Getting the Pentagon’s Next National Defense Strategy Right

May 24, 2017

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A small Pentagon team has started working on the next National Defense Strategy that, if properly scoped and staffed, will be an important tool for Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to positively shape the Pentagon’s strategy and spending.

For every first-term administration, the development of a cohesive statement of U.S. defense strategy and policy is among the most important steps a new Pentagon team can take. In addition to conveying the new administration’s strategic approach, a good strategic planning process will produce effective mechanisms for guiding the long-term evolution of the U.S. military, and can help shape healthy civilian-military relations along the way.

In late 2015 and early 2016, a series of hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee explored how the Pentagon develops strategy. These hearings ultimately informed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which replaced the legislative foundation of the Quadrennial Defense Review with a much clearer and well-defined set of expectations for a National Defense Strategy. The 2017 NDAA outlines what the strategy must include:

  • The priority missions and key force planning scenarios;
  • The projected strategic environment and the strategies that the Department of Defense will employ to counter key threats;
  • A strategic framework guiding how the Department of Defense will prioritize among threats and military missions, manage risks, and make resource investments;
  • The roles and missions of the armed forces to carry out key missions;
  • The size, shape, posture, capabilities, and readiness of the force, along with other elements of the defense program necessary to support the strategy;
  • And the investments in capabilities, structure, readiness, posture, and technological innovation that the Department of Defense will make over a five-year period to execute the strategy.

Perhaps the most important shift the NDAA guidance enshrines is the expectation that each National Defense Strategy “shall be presented to the congressional defense committees in classified form with an unclassified summary.” Previous legislative guidance had left the form of the submission vague, and thus most previous Quadrennial Defense Reviews and defense strategies have primarily been unclassified reports to Congress, which tended to complicate the task of using these strategies as catalysts for real change inside the Pentagon. Unclassified strategy documents were written in ways that reassured key foreign allies and partners while signaling to adversaries – and were necessarily vague on articulating key tradeoffs and choices sufficient to help actually move debates inside the Pentagon. But real strategy is about aligning scarce resources among competing priorities, so a classified strategy offers the best chance for Mattis to align ends and ways with projected means – and not get steam-rolled by the military services, combatant commands, and other elements of the Department of Defense that will be screaming “more, more, more!” While it was always possible for savvy defense policymakers to employ Quadrennial Defense Reviews, budget documents, posture statements, and classified assessments to guide Pentagon debates and help various secretaries run the building, the cacophony of products and forums made things far more difficult than they needed to be.

In the context of Congress being quite helpful in giving clear parameters to the Pentagon, enter Secretary Mattis who, on April 27, issued a guidance document outlining his intent for developing a new National Defense Strategy. Addressed to the building’s senior civilian and military leadership, Mattis made three key statements:

  1. “As a practical matter, strategy cannot be built by a large group process.”
  2. “I will be personally involved in this effort, seeking the advice of the Joint Chiefs, Combatant Commanders, and my civilian leadership team.”
  3. “The team will provide interim products for your personal feedback. These products may be provocative, as any good strategy requires hard choices. I expect you to review these as a means to genuine debate.”

I expect that many veterans of past Pentagon strategy reviews were very pleased to see Mattis send precisely these signals, and it is worth reflecting on each of them in turn.

First, Mattis is correct to state that “strategy cannot be built by a large group process.” While large groups can and should engage along the way, if the National Defense Strategy is to be successful it must make clear choices – the kind that large group decision-making processes do not effectively produce. For instance, typically these kinds of strategic processes are run by teams of civilians and their military counterparts at the assistant secretary and “3-star” flag officer level. The processes have tended feature large, loosely-coordinated groups, with most conflicts adjudicated at the deputy secretary and vice-chairman level. By the time the secretary engages, many of the key assumptions and underlying choices have been papered over or otherwise dealt with in ways that are difficult to fully unravel, particularly as time rolls on, the in-box inflates, and the bureaucracy “does its thing” – finding ways to maintain the status quo.

Second, it is important that the secretary of defense be personally involved in strategy development. This is true for any secretary hoping to making lasting strategic shifts, but perhaps particularly true for Mattis in 2017. For instance, had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton been elected president, the likely variation among defense priorities and programs likely would not have been more than marginal – a 5 percent shift in resources here, a 10 percent shift in relative strategic priority there. With President Donald Trump, the spectrum of plausible shifts is really quite large. Just reviewing Trump’s rhetoric alone (e.g. What does “America First” mean for U.S. defense policy? Is NATO obsolete or isn’t it? Is Russia a potential strategic partner or clear adversary? Are we really going to install “goddamn steam” catapults on the Ford-class carriers?), it seems clear that Mattis will need to account for a wider range of possible strategic shifts and make some pretty significant choices to help focus the Pentagon and also inform the White House’s development of its National Security Strategy. If Mattis doesn’t aggressive shape the defense debate even inside the executive branch, much less on Capitol Hill, others will surely do so.

Third, for Mattis to signal now that he expects the National Defense Strategy process to grab some metaphorical “third rails” in defense policy provides exactly the right kind of top-cover for Pentagon strategists. Real strategic planning should produce new thinking that illustrates what possible big shifts in policy or programs would have on an organization. This has historically been very difficult for the Pentagon, as powerful bureaucratic antibodies tend to constrain even smart alternative approaches from receiving attention from senior policymakers. To take just one example, why are we not moving much more smartly against the rising threat of China’s militarism in East and South Asia? Why aren’t we hearing more big ideas for reshaping U.S. forward defense posture, fully investing in longer-range strike and bomber aircraft, rethinking counter-anti-access/area denial offensive and defensive missile strategies, and operating concepts that can leverage our allies and partners? These are bipartisan concerns that would be very well-received – Mattis’ team ought to push harder on these kinds of open doors, and be skeptical of voices that resist doing so.

Beyond accounting for the wider spectrum of plausible defense strategies that the election of President Trump has provided, the budget picture serves also to reaffirm the need for new thinking. While the campaign rhetoric around defense spending might have given some cause for hope that spending would increase in significant ways, the FY17 supplemental, the FY18 budget, and the larger Congressional dynamics make it all but certain that Pentagon spending increases will be marginal at best. Put simply, the so-called “Trump buildup” to a 355-ship Navy, 60,000 more soldiers, 100 more planes, and 12,000 more marines is obviously not going to be remotely accomplished with a $603 billion defense budget (only 3 percent higher than the Obama administration budget request).

This outsized rhetoric can’t be entirely blamed on Trump. Over the last few years, between the military services, the combatant commands, Congress, and even the Obama White House, one can find affirmative statements of the need to increase funding for basically everything – more force structure, more readiness, more overseas posture, and more resources for modernization. While I support strong defense budgets, the paucity of any real signaling from defense leaders that they are willing to scale back some areas of the defense program to enable growth in other areas exposes much of debate as wishing thinking and political posturing that does little except hold out false hope and retard true strategy development. The nation deserves better.

Mattis, likely recognizing that the prospects for significant topline increases are quite negligible, will need to use the National Defense Strategy process to make some tough choices among competing priorities and generate the intellectual capital needed to implement those choices inside the Pentagon.

Given the helpful reform of the underlying legislation, the wide spectrum of possible strategic shifts, and the persistence of resource constraints, this iteration of the defense strategy and resource debate has the chance to be quite consequential. Having participated in several of the Obama-era reviews both at the Pentagon and the White House, here are four recommendations for how Secretary Mattis can make the most of the opportunity that the National Defense Strategy process provides:

First, embrace the National Defense Strategy as a classified document. Don’t worry about the unclassified summary until the classified strategy is done. Make full use of the strategy’s classified nature to make clear statements about the current and projected security environment, the prioritized roles and missions of each military service, which scenarios and contingencies are most consequential for force planning, which areas of the world need what kind of forward posture, and a prioritized framework for developing the future force. These are all things that can be said clearly in a classified document – don’t overlook this unique opportunity. Once the classified strategy is complete, then task the writing team with crafting a concise summary of the document suitable for public consumption. In this respect, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance is a good example of an unclassified statement of defense strategy.

Second, use the National Defense Strategy to set clear priorities. Here is a simple test: if one can overlay the next NDS against the the current program of record and not easily recognize how the strategy will affect it, then it should be judged as a failure (alongside too many past Quadrennial Defense Reviews and strategic reviews). Use the document to frame the key strategic tradeoffs each military service, in particular, must deal with. The Army, for instance, cannot simultaneously get bigger, more expeditionary, more ready, and also fully resource its modernization priorities. The Navy cannot simultaneously get bigger, more deployable, and more lethal. It is doubtful the Air Force can fully procure all the tactical fighter aircraft it says it needs while fully investing in the new long-range bomber. Is it really possible to fully modernize each leg of the nuclear triad? All are arguably important, but which are more important than others given the current and projected operating environment and given the nature of the overall joint force? These are fundamental questions the National Defense Strategy must wrestle with and convey a clear sense of strategic direction. No one is expecting the National Defense Strategy to get the orientation perfect, but it must be sufficient to convey which direction to move and which paths Defense Department components are expected to embark on.

Third, draft the National Defense Strategy as a management document. Left to its own devices, the bureaucracy will tend to produce a very large and unwieldy document that will include all sorts of negotiated and unnecessary compromise language. Length is not necessarily correlated with quality, but the drafters should be very disciplined to ensure there isn’t a single wasted word. If the NDS is to be used as a management document, make sure each section has a purpose and conveys a sense of “commander’s intent” that is sufficient to hold Defense Department components accountable. Use perhaps an appendix of the National Defense Strategy to outline in detail how the Department of Defense, in all of its parts, is expected to implement it. For instance, Mattis ought not to believe anyone who tells him that the process cannot shape the FY 2019 budget process, to include the program-objective memorandums (i.e. the “POMs”) that the military services are developing right now. If Mattis doesn’t force his thinking into the FY 2019 cycle, the Trump administration will essentially lose two years of strategic impact on the defense program. The National Defense Strategy also should clearly connect to the 2018 Guidance for the Employment of the Force (i.e. the “GEF”), which is a classified document issued every two years that prioritizes the key missions and global posture priorities across each combatant command. Finally, the National Defense Strategy should be clearly connected to the issuance of the Defense Planning Guidance that the Office of the Secretary of Defense will issue to the military services in spring 2018 as they develop the POM submissions for FY 2020. These and other elements of the Pentagon’s program and budget cycle are all ways for Mattis to ensure his priorities are followed – but they are also opportunities for opponents of his agenda to resist changes to the status quo. The key is to make sure the National Defense Strategy is connected to each of these processes to ensure the defense strategy is actually implemented rather than largely ignored. And while theoretically it would be nice for the White House’s National Security Strategy to be released prior to the National Defense Strategy, the chances of this happening are slim. The White House would be wise to give guidance to Mattis’ team on how to craft the opening section of the National Defense Strategy (dealing with the strategic environment and U.S. national interests) and let the Pentagon run with the ball. Delaying the issuance of the National Defense Strategy into 2018 would preclude it from having the impact on the key strategic and budgetary levers outlined above – which is the point of the entire exercise.

Fourth, engage with the Congressionally-appointed Commission on the National Defense Strategy. The 2017 NDAA requires an outside review of the National Defense Strategy, similar to how recent Quadrennial Defense Reviews were assessed by an independent panel. Unfortunately, while both the 2010 and 2014 independent reviews had elements that were quite helpful to the debate, neither was structured and resourced to fully meet the Congressional intent to closely review the force planning assumptions and analysis used to guide the secretary’s decision-making for the Quadrennial Defense Review and its associated fiscal year budget. In essence, each independent panel tended to craft its own defense strategy as a variation on the one developed by the Pentagon. As Congress assembles the 2017 commission, it should carefully select the members and staff to ensure that it is able to perform a detailed examination of the 2017 National Defense Strategy, with full access to the key classified scenarios and force planning assessments that drove key choices along the way. With Secretary Mattis intending to complete the National Defense Strategy by the end of August (which is the right timeline to fully inform the FY 2019 defense program deliberations), the outside commission should be fully up and running by July in order to satisfy the NDAA’s requirement for a December 1 report to Congress. This is the right timeline to help members and staff prepare to assess the Pentagon’s FY19 budget when it is delivered in February 2018.

Given the headlines the Trump administration has been generating over the past few months, coupled with the rapidly shifting security environment that is producing all too real threats to U.S. national security, focusing on crafting a new National Defense Strategy might seem quite detached if not outright indulgent to some. It is not. Though the Pentagon is not yet fully staffed and the challenges are many, good strategy can always help to ensure the right priorities are given adequate resources in times of uncertainty and resource constraints, which are all but permanent features of today’s strategic environment. Secretary Mattis and his team would be wise to fully commit to making the 2017 National Defense Strategy a product of the best possible quality.


Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President at the Center for a New American Security. He spent much of 2009 to 2013 engaging in strategic planning processes at the Pentagon and National Security Council staff. He also helped staff the National Defense Panel review of the 2014 QDR.

Image: DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro

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