Force Structure in the National Defense Strategy: Highly Capable but Smaller and Less Global

Although the unclassified 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) contains few details about forces and force planning, it hints at major changes that may play out in future budgets. Forces will focus tightly on high-end threats from China and Russia. Trade-offs include smaller forces, backing away from some regions and threats, a reduced level of forward deployments, a restructuring of U.S. forces in NATO, and a new approach toward readiness. These efforts could produce major changes in how forces are structured and postured.

A High-Level Document

The document hints at major changes because it is written at a very high level of abstraction. For example, it does not contain a single number. If strategy is about ends, ways, and means, the document does a good job describing the ends that the department seeks but says nothing about ways (forces and programs) or means (personnel and budgets).

This arises because of a change that Congress made in 2016. Frustrated by what it regarded as strategic documents that lacked clear descriptions of policies and trade-offs, Congress mandated that the NDS be classified in 10 USC 113 (g) in order to be more candid. Congress laid out a wide variety of topics that this classified document should contain. It also mandated an unclassified summary. In the spring of 2022, the Department of Defense (DOD) published a two-page fact sheet, and on October 27, published this 24-page unclassified NDS document.

Thus, this is a glass half-full, glass half empty situation. On the one hand, the DOD’s statutory summary could be of any length, so the two-page fact sheet would satisfy that minimal requirement. Therefore, the public should appreciate the 24-page document it has. On the other hand, strategic reviews before 2016 had a lot of detail about programs and forces, including tables and numbers. Analysts seeking to understand how this strategy plays out will not find answers in the NDS but will need to refer to budget documents and service statements.

From the perspective of an outside analyst, the best DOD strategy document is still the first, the Bottom-Up Review, published early in the Clinton administration. That document clearly linked the administration’s strategic goals, the programs it was implementing, and how much those would cost.

Nevertheless, several items in the document indicate that major changes may occur in the future.

A Smaller Force

The theme of smaller forces permeates the NDS. For example, high-end warfighting has priority over crisis response: “The Joint Force will be shaped to ensure the ability to respond to small-scale, short-duration crises without substantially impairing high-end warfighting readiness.”

The NDS makes the same point about day-to-day deployments: “The Department will make sure the day-to-day requirements to deploy and operate forces do not erode readiness for future missions, or bias investments towards extant but increasingly less effective capabilities at the expense of building capability and proficiency for advanced threats.”

Finally, the document lists five attributes of the future force: lethal; sustainable; resilient; survivable; and agile and responsive. Size is excluded.

This strategic perspective is consistent with budget documents and service statements indicating that all the military services are getting smaller, in some cases much smaller. Driving this shrinkage is a concept—sometimes called “divest to invest”—under which the services eliminate older weapons and force structure in order to invest in new, advanced technologies that can confront China and Russia. Here’s what can be gleaned from service documents and statements:

  • Army: The army’s goal is 485,000 active-duty personnel, and that number was in the FY 2022 budget, but recruiting challenges are driving the army’s actual size down to 460,000 or even lower. The army wants to rebuild to a higher level, but it’s unclear whether a China-focused strategy would allow that.
  • Navy: During the Trump administration, the target size for the navy was 355 ships. The Obama administration had aimed for 308 ships and the Biden administration has indicated a range, 321372. However, the FY 2023 budget decommissions 24 ships, driving fleet size down to the 280s and keeping it there through the five-year planning period. Unclear is how the administration will resolve the tension between the desire to expand and the reality of lower numbers.
  • Marine Corps: The Marine Corps is executing a plan called Force Design 2030 under which it will get smaller, down to 174,500 active-duty troops, and focus on China. The restructuring eliminated many traditional combined arms capabilities and sparked an intellectual civil war in the Marine Corps. What is unclear is whether the administration will forge ahead with the existing plan or seek to develop some compromise between the warring parties.
  • Air Force: The Air Force has stated its intention to retire 1,468 aircraft over the next five years and buy about 467 for a net loss of 1,001. This represents approximately 18 percent of the Air Force’s aviation structure.
  • Space Force: The Space Force gets larger because it is still being formed. Unclear is how large it will ultimately become. Numbers in the vicinity of 15,000 to 20,000 have been suggested, but there is no definitive statement.

Given how emphatic the document is about smaller forces and the trade-off of capacity (size) for capability, it would have been helpful if the NDS had provided a deeper discussion about the trade-offs and desired end states.

Backing Away from Some Regions and Threats

The NDS says DOD will focus primarily on deterring potential aggression from China and Russia. Like the Obama and Trump administrations, the NDS notes threats from North Korea, Iran, and terrorists (called violent extremist organizations). However, it recognizes the need for trade-offs: “For other major threats [other than the Indo-Pacific and Europe], we will leverage security cooperation and capacity building with partners, backed by a monitor-and-respond approach that takes advantage of the deterrent value of the Department’s ability to deploy forces globally at the time and place of our choosing.” It goes further in the conclusion: “We must not over-exert, reallocate, or redesign our forces for regional crises that cross the threshold of risk to preparedness for our highest strategic priorities.”

The implication is that there will be fewer U.S. forces and more reliance on local partners. It may mean that more troops will come out of the Middle East, and fewer forces will focus on North Korea or global terrorism. In theory, the United States can respond quickly to crises given its heavy investment in ready forces and mobility assets. The reality is sometimes different, as decisions to deploy can take time. Further, allies and partners often do not find over-the-horizon capabilities very credible. As some of noted in the past, virtual presence is actual absence.

Reducing Forward Deployments

The overcommitment of forces has been a long-standing issue for DOD. Thus, it is not surprising that the NDS says that “in service of strategic prioritization, we will focus day-to-day force employment on a more narrow set of tasks that we do currently.” The regional combatant commanders have many engagements that they want to pursue. Because these requests are unconstrained, they are extensive, and the services can meet only about 50 percent. These demands for engagement come on top of force requirements for humanitarian disasters, political crises, and ongoing combat operations. Thus, there is a perennial desire to “prioritize” deployments to ease stress on personnel and, often, allow reductions in force size.

Unfortunately, this is much easier to write into a strategy document than to execute in the real world. The Trump administration had a similar effort called dynamic force employment, which, among other things, sought to provide flexibility by reducing routine deployments to provide for surge. However, the need to engage allies and the periodic eruptions of global crises and humanitarian disasters made such reductions impossible. For example, year after year, the navy has about 100–110 ships deployed at any particular time, regardless of what strategy documents say about commitments.

The Biden administration needs to implement such reductions lest shrinking force structures cause strains on personnel and material. However, its desire to exert global leadership and engage with partners and allies, themes that permeate both national security strategy and the national defense strategy, will make such reductions difficult, even if the world cooperates by easing the level of crises.

Possible Restructure in NATO

In two places, the NDS discusses a possible restructuring of U.S. forces in NATO. On page 10, it says, “Over time, the Department will focus on enhancing denial capabilities and key enablers in NATO’s force planning, while NATO Allies seek to bolster their conventional warfighting capabilities.” Page 13 makes a similar statement: "In Europe, our posture will focus on command-and-control, fires, and key enablers that complement our NATO Allies’ capabilities and strengthen deterrence by increasing combat credibility.”

Taken literally, this means that the United States would reduce its combat brigades in Europe and focus on “enablers,” which are supporting capabilities like mobility, logistics, intelligence, and fire support. From a force planning perspective, this makes sense since NATO countries have a lot of combat units and typically underinvest in enablers. However, if implemented widely, it would mark a major political change in NATO, with the Europeans increasingly in charge and the United States in support. From a military perspective, it is unclear whether NATO countries will improve the readiness of their combat units so they have the same capability and deployability as U.S. units.

Strategic Readiness

There is a vague statement that DOD is considering changing how it thinks about readiness: “The Department is establishing a new framework for strategic readiness, enabling a more comprehensive, data-driven assessment and reporting of readiness to ensure greater alignment with NDS priorities.” Measuring readiness has been a long-standing issue in DOD. The classic definition is “the capability of a unit/formation, ship, weapon system, or equipment to perform the missions or functions for which it is organized or designed.” For units, readiness includes personnel fill, training proficiency, and equipment availability. Many argue that attention should focus on force capability , which includes modernization, and not just readiness. Others ask, readiness for what? They argue that DOD should measure the readiness against a unit's missions, not against an arbitrary standard.

The problem with readiness, at least as classically defined, is that it is expensive and perishable. It is expensive because personnel need training at all levels, from the individual to the highest echelon if they are to function as intended, units need to possess all their equipment, and equipment needs continuous maintenance if it is to be available. Readiness is perishable because materiel conditions degrade over time if not constantly attended to, and personnel turnover—thus, units need continuous refresher training.

Thus, however attractive readiness might be, administrations and the military services often want to reduce the cost while remaining aligned with strategy. The NDS may be signaling an effort to do that. Past efforts have gone under such names as “tiered readiness” or “focused readiness.” The problem is that lower readiness makes forces and equipment look shabby and low-quality regardless of the nomenclature or strategic rationale. That causes both military and political issues for the administration.

Unanswered Questions

There is a lot an outside analyst would like to know. What is the force sizing construct? The Trump administration said it was one major conflict and “deterring” a second conflict. It is not clear how the demonstration is sizing its forces. What size are the services aiming for? Budget documents give some indication, as indicated earlier, but budget numbers are not necessarily long-term strategic goals. It may be that the classified version of the NDS, which went to Congress in the spring, has answers to all these questions. However, that does not help the public discussion about defense and strategy. Such are the frustrations of outside analysts who no longer have a security clearance.

Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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