The Pentagon’s new national defense strategy identifies China and Russia as major strategic competitors, and prioritizes them over terrorist groups in a bid to ensure the U.S. remains “the preeminent military power in the world.”
The mostly-classified strategy document, the first under the Trump administration, was unveiled Friday by its chief architect Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis said as he lamented what he sees as a decline of U.S. military strength under the previous administration without mentioning President Obama by name.
“Our competitive edge in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace — is eroding,” Mattis said. But at the same time, he issued a pointed warning to America’s adversaries.
“To those who would threaten America’s experiment in democracy: if you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day,” Mattis said.
In addition to identifying threats, the strategy document for a “consistent, multiyear investment” to restore warfighting readiness.
And on a day when Congress was trying to forestall a government shutdown with another stopgap spending measure, Mattis warned even the best strategic thinking is worthless without the resources to back it up, and called on Congress to end the “indiscriminate and automatic cuts” known as sequestration.
“No strategy can long survive without necessary funding and the stable, predictable budgets required to defend America,” Mattis said. “We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons or equipment.”
The document singles out China for using “predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea,” while Russia is accused of violating the borders of nearby nations and “pursuing veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of its neighbors.”
“The strategy clearly identifies the central challenge facing the Department of Defense and the Joint Force as the erosion of U.S. military advantage, vis-a-vis China and Russia, which if unaddressed, could ultimately undermine our ability to deter aggression and coercion,” Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, said in a briefing for reporters in advance of the release.
But Colby said the emphasis on China and Russia did not mean the U.S. would take its eyes off other threats, such as North Korea, Iran and the Islamic State.
“Terrorism is absolutely a very serious threat to the nation, the department will continue to strive to combat it,” he said.
“What it is recognizing is that China and Russia in particular have been assiduously working over a number of years to develop the military capabilities to challenge our military advantages,” Colby said, adding that both countries “have decided to sort of go to school on the American way of war.”
An 11-page unclassified summary, signed by Mattis, says the strategy “establishes my intent to pursue urgent change at significant scale,” which Mattis said was the first national defense strategy in 10 years.
In tone and substance, it has Mattis’ fingerprints all over it.
The public version of the document is sprinkled with classic Mattis aphorisms, including: “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one,” “The size of our force matters,” and “America's military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”
The strategy represents a shift from the Pentagon’s two-war doctrine — the idea that the U.S. military should be ready to fight and win two major regional conflicts at nearly the same time — and adopts a new framework that aims to deter aggression in three key regions: the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, while also degrading terrorism and threats from weapons of mass destruction.
And it reflects President Trump’s aversion to U.S. military intervention in other countries for the purpose of regime change, as well as his insistence that U.S. allies pay their fair share for their common defense.
“While we will unapologetically represent America's values and belief in democracy, we will not seek to impose our way of life by force. We will uphold our commitments and we expect allies and partners to contribute an equitable share to our mutually beneficial collective security, including effective investment in modernizing their defense capabilities,” the strategy summary said. “We have shared responsibilities for resisting authoritarian trends, contesting radical ideologies, and serving as bulwarks against instability.”