Wars and provocations notwithstanding, delay of the National Defense Strategy leaves Capitol Hill and Congress scrambling for direction.
The 2022 National Defense Strategy places China front and center as America’s “pacing threat” and dubs Russia, three months into its ruthless and thus far unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine, an “acute” threat—meaning it poses a lesser concern over the long-term.
Yet two months after providing a two-page synopsis of the NDS, the Pentagon has yet to issue the final draft. Instead, leaders sporadically fill in details through senior leader speeches and Capitol Hill testimony. That’s left the entire community—the operational military, Congress, and the defense industry—without comprehensive guidance for the future.
According to a White House summary, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s defense strategy largely echoes the 2018 version prepared under then-Secretary James Mattis. That document reset America’s defense priorities after 20 years of focus on violent extremism toward a primary focus on confronting “great power competition” with both China and Russia. By pegging China as the single top competitor, the new NDS acknowledges Beijing’s rapid military growth and its vast economic resources to ensure continued growth and investment.
Austin’s spin on the strategy elevates an “all-of-government approach” as the only effective means of challenging America’s competitors. The administration claims this year marks the first “fully integrated” re-examination of the NDS, the Nuclear Posture Review, Missile Defense Review, and National Security Strategy—which enfolds them all—and that doing so ensures “tight linkages between our strategy and our resources.” The all-of-government approach combines “soft power” diplomacy and economic pressure with “hard power” military capability to avert conflict and promote peace and democracy.
The New NDS Sets Four Priorities:
- Defend the homeland against “the growing multi-domain threat” posed by China.
- Deter attacks against U.S. interests, allies, and partners.
- Deter aggression by being able to win wars—“prioritizing the [People’s Republic of China] in the Indo-Pacific” and placing the “Russia challenge in Europe” as a second priority.
- Build a “resilient joint force and defense ecosystem,” such that the defense industrial base is capable of both innovation and surge production.
With China pacing U.S. investment, the strategy also pledges the U.S. “will collaborate with our NATO Allies and partners to reinforce robust deterrence in the face of Russian aggression.”
Austin’s four NDS priorities distill eleven goals of the 2018 version into a simpler construct. It addresses, but does not specifically call out as priorities topics such as “maintaining favorable balances of power” in each region around the world; deterring terrorists from attacking the U.S.; discouraging the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and accelerating defense acquisition.
The NDS sees North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations as lesser threats and identifies climate change and pandemics as “transforming the context” in the operational environment because of their potential to trigger food shortages, political instability, and large-scale migration.
The strategy says the U.S. must increase its ability to “withstand, fight through, and recover quickly from disruption,” whether caused by natural, military, or cyber effects. It also highlights military alliances and cooperative agreements as national advantages and force-enhancers in almost every aspect of national defense.
The NDS’ focus on all-of-government “integrated deterrence” includes a “lethal, resilient, sustainable, survivable, agile, and responsive joint force;” close cooperation with partners and allies; active “campaigning,” meaning day-to-day operations to prepare for and deter conflict, such as international and joint exercises; and “building enduring advantages” with new technology and a professional defense workforce.
An unclassified half-page summary of the Nuclear Posture Review, released at the same time, is similarly shrouded from full transparency. The U.S. “seeks strategic stability” and to avoid “costly arms races,” it says, emphasizing that America’s nuclear arsenal is built for deterrence and to be used only “in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests” of the U.S., its partners, or allies.
And in an even briefer comment, the White House said its Missile Defense Review says: “Missiles are a principal means for projecting military power, which makes missile defense a key component of integrated deterrence.” The review “assures the vital contributions of missile defenses to a resilient defense posture that reduces adversary confidence in missile use, reassures allies, and offers military options to avoid risks of escalation.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, speaking at the Reagan Forum in early May, said the Pentagon has fulfilled its obligation to give Congress a classified summary of the NDS. But rapidly evolving events, particularly in Ukraine, demand additional attention to “get that right.” A strategy, she said, is “something you live and execute,” not merely a “document.”
The NDS should be “constantly reviewed and updated,” she noted, anticipating release of the National Security Strategy, which encompasses all the other strategic reviews, “in the coming months.” She said it is not yet “a finalized document.”
Hicks said the NDS takes what she called a “three-FYDP” approach to building a new force structure, referring to three five-year, Future Years’ Defense Plans.
The Pentagon knows what forces it needs now, through 2027, she said, and it knows what it must have to be competitive with China in the 2030s, which she characterized as the “force design” period, “with all the robots and stuff.”
The here-and-now 2023-27 FYDP will focus on “that ‘campaigning’ and deterrent capability,” she added. Emphasis is on cyber and space resilience, force survivability, and new munitions. She said the Pentagon must also modernize the strategic nuclear deterrent, in which “we were under-invested for so long that we’re now having to pay that price.”
She called 2027 a “notable” benchmark because that’s when China is expected to have the capabilities needed to seize Taiwan.
The next, or middle FYDP, is the challenge, Hicks stated. The Pentagon has to build a credible plan to field its objective force, one that Congress, the military, and the industry can collectively fulfill.
The Pentagon has to convince Congress that “we have … a viable pathway” to the 2030s, she said. Failing to win that trust and confidence “is what keeps sliding us back.”
To get there, Hicks sees “pathway finders,” technology and operational experiments, and protypes to prove the case, she said. Heavy investment in software is needed to tie concepts such as joint all-domain command and control to “actual capabilities that can be fielded.”
“I think that’s where we have to make a lot of progress,” she said. Congress must grant the Pentagon new authorities to accelerate devleopment and, perhaps, to bypass traditional impediments to introducing equipment; slowdowns eat up time and resources the nation cannot spare to counter the growing threat from Beijing.
But Congress must work with the administration to avoid adding topline spending earmarked for “new programs that we can’t support and can’t afford in the out-years, and that doesn’t cover inflation,” Hicks said. “That is my No. 1 concern.”
In an April meeting with defense writers, Hicks said one of her biggest worries is that Congress has too little patience with the Pentagon when it comes to testing new systems. New technologies are fraught with risk, she said, asking that Capitol Hill allow the Pentagon leeway to take more risks.
The U.S. “used to be first in class” in its willingness to “test, learn a little, test, fail, learn some more,” she said. But today she sees “real resistance” to that on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers seem uncomfortable with “concurrency” and “technically risky approaches.”
She said, “We have to be willing to fail.”
Hicks acknowledges the Pentagon has been preoccupied with helping Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion, but said DOD has to be able to “walk and chew gum and the same time.”
That conflict offers “clear takeaways” for Taiwan, underscoring that the U.S. can help Taiwan now by providing equipment and advice so the island can better defend itself.
Lessons for Taiwan
Ukraine has also shown that the “will to fight and demonstrated capability to fight” are powerful force multipliers. Taiwan, she said, should “make sure they are investing in themselves in the self-defense that they need to have.”
Finally, the international outrage over Russia’s invasion and the largely united response has shown that western economies have a “huge throw-weight” in nonkinetic, economic power. “When they choose to bring that to bear, it can have devastating effect,” Hicks said.
These are all lessons that China should also be learning, she added: The “big takeaway … on the costs of aggression.”
The Price of Delay
The Pentagon provided a classified summary of the NDS to Congress just a few days before presenting it with the fiscal 2023 budget request, which also lacked out-year spending plans. This was the very same “first FYDP” Hicks was talking about.
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced frustration over the lack of detail in April: “I think having this hearing without any detailed information about the budget, and when we are unable to openly discuss any of the administration’s strategy documents, directly undermines the committee’s ability to conduct its oversight work.” She said that was “contrary to the spirit of transparent government.”
Likewise, a long-time defense expert said the Pentagon’s two-page summary “doesn’t provide enough detail to be actionable.” Providing Congress a secret version of the NDS helps some, but the unclassified version “is essential for communicating throughout the government and industry.”
Only some “members and staff can or will be able to read the classified document,” the expert said. Ultimately, “the lack of an NDS really undercuts the administration’s budget request.”
But the NDS’s function as a means to communicate the Pentagon’s priorities and objectives to industry is also a lost opportunity and a concerning delay. The NDS is an important way to let the industry know what leadership is thinking. Yet even if the delayed release has diminished the overall value of the NDS as the underlying insight informing the 2023 budget request, its release sooner rather than later can still make a difference, the long-term budget watcher said: “It’s late—but not too late.”