On Thursday, the White House unveiled a sweeping plan to build new Navy ships by drastically cutting Army and Air Force priorities. The same day, the Pentagon said it was considering withdrawing support for all CIA counterterrorism missions early next year.
The changes are likely to be short-lived after President-elect Joe Biden arrives in the West Wing. But in the meantime, the moves could hamstring the incoming team.
“At best, these distract from an orderly transition and at worst are a deliberate attempt to box in or hobble the incoming administration,” said Mark Jacobson, a former senior Defense official in the Obama administration and historian of special operations now at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
The transition declined to comment on what Biden plans to do about the Pentagon’s recent changes. The National Security Council referred questions to the Defense Department, which also declined to comment.
The administration on Thursday announced an ambitious long-term blueprint for Navy shipbuilding. The plan would shift resources to achieve Trump’s promised 355 ships within 10 years and nearly 400 within 20 years, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Office of Management of Budget Director Russ Vought wrote in the Wall Street Journal, leaning heavily on building a new fleet of small, multimission ships.
The plan is designed to counter China’s rapid military buildup, particularly in the South China Sea, O’Brien and Vought wrote.
But the strategy is dead in the water, as the Biden administration will submit its own budget request to Congress early next year, possibly ignoring or heavily revising the Trump blueprint.
Naval experts said while the plan would have been taken seriously three years ago, submitting it just weeks before Trump leaves office is a political move. If the Biden team tries to reverse it, they are vulnerable to criticism that they are shortchanging national defense.
“It is a cynical ploy now designed for the Trump ’24 team to point to, knowing full well that the ownership costs of a Navy of this size are dramatically higher than the current fleet size,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer now managing director of The FerryBridge Group. “There is goodness here — and it is a good plan. But the fact that they aren’t going to be held responsible for lifting a finger to implement it adds to the cynicism of the exercise.”
Further abroad, the Pentagon on Thursday confirmed that it is reviewing logistical and other support to the CIA’s counterterrorism mission in order to potentially shift resources to countering Russia and China. Defense One first reported the news.
Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Uriah Orland characterized the review as looking to “better align its allocation of resources” with the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which detailed a pivot from counterterrorism to great power competition.
The exact scope of such a move is unclear. The Pentagon provides intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capability, including sophisticated Air Force air assets, logistical support, and Defense personnel.
The main benefit of the arrangement is maintaining a strong relationship between the two organizations, said retired Army. Gen. Joseph Votel, former commander of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.
“I am not arguing that we should not look at the DoD support to CIA — it should be reviewed on a periodic basis,” Votel told POLITICO. “But, we must also ensure that we preserve the good working relationship that has generally served the Nation well for a couple decades now.”
Other experts and military veterans were more critical, noting that the support is fundamental to the counterterrorism mission in the Middle East. Removing these resources would be a setback for national security, said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA paramilitary officer and defense official who is participating in the Biden transition team.
The move “can only be motivated for political reasons,” said Eric Oehlerich, a former Navy SEAL, noting the two organizations’ long history of working together to successfully target terrorist leaders.
Days after the election was called for Biden, the Pentagon announced that the troops levels in Iraq and Afghanistan will drop to 2,500 each by Jan. 15. It later said the majority of the 700 troops in Somalia will also return home. The moves are prompting fears that Iran will seek to take advantage and launch a new attack.
Moving troops and equipment out of the theater is a massive logistical undertaking that will take time. As the Trump administration has only a few weeks left to make progress, Biden could quickly reverse those orders as well, or at least adjust the time frame and numbers.
“I expect that this issue will be addressed by the incoming administration and reversed,” Mulroy said. “If not, the CIA will have to be increased in size and budget to be able to continue their critical mission.”
The White House has also made a series of personnel changes at the Pentagon that are reversible. Joshua Whitehouse, the White House liaison to the Department of Defense, last week removed nine members of the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board and installed Trump loyalists in their place, including presidential allies Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie. He made similar changes to the Defense Policy Board earlier, as reported by Foreign Policy.
These members were appointed by the Defense secretary, and can be removed just as quickly if the next Pentagon chief chooses to do so.
“It’s likely that most are rolled back by Biden administration,” Jacobson said. “But the point is all of these cost money, waste time and hamper the ability of the national security establishment to focus on the real threats the United States faces.”