The New National Defense Strategy: Some Good Broad Goals, and Bad Buzzwords, But No Clear Strategy
By Anthony H. Cordesman
The unclassified summary of new National Defense Strategy (NDS) is just that: An unclassified summary. It sets goals and objectives that do build on the National Security Strategy (NSS) announced in December, and it raises many of the same themes: the need to adapt to new forms of war and to engage in “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia as emerging potential threats.”
It talks about an increasingly complex global security environment, characterized by overt challenges to the free and open international order and the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations. These changes require a clear-eyed appraisal of the threats we face, acknowledgement of the changing character of warfare, and a transformation of how the Department of Defense conducts business.
The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.
China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future. The most far-reaching objective of this defense strategy is to set the military relationship between our two countries on a path of transparency and non-aggression.
Concurrently, Russia seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic, and diplomatic decisions, to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor. The use of emerging technologies to discredit and subvert democratic processes in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine is concern enough, but when coupled with its expanding and modernizing nuclear arsenal the challenge is clear.
Like the National Security Strategy, the NDS talks about the weakening of the post-World War II international order, and the “destabilizing” threats posed by North Korea and Iran. It also focuses on the fact that the United States no longer has “uncontested or dominant superiority in every domain.” It talks about how the U.S. faces threats from the proliferation of new technologies, terrorists, trans-national criminal networks, and how the U.S. no longer is a sanctuary, but a target.
The new NDS calls for continued engagement to “consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and it sets twelve major objectives that are consistent with the earlier NSS, that are linked to all of America’s current alliances and strategic partners:
- Defending the homeland from attack;
- Sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions;
- Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests;
- Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests;
- Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere;
- Defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly sharing responsibilities for common defense;
- Dissuading, preventing, or deterring state adversaries and non-state actors from acquiring, proliferating, or using weapons of mass destruction;
- Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States homeland and our citizens, allies, and partners overseas;
- Ensuring common domains remain open and free;
- Continuously delivering performance with affordability and speed as we change
- Departmental mindset, culture, and management systems; and
- Establishing an unmatched twenty-first century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency.
The summary goes on to call for strong and adequate joint forces and modernization of virtually every aspect of the U.S. force structure, with a new focus on wartime survivability, nuclear forces, cyber capability, lethality against power projection forces, advanced autonomous systems, and survivable and flexible logistics. There are some proposals where the summary is so brief that it amounts to largely unexplained buzzwords: “dynamic force employment,” “global operating model,” “cultivate workforce talent.” There are many things these could mean, but the National Defense Strategy summary does not explain.
What is more positive and critical is the NDS’s emphasis on “Strengthen the Alliance and Attract New Partners.” The NDS puts the same clear emphasis on alliances as the NSS. “America First” clearly means America lead, not isolationism. It does make a brief mention of burdensharing, but does not harp on it or mention past underspending. Instead, the NDS calls for stronger networking with our allies, mutual respect, consultative mechanisms, and collaborative planning. It places special emphasis on NATO, and strategic partners and allies in the Pacific and Middle East, as well as playing a strong role in the Americas and Africa.
The calls for reforming the Department read like every buzzword call for improvement used in bad business school literature, and do not propose a single tangible action. This, however, is par for the course. Overpromising reform of the Department of Defense is one of the few consistent bipartisan promises made by every Secretary since the Department was founded. And, who knows? This time the promises might actually mean something, but they read more like bad advertising copy than serious plans.
But, buzzwords are the lesser problem. The summary does not outline a real strategy. It has no specifics, does not highlight tangible major changes, and comes all too close to being the equivalent of a very long strategic fortune cookie. The far broader National Security Strategy at least had one tangible defense goal: a specific proposal for improved missile defense.
The National Defense Strategy says nothing about the President’s proposals for specific force increases expressed during his campaign. It says nothing specific about the strategies for any of America’s on-going wars, or specific changes to the forces under any given major command. There are no timelines and no budget figures. Once you cut through the fog of clever phrases, it doesn’t make America First, it makes America vague.
Furthermore, the references in the Department’s press releases to other related documents— Special Report: DoD Focus on the Asia-Pacific ; Special Report: Operation Atlantic Resolve ; Special Report: Operation Inherent Resolve ; and Special Report: 21st Century Deterrence and Missile Defense —do not add any more insight. They are useful slide shows, but they are not strategies, specific implementation plans, or required resources and budgets.
It is also all too ironic that the National Defense Strategy should come out on day where it is still unclear whether the U.S. government can execute its existing defense budget efficiently, much less plan and execute a consistent strategy for the future. More than half a century ago, a Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs could issue an annual posture statement with a real program budget that showed the cost of U.S. forces by type, and a credible Future Year Defense Program, or FYDP, with meaningful cost estimates at least five years into the future, and some longer-term modernization costs in the supporting budget submission.
For all of the talk about defense reform in this year’s National Defense Strategy, the existence of the Budget Control Act and the sequestration process have made the Department’s outyear spending estimates virtually meaningless. The Department can’t credibly estimate the cost of future forces for a single major command, or present meaningful estimates of the timelines and costs of its strategy to a Congress that can barely vote enough money to keep the government running—if that!
The coming year’s budget submission for FY2019 may tell us more, but the most this summary of the National Defense Strategy can tell us is that the road ahead may be paved with good intentions—that is, if its positive words outweigh the impact of its buzzwords.