November 09, 2020

Making Critical Choices for Better Posture Approaches

The Bottom Line

To better position the United States to effectively compete in an era of great-power competition, the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS) will need to make and implement tough choices that more directly link strategy and posture objectives for priority theaters and missions. Specifically, the next NDS should:

  • Clarify geographic priorities by explicitly ranking regions to scope posture.
  • To reduce strain on resources, readiness, and capabilities, make it the top priority of U.S. forces to deter and prepare to defeat great-power adversaries, rather than strategic peacetime competition.
  • Expand and focus the dynamic force employment (DFE) concept toward offsetting shortcomings in fixed posture and enhancing strategic messaging.


The 2018 National Defense Strategy called for a lethal and agile force posture providing the capabilities and responsiveness to “prevail in conflict and preserve peace through strength.” However, efforts to reassess and revise relatively stagnant U.S. global posture to achieve this strategy have fallen short. Despite numerous Department of Defense (DoD) efforts to align forces with NDS objectives, changes to U.S. force posture continue to be out of lockstep with several of the strategy’s priorities. Vacillating decisions have sent confusing messages about U.S. priorities, while straining finite resources. Examples include the drawdown of combat forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; sudden announcements to alter the long-standing military presence in the Republic of Korea and Germany; increasing the U.S. footprint in and deployments to the Middle East despite promises to focus on other regions; and establishing new bases there and in Europe.

Vacillating decisions have sent confusing messages about U.S. priorities, while straining finite resources.

A broader misunderstanding about the connection between strategy and posture has plagued the DoD in recent years, making it unsurprising that attempts to shape U.S. forward posture to be more consistent with NDS objectives have faltered. Posture is not a strategy in and of itself; rather, it is a means to achieve clear strategic guidance. Therefore, the two are inextricably linked. Because of this, the next NDS should make critical choices to more effectively create a global posture that better positions the joint force to compete with, deter, and defeat adversaries.

Setting Geographic Priorities

The 2018 NDS was widely lauded for acknowledging that the United States has finite resources and therefore must prioritize its activities. A key element of the strategic guidance was the elevation of China and Russia as top threats to the United States. This move raised the importance of Asia and Europe to U.S. defense strategy.

While creating a clear hierarchy of threats was commendable, the details of how the DoD would implement this guidance was and continues to be unclear and has resulted in haphazard attempts to adjust posture. U.S. posture in Asia—with the exception of a reported planned troop reduction in the Republic of Korea and increased freedom of navigation operations—has remained remarkably stagnant for the top geographic priority. Europe, on the other hand, has seen significant plans to alter the U.S. footprint and establish a new base in Poland, with the intent to better address the Russian threat. The Middle East, despite being an implied region of lesser importance, has received an influx of U.S. forces and capabilities since the strategy was published. High-demand, low-density assets that the United States had previously removed from there for use in Asia and Europe have since been returned, along with additional capabilities. Moreover, while the DoD has undertaken combatant command–level posture reviews, only minimal force reductions have been made in Africa and South America, areas where the U.S. footprint is already relatively small.

Although the elevation of China and Russia in the NDS had obvious implications for U.S. posture, actualizing these changes has been difficult. This is in part because the prioritization within the last NDS still does not go far enough in forcing DoD policymakers to make difficult posture choices. Altering posture using finite resources, manpower, and capabilities involves a dynamic similar to that of a seesaw—to reinforce forces and capabilities in one region, forces and the same capabilities in another region will have to be restrained in order to balance things out. With the United States facing further resource constraints as a result of COVID-19, the next NDS must further prioritize adversaries and geographic regions to help determine a more aligned posture—one that better prepares the nation to prevail against other great powers while deterring lesser opponents.

Decoupling the threats posed by China and Russia—twinned together in the last NDS—is a good place to start. While DoD officials have clarified that China is the preeminent adversary against which the United States needs to compete, deter, and prepare to defeat, this is not clearly stated in the 2018 NDS. The conflation of threats from China and Russia has enabled the DoD and other U.S. government stakeholders to advocate for resources for their preferred theaters, leading to debates over priorities. As many of the same forces and high-end capabilities would be required to deter or defeat both China and Russia, such debates have been particularly problematic for efforts to reinforce U.S. posture in line with the strategy’s goals.

Decoupling the threats posed by China and Russia—twinned together in the last NDS—is a good place to start.

Moreover, explicitly stating the priority of geographic regions in the next NDS will help streamline changes to U.S. posture. Setting clear geographic priorities will tamp down on attempts to obtain and expend resources that do not align with core U.S. objectives. Additionally, routine assessments that evaluate the alignment of posture in each region with strategic objectives will help reinforce these priorities in planning. This process will result in rank-ordering the globe by how regions align with stated U.S. interests. While this may be uncomfortable for the DoD and likely to rankle some U.S. allies and partners, the uncertainty stemming from the current strategy’s half-hearted attempt at prioritization has led to misaligned efforts.

Choosing to Posture for Competition or Warfighting—But Not Both

The NDS has cited “inter-state strategic competition” with China and Russia as “the primary concern in U.S. national security.” But what strategic competition actually entails is unclear, as the NDS and subsequent guidance have failed to sufficiently define the term or what it means for successful implementation. As a result, strategic competition has come to represent all actions under the threshold of war—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—that great powers take to achieve their interests.

The U.S. military, in turn, has found itself countering daily Chinese and Russian activities that pose some threat to U.S. interests—called gray zone activities—around the globe. Countering adversary influence has created the need for a U.S. military presence, in order to take up space that would otherwise be filled by China and Russia. In some respects, this is presence for its own sake, and reinforces the frequent U.S. assumption that military presence is the only tool that holds back adversaries. Additionally, a number of security cooperation missions intended to shore up and reassure allies and partners have become part of the U.S. military toolkit for peacetime competition. Such missions require a global presence, largely in the form of rotational forces. This is highly demanding, ties up the largest amount of force structure, and erodes readiness. It is difficult to ascertain whether these U.S. actions have the desired impact of curbing increased Chinese and Russian influence, and whether they are deterring adversaries more effectively than other options in the U.S. toolkit or reassuring nervous allies and partners.

The U.S. military has found itself countering daily Chinese and Russian activities that pose some threat to U.S. interests—called gray zone activities—around the globe.

But the 2018 NDS also calls on U.S. forces to be able to “compete, deter, and win.” Fulfilling all three objectives simultaneously is a tall order, particularly as the requirements for forces, capabilities, and their locations are unlikely to be the same across all three. Indeed, posturing to deter and deny adversary aggression looks remarkably different from posturing for competition. While peacetime competition prioritizes presence in locations inside the worst threat rings, warfighting requires an agile, flexible, and distributed basing construct to improve the survivability of forces and infrastructure. Given the ability of opponents to hold nearby bases at risk, a resilient posture may involve repositioning forces to ever-more distant bases, which might require new ways of warfighting. In some ways, a competition posture is diametrically opposed to a warfighting posture.

The next NDS will need to make clear whether the priority is to compete or to prepare to fight and win against great-power adversaries. Attempting to do both with a shrinking force and finite resources is likely to have continued deleterious effects on readiness, and to result in a global posture not optimized for either mission. Because of this, the next NDS should highlight the U.S. military’s primary role as deterring great-power adversaries and preparing to defeat them should deterrence fail. The stakes are higher, in this scenario, for global stability and American credibility than they are in competition. While other departments and agencies have roles to play in peacetime competition, only the DoD has a warfighting function. This introduces greater complementarity between the DoD and other departments and agencies, resulting in a more effective whole-of-government approach.

Adopting Dynamic Messaging

Focusing the U.S. military on deterring great-power adversaries and preparing for war in priority regions will better align posture with strategy. Such an emphasis on deterrence, however, means a reduction in peacetime presence, along with the numerous security cooperation missions used to reassure U.S. allies and partners. This, coupled with the whiplash engendered by planned, announced, or enacted posture changes, challenges the reliability of U.S. commitments. This is problematic for deterrence, because credible deterrence requires that allies, partners, and adversaries believe in U.S. security guarantees. Additionally, alterations to U.S. posture that shift forces and capabilities to other regions leave gaps that strategic competitors could seek to fill. Changes to posture might also alter opponents’ perceptions of U.S. resolve, and this would weaken deterrence, which requires that the adversary believe U.S. coercive threats and demonstrated capabilities.

To successfully shift to a warfighting posture, the United States will need to change its global footprint. As a result, it will also need to identify creative and efficient ways to demonstrate resolve and the capability to rapidly project combat power against adversaries and in support of allies and partners. Dynamic force employment—ill-defined by the NDS as the flexible use of “ready forces to shape proactively the strategic environment”—provides an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Focusing the U.S. military on deterring great-power adversaries and preparing for war in priority regions will better align posture with strategy.

DFE enables the flexible, rapid deployment of forces—often unplanned or unannounced—to proactively send a message, whether one of reassurance to allies and partners, or of deterrence to opponents. Dynamic demonstrations of force, for example freedom of navigation exercises and bomber flights, support the message that alterations in force posture strengthen resiliency, rather than ceding ground. DFE is also a mechanism for the United States to demonstrate presence without being wedded to brick-and-mortar bases and, in this way, can be leveraged to help the United States compete and reassure in a way that does not unnecessarily expend resources.

While the DFE concept has been rightly criticized for lacking maturity and has been inappropriately cited as the rationale for deployments incongruous with NDS priorities, it is not without its merits. As such, the next NDS should clarify and expand on the concept to enable better implementation of and messaging around U.S. posture changes. Leveraging DFE to fill gaps created by posture adjustments will also focus the concept, apply more prudent guidelines for how and why it is used, and streamline planning and resourcing for DFE. Strengthening the understanding of DFE and how it can be used to offset changes to posture will also tamp down on the concept being used injudiciously to justify new deployments that buck the aims of the new NDS.


  • De-link the threats posed by China and Russia, so that China is the chief great-power adversary that the United States needs to deter. Doing so will place a greater emphasis on Asia as an area of importance where the United States should optimize its posture to achieve its strategic objectives. Other regions should be similarly rank-ordered in the next NDS, to clarify their importance to critical U.S. interests. This ranking will act as a guidepost in prioritizing finite resources.
  • Make the top priority of the U.S. military deterring and preparing to defeat great-power adversaries, as opposed to strategic competition. This approach recognizes the vital differences in posturing during peacetime and war. Implementing this change will free up crucial resources to prepare for great-power war, enable the United States to adopt a more agile global posture, and add complementarity to a whole-of-government approach to counter adversaries.
  • Expand and strengthen the DFE concept to offset the negative impacts of U.S. posture shifts, reassure allies and partners, and deter adversaries.


The challenges that have stemmed from the 2018 NDS in terms of implementing posture changes suggest that clarifying critical concepts and priorities is needed in the next iteration of the strategy. These challenges also reveal the larger misunderstanding of the link between strategy and posture. True posture changes are difficult to make and more difficult than adjustments to force structure, in part because of the long timelines required to make them. Moreover, cost-neutral posture adjustments involve scaling resources. Because of all these considerations, the U.S. Department of Defense must make critical choices in the next NDS to better link strategic objectives with posture in support of U.S. interests, or risk developing an expensive and suboptimal posture.

About the Author

Becca Wasser is a fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include wargaming, force posture and management, and U.S. defense strategy. She is also an adjunct instructor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Prior to joining CNAS, she was a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.

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.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

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  1. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America,
  2. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
  3. Michael R. Gordon and Gordon Lubold, “Trump Administration Weighs Troop Cuts in South Korea,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2020,
  4. “Statement by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs on U.S. Troop Levels in Germany,” Department of Defense, press release, June 30, 2020,
  5. “DoD Statement on the Deployment of Additional U.S. Forces and Equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Department of Defense, press release, October 11, 2019,
  6. Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Pulling Some Missile-Defense Systems Out of Middle East,” Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2018,; Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne, “U.S. Deploying More Patriot Missiles to the Middle East amid Iranian Threats,” CNN, May 10, 2019,
  7. Mark T. Esper, “Implementing the National Defense Strategy: A Year of Successes” (Department of Defense, July 17, 2020,
  8. Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense, testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Syria and Middle East Policy, December 11, 2019,
  9. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
  10. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Competition Compendium, Joint Doctrine Note 1-19 (June 3, 2019),
  11. Ben Hubbard et al., “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void,” The New York Times, October 15, 2019,; Robert Burns, “Esper Visit to Tiny Palau Highlights U.S.-China Competition,” Associated Press, August 27, 2020, Missy Ryan, “Pentagon Calls for New Cooperation with Algeria to Counteract Growing Russian Influence in Africa,” The Washington Post, October 1, 2020,
  12. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
  13. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. The Hon. Barbara Barrett, Secretary of the Air Force; and Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, “United States Air Force Posture Statement Fiscal Year 2021,” Statement to the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate, March 2020,
  14. Gordon and Lubold, “Trump Administration Weighs Troop Cuts in South Korea.” “Statement by Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs on U.S. Troop Levels in Germany.” Robert Burns and Zeke Miller, “U.S. Withdrawing Thousands of Troops from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Associated Press, September 9, 2020,
  15. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1966).
  16. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
  17. United States Institute of Peace, Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission (November 14, 2018), 21,
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