement for the Air Force’s land-based Minuteman ICBMs could be in question, although it’s likely that a Republican Senate won’t allow its elimination.

There’s also a good chance the Biden administration will scrap the Pentagon’s new low-yield W-76-2 nuclear weapon, now aboard Navy submarines. Trump saw it as necessary because of suspected Russian efforts to develop a similar weapon. The U.S. had to respond in kind to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” his administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review said. Biden, like his predecessors, will likely do his own review once in the White House.

Arms Sales

Arms sales to overseas customers—some allies, some not so much—are an American tradition. Under Obama, overseas arms sales grew by 43% between 2009 and 2016. Trump has pushed even harder for such deals. While Biden is sure to step back from Trump’s role as an aggressive weapons hawker, boosting the arms industry abroad seems to be an addictive habit for the U.S. and its presidents. Trump was more concerned with the commercial impact of such sales on the bottom lines of major U.S. defense contractors. Biden will pay more attention to the buyers’ human-rights record before green-lighting weapons deals.

Following Trump’s inflated 2017 boast that he sold $110 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, Biden said that such deals will not happen on his watch. “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them,” Biden said in a 2019 debate with other Democrats seeking the party’s nomination. “There's very little social redeeming value … in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” Biden’s aides also have expressed concern over Trump’s post-election announcement to sell $23 billion in arms, including F-35 fighters, to the United Arab Emirates.

The Allies

Biden will quickly get into Europe’s good graces as he reinforces the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to U.S. security. That follows years of complaining about low levels of defense spending by NATO members and Trump’s threat to withdraw. Like Trump—and Obama before him—Biden will implore alliance members to spend more on their military, and, like them, will achieve only limited success. But the reduction in White House criticism should improve NATO’s health.

The Border Wall

Trump built a total of 48.3 miles of a new wall along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border through last June, according to a November report from the Government Accountability Office (another 278.3 miles of new wall was under construction by then, as well as work on 425.3 miles of replacement wall).

You have paid about $13.3 billion for the chunks of the wall Trump has built or replaced. Despite the president’s repeated pledges, not a penny came from Mexico.

Biden has said wall work will halt once he takes office.

Biden has said wall work will halt once he takes office. “There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration,” he said in August. That could yield significant savings: In a mountainous region of Arizona, each foot of a new portion of the wall now under construction costs about $7,800. All told, the Trump administration is paying roughly five times the per-mile cost paid by the Bush and Obama administrations. But Biden is not planning to undo the work already done. The government can halt work mid-contract, although that could require it to pay termination fees to the contractors involved. However, such costs might be a small portion of long-term construction, maintenance, and repair, costs to procure miles of private land, and costs to the local economy, environment, and ecosystem.

“A wall is not a serious deterrent for sophisticated criminal organizations that employ border tunnels, semi-submersible vessels, and aerial technology to overcome physical barriers at the border—or even for individuals with a reciprocating saw,” Biden’s campaign website says. “We need smart, sensible policies that will actually strengthen our ability to catch these real threats by improving screening procedures at our legal ports of entry and investing in new technology.”

Confederate Bases

The battle to rename 10 Army posts across the South named for Confederate officers is now being waged in Congress, and Trump has promised to veto any legislation ordering the change. The Army and the Pentagon are open to the change, but Trump and Senator Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the armed services committee, are fighting to keep the measure out of the 2021 defense bill. Even if they succeed this year, though, it’s sure to be back next year, perhaps as an executive order from the White House. “The incoming Biden administration is going to deal with the base naming issues anyway,” retiring Texas Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said November 17.

Personnel Policy

The U.S. has debated the roles of women and LGBTQ service members in the U.S. military for decades. Biden will inherit these debates, along with new challenges concerning personnel.

He has said he will reverse Trump’s ban on transgender troops serving in uniform. In 2016, the Obama administration began allowing transgender Americans to serve openly, but in 2019 Trump’s Pentagon barred most of them from serving. “On day one of my presidency, I will begin reinstating LGBTQ protections President Trump has rolled back, including ensuring transgender individuals can openly serve in the military,” Biden said in February.

It is also likely that the new president will scrap Trump’s September prohibition of any Pentagon diversity training programs that view the U.S. as “fundamentally racist or sexist.” The Pentagon’s push for such training accelerated last summer following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The Military Industrial Circusexplored the problem in July.

So there you have it. All told, the incoming president faces a lengthy list of challenges, large and small. Thankfully, none involves a raging war. Let’s hope he can keep it that way.