By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security

When a first-term president, especially one as polarizing as Donald Trump, releases his national defense strategy, one would think it would garner attention. But Trump’s national defense strategy announcement came against the backdrop of an impending government shutdown.

Last Friday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis released an unclassified summary of new National Defense Strategy (NDS). This summary is an adjunct to the National Security Strategy (NSS) that Trump announced in December.

Regional Powers Now Focus of US Strategy

Mattis laid out the goals for restoring the United States’ competitive military advantage over Russia, China and Iran. These three nations seek to overturn the international order the U.S. created after World War II.

The NDS speaks of the unprecedentedly complex and increasingly volatile global threats the U.S. faces from regional actors. These nations seek to alter the free and open international system by creating strategic competition among various nation-states.

The central tenet of the report is the re-calibration of America’s national security strategy away from its focus on terrorism. Instead, the new U.S. national security strategy will be geared toward dealing with inter-state strategic competition from those revisionist powers.

For the past few years, the United States has had a “lead from behind” strategy that allowed Russia and China to challenge American interests. Beijing has expanded its economy and built a military juggernaut to displace the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Russia is the proverbial political football. That’s been especially true since the 2016 presidential election and the many allegations that Trump colluded with Moscow to win the presidency.

Russia and China Challenge US Dominance

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, writes that Russian President Vladimir Putin “seeks veto authority over nations on its periphery in terms of their governmental, economic and diplomatic decisions, to shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor.”

In recent years, Russia disrupted countries on its borders, including Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s rapid expansion of its influence in the Middle East helps fuel the notion that the U.S. is a power in decline in the region.

NDS States America’s 12 Defense Objectives

“The new NDS calls for continued engagement to ‘consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan,’” Cordesman says. The NDS describes 12 major objectives that are consistent with the NSS and linked to America’s current alliances and strategic partners:

  1. Defending the homeland from attack
  2. Sustaining Joint Force military advantages, both globally and in key regions
  3. Deterring adversaries from aggression against our vital interests
  4. Enabling U.S. interagency counterparts to advance U.S. influence and interests
  5. Maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere
  6. Defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly sharing responsibilities for common defense
  7. Dissuading, preventing, or deterring state adversaries and non-state actors from acquiring, proliferating, or using weapons of mass destruction
  8. Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States homeland and our citizens, allies, and partners overseas
  9. Ensuring common domains remain open and free
  10.  Continuously delivering performance with affordability and speed as we change
  11.  Departmental mindset, culture and management systems
  12.  Establishing an unmatched twenty-first century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency

The NDS calls for continuing a coordinated, cohesive national strategy by utilizing and integrating all elements of national power. Those elements include diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement and the military.

Actual National Defense Strategy Left Vague

Much of what is contained in the NDS is vague. There needs to be an explanation of what all this means and how it will be implemented in a strategic national concept.

The summary doesn’t detail how various strategic phrases will be incorporated, such as “dynamic force employment,” “global operating model” or “cultivate workforce talent.”  These phrases are all fine, but too vague.

For as much as Trump gets into trouble for his isolationist “America First” agenda, this NDS summary calls for working in conjunction with our allies and regional partners not in an isolationist posture but clearly in the lead.

Strategy Missing on Current Conflicts and Weapons Systems

Also missing from the summary is any mention of specific strategies for the current conflicts the U.S. is engaged in or of the force levels at the various major regional commands.

The summary leaves to the future the status of specific defense programs such as the size of the Army, the F-35 program, or the number and cost of new ships the Navy needs to expand its naval presence. These are some of the critical elements that need clarification.

As Cordesman writes, “For all of the talk about defense reform in this year’s National Defense Strategy, the existence of the Budget Control Act and the sequestration process have made the Department’s outyear spending estimates virtually meaningless. The Department can’t credibly estimate the cost of future forces for a single major command, or present meaningful estimates of the timelines and costs of its strategy to a Congress that can barely vote enough money to keep the government running – if that!”

Perhaps the budget submission for FY2019 will give us more insight and a real national security strategy, rather than fancy political catchphrases.