12 Keys to Successful National Defense Strategy Planning

Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with other senior military and defense leaders earlier this year.

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Defense Secretary James Mattis meets with other senior military and defense leaders earlier this year.

As the Pentagon preps this year's version of the report formerly known as the QDR, a new study gleans practical advice from past efforts.

There is plenty of advice in the air as the Defense Department prepares its latest National Defense Strategy, the report formerly known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. Most of the advice concerns the strategy itself, which will set direction for the new administration and explain its thinking. Yet planners should also think about how they will go about formulating strategy, because a good process facilitates both the production of good strategy and the strategy’s adoption in a contentious political environment.

CSIS researchers recently looked at case studies, academic research, and previous strategy documents to see what lessons might be gleaned about strategy formulation. Their study, released today, offers several recommendations:

Seize the opportunity. This is an administration’s best opportunity to set direction. Ad hoc direction in speeches and memoranda don’t have the same impact. Further, the beginning of an administration is the best time to change course before the administration is hemmed in by its own actions and pronouncements. DOD should get its strategy out as quickly as possible to influence the ongoing national security debate and give coherence to its actions.

Focus on the important issues. In the 2017 Defense Authorization Act, Congress reduced the number of required elements from 26 to six, reflecting its clear intent for the National Defense Strategy to have greater focus than did previous strategy documents. Advocates for specific issues understandably push for inclusion of their favored topic, but expanding the number of topics dissipates focus, undermines the setting of priorities, and creates a large staff burden. Instead, the strategy should focus on what is really important to the secretary and the administration.

Connect goals with resources, programs, and policies. Without the discipline of making specific recommendations, the strategy document risks becoming a series of platitudes. Therefore, strategy documents—both classified and public—need to specify not just goals but also changes in force structure and major acquisition programs. Discussion of changes and tradeoffs risks criticism about “budget constraints” but also enhances the credibility of the strategy. As a famous skeptic once exclaimed, “Show me the money.” Some strategists argue that if the department gets the strategy right, programs and policies will fall into line over time. This is wishful thinking. Without specifying a strategy’s program implications, the only thing that will change is the rationale for existing programs. The programs will stay the same.

Explain your logic. Although previous strategies were internally supported by extensive analysis, the public documents had little discussion of analysis or risk. The 1993 Bottom Up Review was an exception, establishing a high standard for publicly available analysis that contributed to its success in shifting resources and setting an enduring strategy. Thus, there is value in describing the analysis and risk assessment behind the recommendations in the strategy document. Explicit descriptions also require the department to reach an internal consensus on the priorities, analytic approaches, and assumptions behind the analysis and risk assessment. This is inherently difficult given the wide range of interests and perspectives within the department, but facing such choices is the point of developing a strategy.

Recognize the future’s inherent uncertainty. Envisioning the future is intellectually exciting but can sidetrack decisionmakers if not disciplined. DOD, like most institutions, has a poor track record in long-range forecasting, often failing to anticipate events even a year ahead. Brainstorming different futures can expand the range of possibilities considered, but there are severe limits on forecasting accuracy, and the subject needs to be approached with humility. Forecasts therefore should focus on decisions and changes that need to be made in the near term. If a forecast does not cause the department to do something different in the Future Years Defense Program (DOD’s five-year plan), then it is not worth the time of senior decisionmakers.

Limit the proliferation of strategy documents. Allowing separate, uncoordinated strategy formulation processes produces confusion and allows advocates to cherry-pick guidance in support of their preferred programs and policies. Reducing the number of separate strategy documents is a start. Beyond that, the secretary should limit the documents he signs so supporting strategy documents are clearly subordinate.

Recognize the inherently political nature of the process. Every strategy document tells a story as a political leadership wants to present it. Consequently, despite the technical expertise of the staffs that produced it and the professional qualifications of political officials who oversaw it, the document will drive a political discussion with the Congress and the broader national security community. It is not an abstract search for truth but a competition of ideas and an allocation of power. So be ready for the politics.

Consult with outside experts. Strategy-formulation processes risk falling victim to “group think” and parochial interests. Bringing outsiders into the process at appropriate points enables the secretary to identify weaknesses in logic and to anticipate or mitigate possible criticism prior to the release of the document. Informal consultation with outside experts at the end of the process has thus been a common feature in U.S. and foreign strategy-formulation processes. Red teams have been used in the past to expand the competition of ideas during the strategy-formulation process itself.

Build internal consensus, especially with the Chairman. This is the secretary’s major opportunity to engage the department, hear diverging views, and build a consensus among the senior leadership. It is especially important that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be on board. As principal military advisor to the secretary and the president, the chairman has separate statutory responsibilities. Executing these can compete with the secretary’s strategy process. To avoid confusion and the appearance of disagreement, the secretary must ensure that there is a single process, not two parallel processes, and a single voice. Establishing clear linkage at all bureaucratic levels throughout the strategy formulation process can reduce, but not eliminate, the possibility of diverging perspectives. Coordination between Secretary James Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford will be easier since they served together in the Marine Corps. Nevertheless, where you stand often depends on where you sit.

Use the strategy document to address multiple audiences. Recent congressional direction requires that the National Defense Strategy be classified and structured as guidance from the secretary to the department. However, the document inherently has multiple additional audiences: Congress, the public, allies, and adversaries. Development of an unclassified document—beyond a mere summary of the classified strategy—will therefore be needed to effectively communicate with the full range of audiences.

Develop the next strategy when conditions have changed. Past practice has been to do a strategy review every four years. However, developing strategy by the calendar ignores what is happening in the world. DOD should develop its next strategy when domestic or international circumstances have changed enough that the existing strategy is no longer viable. That could be next year, or it could be in six years.

Finally, a note to Congress: don’t punish DOD for doing what you asked. Last year, lawmakers heard testimony from a wide range of experts about how broken the strategy formulation process was. In response, Congress directed many changes with the intention of producing strategies that were clear, prioritized, and fiscally executable. Congress should not punish DOD when it produces such a strategy. Inevitably, strategies provoke opposition because of the differing viewpoints within a democratic society. Discussion and criticism is normal. But if Congress appears to punish the department or individuals within the department, then it will push future strategy documents back to being vague platitudes that offended no one but give little real insight or guidance.

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