The Trillion Dollar Defense Strategy
Wedged into the week between the mid-term elections and Thanksgiving, publication on November 13th of “Providing for the Common Defense,” the report to Congress of the National Defense Strategy Commission, has drawn too little attention. In it, the dozen, sober-minded commissioners are sounding clarion alarm about a “crisis of national security” arising from “dangerous” erosion of US military superiority which risks “grave and lasting” consequences on the nation. Were the caliber of its authors less uniformly high, the report’s klaxon might well be dismissed as alarmist hysteria. Instead, it warrants our attention.
It also merits a hard-thinking response. If the larger purpose of “Providing for the Common Defense” is to improve the defense posture of the US, I worry that the frame in which it renders the strategic challenge will fail to induce hard choices and innovative remedies. In particular, it’s recommendation to increase annual defense budgets by $200 billion to $300 billion over the next five years will deflect rather than focus attention onto the hard analytic and political work which the report otherwise so smartly commends. In addition, its general treatment of allies as simple objects of US patronage looks past what should instead be regarded as a key strategic asset with which to promote aims and abate risks.
The armed services committees conceived the Commission in the summer of 2016 and enacted its establishment into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, which was passed in the lame duck session at the very end of that year. The law charges the Commission with reviewing the Secretary of Defense’s national defense strategy, making an independent assessment of the strategic environment and US defense posture, and providing Congress its recommendations to improve the defense strategy. It comprises twelve commissioners, three-each appointed by the chairmen and ranking members of the two committees. Senator McCain and Representative Thornberry selected Ambassador Eric Edelman to serve as one of the Commission’s co-chairs; Senator Reed and Representative Smith selected Admiral Gary Roughead as the other.
The Commission’s critique of the National Defense Strategy (NDS) promulgated in January under Secretary Mattis’s signature is polite but unsparing. After faintly praising the NDS as “a constructive first step” and applauding the priority it places on competition with China and Russia, the Commission calls it out for “assuming too much risk in its approach to achieving its stated objectives and far greater risk than is publicly understood.”
The Commission’s own assessment of the strategic environment and defense posture affirms several familiar challenges—hybrid warfare, risk-averse acquisition culture, spotty readiness indicators, among them—and a few that are fresh—the need for a whole-of-nation strategy, a deficit of core defense-planning analytics, and the special leverage of electronic warfare, for example.
Among more than 30 discrete recommendations the Commission makes in response to its assessment, three stand out to me. Foremost is its call for a clean-sheet reconsideration of the operating concepts linking strategic objectives to the capabilities we buy and build in programs and budgets. Second, the Commission also makes an unabashed endorsement of national industrial policies that would promote and protect what it deems the “U.S. National Security Innovation Base”. Finally, there is its aforementioned call for “increas[ing] the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation through the Future Years Defense Program and perhaps beyond.”
In sum, the Commission has issued a powerful diagnosis and comprehensive assessment of the national defense posture. But if strategy is the stuff of making choices about how to achieve one’s objectives with constrained resources and in a context of contending interests, there is too little in the Commission’s report which illuminates the choices necessary to achieve a more coherent US defense strategy. The defense strategy it implies simply obviates the need for difficult choices by overweighting the availability of fiscal resources and underweighting the possibilities to shape interests that impede us while engaging those susceptible to promoting our objectives.
It’s an approach that does little to suggest practical strategies by which to reconcile what the Commissioners themselves rightly observe are a divergence of the ends, means, and interests in our posture. A better imperative driving innovative thinking and smart strategic initiative, for example, would be to discipline the US defense posture to the rough level of defense spending in the current fiscal year, a level, after all, that is higher in constant-dollar purchasing power than in any year we fought the Cold War.
The siren of this report’s alarming diagnosis notwithstanding, righting the defense posture of the US will actually be quite a bit harder to do than the National Defense Strategy Commission would have us believe.