Our military insiders’ views of the new National Defense Strategy

Last month, the US Department of Defense (DOD) released its 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS). This document outlines clear priorities for the department, namely: defense of the homeland; deterring strategic attacks on the United States, allies, and partners; deterring Chinese and Russian aggression while simultaneously maintaining readiness for conflict; and building a resilient Joint Force. 

While the document’s strategic prioritization is clear, what remains uncertain is how this strategy will ultimately be implemented across DOD. Defense leadership recognizes this, as the document states that “this strategy will not be successful if we fail to resource its major initiatives or fail to make the hard choices to align available resources with the strategy’s level of ambition.”

How can DOD meet the strategic priorities laid out in the 2022 NDS? The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s military fellows—active-duty officers who are serving a one-year rotation at the Atlantic Council—weighed in, addressing potential gaps between budgets and strategy, force employment mechanisms, sustainment and logistics, and security partnerships. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of DOD or any other US government agency.

Investing in security partnerships: The US should take larger risks to bolster Taiwan’s defense

Security cooperation has long played an essential role in US defense policy, but this NDS amplifies its role in competition for the next decade. The 2022 NDS states that “mutually beneficial Alliances and partnerships are our greatest global strategic advantage—and they are a center of gravity for this strategy.” The decisions to defend treaty allies have already been adjudicated, but the decision to support security partners such as Ukraine and Taiwan remains foggy. Overall, this NDS implies that DOD will likely need to take more significant risks to support Taiwan and to prevent a Chinese invasion. 

The current war in Ukraine provides a case for security cooperation. Had the United States and NATO invested more heavily in Ukraine before Russia’s February 2022 invasion, they may have deterred Russia from attacking in the first place. In the past several months, the United States has invested approximately $17.6 billion in security assistance for Ukraine. In comparison, it only invested $2.7 billion from 2014 until February. The United States’ concerns about escalation with Russia were pervasive early in the Ukraine crisis, but along with NATO it has since taken much greater risks to help Ukraine survive and to contain Russia. US and NATO leaders are now likely pondering whether it may have been smarter and cheaper to invest earlier to prevent the war than to help Ukraine fight it.

When the United States invests in alliances and partnerships, it invests directly and indirectly to prevent (and, if necessary, respond to) any potential crisis. For instance, Operation Desert Storm (1990-91) included a coalition of thirty-nine countries worldwide. Desert Storm’s success relied heavily on a NATO alliance that was built for the Cold War threat but trained and ready for a crisis in the Middle East. US leadership in NATO has helped deepen the capability and willingness of European countries to cooperate in support of Ukraine. After Russia invaded, the speed and unity of the US, NATO, and European Union response were exemplary. The rate of armament shipments, funding supplied to Ukraine, sanctions on Russia, and the response to the humanitarian crisis should all serve as blueprints for coordination among allies and partners in the future. Enhancing US investments in Indo-Pacific alliances and partners will improve resilience for a potential conflict scenario in Taiwan or elsewhere.

The United States should implement an audacious strategy to help build Taiwan’s self-defenses and strengthen other Indo-Pacific allies and partners to help surge in a crisis. According to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), Taiwan is a security partner. The TRA places Taiwan a tier above Ukraine in terms of US commitment to its security. The additional ten billion dollars over four years in Foreign Military Financing for Taiwan proposed in the 2023 NDAA could further solidify US commitment to the partnership. Ideally, a US funding increase would spur other Taiwan security partners to increase their support and potentially create a NATO-like framework for deterrence.

The West will likely never know for certain whether heavily arming Ukraine pre-invasion would have caused Russian escalation or prevented the invasion entirely. However, given that Russia has repeatedly threatened red lines since invading and the West has routinely surpassed them, the United States and NATO likely could have been more aggressive without triggering a broader war. US defense leaders should use the lesson of Ukraine to push the limits of investment in Taiwan—along with other Indo-Pacific allies and partners—to prevent an invasion.

—COL Benjamin Johnson is the 2022-2023 senior US Army fellow at the Scowcroft Center.

Follow the money: DOD is betting on research but not sending the right signals to industry

At every opportunity, DOD leadership has sought to highlight the linkages between the 2022 NDS and the president’s fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget request. Yet, while this strategy and budget were developed concurrently, fiscal constraints lead to necessary tradeoffs across programs.

Consistent with the NDS, DOD cut costs from the current force structure to make significant investments in building enduring advantages. The Defense-Wide funding request increased significantly when compared to projections in the Trump administration’s final budget request (9 percent compared to an overall DOD increase of 5 percent), with these accounts containing the offices of the undersecretaries of defense for research and engineering, and for acquisition and sustainment. Notably, these two offices will execute the increases to building enduring advantages programs, to include $3.3 billion for microelectronics, $1.1 billion for artificial intelligence, and $700 million for submarine industrial-base resiliency. Such investments were partially funded by reductions to current force structure, including the retirement of sixteen Navy battle force ships before their estimated service life, a reduction of twelve thousand regular Army troops, and 102 Air Force aircraft early retirements. 

Moreover, the FY23 budget contains the largest research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDTE) request in DOD history, with funding requests of $130 billion for RDTE and $146 billion for procurement. Focusing too much on RDTE at the expense of procurement contributes to the “valley of death”—or the arduous journey commercial companies take to win DOD contracts—further underscoring that DOD does not have an innovation problem, but rather an innovation adoption problem. To field cutting-edge technologies, more funds ought to shift toward procurement over future budget cycles.

However, while all eyes are on the current budget year, the out-year funding projections in the Future Years Defense Program are concerning, as they result in real growth of -1.2 percent in FY25, -0.6 percent in FY26, and -1.4 percent in FY27 (using a projected 2.2 percent inflation rate, which is far below what we’ve seen lately). This demonstrates that additional force structure reductions may be required in future budget cycles, and that heavy RDTE investments may not necessarily lead to transformational technologies in the field—if there won’t be enough money for production. The NDS prioritizes a resilient defense ecosystem and healthy industrial base, but out-year projections do not send a demand signal to industry for sustained investment and will impact NDS implementation in the long term.

Now, Congress has the next move: Work remains ongoing to finalize the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act and appropriations bills. Throughout committee mark-ups, there has been strong bipartisan support for additional FY23 defense funding.

—LCDR Marek Jestrab is the 2022-2023 senior US Navy fellow at the Scowcroft Center.

Something old and something new: Force employment modernization must match an ambitious strategy

As outlined in the NDS, the “principal approach to advancing these priorities is integrated deterrence,” which is a whole-of-government approach to deter aggressive and malign actions by US adversaries, gain and maintain advantage throughout the competition continuum, and mitigate risk in advance of potential conflicts. 

As discussed above and articulated by others, there appears to be a gap between NDS objectives and budgetary realities. However, much of what is discussed as new within the NDS bears strong resemblance to strategy and guidance that has existed for several years. It can be argued that the 2018 NDS, 2018 Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and the 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the NDS already created the necessary strategy framework to drive the department toward the strategic ends outlined in the 2022 NDS. What has remained constant, however, are the mechanisms by which joint force employment is planned and executed. The new points of emphasis—in particular the reliance on campaigning, as well addressing gray-zone activities simultaneously with conflict preparation—require a modernization of joint force employment concepts. 

The NDS explicitly states that “campaigning is not business as usual,” but rather a more sophisticated approach to “aggregate focus and resources” to ensure that operations, activities, and investments are linked to the stated priorities, while critically incorporating “feedback loops” ostensibly to course correct in the midst of dynamic long-term campaigns. Devising a long-term strategy to deter Chinese and Russian malign influence globally is decidedly more complex than a campaign to dismantle a violent extremist organization in a single theater. Integrated deterrence campaigns require a high degree of focused understanding about US adversaries, the effects of military operations in concert with other instruments of power, and mitigation of strategic and escalatory risks. 

However, current force employment mechanisms are more conventionally rigid, generally tying expeditionary forces to operating locations and adjudicating objectives years in advance of action, making it difficult to incorporate feedback loops and adjust to adaptive adversaries. Similarly, the rotational model employed by the military often caps the amount of time a particular problem can be focused on by expeditionary units or joint task forces, which can limit understanding and ultimately the options presented to commanders. As opposed to executive branch organizations that often focus on specific problems for decades, military units may shift from divergent problem sets over several years. Given the premium the NDS places on coordination and collaboration with not only the executive branch but also allies and partners, DOD must allow more flexibility in how it aligns multi-domain capabilities against priority operational problems.

The Joint Strategic Planning System (JSPS) is critical to the ways and means in which force employment supports the strategic objectives outlined in the NDS. The military speaks in the language of requirements, which are specific and tangible activities that capability owners can use to develop operational concepts. Requirements and intermediate military objectives are defined in campaign plans, and the JSPS directs the development of Global Campaign Plans (GCP), Functional Campaign Plans, and Combatant Command Campaign Plans. In particular, GCPs “address the most pressing transregional and multi-functional strategic challenges across all domains… are global in scope and focus on integrating activities oriented against specific problems designed to achieve unity of effort for day-to-day activities,” according to the JSPS. Each GCP has a designated Coordinating Authority (CA) who has overall responsibility for the planning and execution of their associated GCP, and it is in this area where modernization is needed. Competing with Russia and China is a global endeavor, thus CAs must be armed with a global understanding of the problems sets to ensure that their campaign plans logically connect with each other and can be resourced and adjusted dynamically. The department should look to devise cross-functional teams from across the executive branch as well as key allies to provide CAs with holistic understanding of these global problem sets to better inform the development and modernization of the GCPs. 

The NDS makes it clear that the United States should not look at Russia as solely a problem in the European theater, nor China as solely an Indo-Pacific issue. Nonetheless, the force employment modernization to foster global deterrence campaigning must also account for the necessary preparations for regional conflict. Creative leadership is the key, as the NDS states that “we must not over-exert, reallocate, or redesign our forces for regional crises that cross the threshold of risk to preparedness for our highest strategic priorities.” This means that the department and CAs should encourage operational activities that satisfy requirements related to conflict preparation, as well as the ability to fight in the gray zone. Often referred to as “two-fers,” these types of operations can allow for a more efficient force employment model that can be scaled as required depending on prioritization. 

—Lt. Col. Justin Conelli is the 2022-2023 senior US Air Force fellow at the Scowcroft Center.

The Iron Triangle: Tradeoffs and challenges in building a sustainable, survivable logistics infrastructure

The 2022 NDS prioritizes a future force logistics capability able to operate in a contested environment and withstand attack from an adversary. Sustainability and survivability are key elements of effective logistics support, but current US sustainment, throughput, and distribution information technology (IT) systems are optimized toward neither. The pace at which the United States addresses these gaps, and the resources put toward closing them, will have an outsized impact on the nation’s ability to execute campaigns as outlined in the NDS.

Referred to as the “Iron Triangle,” the “good, fast, and cheap rule” encapsulates the tension between quality, speed, and investment in meeting stated priorities. Better understanding the tough choices confronting modernization of sustainment systems better informs the risk calculus of tradeoffs between effectiveness, speed, and cost, potentially closing the gap between possibility and probability.

The 2018 NDS made mention of logistics only insofar as to state a need for resiliency and agility “while under persistent multi-domain attack.” In contrast, the 2022 NDS’s call-out for a modernized sustainment and logistics capability is a step in the right direction in confronting changes within the operating environment. Investing big (or not) is a critical choice if the United States’ intent is to operationalize DOD’s role in strategic deterrence, maintain the edge within a campaigning construct, or buy decision space in order to maintain strategic options. Doing any of these things without aggressively resourced, suitably reinforced logistics IT systems will result in an inability to deliver effective sustainment as a means to generate combat power during enemy disruption or attack, or to credibly enforce strategic deterrence.

However, US IT logistics systems are unclassified, lacking interoperability, and multi-domain incapable, making them ill-suited to effectively support the joint force in a contested environment. While these capability gaps are nothing new, they are increasingly prime for exploitation within a competitive environment as vast as the Indo-Pacific theater. Numerous upgrade options exist across the commercial sector—to name a few, Amazon, Walmart, Maersk, and FedEx all leverage artificial intelligence, predictive algorithms, and myriad tech advancements in support of throughput/distribution models. These commercial systems capitalize on speed and quality in terms of delivering products on time and on target, possessing the elements of flexibility and resiliency long sought by DOD. Sure, ordering and receiving a personalized beer koozie within twenty-four hours is wildly different from large-scale sustainment operations in a maritime campaign—and these commercial systems are not yet wartime tested—but they are available now, offering a starting point from which to build.

Done right, the logistics systems modernization called for in the 2022 NDS will not come cheap, and developing and integrating commercially available systems will incur risk in areas that are left without funding as a result. Historically, logistics and sustainment do not compete well with high-end, exquisite tech capabilities. While a necessary function, logistics is often considered mundane and does not capture the imagination in the same way as the high-end technological advancements set out in the NDS. For now, the services are responding to the realities of logistics system limitations by experimenting with how to leverage current resources and new methods of employment. As an example, the Marine Corps, in concert with our naval counterparts, continues to develop and implement expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO), a form of expeditionary warfare involving mobile, low-signature naval expeditionary forces whose express purpose is to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment in an austere, contested maritime environment. In sum, the United States will get what it is willing to pay for in logistics and sustainment, and its urgency in mitigating the gaps will reflect the choice to (or not to) invest heavily.

Sustainment is indeed a warfighting function, but it is often resourced as a supporting effort. The results are as one would expect when the investment is “cheap.” Setting the force specifically for operational plans looks different than multi-domain logistics when operating in the gray zone. Adapting a proactive approach to sustainment as a warfighting function, similar to intelligence and more recently communications and information in the targeting cycle, will enable effective campaigning, allowing the US to preserve strategic options and decision space in the changing security and operational environment.

Lt. Col. Michelle Melendez is the 2022-2023 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Scowcroft Center.

This article is part of the 21st Century Security Project by the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice with financial support from Lockheed Martin.

21st century security

Advancing the dialogue on how the United States and its allies and partners can deter, fight, and win future wars.

Further reading

Related Experts: Benjamin G. Johnson, Marek Jestrab, Justin M. Conelli, and Michelle Melendez

Image: Paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division train for aircraft jumps at their base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S. January 21, 2020. Picture taken January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake