The challenge facing the National Defense Strategy

The challenge facing the National Defense Strategy
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The Pentagon has begun the process of developing a strategy to meet the congressional requirement for a National Defense Strategy (NDS) report in 2022. The defense strategy is likely to expand upon the 2018 strategy, which identified China and Russia as peer competitors and assigned highest priority to deterring adventurism on the part of both states. 

China’s increasingly aggressive stance against Taiwan — notably, its recent four-day surge of nearly 150 combat aircraft into the island’s air defense identification zone, as well as the expansion of its conventional and strategic nuclear forces — underscores the ongoing need for maintaining a credible deterrent against Beijing. Similarly, Russia’s continuing pressure on Ukraine, its ceaseless efforts to employ cyber to disrupt American political and economic activity, and its military modernization programs justify the priority that the 2022 NDS, like its immediate predecessor, is likely to assign to deterring Moscow’s aggressiveness.

China and Russia do not constitute the entirety of American security concerns, even if they represent the most demanding threats that American forces might have to confront. North Korea is a rogue nuclear power that can threaten its neighbors and the American homeland. Iran is poised to develop its own nuclear capability while continuing its disruptive efforts throughout the Middle East and its own efforts to fight the West in cyberspace. Washington may wish to ratchet down its Middle East military profile, but unless Iran terminates its nuclear program and ceases to undermine the stability of regional states, American withdrawal from the region will be easier said than done.  

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Similarly, while American forces may have departed from Afghanistan, there is little indication that the Taliban government will do anything to prevent terrorists from once again using that country as a base for attacks on Western, and especially American, targets and persons. If dealing with these challenges were not enough, the Biden administration has added both climate change and fighting pandemics as two additional threats that the Department of Defense (DOD), like the government as a whole, must face for the foreseeable future.

Strategies represent the employment of means to stated ends. Yet the administration’s future budgets, which would provide the financial sources to acquire means for coping with the array of challenges that it has identified, are unlikely to grow much beyond that which it proposed for fiscal year 2022. That budget calls for a small decline in real terms over the previous year’s budget. Indeed, even if congressional appropriations would increase FY 2022 spending levels by some $24 billion, there is no indication that the Biden administration would maintain the trajectory of that increase over the next several budget years.

In light of the administration’s reluctance to increase defense spending to any significant degree — which itself is rather puzzling given its willingness to spend trillions of dollars on domestic progress — one might have expected it to mandate a cutback in the forces and capabilities that currently are targeted against the lower priority but still potent threats that it has identified. This does not appear to be the case, however. The FY 2022 budget and the proposed congressional adds-ons both continue to preserve far too many of what have come to be called “legacy programs” — that is, weapons systems whose utility was greatest over the past two decades, but whose value in confronting the challenges posed by China, in particular, is questionable at best. 

Future budget requests, and likely congressional appropriations, no doubt will incorporate many cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and systems that incorporate machine learning. Nevertheless, the expansion of these and other capabilities to meet future threats will be constrained not only by relatively flat top-line budgets but by ongoing, real-cost growth for both military personnel and operations and maintenance. The combined squeeze on defense modernization would render it highly unlikely that Washington credibly could deter China and Russia simultaneously, or indeed, any combination of the threats it might face. 

If the Biden administration remains determined to put a cap on defense spending, yet wishes to pursue all of its priorities while minimizing to the degree possible the risk to meeting its security objectives, it will have to take far more seriously the need for allies and partners. With few notable exceptions such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, Washington has not done enough to convince its other allies and partners that their economic interests — especially involving China and Russia — simply do not outweigh the threats that these states pose to their security.   

Part of its problem is that, in the past, Washington often did little more than pay lip service to the importance of allied contributions to the defense of common interests. The time has come to take allies and partners far more seriously, to expand its reliance on their military capabilities, to be more open to sharing technological breakthroughs, and indeed, to improve the balance of military trade that currently overwhelmingly favors the United States. Without its allies and partners, America no longer can be certain that it would prevail in a future conflict — especially if, as may well be the case, it will simultaneously have to face more than one adversary in more than one theater.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.