The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) is the latest in a series of periodic documents issued by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) as a guide to how the department will respond to military expectations set by the President of the United States and broad U.S. foreign policy interests. While the NDS is classified, an unclassified summary was released January 2018. As part of an effort to provide an independent critique and audit of the NDS, a separate commission was chartered, which had access to the entire classified document, as well as other supporting reports, and the authority to interview key figures inside and outside government. The Commission’s assessments and recommendations were released in November 2018.
The Commission concurred with most of the NDS assessments regarding the present and future threat environment, but criticized it for failing to adequately identify the resources required to fully implement the strategy. The Commission was harshly critical of congress for its failure to properly fund defense priorities and called for renewed commitment to full funding and improved budgetary processes. However, even if the NDS and Commission’s assessments were fully accepted as accurate and prescient, the present political climate in the United States severely undermines the possibility that they will be fully resourced.
To summarize the key elements of the 2018 NDS: 1.) the United States is at risk of losing its long-held strategic advantage in the ability to project force and defend its interests globally; 2.) the U.S. military needs to prepare to fight and win a major war against a single adversary (down from the long-held aspiration of fighting and winning two major theatre wars simultaneously) while credibly deterring aggression and protecting the homeland; 3.) achieving those goals will require modernization, recruitment and retention of skilled personnel, innovation in defending against hybrid and unconventional conflict, and re-building atrophied conventional war-fighting skills; 4.) strengthening alliances and attracting new partnerships. Notably, the NDS assessed that great-power competition surpasses terrorism as the single greatest threat faced by the United States, a shift from strategic documents for nearly two decades.
Addressing a New Threat Environment
The NDS Commission report mostly concurrs with NDS re-ordering U.S. strategic priorities, and echoes calls to prioritize threats from great power rivals China and Russia. Its assessment and recommendations are founded upon key assumptions about the utility of U.S. military power: namely, to preserve and protect the “liberal international order,” in which the United States is the “indispensible nation.” Fundamental to that role is U.S. commitment to present alliances and to protect democratic values and human rights. These assumptions formed a bi-partisan political consensus, which, aside from marginal disagreements over budget priorities, had been almost unquestioned during the cold war. The commission notes that this consensus has been questioned lately, with significant segments of the American public and political leaders calling for a re-evaluation of the costs associated with being the “indispensible nation” and protector of the global status quo.
In line with the NDS, the Commission assessed that great-power rivals China and Russia seek global force projection in direct competition with the United States. Iran and North Korea, meanwhile, are developing more advanced weapons systems and increased capacity to conduct cyber operations and unconventional hybrid warfare. Strategic threats include:
- “Grey zone aggression” defined as conflict existing between war and diplomacy, which includes economic warfare, disinformation campaigns, war by proxy or through irregular forces, and other asymmetric, unconventional tactics.
- More rapid proliferation of advanced technology that allows smaller nations and non-state actors to pose an outsized threat.
- Terrorism, particularly from so-called “radical jihadist groups.”
The Commission concurs with NDS recommendations for future force posture: An aggressive commitment to projecting power in the Western Pacific to include land, sea, and air forces. Rebuilding the NATO alliance and augmenting U.S. presence in Eastern Europe. Remaining committed to U.S. presence in the Middle East, but re-evaluating operations there,
“As long as terrorism is exportable, as long as the Middle East remains a major producer of oil, and as long as the United States has key U.S. allies and partners in the region, U.S. interests in the Middle East will be profound. Accordingly, U.S. military posture there should not shrink dramatically, even as the precise mix of capabilities is re-examined.”
Other force posture recommendations are to shift manning and procurement priorities away from counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations toward conventional major-power warfighting, cyber, space, and counter-hybrid conflict operations. This includes across-the-board modernization of the U.S. nuclear “triad” of land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles, strategic bomber fleet, and sub-launched missiles.
Funding & Analysis
In spite of large areas of overlap in identifying future security threats and lapses in U.S. competitive edge, the Commission was striking in its criticism of the NDS (and the U.S. government’s response to the challenges identified therein) in two key areas: 1.) inadequate funding commitments coupled with a dysfunctional budgetary process and, 2.) inadequate “analytical” capacity to connect strategic objectives with operational planning and measures of successful implementation. According to the Commission, failing to address these budgetary and analytical shortcomings will be catastrophic,
“the costs of failing to meet America’s crisis of national defense and national security will not be measured in abstract concepts like ‘international stability’ and ‘global order.’ They will be measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost.”
The failure to provide needed resources is heaped heavily upon Congress, warning that, “due to political dysfunction and decisions made by both major political parties…America has significantly weakened its own defense.” The fiscal effect of the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 is dramatically illustrated by multiple charts, but the main conclusion is that the difference between spending planned before the BCA and actual spending after represent a loss of $539 billion between fiscal years 2012-2019. The Commission estimates that if spending levels estimated for the 2022 fiscal year continue, it would take an additional nineteen years to completely reverse the effects of the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The Commission’s solution is to lift arbitrary spending caps, enacted as part of previous budget negotiations, remove the temptation to use defense spending reductions as a way of solving U.S. government fiscal problems, and create new budgetary processes that include multi-year budget agreements designed to foster long-term investment in innovation. “Those problems must be addressed through a holistic approach that scrutinizes the entire federal budget,” the Commission assesses, “especially mandatory spending—as well as taxes to set the nation on a firmer financial footing.” By “mandatory spending” they refer to social welfare programs such as Medicare and Medicaid (medical insurance programs for seniors and the poor), Social Security, and other similar programs, also referred to as “entitlements.” With this, the Commission appears to acknowledge that fully implementing the NDS will require unpopular concessions from everyone: tax increases as well as social safety-net cuts.
Though buried in the middle of their report, the Commission noted an insufficient capacity for the Defense Department to link strategic goals (like those of the NDS) with practical measures to implement those goals, and evaluate progress.
“Throughout our work, we found that DOD struggled to link objectives to operational concepts to capabilities to programs and resources. This inability is simply intolerable in an organization with responsibility for tasks as complex, expensive, and important as the Department of Defense.
According to the Commission, this analytical deficit impairs the ability of key policy makers to conduct realistic assessments of military preparedness and to justify budget requests. It is difficult to encourage more investment when the managers of an intense amount of wealth cannot account for war-fighting and war-preparation’s “return on investment.” The Commission calls for greater analytical rigor in determining precisely what is meant by concepts such as “deterring” aggression from a second threat, while fighting a conventional war against a major power; or how the strategic effect of U.S. nuclear forces should be calculated and compared with other elements of military power.
The present political reality in Washington, D.C. does not portend much success in implementing the NDS along the Commission’s recommended path. The new congress, the branch of government responsible for programming and appropriating resources required by the NDS, is politically divided. The Constitution of the United States requires that bills pertaining to taxing and spending originate in the House of Representatives, now controlled by the Democrats, who have stated their intention to implement an unpopular “pay as you go” rule, where increases in one area of the budget must be offset by decreases elsewhere, or with increased tax revenue. The Senate, which must agree to a budget bill, remains controlled by Republicans. In spite of budget reconciliation procedures that make it easier for budget bills to pass out of the Senate, political divisions between the two houses of congress will complicate the budget process. Given the incendiary relationship between the Democrats who govern the House and President Donald Trump, it is very unlikely that much strategic thought will be given to the federal government budget in the two years before the 2020 general election. The more realistic expectation is continuing resolutions for defense spending (which simply extends appropriations at previous levels) and more government “shut-downs” for nearly everything else.
As the Commission notes, the foundational assumption that drives U.S. defense spending (and has driven it for the better part of seven decades) is that the international order built in response to the thirty years of crisis that spanned 1914-1945 is worth defending and expanding. They correctly assess that this order—in spite of episodes of violence—has largely kept the peace and been the engine of unprecedented global economic growth. However, the Commission also notes that, “U.S. alliances and partnerships are sometimes mischaracterized as arrangements that squander American resources on behalf of free-riding foreign countries,” and that, “many Americans are questioning whether it is worth the cost,” to maintain United States’ global leadership. Yet, the key individual responsible for implementing the NDS—the “Commander-in-Chief”—has championed the notion that the United States has been a “sucker” for too long, paying too much for mutual defense; he has disparaged key allies, openly questioned fundamental institutional relationships such as NATO, and been conciliatory toward autocratic powers traditionally opposed to U.S. leadership. It is hard to read the Commission’s chapter on “The Purpose of American Military Power,” without thinking that the principle philosophical opponent to it is the President himself. Unless and until this apparent disconnect can be ameliorated, the NDS and the Commission’s assessment of it will very likely pass without much practical effect.
Finally, it should be noted that the NDS and Commission’s vision of protracted 21st Century competition with rising great power China is not universally accepted as inevitable or desirable. A notable example is a recent Op-Ed piece by former President of the United States Jimmy Carter, in which he wrote, citing the NDS, “U.S. government reports declare that China is dedicated to challenging U.S. supremacy, and that it is planning to drive the United States out of Asia and reduce its influence in other countries around the world.” The 39th President went on to assess,
“If top government officials embrace these dangerous notions, a modern Cold War between our two nations is not inconceivable. At this sensitive moment, misperceptions, miscalculations and failure to follow carefully defined rules of engagement in areas such as the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea could escalate into military conflict, creating a worldwide catastrophe.”
Not known for hyperbole, President Carter noted that in contrast to his dire prediction, the normalization of diplomatic relations with China, which was one of his signature initiatives, ended three decades of hostility, increased cultural connections, and lifted millions of Chinese out of dire poverty while delivering mutual economic benefits. He noted the pivotal role China has played in containing and restraining the North Korean Kim regime as evidence of its potential utility in other conflicts. That said, he did not recommend overlooking areas of disagreement, “at the same time, we cannot ignore its deficiencies in Internet censorship, policies toward minorities and religious restrictions — which should be recorded and criticized.” The former president’s view is indeed in the minority, but should not be immediately dismissed.
Strategic Vision Meets Politics
The NDS presents a particular strategic vision, with which the Commission is careful to agree while criticizing a disconnect between what the strategy calls for and the resources offered in support of it. The Commission’s report is in large part an appeal for increased defense spending, more predictable budget processes, and greater capacity to properly evaluate the government’s return on its investment in defense. It is very unlikely, given the present political power distribution, that long-term strategic budget planning, one that embraces a “whole-of-Government approach,” will occur in the near term. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that the fundamental assumptions found in the NDS and the Commission’s report about the purpose of U.S. military power—i.e. to secure and expand the liberal post-Second World War order—are being questioned by the President of the United States, some of his political allies in congress, and a segment of the American public. As such, it would be unfair to accept the NDS and Commission’s view as established doctrine, even if it remained unchallenged but not fully funded.
The government of the Untied States is a notoriously complex structure of overlapping powers shared across distinct branches of government. Strategic documents are impossible to fully assess without acknowledging that underlying reality. Making the already difficult political-bureaucratic geography even more challenging is a political climate that eschews compromise and demonizes ideological opponents. So, even if all of what is contained in the NDS and the Commission’s report would be accepted as sound policy, full implementation as recommended by the Commission is extremely unlikely.