Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his team at the Pentagon are nearing completion of a new National Defense Strategy, a document designed to help explain how the U.S. military helps support and advance U.S. interests in peace and in war.
Crafting a defense strategy is a difficult balancing act. The secretary needs the strategy to advance his “inside game” – setting clear priorities that ought to impact both defense policy but also, critically, in the budget deliberations that will drive trillions in spending. The new strategy is also a means to help the secretary advance his “outside game” — reinforcing the administration’s messaging to key allies, partners, and adversaries.
And while there are several layers of defense policy and programming processes that contribute to the trajectory of U.S. defense strategy and spending, the first issuance of an administration’s defense strategy is always among the most important. Simply put, it will set the contours of the defense debate in ways that the Trump administration won’t easily be able to reset.
Thankfully, there is a strong team of new political appointees and career civil servants (no, they are not “Obama holdovers”) that are developing a draft for Mattis to review. The strategy is set to be released sometime this fall, as it will set the tone for the debate over the Trump administration’s budget request for FY19, due early next year.
Importantly, Congress is expecting the strategy in a classified form, which should enable the Pentagon team to speak clearly about the threat environment and the key strategic choices that will drive strategy and spending. An unclassified version will likely be released for public consumption.
So, what are these key contours and how are the debates likely materializing inside the Pentagon?
First, the strategy is likely to argue that the United States is losing its technological edge relative to rising powers and some perennial challengers. This argument has been gaining momentum for about a decade, gathering significant strength in the latter years of the Obama administration, particularly during Robert Work’s tenure as deputy secretary of defense. The hard truth is that the kind of technological innovations that have underpinned essential elements of U.S. military advantage — global positioning, precision sensors, advanced computing — have all fully evolved into commercial technologies, and have proliferated around the world. Worse, the technologies that are driving the next big round of defense innovation — artificial intelligence, “big data,” energy generation and storage etc., — are already commercial. Thus, it is relatively easy for state and even non-state actors to access military technology and dual-use commercial technology that can pose real threats. It will be interesting to see whether the new defense strategy admits that this is a permanent feature of the strategic environment, or whether and how the Pentagon believes the United States can reestablish a persistent technological advantage once again.
Second, the strategy will likely argue that the U.S. military has a global role to play in maintaining a security environment conducive to American interests. The strategy will probably have a line or two attempting to link to some kind of Trumpian “America First” rhetorical frame, but I expect it will contort those lines into an argument for sustaining American military leadership around the world, strengthening and reinforcing key alliances and partnerships, and deterring adversaries — just like every previous defense strategy has done. There are elements of Trump’s campaign critiques that I hope the Pentagon team finds ways to include in the strategy, such as the need for U.S. allies to invest more into their defense, to find ways to operate with us and with others in distant theaters and to consider developing operational strategies in which they can operate independently if needed in the early phases of a crisis. Most of these points have been made by previous defense strategies, but they continue to be relevant nonetheless.
Third, the strategy will likely argue that the near-term readiness of U.S. forces has suffered in recent years and needs to be reset to higher baseline levels. It is true that 16 years of constant forward combat operations has worn down key elements of the force. It is also true that the inability of the White House and Congress to come together and fund the Department of Defense in regular annual budget cycles has caused a degree of budget chaos that has wreaked havoc on military readiness. Furthermore, given Mattis’ background as a warfighter and combatant commander, I expect those around him arguing to accept some degree of risk somewhere along the spectrum of plausible contingencies to buy-down risk in other elements of the defense program will have a pretty hard time.
Fourth, while it’s therefore very likely the strategy will prioritize readiness for current operations — just like every recent defense strategy has done — the key uncertainty will be whether it attempts to prioritize generating new military capabilities or instead growing military capacity. Bryan McGrath describes why the “capability vs. capacity” frame is a poor one, at least from a naval perspective, imploring Pentagon leaders to “not make the mistake of assuming that the relative weight of capacity and capability required of the U.S. Navy for the conduct of war is the same as that required to deter it.” I agree. If the United States aims to deter modern adversaries, where U.S. forces are relative to them can oftentimes be as important as the particular capabilities they may bring to bear to deter or to engage an adversary. That said, when significant budget pressures are applied any set of preferences, choices need to be made. Should the Trump administration follow its campaign rhetoric and increase the size of the active-duty Army to 554,000 troops? The Navy to 355 ships? Can the United States afford an Air Force with all of the short-range tactical fighters it wants plus a new long-range bomber? What about funding an Army modernization strategy so that it can operate against a new generation of tanks, artillery, and precision munitions? Each military service is different and each region poses unique challenges, so both capability and capacity are critical. That’s why we’re unlikely to see huge swings of the capability vs. capacity pendulum that move the defense program in large ways.
Finally, and perhaps pessimistically, I’m bearish on the ability of even a great Pentagon strategy team to successfully act as a vanguard pushing significant changes to the defense program in the near-term. There are many reasons for this, but here are a few:
First, the degree of near-term uncertainty with respect to plausible military contingencies is extremely high. The crisis with North Korea is very real and could quite easily spark war at any time. The ongoing counter-ISIL campaign is going well but will continue to be a near-term operational focus for the foreseeable future.
Second, the Trump administration appears to be close to walking away from the Iran nuclear deal which, at a minimum, would raise military tensions in the Persian Gulf even further, probably necessitating additions to our forward military posture beyond what is already deployed to the region.
Third, while the expected addition of around 4,000 additional U.S. military troops to Afghanistan seems modest, it represents a 50 percent increase from current levels, which will be taxing for the current architecture to absorb, much less deploy in ways to hopefully make an impact on the ground.
Fourth, it is far from clear that Congress will pass a budget deal that will lift the $549 billion spending cap that the 2011 budget law put into place. The $621.5 billion defense spending bill approved by the House in July and the $632 billion authorization approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee is still a legislative fantasy absent what will have to be a bipartisan budget deal that lifts discretionary spending caps.
The most plausible budget outcome will likely be a repeat of previous years, the sequestration spending caps will basically remain, and a significant chunk of the funding disparity will end up in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, assuming the White House ignores its own insistence that this not occur. If a one-year budget deal does happen, and the overall topline is somewhat closer to the House and Senate recommended levels, it will remain difficult for the Pentagon to use the money in the OCO accounts for its overall budget priorities — particularly if these priorities involve starting new programs to address any military capability or capacity gaps the defense strategy might identify.
But even if current contingencies and persistent budget chaos seriously hinder Mattis in his efforts to implement an ambitious new defense strategy, these kinds of processes and documents still have real value. The new strategy will signal the administration’s policy priorities, convey signals to allies and partners, and help Mattis manage the various Pentagon stakeholders into some alignment as they finalize the FY19 budget proposal.
The team assembling this strategy should be ambitious. Describe the threats and challenges that pose risks to the United States and its military forces. Insist on articulating the kinds of military capabilities that we need to maintain military deterrence against modern adversaries. Demand that the various voices arguing for the status quo justify their arguments in light of a challenging expected future. Even if budgetary and political pressures make implementing the defense strategy unrealistic in the short-term, don’t give up the chance to continue pushing the arguments that will ultimately help the Pentagon win the future.
Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President at CNAS, and a former Pentagon and NSC staffer.