Mara Karlin, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, talks about building the warfighter advantage through synchronized efforts. Staff Sgt. John Wright
Photo Caption & Credits

Q&A: Talking Strategy

Aug. 31, 2023

Dr. Mara E. Karlin is acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, the Department of Defense’s No. 2 policy role. Karlin was one of the primary developers of the 2022 National Defense Strategy, which redefined China as the “pacing challenge” for the U.S. military. Karlin discussed the NDS and the Air Force’s and Space Force’s roles with Pentagon Editor Chris Gordon in an interview in August. This transcript has been edited for space. 

Q: In the year since the unclassified National Defense Strategy has come out, what specific steps have you taken to turn it into reality? And what’s your plan for the next two years?

A: We’ve had a really robust implementation effort since putting out the National Defense Strategy (NDS). It’s probably the most robust implementation effort I’ve seen for a National Defense Strategy. It has tried to ensure that every part of the department is kind of deeply socialized with what the strategy says and also understands how to see themselves in it.

When we’ve gone through program budget review, for example, making sure that there’s a really tight strategy to resources connection and that it’s loud noise in the background as we are debating resourcing issues. When there are discussions on force development or force employment, it’s making sure that that strategy is again that sort of loud noise and trying to direct us in the right way.

Process wise, we’ve implemented the strategy by ensuring the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary are touching the key priorities on a consistent basis [and] also ensuring that senior leaders across the department have to update the Secretary consistently on how they’re changing their strategies and policies and plans in line with the strategy, by calling out a number of key tasks within the strategy and closely tracking to make sure that those are getting achieved. It’s become the oxygen we live and breathe in the Department of Defense.

Q: Is there a mismatch in what the NDS prioritizes and what you’re able to resource? For example, some members of the commission on the 2018 NDS called for 5 percent real growth.

A: I think we’ve had a really tight strategy-to-resources linkage bias. … We put out the request for $842 billion. And I think what’s special about that request is just how tightly it is linked to the key elements of the strategy. For example, this emphasis on multidomain investments: You’ve got a President’s budget that’s really focused on a procurement budget. How do we make sure we get the things? It looks at issues that for a while we watched that had been orphaned. … Historically, that hasn’t been the case with munitions. And yet, I think we’re maximizing procurement of a couple of key munitions within the latest President’s budget. 

Whether it’s the National Defense Strategy commission emphasis on 3 to 5 percent or other folks looking at specifically the number—it’s a lot more important in my mind for us to really hone in on what are we buying for that money.

Q: In the past, you didn’t have to worry about someone taking out a satellite. Now you do. What concerns you most about space resilience and capacity of our space assets today?

A: The National Defense Strategy talks about the importance of making sure that we have a resilient space architecture. And, in fact, this notion of resilience, I would expand. … I would note that the concept of resilience is a real throughline in the strategy. It’s figuring out, as shocks happen to the system, either expected or unexpected, how do you make sure that you can ride out those shocks and still realize your strategy? Within the National Defense Strategy, it looks at deterrence by denial, deterrence by cost imposition, and then also deterrence by resilience. Space is so interesting here because you do want to really build up this resilient architecture. Obviously, what we see within the commercial world is really, really notable.

I think there’s also been some important lessons learned from Russia’s terrible war on Ukraine in terms of how to understand the role of space, and how to be effective in the role of space. We’ve seen the profound impact it’s had for Ukraine’s military.

Q: Can you define campaigning, which is a theme of the National Defense Strategy? 

A: Campaigning is building warfighting advantage, closing warfighting vulnerabilities, and it is a way in which we are logically linking and synchronizing these efforts. Campaigning is not just go do a bunch of stuff. It is not competing in and of itself. It has to have a real purpose. …

What we’re trying to push that’s a bit of a different approach is this idea of bringing the entire department together. Let’s just take a case study, for example. We know that having a resilient, distributed posture across the Indo-Pacific can build warfighting advantages. When you want to build that posture and exercise that posture, that actually requires a whole bunch of different parts of the Department of Defense to become involved. …

The Air Force, [has] got some really interesting concepts along these lines as they relate to Indo-Pacific posture. Obviously, combatant commands are tremendously relevant—INDOPACOM, of course. But you can also see the role of TRANSCOM, CYBERCOM, SPACECOM, just to offer a few, as you were thinking about that posture. You’re looking at the role of the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the way that posture is organized in a policy manner. …

The infrastructure piece would involve the Office of the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment. What you’re hearing from me is that you are touching all of these different parts of the department to try to be able to build warfighting advantage.

Q: Does campaigning mean doing something for a reason?

A: A warfighting reason. … The phases of conflict often felt very binary to folks. I think what campaigning recognizes is that when you are not in the throes of a contingency, you want to be really smart about how and in what ways you are preparing your future force and by using today’s force, and you want to logically link all of these different pieces of what the force is doing and how it’s doing it for a greater goal.

Q: What is the Air Force role in campaigning?

A: This idea of agile combat employment that the Air Force talks a lot about, I think that’s a really neat example of the Air Force’s relevance in campaigning and in realizing the goals of the National Defense Strategy effectively. The Air Force wants to be able to jump in and out of a bunch of locations across the Indo-Pacific. That seems in line with a distributed, resilient, hardened posture.

Q: The Marine Corps, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force all have their own future operating concepts that are on different timelines. Who is pulling this all together?

A: A really important point is the importance of ensuring that as each of the military services modernize, there is also a joint approach to that modernization and to concept development.  …

If we were in a phase where folks didn’t see broad agreement on the security environment today and where it’s headed, and the urgent need to focus, then I would probably be more worried. But there’s an extraordinary amount of concurrence on what the force needs to be able to do, and how to help it get there. There’s a lot of energy being thrown at that around the entire department. … I’m hard-pressed to look around and find folks who disagree with the premise of the strategy, or how best to realize it.

Q: The NDS prioritizes China and Russia. How are they responding to it and attempting to frustrate it? How will you know if you’re successful in deterring China and Russia?

A: Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine occurred while we were finishing up the strategy. Obviously, we had Russia’s playbook beforehand. It is striking just how much the Russians did to support the strategy’s focus. 

The really tragic events of the last year and a half have also shown that the strategy’s emphasis on allies and partners as our center of gravity has made a lot of sense, as has the emphasis on a multidomain approach and an integrated deterrence approach. I can’t tell you how the Russians interpreted the National Defense Strategy. But looking back on where we were when that invasion occurred and where we are now, I think we’re in a heck of a better place. 

We have briefed—I have briefed—the People’s Republic of China on our National Defense Strategy. … I think our National Defense Strategy’s focus has been pretty clear to the PRC. I think our tremendous success at implementing it, whether it was through the resource investments, or through the really tremendous and historic posture investments over the last year have helped demonstrate that our focus on Indo-Pacific security and stability is real and meaningful. And it’s not just the U.S. focus, it’s actually the focus of a whole lot of other allies and partners.

Q: It’s not a two-war NDS. But we’re seeing some confluence between China and Russia. We saw naval drills with the PRC and Russia near Alaska—they’re doing joint military drills and they’re both trying to poke the U.S. in the eye at the same time—whether Russia in Syria or China in the South China Sea. Does the NDS properly account for deterring Russia and China together or properly account for a situation in which they worked together against the U.S.?

A: I would say yes, absolutely. We were cognizant of that. As you know, just because we have a priority doesn’t mean we get to kind of shift the entire Department of Defense to focusing just on that. We also need to make sure that we are mitigating the threats or challenges posed by others—whether that’s violent extremists or Iran or North Korea or Moscow—which we see as posing an acute threat. We have thought hard about who else might be supportive of those actors that I just delineated and how and in what ways they might be.

Q: How do you hedge against threats in the Middle East and prevent that from boiling over as you shift the focus to the Indo- Pacific?

A: Our approach to the Middle East is especially focused on bringing our partners together in key ways. So integrated air and missile defense is a great example, maritime security. You might say, ‘Yeah, but haven’t we tried to do that for a while?’ And yes, that is exactly right. … The difference is the dynamics around the region have shifted pretty meaningfully. I think those shifts are really meaningful, both the increasing kind of concurrence on the security environment and the threats and the increasing willingness to work together on dealing with those. … Look, you cannot write any region of the world off of the list of things for the U.S. to be involved with. It becomes a question of how and in what way should we be engaging this region? What is it that we have that’s special to contribute to regional security? And what can others do as well?

Q: Does the Air Force play a particularly important role in campaigning as a flexible force?

A: The Air Force has done an especially spectacular job in the last few years of being able to realize the idea of dynamic force employment, being able to show that it can get anywhere at any time in a meaningful way. That conveys a message of deterrence, particularly because it conveys the kind of tremendous power and capabilities of the U.S. military. So, yes.

Q: What role does the Space Force play in deterrence, given that it is less visible? 

A: We rely so heavily on the Space Force and it’s been just really intriguing to watch how the Space Force has found its legs. The capabilities have been key. But watching the way that having the Space Force at the table kind of reshapes and shifts conversations is notable.

Q: So how do you maintain that advantage—the U.S. advantage in space?

A: Part of it is by giving the Space Force a seat at the table, frankly, and giving it a voice. A few years ago, that wasn’t the case. And you now have just a different bureaucratic environment because of the construct of the Space Force. That might sound like it’s not interesting, but it actually is. In a department that is run by process and bureaucracy, having a voice now in all of the key fora, having someone whose concurrence or nonconcurrence you have to seek out, that actually ends up being tremendously powerful. … There’s obviously a lot of investment that one wants to have there. We want to see it really under the rubric of being resilient and in diverse constellations, and you’re investing in space sensing. It’s also important that when we talk about collaborating with allies and partners, … that’s not just the domains that folks naturally think of, but also space.