Todd Johnson / January 30, 2018

A Welcome National Security Strategy

Updated for the first time in 10 years, the NDS marks the priorities of the Trump administration.

The recent release of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) is a seminal moment in the security posture of the nation as it signals a radical shift in the priorities for the Defense Department. The new strategy marks the first time in 10 years that the document has been updated. More important, though, is its declaration that inter-state competition from Russia and China is the overarching threat to American interests around the globe. Those words are essentially guidance to writers of the 2019 defense budget, which will be released in the next couple of weeks.

Upon reading the strategy, two things become very clear. The Pentagon wants new equipment and wants to embrace innovation so our military can emerge victorious on the 21st century battlefield.

To facilitate these goals, Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ strategy focuses on three major lines of effort. They are the building of a more lethal force, strengthening traditional alliances as well as building new partnerships with other nations, and reforming the Defense Department’s business practices for performance and affordability. The framework established by Mattis is clear and provides easily understandable guidance on how America’s Joint Force will organize, train and fight our future conflicts.

However, there are some key aspects of the document that are somewhat troubling. While it’s important to note that the 11-page summary is unclassified, the document fails to address what the world looks like if the United States is successful in its new policy. This is troubling for a myriad of reasons. Recent experiences in the Middle East, specifically the initial Phase IV operations in Iraq, are stark reminders of what can happen to a great power that doesn’t diligently execute a plan to its end state.

Two other sections of the National Defense Strategy, the financing of defense budgets and Russia, seemed to miss the mark as well.

First, the NDS doesn’t have realistic expectations for funding in the near term. Mattis rails against sequestration and continuing resolutions, but he and his team of experts seem to ignore the fact that the defense budget process in Washington is broken. Rather than prescribing a budget and mission sets for an unconstrained budget environment, the Defense Department would have been better served by identifying what resources are currently available in the short term to counter threats to the nation.

Second, the NDS seems to lump Russia and China as the same type of threats when in fact they are very different. Russia is a smaller and weaker country than China but probably more likely to engage in provocative acts like military incursions. As one defense analyst noted, Vladimir Putin is not afraid to directly challenge the world order, whether it be sending troops and resources to Syria or invading sovereign nations like Georgia and Ukraine. Putin is well on his way to being re-elected to a fourth overall term, which will only embolden him to take more risks around the globe. While China will continue to be an economic thorn in the side of the United States - not to mention the puppeteer of North Korea - it is Russia that will continue to be the military provocateur for the foreseeable future.

The release of the National Defense Strategy is a watershed moment for the Trump administration. It is a solid, first step in making sure that Congress and the government bureaucracy understand the president’s priorities. However, only time will tell if the shift to combating inter-state strategic competition is the best way to ensure American global primacy in the near future.

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