National Defense Strategy: NSI Experts Weigh In


The Department of Defense unveiled its new National Defense Strategy earlier today. The National Defense Strategy plays an integral role in identifying the capabilities required to support President Trump’s National Security Strategy, describing the Department’s overarching goals and strategy, and informing the National Military Strategy, which is scheduled to be released in February 2018. Below, our NSI Visiting Fellows offer their commentary.

January 19, 2018

Dmitri Alperovitch – NSI Visiting Fellow

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) marks a new era in U.S. security strategy as it downplays terrorism, following a 16 year all-consuming focus, and highlights “inter-state strategic competition” from revisionist powers like China and Russia as the primary concern to national security. According to the strategy, some of the main components of countering these threats will be operational unpredictability, increased lethality, and focused efforts on countering coercion and subversion through inter-agency cooperation and partnerships with allies.

This NDS is clearly a refocus of America’s strategic interests back towards deterrence of state-on-state conflict and development of new innovating strategies for dominating and winning such conflicts should they occur. It rightly recognizes the importance of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence in the future warfare and prioritizes such investment, along with emphasis on global and rapid maneuver capabilities of smaller and more dispersed units. Future wars will unlikely see months-long mobilization of heavy armor divisions to face opposing armies in all out conflict but instead will consist of numerous regional or even global kinetic engagements of smaller forces across undefinable front lines. The U.S. military needs to increase its agility, speed, and resiliency of force structure and deployment capabilities in order to stand ready to fight and win the next conflict. This strategy is a big step forward in recognition of this reality.

Bryson Bort – Founder & CEO, SCYTHE

The strategy steps back from hard power tunnel vision and recognizes the interagency cooperation and benefits of a soft power approach. Our adversaries have increasingly resorted to “soft” offensive tactics, information operations being a primary example. “Inter-state strategic competition” is prioritized over terrorism: China and Russia are identified extensively and explicitly as adversaries. The call out of China reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and hopefully will allay fears of the U.S. just ceding strategic primacy. However, the document recognizes non-state actor influences and notes “increasingly sophisticated” nature their cyber capabilities. Cyberspace is clearly listed as a domain that needs to be integrated into the full spectrum of military operations: U.S. Cyber Command is going to be the key agency to watch this develop.

Megan Brown – Cybersecurity Practice Lead, Wiley Rein, LLP; Former Counsel to the Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

The Strategy addresses cyber in a few places, but it should have emphasized the threat and the need for a serious reckoning about international norms and confusion about the role of the private sector.

The strategy includes a cryptic reference to the private sector. It says there is “a positive side” to the increased role of non-state actors: “non-governmental organizations, corporations, and strategic influencers provide opportunities for collaboration and partnership.”  The private sector can help.  But regulatory uncertainty and liability risks are real.  Companies can face blowback from working with the government.  If it really wants partnership, the Administration should do some creative thinking to create “safe spaces” for the private sector to work with the government; options include limiting liability, protecting private information, and recognizing that private sector actors are victims of cybercrime.

Jason C. Chipman – Partner, Defense and National Security Practice, WilmerHale LLP; Former Senior Counsel to the Deputy Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice

The newly released National Defense Strategy reveals a growing unease at the Pentagon with advanced technologies being acquired by foreign actors.  The strategy calls for DoD to “harness and protect” the “national security innovation base” so our country can maintain military superiority in an environment where advanced technology important for the war fighter is increasingly developed in commercial sectors far from the military.  This is certainly a reasonable strategic goal, but protecting innovation is a delicate task.  It requires balancing our open economy built to foster technological breakthroughs with regulations that limit the transfer of U.S. technology and business abroad.  In the near term, as DoD becomes more assertive in its effort to protect American innovation, it will be increasingly important for American companies to understand how they are perceived by the defense establishment in Washington and to understand whether their ability to transfer products and technologies abroad may be curtailed in the future.

Matthew Heiman – Former Attorney, National Security Division, U.S. Department of Justice and the Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad, Iraq

The National Defense Strategy Summary argues correctly that the chief strategic threats to the security of the U.S. are China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.  The more interesting aspect of the Summary is the emphasis on ensuring that the Department of Defense has the means to address these threats.  Along with expected arguments in favor of modernizing the defense architecture and ensuring cooperation and interoperability with allies, both of which are critical, the Summary states that the Department must become less adverse to risk.  It must focus on the development of its people, and the Department must drive for greater efficiency and accountability to allow for the proper allocation of resources.  These items sound mundane, but change and improvement in these areas are critical to strengthening national security.  I am pleased that the Summary highlighted these points, and I hope they are followed by demonstrable improvements to the Department’s operations and culture.

Jamil Jaffer – Founder, National Security Institute; Former Chief Counsel, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Today’s new National Defense Strategy reflects – and seeks to implement – the bold vision set out in last month’s National Security Strategy of a resurgent America, standing strong against key strategic competitors including China and Russia, and with a military capable of meeting a wide range of challenges across the various classic domains of warfare, along with the newer expanding domains in space and cyber.  It further reflects an America well aware of its place in the world as a military superpower, and the need to maintain that decisive advantage going forward, so that the nation is prepared to enforce and protect its interests – and those of our allies, with whom we will stand strong – in a world of growing strategic competition for influence, resources, and capabilities.

These challenges are only heightened by the more aggressive use of asymmetric capabilities, including in cyberspace, as well as the employment of proxy forces by regional actors, like Iran and North Korea, that seek a bigger role in the world.  And the NDS correctly recognizes that allowing our nation to continue on the same path, without significant change, would likely result in continued strategic atrophy, decreasing influence around the world, the flight of key allies, and more limited economic opportunities.  As such, this NDS is a dramatic improvement on the “lead from behind” approach which has created a more dangerous world, one in which America’s influence is reduced and its capabilities diminished.

Today’s NDS therefore calls for a more lethal and innovative joint force that can win in this new, difficult environment and properly recognizes that identifying and utilizing the best in American innovation, particularly technological innovation, is critical to creating and sustaining such a force.  In particular, this means that, as the NDS accurately predicts, significant changes will be needed in the Department of Defense’s culture and policies.  While these changes will undoubtedly be hard, successful implementation of such change will allow our nation to build a more agile, flexible, and responsive force that can truly respond with speed and lethality against those that would threaten our national security.

Andrew Keiser – Former Senior Advisor, U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

The new National Defense Strategy removes America’s rose-colored glasses internationally and provides a clear-eyed assessment of the geopolitical landscape and a sober plan to advance U.S. national security interests within that framework. Two important themes that, in my view, represent a correct shift in the Department’s thinking and planning are that “inter-state strategic completion is now the primary concern in U.S. national security” and that the U.S. military has “no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” These statements will not be without controversy but given the rapidly changing international dynamics in recent years are an accurate state of play for those taking a realistic view of the global security environment and our response to it.

Dr. Andrea Limbago – Chief Social Scientist, Endgame; Former Senior Technical Lead, Joint Warfare Analysis Center

Policy generally lags behind technological change. The new National Defense Strategy breaks from that paradigm, and focuses on the intersection of technological advances and the shifting geopolitical environment as the core foundation. Importantly, the strategy reinforces America’s role in protecting a free and open global commons in cooperation with our historic allies, while noting the significant limitations of fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s capabilities. Instead, the NDS emphasizes technological advances such as those in autonomy, artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and a workforce that excels in these areas. While the strategy succeeds at avoiding preparations for yesterday’s wars, it missed an opportunity to truly overcome the “strategic atrophy” that it rightfully notes has hindered strategic advancement on pace with technological advances. A return to a framework based on major power competition is simply inadequate to address the entirety of the geopolitical and technological shifts underway. To fully innovate our national defense to handle these shifts, the U.S. not only must focus on technological innovation, but also on how these technologies impact and are embraced by societies and foreign governments. Technological advances are fundamentally shifting power symmetries across state and non-state actors. A failure to reimagine the intersection of power, technology, and society limits our understanding of adversarial capabilities and intent, and will continue to leave America flat footed in light of the unprecedented socio-technological shifts that are underway.

Lester Munson – Vice President, International, BGR Group; Former Staff Director, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

The National Defense Strategy released today suffers no illusions and offers a sober, realistic approach to America’s challenges around the world.  There are no political buzzwords or chic policy initiatives in this strategy, just a hard-headed and accurate assessment of the way forward.  President Trump, Secretary Mattis, and the rest of the administration’s national security team should be commended for seeing the world as it is and speaking the truth.

Megan Reiss – Former Senior National Security Fellow, Office of Senator Ben Sasse

The National Defense Strategy builds on the 2017 National Security Strategy’s realist narrative, correctly identifying the burden the United States faces in a world where revisionist powers are bent on spreading authoritarianism. Most significantly, it sets out a vision for the United States to not only deter aggression and compete in the field of hostile actors, but to win by developing a more lethal military, stronger alliances, greater technological advancement, and improved cultural will.

Importantly, the NDS indicates that the Department of Defense is prepared to engage with the development of new technology – cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, biotechnology – and to wrestle with how to integrate into its strategic planning emerging technologies that lower the barrier of entry to the battlefield. The need to maintain (and, I would argue, to strengthen) our competitive advantage in emerging technology should serve as a call-to-arms for the Department to work with the private sector to address the challenges inherent to the changing nature of war.

Bryan Smith – Vice President & Technical Advisor, Beacon Global Strategies

The NDS takes a clear-eyed view of the strategic environment, appropriately prioritizes the threats, and lays out a reasonable strategic response for the Nation.  There is a big missing piece, however – the resources strategy for building a more ready, lethal, and sustainable threat focused on Russia and China, amidst an increasingly unfavorable government-wide fiscal situation.  From all accounts, the Department made no effort to tackle what is aways the last frontier in national security strategy – money.   Pentagon budgeteers conduct incessant near-term drills around tactical inflection points in the multi-year programming and budget cycle.  Policy wonks give birth to elaborate year-long, quadrennial, grand strategy exercises, such as the NDS, without a serious thought to resource constraints. And never the twain meet.  Can anyone imagine a corporate board of a major publicly-held corporation conducting business this way?