February 11, 2015
President Obama released the first National Security Strategy in five years last Friday. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s more a wish list than a strategy. That’s a shame because Obama has articulated a much more nuanced view of national security in various speeches and interviews and this was a missed opportunity to put that vision down on paper. Given that it serves as the basis for crafting our National Defense Strategy and dozens of other policy documents across the interagency, that’s a problem.
Section 603 of the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 – commonly known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act – directs that, “the president shall transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States” that “shall be transmitted on the date on which the president submits to Congress the budget for the next fiscal year.”
That timetable was more-or-less adhered to from 1987 to 2002, with 13 iterations being released over those 15 years. Only three have been released in the subsequent 13 years, with revisions coming out in 2006, 2010 and 2015. This simultaneously makes the documents less useful and more impactful: They’re less responsive to changes in the threat environment but have a much longer shelf life.
Goldwater-Nichols also directs the Secretary of Defense “shall include in his annual report to Congress,” the National Defense Strategy (NDS), “(A) a description of the major military missions and of the military force structure of the United States for the next fiscal year; (B) an explanation of the relationship of those military missions to that force structure; and (C) the justification for those military missions and that force structure.” And in the report’s preparation, “the secretary shall take into consideration the content of the annual national security strategy report of the president.”
The NDS in turn fuels a National Military Strategy, signed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Subsequent legislation directs the chairman to submit a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which also shapes the NDS.
All of these documents are part of the planning phase of the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) System that determines which programs are developed to meet military strategy requirements and how much funding they receive.
Naturally, if the foundational document – the NSS – is flawed, it will create ripple effects throughout this chain and either misinform or fail to inform the programming, budgeting and execution phases.
Because the new NSS is so vague in its prioritization, it doesn’t achieve the goals laid out in Goldwater-Nichols of articulating “the foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy of the United States.” Nor does it assess “the adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the NSS of the United States, including an evaluation of the balance among the capabilities of all elements of the national power of the United States to support the implementation of the national security strategy.”
The NSS assesses the “top strategic risks to our interests” as “Catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland or critical infrastructure; Threats or attacks against U.S. citizens abroad and our allies; Global economic crisis or widespread economic slowdown; Proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction; Severe global infectious disease outbreaks; Climate change; Major energy market disruptions; and Significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover, and transnational organized crime).” The Defense Department could conceivably be called on to respond to most if not all of those crises; indeed, U.S. Marines were dispatched last year to fight Ebola in Africa.
The document contains the standard boilerplate about the role of the military instrument of power, observing that, “U.S. forces will continue to defend the homeland, conduct global counterterrorism operations, assure allies and deter aggression through forward presence and engagement. If deterrence fails, U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters.”
It demands that, “although our military will be smaller, it must remain dominant in every domain.” Indeed, it promises “to build a versatile and responsive force prepared for a more diverse set of contingencies.”
While declaring that, “we shifted away from a model of fighting costly, large-scale ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which the United States—particularly our military—bore an enormous burden,” and promising that, “instead, we are now pursuing a more sustainable approach,” the aforementioned declaration that “U.S. forces will be ready to project power globally to defeat and deny aggression in multiple theaters” rightly means that the ability to fight future costly, large-scale ground wars must be maintained.
Still, the NSS “prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.” Additionally, “our leadership will remain essential to disrupting the unprecedented flow of foreign terrorist fighters to and from conflict zones.” This is both necessary and a monumental task requiring that we “work to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression. This means supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth. We will help build the capacity of the most vulnerable states and communities to defeat terrorists locally.”
Some of these functions will at last partially be performed by others in the interagency and, theoretically, by other nations. Indeed, the latter is a recurrent theme of the NSS, including such declarations as “we will train and equip local partners and provide operational support to gain ground against terrorist groups. This will include efforts to better fuse and share information and technology as well as to support more inclusive and accountable governance.”
The NSS keeps faith with longstanding US policy that, “as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must invest the resources necessary to maintain—without testing—a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent that preserves strategic stability.” But, aside from some reductions in our own stockpiles, there’s no cost savings or reprioritization to be had here; it’s status quo.
Likewise, the strategy continues to protect “shared spaces—cyber, space, air, and oceans—that enable the free flow of people, goods, services, and ideas,” rightly noting that, “they are the arteries of the global economy and civil society, and access is at risk due to increased competition and provocative behaviors.” In the cyber realm, especially, the document calls for stepped up capabilities.
The document outlines ambitious Prosperity and Values agendas, most of which only tangentially involve the DoD. The International Order agenda, however, is very reliant on military forces – at least in a supporting role – and offers no retrenchment.
In Asia, we’ll be “modernizing our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines” while “deepening partnerships” with Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; welcoming “the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China” while preparing for the alternative; strengthening “our strategic and economic partnership with India,” while we “continue to work with both India and Pakistan.”
We’ll be maintaining “a profound commitment to a Europe that is free, whole, and at peace,” including “steadfastly support[ing]the aspirations of countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration,” while also “continu[ing] to transform our relationship with Turkey, and enhance ties with countries in the Caucasus while encouraging resolution of regional conflict.”
Meanwhile, our commitment to “stability and peace in the Middle East and North Africa” will continue. We’ll “dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people, confront external aggression against our allies and partners, ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world, and prevent the development, proliferation, or use of weapons of mass destruction,” while “investing in the ability of Israel, Jordan, and our Gulf partners to deter aggression while maintaining our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”
In Africa, “we will increase trade and business ties, generating export-driven growth,” while “investing in tomorrow’s leaders,” “strengthening civilian and military institutions” and “deepening our security partnerships.”
And, of course, “We will continue to advance a Western Hemisphere that is prosperous, secure, democratic and plays a greater global role.”
While there’s room for quibbling here and there, most of that agenda is sufficiently aspirational that it enjoys widespread support on both sides of the aisle. The problem, however, is that it’s all but useless as guidance. If everything is a priority, nothing is.
What, precisely, isn’t the U.S. military going to be prepared to do? The watchword in DoD planning documents in recent years has been “risk.” Given substantial budget cuts, there will simply be less military capability to bring to bear in achieving the perfectly desirable goals laid out in the NSS. Which ones are urgent and which will be put off for another day? Where can we risk a shortfall in capability, and where is it absolutely vital that we be able to answer the call to respond?
It’s possible that these issues will be rendered less pressing by the late release of the document. DoD is less able to avoid complying with the law than the White House, so the QDR was released last March and won’t be revised again until the next presidential administration—and quite probably the next NSS. The National Military Strategy was last revised in February 2011. There’s certainly enough time to issue an update between now and the end of the administration’s term. Perhaps, given the lack of useful guidance, the Pentagon will simply punt until 2017. Given that real decisions need to be made on personnel structure and weapons systems, that would be a bad outcome, indeed.