The Trump administration’s long-awaited National Defense Strategy declares a decisive shift in America’s security priorities, away from the age of ISIS-level terrorism and toward a return to great-power competition with regional giants China and Russia. This shift, Pentagon planners say, will require a “more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating” military that can regain the overwhelming advantage the United States once held over those rivals and lesser adversaries such as Iran and North Korea.
The NDS is the military-specific follow-up to the White House’s National Security Strategy, released in December. The 11-page unclassified version released to reporters on Thursday lays out the world’s threats as the Trump administration sees them. Compared to previous administrations’ strategy documents, the new one focuses far more on reacting to those threats, and far less on what American defense leaders want the world to look like afterwards
“Today, America’s military reclaims an era of strategic purpose, alert to the realities of a changing world,” said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, according to the prepared remarks of his speech on Friday morning. “We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,”
Anyone who has heard Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster speak in recent months will recognize the national security adviser’s voice in Mattis’s words and the NDS.
Mattis and his team broke down their vision into three bold subheads to show the Pentagon’s priorities: the strategic environment, strengthening alliances, and the never-ending effort to reform Pentagon’s technology and weapons development and buying processes.
The strategy’s attention to alliances will draw praise from foreign political and military leaders who still wonder about the American commitment to global security arrangements. Recall, as U.S. allies do, that Trump in his presidential campaign disparaged alliances and promised an “America First” foreign policy. For much of Trump’s first year, Mattis and leaders like Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford had to reassure NATO leaders that the U.S. would live up to its treaty obligations to defend the other alliance members.
The document lays out the world’s threats and challenges to the U.S., as military leaders see it. To wit: China’s rapidly modernized its force to beat U.S. weapons and challenge the U.S. economically. Russia wants “to shatter” NATO. The entire international order is “resilient, but weakening,” it warns. North Korea and other rogue states are causing mischief to destabilize their regions. There is a technology race the U.S. is not winning, or not leading as it used to, in many areas. And there is a strategic game the U.S. has not been playing as all this change occurred.
Notably, the document limns Russia’s use of technology to subvert elections in George, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine. It makes no mention of Russian interference in Trump’s own election.
What’s unclear is just how different these views are from the ones Pentagon leaders held last week or last year, before Trump’s team arrived. On Thursday, Pentagon officials called reporters in to speak with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy & Force Development Elbridge Colby, but he declined to answer any questions about how the strategy would affect the budget; or what new weapons the new strategy would require; or what the shift means for operations across Africa, where the U.S. is involved in daily hot wars. Colby insisted that because Pentagon leaders had gone through the exercise to produce their strategy, it was “already bearing fruit.” He was asked if could provide examples.
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied.
Mattis, in his Friday speech, summarized the summary and noted the attention to big-power competition. He was notably quiet about the spread of violent extremism and terrorism, the things that have largely occupied the Pentagon since 2001. So now we have a strategy. Next, Washington — and its global military partners and the defense industry — will wait to see how this strategy translates into the one document that matters most: the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request.