Following the release of the 2022 National Defense Strategy, CNAS experts analyze the priorities outlined in the document and assess the path to implementation.
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Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program:
The 2022 National Defense Strategy presents the concept of integrated deterrence as the approach to deal with China, the Department of Defense’s long-term “pacing” challenge, the acute threat of Russia, and other persistent threats, which include North Korea, Iran, and violent extremist organizations. The NDS should be lauded for its clear prioritization among these threats and its discussion of how tailored deterrent approaches will be used against different challengers. Additionally, the NDS identifies allies and partners as a “center of gravity.” While allies and partners clearly are an asymmetric American advantage, there is much to be done to realize true integration. First and foremost, the United States needs to have frank dialogues with its closest and most capable allies and partners to deepen strategic and operational planning. Second, integration requires sharing sensitive information with allies and partners, working together to research and produce cutting edge military technologies, and building secure supply chains. Yet limits on information sharing and combined technology development are significant barriers to this type of integration.
The 2022 NDS lays out a sound vision, but the Biden administration must follow through on implementation, which requires allocating resources to priority threats and reforming current practices and policies to enable deeper integration with allies and partners. The devil, however, is in the details and how the DoD manages the acute threat posed by Russia without derailing efforts to strengthen deterrence against the long-term threat posed by China. Immediate needs have a tendency of overwhelming future threats, and the Pentagon has repeatedly deferred making changes to its force structure and posture necessary to bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. The delayed release of the NDS increases the risk that the Biden administration falls into this trap, especially with respect to its allies and partners line of effort. The DoD needs to quickly make progress on executing this strategy to realize its goals.
Becca Wasser, Senior Fellow, Defense Program:
There is goodness in the long-awaited 2022 NDS. It rightfully elevates the China challenge, emphasizes high-end conventional and nuclear deterrence, and prioritizes among the multitude of global threats. The strategy doubles down on allies and partners as a force multiplier, highlighting how they can contribute to deterrence and help the United States accept risk in different regions.
But there are some potential pitfalls in the strategy amid the good. Despite the much-needed prioritization of threats and tailored approaches to deterrence and risk acceptance, the strategy still tries to do too much. There are too many directives for the administration to implement in the short window of time, given how late the strategy was released. Additionally, the introduction of poorly defined and not well understood approaches of integrated deterrence and campaigning—two primary components of the strategy—have the potential to undermine strategy implementation efforts. These concepts must be understood in practical terms by the Department, the U.S. interagency, and allies and partners for the strategy to translate words into actions and lasting change.
Moving forward, the focus must be on strategy implementation that effectively links resources to the top priorities laid out in the document. Without a disciplined strategy implementation process, the NDS will remain mere rhetoric and never a reality.
Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program:
The NDS rightly focuses on the need to cultivate the right workforce needed to execute integrated deterrence. DoD and the military services need uniformed and civilian talent with the critical skills necessary to deter or, if necessary, defeat the adversary. The NDS emphasis on providing uniformed service members with opportunities to become fluent in critical languages and the expansion of fellowships, internships, and rotational assignments in the private sector to deepen critical thinking and analytic skills is commendable. However, effective execution will require sufficient guidance within each service’s promotion selection process to ensure that those with non-standard career paths are not penalized for taking advantage of these critical opportunities. The services will also need to ensure that they are capitalizing on service members with these high-demand, low-density skillsets through active management of the assignments process. The NDS further underscores the need for an active plan to improve the hiring practices for DoD and military service civilians—a traditionally lengthy process that may dissuade otherwise interested, competitive individuals—in order to capture their talent in service of national security.
Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program:
Like the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy makes the case that U.S troop posture and presence in the Middle East must shrink to enable the Department of Defense to prioritize retooling and modernizing for contingencies with China and Russia. To buy down the risk that comes with fewer U.S. forces in the region, the NDS emphasizes robust security cooperation and regional integration to enhance the military capabilities of US partners to "deter and defend against potential aggression from Iran." The strategy is sound, and in theory, executable. While the NDS highlights some potential risks to the strategy, it fails to account for one: Washington politics.
While the Pentagon has released a strategy that rests on strengthening America’s Gulf partners, the White House and Congress are threatening to walk away from some of them following the adverse OPEC+ decision, made earlier this month. Washington’s reaction to Saudi Arabia’s widely-anticipated effort to raise the price of oil was wholly un-strategic and appeared less like righteous indignation on behalf of Ukraine and more like panic. And while one could understand the impulse to squeeze Russia to the maximum extent possible by keeping the price of oil low, it’s important to take stock of the fact that Ukraine is dominating Russia on the battlefield. Taking that into account, was it worth further straining the US-Saudi relationship?
While bashing the Saudis may have felt cathartic to some, it ultimately didn’t serve U.S. interests. To effectively execute the NDS, the White House needs to construct a political narrative that enables it to begin restoring relations with Saudi Arabia. It should make the argument to the American people that engagement with Riyadh isn’t just about oil, MBS, or the Saudis at all; it’s a critical step in getting the U.S. military out of the Middle East and preparing for the future fight. It should make the case that it’s good for us. If the White House can’t succeed in doing that, the strategy is just a heavy doorstop. President Biden has a good document here, but if the White House can’t muster the political will to execute it, the Pentagon will have just spent two years devising a solution to keep its many doors propped open.
Jacob Stokes, Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy and accompanying Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review rightly reiterate that China’s military modernization and increasingly assertive foreign policy under Xi Jinping pose the department’s “pacing challenge.” The strategy also underscores the particularly challenging deterrence environment for U.S. allies and partners located on immediate China’s periphery—one made more difficult by the growing salience of nuclear capabilities as Beijing’s arsenal becomes bigger and more sophisticated.
The strategy is generally well-conceived, but implementation will have to address three major difficulties: The first will be linking the document’s principles to diplomatic and military activities with Indo-Pacific allies and partners as several of them—including Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Australia—reshape their own defense postures and revisit contingency planning. The second will be ensuring that the civilian and military defense bureaucracies and industrial base can produce the necessary capabilities at a speed and cost consistent with the demands of the regional security environment and rapid developments in military technology. The third, and perhaps the most difficult, will be balancing military competition and hard-headed diplomacy when dealing with China in pursuit of reducing strategic risks and constructing a more stable security environment for dangerous years ahead.
Alexandra Seymour, Associate Fellow, Technology and National Security Program:
The new National Defense Strategy acknowledges the need to “make the right technology investments” and to improve the process for acquiring and fielding key technologies. While this is promising, I will look for the changes the Pentagon makes to transition the technologies. Although the Pentagon has made a concerted effort in recent years to create more funding opportunities for innovative companies, many still face the “Valley of Death,” meaning they do not make it beyond early prototyping stages. The Pentagon will need to think through its commercialization strategy to ensure that the right technologies are not only identified, but also prioritized to receive sustained funding. Given the talent gap that the strategy notes, this will require close partnership with the private sector to align technical capabilities with defense requirements, which will enable the Department to better “reward rapid experimentation, acquisition, and fielding.”
LCDR Stewart Latwin, Senior Military Fellow, U.S. Navy*:
The release of the National Defense Strategy affirms the position that our Navy has taken for the better part of the last decade, with the strategic priority of deterring and preparing for a high-end fight if, and when, PRC decides to escalate its military actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Simultaneously, we must be ready to defend against threats at sea from Russia, and ready to defeat all adversaries in the Grey Zone on a daily basis. The emphasis on building regional partnerships throughout the Indo-Pacific, including our QUAD and AUKUS partnerships, is served by continuing bi- and multi-lateral Naval exercises. The juxtaposition of emphasizing integrated multi-service operations and distributed maritime operations presents a unique but certainly achievable challenge, one that will be necessary against a capable maritime adversary.
With the tightening of resources, and our Navy continuously being asked “to do more with less,” the Navy must now focus on building the right force for the right fight. Along with CNO’s Navigation Plan 2022, released earlier this summer, there is some clear thought on what this force should look like. As we are seeing multiple new classes of ships struggle to reach the fleet and the highly publicized issues plaguing the LCS, it is important that we focus on achievable capabilities and efficiencies, rather than solely on new technology. Our maritime advantage in all regions can only be as strong as our presence in these regions. Overall, what must be remembered is that the Navy’s goal must be to ensure Freedom of the Seas and defend the U.S., our allies and partners, and their interests in the maritime environment.
*The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense
All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Cameron Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org.