war on the rocks

Jim Mattis Fires a Clear Warning Shot

March 20, 2018

In case you missed it, here’s the most important sentence in the recently released National Defense Strategy: “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” These blunt words from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis encapsulate the key theme of the document, which conveys a powerful sense of urgency about what it will take to fight and win the nation’s future wars. The strategy sends an important inside message to the Pentagon, identifying what the services need to do in order to be fully prepared for the next big war. But it also sends an important outside message, to the American people, about the challenges that the nation may face in the future — and every person serving in uniform needs to help spread that message as widely as possible.

The Inside Message

The National Defense Strategy clearly states that the central challenge to U.S. national security is “the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with Russia and China. Rogue states such as North Korea and Iran get their due, and the persistent challenge of terrorism is recognized. But this defense strategy lays down a new and unequivocal marker for the U.S. military: You must be able to fight against major competitors and win in the most demanding military scenarios imaginable. It implies that the U.S. military is not well-postured to do that today, largely because it has spent most of the past two decades conducting recurring and generally predictable rotations to limited, irregular wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other low-intensity hotspots around the world.

How should the U.S. military prepare to fight and win against highly capable adversaries like Russia and China? The strategy identifies three key characteristics of the joint force: It must be lethal, resilient, and rapidly adaptable. The first, lethality, would seem to be the most traditional, which includes modernizing key capabilities, strengthening protection, and improving agility in force posture and employment. But it also includes an unusual and refreshing emphasis on human capital as critical to wartime success, a component of military readiness that is far too easy to overlook in a world of high-tech weaponry. The strategy blasts today’s system of professional military education as having “stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” Even more strikingly, it implicitly indicts the performance of the senior officers who operated at the strategic level during the recent wars. It argues that

developing leaders who are competent in national security decision-making requires a broad revision of talent management among the Armed Services, including fellowships, civilian education, and assignments that increase leader understanding of inter-agency decision-making processes, as well as alliances and coalitions.

Perhaps only this secretary of defense — a highly respected four-star general with recent combat experience — could make such a strong point and ensure that such unequivocal language made it into the final version. We have written extensively about the military’s need to improve talent management, but no senior Pentagon leader has ever linked it so clearly to improving the lethality of the force.

Second, the National Defense Strategy states that the joint force needs to be resilient. As we’ve also written, despite years of combat experience, today’s military has never faced the staggering impacts of high casualties or heavy attrition of ships, airplanes, or ground units in combat. The (thankfully) low-end lethal capabilities of U.S. adversaries in recent wars have lulled the nation into a sense of complacency about relatively low combat losses that would shock veterans of World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam. The Navy and Air Force have enjoyed total domain supremacy for over half a century. No one on active duty in those branches has ever experienced the loss of a warship or a squadron of aircraft during an entire war, much less in one engagement. And the Army and Marines have grown overconfident in a wartime world marked by assured logistics, unchallenged deployments into the combat zone, and battlefield opponents lacking virtually all modern military technology. Mattis is sounding the alarm that the U.S. military will be highly vulnerable in the future — and should quickly start training for high-end conflict against the very same advanced capabilities in which the United States has enjoyed a long monopoly.

Third, the joint force needs to be able to rapidly adapt to a fast-changing and highly competitive operating environment. This may be the biggest challenge facing the Department of Defense, which is the largest employer — and therefore the largest bureaucracy — in the world. The National Defense Strategy rightly criticizes the department for failing to perform at the “speed of relevance,” arguing it “is over-optimized for exceptional performance at the expense of providing timely decisions, policies, and capabilities to the warfighter.” These well-known problems have plagued the Pentagon for decades and resist easy solutions. Yet Mattis doesn’t stop there. He also argues that adaptability requires changes to the department’s mindset and culture, and especially condemns “overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change.” This may be the most important inside message to the force, yet it is also likely to prove the most difficult to implement. Mattis will have to work tirelessly to promote such deep transformation, but any serious progress toward this goal would certainly rank among the most important contributions of his tenure.

The Outside Message

The National Defense Strategy is a fairly wonky document. Few Americans will read it, and most will not know it exists at all. That’s unfortunate, because it contains a new and very important message for the American people. It makes a clear and compelling case that great power wars are more likely than they have been in decades, and that the U.S. military, without steady funding and urgent change, could actually lose those wars. That would be a shocking revelation to most Americans, and Mattis does a great service to the nation by calling it out.

The American people fully expect the U.S. military to be able to prevail in any imaginable future war. But while many Americans may grasp that the possibilities of great power conflict have gone up, few will understand that the U.S. military risks defeat if it fails to change. Many assume that since the United States spends more on defense than the next eight nations combined, and since most of those are U.S. allies or partners, the U.S. military should be able to readily overwhelm any possible adversary. While that may have been true in the past, it is not automatically true today. The United States is now competing with major powers that are not constrained by democratic norms of accountability, transparency, and oversight. China’s economic power will soon rival that of the United States. Russia and China are both rapidly modernizing their military forces, and are stealing cutting-edge American military and civilian technologies through advanced cyber theft as well as old-fashioned tactics like illegal technology transfers and smuggling. The United States is now operating on an uneven playing field with its most serious potential adversaries, which is steadily fraying the U.S. military advantage and could even eliminate it altogether.

The new National Defense Strategy marks a clear change of direction for the U.S. military. After focusing for almost two decades on limited wars and non-state threats, it is now entering a period of great power competition and the renewed possibility of a major conflict. The new strategy makes a clear and easy-to-understand case for why sustained defense investment is needed in this complicated and challenging era. Those in uniform have a responsibility to get this message out. The National Defense Strategy summary provides an excellent set of talking points that America’s uniformed and civilian defense leadership should use at every opportunity to talk to the American people about the challenges ahead. And it also calls for urgent, perhaps even revolutionary, change inside the Pentagon and the military services. This strategy, explained by those who will have to execute it, can help inform and educate the American people about just what will be required for the United States to remain able to prevail against its potential future adversaries in an increasingly dangerous world.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: DoD photo/Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr