US defense strategy returns to a ‘great power’ focus

A Pentagon strategy document sees competition with ‘revisionist powers’ China and Russia as the top US concern. Security experts say a key question is how much President Trump will do to implement a vision that hinges on alliances.

Martinez Monsivais/AP
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walks out to greet President Trump at the Pentagon on Jan. 18.

Last week the Trump administration released a new National Defense Strategy – plans for what threats the Pentagon should prioritize and how officials should organize forces to meet them.

Many national security experts so far give the effort pretty good reviews. They say the strategy’s emphasis on a return of big power geopolitics, which it lists as a higher priority danger than terrorism, is a welcome recognition of reality. They applaud its call for the US to focus more on developing cutting-edge defense than simply expanding the size of current forces.

But plans are words on paper. Implementing the strategy’s shifts will require money Congress has yet to appropriate and agreements with allies that haven’t yet been struck. Perhaps most important, it is unclear whether President Trump really supports some of the National Defense Strategy’s pillars, including its emphasis on the need to rely on alliances and its inherent acceptance that Russia has been running influence operations inside the United States.

“This is definitely a reassuring document to a lot of people, but it is only reassuring if you ignore what’s going on across the river from the Pentagon,” says Peter W. Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the Washington think tank New America.

The public portion of the National Defense Strategy is a short, 11-page summary of a classified document that goes into greater specifics about the programs linked to particular priorities. It is the heir of a longer document issued by past administrations named the Quadrennial Defense Review. It is intended to be marching orders for the Pentagon, linked to overarching goals set forth in a presidential National Security Strategy, a document President Trump personally released last December.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis outlined the NDS in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on Jan. 19. His main point was that the Pentagon must alter its threat priority list.

“Though we will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today ... Great Power competition, not terrorism is now the primary focus of US national security,” Mattis said.

Russia and China are “revisionist powers” that want to shape a world in their own authoritarian model, according to the NDS, gaining veto power over other nation’s economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.  

Three ‘lines of effort’

Mattis said that three “lines of effort” will help the US reenergize its defense and emerge from what the NDS calls a period of “strategic atrophy.”

The first line of effort is to increase the lethality of the military. Among other things, that will include prioritizing a push into new technologies ahead of increasing the sheer numbers of Navy ships, Air Force planes, and Army divisions. These new technologies include advanced computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology, according to the NDS document.

The second line of effort is making friends. The US needs to strengthen traditional alliances and build new partnerships, according to Mattis. The Defense secretary, nodding toward a favorite theme of the president, said that increased prosperity means old allies should pay more for the common defense. But he strongly emphasized the necessity to stand together in mutual defense.

“In my past, I fought many times and never did I fight in a solely American formation. It was always alongside foreign troops,” said Mattis, who served over 40 years in the Marine Corps.

The third line of effort is increased efficiency, according to the Pentagon chief. That means the Pentagon needs to work better. But he also stressed the necessity for stable, predictable military budgets – something that’s been lacking in an era of congressional budgetary brinkmanship.

Many defense experts in Washington found the NDS to be concise, refreshingly free of jargon, and reflective of security trends that have been building for years. In that sense it perhaps recognizes reality.

“I thought the analysis was good and the general main message, that we are in a great power competition, I thought exactly right,” says Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Will money be in the budget?

In some ways the strategy may represent continuity as much as change. The Obama administration, with its much discussed proposal to “pivot to Asia,” wanted to move past terrorism and focus on great power rivalry too. (The rise of the Islamic State militant group, and continued war in Afghanistan, interfered with those plans.)

The desire to leapfrog over current weapons technology and gain an asymmetrical military advantage by pouring money into robotics, artificial intelligence, and so forth was the theme behind the Obama-era Third Offset plan, as well.

“It’s an evolution,” says Christine Wormuth, undersecretary of Defense for policy from 2014 to 2016 and current director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council, of the Trump National Defense Strategy.

But these plans outline efforts that won’t be cheap, Ms. Wormuth adds. The forthcoming Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2019 will say a lot about what is really changing.

Budget caps resulting from the Budget Control Act have hurt Pentagon procurement and readiness, says Wormuth. But that reflects a partisan tension – Democrats want domestic spending to go up to alongside any military increase.

So when the Trump budget comes out in March, “Step one is you will want to see the budget request reflect capabilities over capacity. Step two is, what happens to that budget request when it gets to Congress? Is Congress going to be able to make a deal?” says Wormuth.

White House priorities

Then, of course, there is the president himself. In his December speech releasing the National Security Strategy, Mr. Trump spoke a lot about allies paying more money. He made asides about China, and generally went off-script, at least compared to the document he was nominally presenting.

The National Defense Strategy holds out Russia as perhaps America’s chief rival. Yet Trump speaks admiringly of Russian President Vladimir Putin and has seemed reluctant to criticize Russian geopolitical moves that could be seen as aggressive. He has at times dismissed the notion that Russia interfered with the 2016 election – yet the NDS talks of Russian influence operations in the US and other countries.

“We’ve never had something like that. It’s stunning,” says Mr. Singer of New America.

Yet the president is the American military commander-in-chief, of course. Others draw up the White House budget but its spending proposals, overseen by an Office of Management and Budget, are supposed to reflect Oval Office priorities.

“At critical moments he will need to make the decision ... to actually uphold this world view,” says Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, of President Trump.

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