Pentagon Rolls Out Defense Strategy Amid War in Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the Pentagon to tweak its China-focused approach.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A plaque of the U.S. Defense Department seal
A plaque of the U.S. Defense Department seal
A plaque of the U.S. Defense Department seal is seen at the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 26, 2012. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The Biden administration is briefing lawmakers on the classified version of the National Defense Strategy, four people familiar with the effort told Foreign Policy, in a bid to provide additional justification for the increased $773 billion defense allocation in the White House budget request, released Monday.

The Biden administration has delayed rolling out its national security and defense strategies, as the U.S. Defense Department makes last-minute tweaks amid the monthlong war between Russia and Ukraine, suddenly shifting focus from a U.S. defense strategy that had eyes on China.

The decision to widely brief lawmakers and staff on the changes is atypical; usually, it would accompany the release of a publicly available unclassified strategy. But officials and experts said the move is important to help Congress understand how the Pentagon would spend the sized-up budget request and how it is changing U.S. military policy with war engulfing Europe.

The Biden administration is briefing lawmakers on the classified version of the National Defense Strategy, four people familiar with the effort told Foreign Policy, in a bid to provide additional justification for the increased $773 billion defense allocation in the White House budget request, released Monday.

The Biden administration has delayed rolling out its national security and defense strategies, as the U.S. Defense Department makes last-minute tweaks amid the monthlong war between Russia and Ukraine, suddenly shifting focus from a U.S. defense strategy that had eyes on China.

The decision to widely brief lawmakers and staff on the changes is atypical; usually, it would accompany the release of a publicly available unclassified strategy. But officials and experts said the move is important to help Congress understand how the Pentagon would spend the sized-up budget request and how it is changing U.S. military policy with war engulfing Europe.

Pentagon officials have already admitted that they will need to do some strategy overhauls amid Russia’s ongoing invasion. Speaking before Congress this month, Mara Karlin, the Pentagon’s top strategy official who is overseeing the defense document, said the United States would need to dust off the military’s posture review that was already approved by U.S. President Joe Biden in November 2021.

“If they did not it would not have any serious credibility,” Arnold Punaro, a retired three-star general and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee who now works as a defense industry consultant, told Foreign Policy in an email. “It’s a very dangerous and unstable world and the [National Defense Strategy] needs to address more than the most compelling issue of the day, which is support for Ukraine.”

“We need to do everything better, faster, and cheaper than our principal adversaries and today that is not the case,” Punaro added. He said the new defense strategy should also look at trouble spots globally beyond the current conflict, including Iran’s recent moves to further enrich uranium, the uptick in North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities, the goal of deterring China from making a military move against Taiwan, and the aim of tamping down terrorism’s resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For months, defense officials have teased the idea that the new strategy will focus on “integrated deterrence,” working to deter China and Russia by going beyond conventional and nuclear weapons to use other tactics, such as cyber tools and sanctions, and to recruit the help of more allies.

But U.S. officials familiar with the strategy told Foreign Policy that the Russian invasion has not forced significant changes to the document, which provides the Biden administration a major opportunity to reset U.S. foreign policy. The United States has seen Russia telegraphing the wider invasion of Ukraine for over a year, officials said, and the monthlong war is likely to highlight the characterization of the Kremlin as an “acute threat” to U.S. national security while the Pentagon and other agencies continue to focus on China’s military buildup over the long term.

Speaking to Reuters on Thursday, Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, said the emerging U.S. defense strategy would describe Russia as a serious near-term threat but a challenge that cannot threaten the United States in the long term. Kahl also said the United States believed that Russia would emerge weaker militarily from the war in Ukraine than before the conflict.

Defense Department comptroller Michael McCord told reporters on Monday that Pentagon officials “had no illusions about Putin as anything but an adversary” in designing the Pentagon’s $773 billion budget but that China still remained the Pentagon’s long-term focus. The Pentagon finalized its budget before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, McCord added.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration used the 2018 National Defense Strategy to try to refocus the Pentagon on China, an emphasis the Biden team has continued. White House and Pentagon officials have insisted that they can “walk and chew gum” when it comes to punishing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while continuing to focus on China. But some experts and congressional officials are concerned that the ongoing crisis may limit the Pentagon’s ability to come to the aid of Asian allies under China’s threat. The United States has already sent more than 6,000 U.S. troops to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank as well as F-35 fighter jets—and has had discussions about making some of those deployments permanent.

The Trump-era strategy effectively abandoned the idea of a U.S. military that could fight in two major regional wars simultaneously in favor of squarely putting the U.S. focus on a possible future conflict with China. But some experts believe that the United States should resist the urge to leave Europe.

“The temptation may be to argue that Russias difficulties in Ukraine show that a China, China, China focus remains appropriate, and that the United States will not need additional resources to shore up NATO in Europe. I think that is the wrong approach,” said Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of a recent book on the Cold Wars lessons for great-power rivalry.

“I think it would be appropriate for the administration to say that the invasion of Ukraine is a game-changing development, much like the Korean War, that requires us to fundamentally revisit our global strategy and the level of resources devoted to it,” Brands added.

The Biden administration’s beefed-up Pentagon budget appears aimed at trying to more quickly modernize the U.S. military. The Navy is asking to retire 24 ships while building nine new surface ships and submarines. The Air Force is hoping to retire 33 F-22 aircraft along with MQ-9 Reaper drones and A-10 aircraft—part of a plan to divest 269 different aircraft—while getting just 61 new F-35 fighter jets. The United States also plans to spend $7.2 billion on long-range weapons, providing all U.S. military services hypersonic weapons by 2028 and funding all three legs of the nuclear triad.

The Pentagon is also asking Congress for $6.1 billion to fund U.S. military activities in the Pacific, including nearly $900 million to set up missile batteries to defend Guam from ranged Chinese attacks. And the Pentagon wants to spend $4.2 billion to further beef up U.S. forces in Europe. But defense officials are still reluctant to talk publicly about the emerging strategy that is undergirding those plans.

“We won’t discuss classified documents or discuss details of our strategic posture,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told Foreign Policy in an emailed statement. “The Department of Defense maintains readiness to defend the homeland, our allies and partners across all domains.”

In a statement on Monday, Biden described the new national security budget as one of the largest in history and said he wanted continued U.S. investment to deal with Russia’s war in Ukraine, including economic, humanitarian, and security help for Kyiv.

Yet there remains some heartburn about the budget request among progressives and doves who would like to see the United States reduce its military footprint and expected a Biden presidency to put downward pressure on the defense budget.

“The Ukraine crisis should not be used as an excuse to increase the Pentagon’s already enormous budget,” William Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said in an emailed statement. “Spending to address the Ukraine crisis can be more than readily accommodated under current Pentagon spending levels.” Hartung said the Pentagon has been overspending on “dangerous and unworkable” weapons systems and should be calling on allies to spend more on their own defense.

Although the unusual approach of releasing the strategy now in classified form makes sense to justify the budget, experts said, there is a risk of not fully reckoning with the changes to the geopolitical map that Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has brought.

“The challenge is that pushing the [National Defense Strategy] out now may make it seem as though the administration isnt fully grappling with the implications of the largest conventional war in Europe since World War II,” Brands said. “And if the National Security Strategy is more extensively rewritten to take into account the war in Ukraine, this sequencing raises the risk of a gap between the two documents.”

Update, March 28, 2022: This article has been updated to include a U.S. Defense Department statement.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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