Strategic Triage vs. Strategic Overstretch

The Emeritus Chair in Strategy at CSIS is issuing a briefing on the challenges the U.S. faces in developing a global strategy that it can sustain with the resources it can actually make available in the years to come – and one that can adapt to the possible emergence of China as a true peer competitor, the sustained challenges from Russia, the threats from powers like Iran and North Korea, and the need to meet global commitments and sustain its strategic partnerships.

This requires changes to both U.S. strategy and to strategic “triage” to avoid “overstretching” its capabilities and resources as it attempts to address a myriad of global concerns, including uncertain domestic spending priorities, competition with China, a hostile Russia, lesser threats like Iran and North Korea, terrorism and extremism, new threats, the global instability of “fragile states,” and emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs).

This briefing highlights the weaknesses in the current U.S. efforts and the need to define a mix of strategies, including credible plans, programs, and budgets (PPB) and the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) that can realistically balance its goals with its resources and capabilities. Recent U.S. efforts to define a strategy have failed to go beyond broad goals and statements of good intentions by failing to create real pans and programs, by budgeting based on military services, and by budgeting on an annual budget basis without a real-world Future Years Defense Program and budget. During the time of this writing, the Biden administration has yet to release the FY 2023 defense budget request. This briefing will be updated to reflect any changes to U.S. strategy as reflected in the FY 2023 defense budget.

A realistic strategy must instead focus on key missions as well as on real-world plans, programs, and budgets. It must focus on the major combatant commands and functional commands rather than the shopping lists of the individual military service; fully reflect the need to conduct joint all domain operations (JADO); deal with emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs); and address the whole range of strategic competition with China, Russia, and other major threats from civil “white area” operations to gray area warfare, theater level conflicts, and nuclear war.

The U.S. also has a defense budget and a defense-oriented planning, programming, and budgeting process rather than a true national security strategy and integrated national security budget. It decouples far too many aspects of the civil aspects of U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy from the military efforts of the Department of Defense. It ignores both the warnings of Clausewitz regarding “ideal war,” and the fact that its primary challenge is now a China that focuses on the integration of civil and military operations advocated by Sun Tzu.

More broadly, the U.S. needs to exercise “strategic triage” to address the need to balance national security spending and domestic spending and to create real-world strategic partnerships with allied and partner states, rather than burdensharing bullying and arms sales. The present U.S. approach to strategic partnerships undervalues its allies and the need to develop common and interoperable forces – mistakes as serious as the lack of an effective focus on strategy priorities and on a meaningful, mission-oriented planning, programming, budgeting system.

This briefing is entitled Strategic Triage Vs. Strategic Overstretch, and is available for download at

Comments should be addressed to Anthony H. Cordesman (

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

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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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy