Critiquing the United States’ 2018 National Defense Strategy

 /  Jan. 20, 2019, 9:49 p.m.


Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force

When President Donald Trump and the Department of Defense (DoD) released the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), the United States ushered in a new era of military strategy. Historically, the NDS has been issued by the DoD as a strategic outline of military aims in accordance with the president’s goals. Trump’s 2018 NDS marks the biggest systematic change in military strategy since the Obama administration. Whereas the 2008 NDS mainly focused on combating asymmetrical warfare by terrorist organizations, the Trump administration emphasizes a military built for the reemergence of long-term strategic competition on the global stage against revisionist powers.

From the mid-20th century onward, America has taken a leadership role in the international arena. Yet all signs indicate a threat to the United States’ role as the global hegemon. Through technological advancement, military modernization, political meddling, or economic competition, revisionist powers like China and Russia have made efforts to match and eventually surpass American influence on the continuously globalized international order. Meanwhile, rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran continue to pose threats to the United States and its allies with their development of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The DoD recognizes this increasingly complex global strategic environment and the NDS lights a clear path for facing changing security dynamics. The NDS shows an impressive understanding of the threats to American security interests and makes a valiant effort to meet the ever-changing demands of the international arena through a revitalized approach for the US Military. In particular, the NDS posits a refreshing outlook on military tactics and composition, nation-state alliances, strategic mentality, and defense technology.

Nonetheless, the NDS has its flaws. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission (NDSC) notes that the NDS and DoD are leading the country in the right direction but fail to adequately articulate how the United States will reach its goals. If the United States is to continue promoting a liberal world order, our approach to the global stage needs to be clear, direct, and aggressive. The NDS would do better to offer a tangible explanation as to how such critical goals outlined will be implemented.

“Be Strategically Predictable but Operationally Unpredictable”

During his campaign, Trump made it clear that he was against revealing military plans in advance. Indeed, America does not plan to give away its playbook. The NDS clearly states that to continue deterring strategic competitors, maintaining a sense of militaristic unpredictability is necessary. In doing so, the DoD anticipates that America and its allies will be able to pressure China and Russia into unfavorable economic and political conditions while simultaneously expanding on their own interests. If America is going to outmaneuver and deter enemies like Russia and China, it must maintain a multitude of security options. Enemies need to be reminded perpetually that the United States takes competition seriously and is not worth aggravating.

However, such an approach must be limited. While a sense of unpredictability is admirable, any employment of military force should accord with the foreign policy goals set by the American government as a whole. The United States should have a military capable of being unpredictable tactically, but not one that operates in the shadows or is left unchecked. It is undeniable that the DoD is qualified to make judgements on military action, but simply using military force to be unpredictable could be counterproductive to larger diplomatic efforts pursued by the State Department and other agencies.

Because the NDS is still unclear on what being unpredictable really entails, Congress and other political agencies without sufficient security clearances could be left in the dark. In turn, an ambiguous plan could compromise the political goals that form the basis of military action. The US military’s credibility hinges on its ability to respond to aggressive actions, but those responses must also be prudent. America’s political and military dynamics must work in harmony to ensure that efforts toward maintaining security are built on reconcilable long-term goals.

“Foster a Competitive Mindset”

America needs to win when it comes to national defense and if there is one thing Trump hates, it is being seen as a loser. In the global arena, reflecting this mindset in the DoD may very well be a strong push in the right direction. The international arena is hypercompetitive and the DoD is correct that the America must “out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate revisionist powers, rogue regimes, terrorists, and other threat actors” to protect itself.

For the sake of international security, too, the United States cannot afford to fall second or third behind autocratic regimes like China and Russia. As the NDSC puts it, American leadership has “prevented a recurrence of the devastating world wars that marked the first half of the 20th century” and “fostered an unpresented growth in human freedom with the number of democracies rising from roughly a dozen during World War II to 120 in the early 21st century.” If America is to continue persevering as a global protector, security agencies must carefully analyze the best way to maximize American interests.

While the NDS has the right idea, the NDSC recommends that the “DoD more clearly answer the question of how it intends to accomplish a core theme of the NDS—defeating major-power rivals in competition and war.” Likewise, the NDS does well to discuss using military forces as an outlet for competition but fails to explain in depth how to transform this plan into reality. Simply declaring an intention to compete against enemies is not enough. How do we plan, for example, to compete against Iran, China, North Korea, Russia, and terrorist organizations? Will it simply be a matter of increasing military presence around the world or something more multidimensional?

With many unanswered questions, it is hard to be fully confident in the NDS’ plan to preserve the international order. The United States has so much to offer and can help ensure that revisionist powers and rogue nations are not left unchecked in their grey-zone predatorial pursuits. Hopefully, in the near future, the American security agenda outlines a more substantial approach in the competitive strategic environment. The DoD must make concrete moves to change the clarity of the military’s objectives.

“Modernize Key Capabilities”

One of the most insightful points in the NDS is the stated need for increasingly modernized weaponry and equipment. The bipartisan assessment emphasizes increased American defense investment to maintain a “favorable military balance.” For the United States to remain dominant, there must be a stronger emphasis on the modernization of specific military capabilities.

In truth, American military research and development has deteriorated. The United States has emphasized counter-insurgency against terrorist organizations and rebels in the Middle East over the past two decades. As the United States has waged its war on terror, Russia and China have been pursuing technologies to help them compete against America’s traditional military capabilities. Now, China’s technology is posing a greater threat to the United States than ever before. In addition, Russia’s focus on cyber warfare requires that the United States come to the harsh realization that cyber security is a dangerous outlet for belligerence.

With the rising power of big data and smart technology, many facets of life are at risk. Just one cyber attack can cause severe damage, whether by hacking the technological apparatuses in a chemical power plant, altering traffic light patterns to cause car crashes, or much worse. If China becomes too technologically dominant, America would lose its leverage against a capable enemy. Moreover, with Iran’s and North Korea’s obsessions with nuclear capabilities, there is a clear need for improved anti-missile technology and a modernized nuclear triad.

America has a thriving start-up culture, as well as some of the finest universities and engineering companies, thus giving the country no valid excuse for having an innovation gap. The NDS concludes that the lack of advancement in military technology can no longer be tolerated and investments in nuclear force, cyber warfare, intelligence gathering, missile defense, and adaptive military infrastructure are necessary.

The NDS fails to highlight any specific plans for strengthening security innovation. Nonetheless, there are specific areas where America can make significant strides to remerge as the dominant innovative force in the strategic realm. For example, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, Israel, leads the world in cybersecurity and anti-missile defense systems. With an even stronger partnership, the two countries can help combat the use of missiles by rogue nations and develop a stronger cyber defense system against likely attacks by the Chinese or the Russians.

Increasing the DoD’s budget is also necessary to fund advanced machinery that deters enemies globally. In addition, the DoD should foster more partnerships with private companies in the fields of artificial intelligence and wireless connection to increase the logistical speed and effectiveness of military operations.

“Strengthen Alliances and Attract New Partners”

Healthy and robust alliances are critical to protecting the United States’ global posture and deterring foes. Maintaining partnerships with nations that have common interests has historically served America well. The NDS outlines the DoD’s interest in the continuation of mutually beneficial alliances in light of defending the framework of a “free and open international order.” In agreement, the NDSC calls for a re-examination of the bounds and arrangements of alliances to further shared advantages over shared enemies.

Interestingly, the NDS seems to slightly contradict Trump’s rhetoric about the NATO security partnership. Demanding greater responsibility from NATO members is not unwarranted, however. NATO has been lacking in recent years with regards to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe including the annexation of Crimea. Pooling resources and enhancing collective capabilities through shared funding of military infrastructure and continued joint operational force exercises will help maximize deterrence against Russian expansion.

Furthermore, seeking new alliances in the Indo-Pacific region can effectively deter Chinese expansionism. By partnering with Southeast Asian countries, the United States will maintain its Pacific presence in areas where China has pursued maritime infrastructural development. In doing so, America will be able to prepare against Chinese aggression and counteract their influence through economic partnerships that promote free markets over state-sponsored capitalism.

But with regards to the Middle East, the United States must tread with caution. Although combating ISIS, Syria, and Iran is vital towards creating a more secure and stable region in the long-term, partnering with certain countries could be dubious. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq are strategically beneficial for defeating organizations led by Islamic militants and to exert pressure on other authoritarian regimes, but they also have own fatal flaws. Given the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, Turkey’s restrictions on civil liberties, and continued instability in Iraq, America needs to balance core foreign policy values and practically sound national security.

If the United States wants to build lasting peace in the Middle East, it should not be so complacent with the antithetical values of some of its allies. Without American pressure, theocratic and autocratic governments will not naturally become more liberalized or open to Western principles. With the current outline in the NDS, there is no indication that the United States plans to deal with the oppression of civilians in allied nations or the vicious cycle of anti-democratic powers surfacing in the region.

The DoD, State Department, and other relevant government organizations need to plan for a future Middle East that is less hostile, less volatile, and a better guarantor of freedoms. Doing so will allow America to cut back on its military presence in the region and keep troops out of harm's way, leading the United States to have a relationship built on peace and diplomacy rather than violence.

Moving Forward

In the evolving global environment we experience today, the United States’ military does not enjoy the same advantages it did in years past. The American homeland is not a guaranteed sanctuary anymore. The rise of revisionist powers determined to create a world order consistent with their authoritarian models; the increasing belligerence of rogue nations; and the enduring threat posed by terrorist organizations are all legitimate concerns. American military forces, inter-government agencies, diplomatic efforts and the technological private sector must be aligned to thrive in long-term strategic competition.

While some politicians and civilians fear an over-emphasis on military might and question whether the American budget can handle huge DoD requests, they are not looking at the situation appropriately. Trump, while often criticized for his unconventional foreign policy approach, has put the DoD on the right track to keep America competitive on the global stage. Pursuing the goals outlined in the NDS and by the NDSC are necessary to ensure a free, prosperous world order that keeps America and its allies safe.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in his 1953 Inaugural Address that “history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.” The United States cannot afford to forgo its mantle in protecting the international order. To avoid doing so through the weakness or timidity Eisenhower warns of, the United States’ strategy for national defense and security has to both establish worthy goals and offer paths to fulfilling them. The current NDS excels at the former, but can definitely improve at the latter.

The image featured in this article is in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original was taken by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force and can be found here.

Miles Ogihara


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