What to Expect When You’re Expecting a National Defense Strategy

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In July, Rear Adm. Mike Studeman, director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned that “it’s only a matter of time” until China resorts to military force and suggested that U.S. forces are not ready for that “very bad day.” Meanwhile, Russia continues to maneuver its forces aggressively on NATO’s eastern flank, Iran inches toward a nuclear weapons capability, North Korea builds its missile arsenal, and the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan.

The new National Defense Strategy that the Biden administration is writing should reckon with these challenges and the ramifications of rapidly expanding global threats. It should assess core U.S. strategic objectives and delineate the necessary Department of Defense capabilities, capacities, and forward posture required. This new strategy should be adequately resourced, or it will be destined for irrelevance.

Conservatives and progressives alike share the goal of better securing the United States and its interests. Here are some of our ideas for how the National Defense Strategy should do this.

Prioritizing Core Interests and Objectives

From the outset, the next defense strategy should affirm that the military’s top priorities are defending the homeland while preventing and defeating aggression or attempted military coercion, foremost from China and Russia. The strategy should also assure that the nation can: uphold its security commitments to allies and partners; counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; constrain provocations and deter attacks by Iran and North Korea; and prevent terrorists from attacking the homeland and American interests abroad.



Deterring and winning wars should be the cornerstone of the strategy. Whereas previous strategies could rely on a dominant U.S. military to counter all potential adversaries, technological proliferation and modernization will require Defense Department leaders to focus on the most capable opponents — China and Russia. Strategists should align the roles and missions of the U.S. military with these pacing adversaries and resist the temptation to conflate national problems with national security threats. Adding non-core tasks and functions to the military will dilute the urgency, attention, and resources needed to accomplish the Defense Department’s priority missions. Charges related to climate change, pandemic response, refugee relief, border protection, and election security — while important for the nation — are more appropriately led by other federal agencies, which should be funded accordingly.

Honestly Assessing Growing Threats 

Ensuring that the Department of Defense is properly resourced, trained, equipped, and postured to defend core U.S. interests requires clarity and honesty about challenges to U.S. national security. The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified five major threats: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups. Since then, each of those threats has only grown more serious.

The Chinese Communist Party has used its large and growing economy to advance the largest military modernization effort in China’s history. The People’s Liberation Army now fields many weapons equal to — and some even superior to — those that the United States possesses.

The strategy should acknowledge that China has the world’s largest standing army, navy, coast guard, maritime militia, and sub-strategic missile force. But China’s advantages are not only quantitative.

As the likely home team in a confrontation with the United States, the People’s Liberation Army has pursued capabilities specifically designed to frustrate the U.S. military’s ability to project power into the Western Pacific. The Defense Department’s own China military power report judges that this strategy has placed the Chinese military qualitatively ahead of the U.S. military in land-based missiles and integrated air defenses, including new technologies such as hypersonic and directed-energy weapons. In other areas like AI and energy storage, Beijing is exploiting its policy of military-civil fusion in innovation to gain an edge on U.S. forces.

The U.S. military is emerging from a decade of delayed modernization and insufficient funding, whereas China grew its defense spending by at least 8 percent a year for the last decade.

Absent urgent American efforts in coordination with allies and partners, Beijing may decide that it can accomplish its political objectives in the Indo-Pacific at an acceptable cost using military force. Indeed, as the Chinese military has grown more capable, Beijing has acted more aggressively in the South China Sea, on the border with India, and in the seas and skies around Taiwan and Japan’s Senkaku Islands.

Meanwhile, Russia has continued to strengthen its military capabilities, seeking to bully and control its neighbors and divide the United States from its allies and partners. Moscow has worked for years to develop the capabilities and doctrines necessary to conduct a successful fait accompli attack in the Baltics before the United States and its NATO allies could respond. Moscow has also prioritized the Arctic, rapidly expanding its military capabilities there and leaving the United States increasingly ill-prepared to defend the northern approaches to its homeland.

To make matters worse, united by their desire to weaken the United States, China and Russia are more aligned than they have been in decades, conducting military exercises together. The intelligence community expressed concern this year about “Russia’s growing strategic cooperation with China.” Accordingly, any assumption that the United States would only confront one great-power adversary at a time is now increasingly questionable.

Nor can the Department of Defense ignore Iran and North Korea. Iran continues to inch toward a nuclear weapons capability, while building its relationships with China and Russia, expanding its arsenal of missiles and drones, cultivating terror proxies around the Middle East, and attacking American friends in the region. North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons and is increasing its stockpile of fissile material, while improving its missile arsenal to strike regional targets and the U.S. homeland as well as proliferating weapons technology, evading sanctions, and engaging in sophisticated cyber attacks against U.S. and allied interests.

As if that were not enough, a Taliban/al-Qaeda terror syndicate now controls an essentially uncontested safe haven in Afghanistan — as it did on September 11, 2001. Thousands of terrorists imprisoned in Afghanistan were released in August, replenishing the ranks of regional and global terrorist groups. Motivated by the belief that they defeated first the Soviet Union and now the United States in Afghanistan, Islamist terrorist organizations will likely enjoy a surge in recruitment and radicalization. America may indeed be tired of the war against Islamist terrorist groups, but terrorist groups are not tired of targeting Americans and their allies.

A new National Defense Strategy worthy of the name should begin by identifying national security goals and objectively assessing and prioritizing the threats to those goals. Any honest assessment should make clear that the threats facing the United States have only increased since 2018 — not decreased.

Narrow Focus on Effective Deterrence

After homeland defense, deterring aggression by China and Russia is arguably the most important strategic objective for the strategy to address. Regional aggression by either would disrupt major drivers of the world’s gross domestic product, invoke U.S. security commitments, and upend global stability. The National Defense Strategy should therefore describe in some detail how the United States intends to deter these regimes. In contrast to the National Security Strategy, which should describe the development and use of all national tools in deterrence, such as statecraft, the National Defense Strategy should narrowly focus on the development and use of U.S. and allied military power to deter and defeat enemy action. The National Defense Strategy is not operational direction for commanders, but it should provide priorities for the National Military Strategy’s guidance on the orchestration and employment of military forces, such as the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s direction to be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.

What matters most in a successful deterrence strategy is shaping the thinking of a potential aggressor. As scholars at Rand suggest, successful deterrence hinges on three fundamental issues: how motivated is the aggressor; was Washington explicit in what actions it would take; and did Washington convince a potential attacker of its willingness and capability to respond? While the first two factors are important, the Department of Defense can directly influence only the third. The National Defense Strategy should therefore focus on convincing China and Russia that the U.S. military possesses the capabilities and ability to employ them in ways that can raise the costs of aggression and increase the uncertainty that aggressors will succeed. 

Strengthen Forward Posture Now, Not Later

In support of its efforts to deter Chinese and Russian aggression, the U.S. military should establish a strengthened forward defense posture in vital regions, especially the Indo-Pacific — not simply a plan to do so later this decade. In its 2018 report, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission expressed concern that “China’s missile, air, surface, and undersea capabilities” would grow and potentially make it too costly for the United States to respond to Chinese military aggression in the Taiwan Strait. Since 2018, the Chinese military has only improved the capacity and range of these capabilities.

The capabilities that Beijing has fielded to make the Western Pacific a contested area for U.S. forces create an urgent need to strengthen the reach, agility, and survivability of American and partner blocking forces already forward positioned in and around the first island chain. By raising the costs and increasing the uncertainty of success for Beijing, a more robust posture would be more likely to deter aggression. Ready and capable blocking forces can also provide valuable time for surge forces to arrive from outside the region.

Defeating an attempted fait accompli attack by Beijing will not be easy. Once hostilities commence, U.S. surge forces trying to get to the region can reasonably expect to be inundated with a range of attacks before they arrive and likely even before they depart the United States. Airlift and air-refueling challenges will impair any effort to get assets to the region quickly. That puts a premium on strengthening U.S. and partners’ military capability pre-positioned along the first island chain. The next National Defense Strategy, therefore, should prioritize this effort and support projects and activities such as those promoted by Congress’ Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Similarly, to deter aggression from Moscow, the United States should strengthen NATO’s forward-positioned combat power in the Baltics and the Black Sea region. Where possible, Washington should push NATO allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, but Washington will need to lead, and the Defense Department will need to provide those forward-deployed capabilities that NATO allies cannot.

Unfortunately, the great-power competition with China and Russia is not relegated to the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe, respectively. Great-power competition is truly global, playing out elsewhere in the Middle East, South America, and Africa, as well as in the electromagnetic spectrum, space and cyberspace. Beijing and Moscow have worked overtime to field ground-based and orbital capabilities to attack satellites vital to Department of Defense intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and missile defense. In the cyber domain, the department confronts increasingly capable great-power adversaries not waiting for the next shooting war to assault American networks. The next National Defense Strategy should overtly recognize these realities and catalyze a focused departmental effort to respond.

In the Middle East, learning the hard lessons of the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, the administration should retain prudent economy-of-force forward deployments in places like Iraq and Syria alongside partners bearing the brunt of the security burden. A failure to do so will only risk preventable security crises, such as a resurgence of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, that would likely require the Defense Department to send thousands of American troops back to the Middle East at a higher cost. As a means of deterring aggression from Tehran and its terrorist proxies, the department should seek to create a more unified and militarily capable coalition of Americans, Israelis, and select Arab countries. The Abraham Accords and the shift of Israel to the Central Command portfolio provide an opportunity to advance this effort.

Realism About Allies 

Everyone agrees that allies are critical to the success of the strategy. In addition to hard power, allies contribute basing rights, access, local intelligence, and international legitimacy. China and Russia’s security cooperation and robust military modernization programs make allied contributions more necessary than ever before. The National Defense Strategy should prioritize building strong partners through arms sales and transfers, combined exercises, new overseas basing agreements, technology sharing efforts, and international training. In the Indo-Pacific, the strategy should direct special effort toward bolstering relationships with Australia, Japan, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

The importance of allies should, however, be balanced with realism concerning their military capabilities and how far these can be expected to grow over a certain timeframe. Governments with their own security interests, internal political dynamics, and threat perceptions are constrained in their abilities to contribute the desired capabilities, even when their leaders are willing. For example, despite efforts to persuade NATO countries to meet the agreed-upon two percent of GDP defense contribution, 19 of America’s 29 NATO allies still do not meet that benchmark. The strategy should not fall into the trap of assuming that, even if the United States were to reduce its engagement in key regions, other allies would step in to fill that void.

Finally, the strategy should highlight where and when shared interests are likely to enable allied contributions, which should be a narrower set of situations than previous strategies have assumed. In some cases allies may be best-suited to providing unique capabilities — such as the Japanese minesweeping fleet — that compensate for U.S. shortfalls, versus replicating high-end platforms already present in the U.S. inventory. 

Recognition That Both U.S. Conventional and Strategic Deterrence Should Be Restored 

For the first time in four decades, the U.S. military is simultaneously modernizing much of its conventional and all its nuclear forces. The costs associated with this vital and belated undertaking have motivated some to suggest that the United States should eliminate one leg of the American nuclear triad to save money. That, however, would produce a more brittle and less effective deterrent. China and Russia are establishing or expanding their nuclear triads because they understand the complementary and essential elements of each leg. With these great powers and revisionist autocracies growing and improving their arsenals of strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons, American and allied leaders need the confidence provided by a modernized U.S. triad to resist aggression by nuclear-armed opponents.

But the United States cannot rely solely on strategic deterrence. Opponents and allies may not find the threat of nuclear retaliation a credible response to conventional or gray-zone aggression. The fleets of ships, aircraft, and vehicles that the U.S. military depends on to deter conventional attack, worn down by decades at war, are becoming unaffordable to maintain, and their replacements are slow to arrive and fewer in number. Without additional funding, U.S. military capacity will continue to shrink in the near term. Even with additional resources like those authorized by the Senate and House Armed Services Committees this year, the Department of Defense will be hard-pressed to quickly restore the correlation of forces against China in the Indo-Pacific.

To continue deterring conventional aggression, the U.S. military needs new operational concepts that focus on creating uncertainty that China or other adversaries could achieve their objectives on acceptable terms. Leveraging electromagnetic warfare, cyber operations, long-range precision fires, and more distributed manned and unmanned forces, the U.S. military’s emerging joint warfighting concept or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s mosaic warfare concept could enable faster and more effective decision-making by U.S. commanders compared to opponents, reducing Chinese or Russian confidence in their ability to succeed. These concepts should inform weapons-upgrade trade-offs and enable earlier programmatic choices that prioritize adaptability and sustainability rather than exquisite, and often unachievable, performance.

Avoiding Strategic Insolvency 

America can afford a strong national defense. There is some concern that the Department of Defense may produce a strategy designed to fit under lower toplines rather than to counter the growing threats of today’s world. Should the new strategy reflect such cart-before-the-horse thinking, it would fail to generate bipartisan support and leave America less safe.

Too often, defense strategies accurately assess threats but fail to adequately explain how the U.S. military will prepare to meet them. The Defense Department should not take this analytical shortcut. Arbitrarily keeping budgets flat for political expediency and then building the best military within that budget is not the proper method to identify funding needs and risks leaving core interests unprotected.

Military compensation, maintenance, and modernization costs have all been growing faster than inflation. Now, inflation is rising. When budgets cannot even keep up with inflation, the military shrinks in size, but expectations for the military do not shrink. That creates a growing mismatch between the missions that the department is expected to accomplish and the missions that it can actually accomplish. The readiness crisis that existed from 2015 to 2017 due to sequester levels of defense funding should serve as a warning about the dangers of undermining the military with fewer resources than are required to achieve assigned missions.

Given the rate of inflation (especially as inflation rates for defense accounts are often higher than that for the wider economy) and the need to deter China for the foreseeable future, a minimum budget growth of three to five percent above inflation remains necessary for at least the next few years, as reaffirmed most recently by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten. That level of defense funding is also consistent with the recommendations of the bipartisan 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission. Force levels and investments should be threat-led, budget-informed, and strategically effective.

Risk Appropriately Balanced Across Time Horizons

It would be convenient if the serious threats facing the United States manifested only in the future. Then, Washington could invest less in today’s readiness in favor of making a major leap to the next generation of capability. Unfortunately, that is not the situation in which the United States finds itself.

The former commander of Indo-Pacific Command has predicted that China could try to take control of Taiwan in the next six years. This spring, Russia moved 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine in an attempt to intimidate the West. The reality is that the United States could wake up tomorrow and find itself in conflict.

But today the defense budget is heavily weighted toward the development of future capabilities. The 2022 budget request contains a record-high amount for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation programs — continuing a trend of the past half decade. This at the same time that the average age of Air Force aircraft is 30 years, the Army’s main combat platforms are nearing 40 years of age, and the Navy has yet to achieve 300 ships in its battle force — much less its requirement for 355.

In many cases, this huge amount of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation funding won’t result in the delivery of new capability for more than 10 years. The defense strategy should address this head-on and provide guardrails that dissuade Defense Department leaders from taking unacceptable risks in either the short, mid-, or long terms. The military cannot sacrifice capacity while it waits on the hopes of promising new technologies. This decade, aka the “terrible 20s,” demands the recapitalization of the major fleets and service inventories along with investments seeking to acquire leap-ahead, game-changing capabilities. As a superpower, the United States can and should be able to balance risk without opening dangerous opportunities in any time horizon.

Doing Everything Faster

Even with three to five percent real budget growth, the Department of Defense should continue to advance institutional reforms to improve research, development, and acquisition.

The Government Accountability Office recently assessed that cost and schedule increases for major defense acquisition programs continue to be a problem. In addition to cost increases, “the time required to deliver initial capabilities increased by about 35 percent, resulting in an average delay of more than 2 years.”

The Department of Defense should do better if it is going to deliver essential capabilities quickly to warfighters. Leaders should demand better long-range forecasts, improved warfighting analytic capability, and more conservative cost-estimation to avoid the prominent failures of past programs. They should also employ shortened acquisition and contracting cycles and greater flexibility in program management to field new systems in relevant timeframes.

Indeed, the success or failure of Americans on future battlefields will largely depend on whether the United States can beat China and Russia in the increasingly frenetic military technology race. The Department of Defense should be able to go from concept to fielded capability much more quickly.

This is a daunting challenge. However, the United States enjoys an impressive array of tech-savvy allies — e.g., Japan, Israel, and many NATO members — who can help. Rather than sprinting alone to belatedly address gaps, the Defense Department should seek to establish more systematic and proactive efforts to identify shared, intelligence-informed capability requirements up front. The department can then work with these allies to catalyze combined efforts to develop and field capabilities as quickly and affordably as possible.

For example, it was not until 2019 that the United States acquired from Israel active protection systems for tanks — systems that had been operational in Israel since 2011. Consequently, U.S. soldiers operated for years around the world lacking the cutting-edge protection that Washington could have provided against missiles and rockets.

The National Defense Strategy should support and catalyze military technology efforts like the new trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and the emerging U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group to ensure that American and allied forces never confront better-armed adversaries.

As part of this effort, the department should better secure the American defense innovation base to ensure that research and development efforts do not inadvertently leak to our adversaries.

Honesty, Urgency, and Humility Are the Watchwords 

The 2018 National Defense Strategy properly shifted military strategy to focus on great-power competition but lacked follow-through. The 2022 strategy needs to build on that document and expand the thinking behind the “ways” in the model of strategic ends, ways, and means. More clarity is needed on how the Defense Department will deter and, if necessary, win in conflict with China, Russia, and others. While climate change and COVID-19 represent serious national problems, the authors of the 2022 defense strategy should resist any temptation to siphon resources and attention away from the Department of Defense’s critical strategic tasks.

While the 2018 strategy helped to catalyze an overdue and major shift in defense priorities, other strategies, such as some of the Quadrennial Defense Reviews, merely affirmed the status quo. Too often, defense strategies are simply additive, lowest-common-denominator documents. With threats to U.S. national interests on the rise, the consequences of producing an ineffective National Defense Strategy may be severe and could come quickly. Clear-eyed thinking about national interests, the threats America faces, and how the military can best deter those threats is urgently needed.

Here’s hoping the 2022 National Defense Strategy gets it right.



Thomas Spoehr is a retired Army lieutenant general who serves as the Heritage Foundation’s director for national defense research. While in uniform, he held a number of assignments related to the defense budget, including the Army’s director for Program Analysis and Evaluation; and director, Force Development.

Bradley Bowman (@Brad_L_Bowman) is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He spent nearly nine years working in the U.S. Senate and has also served as a U.S. Army officer, Black Hawk pilot, and assistant professor at West Point.

Bryan Clark is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at Hudson Institute. A career enlisted and officer U.S. Navy submariner, he studies in naval operations, electromagnetic warfare, autonomous systems, military competitions, and wargaming.

Mackenzie Eaglen (@MEaglen) is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense strategy, defense budgets, and military readiness. She has also served as a staff member on the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission, worked on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Alexis Flores)