Qioptiq logo Raytheon

Welcome to James Mattis – US Secretary of Defense By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

New US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis lost no time getting his feet under the desk yesterday and beginning the task of mending a few damaged fences. In one of his first moves, the new Secretary of Defense sensibly called NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg and sometime later spoke with UK Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon.

My view is that we should be genuinely reassured by the appointment of James Mattis as US Secretary of Defense and if nothing else, one particularly important remark made by Mr. Mattis yesterday reasons why: it was when he vowed “that the US continues to have unshakable commitment to NATO”. I for one do not doubt his sincerity for one moment.

The US accounts for approximately one third of the total world military defence spending whilst its allies account for close to another third. Our would-be enemies are dramatically increasing defence spending and it will be interesting to observe how James Mattis will now formulate future defense spending plans. He will of course need to look over his shoulder at the Senate Armed Services Committee whose chair, Senator John McCain (Republican – Arizona) is a powerful voice that cannot be ignored. Be it the new President, the new Secretary of State for Defense or indeed, Senator John McCain, the one thing that they all share in common is the need for stronger defense.

It is pleasing and in my view, genuine and crucially important that Secretary Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general whose nickname is “Mad Dog,” has wasted little time in choosing to voice a different attitude and approach toward NATO than the one sounded by the newly installed President Trump.

The ‘Mattis’ voice is the one that we in Europe must listen to closely and it is in my view the voice that will be the real power behind the next four years of US defense policy. That is not to suggest that remarks and other rhetoric made by President Trump that European members of NATO must pay a higher price for their defense can be ignored – it cannot. Neither, as Sir Michael Fallon, UK Secretary of State for Defence reminded yesterday, is the fact that NATO must continue to modernise. But it is to say that Secretary Mattis is the one who will decide what America does in terms of how to manage defence as opposed to the President. In other words, I believe that President Trump will support as opposed to interfering with policies from his new Secretary of Defense.

Notably, during the Senate confirmation hearing last week, Secretary Mattis had called NATO “the most successful military alliance in modern world history.” He also said, “If we did not have NATO today, we would have to create it”. How right he is but as I have said many times before, we in Europe just as they must also in the US and Canada, sell what NATO stands for and what it does better to our respective public. If they are to support NATO they must better understand what it does.

Following the discussion that Secretary Mattis had with NATO Secretary General, NATO a statement from the NATO Alliance Headquarter in Brussels confirmed that they had agreed on the fundamental and enduring value of NATO for the security of both Europe and North America and that they had discussed pushing for increased military spending by NAOT allies and stepping up counter-terrorism efforts. Stoltenberg said that Secretary Mattis is a strong friend of NATO and that knows the Alliance’s values well, having been NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation.

The next meeting of NATO defence ministers is in February and while I stop short of suggesting that Donald Trump’s previous anti-NATO rhetoric should be completely dismissed I am in absolutely no doubt whatsoever that NATO will be all the stronger for the involvement and genuine commitment of Secretary Mattis. The caveat must be that European members of NATO must increase spending on defence and collectively pay a larger share of NATO costs. This is surely right.

Meanwhile, Defense spending plans released on January 16th by Sen. McCain in his position as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee called for $700 billion ($640 billion in the base budget and another $60 billion in OCO) in Defense spending for FY18 was seen as an opening shot in the battle over the FY18 budget request. The call represents an approximate 10% increase above already projected levels.

Under the McCain plan my understanding is that the Army would add 8,000 troops a year, bringing its size to 500,000, the Marine Corp would add 3,000 personnel raising it to 200,000 personnel. Senator McCain’s plan includes provision for building a total of 59 ships over the next five years (as opposed to the 40 the US Navy currently plans); plus an additional 73 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters aircraft for the US Air Force, an additional 20 F-35’s for the US Marines together with an additional 58 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets and 16 Boeing E/A-16G Growlers for the US Navy.

The McCain view is that the US Navy needs to develop a high-low mix of aircraft carriers through building smaller conventionally type carriers rather than building only $15 billion nuclear powered Ford class super-carriers. He also believes that the US Air Force needs to reduce the total number of F-35s that it plans to buy from a projected level of 1,732 although personally, I do not believe change would be likely. Senator McCain takes the view that Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), half of which funds having little to do with the wars in the Middle East or in Afghanistan, should be shifted onto the regular budget when the Budget Control Act is repealed. Finally, McCain’s seeks to stop production of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) at 28 ships rather than the US Navy’s goal of 52.

Following a meeting held yesterday at CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies) in Washington DC, I note that my US colleagues at Capital Alpha considered that while such numbers for defense may initially appear positive, there will be a “big complicated politically messy fight” ahead. They also take the view that Senate Democrats will continue to demand parity in non-defense spending [for defense spending increases] and that President Trump’s initial FY18 budget request will likely include reductions to non-discretionary defense plans. The thought is that these will be unacceptable to many members of Congress. Interestingly they conclude that “all the fights are the same, it is just the actors that are different”.

All that I can say is watch this space and I will keep you posted!

CHW (London – 24th January 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





Back to article list