The New US National MIlitary Strategy: Strategy in Search of Resources?


2015-07-11 By Richard Weitz

Recently, the Pentagon released a new National Military Strategy (NMS), which updates the NMS released in 2011.

It correctly identifies major threats to U.S. security but not how to generate the resources needed to generate the capabilities needed to execute an effective counterstrategy.

The 2015 NMS identifies four “revisionist” states that potentially threaten U.S. and global security since they “are attempting to revise key aspects of the international order and are acting in a manner that threatens our national security interests.”

Iran is sponsoring terrorism, North Korea has been conducting cyber attacks, China is militarizing island disputes in the Pacific, and Russia is “undermining regional security directly and through proxy forces.”

Although the threat of a war with these countries is low since they are not seeking a direct conflict with the United States, “it is growing.”

Meanwhile, “violent extremist organizations” (VEO), including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, undermine security via radicalization of populations, violence, and terror, exploiting weak or failed governments and opportunistic alliances with transnational criminal organization.

The NMS insists that the United States will “disrupt and degrade” these groups directly and by addressing the root causes of violent extremism through non-military and international efforts.

A focus of the current text is the threat of “hybrid” warfare tactics, combining conventional and unconventional military tactics, operating separately as countries and terrorist groups or in partnership.

Hybrid conflict may take multiple forms, such as “military forces assuming a non-state identity, as Russia did in the Crimea, or involve a VEO fielding rudimentary combined arms capabilities, as ISIL has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria.”

The JCS Spectrum of Conflict. NMS 2015.
The JCS Spectrum of Conflict. NMS 2015.

The new Military Strategy places hybrid conflict in the middle a continuum of conflict ranging from one extreme of state conflict to the other extreme of non-state conflict: “overlapping state and non-state violence, there exists an area of conflict where actors blend techniques, capabilities, and resources to achieve their objectives.”

Pentagon analysts believe these hybrid tactics will persist since it gives the aggressor certain advantages such as generating ambiguity over the nature of the aggressor and their strategy and goals, complicating decision-making both in Washington and in the field, and making it harder to organize an effective response.

As U.S. military experts note, these tactics try to exploit the traditional seams between war and peace by combining kinetic and non-kinetic actions that fall below the threshold of conventional war.

Countering this threat is a problem that extends well beyond Russia.

As French Minister of Defense Jean-Yves Le Drian put it in his joint news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, “the terrorist army that ISIL has become … is no longer a terrorist group; it has become a terrorist army, which both has the capacity to act as a classical army.”

The Strategy’s continued affirmation of a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-nation” approach to security challenges recognizes that military power is most effective when employed in concert with other elements of power such as economic, diplomatic, information, legal, and intelligence instruments.

The problem is that the weakness of these non-military tools encourages the president and Congress to employ the U.S. military even when it is not the most appropriate instrument.

Non-military tools are especially important for responding to mixed “hybrid” threats.

Of course, any strategy document is only a declaration of intent.

For the U.S. military to play all its assigned roles effectively, it needs adequate resources.

In this regard, the current U.S. defense budget cannot provide all the means that the United States needs to manage this complex strategic security environment.

As the NMS explains, “the U.S. military does not have the luxury of focusing on one challenge to the exclusion of others.

It must provide a full range of military options for addressing both revisionist states and VEOs. Failure to do so will result in greater risk to our country and the international order.”

The requirements for an effective defense of U.S. interests include “maintaining highly-ready forces forward, as well as well trained and equipped surge forces at home, resilient logistics and transportation infrastructures, networked intelligence, strong communications links, and interoperability with allies and partners.”

Furthermore, countering A2/AD, space, cyber, and hybrid threats requires investments in space and terrestrial-based indications and warning systems; integrated and resilient ISR platforms; strategic lift; long-range precision strike weapons; missile defense technologies; undersea systems; remotely operated vehicles and technologies; special operations forces; and offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.

The NMS reaffirms the eight components of the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020:

  • employing mission command;
  • seizing, retaining, and exploiting the initiative;
  • leveraging global agility;
  • partnering;
  • demonstrating flexibility in establishing joint forces;
  • improving cross-domain synergy;
  • using flexible, low-signature capabilities; and
  • being increasingly discriminate to minimize unintended consequences.

More questionably, the NMS posits that “war against a major adversary would require the full mobilization of all instruments of national power… a full-spectrum military that includes strong Reserve and National Guard forces,” which are said to “provide the force depth needed to achieve victory while simultaneously deterring other threats. “

However, any major war would likely end rapidly due to fears of nuclear escalation, well before the United States could mobile its Reserve Components.

The Pentagon also has great faith in its ability to regenerate capabilities if future circumstances require.

But it is unclear how to measure “reversibility” when it comes to recovering discarded or reduced capabilities, such as restoring defense production lines or recalling retired personnel to active service.

Any “snapback” potential will also decline as U.S. weapons systems and the veterans from the post-Sept. 11 conflicts decline in number and age.

Until the F-35 is widely deployed by U.S. and allied forces, even a minor war would strain existing U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

The author would like to thank  Tucker John Berry, Bogdan Belei, Vincent Macina, Andrew Smith, Claudiu Nicolae Sonda, and Conner Tuzi for research assistance with this article.