Blueprint for US defence policy under a second Trump administration

Trump II: this time, a man with a 920-page plan (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)


As the opinion polls continue to favour a presidential comeback for Donald Trump at the November elections, the question of what he would actually do in his second term of office is increasingly focusing minds. Within US political and policymaking circles the main focus, naturally, is on the huge range of domestic issues that need sorting out after the Biden years, starting with the southern border crisis. As ever, it is problems at home that will dominate a Trump White House.

Domestic and foreign go together

But most international observers of American politics, friends or foes, tend to fixate on the country’s foreign policy debates because this is what affects them the most – especially the Europeans, who would be utterly lost without US help in Ukraine. From this external perspective, US domestic policy appears merely peripheral to the grand matters of statecraft that occupy the global strategic community.

Even the saga of the Supplemental – the recent $61bn Congressional aid package for Ukraine – has not really shifted the expectation, on part of foreign audiences and “stakeholders,” that US strategic policy should really conform to geopolitical imperatives first and foremost. And of course, their preferred imperatives: Europeans, for instance, think it obvious that the US should cough up the money for Kyiv. To an American voter – whom elected Representatives ultimately answer to – this is not a priority. Hence the politics of it all.

Few genuine efforts were made, outside America, to understand a bit more the actual political reasons for the months-long blockage in Congress over the Ukraine aid, that is, how US politics and “Trump-world” actually work. This recurring failure on part of America’s allies impairs judgement, i.e. expectations, assumptions and strategy making. Because the fact is that US foreign and domestic policy are deeply intertwined, certainly when it comes to the broad thrust of political direction given to each, and the motivations of the key decision-makers. 

No one understood this critical connection better than Henry Kissinger, whose own Vietnam policy was debilitated by troubles on the home front in the early 1970s: heavy anti-war protests as well as vicious political opposition to the Nixon administration. In his latter years Kissinger also recognised that the relationship between these two sides of policy has only become more relevant in the face of the populist politics of our time. In December 2016, right after Trump’s first election, Kissinger spoke about the need to “establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation,” which was an advice to US policymakers, but also as a subtle warning to America’s allies about what to watch for. Few listened, and growing incoherence has been the result.

Project 2025

Trump’s campaign has taken note, however, and has now put together a complete, coherent blueprint for a new Republican White House. Unlike Trump’s first presidency, a potential second one would look very different in office because it is being properly prepared on an intellectual and practical-policy level. Over the past two years or so, a systematic, meticulous and well-funded effort, dubbed “Project 2025”, drawing on all sides of the US “conservative” movement, has been working to “pave the way” for a Trump presidential transition. 

Creating the policy masterplan for Trump II – where domestic, defence and foreign policy are properly integrated – has gone hand in hand with identifying the most competent, trusted people whose task will be to implement Trump’s agenda as political appointees at all levels in government. Behind all this is the Heritage Foundation, America’s leading conservative institution, run by the indomitable Kevin Roberts. And the key policy document – the executive “bible” of the next White House – is Mandate for Leadership, a 920-page tome released in April with chapters laying out what is to be done in each area of government.

This is the essential reading for what to expect from 10 January 2025 onwards, if Trump wins – more than anything that is being put forward in the op-eds and interviews of the rolling “public debate” in the media. People like Elbridge Colby, the chief advocate of a radical “Asia-first” US foreign policy, and Robert O’Brien, tipped for a top national security job if Trump returns, might lay out their visions for US foreign policy and defence separately – and their views may well carry through in the end – but the main plan is what is laid out in Project 2025’s Mandate for Leadership. So what about defence policy, specifically – as opposed to wider strategic conceptions of a Trump-led America?

Pentagon futures

The document’s chapter on the DoD, in the section on “The Common Defence”, is authored by Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret colonel who served as acting US Defence Secretary in the dying months of the Trump presidency, from November 2020 until the end. He had already been tipped to return to the DoD if the election goes the right way this year, and literally writing the playbook for dealing with the Pentagon from 2025 only strengthens his odds of getting the job – although with Trump nothing is ever guaranteed, of course.

What Miller puts forward in the “Department of Defence” chapter is nothing less than a radical reform agenda for the Pentagon: a deep, root-and-branch shake-up of the entire department to correct a plethora of failures. He lists, with good reason, things like “two-tiered culture of accountability that shields senior officers and officials while exposing junior officers and soldiers in the field,” waste, poor programme execution, policy instability, and Biden’s “equity agenda.” Miller also calls out the “disturbing decay” and “dangerous decline” in America’s “capabilities and will.” He’s quite right.

In the face of all this, Miller suggests four “priorities”: fix DoD culture; upgrade the military; contribute to border security (what better illustration of the link to domestic affairs?); and increase accountability. 

In terms of major Pentagon reforms, Miller first targets the PPBE (planning, programming, budgeting and execution) process, essentially to break the “inflexible” multi-year procurement cycles and enable faster experimentation, prototyping and generally more agile procurement – including through a raft of measures aimed at changing the acquisition culture within DoD. It’s technical, bureaucratic stuff, for policy nerds, but it’s exceptionally important – and if the DoD under Miller can pull this off, it would make a huge difference to US military power over time.  

Unsurprisingly, Miller deploys serious and purposeful language in relation to the key issue of boosting the US Defence Industrial Base. This will absolutely be a high priority – and, to be fair, the Biden administration has already started to move things as a response to the shock of Putin’s war. Miller promises “multi-year procurements and block buys,” to incentivise industry to expand, together with closing “loopholes” that allow defence contractors to manufacture components abroad beyond the limits mandated by law (e.g. 50 per cent of sub-components in US defence items). There is also good but, admittedly, general talk about diversifying the industry and supporting small businesses to compete.

It is also good to see that the document puts a particular spotlight on defence innovation. There is a clearly communicated intent, in the spirit of wartime mobilisation, to “leverage all of America’s scientific, engineering and high-tech production communities” to build military technology. Miller calls for rebuilding the legacy R&D infrastructure and wants to break down barriers and drive towards rapid development and testing of advanced tech.


On the policy side, everything is subordinated to the China question, which, according to Miller (and common sense) is about “[PRC] hegemony over Asia.” China is unambiguously declared as “by far” the greatest threat to the US. This in itself is no news, but the prescription is, a strategy of “denial” (similar to what Colby advocates), meaning  deterrence is based on making it costly for an enemy to attack in the first place rather than on punishing him.

The weight of China in Trump team’s strategic outlook is so great that Miller even specifies that US should not allocate resources to a two-wars force planning construct before enough military power is available to absolutely ensure a defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

In other words, the US under Trump will not plan and posture itself to be able to fight both China and Russia at the same time, i.e. what is called in the business, a Two Major Theatre Wars (2MTW) strategy. This is not the first time the US moved away from 2MTW: Obama did the same after his re-election in 2012. The difference is that back then the decision was driven by financial constraints (cuts) and in a much more benign environment; whereas now Trump’s administration (which plans to spend more not less on defence) would justify it in strategic terms, as a response to a surge in Chinese power. 

The implications for Europe’s defence would be profound. It is one thing to talk about burden-sharing and moving certain US resources from the European theatre to reinforce the Pacific; this would still retain policy and political flexibility to pivot back to Europe if the situation deteriorates (as in fact the US did after 2014). But it is quite another to formally adopt a one-war, Pacific-only, strategic posture as a matter of policy. Once this becomes the official planning assumption within the US DoD, it will be very difficult to reverse – and Europe’s defence clock will truly start ticking.

In the second place in terms of military-strategic priorities, Miller lists the US nuclear arsenal which needs to be modernised and expanded to deter both Russia and China at the same time. Thirdly, the Pentagon must sustain an “effective counterterrorism enterprise”, which again is a slightly unusual emphasis on an area of military affairs that has been de-prioritised during the Biden years, and especially since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Regarding Allies, the top line is, of course, the well-rehearsed idea of burden-sharing. But nuance is important, and Miller stresses that allies must take “far greater” responsibility for their conventional defence. In fact, when it comes to NATO, Miller is clear that the end goal for the Trump administration will be for the US to reduce its force posture in Europe to the point where America’s contribution will be “primarily” in terms of nuclear deterrence and “select other capabilities”. 

In black and white, Miller writes that allies will have to field “the great majority of the conventional forces to deter Russia”. This would be profoundly consequential for European defence, which absolutely relies on American land and air forces, in particular, as part of the defence mix.

Interestingly, a strong emphasis is placed on repairing the constitutional drift of the post-9/11 era in the area of “war powers,” which has seen the Executive increasingly able to commit the US to military conflict without Congressional approval. This is not simply a point of legal principle, but is in fact tied to the America First priority of reducing foreign involvements and avoiding conflicts that do not “justify” the expenditure of US blood and treasure.

Force development

Turning to Service-level recommendations, Miller suggests various personnel (recruitment, training) and organisational leadership changes in each case. All sensible, and reflecting the same themes of rolling back the “wokeness” (he doesn’t use the word), returning to the classic martial values with a ruthless focus on developing effective “warfighters,” and promoting accountability.

The US Army is described as unable to “execute its land dominance mission.” Miller’s plan is to add 50,000 soldiers, “accelerate” current equipment recapitalisation programmes, build up ammunition stockpiles and prioritise “expeditionary logistics” among other things. Nothing revolutionary here.

The Navy is to be expanded to at least 355 ships, with a focus on range and lethality. It will also get a Rapid Capabilities Office modelled on the Space Development Agency, focused on innovation and fielding “good enough” systems quickly. The other big priority is to build up the USN missile arsenal across all types. These are interesting goals to pick, but the force structure expansion in particular will be very expensive.

In its turn, the US Air Force is likewise assessed as unequal to the global threat picture anymore. Interestingly, the USAF section appears to get the most sympathetic treatment, including a frank acknowledgement of the “underfunding” it has endured for a long time and the fact that it is “the oldest, smallest and least ready” in its history. Miller calculates a projected shrinkage of the air fleet by almost 1,000 airframes by 2027. 

To address this state of affairs, Miller suggests, among other things, a five per cent annual USAF budget increase, together with specific yearly production targets for F-35s and B-21s (80 and 18, respectively). Airlift and aerial refuelling capacity is to be “increased,” together with the long-range missile arsenal (+200 nautical miles). All in all, there is a distinct sense that the Air Force might receive special treatment and attention under a new Trump administration.

With Miller’s military suggestions for the land, sea and air domains being relatively standard fare, the most forward-leaning and bold thinking is reserved for the US Space Force. Here, Miller says the “un-sayable” (as far as the space conversation goes) by proclaiming the need to reverse USSF’s “defensive posture” and “re-establish offensive capabilities to guarantee a favourable balance of forces.” 

Yes! This is exceptional thinking, that clearly calls out the core problem that has hobbled US space posture under Biden: that the current Administration “has eliminated almost all offensive deterrence capabilities,” preferring instead to align with the soft, liberal perspective on space affairs that still clings on to the myth of space as a “province for all mankind,” i.e. some shared, common resource that must be kept outside and above “geopolitics.” Of course, all this is a fantasy: space is an arena of realpolitik and cutthroat strategic competition, and the only responsible goal for the USSF is to ensure US dominance of this domain – as the precondition for any kind of liberal space governance regime to exist at all, in the future.

In Mandate for Leadership, Miller pleads for a balanced space force architecture (between offensive and defensive capabilities) and for expanding space control capabilities into cislunar space, i.e. beyond the geostationary orbit.

Beyond the independent Services, Miller also touches on Cyber, Nuclear (significant investments in nuclear infrastructure and force recapitalisation and expansion should be expected) and Missile Defence. On the latter subject Miller has quite significant things to suggest, starting with buying more systems (including 64 Next Generation Interceptors, designed primarily with North Korea in mind but also deployed on the East Coast; and more of the usual systems from Patriot to Thaad). Interestingly, there is a specific proposal to invest in “space-based missile defence” (with echoes of Reagan’s “Star Wars” SDI), complemented by specific calls to “accelerate” the Space Development Agency’s space-based missile tracking satellite project as well as counter-hypersonics R&D.

Defence beyond defence

But Miller’s chapter is not the only one that will impact US defence policy under Trump. Recommendations from other parts of Mandate for Leadership will also cast their shadow – or indeed, light – over the future of the Pentagon. Many of them are driven by ideologically-informed perspectives – as is normal for any political “manifesto” for government – and are designed to concurrently support domestic agendas. In other words, significant thought has gone into linking home affairs with military and foreign affairs, which, if not to everyone liking, is at least the formula for effective politics and policymaking.

In this sense, by way of extraneous defence-relevant inputs, we may take for example, Russ Vought’s chapter, dedicated to organising the White House operation itself. Vought, an eminence grise of Trump-world, is clear on the need for “clearing house” among America’s general officer corps, which Trump’s faction consider to be “Barack Obama’s” generals. Vought writes that the National Security Council “should rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions” to essentially ban the practice of appointing officers as an exercises in “social engineering and non-defence related matters, including climate change, critical race theory, manufactured extremism, and other polarizing policies” – a sensible measure if ever there was one.

Exactly how much of what Project 2025 has laid down in Mandate for Leadership in the different policy areas will actually be implemented by a second Trump administration is anyone’s guess. Not just the November election itself, but the policy priorities and their delivery will remain, as always, subject to the politics of the day – and that picture will only become more fraught as time goes by. But unlike the first time around, in 2025 Trump and his team would return to office with an extensive and detailed plan for action, including on defence and broad geostrategic orientation. We have been warned.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C.