July 20, 2021

Risky Business: Future Strategy and Force Options for the Defense Department

Washington, July 20, 2021— Despite the overarching strategic priorities laid out by the Biden administration and initial indicators provided by the Department of Defense, it is unclear how the next National Defense Strategy will prioritize threats and assign the primary role of the U.S. military. Will the DoD clearly preference China (and, to a lesser extent, Russia)? Or will it hedge to try to meet an expanded list of threats? Is the Pentagon’s priority to compete below the threshold of armed conflict, or is it to strengthen deterrence by preparing to defeat a great-power adversary in a large-scale war? Answering these questions is critical to developing a winning strategy that enhances the security of the United States and is executable given available resources.

In a new CNAS report, “Risky Business: Future Strategy and Force Options for the Defense Department,” Stacie L. Pettyjohn, Becca Wasser, and Jennie Matuschak examine three possible strategy and force structure options for the Biden administration under a flat budget. Using tabletop exercises and budgetary analysis, they assess whether these options can sufficiently meet the challenges of daily competition and future great-power conflict, and ensure America’s long-term military technological edge.

The Biden administration appears to be pursuing a strategy that hedges against a wide number of threats and mitigates risk over time, but does not make tough choices by prioritizing threats and clearly identifying the primary role of the U.S. military. The authors find that this strategy performs poorly against priority threats and that the Department of Defense is trying to do more than what the current budget can support. This strategy fails at two key tasks: defeating a great-power conventional invasion in Asia or Europe and at halting Chinese and Russian gray zone tactics, and sub-conventional aggression. In addition to risking significant overstretch, this approach increases the likelihood that the demands of today supersede the needs of tomorrow, and, as a result, the U.S. military may find itself technologically outmatched in the future.

The authors conclude that it is possible for the Biden administration to adopt a strategy that builds a force capable of defeating great-power aggression and overturning sub-conventional land grabs with the current budget. This requires the administration to make difficult choices in ranking threats and responsibilities, and accept some near-term risk. Avoiding these hard choices and trying to do too much is a risky business that could result in the United States losing its military technological edge and, ultimately, a war against a great power.

For more information or to request an interview with CNAS experts, contact Shai Korman at comms@cnas.org or call 202-457-9400.