Earlier this month, the Department of Defense revealed the unclassified summary of its National Defense Strategy (PDF). The National Defense Strategy (PDF) replaces the Quadrennial Defense Review, which had outlived its usefulness from the moment it debuted. While it is unclear what the classified version of the strategy contains, the summary, as well as Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ remarks upon its release, provide a good indication of how the Pentagon’s leadership is thinking about future defense planning.

This post discusses the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly” of the NDS. While the unclassified version provides much that is worth praising, how the Pentagon’s plans are implemented is more important. And thus far, the NDS leaves more questions than answers as far as implementation.

The Good: Priorities

The aspect of the NDS that has garnered the most headlines since its release is its emphasis on strategic competition. The NDS states this priority right up front: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers” [emphasis in the original]. These “revisionist powers” are Russia and China. To underscore the role of planning for traditional conflict against major powers, a defense official told Nicholas Schmidle of the New Yorker, “Real men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars.”

Leaving aside the inherent “fog” and “friction” of “big wars” that the quoted defense official ignores in lauding their “clarity,” prioritizing Russia and China in defense planning makes a certain amount of sense. As political scientist Barry Posen has explained, strategy should focus on major military threats “because these are the most dangerous,” while focusing on “military remedies because these are the most costly.” A rung below the revisionist power—and in a throwback to the Clinton and Bush administrations—the NDS lists “rogue regimes,” such as Iran and North Korea, who are called out for their destabilizing actions. Meanwhile, terrorism—which kills fewer Americans than the country’s furniture—is downgraded to a “persistent condition.”

Prioritizing is the essence of strategy because resources are finite. Even if there is a major increase in defense spending—as recent reporting suggests is distinctly possible—there will never be enough to please everyone. The fatal flaw of the QDR was the effort to produce consensus, leading to watered-down recommendations that would keep the various elements of the defense bureaucracy happy. As Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force planning and development, wrote after the NDS was released, “To their credit, Secretary Mattis and his team largely avoided the ‘Christmas Tree Phenomenon’ that plagues so many strategies, wherein every participant puts his or her own ornament—or pet issue—in the document.”

However, the degree to which the renewed focus on major-power competition represents a significant shift from previous post-Cold War administrations can be overstated. For example, how much of the defense budget was allocated in support of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria? According to the Pentagon’s own estimate (PDF), it has spent $1.5 trillion on post-September 11th military operations. Of course, that figure does not include things like long-term medical care for combat veterans of the War on Terror that are not directly included in the Pentagon’s budget. But Department of Defense budget authority (PDF) between fiscal years 2002 and 2017 has totaled more than $10 trillion.

The Bad: Contradictions

Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of Prussia’s General Staff, said it well when he stated, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.” A pithier version of the quote—“No plan survives contact with the enemy”—is cited more often, but perhaps former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson put it even better: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The wisdom in those quotes might be worth reformulating here: the best defense plans rarely survive contact with the White House.

One problem defense planners face is that their priorities can be overtaken by events. After all, the NDS is hardly the first time the Pentagon has expressed its desire to focus on high-end threats. In the aftermath of the Cold War, military force planning remained largely wedded to the concept laid down by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell in the “Base Force.” Even as the United States undertook more humanitarian interventions during the Clinton administration, these operations were considered MOOTW (“military operations other than war”)—lesser included operations that could be conducted by service members trained for conventional military operations.

When the second Bush administration took office in 2001, it promised the military would not be used for “escorting kids to kindergarten” and to undertake an ambitious “transformation” agenda to prepare for high-end fights. But following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States instead undertook two large-scale nation-building efforts, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The military is still involved in both of those countries, to different degrees, today.

Even as the Pentagon has asserted major-power competition in Europe and Northeast Asia as its priority, the Trump administration has deepened its involvement in limited conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia. In August, President Trump announced an increase in the number of U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the same week that Mattis unveiled the NDS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced an open-ended U.S. military presence in Syria. While the NDS acknowledges a continued American military role in the Middle East, it is unclear how this commitment will affect the Pentagon’s ability to pursue its main priorities in Europe and Asia. As Karlin notes, “This tension plagued the previous administration and will surely be difficult to implement short of Secretary Mattis’ personal and deft hand.”

Another contradiction is apparent in how the NDS heavily emphasizes the role of America’s allies in its defense plans. The strategy lists “strengthen alliances and attract new partners” as a one of its objectives and states, “Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial to our strategy, providing a durable asymmetric advantage that no competitor or rival can match.” It goes on to say, “By working together with allies and partners we amass the greatest possible strength for the long-term advancement of our interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and support the stability that generates economic growth.”

While the NDS is right to emphasize the benefits these partnerships provide, it is difficult to square this objective with the tendency of the commander-in-chief to alienate American partners through both word and deed. During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly denigrated American allies about the need to “pay their bills” and suggested that, as president, he would let them go their own way. After his election, President Trump only reluctantly reasserted NATO’s Article 5 commitment. At the same time, policies such as America’s unceremonious exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threats to other trade deals have led American partners to pursue economic cooperation elsewhere. Moreover, the image the Trump administration presents of America’s interests abroad will make attracting new partners more difficult.

The Ugly: Reform

Finally, the “ugly” in the NDS stems its call for significant reforms to the way the Pentagon does business. The proposed reforms themselves are not “ugly”—changes at the Pentagon are, in fact, quite necessary—but the process by which any reforms occur will necessarily be unpleasant. Reform is often the product of political slugfests because even necessary changes threaten the cherished interests and capabilities.

The NDS discusses a number of reforms, but they are united by the need to shake up a sclerotic defense bureaucracy and produce innovation that will allow the U.S. military to maintain its qualitative advantage. But it is easier to call for innovation than it is to achieve it. One does not need to search far back into the history of the Department of Defense to find leading defense officials pushing for it. Obama’s penultimate secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, announced a “Third Offset Strategy” in 2014 by which the Pentagon would pursue game-changing technologies. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work pushed the Third Offset throughout the rest of Obama’s tenure in office. Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter—who replaced Hagel shortly after the Offset was announced—shepherded innovation initiatives like the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and the Strategic Capabilities office, while also pursuing reforms such the Force of the Future program.

Innovation produces winners and losers. It threatens entrenched interests. As scholars of military innovation have argued, innovation leads not only to the creation of new capabilities but also the destruction of old ones (PDF). It is not enough to identify the right technology. Innovation in a military organization also requires the political power to defeat those—both within and outside the organization—who would stymie the effort in service of older capabilities from which they derive some form of benefit.

The rollout of the NDS suggests Mattis is willing to take political ownership of the proposed reforms. However, even someone with Mattis’ charisma and personal popularity has finite amounts of the political capital needed when imposing changes on a recalcitrant bureaucracy or garnering approval from legislators whose parochial interests may be threatened by proposed reforms. As noted above, Mattis will already have his hands full realizing the Pentagon’s desire to prioritize threats in Europe and Asia while sustaining a military presence in the Middle East.

In these situations, support from the commander-in-chief is often essential. For example, Robert McNamara found presidential support from John F. Kennedy vital to pushing reforms through early in his tenure as secretary of defense. Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, was less successful in pursuing his “transformation” agenda at least in part due to lack of interest from President George W. Bush. Yet the president Mattis serves is generally uninterested in policy details, mercurial, and historically unpopular. Assuming presidential backing is a key variable in defense reform, that combination of traits does not add up to a recipe for success.


By prioritizing, the NDS gets back to the essence of what strategy is all about. However, history shows that those priorities can easily be overtaken by events or the whims of political leaders. Moreover, the proposed reforms articulated in the NDS are likely to require herculean efforts and no small amount of political capital. How the NDS is implemented will therefore be key to its success or failure.