The National Defense Strategy, set to be rolled out by Defense Secretary James Mattis at John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, directs the U.S. government to engage in a multi-year build-up of the military involving more troops, more weapons and stronger foreign alliances.
The document, which serves as the Administration’s roadmap for global security, says China and Russia aim to upend the global hierarchy that the United States has sat atop of since World War II. The strategy serves as the latest sign the Administration wants to pivot from the morass of violence and counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East to intensify great power competitions in the western and eastern hemispheres.
“Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” Mattis told the audience. “This strategy is fit for our time.”
It harkens back to the Cold War-era where the U.S. and Soviet Union projected power and military might around the globe. Two versions of the strategy were drawn up: one secret, one public. The version released to the public was 11 pages long and documented a range of military needs for the coming years, involving everything from nuclear weapons to cyber capabilities to war-fighting strategies. The message was a familiar one to the Trump Administration: the military needs additional funding.
“Our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare: land, air, sea, space and cyber space,” Mattis said.
A muscular military posture along with strong alliances ensured “what was a Cold War never became a Hot War on the plains of Europe,” he said. “The point is: How do we create a military that is that compelling?”
While much of the strategy focuses on Russia and China, the other challenge for the U.S. is to overcome “rogue regimes,” such as Iran and North Korea, and “non-state actors,” which is military jargon for militant groups.
“America is a target, whether from terrorists seeking to attack our citizens; malicious cyber activity against personal, commercial, or government infrastructure; or political and information subversion,” the document says. Taking on such threats can only be done through investment in weapons technology and intelligence, as well as partnerships and diplomacy, the document says, without acknowledging plans to offset the plans to cut about 30% of State Department budget.
“In my past, I fought many times, but never did I fight in a solely American formation. It was always alongside foreign troops,” said Mattis, a former four-star Marine Corps general. “Now as Winston Churchill once said, ‘The only thing harder than fighting with allies is fighting without them.’”
Elbridge Colby, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for strategy and force development, told a group of reporters ahead of Mattis’ speech that Russia and China had forged new alliances and expanded their military presence to new corners of the globe.
“This strategy represents a fundamental shift,” he said. “This strategy says the focus will be on prioritizing preparedness for war and particularly a major power war.”
Positioning the U.S. military in the post-9/11 world to focus on challenges beyond the Middle East is not a new idea. President Barack Obama spent his entire presidency attempt to extract the U.S. military from Iraq and Afghanistan and onto Asia and the Pacific Rim. He left office with the military combating terror groups in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The National Defense Strategy is, in many ways, a reiteration of the themes that Trump outlined in December with his first national security strategy that delivered a message that reflected his “America First” worldview.
Previous administrations also released national defense strategies every four years in lengthy policy documents known as the Congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review. The last one was released in 2014. Congress scuttled the idea last year saying the QDR had become a watered-down window into Pentagon policy. It was replaced by the National Defense Strategy produced by the Defense Secretary and the National Military Strategy, produced by the Joint Chiefs chairman.