January 29, 2019

Addressing China and Russia’s Emergence as Great Power Competitors and the Implementation of the National Defense Strategy

Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee

By Elbridge Colby

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Reed, and distinguished members of this Committee, for the invitation to appear before you. It is a great honor to testify before this body on a topic of the highest importance to our nation – the implementation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), a Strategy which entails a fundamental shift in the orientation of our nation’s armed forces toward great power competition.

I. Personal Involvement

During 2017 and 2018, I served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. In this capacity, I led a superb team of civilian and military officials from key parts of the Department tasked with developing the National Defense Strategy, reporting to Secretary Mattis and Deputy Secretary Work and Deputy Secretary (now Acting Secretary) Shanahan. In light of this experience, there are a number of distinctive attributes of this Strategy that I believe it is useful for the Committee to know.

  • This Strategy is a result of the leadership and deep personal engagement of Secretary Mattis as well as Deputy Secretaries Work and Acting Secretary Shanahan. The Department’s top leadership engaged regularly and in depth with the Strategy team and reviewed the document numerous times. Secretary Mattis met repeatedly with the team for long sessions; he considered the hardest issues in the Strategy and made clear choices about them in close consultation with then-Deputy Secretary Shanahan, who made the Strategy his priority in his first months in office and played a crucial, personal role in bringing the Strategy to fruition. The Strategy therefore reflects the considered judgment of those charged with leading the nation’s defense.
  • At the same time, this Strategy was not a purely top-down document. As Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has related, the last version of the Strategy she recalls reviewing was on the order of the sixty-sixth version of the draft. From the earliest stages of its development, the Strategy received input from across the Department, and the range of Department leaders had the opportunity to review and comment on the Strategy as it evolved. Essentially everyone had their say. While the Strategy is – by design – a reflection of leadership judgments rather than a consensus or lowest-common denominator document, it benefited from the collective wisdom of the U.S. defense enterprise as well as from input from the Intelligence Community and other relevant organs of the U.S. Government.
  • The Strategy team and Department leadership received input from Congress and outside experts from the beginning of the document’s development, and it was red-teamed several times by leading defense experts.
  • The Strategy was also informed by both strategic and operational-level wargaming.

II. A Recap of the National Defense Strategy

This hearing has been called to ascertain how the implementation of the Strategy is faring. I believe there is no more important issue on which the Committee can focus oversight, as the Strategy requires “urgent change at significant scale” for our national interests to be effectively protected. This is especially pressing because the National Defense Strategy Commission, a body chartered by Congress and composed of leading defense experts who had unparalleled access to the Department, reported that its members are “skeptical that DOD has the attendant plans, concepts and resources needed to meet the defense objectives identified in the NDS, and [they] are concerned that there is not a coherent approach for implementing the NDS across the entire DOD enterprise…[The Commissioners] came away troubled by the lack of unity among senior civilian and military leaders in their descriptions of how the objectives described in the NDS are supported by the Department’s readiness, force structure, and modernization priorities...” This is cause for significant concern.

Before discussing the Department’s progress in implementing the NDS and how Congress can facilitate it, however, I believe it is valuable first to recap concisely what the Strategy, in concert with the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) with which it is so closely tied, assesses and directs.

The National Defense Strategy can be summarized as follows:

U.S. Defense Strategy in our Broader Grand Strategy

The United States has a lasting interest in maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the key regions of the world, especially East Asia, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. These favorable balances preserve our ability to trade with and access the world’s wealthiest and most important regions on fair grounds, and prevent their power from being turned against us in ways that would undermine our freedoms and way of life.

Alliances are the critical mechanism for maintaining these favorable balances, and it is in the U.S. interest to continue to be able to effectively and credibly defend our allies and established partners such as Taiwan, in concert with their own efforts at self-defense.

The Particular Threat Posed by China and Russia

China in particular and to a lesser extent Russia present by far the most severe threats to our alliance architecture. The once overwhelming U.S. conventional military advantage vis a vis these major powers has eroded and will continue to erode absent overriding focus and effort by the United States and its allies and partners.

China and Russia pose a particular kind of threat to U.S. allies and established partners like Taiwan. Beijing and Moscow have plausible theories of victory that could involve employing a combination of “gray zone” activities (such as through the use of subversion by “little green men”), robust anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) networks, lethal and fast maneuver forces, and strategic capabilities, especially nuclear arsenals. The adept integration of these assets could enable Beijing or Moscow first to overpower U.S. allies and seize their territory while holding off U.S. and other allied combat power. China or Russia could then, by extending their A2/AD and defensive umbrella over these new gains, render the prospect of ejecting their occupying forces too difficult, dangerous, and politically demanding for Washington and its allies to undertake, or undertake successfully.

This fait accompli strategy is not the only but it is the most severely challenging of the theories of victory the Chinese or Russians could employ – especially against Taiwan in the Pacific or the Baltics and Eastern Poland in Europe.

Particularly in the case of China, these threats will worsen and expand as the power of the People’s Liberation Army grows. Taiwan is the focal point today; before long, unless the ongoing erosion of our and our allies’ military edge is reversed, the threat will be to Japan and the Philippines and thus to our whole position in maritime Asia, the world’s most economically dynamic region.

The Need to Focus on Great Power Competition and its Implications

Accordingly, as Secretary Mattis put it in January 2018, “Great power competition – not terrorism – is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” The United States’ defense establishment must therefore focus on and adapt to this top priority – at scale and urgently, as the Strategy emphasizes.

What does this new prioritization mean and what does it entail?

At its deepest level, it requires a fundamental shift in the way the Department of Defense conceives of what is required for effective deterrence and defense. This is because the United States and its allies will be facing great powers – especially in the case of China. This is a dramatically different world than that which characterized the post-Cold War period, in which our armed forces could focus on “rogue states” and terrorist groups due to the lack of a near-peer competitor. Today and going forward, however, China in particular will present us with a comparably-sized economy and a top-tier military operating in its own front yard.

Above all, this requires a change in the mindset of our defense establishment. We have left a period of overwhelming American dominance and have entered one in which our armed forces will have to prepare to square off against the forces of major economies fielding the most sophisticated conventional and survivable nuclear forces. Our armed forces will therefore need to shift from an expectation that they could dominate the opponent to one in which they must expect to be contested throughout the fight – and yet still achieve the political objectives set for them in ways that are politically tenable.

Fortunately, our political-strategic goals, as indicated in the NSS and NDS, are defensive. We hope only to prevent our allies and partners like Taiwan from being suborned or conquered by our opponents. We therefore must defeat Chinese or Russian invasions or attempts at suborning our allies, and force Beijing or Moscow to have to choose between unfavorably escalating – and demonstrating to all their aggressiveness and malign intent by doing so – or settling on terms we can accept. This, to emphasize, is a different goal than regime change or changing borders. Rather, it is about preserving the status quo by favorably managing escalation to win limited wars.

How our forces achieve this objective in the event of conflict will be of the essence. Our forces must be exceptionally lethal and capable, optimized to defeat China or Russia. At the same time, however, wars with China or Russia must remain limited because the alternative is apocalypse, which neither side wants – thus we must plan and prepare for them as limited wars. Above all, this requires focusing on defeating the other side’s theory of victory, and particularly the fait accompli strategy.

The NDS is specifically designed to deal with this challenge. Its military and force implications proceed from the political-strategic demands the NSS and NDS set out. As a core concept, the NDS calls on the Department to expand the competitive space – meaning above all to adopt a competitive mentality in everything that Department personnel do, one that refuses to take American superiority for granted, that searches for new or untapped sources of advantage, and that ensures that it is China and Russia that fear more what we might do rather than the other way around.

The NDS therefore directs substantial changes in the following elements of our armed forces:

  • Warfighting approach;
  • Force structure: size, shape, and composition;
  • Force employment;
  • Posture; and
  • Relationships with allies and partners.


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