Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released the new National Defense Strategy on Friday, a mostly classified document with a public portion that moves away from anti-terrorism as the top mission and focuses on peer competitors Russia and China.
“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 while pointing out declines during the previous administration. “Our competitive edge in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace — is eroding."
Top national security experts offered their initial takes on the strategy Friday afternoon.
“The National Defense Strategy released today by Secretary Mattis is extraordinarily significant in a number of ways, and there is much to like in it. It is candid in describing the potential adversaries the U.S. faces, as well as the current state of the U.S. military. It presents new, refreshing ways of thinking, such as the concept of presenting potential adversaries with challenges and dilemmas coming from unexpected directions, and reforming a broken acquisition and modernization apparatus. It is clearly the product of substantive discussion and difficult decisions. The document is not perfect, however. It fails to embrace a strategy which calls for the United States to simultaneously engage in two major conflicts successfully, and does not heavily emphasize the need to rebuild the size of the military.”
— Spoehr is director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation.
“The good news is that the document stresses real threats and the value of real alliances and strategic partners. The bad news is that it is filled with buzzwords and vague goals, has no specifics, no plans, and no costs. The earlier National Security Strategy at least has priorities. This document stops at good intentions, and we will have to wait for the FY2019 budget submission to get any idea of what is actually going to be done — if anything — even one year in the future.
— Cordesman is the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is both a departure from previous administrations, including President Obama, and strikingly similar. The departure is mostly through the ‘ends,’ and the similarities are the ‘ways’ of the new strategy. The last administration did not explicitly prioritize among the five challenges of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. The new strategy clearly puts China as first among equals in the threat prioritization list. In reality, however, I suspect this team — like the last with its pivot to Asia — will attempt to break out of the 'tyranny of the now' but will wind up spending the majority of time on current operations, including Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea.”
— Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s a refreshingly honest appraisal of military ends, ways, and means — and the need to match all three. I offer a couple of thoughts that hopefully will refine it during execution. First, ‘Lethality’ is not the goal — effectiveness is. Lethality is an ‘input’ measure — 'effectiveness' is an output measure, and may be significantly enhanced by means other than lethality. Second, missing is the explicit mention of the need to be equipped, modernized, and ready to fight and win more than one major theater war simultaneously. In order to be able to: deter conflict; dissuade destabilizing adventurism by potential adversaries; and accomplish all the other valid objectives laid out in the document, our military requires clear and specific resource objectives that are explicit. Otherwise, regardless of the fine prose and rhetoric on recouping strength in the face of expanding threats, Congress will continue down the road of allowing arbitrary defense budgets drive the defense strategy vice the other way around.”
— Deptula is dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies.
“It’s great to see talent management and personnel reform highlighted as a priority in the strategy, but the key will be to empower the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to pursue aggressive reform, and then back him up when the bureaucracy objects. It is a bit disappointing not to see any quantitative statements about force levels and budget requirements, but it’s not surprising.”
— Harrison is the director of Defense Budget Analysis at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Three things. One, the United States is not losing the technological ace. We are still way ahead of China and Russia. Two, the fact of the matter is this administration has undermined the liberal international order by not being as involved as we used to be, so to the extent it’s not working, I think it's our own fault. Number three, they ought to take a look at what Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon wrote in Foreign Affairs. The state of our military is awesome.
— Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
“It charts a clear direction and reflects Mattis’ personal views, so it will have real effect. The challenge will be getting the money to implement such an ambitious strategy and enough relief from day-to-day commitments to focus forces and programs on the long-term threat from China and Russia.”
Cancian is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program.