Elephants in the Room
Mattis’s Defense Strategy Is Bold
The only problem is, it's not realistic about funding.
While the value of overarching strategy documents is often derided, the National Defense Strategy serves three important functions: first, setting out the vision and priorities of elected leadership for the Defense Department; second, giving the uniformed and suited professionals in the Defense Department an opportunity to educate new political appointees as they take the helms of responsibility; and third, providing a guide to Congressional overseers and the taxpaying public for how a $700 billion enterprise will be run. So the process is important. It’s important for civilian control of the U.S. military, and it’s important for holding those civilians accountable. And the Defense Department does a better job — by far — than any other government department to provide a guide to its priorities and how it intends to achieve them. The National Defense Strategy will guide the National Military Strategy, which will in turn guide more specialized planning documents that determine force levels and priority users in different contingencies.
What the process very often produces, though, is uninteresting: strategies made up of conceptual frameworks with questionable intellectual clarity or rigor, larded with impenetrable jargon, and strewn with every pet rock from each of the military services. They are frequently only tenuously related to the president’s National Security Strategy, and either unconnected to the actual spending program or miraculously molded to fit, with no alteration but more money to the current forces and equipment programs. That is to say, they very often offer no strategy at all.
None of those criticisms apply to the 2018 National Defense Strategy rolled out by Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday. The 2018 document propounds a clear vision of the current challenges to U.S. security, the roles military force will play in protecting against those challenges, and the priorities for spending and activity to strengthen the enterprise. It is admirably clear in stating that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” No one reading it can miss that emphasis: It establishes the framework for organizing, training, equipping, and committing U.S. forces.
Without straying from the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy shows how sharp-edged White House formulations — like “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage … rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it” — can be gracefully transformed into “the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition between nations,” which will be received with less alarm by allies. It also judiciously emphasizes diplomatic leadership backed by strong military forces ready for combat. It states outright the importance (clearer to the Defense Department than the White House) of alliances and that the overall objective is to “sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order.” I suppose it is too much to ask that while bemoaning the weakening of the post-World War II international order, the Trump administration Defense Department would acknowledge how much damage the president himself is doing to that order — but the department deserves credit for emphasizing repeatedly how great the value of that order is to the United States.
The National Defense Strategy acknowledges that U.S. military advantages are eroding and evinces a corresponding sense of urgency about reestablishing them and finding new ones. In addition, the strategy does not tiptoe around the issue of which countries are competitors (China and Russia), and the fact that they threaten the United States in different ways — one through gathering strength and the other by playing a weakening hand adroitly. The document puts the North Korean threat in context of those larger challenges, a gentle pushback on the fulminations from the White House. Iran ranks only fourth — a judgment call of prioritization most strategy exercises shy away from, which is why most strategy exercises aren’t very helpful. This strategy will allow a crosswalk from priorities to spending to forces.
High in its standard recitation of objectives, the document lists, “Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests” — which is wonderful. It’s also good that the strategy acknowledges the advantages to the United States of a world where states are not the only international actors. U.S. adversaries are not the only ones armed with this knowledge. The country puts this idea in practice at home, yet too often tries to impose on itself strategies inconsistent with its political culture, instead of capitalizing on its advantages. My favorite passage in the National Defense Strategy is, “more than any other nation, America can expand the competitive space, seizing the initiative to challenge our competitors where we possess advantages and they lack strength.”
Where the strategy is less effective is in realistic expectations about funding. It describes the deleterious geopolitical and economic consequences of what it considers inadequate funding, but it does not attempt to provide a strategy consistent with existing resources and funding practices (for example, sequestration and short-term continuing resolutions). That is a major failing.
Mattis was characteristically pungent in describing the damage years of sequestration and budgeting by continuing resolution have done to U.S. national defense (“no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending cuts, worsened … by us operating, nine of the last 10 years, under continuing resolutions, wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars.”) But the duration of time those conditions have persisted calls into question the decision to base the defense strategy on a heroic assumption of sustained, increased spending provided by regular legislative order. The strategy would be much more useful if it described the resourcing as it is (to use one of the secretary’s favorite turns of phrase), rather than as he wishes it to be. What is the best you could do with existing resources to address these challenges? Are there ways to build in resilience ? What missions would the department cease to prepare for if resourcing remains flat and temporary? How does the department approach tradeoffs in a resource-constrained environment?
The National Defense Strategy also repeats a tiresome shibboleth: that the United States is facing “a security environment more complex and volatile than any we have experienced in recent memory.” While every recent secretary of defense has made the same claim, it is unjustifiable intellectual laziness to mythologize the past as one of uncontested dominance in every domain. And, as Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has already pointed out, the American homeland is not, as the strategy states, newly vulnerable. The strategy’s claim to that effect would come as a surprise to former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. It is a pity that an otherwise terrific section on the value of alliances sees the entire continent of Africa only as a place to prevent terrorism. And please, Lord, strike from the vocabulary of all Defense Department writers phrases like “seamless integration of multiple elements of national and military power,” “Dynamic Force Employment,” and “a modernized Global Operating Model of combat-credible, flexible theater postures.” I hope rather than believe that the Defense Department as a bureaucracy will finally be able to “deliver performance at the speed of relevance.”
But those are small quibbles about a generally sound National Defense Strategy. All of the reasons for the strategy to exist are even more important under the Trump administration. Establishing for the legislature and bureaucracy the president’s priorities will help them do their jobs consistent with his direction — they need to know what the president is committed to in order to draft legislation, provide spending authorization and appropriations, and get moving on policies to implement the president’s direction. And processes that discipline thinking and action may also provide guardrails that help a White House that’s driving recklessly to stay on the road.
The Trump administration is surely happy that the strategy dispenses with Obama administration prissiness by calling China a threat, Russia a treaty violator, defense spending inadequate, and for full-throated support for nuclear modernization and missile defenses. I wonder, though, whether the White House realizes that the strategy appears to lower the bar set by earlier iterations. The force-sizing construct — the planning scenario that will determine how large a military force the Defense Department fields — looks to be reduced. Unless I am misreading it, the department suggests that U.S. military forces need only be capable of fighting one war while fending off one other oppertunistic challenge by a regional (rather than global) power. That’s a pretty modest standard, especially for a $700 billion budget.
Still, the 2018 National Defense Strategy is a solid foundation for Defense Department to build its defense program upon. I hope the Congressionally appointed review panel undertakes excursions from the anticipated budget to draw the department into contemplating a strategy for the resources it is actually likely to have.