Rules for Getting Defense Strategy Right


Is the Pentagon capable of generating a real defense strategy? Or will the forthcoming National Defense Strategy (NDS in Pentagon-ese) be like so many strategic documents of the past: attractive, but of little intrinsic value, like coffee-table books?

A real defense strategy would provide clear priorities, identify America’s competitive advantages and how to capitalize on them, and deal with the world — and the enemies it offers — as it is. The need for a new NDS could not be more acute, but previous efforts have had decidedly mixed results. Will this one succeed where others have failed? We are about to find out.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his team at the Department of Defense are hard at work preparing a new NDS, which Congress expects in January. In addition to the improvements directed by Congress, I hope this one will be different in other ways.

Done correctly, the NDS can put the United States on a path to re-establish its military edge. But several challenges loom.

First, the Pentagon is writing the NDS in parallel with the White House’s development of the National Security Strategy (NSS). Even though the writing teams are closely collaborating, it would be better for them to be tackled sequentially. The NSS should provide the framework for the NDS with sufficient intervening time for the NSS to be digested and analyzed.

Further, the Pentagon’s leadership team is constantly preoccupied by the many security challenges currently facing the United States. This “bandwidth” problem constrains the time and attention Mattis and his senior team are able to devote to the NDS, an inherently longer-term but still crucial task.

Finally, as has been frequently reported, Mattis is still forming his senior leadership team. He’s missing an under secretary of defense for policy as well as other key subordinates, who would typically help guide such an effort. While the secretary has a capable team working on the NDS, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is effectively missing three echelons in appointed policy officials: the under secretary, the principal deputy to the under secretary, and the assistant secretary. The cumulative result is that in matters of strategy and plans the balance of power has tilted to the Joint Staff and the military services, less impacted by vacancies in political appointees, but whose perspective often does not sufficiently weigh political-military considerations.

These challenges might be manageable. Still, there are pitfalls that could doom the NDS to the fate of many other defense strategic documents — which live on only in obscurity and ineffectiveness.

What would contribute to the creation of a seminal defense strategy that guides our military back to a position of strength and dominance?

First, the NDS should flow from a clear goal: The U.S. military needs to be ready and able to defend America’s interests with decisive and overwhelming military strength. The NDS should chart the path to the development and maintenance of a strong military with the ability to dominate likely opponents in all domains: land, air, sea, space, and cyber. Tragically, due to overuse, underfunding, and inattention, American military capabilities have now markedly deteriorated to a dangerously low level. The recent ship collisions, aircraft mishaps, and reports on dilapidated shipyards show what happens when a military tries to accomplish missions with only a fraction of the necessary resources.

The NDS should acknowledge the growing gap between the military’s needs and what the nation has seen fit to resource. There are no shortcuts to accomplish the rebuilding that is now necessary. The NDS should acknowledge the true state of the military as it relates to the broad requirements of protecting our national interests.

Next, as Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter puts it: “Strategy is about choices.” Strategies articulate that we are going to “do this, and not this.” American defense strategies often fail by endeavoring to be completely inclusive of all parties and valuing their contributions equally. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) fell in that category. Every “tribe” successfully inserted their organizations as a high priority into the document, which consequently became irrelevant the moment it was signed.

On a positive note, the indication from the Pentagon is that the NDS development group remains tight and has thus far successfully resisted opening the document to “track changes” comments from everyone in the building. Even assuming the president and the Congress are able to raise the defense budget to a much higher level, the Pentagon still won’t be able to afford everything on its vast “wish lists,” as the military must also tackle gaping holes in facility conditions and maintenance backlogs. Some capabilities, structures, and elements of infrastructure are not as important as others, and the NDS shouldn’t pull back from identifying those that are less critical for success.

In addition, the NDS should be budget-informed, not budget-constrained. There is a difference. The strategy should take a realistic view of the national security threats facing the country and propose realistic ways and means to deter and defeat those threats. While acknowledging the United States cannot dedicate an infinite amount of resources to national defense, the strategy should not fall victim to the trap of accepting the Office of Management and Budget’s views as the limit for what the country should or can spend on its defense.

Already some seek to advance the notion that because of our structural economic problems, the United States will be unable to increase defense spending, even though the spending on its armed forces stands at a historically low percentage of both gross domestic product (3.3 percent) and overall federal spending (16 percent). Skeptics employ superficial spending comparisons between nations to argue the United States already spends enough on defense.

How many times, for example, have you heard that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven or eight countries combined? You might take from that observation that Washington is spending too much hard-earned taxpayer money on a bloated military, but you’d be wrong. Such arguments fall apart quickly on examination. First, there is no other nation in the world that needs to accomplish as much with its military as the United States. Washington commands a globally deployed force that upholds the pillars of the international order by defending access to the commons, protecting trade routes (that benefit the American people more than anyone else), and deterring those who seek to disrupt peace and security. Therefore, the U.S military must be superior everywhere. Second, some of the difference in spending among nations can be traced to purchasing power parity. For example, a ship that costs $1.2 billion to produce in the United States may cost only $300 million in China.  Notwithstanding these factors, national interests must drive America’s military requirements, not cold financial calculations.

The NDS should find the balance between identifying the resources that are required and acknowledging that tough resourcing choices are still inevitable. Encouragingly, officials have told me the new deputy secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan (a former Boeing executive), is already hard at work finding efficiencies to get the most out of current funding.

Following this line of thought, the NDS should not propose approaches that contradict the very nature of war. The Obama administration attempted this when they wishfully prescribed in the 2014 QDR that “our forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations.” In matters such as this, it would be wise to heed the advice of the Marxist Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” U.S. history, not confined to Iraq and Afghanistan, reflects the way wars have a way of drawing American forces into prolonged stability operations. Critics correctly argue that some of these stability operations were conducted by choice and that America should be more judicious in deciding whether to enter into future conflicts with the potential for stability operations. While appealing, such reasoned arguments ignore the reality that modern conflict usually presents either gradually, like Vietnam, or as crisis, such as Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and in neither case allowing for extended deliberation of questions like “tell me how this ends?” To put it simply, it is foolhardy not to prepare or size our forces for a type of operation which history tells us American presidents have repeatedly seen fit to engage the military, even when not specifically prepared for it.

The strategy should be easy to describe and understand. By that standard, the goal articulated in the Obama administration’s 2015 National Military Strategy that “our military will be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale, multi-phased campaign while denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — another aggressor in a different region” failed. To defeat an adversary is a clear objective towards which forces can be sized in wargames and analysis. Much less easily quantified is a goal to “deny objectives” or “impose unacceptable costs.” For example, who decides what is an “unacceptable cost?” President Lyndon B. Johnson was convinced Operation Rolling Thunder, the strategic bombing campaign begun in 1965, would impose unacceptable costs on North Vietnam. It never did. Objectives must be clear and unambiguous.

Students can search in vain for a precedent in the annals of American military history for an objective to “deny the objectives of an adversary.” Contrast that goal with the unambiguous one given to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as he assumed responsibility for D-Day: “You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” In practice, not every war is like World War II, sometimes the objectives will not be so clear. In any case, the fundamental construct the United States uses to size and maintain its forces must be both reasonable and clear.

The only logical and easily understood strategic construct for the United States is to maintain the capability to engage and win decisively in two major regional conflicts near simultaneously. America’s force-sizing construct has changed over time. During the peak of the Cold War, the United States sought the ability to fight two and a half wars simultaneously against the Soviet Union, China, and another smaller adversary. Successive administrations have modified this construct based on their assessments of threats, national interests, priorities, and perceptions of available resources. The real basis for the two-war construct is deterrence. If adversaries know that America can engage in two major fights with confidence, they will be less inclined to take advantage of the United States or an ally committed elsewhere.

The good news is the United States need not size its forces to take on the Soviet Union. Today, Russia’s capabilities are smaller and are in long-term decline as a result of a faltering economy. The bad news is that the United States needs to stand ready to deter and defeat China, which is making massive investments in its military forces and is inclined toward aggression in Asia.

Within the strategy, Washington should be able to see the key competitive advantages that the United States intends to employ to win. America’s unmatched ability to fight as a joint team certainly would rank as one. A strong and well-nourished network of alliances and partners would certainly be another. I hope not to see artificial intelligence, robots, railguns and directed energy weapons reflected as the keys to our future military success because the advantages these technologies convey are so transitory. They may be important, but are not key U.S. advantages for the long haul.

Finally, it’s a military maxim that nothing happens until someone is told to do something. The strategy should therefore be directive, not just descriptive. Strategic objectives should lend themselves to tracking, and appropriate individuals should be held accountable. For example, if one objective is to increase readiness, the strategy should specify how much of a gain, by when, and who is responsible.

When Congress created the requirement for the NDS, they specified that it should be classified, with an unclassified summary. That direction is liberating, as the NDS can be more narrowly focused than if it were forced to serve as both strategy and public relations tool. The Pentagon should embrace the opportunity to get specific.

There is room for optimism about the opportunity the NDS affords. Authoritatively defining how the U.S. military will protect America’s interests and the methods to be employed is something that has not been done in recent memory. Done correctly, it has a great chance of helping put the military back on a path to being a formidable force for the foreseeable future.


Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army Lieutenant General, is Director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Armando A. Schwier-Morales