Saturday, August 22, 2015

National Military Strategy

The US Department of Defense has finally released its national military strategy document, the first such since 2011.  At last, we have a coherent, viable strategy to guide us in the development of our force structure, force size, and tactical and operational planning.  No longer will we flounder in a sea of haphazard acquisitions without guidance.  No longer will we pursue technologies that may not lend themselves to the accomplishment of our national and service-specific goals.  No longer will we dither trying to decide what course of action to take as we attempt to balance needs against budgets.  No longer will we downsize forces on a random or, worse, equitable, basis. 

I tell you, a bright new day is dawning for the military, America, and the world!

Let’s dig into this new strategy and see where it will be taking us.

As a reminder, a valid strategy should define the problem, lay out the goals, and describe a path to achieve those goals.

The National Military Strategy of the United States, 2015, (NMS) begins by listing the problems.  Specifically, it names Russia, Iran, North Korea, and terrorists (quaintly referred to in the document as Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) ) as our potential enemies and, ever so briefly, describes what they are doing that makes them potential enemies.  It also names China as a potential enemy though in a very backhanded, passive way by describing our intentions to welcome them warmly to the world stage while noting in passing that some of their actions may lead to tensions.  That’s tiptoeing around the China issue but at least the DoD has finally named China so that’s a start.  Likewise, the failure to name the source of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, dramatically weakens the rest of the document’s discussion on terrorism.

The document states that none of the suspect state actors are seeking conflict with the US.

“None of these nations are believed to be seeking direct military conflict with the United States or our allies.”

Well, they may not be seeking direct conflict but none of them are shying away from it, either.  It would serve us well to recognize that our previous, and current, policies of deterrence seem not to be working!  The NMS ought to recognize this and factor it in but fails to do so.

The NMS then proceeds to define the military environment.  That’s not really part of a strategy and demonstrates that those writing the strategy don’t really understand what a strategy is. 

On the plus side, the document notes that our previous decade of conflict has been exclusively against terrorists and that we must now begin to pay attention to state actors.  That’s a wise, if somewhat painfully obvious and belated recognition.

The role of technology is discussed as it pertains to terrorists.

“VEOs are taking advantage of emergent technologies as well, using information tools to propagate destructive ideologies, recruit and incite violence, and amplify the perceived power of their movements. …They use improvised explosive devices (IED), suicide vests, and tailored cyber tools to spread terror while seeking ever more sophisticated capabilities, including WMD.”

The document fails to understand the relationship between terrorists and technology.  Terrorists are not seeking ever more sophisticated capabilities.  They are seeking ever more explosive (literally) capabilities.  If those capabilities require more capable technology, the terrorists will embrace it but technology is not a prerequisite for more explosive power.  IEDs, for example, represent an alternative approach to the employment of explosive power, often relying on very primitive levels of technology.  Beheadings with a sword require no great leaps of technology.  Failure to recognize this principle will lead us to believe that the path to the defeat of terrorism is paved with technology and nothing could be further from the truth.  The path to the defeat of terrorism is paved with intelligence, explosives, and, mainly, willpower (such as the willingness to inflict larger amounts of collateral damage when necessary and the willingness to engage wholeheatedly).

The NMS goes on to list some National Security Interests derived by the military to support the Enduring National Interests from the 2015 National Security Strategy. 

·        The survival of the Nation.
·        The prevention of catastrophic attack against U.S. territory.
·        The security of the global economic system.
·        The security, confidence, and reliability of our allies.
·        The protection of American citizens abroad.
·        The preservation and extension of universal values.

That’s a nice list but is so generic and high level as to be useless. 

In any event, the NMS finally lists three National Military Objectives – presumably the heart of the strategy!

·        Deter, deny, and defeat state adversaries.
·        Disrupt, degrade, and defeat violent extremist organizations.
·        Strengthen our global network of allies and partners.

What?!!  Again, these are utterly useless.  They are so broad as to be worthless in providing any military guidance.  Taken at face value, the first objective, for example, would suggest that the military take any action ranging from send an occasional patrol boat with a strongly worded message to a misbehaving state, on up to a pre-emptive, all-out attack to overwhelm and defeat the state.  The objective says nothing.  It doesn’t tell us whether we need a bigger Navy or a smaller one.  It doesn’t tell us whether the LCS is the right vessel for the task or not.  It doesn’t tell us whether the F-35 is appropriate for the situation.  It tells us nothing.

OK, what would be an example of an appropriate objective?  Here’s one,

·        Contain China’s expansionist activities and prevent any Chinese territorial gains in the South and East China Seas using military confrontation to augment diplomatic efforts.

Whether you happen to agree with that example or not, it leaves no doubt about what the military is tasked with doing and that is what a strategy should do.

In any event, the NMS goes on to describe a host of generic military responsibilities which, while both obvious and nice, relate in no specific way to any strategic objectives beyond the generic “let’s be strong and protect the country” type of statements.  You can’t argue with them but they are not strategic objectives nor do they constitute a path to implementing the strategy, such as it is.

As the document moves on, it devotes a lengthy section to a discussion of personnel support needs, leadership, and organizational culture.  Again, nice (not really – it’s worthless bureaucratic ass-covering), but totally irrelevant to a military strategy document.

And, finally, the document discusses innovation, global agility, quality, joint interoperability, industrial business relationships, and resource informed planning (huh??).  These sections are utterly divorced from any strategic usefulness and simply represent bureaucratic buzzword bingo.

Again, to recap, the characteristics of a strategy should include a problem definition, a goal(s), and a path to achieve that goal(s).

The NMS offers an extremely cursory definition of the problem although the mere fact that specific enemies were named is a vast improvement over any previous document or discussion (ignoring the kid glove treatment accorded the Chinese and Islamic terrorists).  The three listed objectives are so broad and generic as to be useless and have absolutely no specific relationship to the defined problem.  Finally, the document is utterly devoid of a useful and specific path to achieving the objectives – not surprising given the generic nature of the objectives.

Thus, as a military strategy, this document fails completely to deliver an actual strategy.  It is clear that the authors had no idea what the definition of a strategy is.  This is a failure at the Strategy 101 level and is an embarrassment coming from our highest professional military leadership.  This will leave our military floundering around, grasping at the next technological marvel that captures their fancy in the hopes that it will prove useful when some future conflict occurs. 

The lack of a valid and viable military strategy is exactly why we’re pursuing an F-35 that does not meet our operational needs, why the Marines can’t seem to decide what kind of amphibious assault vehicle they want, why we’re buying 52 LCSs that don’t seem to fit any useful naval scenario, why we’re building ever bigger carriers while the air wings continue to shrink, why there is no agreement about the characteristics of the Navy’s UCLASS, and why, in general, our military seems so lost today.

This “strategy” was an opportunity to right the military ship but is, instead, an opportunity squandered.


  1. The key structural failing is the lack of prioritization given the inevitable shortfall (delta) between resources and desired force structure.

    This is a result of the "every service gets its fair share" driven joint thinking in the Pentagon, but is both imprudent, and unsustainable in the long run.


  2. There seems to be an unwillingness to get down to specifics and to define what actually needs to be done.

    Then there is an unwillingness to discuss whether current actions align with long term national interest.

  3. This doesn't seem to be an actual military strategy at all. It sounds like a document meant to look like a strategy, for people who are used to business strategy documents, which are usually collections of platitudes. The point of this is to convince the shareholders (who in this case are Congress) that the company management (the Pentagon) are doing their jobs, but it's all complicated stuff and should not be interfered with, because there'll be a dividend.

    The dividend in this case is defence contracts placed in the Congressional districts, plus the ability to say that "we're tough on defence" with pictures of jet fighters, tanks, and so on. US politics is largely about emotions these days, and elects politicians who can give the electorate the feelings they like.

    1. Good comment. Depressing but good.

    2. I am surprised that nobody is taking issue with my analysis. Does the US really feel that their government/military interface is so broken that it has to just be accepted and can't be fixed?

    3. John, one of the main thrusts of this blog is that the Navy, and by extension the rest of the military, is badly broken. I suspect that most of the readers agree with your assessment to varying degrees (generally, a large degree!). You made a couple of good points but as far as sparking some kind of controversy, you're largely singing it to the choir with this group.

  4. "Resource Informed Planning" , also known to most people as "Budgeting".


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