war on the rocks

What Has Become Clear to You? Reflections on Assessing the National Defense Strategy

October 16, 2018

The national security community has debated the 2018 National Defense Strategy ad infinitum over the last year. In January, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis personally rolled it out with a clear bumper sticker: the U.S. military is worried about conflict and competition with China and Russia. Early reports praised the National Defense Strategy, although its implementation has raised a number of questions. While Mattis deserves accolades for his personal involvement in the strategy’s formulation and rollout, he should be equally committed to assessing it. Are its assumptions holding? Are its conclusions sound given new information? And is the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy effectively heeding its guidance?

Thanks to Congress, Mattis and his team have a mandate to conduct such an assessment. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requires him to submit “an assessment of the current national defense strategy, including an assessment of the implementation of the strategy by the department and an assessment whether the strategy requires revision as a result of changes in assumptions, policy, or other factors.” As part of the team working on defense reform in the Pentagon at the end of the Obama administration, we promoted a legislative requirement to assess the defense strategy. As such, we are pleased to see it come to pass, even if we would quibble with some of the details. Understanding how this came to be is important for anyone involved in assessing the National Defense Strategy today.

And while his homework to Congress isn’t due until February, Mattis is surely already thinking about how the department should approach this new task. Given how closely Mattis himself is associated with this iteration of National Defense Strategy, it is important he take ownership of this process as well, both because of the precedent it will set for how future secretaries of defense will complete such assessments and to re-signal his commitment to the strategy’s implementation.

A Brief, Oversimplified Bureaucratic History of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review

The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review served to codify many of the key propositions of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, most (in)famously one of Team Obama’s most provocative policy initiatives — the rebalance to Asia.  Without debating the merits of the policy itself, it is fair to say it was controversial both because of what it signaled to friends and competitors alike in Asia, but also for what it implied about traditional U.S. commitments in Europe and the Middle East. While implications of the rebalance are still resounding internationally, the way this policy played out bureaucratically catalyzed the idea for a routine assessment of the defense strategy.

The Quadrennial Defense Review sought to cement the Asia “pivot” in the budget, and in doing so, elevated China to the preeminent place among U.S. national security challenges. As misfortune would have it, problems the review actively downplayed demanded center stage in the weeks and months immediately after its publication. Where the review assumed modest gains from the Russia reset precluded any serious threat from Moscow, the annexation of Crimea proved otherwise. And where the Quadrennial Defense Review clearly sought to deemphasize counterterrorism after misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIL brutally surfaced to capture large swaths of territory, and with it, the American public’s imagination.

What emerged from this dynamic bureaucratically — inside the Pentagon for sure but across the interagency and on Capitol Hill as well — was a heightening of the natural tensions that exist between regional experts and operators managing crises in real time and those concerned about long-term, strategic matters like the Asia rebalance. This latter group is much more plugged into force development and budget processes where resource decisions are finalized and thus has an upper hand in ensuring its priorities are addressed. Regional offices are secondary, at best, in shaping resource decisions inside the Pentagon and often hapless when they do try to engage.

The 2014–2015 timeframe thus ushered in an unpleasant standoff between these two groups. Regional experts and operators focused on Europe and the Middle East pleaded for money, forces, and equipment from largely unsympathetic strategists and budgeteers who believed the die had been cast to a future based in Asia. “Rebalance” became a curse word to many regional experts who displayed deep frustration about the ambivalence of functional colleagues, who themselves believed they were acting as good faith guardians of deliberate Presidential guidance. Accordingly, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review became a punch line for a good portion of the Pentagon, derisively synonymous with those who forgot their Keynes. In turn, the piety of the rebalance dogmatists increased by equal measure. That this was happening in the throes of sequestration and amidst other major bureaucratic battles only exacerbated the difficulties.

As we wrote about previously, we sponsored a set of “State of the Strategy” conferences in 2016, in part, to examine and defuse this tension. While these conferences did not settle the debate, they did provide constructive forums for discussion. While substantively rich, they also served as a pressure valve of sorts for frustrated parties to have their say about perceived shortcomings of the strategy and its implementation, itself a worthwhile outcome. Moreover, these meetings led to myriad follow-on conversations and actions where these tensions were further exorcised. Ultimately, there was near universal agreement that these assessments were productive enough that they should be repeated routinely. That belief ended up codified in legislation.

Questions for the Assessment to Consider

While the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review suffered from bad timing, similar dynamics are always at play. A strategy is decided, time passes, events take place that reinforce or stress assumptions and conclusions. Some things become more important, others less. Some parts of the organization jump to successful implementation while others struggle or resist it. It makes sense to routinely to measure these things. So while recipients of congressional taskings are rarely grateful, this one may be an exception for Mattis and his team. Where the Pentagon notoriously resists assessing itself, the combination of a legislative requirement and a committed leadership team can force the department to take a hard look at the strategy’s credibility.

Today, these bureaucratic tensions are different in a way that could make cooperation on an assessment easier. For instance, sequestration is on ice for another year, which means there are more resources to go around (for now). We also assess there is a loose consensus in the national security community about the need to focus on China and Russia, to restore readiness and lethality and to concentrate on emerging technology as it relates to the future of warfare. Nevertheless, there are enough hard-working people in the Pentagon at this moment questioning these priorities to challenge the department to take an honest look at how things are going. Given that the legislation requiring this assessment is vague, Mattis and his team have a lot of leeway to shape it. Herewith are some questions and ideas he should consider in doing so:

What’s the Purpose?

How does Mattis want to use this assessment? Delivering on-time and marginally satisfactory homework to Congress is assumed. However, we urge him to use this opportunity to convene a serious internal dialogue. At a minimum, this dialogue is an opportunity for Mattis to ascertain if the Department of Defense actually knows what the National Defense Strategy says and why it does so. As the aforementioned 2016 State of the Strategy discussions found, many senior leaders inside the Pentagon could not even do this.

Mattis should scrutinize the strategy’s diagnosis of the security environment and its key assumptions to assess what, if anything, has changed. He should examine the strategic approach — focused on lethality, allies and partners, and departmental reform — to confirm that these three prongs remain the appropriate way to execute the strategy. And after examining the strategy’s diagnosis and prescription of future security challenges, Mattis should take advantage of this assessment to examine to what degree the department is actually implementing his premier guidance. Given the short timeline since its publication, it makes sense for this first assessment to focus on measures of performance (i.e., is the department implementing the strategy it seeks to) more than measures of effectiveness (i.e., is the strategy actually working).

For example, what progress did the FY2019 budget request make in bringing the strategy to life (spoiler alert: not much) and how is the planning and budgeting cycle for FY2020 shaping up?

There are secondary matters that Mattis will want to examine as well. For example, has other guidance been issued over the last year that conflicts with or confuses the thrust of the National Defense Strategy? Are there service-related strategies that do so? What about the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff’s national military strategy? There is also the inevitable cherry-picking of guidance. Which parts of the National Defense Strategy are being mischaracterized or avoided, by whom, and in service of which agendas?

Who is the Audience?

The primary answer is Congress, of course, and the expectation is that the department will deliver a report, briefing, or hearing — classified or unclassified. Whatever the vehicle, the point is to start an ongoing discussion around the National Defense Strategy that routinely assesses priorities and allows for adaptation as circumstances warrant. Distinguishing this assessment from the multitude of competing reporting requirements and posture hearings will require discipline from the department and the Congress alike. The novelty of the enterprise, however, allows the for some creativity and experimentation in delivering the goods and Mattis should solicit ideas from his staff and from the Congress.

Responding only to Congress is insufficient, however. The assessment is also an opportunity to message all corners of the Defense Department. While the secretary’s leadership councils or deputy-secretary chaired working groups can serve similar purposes, they tend to get bogged down in single-issue controversies or dominated by whichever bureaucratic ninja is able to co-opt them. Keeping a tight frame around the assessment will be critical to making it useful. Over time, as routine assessments inevitably lead to revisions to the original strategy, how to make those changes is an important question. By what mechanism should the strategy be updated so that its promulgation and implementation are effectively rendered across the department?

Lastly, the assessment will be closely watched by allies and adversaries both. A process that shows the department is agile and accurate in recognizing change while, in turn, determined and realistic about correcting course might serve as a useful signal to hostile actors. In recent memory, China and Russia (recognizing the Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan), and ISIL (identifying the Obama administration’s aversion to fighting in the Middle East), took advantage of Washington’s inability to deftly shift between strategic paradigms to erode American military dominance and credibility. Fixing this is critical.

What’s the Right Methodology?

To effectively assess the National Defense Strategy, Mattis and his team will want to canvass across the Defense Department and outside of it as well. They should be cautious about grading their own work, of course, and also of those who seek to use this opportunity to win lost battles in the strategy deliberation process. At a minimum, they should engage a wide variety of communities inside the Defense Department, particularly the 3 (operations), 5 (plans and policy), and 8 (force structure, resources, and assessments) directorates, since each will have a unique perspective. They should engage the 7 (force development) community to see what progress has been made given the harsh words the National Defense Strategy uses to decry the state of professional military education.

Outside of the Defense Department, they should convene a dialogue with national security thinkers to ensure they garner a diverse and wide-ranging set of observations. They may also want to engage close allies, particularly from Europe and Asia, on their perceptions of the strategy and its implementation. In doing so, Mattis may seek higher order perspectives difficult to find within the department. For instance, what is the best way of knowing how successfully the department is implementing the strategy? What are the reasons the department has struggled to reflect the strategy in the FY2019 budget? What are the best metrics to track progress over time? How do we best measure non-programmatic changes, like alternative concepts of operations or stronger allied relationships?


On greeting old friends after a period of absence, Ralph Waldo Emerson would ask: “What has become clear to you since we last met?” Emerson’s question is exactly the right starting point for Mattis to assess his strategy. While the conduct of the assessment will likely be frustrating and messy, and the the actual legislative requirement too formal or ill-suited to the task at hand, Mattis should keep in mind that above all, what’s needed is a frank conversation between and among key voices, including those in the department and in Congress, in the think tank community, and with trusted foreign allies, which does three things: honestly assesses where the strategy is sound or taking risk, measures implementation to the degree possible, and serves as a bureaucratic pressure valve for resource losers.  Since he is setting precedent not only for his own tenure, but for those of future secretaries, getting the assessment right may be as important as the National Defense Strategy itself.


Dr. Mara Karlin and Christopher Skaluba served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense and principal director for strategy and force development, respectively.

Image: James Mattis/Flickr