Enlarge / Where’s the defense and cyber-weapon procurement budget going, Mr. President-elect?Getty Images | Joe Raedle
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Since Election Day, President-elect Donald Trump has taken an inordinate interest in some of the minutia of defense policy. His tweets (particularly about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Force One presidential aircraft replacement program) have sent shockwaves through the defense industry. The same is true of the cyber realm—particularly in his treatment of the intelligence community that currently dominates the US’ cyber-defense capabilities.
The one thing that is certain is that Trump wants more muscle in both departments, urging an increase in the number of troops, ships, planes, and weapons deployed by the Department of Defense; the end of defense budget sequestration; and an expansion of the US nuclear and ballistic missile defense arsenal. And he has also pledged a new focus on offensive “cyber” capabilities, as outlined by his campaign, “to deter attacks by both state and non-state actors and, if necessary, to respond appropriately.”
That sort of aggressive posture is not a surprise. But the policies that will drive the use of those physical and digital forces are still a bit murky. Considering the position Trump has taken regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and his attitudes toward Russia, Trump’s statements may hint at a desire for a Fortress America—armed to the teeth and going it alone in every domain of conflict.
While not quite on a Reagan-esque scale, the Trump surge would (based on his statements) bring forces back above their active size during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (though less than during the 2007 “surge” period of the Iraq War). Trump declared that he’ll add about 60,000 more active duty soldiers to the Army, increase the Navy’s fleet to 350 ships, increase the Marine Corps’ strength by over a dozen battalions (roughly 12,000 Marines), and “provide the Air Force with the 12,000 fighters they need.”
On the strategic front, Trump has tweeted that he wants to expand and improve the US military’s nuclear capabilities, modernizing and increasing weapons to improve their deterrent value. The modernization effort had already been queued up by President Barack Obama’s administration, including the new Long Range Strike Bomber program awarded to Northrop Grumman. But those investments have been at the expense of other military (particularly Air Force) programs.
Trump has also proposed investment in a “serious missile defense system” based on updating the Navy’s Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers’ Aegis systems and building more Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. The ballistic missile defense version of Aegis and the Standard Missile 3 (RIM-161) missile it controls are currently only capable of intercepting short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, not intercontinental ballistic missiles; to have a chance at taking down a US-targeted threat from North Korea, for example, they would have to be very close to the launch site and hit it early in its launch (the boost phase).
How will Trump pay for all this hardware? By “conducting a full audit of the Pentagon, eliminating incorrect payments, reducing duplicative bureaucracy, collecting unpaid taxes, and ending unwanted and unauthorized federal programs,” whatever those might be. There’s certainly some room in the budget to be gained through increased administrative efficiency, as a Defense Business Board report found that the DOD could save as much in $125 billion in overhead (though that number may have been slightly inflated, as it was based on corporate, and not military, business models).
On the cyber side, it appears Trump wants to put the military on point for cyber defense. The campaign platform pushed for the DOD to place a new emphasis on offensive capabilities, including making enhancements to the US Cyber Command—currently led by NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers—to increase its offensive punch and turn it into an effective cyber-deterrence force.
“As a deterrent against attacks on our critical resources, the United States must possess the unquestioned capacity to launch crippling cyber counter-attacks,” Trump said in a speech in October.
Just exactly how that would work isn’t clear. Given the difficulty of attribution—a point Trump made repeatedly in his castigation of intelligence findings of Russian interference in the election—the kind of very attributable cyber force that US Cyber Command would wield as part of the Strategic Command would likely not act as much of a deterrent to low-level intrusions, espionage, and information operations. Yet those make up the majority of what has recently been dumped into the “cyberwarfare” shopping cart.
Trump’s policy outline also calls for the Joint Chiefs of Staff to participate in Trump’s vaunted “Cyber Review Team,” contributing experts to evaluate “all US cyber defenses”—including critical infrastructure in the private sector—alongside law enforcement and experts from private industry.
The Cyber Review Team, which may or may not have anything to do with the group being headed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, has a big mandate:
The Cyber Review Team will provide specific recommendations for safeguarding different entities with the best defense technologies tailored to the likely threats and will follow up regularly at various federal agencies and departments.
The Cyber Review Team will establish detailed protocols and mandatory cyber awareness training for all government employees while remaining current on evolving methods of cyber-attack.
On the domestic end, the Trump administration would seek to take the same model that has been applied to terrorism to the cyber side, creating joint task forces that put Department of Justice, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security personnel alongside state and local law enforcement to respond to “cyber threats.”
Nothing Trump or his proxies have said indicates any policy around shaping what “norms” in the world connecting the digital to the physical should be. If anything, Trump’s position seems to be that a cyber-armed world is a polite world—or at least one that will be polite to the United States, the only confirmed state cyberwar actor to hit another nation’s infrastructure (aside from squirrels).
The eyes have it
It will take some time to see how Trump’s indifference toward the US’ obligations toward allies will affect overall defense and cyber-security policy. But if reports are true regarding US intelligence officials warning allies of Trump’s Russia ties and if Trump goes forward with weakening the US involvement in NATO, his views could significantly affect both—especially in the realm of digital intelligence collection.
A weakened relationship with the other members of the “Five Eyes” group—the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—on a military level could impact the National Security Agency’s (and the CIA’s) ability to collect intelligence from infrastructure that has up until now been widely shared.
Only one thing is for certain: the defense industry should be expecting an aircraft carrier full of dollars headed in their direction.