Further Definitions of the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy

The DoD Strategic Management Plan for FY2022 to FY2026

The Biden administration has taken an interesting new approach to issuing unclassified papers that define and explain its national security strategy. It issued both an interim national strategy in March 2022 and a full national strategy in October 2022, which explained its broad views on national security and broad goals for policy. Like most U.S. unclassified strategy documents since the break-up of the former Soviet Union, these two reports have not described clear plans, programs, budgets, or time scales for U.S. action.

The administration did, however, issue two additional reports that it attached to its October strategy document, which did go into more detail. It also issued a series of factsheets on the same day as the full strategy document, and it then issued a Department of Defense Strategic Management Plan several days later, which described many aspects of ongoing U.S. defense actions in more detail and had a long section that set more specific goals in many areas for 2022-2024.

A download of this new Strategic Management Plan is attached to this commentary. It is sometimes written in “bureaucratese” that has a quasi-Kafkaesque character, and its main text and Appendix on the FY 2022 Annual Performance Plan is far better than its FY2021 Annual Performance Report – which reads like little more than a public relations spin. But it is still a must-read for anyone who is seeking to understand how the U.S. Department of Defense currently works and the sheer range of efforts it now has underway.

This attachment is also highlighted to show the portions that provide added details on U.S. strategy and that describe DoD plans that affect future spending and use of defense resources. These highlights do more than emphasize key actions and goals. They help confirm the fact that the full Biden strategy issued in October raises major issues about future defense spending and the resources required to actually meet the goals it describes.

There is no way to cost the Biden program described in all the various papers the administration made available in October. None provide any useful cost data or effort to describe the level of federal spending they require. However, if one reads through all of the defense and military goals and efforts these papers describe and looks at the near-term goals in the Strategic Management Plan, it is all too clear that any effort to actually implement them would require a major increase in U.S. spending – one that would seem to require a return to Cold War levels of effort approaching 4% or more of GDP.

These are scarcely unaffordable levels, and the United States spent an average around 6% of its GDP during the Cold War. However, the United States is now spending only about 3%, and the Congressional Budget Office projections call for future cuts to around 2.8%, as well as major increases in discretionary spending on civil programs – projections the CBO made before the Biden administration’s recent efforts to make major new increases in civil spending.

Like far too many previous DoD reports, the Strategic Management Plan seeks to get the need for major real-world increase in defense spending by calling for massive improvements in the efficiency of every aspect of defense management and spending by all four military services and defense agency, as well as every aspect of defense planning and the operation of the U.S. technological and defense industrial base. Such gains are not impossible, but similar promises of major progress have been made virtually every year since the Eisenhower administration, and all have had the same lack of success.

Accordingly, the downloadable file of the Strategic Management Plan attached to this commentary, and every aspect of the other documents describing the Biden National Defense Strategy, should be approached with caution. All ignore the time real-world efforts would probably take longer, their cost, and the need for far higher levels of cooperation from strategic partners and allies. They all ignore the fact that it is grim historical reality that in a war or major crisis, strategy never consists of what you have said. Strategic options are determined by what a nation has actually bought and by what portion of this spending is actually relevant and actually works.

The Interim National Security Guidance

To put these comments into perspective, some background is needed on the other Biden strategy documents. The Interim National Security Guidance (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf) in March 2022 focused on broad goals like emphasizing America’s global commitment to defending democracy and human rights, and the need to rebuild America’s post-Covid economic strength. It did emphasize military modernization and repeated the Trump administration’s strategic emphasis on the threats posed by China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and extremism, but it did so with a clear emphasis on diplomacy and working with allies and rejected shifting the burden to others.

The Interim National Security Guidance did not provide any plans or define any clear programs and spending goals. Its goals were very broad or political, and its summary was only a few paragraphs long:

We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. To prevail, we must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people. It will not happen by accident – we have to defend our democracy, strengthen it and renew it. That means building back better our economic foundations. Reclaiming our place in international institutions. Lifting up our values at home and speaking out to defend them around the world. Modernizing our military capabilities while leading with diplomacy. Revitalizing America’s network of alliances, and the partnerships that have made the world safer for all of our peoples.

No nation is better positioned to navigate this future than America. Doing so requires us to embrace and reclaim our enduring advantages, and to approach the world from a position of confidence and strength. If we do this, working with our democratic partners, we will meet every challenge and outpace every challenger. Together, we can and will build back better.

The National Security Strategy

The far longer National Security Strategy that the administration issued on October 12, 2022, was a full 48-page report (https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf). The expanded version of the Biden strategy still only sets broad goals, but it does describe them in far more useful detail. It highlights China as the leading threat to the United States and its strategic partners. It singles out goals for working with key partners and allies and ties U.S. security efforts to domestic economic and technological progress in more detail. It also provides a good summary of ongoing U.S. efforts to deal with Russia and help Ukraine and singles out NATO as a key area for cooperation. Finally, it emphasizes the need for global humanitarian aid and set clear goals for rebuilding U.S. efforts in arms control and non-proliferation.

Other sections provide more detail on the need to rebuild the U.S. economy and diplomacy to compete on a global level, on global priorities in terms of threats, and the need for international cooperation, and the need to shape a global structure for cooperation in technology, cyberspace, and space. They provide more detailed goals for U.S. efforts to rebuild its strategic partnerships, alliances, and ties to international organizations, and provide specific goals for cooperation with strategic partners by region. They set clearer goals for reshaping trade and manufacturing to meet U.S. security needs. More broadly, they single out climate change as a major national security threat, as well as the threat of future outbreaks of diseases like Covid.

Like the earlier Interim Strategy, however, the October strategy documents follow the somewhat vacuous models the United States set in previous national strategy documents over the last two decades in the form of its Quadrennial Defense Reviews and previous National Strategy documents.

The October National Security Strategy describes all of these issues and broad goals without providing any net assessments of the threat and/or allied capabilities. It only provides a few sporadic detailed insights into specific areas of action. It fails to provide any real plans, programs and budget impacts, and tangible timeframes for action.

Its main conclusions – while well-intentioned – again are largely political rhetoric rather than anything approaching a real-world strategy:

We are motivated by a clear vision of what success looks like at the end of this decisive decade.

By enhancing our industrial capacity, investing in our people, and strengthening our democracy, we will have strengthened the foundation of our economy, bolstered our national resilience, enhanced our credibility on the world stage, and ensured our competitive advantages.

By deepening and expanding our diplomatic relationships not only with our democratic allies but with all states who share our vision for a better future, we will have developed terms of competition with our strategic rivals that are favorable to our interests and values and laid the foundation to increase cooperation on shared challenges.

By modernizing our military, pursuing advanced technologies, and investing in our defense workforce, we will have strengthened deterrence in an era of increasing geopolitical confrontation, and positioned America to defend our homeland, our allies, partners, and interests overseas, and our values across the globe.

By leveraging our national strengths and rallying a broad coalition of allies and partners, we will advance our vision of a free, open, prosperous, and secure world, outmaneuvering our competitors, and making meaningful progress on issues like climate change, global health, and food security to improve the lives not just of Americans but of people around the world. This is what we must achieve in this decisive decade. As we have done throughout our history, America will seize this moment and rise to the challenge. There is no time to waste.

The Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review

At the same time, the Biden administration did go beyond the scope of the National Security Strategy in some respects. It began by adding the 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Missile Defense Review (MDR) as appendices at the end of the full edition of the document.

The nuclear posture report was not an appendix in the normal sense of the term. It was a separate report, and it did contain some substantial new statements that changed nature of the administration’s previous plans for tactical nuclear weapons development and extended theater nuclear deterrence, as well as other nuclear issues and weapons developments. Once again, however, it did not provide any detailed plans, programs, and projected budget costs.

The appendix on missile defense also provided more detail on the goals for U.S. missile and air defense efforts. Once again, however, it did not provide clear plans for deployment, system-by-system development, and efforts to create joint systems with strategic partners. Here, it is well worth reading Tom Karako’s assessment in The 2022 Missile Defense Review: Still Seeking Alignment (https://www.csis.org/analysis/2022-missile-defense-review-still-seeking-alignment).

National Strategy Fact Sheets

The administration also issued a set of factsheets on the National Security Strategy document. They do not provide much by way of additional details on plans, programs, and budgets, but they were written with far less public relations spin. They do often make clearer statements of what the administration’s goals really are and how costly such broad efforts will have to be. As such, they make a useful preface to reading the DoD Strategic Management Plan.

These fact sheets cover the following subjects:

The DoD Strategic Management Plan, Fiscal Years 2022-2026

The most striking supplement to the National Security Strategy was issued several days later in the form of the DoD Strategic Management Plan, Fiscal Years 2022-2026. As noted earlier, a highlighted version of the text is attached as a download to this commentary, and the Strategic Management Plan and its Appendix A on the FY2023 Annual Performance Plan do provide some more tangible data on U.S. defense plans and programs, although they have many of the same limits as the other Biden strategy documents. For example, the management plan does not address specific changes to deal with most international strategy and defense issues; and it does not contain any elements of net assessment, or even recognize its importance in the section on improving DoD reporting.

As noted at the start of this commentary, the plan’s use of Pentagon bureaucratese as a substitute for English makes it a hard read for anyone who has not actually worked in, or directly with, the Department of Defense. The marked-up portions of the main Strategic Management Plan report and Appendix A are still, however, worth the time and patience to understand them. They do clarify many aspects of real-world U.S. strategic plans and challenges. 

Appendix A does, however, at least set some specific goals for FY2023 and FY2024 – although it is more mildly striking that it is an appendix for a document that says it covers FY2025 and FY2026, and it does not mention a single goal for either year. It also at least vaguely touches upon the need to improve DoD planning, programming, and budgeting efforts.

It will also be interesting to see if any of the various references to improving the Future Year Defense Plan (FYDP) effort, the equivalent of planning, programming, and budgeting, and real-world integration of the military services and other elements of the Department of Defense are actually implemented in the next U.S. defense budget or during the fiscal years through 2026.

At the same time, the reader can largely ignore Appendix B – the FY2021 Annual Performance Report. Far too much of it is exaggerated self-praise and “spin.” It may be unfair to single it out from most government self-praise on self-progress, which is one of the few things that virtually all governments have in common. The fact remains, however, that Appendix B is exaggerated to the point where reading it is more likely to induce a mild touch of strategic nausea than provide any strategic insights.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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