Friday, January 19, 2018

National Defense Strategy Quicklook--Two Cheers for the Department of Defense

This morning, Secretary of Defense Mattis announced the promulgation of a new National Defense Strategy. The strategy is classified, but an unclassified companion document has been released. I urge you to read it, because it is important and because it represents a significant but insufficient resetting of America's military sails.

The most important take-aways for me from this unclassified companion are the clear and unimpeachable messages that 1) we are again embroiled in great power competition with a significant military component and 2) our readiness to compete military has eroded markedly. This document minces no words on these two subjects, and I could not be happier with its focus. Taking its clues from the recently released National Security Strategy, this document (like its parent) represents a solid, rational, unemotional approach to national defense that is in some elements, undercut by repeated statements of the President whose approach it purports to represent.  Because this document is an unclassified companion, what will be done to reverse this erosion is not particularly well explained, and that is generally acceptable. But at the meta-level, because this document is directing a clearly different emphasis than its predecessors, there is some responsibility to specify what hard, strategic choices are being made to enable it. The public document does not do this, aside from a de-emphasis on Middle East operations and the always predictable economy of force approach to AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM. My background discussions with responsible officials indicate that these tough choices -- the kinds of choices that alter the proportional allocation of resources within the Departments of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Defense Agencies--are deferred for later.

Additionally, there is little or nothing in this document that reinforces the importance of the defense buildup promised by candidate Trump. My personal interest is in a 350 ship Navy (which is also in my view, a key tool in this approach to great power competition), but Secretary Matttis' statement this morning sent another clear message that the buildup if it ever comes, is priority two behind improving the capability of the existing force.  Of note is a Tweet this morning from Breitbart's Defense Reporter Kristina Wong. 

This capability vs. capacity debate continues to dominate defense strategy and resources discussions, largely because we have not made a solid argument to the taxpayers that the buildup Trump promised is required. It is--but it has been lost in the noise of the past year, and the narrative behind this strategy essentially says to me, "we have little or no hope of actually and substantially building the force capacity, and so we'll concentrate on making what we have now better." This is an entirely rational approach to the subject, and the one that rational people made all through the Obama Administration too. The primary difference between the Obama and the Trump approaches is naming the targets (China and Russia) and ponying up to the problem (erosion of military strength).

A few selections from the document with my comments:

Page 1:
"...we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important to field a lethal,
resilient, and rapidly adapting Joint Force."  It remains to be seen what this actually means in implementation and resource allocation. 

"A more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order." This is wonderful rhetoric, and I utterly believe Secretary Mattis believes it. But I also believe his boss does great injury to the convening authority of U.S. leadership by his intemperate conduct in office.

"The costs of not implementing this strategy are clear."  In the abstract meaning of the word, yes. In the particular meaning of "costs", and the manner in which those costs are allocated, clarity is in short supply.

Page 2:
"Another change to the strategic environment is a resilient, but weakening, post-WWII international order. In the decades after fascism’s defeat in World War II, the United States and its allies and partners constructed a free and open international order to better safeguard their liberty and people from aggression and coercion." Again--this is something I believe Mattis gets in his bones--but I'm not as convinced it animates his boss.

Page 3:
"It is now undeniable that the homeland is no longer a sanctuary." It occurs to me that thousands of ICBM's pointed at us during the Cold War also rendered the homeland a sanctuary.

Page 4:
"In support of the National Security Strategy, the Department of Defense will be prepared to defend the homeland, remain the preeminent military power in the world, ensure the balances of power remain in our favor, and advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity."  This is excellent and clear.

"A long-term strategic competition requires the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power—diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military." Indeed, and given the degree to which the nation is utterly unprepared to consider--let along prepare for--great power competition, the difficulty of this coordination is manifest.

Page 6:
"Nuclear forces. The Department will modernize the nuclear triad—including nuclear command,control, and communications, and supporting infrastructure. Modernization of the nuclear force includes developing options to counter competitors’ coercive strategies, predicated on the threatened use of nuclear or strategic non-nuclear attacks." There is no question as to the importance of the subjects raised here; that they come as the first in a series seems to indicate priority--and I believe that buttressing CONVENTIONAL deterrence forces is more important than the priority afforded strategic deterrence here.

"Forward force maneuver and posture resilience. Investments will prioritize ground, air, sea, and space forces that can deploy, survive, operate, maneuver, and regenerate in all domains while under attack."  Kinda hard to read any real prioritization from this. Kitchen sink approach.

Page 8:
"Strengthen Alliances and Attract New Partners".  This entire section raises my eyebrows. Of course this is critical. Of course Secretary Mattis believes this. But the behavior of the President and the statements he makes about friends, allies, and humanity in general--severely undercut the seriousness of this goal. 

Page 10:
"Deliver performance at the speed of relevance".  I'm gonna need some time to consider this one. This, as opposed to what? Delivering performance at the speed of irrelevance? Delivering failure at the speed of relevance?

Clearly I have a few nitpicks here--but overall, this unclassified companion hints at some very positive developments. I remain skeptical as to the prospects for achieving its ends given the vacuum of Presidential leadership on National Security matters and the seeming deferral of choices about where we should do more or less---but I'm very pleased with the general direction this document lays out.  

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