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Integrated deterrence: An excuse to spend less on defense?

Joe Biden
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Joe Biden meets with military leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, in the State Dining Room of the White House on Oct. 26, 2022.

Pentagon defense strategies come along about every four years, under various names and guises, and do not always make headline news. But the Biden administration’s new plan, known as the 2022 National Defense Strategy and released last month after the White House published its broader National Security Strategy, just might.

In one sense, the broad approach of the Biden administration’s strategy is not controversial. With its focus on China as the “pacing challenge” and Russia as the “acute threat,” it builds on the framework established by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018 in the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. Dr. Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (the No. 3 job in the Pentagon), said as much in an event at Brookings Institution on Nov. 4. He described the Biden document as an iteration or updating of that earlier document, and noted that for all the differences between the Trump and Biden administrations, defense strategy (at least in theoretical and doctrinal terms) is not really one of them.

Nonetheless, with the 2024 presidential election looming, partisan fault lines are already emerging with regard to American national security policy. As we soon settle into a new political reality in Washington, with Republicans empowered and emboldened — and perhaps another Donald Trump v. Joe Biden showdown looming — it is inevitable that strident debates will emerge.

One key bone of contention is already apparent. The new Biden plan emphasizes a concept that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been employing in speeches and policy documents since the summer of 2021, known as “integrated deterrence.” According to Austin, and Kohl, and the Biden administration writ large, it is a way to bring all dimensions of warfare (including cyber and space), all allies and security partners, and all parts of the U.S. government into the effort of securing the nation. Economic sanctions, including on trade and financial transactions, as well as measures to improve and harden the economies of the United States and allies against enemy actions, should be central to the effort.

But according to critics, such as Congressman Michael Gallagher (R-Wis.), integrated deterrence is just an excuse for weakening the military. It allows Democrats to spend less on defense. It helps the Pentagon pass the buck to others, rather than accept the responsibility — and demand the resources — needed to deter Russia and China through the instruments of hard power. Critics also contend that integrated deterrence doesn’t work. After all, Vladimir Putin knew that he would be penalized with sanctions if he invaded Ukraine. But he did it anyway.

As among the first to use the term “integrated deterrence” in a book I wrote in 2019, called “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War over Small Stakes,” I have watched this debate with fascination. At one level, integrated deterrence is just a phrase, suggestive of where the United States and its allies should go with future grand strategy. As a slogan, it is far short of a plan of action. Some interpretations of the concept could indeed be vulnerable to the criticisms of Congressman Gallagher and others, if integrated deterrence were truly conceived as a substitute for raw military power and preponderance.

However, that is not the way the term should best be understood. At the Brookings event, Kohl explained that, rather than passing the buck, the Department of Defense under President Biden is trying to do much more to deal with new threats while encouraging other branches of government, and our allies, to do much more as well. That is what I argued in the 2019 book, and it is the right general idea.

Integrated deterrence as a concept simply recognizes two realities. First, American and allied military advantage near the shores of China in particular is unlikely ever again to approach the levels of superiority we enjoyed before China became a high-tech industrial power. Thus, rapid military victory in various scenarios near China’s shores will be much harder to ensure than in the past — even though we should try to sustain and increase whatever edges we can muster. It is not enough for America to continue to wield the world’s most potent military in the abstract. The real question is, how does that superior military achieve combat outcomes very close to the territories of other great powers? Geography plays a crucial role in combat, and we do not generally enjoy home-field advantage.

Second, in some scenarios over small stakes, or in the “gray zone” between peace and war, rapid escalation to all-out conflict will not always be our best option. For example, if China seizes an uninhabited Senkaku island in the East China Sea without firing a shot, the right response may not be to bomb or shoot those invading troops (just because Japan claims and administers the islands at present). A combination of military redeployment and reinforcement, economic punishment of an aggressor, diplomatic efforts to create a strong coalition against the aggressor, and various preparations (ideally before the fact) to enhance resilience at home against the aggressor’s possible economic retaliations may make more sense. 

At a minimum, we should develop these tools to give a president more options in any crisis.  Instruments of economic warfare also may be our best tools in response to a Chinese partial blockade of Taiwan that falls short of a full-bore invasion attempt and employs only limited amounts of lethal force.

Integrated deterrence is therefore less about reducing the Pentagon’s investments in crucial technologies or other preparations for great-power rivalry. It is more about being sure we have the option of carrying out a multi-dimensional campaign against Russia or China for scenarios that fall short of all-out war but nonetheless necessitate a resolute response. Beyond strictly military investments, it also requires the nation to build up stockpiles of key commodities, to diversify supply chains for crucial technologies, and otherwise to prepare for the possibility of a prolonged period of economic disengagement from China or Russia should conflict begin.  

In this regard, while it was perhaps not signaled adequately before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, and clearly did not deter that aggression, the concept of integrated deterrence has been employed after the fact against Russia. One can hope that decision-makers in Beijing have noticed and realize how we would react to China’s possible aggressions in the western Pacific (or elsewhere).

So, yes, we should continue the healthy debate about the adequacy of U.S. military spending and the proper allocation of funds within the defense budget. But we should not confuse ourselves, or disagree much, about the idea of integrated deterrence. Rather, we should get on with the effort to make it as credible to future would-be aggressors as possible, increasing and expanding the instruments of national power and resilience throughout the government and private sector that would best prepare us for a prolonged multi-dimensional struggle against a great-power aggressor.

 Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint,” “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow,” and the forthcoming “Military History for the Modern Strategist.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags China Colin Kahl Great power competition James Mattis Joe Biden Lloyd Austin military spending National Defense Strategy National Security Strategy Russia Vladimir Putin

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