Strategy or Straitjacket? Three Reasons Why People Are Still Arguing About the National Defense Strategy

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“It feels so weird to not intervene in the Middle East. I know we’re trying to avoid getting sucked in, but it’s hard to say no.” These were the words my colleague uttered during a wargame to inform the development of the National Defense Strategy. He supported a shift toward competition with China and Russia and he knew that repeated operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility would detract from that aim. Nevertheless, eschewing engagement in Mideast crises caused a visceral reaction: “It’s like a toxic relationship — I know it’s bad for me and I know I should say no, but I almost can’t help myself.”

This same cognitive dissonance exists throughout the Pentagon and the broader foreign policy establishment. As evidence, look no further than the desire of some in the national security apparatus to engage in a war of choice with Iran. In light of this, the National Defense Strategy Commission report and an article from earlier this summer by Rick Berger and Mackenzie Eaglen argue that the inability of the Department of Defense to extricate itself physically or mentally from past commitments like the wars in the Middle East is crippling to the National Defense Strategy’s focus on competition with China and Russia.

The immediate issues driving this argument are what the president’s FY2020 budget request and major foreign policy decisions say about the United States’ ability to implement the National Defense Strategy. However, pieces such as the commission report and the article by Berger and Eaglen raise larger questions about the impact of the “hard choices” made within the strategy and whether these choices adequately prepare the U.S. armed services for future challenges. These pieces also question the ability of senior U.S. policymakers to prioritize and act with discipline, which raises fundamental doubts about the utility of high-level strategies and the work that goes into them.

As a member of the team that assisted Secretary James Mattis and Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan in developing the National Defense Strategy, I can attest that these are questions we grappled with daily, both within the team and in our interactions with the bureaucracy and external stakeholders. Mattis and Shanahan clearly believed in the choices they were making and in the value of strategies as a guide to decision-making, and I believe it’s worth explaining why. The article by Berger and Eaglen, as well as the commission report they reference, serve as useful summations of the primary critiques of the strategy. This article will address their arguments as a proxy for the broader body of criticism, while acknowledging that theirs are not the only dissents.

Does the Strategy Make “Hard Choices”?

Berger and Eaglen build on the commission report, which Eaglen staffed, to argue that the strategy failed to make actual hard choices. To the contrary, Mattis and Shanahan made decisions with clear winners and losers. They prioritized China and Russia, when the momentum in the Defense Department and the National Security Council was headed toward ISIL and North Korea. They continued improving U.S. military posture in Europe in the face of political and bureaucratic headwinds. They prioritized the important over the urgent, and in doing so, rightfully shifted some power back to the armed services after decades in which the near-term demands of the geographic combatant commands drove the Pentagon’s decision-making. I recall clearly that these choices were an aspect of the strategy that pleasantly surprised outside reviewers during the development process and prompted many statements that one bureaucratic actor or another would not like the strategy’s direction.

Those outside reviewers were correct. While the National Defense Strategy now enjoys broad support, those who stood to lose from its vision or choices opposed it at every step. The severity of the bureaucratic battles over the choices made in the development of the strategy, and the amount of personal political capital invested by the secretary in shepherding the strategy through these fights, is a testament to their importance and potential impact. That Mattis made these decisions, given his operational experience in the Middle East and his time leading U.S. Central Command, speaks to their significance as well as his strengths as a leader.

The new secretary, Mark Esper, and the new deputy secretary, David Norquist, are both committed to the National Defense Strategy and making the requisite hard choices necessary to implement it. During his confirmation, Esper stated, “I’m am an avid supporter of the National Defense Strategy and its clear-eyed assessment of the strategic environment we find ourselves in today.” In his time as secretary of the Army, Esper led efforts such as the “night court” to prioritize modernization for future threats from China and Russia. As both the comptroller and the acting deputy secretary, Norquist has garnered praise from across the defense community for his hyper-competent work implementing the National Defense Strategy.

Despite this broad-based commitment to change, skepticism remains. Critics of the strategy correctly surmise that one of the major “hard choices” is found in freeing up resources to spend on competition with China and Russia by curtailing operations or making ongoing missions more affordable. Notably, the commission and Berger and Eaglen overlook savings from potential reductions in capacity and antiquated systems enabled by the shift away from a two-war, force-planning construct. They put forward three primary arguments for why these are not actually hard choices. First, the cost savings of the suggested reductions are minimal. Second, larger reductions are politically infeasible or counter to the strategy’s ends. These two arguments are not new — they were repeated talking points for those in the Pentagon who opposed the new strategy and wished to avoid change — but they are worth discussing. The article’s third argument, that senior policymakers lack sufficient discipline to make hard choices, is a serious problem, but it is also not a new concern.

Are the Savings Too Small?

The National Defense Strategy seeks savings, both in terms of dollars and spent readiness and weaponry (which ultimately require more dollars but have other knock-on effects), by reducing U.S. operations and force presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. Berger and Eaglen dismiss these moves as either too small to be worth the cost savings or too politically unpopular to merit consideration. Despite this, their estimate that the minor drawdowns in Syria and Afghanistan would save “single-digit billions” is instructive, even if greater savings may be possible. That amount may not sound like much in the context of a $738 billion budget request, but one must recall that much of that request is for relatively inflexible accounts like personnel. Many programmers in the Pentagon would kill for a few extra billion dollars to allocate to modernization or research and development. For example, the Navy’s controversial decision to cancel the mid-life refueling and complex overhaul (RCOH) of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the FY2020 budget request, which the White House later reversed, aimed to garner between $4 and $6.5 billion. Deeper reductions and cost savings are possible if, as one of the article’s authors notes, the Department of Defense and Central Command and Africa Command are willing to make structural shifts in areas like force protection posture and allocations of command, control, communications, computers, intelligences, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets.

Moreover, Berger and Eaglen’s discussion of near-term costs ignores the numerous second- and third-order effects of these operations. Take two decisions in the FY2020 budget request: the proposed procurement of additional F/A-18s and F-15EXs, by the Navy and Air Force, respectively. Critics of both decisions have questioned the cost-effectiveness of these choices in the context of the National Defense Strategy, given the age of these designs and their relative difficulty operating in contested environments. In both cases, the services made these decisions to backfill gaps in force structure caused by ongoing operations. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force have — in some cases literally — flown the wings off their older fighters while supporting ongoing missions in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. At the same time, the demands of ongoing operations curtailed investments in platforms such as the F-22 that were meant to replace older aircraft. The result is an aging aircraft fleet and consequent challenges in meeting current and future demands.

This problem isn’t limited to aviation. All U.S. armed forces face similar issues as older equipment must be replaced to sustain current operations, but newer systems aren’t available or can’t be integrated into the force fast enough to meet current demands. These large and very real costs are often not fully captured by overseas contingency operations budgets or debates over the number of troops committed overseas. Moreover, this cycle, combined with the so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s, has left the armed forces with a number of aging, outdated, or obsolescent systems and few viable replacements on the horizon. The effects on the all-volunteer force have been equally profound and deleterious. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have demonstrated incredible endurance over the last two decades, but at great cost, particularly to their families.

Regarding the political feasibility of a reduced and focused presence in the Middle East, the article overlooks the fact that, despite their myriad policy differences, both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump campaigned on reducing U.S. overseas commitments, particularly the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Obama arguably did not succeed in this regard, and Trump has not yet succeeded either, but their electoral success hardly reflects a groundswell of support among the American people for continually pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into endless wars with seemingly unachievable objectives.

The National Defense Strategy also sought to recoup savings and build long-term readiness by reducing the demand for overseas presence more broadly by focusing on key regions and missions. As the article rightly notes, presence operations have significant impact on the long-term health of the force. Presence demands, for example, have pushed the Navy’s fleet of large surface combatants (cruisers and destroyers) into a readiness crisis while the nation has been engaged in two decades’ worth of ground combat. The article’s critique of this approach is similar to its critique of the strategy’s approach to the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. To paraphrase: the strategy isn’t sufficiently directive, and any possible savings are either minuscule or counterproductive.

The National Defense Strategy’s guidance on operations during day-to-day competition is straightforward: prioritize the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and Middle East in that order. In these theaters, prioritize deterring aggression, with a focus on protecting our most vulnerable allies and partners. Other activities, such as gaining information advantage; developing, strengthening, and sustaining security relationships; and defending U.S. interests from threats below the level of armed conflict should work toward the goal of maintaining favorable balances of power — and ultimately deterrence — in the key regions. Operations that check multiple boxes — e.g., a multi-national exercise with the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia that improves interoperability in the South China Sea while simultaneously deterring Chinese aggression and pushing back against Chinese gray-zone coercion — would score highly. Other missions, such as reassurance of allies and “show-the-flag” deployments or operations in other theaters such as Southern Command or Africa Command, should be lower priorities.

The strategy gives senior decision-makers the tools to enforce this prioritization. With every request for forces, the new Secretary Mark Esper and his staff should consult the strategy’s force-management and planning construct and current readiness metrics to see how deployments might impact the long-term ability of the Joint Force to deter and defeat great-power aggression. The authors are correct to note that reducing reassurance missions may upset some allies and partners. The logic of the strategy is that this risk is relatively low and easily mitigated compared to the risk of failing to deter aggression or the long-term decline in the health of the force. Meanwhile, it is incumbent on the Defense Department, the State Department, the White House, and other parts of the foreign and defense policy apparatus to convey to U.S. allies and partners that a strong deterrent is the best reassurance.

Are We Building a Force Capable of Meeting Future Threats?

Berger and Eaglen claim that the strategy “myopically” views U.S. national security objectives through a “soda straw” that focuses on China and Russia to the exclusion of other challenges. This assertion is incorrect. The strategy indeed places a much greater focus on China and Russia compared to previous defense strategies, because only these two competitors have the ability to plausibly defeat U.S. armed forces in a major war and fundamentally alter the American way of life. However, it does not ignore other challenges such as North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations. The strategy identifies the critical strategic challenge posed by each and calibrates its approach to attack their theory of victory. However, Chinese and Russian theories of victory have a much greater probability of success and are  more threatening to U.S. national interests, and therefore demand greater attention and resources. The strategy doesn’t discard or ignore North Korea, Iran, and terrorism; rather, it recognizes them for what they are: significant, but lesser threats that are no longer the principal drivers of U.S. strategy or the overall size and shape of the joint force.

The article then states that the National Defense Strategy’s force-planning construct “does not fully account for the overall stress likely to be placed on the armed forces.” Given the uncertainty of the future, no force-planning construct could account for the overall stress that could be placed on the armed forces — unanticipated events are the norm, rather than the exception. These constructs are meant to represent plausible challenges that the joint force must be prepared to meet in order to execute the strategy — not every future potential contingency. The idea, as Colin Gray has put it, is to “minimize regrets” by preparing the armed forces to deter or defeat the most pressing threats and relying on the flexibility and adaptability of the armed forces and the defense industrial base to hedge against the unforeseen. Secretary Mattis made a conscious choice in the strategy to eschew hedging against uncertainty everywhere in favor of prioritizing preparedness for war and reinforcing vulnerable positions in East Asia and Eastern Europe.

After arguing that the strategy’s force-planning construct isn’t demanding enough to address the uncertainty of the future security environment, the article pivots to suggest that the force-planning construct is actually far more demanding than the armed forces could possibly handle. This is because, according to the article, the construct supposedly adds the requirement to deter or defeat China and Russia to extant demands for Iran, North Korea, and defeating terrorism, as well as deterring conflicts in three regions.

Unfortunately, the article cites a recent RAND report that, among other misrepresentations of the strategy, mistakenly overstates the demands in the force-planning construct by accidentally combining the demands for day-to-day competition with what the fully mobilized joint force must be able to do in wartime. This leads to the erroneous conclusion in Berger and Eaglen’s article that deterring or defeating a major power such as China or Russia is an additive demand on top of the previous construct.

It is ironic that the article missed this distinction, since Mattis and Shanahan intended for these two related but contrasting constructs to better highlight — and hopefully resolve — the very problem that the article identifies. That is the tension between policymakers’ demands for near-term operations and the long-term strategic demand to develop and maintain readiness and capabilities to deter or defeat aggression. This tension has bedeviled the Defense Department for decades. Contrary to the article’s assertion, Mattis didn’t assume it away, but instead chose to deal with it head-on by combining guidance for near-term force management and long-term force planning into a force-management and planning construct. He did this in the face of significant bureaucratic resistance because resolving this tension is critical to any strategy. The National Defense Strategy uses this single construct with two demand signals to highlight the trade-offs between taking near-term actions and preserving the ability to respond to future threats.

Given the severity of the threats posed by great-power war, the National Defense Strategy clearly comes down on the side of prioritizing preparedness for war by limiting near-term operations. Toward this end, it contains a detailed matrix and clear guidance describing how the Defense Department and its components should apportion resources and risk across threats and missions in both the near- and long-term, with the end goal of balancing near-term demands or emerging threats against the long-term strategic goal of building armed forces with the capability, capacity, readiness, and combat-credible posture needed to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggression by a great power.

Can Senior Policymakers Commit to Implementing Hard Choices?

The National Defense Strategy makes difficult choices to prioritize addressing the challenges posed by China and Russia, particularly the erosion of the United States’ conventional deterrent posture in East Asia and Eastern Europe. The strategy includes clear force-management and planning guidance to curtail current demands and focus force-development efforts on deterring major war by preparing to defeat aggression. According to critics, these choices and subsequent guidance are irrelevant because senior U.S. policymakers are incapable of following a strategy.

Critics like Berger and Eaglen are correct to argue that implementing the National Defense Strategy will require a level of discipline that has not always been a hallmark of U.S. policymaking. While it may be tempting to attribute this to the prioritization required by the strategy, the reality is that any strategy focused on competition with great powers, and particularly China, will face similar constraints. China is the first true “peer” competitor that the modern United States has faced. The United States cannot simply spend its way to strategic advantage in this competition. U.S. defense strategy cannot overwhelm China with industrial production as it did to Germany and Japan in World War II, nor can it exploit overwhelming economic and high-technology advantages as it did against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Past U.S. strategies were often profligate with resources, secure in the knowledge that the United States always possessed a greater reserve of latent military power. That may not be the case against China. This calls into question the article’s assertion that more defense spending will be salutary. In the near term, China could counter this approach by using economic and diplomatic levers to undermine U.S. access to the region. Over the long term, China might leverage investments in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to offset U.S. military advantages or, with a larger GDP, China might simply outspend the United States without undue stress on its economy. In this scenario, the United States may find itself like the Soviet Union in the early 1980s: possessing significant military power that is rapidly obsolescing while our primary competitor is investing in new technologies and building more powerful armed forces without suborning their economy to military production.

Berger and Eaglen’s article forcefully argues that U.S. policymakers are incapable of following any strategy: “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.” While there is some truth to this point of view, it is an overstatement and a misrepresentation of the purpose of strategy. Defense strategies outline broad priorities on behalf of senior policymakers. Their aim is to help guide decisions and the activities of subordinate organizations, not act as straitjackets for decision-makers. Every strategy is subject to alteration, no matter how well thought-out or the degree of political consensus behind it. Arguing that strategies shouldn’t propose hard choices because senior leaders cannot follow them is akin to arguing that Moses shouldn’t have brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai because humans could never stop murdering and committing adultery.

Despite its flaws, Berger and Eaglen’s article and others like it that highlight the inability of a single budget to solve the problems identified by the National Defense Strategy are a positive sign, even if some of the logic doesn’t align with the strategy. This not a fresh coat of paint on an old strategy. While there are aspects of the pacific rebalance and the third offset in the National Defense Strategy, those initiatives were held back by overarching defense strategies that still had one foot in the post-Cold War unipolar moment. Secretary Mattis and Deputy Shanahan meant for this strategy to be a stark shift toward a new era in U.S. defense policy, and every sign suggests that Secretary Esper and Deputy Secretary Norquist intend to advance this vision.

This shift won’t happen overnight, or in a single budget, or maybe even in a five-year future years defense program. It will occur through the gradual accretion of decisions, policies, analyses, program choices, and war college syllabi that follow such a paradigm shift. There will assuredly be mistakes along the way, but the United States will prevail, as it has in the past, if it gets the big things right.


Christopher Dougherty is a senior fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. He served four years in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and was a principal drafter of the force management and planning sections of the National Defense Strategy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Image: Defense Department by Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kathryn E. Holm