Just Say No: The Pentagon Needs to Drop the Distractions and Move Great Power Competition Beyond Lip Service


We’ve all heard a lot about the pivot to great power competition during this administration, but is it all talk? It’s looking that way. The Department of Defense keeps adding new missions and functions only tangentially related to its purported core role.

The Pentagon can’t seem to shed missions and requirements to better focus on great powers — especially China. For example, the military is building back up in the Middle East to deter Iran (not a great power by any definition), negating the benefits of a modest troop withdrawal in Syria. If civilian and military leaders want to successfully implement the National Defense Strategy, as they say they do, then they ought to do a better job protecting the force from the piling on of new missions and broadening of old ones.

And it needs to start at the top with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

When faced with new demands from the White House and Capitol Hill, Pentagon leaders should press policymakers to ask and answer five key questions regarding roles and missions of the U.S. armed forces. Consensus between uniformed and civilian defense officials and consistency in arguing for (or against) the use of forces will be required. Change demands leadership and political courage. It also requires that defense leaders take a public role in advocating for the strengthening of non-military tools of national power and statecraft to ensure others are capable of stepping up when the Pentagon stays back.

The Department of Defense, or the Department of Everything?

The defense strategy characterizes the current era as one in which “strategic atrophy” ends and competition becomes America’s top concern. Competing with China and Russia demands the armed forces, in the words of former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby, do less “shaping” and other “secondary” and “peripheral missions” that expend readiness. Largely sparing the force of such duties will allow them to expand the competitive space by “above all” adopting “a competitive mentality in everything [Defense Department personnel] do.”



But shedding the old barnacles of bureaucracy is incredibly difficult, requiring sustained attention and ruthless prioritization. This is true of both military missions and defense functions. Civil and uniformed officials should seek agreement on five questions regarding roles and missions of the armed forces, instead of smartly saluting every possibility that comes along.

Question #1: Does the new proposed mission directly support the objectives of and the outcomes sought by the National Defense Strategy?

The Pentagon seems unable to stop adopting new missions, which means it cannot focus on China and Russia. Given the random nature of recent examples (discussed below) it appears that defense officials are not evaluating all requests for the use of force or Pentagon assistance through the lens of whether or not they support or detract from achieving the objectives of the defense strategy. Nor does it seem as if much has actually changed on the ground since the release of the National Defense Strategy. The document calls for an overarching emphasis on strategic competition but, for those working at the Pentagon, their days do not match the strategy.

Absent clarity on what missions, functions, and work are in pursuit of competition and which are not, the military keeps doing more — both big and small. The modest and ill-advised drawdown of 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria is being offset by a larger, new deployment of roughly 3,000 American forces to Saudi Arabia to bolster their defenses against Iran. The Navy resumed counter-drug operations in the Western hemisphere after years on hiatus. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is essentially running contracting for construction of major portions of the southern border wall sought by President Trump. The Corps is also busy stepping in where the Veterans Affairs administration is falling short in construction and management of several new large veterans’ hospitals across the United States.

But nowhere was this dilemma exemplified more clearly than in recent remarks by the secretary of defense that the military is now responsible for “election security” — something his predecessors avoided doing. While speaking at the second annual National Cybersecurity Summit, Esper discussed how adversaries will “continue to target our democratic processes.” He noted that guarding against these threats “requires constant vigilance.” And since “influence operations against the American public are now possible at a scope and scale never before imagined, the Department of Defense has an important role in defending the American people from this misinformation, particularly as it pertains to preserving the integrity of our democratic elections.”

This expansive election security mission comes on the heels of another new job for the Pentagon to take over federal employee and contractor background check investigations. All clearance investigations — roughly 50,000 new requests each week — are now conducted by the newly-formed Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency out of the Defense Department. The organization is currently working through a backlog of several hundred thousand clearances.

Military officers will all too often and too quickly agree to take on a new responsibility. But they’re also swift to ask what time the boss is going to free up for them to do it. Shifting the mindset of the Pentagon’s entire staff to competition requires the freeing up of time; time that might have been spent on assurance missions, or on compliance with regulations and acquisition rules, or on check-the-box activities resembling the past two decades of work.

Question #2: What are the specific “shaping” and other “secondary” and “peripheral missions” that can be dropped to align the armed forces with the National Defense Strategy?

U.S. national security leadership has proven unable to make “hard choices” at the strategic level. Pentagon officials have not made convincing arguments about the tradeoffs — nor offered specific examples — that would allow the military to prioritize great power competition under a flat budget. To be fair, leaders throughout the post-cold war era have been unable to fundamentally address the strategy-resource defense mismatch.

While it might be uncomfortable, policymakers must know in plain language examples of realistic mission tradeoffs. Such prioritization could take two forms: reducing the demands on U.S. forces, or developing cheaper methods of achieving a given mission. The inability to explain stark choices between force structure, readiness, innovation, and modernization leads to an under-emphasis on what “competition” and “conflict” actually mean, not only against China and Russia, but also in a global context and by service.

This “commander’s intent” approach to developing the force, posture, plans, and concepts to achieve the National Defense Strategy tend to mean the services fall back on what they were doing anyway and reframe it as achieving the strategy. More direct guidance from the secretary of defense is required to prioritize conflict and competition. This means identifying what missions are “shaping” and the consequences of dropping them, as well as defining terms such as “lethality” and offering more details linking the strategic objectives to the work of the services and joint staff.

On paper, the strategy highlights primary and secondary missions. Beyond counterterrorism, however, the lesser-included or peripheral missions are not delineated clearly. To reduce the emphasis on shaping operations means what, to whom, and where exactly? Do the services and combatant commanders know what missions are considered peripheral, and do they agree? And do all parties actually concur that counterterrorism is now a true secondary mission?

Letting the services try to figure it out usually does not yield hard choices either, since their leaders know the political difficulty of change and the unyielding daily global requirements. The United States needs to field permanently-forward-based forces that provide the front lines of deterrence in Europe and East Asia, and are sufficient for both decisively reversing the jihadist tide in the Middle East and frustrating Iran’s hegemonic designs. The military must also retain a large, varied, and capable set of forces based in the United States that would be able to deliver rapid punishment if deterrence fails, or if the demands for direct action in the Middle East increase.

Where, for example, would the global counterterror fight fall in these categories of mission sets? Can Pentagon leaders answer whether the counterterror fight will ever shift past a primarily kinetic solution to one focused on defeating an ideology? In a recent report, Katherine Zimmerman writes that nearly two decades after 9/11, al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and related groups have more territory, more fighters, and more capabilities. She argues that winning the “forever war” means adopting a strategy that will weaken the Salafi-jihadi movement, instead of just focusing on killing every bad guy.

Question #3: Is another federal agency or entity, or even private/non-profit organization, able to perform the mission that politicians want to offload to the military?

Washington continues to ask the military to “take on an ever-expanding range of nontraditional tasks,” according to Rosa Brooks. Today, as she notes, U.S. military personnel operate in nearly every country on Earth — and do nearly every job on the planet:

They launch raids and agricultural reform projects, plan airstrikes and small-business development initiatives, train parliamentarians and produce TV soap operas. They patrol for pirates, vaccinate cows, monitor global email communications, and design programs to prevent human trafficking.

Unwinding from the past and battling the “tyranny of the now” are proving harder in reality than on paper. No Pentagon chief is immune to this pressure. Take for example the on-again, off-again deployment of military forces to the southern border that began in the George W. Bush administration. Presidents Obama and Trump sent troops there as well. National Guard and regular forces have repeatedly stepped in for Customs and Border Protection to assist with patrol and processing at the border. The deployments under Trump dwarf the size and length of similar operations under Bush and Obama, however. They have essentially allowed the Department of Homeland Security to avoid further beefing up its own border patrol forces with the military crutch always at the ready.

Yet recent deployments to the border are not without consequence. Just-departed Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller pinpointed these deployments as one cause (of nine) for reduced readiness and resources. The result of the unplanned and unpaid for border mission was a smaller commitment to and cancellation of numerous joint military exercises with American allies. Countries affected included Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Mongolia, Australia, and South Korea.

The consequences could grow given that Trump has said that U.S. forces will stay until the wall is built. This turns a crisis-specific mission into an enduring and essentially political one while the Pentagon is trying to shift gears toward China. It also takes pressure off the Department of Homeland Security to build up its own workforces to allow the military to leave. What should be a temporary assignment based on a “national security threat” is turning into bureaucratic burden-shifting from one agency to another, one whose sheer size makes it easy to not feel bad about doing so.

The Pentagon also carries out an array of foreign aid, humanitarian assistance, and global counter-narcotics activities. Yet the “state-building activities” of the Pentagon funded through defense appropriations bills were all once the exclusive jurisdiction of civilian aid agencies, according to the Congressional Research Service. No Pentagon leader has called for a reexamination of this unchecked growth even as the strategy demands prioritization.

If the Department of Veterans Affairs is poorly managing new hospital construction for veterans, the answer is not to permanently shift that contracting to the Army Corps of Engineers but to fix what ails the Veterans Affairs staff. Similarly, if Customs and Border Protection forces are inadequately sized to match the rising demands at the border, the answer is to build up CBP and not to indefinitely outsource part of this function to the uniformed military.

Question #4: What business functions no longer need to be run by the Department of Defense?

As the Defense Department has taken on more duties over time without dropping any function, the Pentagon is more like a hodgepodge global conglomeration of millions of people resembling Amazon-FedEx-Walmart-Humana-Kroger-Lennar-Kaplan that occasionally kills people.

The outsized administrative and other key functions the Defense Department performs every day also only ever seem to grow — from global logistics to assured communications to education to family housing to grocery chain. According to one Defense Business Board report, the workforce equivalent of 40 Pentagons is involved in six core business processes of the Pentagon: human resources, health care, financial, logistics, purchasing, and property management.

While there have been some changes at the margins in these areas over the past 15 years, the most radical ideas have been shelved or ignored. Esper’s review of the Pentagon’s vast fourth estate, or business operations, should take the opportunity to propose drastic ideas and try to upend what are supposedly settled issues. Questions like “should the Defense Department operate schools and grocery stores and manage property?” must be reexamined. Are base exchanges necessary in an era when most Americans are accustomed to next-day delivery to their front door of household items? This is especially pertinent when many families want to live outside the gates and in or near mixed-retail properties.

More time to focus on competition with China and Russia is nearly as important as more investment. In the words of the National Defense Strategy Commission, “maintaining or reestablishing America’s competitive edge is not simply a matter of generating more resources and capabilities; it is a matter of using those resources and capabilities creatively and focusing them on the right things.”

Question #5: Are defense leaders actively promoting the strengthening of other national security agencies to better share the burden and more effectively compete, which is an inter-governmental effort?

Cutting missions, programs, and bureaucracy is important to implementing the National Defense Strategy. But it is a mirage for policymakers to believe that will be enough. The “relentlessly expanding” military has become, in the words of retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, “a Super Walmart with everything under one roof.” As it does more, policymakers cannot resist using it more, and the cycle persists.

The consequences span the entire defense enterprise and beyond, reaching across the federal government — draining the skills, budgets, and workforces of other agencies capable of these inherently non-military tasks. But, as Dr. Brooks says, “like Walmart, the tempting one-stop-shopping convenience it offers has a devastating effect on smaller, more traditional enterprises — in this case, the State Department and other U.S. civilian foreign-policy agencies, which are steadily shrinking into irrelevance in our ever-more militarized world.”

If strategic competition is bigger than force-on-force comparisons and technological breakthroughs, then the entire government needs to be actively working toward this end along with the Defense Department. The coordination of effort should be led by the National Security Council.

But the old phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” seems to be the Pentagon slogan of the past 20 years. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ground on, the military quickly realized that civilian specialists were not going to come in large numbers. Missions outside the training and expertise of many deployed servicemembers became the norm for large numbers of troops. Uniformed military often filled the gaps in civilian proficiency in jobs ranging from agriculture to justice and the rule of law to construction and diplomacy. While U.S. forces have exited Iraq and drawn down substantially in Afghanistan, the legacy of piling work onto the military given their always-say-yes ethos thrives.

Maybe that is why when Robert Gates was secretary of defense, anyone who had a meeting with him or heard him give a speech knew they were likely to hear him talk about how a strong Defense Department without a similarly robust State Department was counterproductive. That same attention is required by current defense leaders to strengthen and bolster non-defense organizations contributing to security goals if they want a true unburdening of jobs and ability to focus on the defense strategy.

This is another reason why a fresh roles and missions report must be demanded by Congress from the Pentagon. It should come with specific recommendations and action items for policymakers to make stark choices about how to better free up time, attention, and resources on certain problems to better focus the department on long-term competition. Heretical questions should be asked here, too, such as “should United States Marines still be guarding embassies around the world?” or “why is the Air Force still flying air sovereignty alert missions over major U.S. cities almost 20 years after 9/11 and the threat significantly diminished and changed and technology much improved to detect and identify real air threats?” The answers are likely not that they should go away altogether but perhaps that there are other forces or non-defense personnel that can pick up the slack.

U.S. Armed Forces: The “Super Walmart” of Solutions

It’s been clear for some time that the National Defense Strategy is an “additive demand for resources,” which cannot be met by pivoting away from threats and missions that policymakers have proven unable to ignore.

The Pentagon will have to divest actual missions that employ people’s time and functions that gobble up dollars if it wants to get serious about reorienting the force for great power competition. Leaders must be prepared to ask difficult questions and take on deeply embedded and powerful constituencies. The Defense Department will once again need to take on the cause of strengthening agencies like the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and others to better share the workload. Congress will also need to demand, and follow through upon implementing, a new and provocative roles and missions review with an associated menu of choices.

Leadership and political courage are needed to stem the flood of new duties and requirements. Any task that comes across the boss’ desk without an explanation for why it is absolutely necessary and/or how it specifically supports the strategy’s goal of better posturing the military toward competition with China and Russia should be dissected further. Picking up new responsibilities like election security and background checks — and agreeing to open-ended uses of the active force like at the southern border — is moving in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, the chasm between the strategy goal of expanding the competitive space against China and Russia and reality grows wider.



Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow for national security at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Erwin Jacob V. Miciano)