July 27, 2020

Make China the Explicit Priority in the Next NDS

The Bottom Line

The new NDS is an opportunity for the next Secretary of Defense in January 2021 to do three things:

  1. Further deepen and explicitly state the current NDS’s sound prioritization of China.
  2. Establish clear benchmarks and explicit details of implementation for both capability investments and posture enhancements.
  3. Identify areas of opportunity when it comes to dealing with the gray zone and expanding cooperation with new partners.


This coming winter, the Pentagon will kick off the year-long effort to complete a new National Defense Strategy (NDS). As ardent supporters of the last NDS in 2018, we do not intend to use this space to review all that document got right. Instead, we feel now is an ideal opportunity to review the progress of the implementation process three years on, and to make recommendations regarding how NDS 2022 can deepen the department’s commitment to the original document’s forceful agenda.

The Case for Continuity

When Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis signed the National Defense Strategy in January 2018, it signaled the end of a decade-long process to shift official attention at the Department of Defense to the operational challenges posed by China and Russia. For years, pockets inside the department had worked to move the needle with varying degrees of success at the operational or tactical levels. The Air Force focused heavily on high-end conventional warfare investments in the late 2000s, during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Navy and Air Force tried to work together in the early 2010s to respond jointly to China’s modernization efforts by standing up the Air-Sea Battle Office. By the mid-2010s, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work was discussing the military dilemma posed by China openly and working to initiate a new offset strategy to respond.As concerns about China grew, efforts to prepare slowly trickled upward. The stroke of Secretary Mattis’s pen on the 2018 NDS for the first time signaled that the highest levels of the Pentagon had finally adopted the logic that China should be the organizing principle for the building.

The stroke of Secretary Mattis’s pen on the 2018 NDS for the first time signaled that the highest levels of the Pentagon had finally adopted the logic that China should be the organizing principle for the building.

The bipartisan support for NDS 2018 was an encouraging sign that a consensus on making China the department’s priority was obtainable. The breadth of China’s malevolent actions during the past three years has only increased the recognition that the United States is in a strategic competition. There will be many small and even some large differences between how a second Trump term or a first Biden term will approach defense strategy, given both ideological fault lines and structural shifts such as COVID-19. However, both parties are well positioned to pursue a new NDS that will continue to put a focus on China first.

One major adjustment should be considered. The previous NDS determined that the “central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” and concluded that “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department” (emphasis added). While both powers are indeed revisionist and pose considerable risk to U.S. interests, the magnitude of the challenge posed by a China with the world’s second-largest economy far exceeds that of Russia.

While both powers are indeed revisionist and pose considerable risk to U.S. interests, the magnitude of the challenge posed by a China with the world’s second-largest economy far exceeds that of Russia.

Leaving the door open to both China and Russia being the principal priorities has led to confusion and a misalignment of effort. For the sake of bringing greater clarity to the application of the department’s time, energy, and budget resources, NDS 2022 should go further than its predecessor by being explicit that China is the principal priority, while Russia is the focus of the secondary effort. This will have the immediate effect of ending a debate within various parts of the Pentagon, where some factions give priority to the European theater and others to the Pacific.

Unfinished Business

Implicit in NDS 2018 is an effort to realign the joint force to deter great powers by denying their military objectives. The document points specifically to resilient force posture as a mechanism to bolster deterrence through denial, outlining how it will be essential to: (1) construct “smaller, dispersed, resilient, adaptive basing”; and (2) invest in a “blunt layer” of forces (supported by a “surge layer” to arrive later) to delay, degrade, and deny the enemy’s attempt to achieve a fait accompli. Looking back three years later, a reasonable assumption would be that Indo-Pacific Command, military services, the Joint Staff, and annual defense budgets all would have moved to make these major adjustments possible. There was indeed a modest effort to sprinkle changes in recent years, but much of this, including posture changes in Australia and the Philippines, had begun before the NDS was completed.

A scorecard for how this effort has unfolded in recent years leaves a great deal to be desired. The Air Force has been talking for years about a new dispersed operating concept for the Pacific theater, but the infrastructure and logistics to make it a reality have still not come close to materializing. In stark contrast to the work in Europe, the Air Force has not undertaken to purchase deployable air base systems—the key element to dispersed operations in theater. The Air Force has also invested major resources to develop the F-35A, but most of the new jets will go to National Guard units across the country before any make their way to bases in the Pacific, and Alaska is not nearly close enough to the “fight.” The Navy continues to insist that, despite the significant increases in Chinese air, maritime, and missile capabilities, the laydown of ships that existed in the Western Pacific before the 2018 NDS remains sufficient today for meeting the objectives of the strategy’s blunt layer concept. Even limited changes such as moving an additional attack submarine forward to be based in Guam have failed to materialize. The Marine Corps remains largely committed to the same realignment of forces in the theater that it set out to achieve a decade ago, with little progress to show for it.

A scorecard for how this effort has unfolded in recent years leaves a great deal to be desired.

NDS 2022 should seek to remedy this failure of execution by being more explicit about posture objectives for the theater. It is one thing for an unclassified document to endorse resilient posture and a forward blunt layer, but it is another to outline and commit to the specifics for achieving those goals. An explicit set of posture objectives, coupled with a Pacific Deterrence Initiative funding mechanism to make the investments necessary, is required.

NDS 2018 recognized that revisionist powers “have increased efforts short of armed conflict by expanding coercion to new fronts, violating principles of sovereignty, exploiting ambiguity, and deliberately blurring the lines between civil and military goals.” This is another area where little has changed in three years. China still acts with impunity in its development of manmade structures and bullying of neighbors in the South China Sea. Beijing is also working in cyberspace to undermine U.S. military, economic, and political credibility. This inability to operate with speed and agility in the “gray zone” is weakening the U.S. strategic position and destabilizing critical alliances and partnerships. The 2022 NDS must more clearly state how the United States will operate forward, in conditions short of armed conflict, to confront Chinese aggression, deter future Chinese planning, and reestablish a set of norms that cannot be manipulated or undermined by persistent campaigns of low-level aggression. This is not a call for a strategy of compellence, but rather for one of a more active deterrence predicated on forward defense and backed by a policy of clearly stated, enforceable, declaratory principles and associated signaling efforts.

This inability to operate with speed and agility in the “gray zone” is weakening the U.S. strategic position and destabilizing critical alliances and partnerships.

NDS 2018 also said a great deal about the role of allies and partners. Alliances, the document made clear, were not just an objective driving U.S. policy, but also ways and means to that end. We agree that alliances and partners contribute to a form of deterrence by cost imposition. This is obvious for high-end partners such as Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea. When it comes to a contingency or crisis with China, however, in some scenarios Japan will likely participate, in others Australia, and while the United States hopes to have access from both of those countries in any crisis, neither is a shoo-in for active support in every scenario. Visible efforts to advance joint planning and exercising for various possibilities is critical, both to ensure effective allied warfighting capabilities and to provide credible deterrence signaling to China.

In addition, the military challenge to Taiwan has become a focal point for U.S. planners, because it is where the imbalance with the People’s Liberation Army has become the most pressing. The next NDS should view Taiwan as not just a responsibility for U.S. policy, but an opportunity for U.S. strategy in the region. Just as NDS 2022 should make it explicit that China is the priority, it should also elevate Taiwan as a focal point for U.S. defense strategy in the Pacific. Where the democracy of Taiwan goes, so will the rest of the region. However, Chinese investments in anti-access technology have made it impossible for the United States to continue to plan to defend Taiwan in a “deconflicted” manner—one in which U.S. and Taiwanese forces operate almost completely independently of one another. Instead, it is imperative that the United States and Taiwan begin to exercise and operate forces in a coordinated manner. This will require joint exercises, some limited joint planning, and increasing access for Taiwan to purchase weapon and sensor systems that integrate seamlessly with U.S. systems. The added benefit of these actions is that they serve as a strong deterrence-by-denial signal to the Chinese, because Beijing is well aware of the exponential value the United States receives when its allies are capable, integrated warfighting partners.


NDS 2018 was a truly strategic document that shifted the Department of Defense at the highest levels in a new and welcome direction. Even though the department has made much progress, the strategy’s implementation has been at best incomplete. NDS 2022 represents an opportunity to lock in this new consensus and take the investment, posture, and alliance management steps necessary for waging strategic competition with China.

About the Authors

Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery (Ret.) is Executive Director of the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He most recently served as Policy Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Senator John McCain. Previously he was the Director for Operations (J3) at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS. He previously was a Special Assistant to the Commander, Indo-Pacific Command, and a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee under Senator John McCain.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


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