Review of the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary


To: Foreign and defense policy staff
From: Kurt Couchman, Vice President of Public Policy
Date: Friday, January 26, 2018
Re: Review of the 2018 National Defense Strategy Summary


The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) replaces the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), last published in 2014. It builds on the December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS).

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 requires the Pentagon to deliver to military leaders and the congressional defense committees—appropriations and armed services—the NDS in classified form with a public, unclassified summary. By contrast, the full QDR was available to the public.

This review highlights the key points from the 2018 summary, not the full, classified version. Balancing transparency and secrecy will be an ongoing challenge.

Integrated strategy

The NDS recognizes that a key role for DoD is “reinforcing America’s traditional tools of diplomacy.” Effectiveness over the long term requires the “seamless integration of multiple elements of national power—diplomacy, information, economics, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military.”

It accepts a humbling reality: “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” Ongoing reassessment and adaptation are essential to advance America’s interests cost-effectively and successfully.

The NDS summary could benefit from more creative thinking, however. During the Cold War, American policymakers realized the danger of pushing our principal ideological adversaries—the Soviet Union and Red China—toward each other. New technology creates opportunities to change strategies and achieve better results at lower cost and risk. Other ways to gain advantages and reduce vulnerabilities must be considered.

Continuity and change

America’s national interests—defending our security, prosperity, and our way of life—are enduring.

Some continuity for defense strategy is expected. Features of the 2017 Defense Posture Review under President Obama, such as refocusing on competition with conventional adversaries and adapting to technological innovation, exist in the 2018 NDS. Like the NSS released in December, the NDS only begins the shift toward new priorities.

The lead author of the NDS, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development Elbridge Colby, told reporters that “this strategy represents a fundamental shift” and that “the focus will be on prioritizing preparedness for war and particularly a major power war.” The central claim is that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern of US national security.” Much U.S. defense spending has been to deter or defeat major powers, but the NDS appears to herald a greater emphasis.

The NDS says the U.S. military should focus on “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats.”

The 2018 NDS recognizes that competition from powers like Russia and China is the highest priority. Both countries have national aspirations that may lead to conflict with the United States. Rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran are more a concern for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including to non-state actors like terrorist groups, and other unconventional activities like cyberattacks and regional destabilization.

Nonetheless, the NDS summary is unclear that increasing competition is compared to just after the Cold War. While a multipolar, Information Age world is complex, aggregate threats are far less than the United States faced from the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States has and will have a large margin of superiority over both Russia and China for the foreseeable future. Some decline in America’s relative capabilities may have been inevitable following an unprecedented period as the world’s sole superpower. Somewhat less dominance is unwelcome, but it need not be a serious threat to U.S. alliances, let alone the security of the United States itself.

Threats from U.S.-focused Islamist radicals remain, but the NDS anticipates finding more efficient ways to address such challenges. Reading between the lines, intelligence, diplomacy, and military training may substitute for large-scale nation-building efforts led by American forces. The document barely mentions operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, which may imply that they will be deprioritized, although Secretary Tillerson contradicted that by announcing last week that U.S. forces will remain in Syria for many years. It also does not differentiate between threats to U.S. interests and groups with local objectives.

Allies help maintain favorable balances of power in key regions. Some may need American backup, but most could easily take the lead on their own security and contribute more to the common defense. As the strategy is implemented, expect a review of the costs and benefits of options related to allied defenses, particularly while “transitioning from large, centralized, unhardened infrastructure to smaller, dispersed, resilient, adaptive basing that include active and passive defenses.”

Departmental efficiency

The NDS recognizes that procurement and other business practices are cumbersome and ill-suited for the needs of operational flexibility. Similarly, it calls for a new round of BRAC to not only divest low-value real estate, but also to bring domestic basing needs in line with the new strategy.

Increasing efficiency would let DoD obtain more value for any given level of resources. The NDS summary calls for additional manpower, equipment, and funding, but it doesn’t identify how it will free up resources to reinvest in higher priorities.

Opportunities for improvement

The NDS summary mentions prioritization among missions and programs: “we must make difficult choices and prioritize what is most important.” It does not, however, clarify what those priorities are with any specificity, nor does it explain the process by which those decisions would occur.

Budget constraints are an important input. For any specific budget allocation, a limited number of missions can be conducted adequately. Prioritization allows less important activities to be reduced or eliminated, so remaining functions can be done well.

Explaining how the military would expand or contract operations to reflect resource levels would give Congress important information about the marginal costs and marginal benefits of various budget allocations.


The 2018 NDS recognizes the ongoing need to adjust defense priorities. It is encouraging to see greater focus on major powers and less on problems that partners and allies can effectively address. The search for management and operational efficiencies to ensure good stewardship of taxpayer funds is commendable.

Strategic efficiency is even more important, however, yet the public summary gives few details on the relative importance of competing objectives.

Connecting the ultimate ends of the American people—safeguarding our homeland, economic prosperity, and our liberty here at home—with the human, financial, geographic, and other resources that the government can employ is the heart of strategy.

This National Defense Strategy marks some important steps in the right direction. Nonetheless, a great deal of work remains for Congress and the Trump Administration to turn this and related visions into concrete, achievable, effective, sustainable activities in the service of our fellow citizens.