Inside the New Trump Administration National Defense Strategy


2018-01-19 The Trump Administration released today the new national defense strategy and as our colleague Colin Clark, Editor of Breaking Defense, noted, it is a significant change from that of the Obama Administration.

“The Trump Administration’s first National Defense Strategy is a vigorously and well written document that marks a major shift from the policies of the Obama and Bush Administrations, calling China and Russia the “central challenge” to the United States.

The strategy, a late draft of which we’ve read, says those countries want to create a world in line with what it calls their authoritarian model, giving them the power to veto other countries’ choicesTerrorism remains a concern for the US military but it is no longer its primary focus…..

“The strategy reserves its strongest language for China, accusing it of wielding predatory economics in combination with building its fake islands in the South China Sea to intimidate neighboring countries.

Clark goes on to note that: “One of the most intriguing elements in the new strategy is its idea that the US should be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable.

“That sounds as if Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wants to make President Trump’s personality an asset, given his unpredictability.

“But there’s also a firm commitment to something that has persisted since the end of World War II: the key role our allies have played in helping the US maintain the international liberal political order.”

He adds: “It’s worth remembering that the National Defense Strategy is not just a policy document. It also occupies an important place in the Pentagon’s budget process known as Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE). Its policy statements drive how much is spent on what.”

Clark then concluded his piece: “If the classified version is anything as well reasoned and clearly stated as is the public summary — and the White House and Congress can pass bills and fund the military — America has a decent shot at beginning to rebuild its military and network of global alliances.”

Last month, we had a chance to talk to senior DoD officials in the Trump Administration regarding the new national defense strategy and these officials highlighted a number of key points about the approach of the new strategy.

What follows are the take-aways we learned from the background discussion.

The new national security strategy is the latest of what has been called the Quadrennial Defense Review. In the past, this has been largely a large bureaucratic exercise with a significant unclassified publication to follow.

In the case of the new strategy, the document will be largely classified with a modest unclassified summary to be for presented to the public.

It has been the work of a small group of largely Secretary Mattis, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the service secretaries and others in developing the new strategy.

They are looking to make this a prioritized document, with a clear differentiation of focus of attention. It will clearly reflect Secretary Mattis’s approach which is more like that of Sun Tzu than Claustewitz. The focus is on asymmetrical and flexible options rather than linear responses to adversaries.

Sec. Mattis is very sensitive to the unpredictability of the future security environment but sees the return of great power politics and conflicts as at the heart of what is emerging. This is a situation largely unfamiliar to the current generation of military leaders; the return of state conflict requires significant change in the approach within the Department of Defense as well.

Mattis is especially keen to underscore the importance of core allies and partners in shaping an effective strategy. For Sec. Mattis, the President in spite of whatever language he has used in the past is firmly committed to working with core allies and partners.

Notably, because of the return of great power politics or intrastate conflict, the role of partners and allies is of growing significance to the US.

We are seeing the end of a unipolar era and the return of a more diffused global power situation. The diffusion of wealth and technology throughout the world is changing the global geopolitical situation.

State actors remain fundamental players although clearly nonstate actors and transnational groups are of great significance as well.

Priorities within the national security strategy will reflect a refocus state competition and the need to do with the diffusion of global power.

Global rules along with global powers are being contested.

Sec. Mattis has made it very clear that the Asia-Pacific region is our priority region in the coming years.

We are facing a major power, China, that has radically different views of the global order rules of the game.

We are facing a country with economic resources to match our own which has a very different concept of global order.

North Korea is a major threat. It is providing significant challenges to stability in the region.

It is generating intolerable pressures on our allies and ourselves which we find unacceptable and believe we have to deal with.

The situation has been allowed by past Administrations to perpetuate far too long.

We are looking to China to step up to its responsibilities in dealing with North Korea and will judge them on that basis in part.

But we are not naïve – China might well be playing the North Korean card to demonstrate what the Chinese wish to show about the weakness of the United States and its allies in dealing with a core threat.

The primary challenge of course is the Chinese military and the aggressive Chinese behavior.

US Maritime advantage in Asia has underwritten the entire region and the stability of the rules of that have been established by the industrial democracies.

This is clearly under threat and challenge.

China’s military buildup for the last 25 years is specifically designed to undercut the American ability to guarantee regional security.

The Chinese military buildup has been designed down to the level of small details to negate American military power in the region.

The U.S. is reinforcing its commitments to the Asia-Pacific region.

And it is prudent for nations in the region to work with the United States to ensure that the rules of behavior that have been prevalent over the last 50 years can remain relevant.

With regard to NATO, the core challenges clearly are fundamental terrorism inside and outside the region and the resurgence of Russia.

The United States is looking for European states to generate more capabilities and commitments to defense.

The US will also work with adversaries where necessary to deal with the fundamental threats of global terrorism and have to figure out how to handle both the competition and the collaboration with competitors like Russia and China as well.

The US needs to sustain operations in the Middle East; they’re not going to go away but we need to maintain these at lower costs and lower level in order to build up our capabilities for higher intensity conflict and operations.

The United States intends to focus on rebuilding a high intensity and warfare capabilities and reduce the burden and frequency of lower end engagements.

The growing challenge from Asia requires more US attention.

This means that Europe needs to do more to take care of itself.

This means creating more effective European military capabilities for deterrence and defense.

There is a clear need to reduce the pressures on US forces and focus on the core challenges which matter most to us and to support those actions by our core allies who are protecting themselves against what they think are their core threats as well.

The burden sharing demand is not going to go away. Trump represents part of the US political spectrum but there is a wide-ranging consensus in the United States on the need for Europeans to develop more real capabilities.

In Asia we are seeing allies step up to the tasks — Japan being a notable example along with Australia.

We need to see the same thing in Europe.

Editor’s Note: We recommend that our readers look at the complete article by Colin Clark which can be found here:

Mattis’ Defense Strategy Raises China To Top Threat; Allies Feature Prominently