The Navigator from CGP

Assessing the New U.S. National Defense Strategy

PUBLISHED February 20, 2018

Secretary of Defense General James Mattis outlined a new set of priorities in the National Defense Strategy (NDS) unveiled by the Trump administration in January. It is an attempt to set forth a vision that addresses vital national interests and to maintain an international order established after World War II that is built on security cooperation.  It establishes the framework for organizing, training, and committing U.S. forces towards achieving this vision.

As much as the strategy is meant for domestic consumption, the NDS is also a global defensive document directed at current and potential adversaries. The NDS claims, “More than any other nation, America can expand the competitive space, seizing the initiative to challenge our competitors where we possess advantages and they lack strength.”

Mattis: Terrorism is not a primary concern

Mattis outlined pressing global challenges to U.S. security, the roles military force will play in protecting the United States from these challenges, and how these priorities justify the defense spending involved. He first stressed how the “Great Power Competition” — namely, with Russia and China — is using an authoritative model to assert revisionist ideas of power throughout the world. He declared that the Russia-China “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security” — a statement that is a major departure from the Obama administration’s defense policy. Russia now represents a new type of threat – in the cyber-security realm – in the light of the statements from senior Trump administration officials saying that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Kremlin is interfering in the American electoral process. Although counterterrorism did not drive the NDS, Mattis listed it as an ongoing critical effort.

According to the NDS, the U.S. military will sustain its presence in the Middle East and in Afghanistan with an aggressive mission of “compete, deter, and win.” The U.S. will adopt “tailored deterrence strategies” in dealing with  the spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts. Given the instability of Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, and the variety of roles Iran-sponsored actors play in each one, the U.S. cannot risk the stalemate tilting in favor of the Russian-Iranian alignment.

Mattis asserted that, “The enemy will attack at any perceived weakness,” and, “There is no room for complacency if the world is to survive and thrive from the ideas of Enlightenment.”  His emphasis on “great powers, “America’s place in the world,” and “moral obligations in protecting American values and way of life” disconnects from an historical U.S. policy of engagement with divergent global actors for mutual security cooperation.  It is, however, not a bold innovative strategy. Rather, the NDS harkens back to the era of Ronald Reagan and immense defense spending to build a military capable of rapid responses and more technologically advanced than the Soviets.

Three Lines of Efforts

Mattis specified three lines of efforts to move from a strategy document to an actionable applied document for the U.S. forces. These lines of efforts are to build the lethality of the U.S. military; strengthen alliances and forge new partnerships; and ensure the Defense Department bureaucracy is competitive, accountable , and judged on performance.  

Mattis, and leading conservative defense strategists, argue that the key critical issue facing the U.S. military is its inability to generate and maintain sufficient numbers of combat-ready teams.  In May 2017, Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer said, “To build readiness, soldiers require specialized and sufficient training; modern, properly maintained equipment; sufficient quantities of the proper munitions; and stability.”

Weaknesses in the Strategy

Incredibly important to acknowledge within the strategy is how international security operates in a world where states are not the only  actors. Transnational non-state actors with networks, funding, and organized operations are powerful but not equal factors in the equation.

Mattis’ three lines of efforts in the NDS are founded on the capability and readiness of the armed forces to move swiftly in case  deterrence and strategic diplomacy fails. The problem is that different sector and forces within our government  are not able to complement each other’s efforts to deal with vulnerabilities and remain inflexible in execution.  

While the NDS clearly lists the U.S.’s objectives regarding existing threats to international security, it fails to state what resources are available to address these challenges. In an age of resource constraints, can the Defense Department still identify missions, projects, systems and offices to eliminate while maintaining the most sophisticated armed forces in the world?


With an NDS founded on particular historical experiences, defense strategists and policy makers need to focus in the middle of a cacophony of strategies that has often led to confusion and the promotion of parochial agendas.

As a first priority, the U.S. and its allies need to clearly define the “rules of the road”  for diminishing the rise of great global competitors in the nuclear and cyber worlds and  to develop and implement measures that reduce these risks. 

A national defense strategy must include, for the U.S. and its transatlantic allies, an understanding of cyber dangers related to nuclear facilities, strategic warning systems, and nuclear command and control.  These dangers need to be addressed urgently to prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of a cyber attack on a nuclear facility.

While there is an over-emphasis on increasing the lethality of U.S. armed forces, we cannot ignore payoffs from leveraging “soft power” institutions to gain allies on the ground. A national defense strategy needs to contain or eliminate the influences of adversaries overseas by pressuring them, competing with them, or outmaneuvering them.

Although emphasizing the disastrous geopolitical and economic consequences of inadequate funding, a strategy needs firm grounding in existing realities regarding resources and funding practices. Continuing resolutions should be considered.

With conventional deterrent options as the preferred choice, we must invest in helping to develop the self-defense capacity of the U.S. ‘ Middle Eastern and Asian allies and other new partners such as China.

China is not interested in a conflict with the United States. Washington’s strategy toward Beijing must consist of moving from adversarial positions with China to cooperation. By implementing an active engaged policy with China, the United States U.S. can create an inherent deterrence mechanism to prevent China’s expansionism. Washington does not need to take a zero-sum approach or force Beijing into a corner where it feels pressured; this would lead to more crises. By supporting China’s participation in cooperative military-to-military engagements, we will improve understanding and increase transparency between the two countries.  

Congress should require the Department of Defense to provide a report detailing the long-term and short-term challenges with specific recommendations from defense and security specialists, policymakers, and researchers. In order to distill effective policy prescriptions the new defense strategy will have to be placed in the aforementioned broader geopolitical context.


Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is the Director of Security & Violent Extremism at the Center for Global Policy, overseeing the department’s policy initiatives. Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA) where he focused on a variety of religious issues and their intersection with US foreign policy. He specializes in political Islam, civil society organizations, education policies and security issues within the Muslim world. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP. 

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