3 Little-Known Problems With the National Defense Strategy

    Michael O’Hanlon

    Security, North America

    Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis hosts an enhanced honor cordon for Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez Serraj Nov. 20, 2017, at the Pentagon in Washington

    The NDS is very good. But it is not perfect, and of course it does not and could not settle all major defense issues before the country. How to apply its general ideas to specific problems will remain a major challenge.

    Like many in the broader defense community, I am generally impressed by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which builds on the December 2017 National Security Strategy of President Donald Trump and sets out further guideposts for future defense planning. The strategy has several clear, cogent and convincing emphases. It underscores the importance of technological innovation and development of new capabilities. It insists upon a clear-eyed focus on Russia and China as greater potential threats than ISIS or Al Qaeda. In true Mattis-like fashion, it describes the importance of preserving American operational flexibility and unpredictability (as underscored in the fact that the main body of the document is classified). And it rightly also reiterates a strong commitment to the well-being of America’s men and women in uniform and their combat readiness.

    While supporting the strategy’s main emphases, I would nonetheless offer three main caveats or gentle warnings, which are especially important given that we do not know what the classified NDS says and we cannot know what budgets will be available to the Department of Defense in the years ahead to fund the priorities articulated by Secretary Mattis.

    One concern is that the NDS, like the NSS as released in December, paints China and Russia with more or less the same brush. Both are indeed serious concerns for the Department of Defense and the nation. But they present very different types of challenges.

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