Agenda SecDef: Crafting the Next Defense Strategy


When the next secretary of defense arrives in the Pentagon in January 2017, he or she must show up with a fairly well-developed agenda in order to properly seize the various levers of power and influence inside the Pentagon, rather than be seized by them. If past is prologue, the secretary should not wait for the perennially late National Security Strategy before diving into an actionable defense agenda. At the risk of oversimplification, this effort should span the strategic spectrum of ends, ways, and means.

Typically a secretary and his or her key staff will inherit a Quadrennial Defense Review process — or Defense Strategy Review, as it is now known — that is already underway and carrying considerable historical baggage. Recent QDRs have been accused of being public affairs exercises catering to external audiences; carefully word-smithed platforms on which to hang major programs; or the “most pointless and destructive planning effort imaginable.” According to a saying frequently quoted inside The Building, “if God really hates you, you may end up working on a QDR.”

These criticisms are not wholly wrong. Since the Bottom-Up Review in 1993 and the first QDR in 1997, this congressionally mandated process has been gradually but fully captured by the defense bureaucracy (even though it is “quadrennial,” some of the military services have permanent QDR offices). What was intended as a “top-down leadership exercise that sets clear priorities, makes hard choices, and allocates risk,” driven by the agenda of the president and secretary, has become a “routinized, bottom-up staff exercise that includes hundreds of participants and consumes many thousands of man-hours.”

Regardless of what is required by Congress, the next SecDef needs to take full advantage of the opportunity to develop strategic guidance very early in his or her tenure. He or she should be ready to use the QDR process or its successor to start pulling the various Pentagon levers to move the bureaucracy in meaningful ways.

The secretary of defense has the unique responsibility and convening power to force debates within and across ends, ways, and means that the bureaucracy may be incentivized or too exhausted to do more than gloss over. The following ideas are not meant to raise every question that must be addressed by the next strategic review, but instead provide the next SecDef with a foundation of how to set clear expectations and parameters for that process.


At the strategic level, the overall objectives of our defense strategy have remained relatively constant since the end of the Cold War — and in many ways, since the end of World War II. And yet, a significant portion of the mental energy of past defense strategy debates has been dedicated to their proper articulation and prioritization, mindful primarily of public audiences. This is a poor use of time and energy. Better to use the opportunity of the QDR to surface the toughest choices and drive actual change. For this and many other reasons, we strongly recommend that the next SecDef work with Congress to adjust the requirement for an unclassified QDR, and instead produce a classified strategy with a brief defense white paper for public consumption. This removes the incentive to agonize over how external audiences will perceive the ranking or word count of particular elements of the strategy. It should also incentivize the framing of key choices and the articulation of real challenges posed by real adversaries — current or plausible.


Rather than focusing primarily on how U.S. goals are messaged to the public, the next SecDef should direct intellectual and analytic horsepower towards more clearly outlining how the United States will use military means to accomplish desired ends. Trends in the security environment — the velocity of geopolitical change and diffusion of military power — are exacerbating the slow erosion of the U.S. military technical edge, a qualitative advantage policymakers and allies have long relied on. Anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and the availability of precision-guided weapons to state and non-state actors are just two characteristics of the future operating environment that merit development and review of new concepts of operation; War on the Rocks readers will be able to come up with more. Such an effort will require a number of uncomfortable conversations that often and too early bleed over into the desire for more means. But as our colleague Elbridge Colby has written,

The United States must be able to give some sense of how it can make war against opponents who can contest U.S. military superiority in their regions and also wreak great damage on the American homeland, and how it can make such war in a way that the costs and risks of the conflict would in some reasonable sense be correlated with the gravity of the interest at stake.

The next SecDef will find that steady-state demands by the different regional combatant commands for permanent or rotational forces have also taxed the ability of the Department of Defense to “compete concepts, conduct real experiments, pilot and prototype new solutions, risk failure and learn as an organization.” In its embrace of innovation and recent initiatives like the renewed emphasis on wargaming, the department appears painfully aware of these gaps and the need for new ideas. As part of the next QDR, the next SecDef should challenge the Pentagon to articulate and debate different approaches to key missions and plausible contingencies, and invest in the systems needed to advance them.


Challenging the Pentagon to conceptualize new ways is a necessary predicate to taking the debate on means beyond traditional shorthanded measures (e.g. comparisons to legacy force structures; defense spending as a percent of GDP; numbers of ships or brigades, etc.). Absent an understanding of the operational concepts necessary to address potential U.S. vulnerabilities in the emerging security environment, force development priorities may be linked to old and sometimes questionable assumptions and metrics. Secretary Ash Carter and Deputy Secretary Bob Work deserve credit for drawing attention to growing risks to DoD’s military-technical edge and initiating the third offset strategy to address them. But as the 2017 budget submission nears and the 2018 budget development process gets underway, the knives will surely come out against decisions and trade-offs that challenge the status quo. Walking into this dynamic next year, it could be very easy for the next SecDef to get boxed into a position whereby he or she simply joins the chorus of those advocating for higher budgets. It will certainly be important to advocate for the right top-line levels and budget stability DoD requires. But it is critical that the next SecDef and his or her key staff lead an internal budget process that is disciplined, shaped by the debates we advocate for above, and pegged to a resource plan that assumes realistic top-lines, rather than beginning with wishful budgetary thinking.


Finally, the secretary should use the opportunity of the QDR to engage in a robust discussion on risk: the broader consequences of the choices implicit within strategy and the tradeoffs necessary to support them. Discussions of risk within the Pentagon have a tendency to be fairly shallow, driven by taxonomies that make it difficult to understand enterprise-wide level implications. Michael Mazarr has argued in this forum for breaking out risk into discrete elements to “generate disciplined and well-informed conversations about risk among senior leaders” — a time-consuming, but far more worthwhile process. The next SecDef will have useful precedents to build on. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance was explicit in the decision to no longer size U.S. ground forces for large, persistent stability operations. The 2013 Strategic Choices and Management Review made clear a preference for preserving capability by taking more risk on force capacity. Each of these results were built on tough debates about what these decisions truly meant and how the Department of Defense might mitigate additional risk should it need to. Whether or not they were correct, it is important that the Pentagon’s leadership be prepared to make informed difficult choices and bear the accountability for the implications.

These brief observations vastly oversimplify a process that will absorb much of a new secretary of defense’s first year in office. Likewise, we’re certain we have missed many strategic questions you would elevate to the top of this list. For that reason, we want to hear from War on the Rocks readers: How would you define success for the 2018 Defense Strategy Review? What must it address to avoid missing a real opportunity? What else is necessary to make the end result more than a “glossy coffee table brochure?”


Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and at the White House as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.


Image credit: David B. Gleason (adapted by WOTR)