Trump wants South Korea to pay more for defense. He shouldn’t stop there
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at a joint press conference after the 51st Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) with South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on November 15, 2019.
Jung Yeon-je | Reuters
It turns out President Donald Trump’s long-running demand that NATO countries pay more for their own defense isn’t just about Europe. Now, the administration is stepping up its efforts to get Asian countries to cough up more too.
The specific Asian country in the spotlight is South Korea. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper used his current trip there to pressure Seoul into paying more for the massive U.S. military presence there. According to one South Korean lawmaker Esper wants much more, as in five times more or $5 billion annually.
That sounds like a big mark-up. But let’s face it, defending the free world isn’t cheap. A big reason why is the countries that aren’t part of the free world, like China, are spending record amounts on defense as well.
Demanding that Seoul pay more is basically the only option the U.S. has now. That’s because the idea of closing American bases in South Korea or pulling out the 28,500 U.S. troops there is unthinkable in the face of the constant nuclear and conventional military threats from North Korea.
But cutting the number of U.S. bases isn’t, or shouldn’t be such a controversial idea in many other parts of the world. The U.S. currently has about 800 military bases in more than 70 countries. That number includes 174 bases and other military installations in Germany alone. We even have one in Aruba.
Each one of these foreign bases costs the taxpayers not just in maintenance bills, but in payments we often must make to those foreign countries to use their land or coastlines. There are also the costs of maintaining diplomatic relationships with those nations to make sure they don’t suddenly kick our troops and bases out. At last count, the cost of maintaining those bases is $156 billion per year.
It’s unrealistic to think most of the base maintenance cost can be eliminated. But a big chunk of it certainly can, especially if some of the politicians who typically protect certain bases from closure get out of the way.
While the Trump administration has seen some success in getting NATO countries to increase their share of defense spending, the base closing and U.S. troop removal part of the equation isn’t going as well. The continuing controversy over the removal of just a small number of U.S. troops from Northern Syria is the best example of that.
There are other more inventive ways to cut down on America’s costs to defend the free world that aren’t just proposals. One strong example is the agreement we have with Israel on how it uses the $3.8 billion in military assistance the U.S. sends to it annually.
Israel must spend at least 74 percent of that money on U.S.-made defense products, and by 2028, that requirement will rise to 100%. Often those products are co-developed with Israeli defense contractors, like the Iron Dome anti-missile system that’s been heavily used this past week during a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli civilian areas.
These requirements aren’t just a form of American economic protectionism; they’re also a key security precaution. Mixing U.S. weapons systems with other defense products made by America’s enemies and allies alike can lead to finding weaknesses in those American systems.
That’s the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s decision to cut Turkey out of the F-35 stealth jet fighter program after Ankara decided to buy Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.
That decision was driven by a fear that having the F-35s and S-400s in such close proximity could give Turkish or Russian engineers an easier path to discovering flaws in the F-35 that the S-400 could exploit. The same form of economic and military caution is driving a new threat by the U.S. to sanction Egypt if goes ahead with its plan to buy at least 20 more Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.
Not all of this plan is moving smoothly, but we do see the three key elements to achieving something many have long thought was impossible: reducing U.S. defense spending without jeopardizing security. The working formula is getting our allies to pay more, closing bases and removing troops where they’re not needed, and requiring countries we help protect to do their defense shopping exclusively with the U.S. All this and future U.S. administrations should do now is keep it up.