China openly aims to be the world’s greatest military superpower by mid-century, and the new National Security Strategy explains how the U.S. should counter that ambition. These Chinese JH-7A fighter-bombers are quickly being eclipsed by more modern types. Ge Shuwei/Ministry of Defense
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Strategy & Policy: The New National Defense Strategy 

Nov. 3, 2022

The new, public version of the National Defense Strategy, unveiled by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Oct. 27, calls out China as the U.S. military’s “pacing threat,” offers no force-sizing construct nor specifics about numbers of forces the U.S. needs, and focuses attention on NATO, coalition building and partnerships, and deterrence of further aggression by Russia in Europe. 

One of the biggest differences between the 2022 National Defense Strategy and the 2018 version put out by the Trump administration is that the new document specifically names China as the main threat against which U.S. forces must prepare, Austin said, with Russia a secondary but “dangerous” concern. The previous NDS referred to engaging in “great power competition” with near-peer nations.

The People’s Republic of China “is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do so,” Austin told reporters Oct. 27 at the Pentagon. Russia is labeled an “acute” threat, a word Austin said was chosen carefully to explain that while “Russia can’t systemically challenge the United States over the long term,” its “reckless war of choice” against Ukraine “does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values.”

The Pentagon also unveiled updated nuclear and missile defense strategies, both of which indicate growing unease about nuclear threats and a fundamental shift in strategic direction for this administration. Unclassified versions of the documents state nuclear weapons underpin U.S. strategic defenses and that America will continue to invest in its nuclear forces.

In his 2020 presidential campaign, President Joe Biden said he would work toward a policy in which the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s “sole purpose” would be to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. But his Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) does not take such a step, holding to a policy that suggests nuclear weapons are there to deter and even to respond to non-nuclear attacks, such as by conventional, biological, chemical, or even cyber weapons.

“The NPR affirms the following roles for nuclear weapons: deter strategic attacks; assure allies and partners; and achieve U.S. objectives if deterrence fails,” the document states. It does not define a “strategic attack.”

According to DOD’s new strategies, the U.S. must retain a strong nuclear arsenal and improve its missile defenses.


Austin characterized the Ukraine war as “the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II,” which has made the danger posed by Russia “very clear for the whole world.”

Unlike previous strategies, the new NDS contains no pithy force-sizing construct summary, such as the ability to fight “two medium regional contingencies,” “win-hold-win,” concepts that have been used in the past. The strategy sets no goals for numbers of Air Force bombers, Navy ships, Army divisions, or other benchmarks of military capability. Defense officials, however, said there are “strong linkages” between the strategy and the fiscal 2023 defense budget request and future investments.

A senior defense official briefing the press ahead of the rollout said the department continues to wrestle with how deterrence will work in a world with three major nuclear and conventional powers. The old models of deterrence in a bi-polar world were developed over decades of study involving academia, he said, so the new model will take some time to develop.

“This is new territory for us,” he said.

As for a force structure model, the official would only say the strategy seeks to answer the question: “How do you successfully fight one adversary while having enough reserve to hold the other at bay?”

Another official said force sizing is being shaped by the Joint Warfighting Concept activities and cited the Marine Corps’ “Force Design 2030” study as an example of “creative” work to envision future requirements. 

Austin said there are “incremental adjustments from time to time to that force posture,” but that he is satisfied with the services’ “ability to rapidly deploy capability to Europe—and you saw that exercise at the very beginning of this conflict, as we deployed … heavy forces from the United States to Europe very, very quickly.” 

That was possible thanks to the European Defense Initiative, he said. “We’re confident that we’ll have … the force to be able to execute our strategy.” 

The long delay between the “interim” NDS released in 2021, the classified version sent to Congress in March, and the unclassified version released Oct. 27 was attributed to “assessing the calculus” of how things have changed due to the Ukraine conflict, senior defense officials told reporters on background. However, they also said that analysis “validated” the assumptions and concepts developed before the Ukraine war started, and that the NDS has remained largely intact despite it.  

The text of the NDS also says that while the U.S. is structuring for deterring China and Russia, it will also be able to undertake smaller military actions without degrading overall deterrence capability.

Austin said the classified version of the NDS “has been our North Star” since it was delivered to Congress and that it provided the foundation for the fiscal 2023 budget. The Pentagon has been “laser focused” on the China threat “since Day One,” and Austin noted that he set a China Task Force early in his tenure to “produce a range of recommendations to focus the entire department on the China challenge.


The NDS is also “very clear-eyed about other serious threats,” Austin said.

“That includes North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. And meanwhile, Iran is moving ahead on its nuclear program, supporting dangerous armed proxies and even exporting drones that Russia is using to terrorize Ukrainian civilians.”

The Pentagon also remains “vigilant against the ongoing threat from global terrorist networks as well as from climate change, pandemics, and other dangers that don’t respect borders,” Austin stated.

Broadly, the strategy aims, in order, to defend the U.S. homeland; deter strategic attacks against the U.S. and its allies; “prepare to prevail in conflict when necessary;” and “build a resilient joint force and defense ecosystem,” Austin explained.

In service of those goals, the NDS touts “integrated deterrence,” referring to integration among the services, with other parts of government, and with allies and partners.

The strategy calls for investments in capabilities and technologies that “strengthen the 21st century combat-credible U.S. military” by making it “ready to tackle the full range of threats,” Austin said.

Austin also said the NDS “emphasizes the day-to-day work of ‘campaigning,’” which he defined as “conducting and sequencing military activities that, over time, shift the security environment in our favor.” Such activities include U.S. exercises, deployments, and wargames held with allies and partners to cement relationships with them and to develop joint strategies.

The “seamless integration” of U.S. capabilities “across all domains … and theaters … [and] the full spectrum of conflict should make it “crystal clear to any potential foe” that “the costs of aggression against the United States, our allies, and partners far outweigh any conceivable gains,” Austin said.


The Nuclear Posture Review makes this much plain: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners. The U.S. would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”

To achieve its objectives, the U.S. will modernize its nuclear forces the review promises, noting DOD will “fully fund” and field the Long-Range Standoff weapon, B-21 Raider nuclear-capable stealth bomber, and Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile. The stealth F-35A Lightning II will become a “dual-capable” aircraft that can carry nuclear or conventional weapons.

The Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO) will be introduced and be able to be deployed from F-35s. The LRSO will replace the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile.

The LGM-35A Sentinel, formerly known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), will replace the current Minuteman III ICBM “one-for-one” to “maintain 400 ICBMs on alert.”

The B-21 Raider stealth bomber will replace the B-2 Spirit, and the review promises the Air Force will acquire at least 100 B-21s and upgrade its fleet of decades-old B-52 Stratofortress bombers.

The U.S. will field the updated B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and invest in its aging nuclear infrastructure. “Although the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains safe, secure, and effective today, most systems are operating beyond their original design life, risking system effectiveness, reliability, and availability,” the Defense Department said in a fact sheet accompanying the release. “Today, much of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has aged without comprehensive refurbishment even as the geopolitical environment has deteriorated.”

But the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear (SLCM-N) program is to be canceled, a reversal from the Trump administration position. The U.S. also plans to retire the B83 nuclear gravity bomb along with the B-2.


The NDS, NPR, and Missile Defense Review were released “for the first time” as a fully integrated package, Austin said.

The Defense Department sees nuclear weapons threats from China and Russia as problematic, given their substantial missile capabilities. Since DOD last issued a Missile Defense Review, also known as the MDR, in 2019, “threats have rapidly expanded in quantity, diversity, and sophistication.”

DOD says ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, and uncrewed aircraft systems represent a significant threat to America’s security interests. China and Russia, and to a smaller extent North Korea, represent a risk to the U.S. homeland.

The Missile Defense Review says any attack on the U.S. territories would not be distinguished from strikes on American states. The U.S. island of Guam is a major military hub in the Western Pacific that may be within range of Chinese missiles.

“Within the context of homeland defense, an attack on Guam or any other U.S. territory by any adversary will be considered a direct attack on the United States, and will be met with an appropriate response,” the document says.

DOD acknowledges that its current missile defense is not comprehensive enough and that the U.S. must develop improved integrated air and missile defense systems. The threat from cruise missiles is particularly acute, the MDR says.

“Gone is the primary focus on rogue state ballistic missiles that defined the 2010 review and programs and budgets for years following,” Tom Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an interview.

A VIEW TO 2030 

Much of the NDS is oriented around the world as it will look in 2030. In the introduction, Austin echoes President Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy comment that this is a “decisive decade.” Asked how the NDS is gauged to react to nearer-term threats—particularly the threat of an invasion of Taiwan by 2027, or even next year—a senior defense official said, “we really tried to look across time periods” and to develop a strategy across three successive Future Years Defense Programs, which are five years long. The NDS sets a framework for “evolving” forces and capabilities with new investments, the official said.

“We’ve really tried to balance our approach to risk across all of those and across the entire joint force,” he asserted. “And I think if you look through the … President’s budget submission from last March, I think you’ll see this is pretty nicely done, right? You see a really big emphasis on building a combat-credible force. You also see an emphasis on readiness, for example,” with $135 billion earmarked for readiness accounts.

The fiscal 2023 budget request “included more than $56 billion for air power platforms and systems,” Austin said, “and more than $40 billion to maintain our dominance at sea, and almost $13 billion to support and modernize our forces on land,” with another $34 billion “to sustain and modernize our nuclear forces.” He touted the $130 billion the administration sought for research and development, “the largest R&D budget number in DOD history.”