October 12, 2021

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Getting Force Design Right in the Next National Defense Strategy

By Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser

The narrow window to keep pace with China is closing, and there are signs that the Defense Department is in danger of making a strategic misstep as it develops the next National Defense Strategy. The cornerstone of the forthcoming 2022 strategy is the all-encompassing idea of integrated deterrence. This expansive and ill-defined concept does not promote confidence that the Department of Defense is likely to set clear priorities in its strategy that would enable the force redesign needed to deter and, if necessary, fight and win a war with China or Russia.

The Biden administration should narrowly focus the Defense Department on high-end deterrence against China and Russia instead of strategic competition or managing an expanded array of lesser threats. This strategy would enable the dual nuclear and conventional modernization that is desperately needed to strengthen deterrence, both now and in the future, at current levels of defense spending. Additional resources would not translate to doing more, particularly not when more takes the department’s eye off the ball and encourages a lack of strategic discipline. Rather, any additional resources should translate to doing a narrower range of critical high-end missions more effectively. Urgent change at a significant scale is required to secure the nation today and tomorrow, but this will not occur if the next National Defense Strategy promotes too much of the same.

The Biden administration should narrowly focus the Defense Department on high-end deterrence against China and Russia instead of strategic competition or managing an expanded array of lesser threats.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy heralded a new era of American defense planning focused on deterring and defeating large-scale conventional aggression by a great power. This strategy was praised for abandoning the post-Cold War two-war force planning construct, which had led to a prioritization of military capacity over capability. It had produced a force that was simultaneously larger than was needed for any one conflict, yet less capable of defeating peer adversaries and more vulnerable to long-range adversary attacks.

The 2018 strategic guidance may have focused the Department of Defense on the most consequential and difficult military challenges that the United States faces, but the implementation of this strategy faltered. Presidential budget request after budget request made limited headway and underinvested in key capabilities needed to meet the demands laid out in the strategy. This was due in part to the fact that while the 2018 strategy prioritized high-end deterrence, it also stressed the “reemergence of long-term strategic competition” with China and Russia. Great-power competition became the loophole that allowed the services to push their preferred programs and to protect force structure that might not be needed or relevant in a great-power conflict.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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