New National Defense Strategy Prioritizes High-Tech Equipment, Acquisition Reforms
Photo: Defense Dept.
The Pentagon’s new national defense strategy, an unclassified summary of which was released Jan. 19, prioritizes the procurement of high-end capabilities and streamlining business practices.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis outlined the areas of emphasis in a speech at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., which he delivered the same day that the unclassified summary was released and the classified version of the strategy was delivered to Congress.
“Today America’s military reclaims an era of strategic purpose,” Mattis said. “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.”
The United States faces growing threats from near-peer competitors like China and Russia, as well as “rogue regimes” like North Korea and Iran, he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military’s warfighting edge has been eroding in multiple domains, he warned.
The new defense strategy calls for pursuing three primary lines of effort to restore the United States’ comparative military advantage.
One is enhancing lethality by investing in new high-end capabilities.
‘Investments in space and cyberspace, nuclear deterrent forces, missile defense, advanced autonomous systems, and resilient and agile logistics will provide our high-quality troops what they need to win,” Mattis said.
Improving readiness for major combat will be prioritized, he noted.
When it comes to procurement priorities, the strategy sends “a clear message … that those systems which have great applicability to a high-end conflict will do well under this strategy,” said Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. “Those which are less well suited to that will not come out well,” he added.
Given the strategy’s focus on China, Spoehr said he expects to see additional spending on undersea warfare capabilities and electronic warfare-resistant technologies.
Evan Montgomery, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said: “There’s always the potential that big-ticket items that are principally useful for low-end contingencies are going to be more at risk [of losing funding] than they were in the past if you shift your focus to great power competition.”
However, some of the emerging technologies that will be invested in for potential high-end warfare could also have value in the counterterrorism fight, such as artificial intelligence for target identification, he noted.
If forced to make tradeoffs between capability and capacity, Mattis said he would prioritize modernization over building up the size of the military. During his political campaign and as commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump promised a major expansion in the size of the force.
“Capabilities are: 'What does the force bring?'” Mattis explained during a Q&A session after his speech. “Then you have capacity. In other words, 'How big is the force that you have?' I believe at this time in this age that emphasizing the capabilities that the force brings is probably the predominant effort that you’ve got to make.”
The second line of focus in the strategy is strengthening alliances and cooperation with foreign partners and helping them modernize their forces.
“In consultation with Congress and the Department of State, the Department of Defense will prioritize requests for U.S. military equipment sales, accelerating foreign partner modernization and ability to integrate with U.S. forces,” the strategy summary said.
However, overseas partners should shoulder a greater share of the burden for common defense, Mattis said. Trump has accused NATO allies and other countries of underinvesting in their militaries. Previous administrations have also called on them to spend more.
The third line of effort in the strategy is reforming the Pentagon’s business practices.
“Our current bureaucratic processes are insufficiently responsive to the department’s needs for new equipment,” Mattis said. “We will prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation and frequent modular upgrades.”
The Pentagon must shed outdated management and acquisition practices while adopting industry’s best practices, he added.
“The department’s leadership is committed to changes in authorities, granting of waivers and securing external support for streamlining processes and organizations,” the summary said. “A rapid, iterative approach to capability development will reduce costs, technological obsolescence and acquisition risk.”
Prototyping and experimentation should be used prior to defining requirements. Platform electronics and software must also be designed for routine replacement, it noted.
The document outlined several additional steps that the Pentagon plans to take to reform the acquisition process and nurture a healthy industrial base.
Incentives and reporting structures will be realigned to increase speed of delivery, enable design tradeoffs in the requirements process, expand the role of warfighters and intelligence analysts throughout the acquisition process, and utilize non-traditional suppliers, it said.
It also emphasized the need to send clearer signals to industry.
“The department’s technological advantage depends on a healthy and secure national security innovation base that includes both traditional and non-traditional defense partners,” it said. “The department, with the support of Congress, will provide the defense industry with sufficient predictability to inform their long-term investments in critical skills, infrastructure and research and development.”
Partnerships with the commercial sector will be critical, it noted.
“New commercial technology will change society and, ultimately, the character of war,” the document said. “Maintaining the department’s technological advantage will require changes to industry culture, investment sources and protection across the national security innovation base.”
Efforts will be made to streamline processes in order to help new entrants and small vendors provide cutting-edge technologies, it said.
Additionally, to reduce excess property and infrastructure, the Pentagon will provide Congress with options for a new round of base realignment and closure, also known as BRAC, it noted.
“I love the emphasis Secretary Mattis has made on improving the business processes and the efficiency of the Pentagon, and I loved the fact that it was elevated to one of the top three things in the strategy,” Spoehr said. “If you don’t fix these business processes and the way you do business, you’re not going to be able to do a lot of the [other] things in the strategy.”
Analysts noted that the language in the new strategy differs from the Obama administration’s rhetoric in several significant ways. One is the urgency with which it discusses the erosion of the United States’ military edge, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“From the very beginning they say … we need a long-term investment program to regain that,” he said. “There’s not a hint of accepting multi-polarity, there’s not a hint of accepting some measure of decline. … It’s about reestablishing American military dominance.”
It also suggests that more resources are needed, he said. “This strategy is very clear that you’re going to need a lot more money — and the word on the street is that in fact, they got it” in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request.
Another important difference is that China was listed as the number one source of competition, Cancian said. The Obama administration had put Russia at the top of the list after the Russian invasion of Crimea, he noted. “But here it’s clearly China because China has the ability for a really long-term competition [with the United States] the way that Russia does not,” he said.
However, there is some continuity when it comes to the previous administration’s so-called “third offset” strategy, which emphasized the importance of autonomy, unmanned systems and other cutting-edge technologies to outmatch advanced adversaries, analysts noted.
“It won’t be called the third offset” in the Trump administration’s strategy, Cancian said. “But the kinds of programs that came out of … the third offset are certainly consistent with the thrust of this new NDS, because the third offset was aimed at high-end threats from China and Russia, and of course the strategy is also aimed at those threats.”
Spoehr said the ideas expressed in the third offset are likely to live on. “Probably most of the weapon systems that were initiated under the third offset continue as well,” even though “the phrase [third offset] is dead,” he added.
The classified version of the strategy delves into specific investments that the Pentagon wants to make, said Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who has spoken with officials that are familiar with its contents.
Other analysts said 2019 budget request would shed more light on the investments that the Pentagon is planning to bring the new strategy to fruition.
If “the secretary’s focus will be on this capability side … that suggests that they might be looking to initiate some new modernization efforts,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS.
Mattis noted that a failure to secure sufficient funding would torpedo the new strategy.
“We recognize no strategy can long survive without necessary funding and the stable, predictable budgets required to defend America in the modern age,” he said.
The Pentagon chief blasted Congress for its repeated failure to pass annual defense appropriations bills on time.
“As hard as the last 16 years [of war] have been on our military, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act’s defense spending cuts, worsened by us operating nine of the last 10 years … under continuing resolutions, wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Mattis said he hopes lawmakers will “do the right thing” and provide budget stability so that the U.S. military can modernize effectively and restore readiness.
Mattis’ speech and the unveiling of the new defense strategy came just hours before the latest CR was set to expire, and as the federal government was facing a potential shutdown because Congress had yet to pass a new spending measure.
The Defense Department is expected to release its fiscal year 2019 budget request in early February. As of press time, Congress had yet to pass an annual appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018, which began in October.
Additional reporting by Vivienne Machi and Connie Lee.