July 20, 2021

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

Executive Summary

Despite the overarching strategic priorities laid out by the Biden administration and initial indicators provided by the Department of Defense (DoD), it is unclear how the next National Defense Strategy (NDS) will prioritize threats and the primary role of the U.S. military. Will the DoD clearly preference China (and to a lesser extent Russia)? Or will it hedge and try to more equally meet the expanded list of threats detailed in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance? Is the Pentagon’s priority to compete below the threshold of armed conflict, or is it to prepare to defeat a great-power adversary in a large-scale war to strengthen deterrence? Answering these questions is critical to developing a clear strategy that emphasizes the right priorities, activities, and resources.

To consider the next defense strategy and the tradeoffs associated with different options, we developed three possible strategies—high-end deterrence, day-to-day competition, and full-spectrum competition—that alter the factors highlighted above and reflect the Biden administration’s stated priorities.

Our analysis of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 budget indicates that the DoD is trying to do more than constrained budgets can support over the next few years and is moving toward what we term as a strategy of “full-spectrum competition.” It appears as if the Biden administration is pursuing a strategy that seeks to strike a balance between competing in the near term while still enhancing preparedness for great-power conflict, as well as hedging against a range of threats and mitigating risk over time. The forces and posture that are necessary for this competition are quite different from those that are needed to defend against a conventional fait accompli attack by China on Taiwan or Russia on the Baltics. It is unlikely that the United States can build a force that can achieve both of these objectives with the current topline.

Our testing of the budget-constrained force associated with the full-spectrum competition strategy finds that it could not successfully fulfill its two primary aims: defeating sub-conventional aggression and Russian and Chinese gray zone tactics, and building a force capable of defeating a great-power adversary attack on its neighbor. Moreover, this strategy risks significant overstretch, the potential for long-term technological overmatch, and inadvertent escalation.

The other two strategies focus on China, but day-to-day competition emphasizes the daily military contest with Beijing and the threat of sub-conventional conflict, while high-end deterrence focuses on defeating conventional aggression and achieving a long-term military technological advantage. The day-to-day competition strategy would lose a high-end conflict in East Asia and Europe; it also would fail to halt or overturn sub-conventional land grabs. The competition strategy bets that a large and visible force that actively contests daily military provocations will deter both sub-conventional and conventional aggression, even if the force is not capable of stopping either type of attack. The risk that this assumption fails grows over time because this strategy forgoes investments in advanced technologies, while China and Russia are rapidly seeking to wrest the military technological advantage from the United States. There are also significant escalatory risks associated with an approach that regularly and assertively contests Chinese and Russian forces. We conclude that it is unlikely that competition can be won by the military, even one optimized to face this challenge.

More optimistically, our analysis suggests that it is possible to build a force capable of winning one big conflict and overturning sub-conventional aggression with this topline—but only if the department is willing to accept some near-term risk in competition, against other threats, and in other regions. The high-end deterrence strategy mitigates the temporal risk by making near-term improvements in combat capabilities, including expanding stockpiles of preferred long-range munitions, investments to improve the resiliency of U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific and Europe, and additional investments in cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. It also relies on frontline allies and partners to be responsible for the daily competition.

We assert that the high-end deterrence strategy is the best path forward, but it requires a better delineation and ranking of threats and responsibilities for the joint force and strategic discipline over the long run. Congress must also support this strategy and allow the Defense Department to make the hard choices, such as cutting capacity and retiring weapons systems, that are required to rebalance the force for this mission and to sustain its military technological advantage over the long run. Senior Pentagon leaders will need to partner with Congress to help them understand how specific changes are connected to higher order objectives.

It is important to note that the FY22 budget is largely an inherited one and the Biden administration is making some significant investments that align with a high-end deterrence strategy. Nevertheless, the 2022 NDS and the FY23 budget will need to accept more risk and further prioritize to prepare the force for the most challenging and consequential threats. If the Biden administration does not make these hard choices or Congress refuses to support this strategy, the chasm between U.S. strategic and military objectives and the costs of achieving them will only grow significantly. 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.


The Biden administration is in the process of updating the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and has just submitted the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 Budget request. The NDS identifies priority threats and missions and links these to the size and shape of the force that is required to satisfy these tasks, which in turn drives resourcing. President Joe Biden has outlined the broad contours of his administration’s strategy, which are “leading first with diplomacy” and only using military force “when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable” and as a “last resort.” The Biden administration also has elevated the threats of climate change and biothreats, while retaining the 2018 NDS’s focus on China as the pacing nation-state threat. Although some senior national security officials have outlined their priorities and the Biden administration has issued an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (interim NSS), these do not substitute for a fully vetted and comprehensive defense strategy.

Questions remain about the prioritization of different threats and missions and the force-sizing construct that accompanies the 2022 NDS. Does the Biden administration maintain an exclusive focus on China or does it elevate other threats? Even if it remains focused on China, does it focus on strengthening conventional deterrence and warfighting or does it also focus the DoD on competing below the threshold of conventional conflict? This paper considers several alternative strategies that the Biden administration could adopt, determines how they could be resourced given a flat topline defense budget, and identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Finally, we develop a framework to assist with NDS implementation and use it to explore the direction the FY22 budget suggests that the administration is going in. This framework helps with policy oversight, which asks the fundamental question of whether the DoD is spending its money in a way that it is likely to achieve its goals. Such a framework should help policymakers evaluate the alignment of future defense budgets and the 2022 NDS.

Just as previous administrations have failed to sufficiently link resources to strategy, the Biden administration is in danger of this misstep.

To conduct this type of strategy oversight, the following must be considered: what are the priority threats identified by the strategy? What missions and operations does the joint force need to be able complete to counter these threats? Finally, how does a program enable the execution of these missions? The 2018 NDS, for instance, made “inter-state strategic competition—not terrorism,” especially competition with China and Russia, “the primary focus of U.S. national security.” Specifically, the U.S. military’s goal was “preserving the status quo by favorably managing escalation to win limited wars” by “defeating the other side’s theory of victory, and particularly the fait accompli strategy.” Defeating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, would require successfully executing a number of critical missions, such as identifying, targeting, and damaging or destroying ships in a contested environment. The succeeding defense budgets should have made investments in capabilities that allowed the joint force to rapidly close kill chains and sink ships in a denied environment.

Just as previous administrations have failed to sufficiently link resources to strategy, the Biden administration is in danger of this misstep. While the FY22 defense budget request illuminates some of the Biden administration’s likely areas of emphasis, subsequent budgets must be more strongly linked to the new strategy and lay the groundwork for the execution of this new guidance.

We analyze the different directions that the next NDS may go and what each of these paths would mean for joint force structure and the budget. As a first step in this process, we developed three alternative defense strategies. Although all three alternatives align with the strategic priorities articulated by the administration thus far, they differ in several key dimensions. These alternatives are ideal type strategies that are designed to illustrate clear distinctions among potential priorities to illuminate tradeoffs. From these ideal type strategies, we developed representative force structures that are budget neutral, but tailored to counter the threats emphasized in that particular strategy. Next, we tested the three force structures using tabletop exercises (TTXs) focused on high-end warfighting and sub-conventional conflict scenarios against China and Russia to see how they fared and to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. We developed the alternative strategies and ran the TTXs with our Decision Science partners at Govini, although we each reached our own conclusions from these events.

In reality, there is often a wide gulf between an articulated strategy and its execution. It is particularly challenging to digest something as complicated as the U.S. defense budget, let alone align it with a defense strategy. To help identify areas where a budget may stray from the strategy’s expressed goals, we developed a framework with budgetary signposts that indicate that the strategy is moving in a certain direction. One can use this structure to evaluate whether and how future budgets support the 2022 NDS to ensure that resources are being aligned in a way that implements the strategy. We conclude with clear recommendations for strategy development, force design, and resourcing requirements.

Strategic Priorities

The new administration has already offered a sketch of its strategic vision in a number of speeches and in the interim NSS. A core tenant of the interim NSS is that “diplomacy, development, and economic statecraft should be the leading instruments of American foreign policy,” while a powerful military is a tool of last resort. Additionally, the administration has adopted an expanded view of national security, in which domestic policy and foreign policy are inextricably linked. According to this view, domestic policy concerns such as racial inequality, anti-democratic movements, and economic challenges to the working class are critical drivers of American security. With this logic, shoring up American power through domestic economic prosperity and democratic renewal enables the United States to model democratic values, work with allies and partners, and counter authoritarian regimes to “lean forward, not shrink back.”

The Biden administration has also taken an expanded view of security challenges. Officials have cited transnational threats that “respect no borders or walls,” such as COVID-19 and climate change, as top challenges with which the United States and its partners will have to contend. The rise of authoritarian populism and shifts in the balance of power fueled in part by rapidly changing technology have made continued strategic competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia a priority. Already, China has emerged as the key threat for the administration, and China’s autocratic government poses an ideological challenge to the United States’ democracy. The administration has also cited regional adversaries, in the form of state and non-state groups, as continued threats.

Yet the insertion of great-power competition also created a broad mission for the DoD that contended with preparing for high-end conflicts with China or Russia.

Taken altogether, the Biden administration has adopted an expanded and holistic view of security threats and sources of American power. In an effort to make that shift, the administration is pursuing a “diplomacy first” strategy. This strategy requires renewing alliances and partnerships and joining international institutions, while placing military power in support of diplomacy and other soft power tools. The Biden administration’s interim NSS highlights a key role for the DoD: “Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions.” This suggests that the priority mission of the U.S. military is to protect the U.S. homeland and to compete against and deter great-power adversaries, while maintaining U.S. commitments to allies and partners.

U.S. Department of Defense officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, have reinforced this approach. The DoD has cited China as the department’s “pacing challenge,” which guides the development of capabilities, concepts, and plans to retain U.S. military advantages. The DoD has reiterated the need for the U.S. military to respond to transnational challenges and “credibly deter” state and non-state threats, as well as compete against these actors under the threshold of conflict. The inclusion of transnational threats, such as COVID-19 and climate change, has elevated additional missions to the DoD and U.S. military beyond traditional warfighting responsibilities. However, given the unique role of the DoD within the interagency, the U.S. military will be expected to respond to emerging military threats and deter China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

Responding to these challenges requires modernizing conventional forces, investing in cutting-edge technology, and fielding new capabilities and technologies to maintain the United States’ slipping military technological edge. The administration has also recognized the need to maintain the nuclear triad and intends to review ongoing nuclear modernization programs in order to counter top U.S. rivals. Moreover, the DoD is pursuing new warfighting concepts and altering posture to enhance its ability to compete with and deter adversaries.

The development of a new U.S. National Defense Strategy is underway. Already, there are some aspects of this strategy that can be discerned from DoD officials. Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks has noted some continuity with the 2018 NDS, but that the 2022 NDS would address the China challenge more distinctly than the threat posed by Russia and address new threats such as climate change. Additionally, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl has touted “integrated deterrence” as the cornerstone of the forthcoming NDS. In line with the interim NSS guidance and the Biden administration’s priorities, integrated deterrence is framed as a whole-of-government approach that spans the diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) spectrum. It also spans across competition and conflict, and integrates all domains, to include space, cyber, and information, as well as allies and partners. From the military angle, this approach not only relies on developing and testing cutting-edge weapons and technologies, but also combines with them the right existing capabilities to achieve an effective mix of systems to deter adversary aggression.

Despite the overarching strategic priorities laid out by the Biden administration and initial indicators provided by the DoD, it is unclear how the next NDS will handle two critical questions. The first question addresses the prioritization of threats—will the DoD clearly prioritize China (and, to a lesser extent, Russia) over other threats, or will it hedge and more equally prioritize across the expanded list of threats detailed in the interim NSS guidance? The second question examines the primary role for the DoD—is it to compete below the threshold of armed conflict, or is it to prepare the force to defeat a great-power adversary in the event of conflict, should deterrence fail? Answering these questions is critical to developing a clear strategy that emphasizes the right priorities, activities, and resources.

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  • Stacie Pettyjohn

    Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Stacie Pettyjohn is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her areas of expertise include defense strategy, post...

  • Becca Wasser

    Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Becca Wasser is a Senior Fellow for the Defense Program and lead of The Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include defense strategy and o...

  • Jennie Matuschak

    Former Research Assistant, Defense Program

    Jennie Matuschak is a former research assistant for the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, Ms. Matuschak served as a Joseph S. Nye, ...

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