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Trump promises ‘great rebuilding of the Armed Forces’ while signing executive order at the Pentagon

President Trump, accompanied by Vice President Pence, greets Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon, Friday, Jan. 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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President Trump signed an executive order Friday to launch what he called a “great rebuilding of the Armed Forces” that is expected to include new ships, planes and weapons and the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Trump, making his first visit to the Pentagon since his Jan. 20 inauguration, said the order was signed “to ensure the sacrifices of our military are supported by the actions of our government.”

The order calls for new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to carry out a 30-day “readiness review” that is expected to examine needs for the war against the Islamic State, along with training, equipment maintenance, munitions, modernization and infrastructure. A draft of the order obtained by The Washington Post on Thursday also said it would examine how to carry out operations against unnamed “near-peer competitors,” a term that U.S. officials typically use to mean China and Russia, but that language is not in the final version.

Within 60 days, Mattis also must submit to Trump a plan to improve overall readiness in the military by fiscal 2019. It will focus on everything from maintenance backlogs to the availability of training ranges and manpower shortages, and the time needed to coordinate and carry out military training.

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Trump also called for reviews of the U.S. military’s nuclear arsenal and of ballistic missile defense. The draft document suggested that the Pentagon also would suggest programs that might be cut, but that language did not appear in the final order Trump signed.

Trump signed the order at the Pentagon hours after he said at the White House that he will allow Mattis, who retired as a Marine general in 2013, to “override” him on whether the United States tortures terrorism suspects. Trump has said he is convinced torture works, while Mattis believes interrogations should be carried out according to U.S. military guidelines, which specifically ban techniques such as waterboarding.

“He’s an expert. He’s highly respected. I happen to feel that it does work,” Trump said, without mentioning that Congress has banned torture. “I’ve been open about that for a long period of time. But I am going with our leaders.”

Later, at the Pentagon, Trump promised U.S. troops that his administration “will always have your back.” The president, speaking six days after claiming that the media misreported the size of his inauguration crowd in front of a memorial wall at the Central Intelligence Agency, struck a more somber tone and read from prepared remarks. He called the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes “sacred” and added that the “soul of our nation lives between these walls.” The room recognizes the bravery of Medal of Honor recipients.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said afterward that Mattis was grateful for the president’s visit and shares his goal of ensuring that “military leaders have the support they need” to accelerate the campaign against the Islamic State and to “build combat readiness now and for the future.”

Administration officials declined to discuss the order on military growth ahead of its signing. It states that Trump will pursue “Peace Through Strength,” a campaign catchphrase, and addresses concerns that senior military officials have expressed for years about “military readiness,” the ability of a unit to carry out operations. The training and equipping of some units was significantly altered by the congressionally mandated budget cuts known as sequestration that went into effect in 2013, military officials have often said.

U.S. defense officials have advocated for a larger military since the election, with the Navy publishing a study that states it should add dozens of ships until its fleet reaches 355, senior Air Force and Army leaders calling for tens of thousands of additional personnel, and senior Marine officers saying that more personnel would be helpful, but should be devoted to filling specific needs against a near-peer enemy.

Trump’s proposals for the military during his presidential campaign were drawn heavily from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and could cost between $55 billion and $90 billion per year, according to outside experts. The plan included adding tens of thousands of soldiers until the service reaches 540,000, expanding the Navy’s fleet to have at least 350 ships, adding about 100 Air Force fighter or attack jets until the service reaches 1,200, and increasing the number of Marine Corps infantry battalions from 24 to 36, which would include thousands of Marines.

The growth would have the most significant short-term effects on the Army, which shrunk under President Barack Obama from 540,000 soldiers in 2013 to 470,465 at the end of November — the smallest number since before World War II. Obama wanted to shrink the Army even more to 450,000 soldiers by fall 2018, but Congress stopped that with a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that directed the Army to grow to 476,000 this year.

Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari, the Army’s director of program analysis and evaluation, said in an interview that his service is “shovel-ready” for growth in part because of the way it downsized. For instance, rather than completely ending the manufacturing of weapons like the M1 Abrams tank, the service continued to buy them in small quantities so the Army could keep open its plant in Lima, Ohio.

“We made some calculated decisions, the Army did, on how we were going to get smaller,” Ferrari said. “We really looked at how we were going to scale down so that we could scale up again.”

Ferrari said the Army could add entire brigade combat teams if Trump wants, and that it would not only improve defense, but add manufacturing and construction jobs, a priority of the president. Defense plants and barracks are aging, and stockpiles of ammunition and parts have dwindled in the last few years, requiring more manufacturing, he said.

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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein called last month to grow the service from 317,000 airmen to 350,000 in the next seven years, citing in part the service’s heavy usage in the air war against the Islamic State and a variety of new missions that have emerged. The additional airmen also are needed to meet new demands in jobs like space and cyber operations, and to work on aircraft that the Pentagon once considered retiring, such as the A-10 attack jet and U-2 spy plane, said Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas, a senior Air Force spokesman.

In the Marine Corps, Trump’s proposals have raised some concerns among senior leaders who believe the service has more pressing needs than adding more infantrymen. The service currently has about 183,000 Marines, down from a peak of more than 202,000 at the height of Obama’s surge of troops into Afghanistan. Congress authorized the service to grow to 185,000 by next fall, but Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, cautioned afterward that the circumstances have changed since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is now more important to add Marines who can perform skills like electronic and cyber warfare.

In the Navy, senior leaders have worked for years to build up the size of its fleet. There were 316 ships in 2001, but the number dropped to 278 under President George W. Bush, as the United States fought prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon began investing in more ships under Obama and former Navy secretary Ray Mabus and is expected to hit a goal of 308 by 2021. Last month, however, it announced an even more aggressive goal in a new “force structure assessment,” stating that the fleet should grow to 355 ships.

A Navy official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said the assessment was launched long before Trump won, and is a reflection of a year of research. But Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s notable that the Navy didn’t officially argue for more than 350 ships until recently.

This story was originally published at 10:25 a.m. and updated several times to include Trump’s remarks and details in the order Trump signed on Friday afternoon.

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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