‘Hard Choices’ and Strategic Insolvency: Where the National Defense Strategy Falls Short


Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series assessing the relationship between the National Defense Strategy, the defense budget, and U.S. national security strategy.


Policymakers and the military are sleepwalking hand in hand into strategic insolvency. While taking the threat of Russia and China seriously is long overdue, the National Defense Strategy and its associated force planning construct do not adequately account for the full breadth and scope of what the nation asks the U.S. military to do. As a result, the requested 2020 budget and planned future defense spending will not be sufficient to carry out the actual requirements of U.S. strategy.

Rectifying this mismatch will require either more investment or fewer demands on U.S. forces. While either is possible, defense planning should rest on realistic assumptions about the inability of policymakers to make hard choices and a cautious appreciation for the observed historical and expected future requirements of the U.S. military.

The National Defense Strategy takes a soda-straw view of America’s strategic requirements, one overwhelmingly concerned with the growing operational and tactical challenges posed by Russia and China — to the detriment of everything else. Like a disintegrating paper straw in your cocktail, this myopic view tends to fall apart under the pressures of politics, time, and bureaucratic friction or inertia. In other words, the strategy fails to account for the political difficulty of reducing the priority given to several threats and missions.

With a few exceptions, the debate over the National Defense Strategy has devolved into discussions about which futuristic technologies are most exciting, with a side of decontextualized budget figures and a sprinkling of buzzwords about “great-power competition,” “lethality,” “modernization,” and “gray-zone” conflict. Complex questions of force development boil down to “capacity vs. capability,” and debates over technology and equipment beg the question by defining “modernization” of the force solely as targeted investment in development of future weapons.

Yet recently, the nation’s top military officer could not explain to House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry how a flat $733 billion defense budget squares with the National Defense Strategy and his own recommendations about necessary funding levels. Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith rightly complains that civilian and uniformed defense officials refuse to articulate strategic and military risk at different spending levels. Similarly, when lawmakers asked the Special Operations Command chief which missions were not a priority for him, his reply was a textbook non-answer. Even as proponents of the National Defense Strategy argue for the United States to do less in the Middle East, the military posture in Central Command looks much like it always has for decades. Pentagon policymakers have assumed that “hard choices” will be made without forcefully arguing for such decisions, or appreciating that neither Congress nor the White House have been able to follow through on such choices.

It’s time for Congress to ask more fundamental questions about strategy and budgets. This three-part series will assess the National Defense Strategy and planned defense budgets through three lenses.

Part I: Does the National Defense Strategy articulate strategic hard choices? Does it accurately reflect America’s historical strategic requirements, account for secondary and tertiary strategic objectives, and consider the vagaries of the real world and the whims of domestic politics?

Part II: Does the strategy inform a coherent force planning and development process? Are the views of the military services consistent with the National Defense Strategy? How does the Pentagon define “modernization” and “lethality?”

Part III: Do the FY2020 defense budget and associated long-term spending plans match the actual needs of the military after accounting for the rosy assumptions of policymakers? Is the three-legged stool of readiness, modernization, and force structure lopsided? Does the Pentagon balance strategic and military risk between the present and the future?

Lawmakers seeking answers to these questions should look to the work of the National Defense Strategy Commission, an independent bipartisan panel established by Congress in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to stress-test the strategy, which found that the National Defense Strategy and defense budget plans are mismatched. This series seeks to illuminate the questions Capitol Hill should be asking by expanding upon the commission’s findings.

While the National Defense Strategy Commission praised the strategy as a “constructive first step” in responding to the mismatch between goals and resources, it noted that “concepts such as … ‘accepting risk’ in lower-priority theaters … are imprecise and unpersuasive.” The strategy need not be discarded. Rather, policymakers in Congress and the Pentagon should recognize that improving the U.S. military’s conventional posture against China and Russia is an additive demand for resources. This demand cannot be met by pivoting away from threats and missions that American policy leadership will be unable to ignore.

With a more accurate picture of budgetary needs tied to actual military requirements, policymakers could then ask the American people whether they believe higher spending is necessary. If the answer is no, “hard choices” could then be made with a serious shared appreciation of the strategic and military risk involved. Until such time, the defense strategy discussion will remain unmoored. In the words of the commission, the Defense Department “is assuming too much risk in its approach to achieving its stated objectives and far greater risk than is publicly understood.”

Strategic Paper Straws: Feigned Hard Choices

The original sin of the National Defense Strategy is its failure to recognize that U.S. national security leadership is unable to make “hard choices” at the strategic level. Pentagon policymakers have not made convincing arguments, let alone succeeded in enacting change, about the types of “hard choices” that would allow the military to prioritize great power competition under a flat or barely increasing defense budget.

Accounting for inflation, the original 2020 defense budget request of $733 billion represents no increase from the 2019 level of $716 billion, which itself did not grow from 2018. While the 2018 spending level jumped significantly from 2017, the increase merely began to repair military readiness after the Pentagon lost $550 billion in buying power under the Budget Control Act. In the future, the administration’s plans show the defense budget at best remaining flat, or more likely declining, despite its own recommendations for 3 to 5 percent real growth in the defense budget for a number of years. A stagnant budget juxtaposed with more ambitious strategic plans sets up a severe mismatch. The supposed answers to this mismatch — making “hard choices” and “doing more with less” — will prove difficult, if not impossible, in practice.

The purpose of a defense strategy is to outline priorities in enough detail that those charged with implementing and resourcing the strategy understand the risk of making tradeoffs between threats and missions. Under a flat budgetary outlook, arguing for prioritizing conflict against China and Russia without specifying which current missions to jettison amounts to having your cake and eating it, too. The primary steward of the National Defense Strategy, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby, makes exactly this point in recent testimony worth quoting in full:

Saying that great power competition is important but failing to delineate clearly what not to do effectively undermines the ability to genuinely prioritize on this most pressing challenge. If the political leadership of the Department is unwilling to say with some precision not only what the Department’s priority is but also where risk can be taken and cuts can be made, no one below them will do so – nor should they be expected to do so. It is the job of the political leadership of the Department to assume responsibility for those hard calls and credibly communicate those decisions to subordinate echelons. (emphasis in original)

Such prioritization could take two forms: reducing the demands on U.S. forces or developing cheaper methods of achieving a given mission set, such as using light attack aircraft or Security Force Assistance Brigades. (This second form of prioritization will be addressed in Part II of this series). Evidence of either form of prioritization is not in abundance.

To the extent that proponents of the National Defense Strategy do argue for prioritizing threats and missions, the tradeoffs they suggest are vaguely defined, minor in terms of budgetary savings, or politically infeasible. For instance, defenders of the strategy often call for reducing U.S. commitments in the Middle East. A substantial withdrawal from this region would represent a real “hard choice,” freeing up tens of billions of dollars for redirection to competition with Russia and China in exchange for accepting greater risk of failed states and externally focused terrorist groups. Benjamin Denison made the case to realign all resources currently devoted to the Middle East. Scholars from the Cato Institute have made serious arguments along these lines, and a small and vocal coterie of lawmakers agrees.

Yet this argument is outside the mainstream of American foreign policy debate. Many policymakers do not believe such full-scale withdrawal from the Middle East is wise, and even more understand that it is politically infeasible. The president himself is the only official to flirt with such an argument, calling to pull 9,000 U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. But where’s the outpouring of support for this decision? Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over the removal of 2,000 troops from Syria, and a bipartisan congressional letter praising the Syria drawdown and calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan garnered only 12 signatures. What’s more, for all their controversy, the president’s minor withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan do not add up to much: single-digit billions of dollars out of a $69 billion war budget.



Even if the United States withdrew entirely from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon would continue to spend $40-50 billion per year to maintain its forward presence in the Central Command area for counter-terrorism missions, and to deter Iran and reassure America’s regional allies. National Defense Strategy proponents support “right-sizing” the military effort expended on second-tier state challengers, such as Iran and North Korea. To its credit, last year the Pentagon pulled four Patriot missile defense batteries from Central Command and decreased aircraft carrier presence in the Arabian Gulf. Yet these “hard choices” to reallocate combat power quickly wilted. In response to a perceived Iranian threat, the Pentagon and White House trumpeted the return of a Patriot battery, the deployment of a B-52 squadron, and the ostensible re-tasking of the USS Arlington and the Lincoln carrier strike group from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

Africa is another bruited area of de-emphasis. The Pentagon intends to remove approximately 600 servicemembers out of a continental U.S. presence of 6,000, even though the savings from this reallocation barely qualify as Pentagon budget dust. This is another feigned hard choice. In every congressional hearing in which lawmakers have asked what Special Operations Command or Africa Command will stop doing with 600 fewer servicemembers, Pentagon officials have been mum. While the tragic Niger ambush raised hackles in Congress, lawmakers never did anything meaningful to decrease the demand signal for U.S. military efforts in the region. Against this backdrop, the National Defense Strategy errs in assuming that political leadership can prioritize certain geographical areas or threats over others.

What other “hard choices” might the National Defense Strategy support? According to Colby, the strategy “focus[es] on warfighting readiness over undetermined flexibility and symbolic assurance/presence missions.” Which assurance/presence missions should the military stop carrying out? What part of the National Defense Strategy explains what makes these missions “symbolic” and therefore lower priority? Most of these day-to-day missions, which generate significant demands on the force, are geared toward improving interoperability with partner militaries and reassuring allies of American defense commitments, often through military exercises and presence operations. De-emphasizing reassurance and presence missions appears inconsistent and at odds with the strategy’s “second pillar” of deepening cooperation with allies and partners. Further, today the U.S. president actively undermines allies and partners, raising unprecedented concerns about U.S. defense commitments. In this environment, it’s unrealistic to suggest that the U.S. military scale back reassurance missions and training exercises with partners.

While the National Defense Strategy rests on high hopes for America’s ability to prioritize, such hopes are largely unrealistic in light of the history of American defense commitments and the current political and international security environment. The document simply assumes the military will reduce its efforts on secondary threats like North Korea and Iran and in areas like the Middle East and Africa. Such a reduction may be possible or even desirable, but the National Defense Strategy merely takes for granted that “hard choices” will be made. Policymakers must affirmatively, clearly, and publicly reduce mission demand by telling the Pentagon what to stop doing before presuming that the military will start saving money by de-emphasizing certain missions and threats.

The Allure of the Pivot, or, Whither a Force-Sizing Construct?

The National Defense Strategy’s force-planning construct — the conceptual framework used to measure how equipped the U.S. military is to meet a given set of demands — does not fully account for the overall stress likely to be placed on the armed forces. It cannot, because it assumes that American political leadership can and will make hard choices and accept some degree of risk. The National Defense Strategy Commission rightly worried about the force-planning construct, warning that “unanticipated force demands” could threaten the military’s ability to carry out the strategy and noting that “America confronts five major security challengers across at least three important geographic regions … and unforeseen challenges are also likely to arise.”

With strategic objectives in hand, the Pentagon determines the size and shape of U.S. military forces by using force-planning constructs as a measuring stick for its ability to meet aggregate mission demands. Since the Cold War, the Pentagon’s “two-warmetric served as the main force-planning construct: It sought to ensure U.S. forces could simultaneously defeat two regional militaries, such as North Korea or Iraq. Over time, the military’s mission set expanded beyond the core “two-war” metric, and the force-planning construct strained to accommodate ever-increasing new demands on U.S. forces, such as counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and presence and reassurance missions. In recent years, it became clear that events had overcome the two-war construct, rendering it inappropriate for the range and complexity of the demands that American policymakers place upon the U.S. military.

The National Defense Strategy advances a new force-planning construct that far better captures the most stressing demands on U.S. forces. Rather than defeating and deterring Iran and North Korea, the new construct principally evaluates U.S. forces by their ability to defeat and deter China and Russia. As National Defense Strategy executive director Jim Mitre writes, “Put plainly, great power war will be considerably more difficult than regional wars, and critically, U.S. forces must be able to succeed across a broader range of scenarios and conditions reflecting the breadth and sophistication of adversary abilities.”

However, the new construct largely leaves untouched existing force demands, including those levied by threats from Iran, North Korea, and violent extremists. It acknowledges the need to deter aggression in three theaters — the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East — all while “degrading” threats from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, defending U.S. interests below the level of armed conflict, and more. In sum, the new force-planning construct looks much like old force-planning constructs, except it makes an additional demand that U.S. forces remain capable of defeating and deterring China and Russia. How does this much more ambitious construct translate to a flat budgetary outlook?

As RAND analysts recently argued in a paper on the mismatch between strategy and resources, today’s U.S. armed forces are shaped and sized to carry out the 2014 Obama administration defense strategy. This strategy relied on the two-war construct against regional powers, with no requirement that U.S. forces be able to deter aggression in a third theater simultaneously. Further, the 2014 strategy low-balled force demands by making several untenable assumptions, which is why Pentagon civilian and military officials had been warning that the U.S. armed forces were already unable to carry out this less ambitious strategy from 2014.

The 2018 force-planning construct similarly underestimates the long-term mission demand on U.S. forces because it rests upon faulty assumptions about the behavior of American political leadership. It underestimates the likelihood of surprise in the nature, location, and simultaneity of future conflicts, meaning the U.S. military shaped by the document will, in practice, prove unable to complete its mission.


Critics may object that mismatches between strategy and budget can be overcome by “doing more with less” through new technologies, innovative concepts of operations, and budgetary efficiencies. Part II of this series will detail the ways in which force development strategies based on hopeful thinking about military transformation often fall apart under the permanent pressures of time, politics, and uncertainty. Part III will detail what the flimsiness of all these assumptions means for the defense budget.

Yet discussions of force development and budgeting are largely pointless without answers to the basic strategic questions posed in this article. Sound defense planning should rest on the constants of global American security interests, accounting for uncertainty and political reality and taking a long-term view of constantly ebbing and flowing threats and technology. The National Defense Strategy’s warning about the challenges of competition and conflict with China and Russia is long overdue. But policymakers must recognize that meeting this challenge is an additional demand that cannot be reasonably met by pivoting away from other threats. Anything less risks strategic insolvency.



Rick Berger is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and previously worked at the Senate Budget Committee.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at AEI and served on the National Defense Strategy Commission as a staff member.


Image: David B. Gleason