Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Getting Force Design Right in the Next National Defense Strategy

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The narrow window to keep pace with China is closing, and there are signs that the Defense Department is in danger of making a strategic misstep as it develops the next National Defense Strategy. The cornerstone of the forthcoming 2022 strategy is the all-encompassing idea of integrated deterrence. This expansive and ill-defined concept does not promote confidence that the Department of Defense is likely to set clear priorities in its strategy that would enable the force redesign needed to deter and, if necessary, fight and win a war with China or Russia.



The Biden administration should narrowly focus the Defense Department on high-end deterrence against China and Russia instead of strategic competition or managing an expanded array of lesser threats. This strategy would enable the dual nuclear and conventional modernization that is desperately needed to strengthen deterrence, both now and in the future, at current levels of defense spending. Additional resources would not translate to doing more, particularly not when more takes the department’s eye off the ball and encourages a lack of strategic discipline. Rather, any additional resources should translate to doing a narrower range of critical high-end missions more effectively. Urgent change at a significant scale is required to secure the nation today and tomorrow, but this will not occur if the next National Defense Strategy promotes too much of the same.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The 2018 National Defense Strategy heralded a new era of American defense planning focused on deterring and defeating large-scale conventional aggression by a great power. This strategy was praised for abandoning the post-Cold War two-war force planning construct, which had led to a prioritization of military capacity over capability. It had produced a force that was simultaneously larger than was needed for any one conflict, yet less capable of defeating peer adversaries and more vulnerable to long-range adversary attacks.

The 2018 strategic guidance may have focused the Department of Defense on the most consequential and difficult military challenges that the United States faces, but the implementation of this strategy faltered. Presidential budget request after budget request made limited headway and underinvested in key capabilities needed to meet the demands laid out in the strategy. This was due in part to the fact that while the 2018 strategy prioritized high-end deterrence, it also stressed the “reemergence of long-term strategic competition” with China and Russia. Great-power competition became the loophole that allowed the services to push their preferred programs and to protect force structure that might not be needed or relevant in a great-power conflict.

Now there are calls for the 2022 National Defense Strategy to further widen its aperture so that it not only identifies strategic competition and warfighting as core missions, but also elevates a growing list of persistent threats. Upgrading these threats or adding a requirement to be able to win simultaneous wars will produce a more modern force but one that otherwise maintains the basic size and shape of today’s force. This is a losing strategy. Even a larger defense budget would not enable the Department of Defense to successfully manage all of these threats, just as past strategies have failed to do. Congress, for example, has provided an additional $24 billion increase to the Fiscal Year 2022 defense budget to buy more aircraft, ships, and weapons that might not be needed or even wanted.

It is an open question whether the Biden administration takes the good from the 2018 National Defense Strategy — the hard choices made to explicitly prioritize preparing for war against China — and improves on it, or whether the Department of Defense returns to strategy-making as a device to achieve consensus, which results in a growing list of undifferentiated threats and a mismatch between the strategy and resources, similar to the 2006, 2010, and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Reviews. Our analysis of the FY2022 budget request offers more concrete insight into what we might expect from the next National Defense Strategy, to include a force-planning construct. But the strategic direction suggested from this analysis is not promising, as the revealed strategy in the budget suggests that the Biden administration is headed toward building a future force incapable of fulfilling one of the top missions of the U.S. military: deterring and defeating great-power adversaries. This should prompt a rethink in the Defense Department about the priorities of the next National Defense Strategy, and its implications for force design.

What the FY2022 Budget Reveals About the Next National Defense Strategy

The FY2022 budget request provides a few glimpses about the likely direction of the next strategy. It will be built around the concept of integrated deterrence, which seeks to link together all types of national power across all domains to deter gray-zone tactics as well as conventional and nuclear attacks. Diplomacy — not hard power — is at the forefront of this concept. In the revealed strategy, the Defense Department focuses on defending the homeland — arguably the top objective of every defense strategy — and making investments to deter conventional military aggression. This approach seeks to maintain a credible deterrent vis-à-vis China, the department’s “pacing challenge,” with the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and by making investments in critical capabilities such as long-range fires, a resilient space architecture, and nuclear modernization. It also aims to enhance the research and development of new technologies and long-term modernization to maintain the U.S. military technological edge. But the budget also invests in countering an expanded array of near-term threats, such as COVID-19, and long-term challenges, like climate change, while seeking to hedge against a wide range of lesser threats such as Russia, Iran, North Korea, and non-state actors.

At some points, the FY2022 budget appears to prioritize preparing for future high-end conflict, while at others, it seems to champion the building blocks of a near-term competition strategy. The budget largely protects the current force size, and invests in readiness. This suggests an emphasis on great-power competition (vice conflict) and the need for an expanded global presence as a means to compete against China and Russia. Trying to straddle all of these competing demands would likely result in a force-planning construct that aims to compete day-to-day while simultaneously building readiness and capability to deter China and Russia, with an emphasis on China. It would also seek to retain the capacity to punish opportunistic aggression and respond to other emergent threats.

Integrated Deterrence or Merely Deterring Everything?

Such a strategy seeks to do it all — hedge against multiple threats while competing today and deterring the wars of tomorrow. It raises the level of ambition for and demands on the U.S. military because of the multiple threats that they will need to both compete against and deter. The issue with such a middle-of-the-road, Goldilocks-style approach is that in choosing to do everything, nothing is being prioritized. Inevitably, this will result in more of the same — a failing approach against the most difficult and consequential threats. In trying to do too much, the Defense Department risks not doing any of it particularly well.

Although this approach sounds like a prudent way of hedging against future uncertainty, it will result in a force that cannot defend the homeland or American allies against a Chinese or Russian attack. Historically the need to build and maintain a large force ready to fight has displaced modernization. The Defense Department clearly needs sufficient capability and capacity, but there inevitably is a tradeoff among these two if there are limited resources. Today this tension is even greater as the military personnel and operations and maintenance accounts are eating up an even larger share of the defense budget, leaving a smaller slice for modernization.

Additional resources are not going to resolve this dilemma. If extra funding is used to buy more capabilities that are not relevant to high-end deterrence, they may exacerbate this problem over time and further entrench constituencies opposed to the changes needed. Additional capacity also increases the likelihood that defense leaders take their eye off the Indo-Pacific and employ military forces in other regions for missions that can be fulfilled by other parts of the government. Time and time again we have seen the Department of Defense struggle to multi-task. It has taken a herculean effort by multiple administrations to shift the defense bureaucracy’s focus to China, which is required given the magnitude of the challenge and the time already wasted ignoring the problem. The department needs to make sure that the demands of today do not supersede the needs of tomorrow. Without doing so, the end result will be the U.S. military finding itself technologically outmatched in the future.

Indeed, when we tested whether the force created by a what appears to be the administration’s strategy based on analysis of the FY2022 budget request could meet the demands of defeating a fait accompli by a great-power adversary or roll back sub-conventional aggression in the Indo-Pacific and Europe in a series of table-top exercises, the results were sub-optimal. The force associated with this strategy could contest, but not halt, an invasion of Taiwan or the Baltics, and it could not overturn a sub-conventional land grab in either region. While the strategy fared fine at competition, it failed at two critical missions that arguably only the U.S. military can fulfill and was seemingly unable to defend vital U.S. interests. Moreover, this had the unintended effect of limiting options to counter adversary aggression, forcing policymakers to adopt a warfighting approach of rollback or punishment. Yet even this larger force lacked the capacity and capability, especially after essentially losing the first phase of the war, to effectively implement either alternative warfighting strategy.

An approach similar to the revealed strategy found in the FY2022 budget request runs the risk of producing a force that is too big, less ready for the future fights it is likely to face, and incapable of addressing the most concerning forms of aggression. It also risks missing the small window remaining to modernize the force to maintain a technological advantage over other great powers. If this doesn’t keep the Defense Department up at night, it should.

Integrate Deterrence by Focusing on the High End

There is a better approach. The department’s senior leaders should embrace some near-term risk and make the hard choices needed to set the future force in the right direction. This means sacrificing capacity and the ability to fight simultaneous wars to maintain enough forces with enhanced capabilities to win one large fight against the most consequential threat, China or Russia. In our series of tabletop exercises, we tested a strategy focused on high-end deterrence that could produce a force capable of defeating China or Russia and rolling back sub-conventional land grabs. Even without additional money provided by Congress, this strategy could simultaneously fund nuclear and conventional modernization and enable a deterrence-by-denial strategy against China and Russia.

The strategy narrowly defines the military’s role to warfighting and eschews the concept of competition, which primarily occurs in the non-military realm and is the responsibility of other parts of the government. It also explicitly prioritizes the threats posed by great-power challengers and takes an economy of force perspective to persistent lesser threats. As such, the force planning construct for this strategy is to prioritize China, sustain focus on Russia, and accept risk against other adversaries and threats. This one great-power war force-planning construct only maintains enough capacity to win one large war at a time, but it mitigates the risk of opportunistic aggression by improving the survivability and lethality of U.S. forces in both the Indo-Pacific and European theaters.

Because it enhances deterrence, this strategy can reduce the risk of a conflict with China and Russia in the near term and over the long run. It makes key investments in existing capabilities, mainly advanced long-range munitions and enablers, and improvements in posture to strengthen deterrence now. These improvements would put the right forces in the right places today, shore up American military power, and reduce the prospect of a war in the near term, allowing enough time for modernization efforts to come to fruition. At the same time, it focuses investments on new conventional capabilities that enhance denial strategies and advance the U.S. military technological edge, while funding the modernization of U.S. strategic forces. It would also create a division of labor within the joint force, in that the Army would prioritize Europe, where heavy ground forces are essential to deterrence, and the Air Force and Navy would focus on the Indo-Pacific. It reduces the size of the overall force (in particular the Army), relies on allies and partners to be the front line for daily competition, and divests of capabilities that are not survivable in a high-end conflict to free up resources to invest in game-changing future technology.

This approach is not without risk. Such a strategy risks overoptimizing for a single threat that might not materialize, resulting in a force that is underprepared for other contingencies and that may be incapable of responding to simultaneous threats. Reduced military capacity also may increase the risk that adversaries challenge the United States and may make American leaders less willing to defend threatened allies and partners. It similarly places large bets on future technologies, which may not mature as expected or on the needed timelines. Even if the Defense Department successfully develops and begins to field new military capabilities, there is a risk that this could encourage adversaries to use force before the window of opportunity closes. But without risk comes no reward. With this adage in mind, the department should accept some near-term risk in competition, against other threats, and in secondary regions to meet the most challenging and consequential threat.

For more than a decade, analysts have been warning the Defense Department that the U.S. military could lose a war against a great-power adversary and that significant changes to U.S. force structure, operational concepts, and acquisition processes are needed. This is not a resource problem. The problem is the department’s inability to make hard choices, prioritize, and then follow through by planning and programming against the priorities. This is not necessarily about how big the force is, but rather getting force design right: having the right force structure, in the right locations, with the right training and preparation to execute new warfighting concepts that enable victory against a great power. The greatest risk is further deferring conventional and nuclear modernization and finding that America has fallen so far behind that it cannot defend itself or its allies, partners, and interests.



Stacie Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Together, they are the co-authors of “Risky Business: Future Strategy and Force Options for the Defense Department.”

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Gray Gibson)