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Why the Pentagon Should Abandon ‘Strategic Competition’

The broad, undefined mission has undermined its original intent.

By , a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security, and , a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
A man holds his head in his hands while looking down at a chess board.
Chess grandmaster Magnus Carlsen (right) of Norway competes against Fabiano Caruana of the United States during the 83rd Tata Steel Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, on Jan. 27.

Nearly every child is taught when making a request to “say the magic word”: please. The U.S. Defense Department has recently been taught it too needs to say the magic word in every force, capability, or resource request. But the magic word isn’t please; it’s the phrase “strategic competition.”

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) sets U.S. military priorities and is produced every four years to align with a new administration. As the Pentagon develops the next NDS, scheduled to be delivered in February 2022, it has an opportunity to right where the last strategy went wrong: the concept of strategic competition.

The 2018 NDS ushered in an era in which long-term “inter-state strategic competition” with China and Russia reigned. Further complicating matters, Trump administration officials often interchangeably used the phrase great-power competition to describe this development. The concept became a priority mission without a clear definition of what it meant, the actions that comprised it, or what “winning” the competition looked like. Although this might seem innocuous, the establishment of this broad, undefined mission for the Defense Department has had deleterious effects and undermined the strategy’s original intent.

Nearly every child is taught when making a request to “say the magic word”: please. The U.S. Defense Department has recently been taught it too needs to say the magic word in every force, capability, or resource request. But the magic word isn’t please; it’s the phrase “strategic competition.”

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) sets U.S. military priorities and is produced every four years to align with a new administration. As the Pentagon develops the next NDS, scheduled to be delivered in February 2022, it has an opportunity to right where the last strategy went wrong: the concept of strategic competition.

The 2018 NDS ushered in an era in which long-term “inter-state strategic competition” with China and Russia reigned. Further complicating matters, Trump administration officials often interchangeably used the phrase great-power competition to describe this development. The concept became a priority mission without a clear definition of what it meant, the actions that comprised it, or what “winning” the competition looked like. Although this might seem innocuous, the establishment of this broad, undefined mission for the Defense Department has had deleterious effects and undermined the strategy’s original intent.

The Biden administration reportedly favors the strategic competition terminology but is differentiating their idea from the Trump-era concept. Although administration officials maintain that strategic competition conveys a focused and disciplined approach, it is likely to have the reverse effect as competition is not a means nor an end in itself. The Trump administration at least emphasized competition with great powers, which delineated the important threats and deprioritized threats like North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. The Biden administration, therefore, appears to be making the next NDS’s centerpiece a term that is even broader and fuzzier than its predecessor.

That would be a mistake. Instead of fixating on strategic competition, the administration should focus the next NDS on strengthening nuclear and conventional deterrence against China and Russia. Specifically, it should narrow the aperture to bolstering strategic stability to prevent the use of nuclear weapons and deterring conventional aggression by preparing to defeat these rivals in a high-end conflict.

Implementation of the 2018 NDS failed because strategic competition became a loophole to circumvent the strategy’s hard choices. It confused public and congressional debates about what was needed to deter Chinese and Russian aggression. Strategic competition has led defense leaders to take on issues far beyond the military’s traditional purview, from countering electoral disinformation to protecting allies and partners from economic coercion to limiting the growing influence of Chinese and Russian corporations in far-flung countries around the globe.

Although these issues do impact the department, the military should not be at the forefront of addressing them. Focusing the Pentagon away from strategic and conventional deterrence—two uniquely military missions—is not conducive or effective, particularly when there are other U.S. government institutions better suited to lead and manage these issues.

The concept has also broadened the Defense Department’s geographic focus. Although the Pentagon maintains a global mandate intrinsic to its unique power-projection capabilities, the 2018 NDS made it clear that the military’s focus should be on defending allies and partners in China’s and Russia’s backyards.

But just as the Cold War played out in the peripheries, Beijing and Moscow have not limited their activities to Europe and the Indo-Pacific and have invested in places such as Africa and the Middle East. Strategic competition has thus become U.S. military commanders’ way in Africa and the Middle East of driving attention and resources toward countering malign Chinese and Russian activities in their regions.

This, in turn, has diverted resources away from priority regions, required large investments in operations and maintenance instead of the military modernization required to deter Beijing and Moscow over the long term, and consumed readiness, leaving a force less prepared to fight and win in a future conflict.

Moreover, strategic competition usurped another priority mission laid out in the 2018 NDS: preparing for potential future conflict with China and Russia. Instead, the department has continued to invest considerable resources in forces that would be less useful in a high-end conflict, partly due to strategic competition’s daily demands, as U.S. military forces are needed to patrol allied airspace in Europe and counter Chinese military and paramilitary coercion in the South and East China Seas. Many in Congress have seized on the idea of competing today, which requires increasing the United States’ military presence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.

These near-term, day-to-day activities have taken precedence over long-term force structure and modernization efforts required to build a force capable of defeating Beijing and Moscow. Congress has also impeded attempts by the military services to divest of less relevant weapons to free up resources for new technologies, further compounding the problem. This means the Pentagon is buying more of the same to compete, leaving it woefully underprepared to deter and defeat the most pressing future threats.

Strategic competition has become the magic word to use for a successful resource grab. When requesting forces, capabilities, or additional funding, categorizing the request as essential to competing against China or Russia—whether or not that is the case—has become a surefire way to get it fulfilled.

This has been particularly useful for combatant commanders who oversee places such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America and have emphasized the need for a U.S. military presence to counter Beijing’s and Moscow’s growing influence to successfully acquire more forces and capabilities. For example, U.S. aircraft carriers have deployed to the Middle East at a far greater rate than the 2018 NDS would have suggested under the guise of countering malign Iranian behavior and reducing Chinese and Russian influence in the region through a demonstration of power and commitment.

Resulting frequent and supposedly “dynamic” deployments—or unpredictable military force deployments—have had a questionable impact on adversary behavior and eroded U.S. military readiness, critical to the department’s ability to successfully fight China and Russia. It has also enabled the military services to justify their preferred weapons programs, operational concepts, and missions by tying these to competition’s imprecise mission.

The result has been a U.S. military still not ready to meet or capable of meeting future challenges in the 2018 NDS’s priority areas. The strategic competition concept enabled the Pentagon to shy away from reorienting to the actual problems at hand.

With the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has eliminated a distraction from achieving its objectives. In this peacetime environment, interservice rivalry is likely to heat up, increasingly tempting each military service to justify its topline by pointing to strategic competition. The Biden administration must close the competition loophole in the 2022 NDS to ensure the force remains focused on high-end deterrence.

To do so, the Pentagon should focus on deterring Chinese and Russian aggression by improving its ability to defeat an attack should deterrence fail. The 2022 NDS would explicitly prioritize China while sustaining a lesser focus on Russia and accept risks against other threats. It would also require the Pentagon to invest in long-term conventional and nuclear modernization to produce the capabilities required to deny China or Russia their objectives, deter escalation, and maintain the United States’ military-technological edge.

This approach resists temptations of day-to-day competition and responding to each Chinese and Russian provocation, which is risky, costly, and ultimately a losing proposition. Rather than trying to match Chinese and Russian activities around the globe with showy deployments of bombers, ships, or troops, U.S. force demonstrations should focus on the primary regions and threats.

This would involve practicing new operational concepts and revealing new capabilities that would allow the United States to win a conflict against China or Russia—all with the aim of enhancing deterrence. Front-line allies and partners in Asia and Europe should be managing daily military competition, enabling U.S. forces to conserve their readiness, husband the resources to develop needed capabilities and new operational concepts, and train for high-intensity combat operations in a highly contested environment.

The next NDS should prioritize preparedness for great-power conflicts and not mention strategic competition, except to say it is the responsibility of other U.S. agencies. This better aligns with the U.S. military’s unique contributions to national security, sends the message that competition is not the Defense Department’s bailiwick, and puts the U.S. military in support of other civilian agencies, which the current administration has argued. The end result is a long-term strategy that makes hard choices, can better meet future challenges, and highlights the department’s strengths.

Even so, the Pentagon will need to make sure that one magic word or concept is not substituted for another. If strategic competition is struck from the next NDS, favored concepts such as “integrated deterrence” must be clearly defined to avoid the same. The strategy should clearly delineate the portions of integrated deterrence that are the military’s responsibility, which are strategic and conventional deterrence, and what is not.

A catch phrase should not become the way to obtain outsized or unnecessary resources that ultimately undermine a defense strategy’s main objective, and the Pentagon should be cautious—please.

Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security.

Stacie Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.

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