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Seizing the advantage August 31, 2021

As the US faces increasing threats, the next National Defense Strategy must rise to meet them

By Matthew R. Crouch and Ronald C. Fairbanks

Join Forward Defense for leading-edge commentary and key recommendations as we help chart the course for the United States’ next National Defense Strategy.

In our expert question-and-answer installments, three featured experts answer five questions on a major theme for the next National Defense Strategy (NDS).

As US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin looks toward the future of the global strategic landscape, he will wrestle with questions surrounding how to frame the current strategic environment, align US and allied efforts, and balance varied threats. In this round of questions, our experts explore what the authors of the next NDS should most deeply consider in equipping the United States to face the challenges of long-term strategic competition.

1. What shortfalls exist in the 2018 NDS that need to be addressed by the current administration? What should be carried forward? 

General James L. Jones, Jr., USMC (Ret.), Atlantic Council executive chairman emeritus and former national security advisor to President Barack Obama: “The 2018 NDS correctly captured the defining features of the global strategic landscape that we will face in the years ahead: the erosion of the rules-based international order, the reemergence of great-power competition, the increasingly lethal capacities of middle-level powers, and the security challenges that flow from an accelerating pace of technological change.

“Let me note that this document is one of the most strategic and best-written national defense strategies I can recall. Few have so clearly reflected the personal perspectives of the official who signed it, in this case, a fellow Marine, then US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

“Looking forward, the most important objectives for the administration to address in the next NDS include the following:

  • an emphasis on the integration of US military power with other elements of national power, including US economic, ideological, and diplomatic capacities;
  • building a force that has the lethality necessary to deter and defend against adversaries in multiple regions around the world, including the deterrence of nuclear conflict;
  • strengthening and the military capacities of US alliances and partnerships; and
  • reestablishing the United States as a trusted and consistent ally in the democratic world, especially toward emerging democracies

“Climate change presents another realm of challenges to US force posture and operations, and that has already been declared as an important focus of the next NDS by both US President Joe Biden and Austin.”

Lieutenant General Mike Dana, USMC (Ret.), former director of strategy and policy at US Indo-Pacific Command and former director of the Marine Corps staff at Headquarters, United States Marine Corps: “The 2021 NDS needs to be very specific in terms of creating a military ‘good enough’ for low-end conflict while developing best-in-class capabilities for a high-end multi-domain fight. The strategy also needs to identify those military capabilities that have atrophied and require modernization, e.g., naval expeditionary warfare.

“The top three priorities for the Department of Defense (DoD) should be modernizing the nuclear triad, achieving competitive advantage in space and cyber operations, and building partner capacity with existing and new allies and partners. To do this, the NDS should champion a ‘shrink-to-grow’ approach, where focused cuts in DoD bureaucracy, funding, and manpower prompt innovation to meet twenty-first-century threats.   

“To counter China, the United States needs to make the problem bigger and view China through a threat and opportunity lens. The focus needs to be on potential areas of cooperation (climate change, response to natural disasters, and economic initiatives), while militarily walking softly but with a big stick in the Indo-Pacific.  

“The NDS should anticipate the impact of climate change on US national security (impacting open sea transit in the Arctic, water shortages, famine, and pandemics). In this same vein, the NDS should also forecast what the world will look like in 2035 and beyond. As an example, current demographic forecasts indicate Africa and South Asia will grow and have great economic and human-resource potential, while Europe, Korea, Japan, and the United States (without immigration) may stagnate economically and technologically. The NDS should discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by a potential shift in global economic and human-resource centers of gravity.

“The 2021 NDS should also direct an assessment of US professional military education (PME) at all levels of the military. PME has historically been focused on the art of war rather than the science of war. Leaders need to be conversant and skilled in both.”

Former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, Atlantic Council board director, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and former secretary of the United States Air Force: “The Trump administration got it right—just like the Obama administration in its final years—when it came to emphasizing the return of great-power competition and defending the homeland, while not taking eyes completely off the ball when it comes to terrorism. The 2018 NDS also got it right when it came to investing in key technologies that will help in that competition including artificial intelligence, big data, autonomy, space technology, cyber, hypersonic systems, quantum, and more. Remember the 2014 Third Offset Strategy? All these same technologies and approaches were emphasized during the Obama era (albeit with less money). The Biden administration will likely carry forward on all these thrusts.

“Some of the key things left out or deemphasized during the Trump era that the Biden administration will likely address include the following:

  • climate change as a national security threat (energy and climate resilience);
  • spending on research and development, science, and technology that not only addresses defense needs but also US economic competitiveness;
  • preparedness, deterrence, and response for pandemics; and
  • a greater emphasis on collaboration, leveraging data in warfare, working with partners and allies, credible deterrence, and supporting military talent, including families.”

2. What lessons are there to be learned from past leaders like General Brent Scowcroft and their management of the National Security Council in improving the development of the NDS?

Jones: “Gen. Brent Scowcroft established the ‘honest broker’ model for the national security advisor (NSA) and his staff. He always articulated clear and strong views on the problems of our time. He shared his views with the presidents he served, sometimes including advice and perspectives they did not enjoy hearing. Yet Gen. Scowcroft also meticulously ensured that views and positions of the US departments and agencies were accurately and fairly presented to the president. It is an approach that most effectively leverages the knowledge and capacities of the entire US government and provides the president with the inputs he needs to make well-informed decisions.

“With that said, the NDS is a document that is primarily written under the direction of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) with input and drafting from the Office of the Under Secretary of Policy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When it is done right, OSD policy actively engages the other elements of the OSD and the DoD, as well as other relevant US departments and agencies, including the National Security Council (NSC) staff. The role of the NSA and NSC staff is to ensure the NDS is consistent with the president’s priorities and policies.”

Dana: “Gen. Scowcroft had a well-earned reputation for being a driving force in the development and execution of coherent, effective, and impactful national security. Though there are important leadership and management lessons that emulate from Gen. Scowcroft, I would recommend the following approach to the development of the NDS.  

“A whole-of-nation NDS requires a whole-of-nation team to create the guidance for the development of that strategy. Convene a group led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, with former cabinet-level officials and military leadership as well as a Fortune 500 CEO, prominent futurists, and congresspeople from opposite sides of the political aisle. The task for this accomplished team would be to define the threats, opportunities, and challenges the United States will face in the next decade. We need bipartisan congressional participation in the development of the NDS to inform legislation needed to put the NDS into action.”

James: “During his two tours as national security advisor, Gen. Scowcroft established the NSC as an honest broker within the national security community. The idea was that the NSC should run a fair, transparent, and collaborative interagency process to bring key issues to the president for decision. The NSA always has the opportunity to give his or her views to the president privately, but neither he/she nor the staff should silence or subvert the interagency process. In my experience, the formulation of the NDS is run in a similar fashion. The NDS is normally written by a committee, based on broad guidance issued by the secretary of defense, and coordinated broadly within the Pentagon. The Office of the Under Secretary for Policy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff tend to be the most important players, but others get involved as well. Differences of opinion and emphasis get debated and decided at higher levels, if necessary. Overall, this is a good process, though one improvement might be to bring more differences back to the secretary or deputy secretary for resolution. A criticism of past NDS iterations is that they have been too watered down and insufficiently inform decisionmakers about what to stop doing.”

3. What major strategic threats to the United States keep you up at night? 

Jones: “In the near term, the most imminent threat is that posed by an increasingly emboldened and aggressive Russia in Europe and the Middle East. Today’s Russia hosts President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist impulses, a declining economy and demography, an increasingly frustrated population—and nuclear weapons. This is a recipe for intentional aggression as well as miscalculation, all of which could lead to conflict with potentially catastrophic escalatory risks.

“By far, the long-term strategic challenge is China. Beijing is using its growing economic might to build an increasingly capable military, one with global reach as well as a growing nuclear arsenal. China presents to the United States a combination of economic, ideological, and military power that far surpasses that which we faced from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. We should never forget that Chinese President Xi Jinping has already stated that his strategic goal is that China will become the dominant nation on the planet, replacing the United States.

“But there are other, less-prominent factors that keep me up at night. These include China’s efforts to dominate in 5G. It will be either China or the United States and its allies that will set the standards for 5G around the world. Nothing could be more consequential. Under the China model, 5G capabilities will be used to steal intellectual property, monitor and control its population, and coerce other nations. Under the US and allied model, 5G will be a secure and impenetrable platform to empower our citizens, protect their privacy, and enable growth and development. It will also be a powerful enabler for our friends and allies Those are two very different outcomes.

“Another concern is resource scarcity, including water and food insecurity. With a rapidly growing global population, shortages in food and water portend to be powerful drivers of instability and conflict in the coming decades. It could be even sooner than that.

“Finally, there is what we don’t know—the unexpected. In a world defined by increasingly rapid technological change and increasingly destabilizing resource shortages, one can anticipate facing the unexpected with increasing frequency. This could be the most dangerous of threats, and it calls for continually widening the aperture and constantly using imagination to discern what is possible—not just what is probable and anticipated.”

Dana: The most dangerous threats are the following:

  • cyberattacks with the US financial system and US infrastructure designated as key targets (possibly by China, Russia, or a nonstate actor);
  • a foreign extremist group detonating a nuclear weapon or other weapon of mass destruction on US soil;
  • a Chinese and/or Russian attack on US space-based assets, likely in tandem with a cyberattack; and
  • implosion of the US federal government due to runaway deficit spending and/or partisan politics.

The most likely threats include the following:

  • domestic extremism;
  • the next pandemic, more lethal and disruptive than those in 1918 and 2020;
  • climate change that generates instability in the United States and around the globe (drought, famine, and extreme weather events); and
  • domestic unrest at levels not seen since the 1960s, due to the inability of the US government to function because of partisan politics.

James: “Tensions in the South China Sea—and the possibility of miscalculation triggering an incident with China—are worrisome, as is a major cyber incident that could shut down some of the United States’ critical infrastructure. The recent Russian hack of an information-technology management company, Solar Winds, and the backdoor entry to hundreds of US government agencies and private companies is yet another warning sign that cyber is at the forefront of many aggressive actions these days. Finally, there is the future preparedness and response for major illnesses or pandemics.”

4. What should the United States, alongside its partners and allies, do to counter the myriad threats posed by great-power competitors, rogue regimes, nonstate actors, and nontraditional security challenges?

Jones: “To effectively address this increasingly lengthy, complex, and lethal set of challenges, one needs a truly whole-of-government approach to improve US global engagement. The focus has to be geared toward working more effectively with allies and partners to promote security, development, good governance, rule of law, and democracy. To be most effective, it also must marshal the capacities of the private sector which are instrumental to success in each of those areas.

“The role of the DoD is to develop and employ military capacities necessary to convince our adversaries that aggression will only result in defeat and make possible the unleashing of their destruction by military means.

“To meet this requirement, the United States needs to be able to mobilize and marshal forces unmatched in terms of lethality. It requires sustained, if not expanded, technological edge over adversaries. The United States needs a robust, reliable set of military alliances and partnerships and should remove any question regarding our willingness to lead and be a reliable partner in times of crisis.”

Dana: “When it comes to rogue regimes, nefarious nonstate actors, and traditional competitors, it is important to understand their interests, perspectives, and true capabilities. Before we counter these threats, we should have a crystal-clear picture of their motives and any potential unintended consequences of our actions. That understanding needs to be informed by US allies and partners who have unique insights that can help action our strategy. In order to implement an effective NDS, the NDS ‘audio’ needs to be matched by US whole-of-nation ‘video.’ Put another way, we need to implement what we write.  

“Building partner capacity should be a top priority in the 2021 NDS. Fostering military-to-military cooperation and coordination yields intelligence, deterrence, and interoperability dividends. The same applies to interagency interaction, inside and outside the US government. Fostering more diplomatic, economic, and military ties with allies and partners will deter adversaries.  

“The NDS should discuss what actions we need to take to combat extremism abroad. The breeding ground for extremism and authoritarian regimes is in regions where failed states do not meet the needs of the populace. Perception in these regions is reality. If the United States is viewed as the catalyst for their poor social, economic, or political condition, Washington becomes the target. The more that can be done to change that optic and narrative, the better. Soft power backed by hard power is a compelling deterrent.”

James: “Every threat needs to be reviewed individually—there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Moreover, there are times when maintaining strategic surprise is called for. In other words, no administration should ever lay out exactly what response it would take in advance of some threats. With that said, the Biden administration will likely focus on leading by example: taking actions here at home to double down on restoring economic competitiveness, moral leadership on immigration policy, a focus on social and racial justice, the US commitment to human rights, and working alongside allies and partners around the world. The latter is essential so that US allies know they can trust US leadership in collaborating to meet security challenges. Credible deterrence must be emphasized in the world of great-power competition. Other countries must understand that the United States has the resolve and capability to take decisive action in the face of threats to US interests or those of allies. Diplomacy must be elevated to resolve more disputes. Arms control must be a focus whenever possible.”

5. What should be the primary goals of the next NDS? 

Jones: “This document must articulate a strategy to effectively build and employ armed forces of unmatched lethality to defend the homeland and to protect and promote US interests abroad. The NDS should define the priorities and principles that guide the actions of DoD officials, the Joint Staff, and our entire defense apparatus. The NDS should provide Congress and the American public a clear and compelling understanding of the rationale for building US armed forces and deploying men and women in uniform, and it should include the rationale for overseas presence and basing.”

Dana: “The next NDS should direct the achievement of the following objectives and goals:

  • a detailed ‘shrink-to-grow’ roadmap for the DoD, focused on tomorrow’s threats and the role of emerging technology on future war;
  • a vision for great-power cooperation and competition with China, not Cold War 2.0;
  • an effort to build new partner capacity, which will require forecasting future global power centers;
  • a congressionally mandated initiative to overhaul DoD capability development and acquisition processes;
  • the revision of the Goldwater-Nichols Act to reflect the art and science balance needed in the education and certification of joint officers for twenty-first-century warfare; and
  • an emphasis on developing training and education that will optimize the use of emerging technology.”

James: “The goal of the next NDS should be the same as the goal of other NDS documents—to lay out a way forward for the DoD to combat the major threats facing the United States. It must provide broad guidance to inform military planning, budgets, strategy, and force posture. It should help DoD leaders decide what to emphasize and what to deemphasize, and it should allow for tradeoffs of different priorities. Protecting the homeland must always be number one.”

Further reading

Image: Cpl. Heath Wiseman spots his target at range 205 during Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) 4-21 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California on July 21, 2021. Photo via U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters.