Evaluating the Biden Administration’s National Defense Strategy and Budget
The shift towards the Indo-Pacific has been stated U.S. policy for over a decade, tracing at least as far back as President Obama’s decision to “pivot to Asia” in late 2011. The United States recently affirmed this policy by identifying China as the priority (or “pacing”) threat in both the 2018 and 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS). Yet during this extended period of time—despite the urgent rhetoric and the seriousness of the threat—the Department of Defense (DOD) has not implemented the type of meaningful change one would expect following such a profound shift in strategy. Nor has it implemented the type of meaningful change that one would expect given the gravity of the adversary. Unsurprisingly, the competitive landscape vis-à-vis China (whether that is defined as being able to deter aggressive acts or increasing military overmatch) has worsened—not improved.
If the DOD has been struggling to implement (or even internalize) the general intent of the past two strategies, nuanced arguments about distinguishing concepts like “Dynamic Force Employment” in the 2018 NDS from “Campaigning” in the 2022 NDS, or the specific meaning and applications of “Integrated Deterrence,” miss the forest for the trees.
The issue is not the core strategy itself. Rather, it is the lack of requisite follow-on activities and decision-making that support the broader “planning and programming” phase that would allow for implementation of a strategy.
This does not owe to a lack of trying. The Department’s initial effort to develop a Joint Warfighting Concept, an effort to address how we would fight peer adversaries, which in turn would help determine modernization priorities, is left wanting. Force design efforts, like the Navy’s Unmanned Task Force, remain works in progress. Efforts to determine innovative and technical solutions to improve capabilities have produced very few actionable answers. For example, despite conducting Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) or Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) experimentations for over two years, there are still no clear solutions the services can start investing in. Without the above as guidance, the Department will not make big-swing changes or investments.
As a result, the United States has lost what precious little time it had. Forecasts of future competition with China occurring in 10-plus years have shrunk. At first, military leaders warned of the United States “eroding overmatch;” several years later the situation was dire enough for the 2018 NDS Commission to state we would potentially lose the next major war. The trajectory of the state of competition is worsening, and the DOD is increasingly focused on the near term.
If one is to interpret these signals for what they mean in plain language—that a conflict with China could occur in the near term, and that the United States could lose such a conflict—then it is imperative that the Department focus on changes that will have immediate impact on both deterrence and combat credible forces.
One such change is accepting there is no longer time to study the problem or explore a wide range of solutions. Discovery efforts or experimentation, on the off-chance they reveal meaningful solutions, will likely not produce useful options in the near term. In other words, the leaders within DOD, with congressional support, must make decisions with imperfect data. There will be risk and inefficiencies associated with these decisions, but this is a cost that must be borne if we expect any impactful changes to occur in short order.
In particular, the Department leaders should focus their efforts on the following:
- Rely on policy as a tool for deterrence. One of the most impactful and immediate actions the DOD and White House could take to improve our ability to deter war with China is making key policy decisions about how the United States would engage in war with China. What actions does the United States consider to be escalatory behavior, and what actions might we take in response to them? What is the U.S. position on mainland strikes? Policy changes and statements are free, they can be done relatively quickly, and they can have an outsized impact on influencing Chinese behavior.
- Change military force posture. U.S. force posture should be re-balanced to reflect the prioritization of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with China as the pacing threat. This should be characterized by distributed and resilient basing. The Department has not been able to make significant gains on this front, and the latest Global Posture Review did little to advance the effort. Changing force posture is hard; however, changes in force posture can have immediate impacts on combat credibility and deterrence and can be achieved with the current force size and structure. This is an area worthy of the attention of the Secretary of Defense and other key leaders in the White House and Congress.
- Focus on the technical capabilities that close gaps in the near term. Modernization efforts can take 10-15 years to implement, which is the case for many of our priority programs. The current reality requires the DOD to ensure we remain effective and can deter and possibly win a war with the force that we have today. Unfortunately, some critical capability gaps exist that will require technical innovation. DOD and industry will not be able to solve all of them at once, but some technologies can be accelerated for fielding within the next five years. DOD and the service leaders need to make key bets on a handful of technologies that have a chance of fielding in the near term and put their energy and money behind them by pulling them through the acquisition Gordian knot.
- Funding the defense budget. Giving the DOD a higher budget will not on its own solve our eroding comparative advantage as it relates to China, but a lower budget will almost certainly worsen the problem. Funding provided to the defense budget should reflect our tolerance for risk. We find our nation engaged in strategic competition with a peer competitor who poses an existential threat to our way of life in a time when our competitive advantage is eroding. Why would the United States opt for resource levels that require us to make hard choices and trade-offs that impose greater risk on the military? And while an ever-growing budget will seem gluttonous to some and may well result in some level of wasteful spending, it is a small trade-off to ensure we have the means to maintain our position in the world.
The ability to make major changes in a short period of time runs counter to the bureaucracy that is the Department of Defense. Left to its own devices, the DOD—even with the most ardent, capable, and focused leadership—would not be able to implement many of the necessary changes with anything resembling speed. Congress is the necessary partner who can cut through bureaucratic nay-sayers, provide additional funding that would circumvent most internal roadblocks, and force change throughout the military in a short period of time.
Moreover, Members of Congress has proven they will support the Department if they believe it will strengthen our competitive position against China. Whichever items the Department chooses to prioritize when implementing the 2022 NDS, leadership should accept that it can only be done in partnership with Congress if it is to be impactful in time to turn the tide.
 A disclaimer worth noting up front, I have not read the classified version of the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS). While the Department of Defense (DOD) should publish a more in-depth unclassified version of the 2022 NDS to facilitate a broader and more rigorous discussion of the strategy, it still stands that the NDS and its contents will have a limited ability to impart the necessary changes on the DOD to improve our ability to compete with China in the near-term.