The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy serves as an effective guide to the Department of Defense’s objectives and strategy during Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ tenure. The National Defense Strategy begins with two premises: 1) The U.S. has displayed a dangerous degree of strategic complacency since the 1990s as great power competition reemerged; and 2) The United States has failed to make sufficient investments in military readiness. Consequently, the U.S. competitive military advantage has eroded.1
While the National Defense Strategy identifies China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups as significant threats, the administration believes that the reemergence of great power competition with China and Russia represents the greatest challenge. A key component of this competition is an intense race to rapidly develop and deploy the latest technological advancements. Simultaneously, competitors have increasingly utilized tactics short of armed conflict (“gray-zone tactics”) to threaten U.S. interests and undermine the post-World War II international order that has facilitated international peace and prosperity.2
In response, the National Defense Strategy prioritizes three primary lines of effort: rebuilding military readiness and a more lethal force, strengthening alliances, and reforming the Defense Department’s business practices to improve agility, innovation, and efficiency.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and until recently, the Department of Defense did not receive the resources necessary to simultaneously accomplish current missions, maintain readiness, and modernize. The primary cause of this resource shortfall was the Budget Control Act of 2011, which led to ‘sequestration’ – across-the-board spending reductions without regard for strategic importance. While subsequent budget agreements provided modest relief, the Budget Control Act still resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars less in defense spending than originally planned.3
Over the last two years, with the aim of rebuilding U.S. military readiness and lethality, the Trump administration requested and received significant additional funding for the Department of Defense, reversing a seven-year trend. Specifically, in March 2017, to address urgent combat readiness shortfalls and accelerate progress against the Islamic State, the Trump administration requested $30 billion in additional Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 funding for the Defense Department. In its first full budget request, the Trump administration requested $639 billion for FY 2018 compared to the Obama administration’s FY 2017 request of $583 billion. For FY 2019, the Trump administration requested $686 billion – a 10 percent real increase over the previous continuing resolution level. For FY 2019, for the first time in years, Congress passed both the defense authorization and appropriation bills before the beginning of the new fiscal year. Over the last two years, the Department of Defense has used the increased funding to begin to halt the deterioration of U.S. military readiness and conventional military superiority.
In addition to this focus on military readiness, the Defense and State Departments have worked to reinforce key partnerships and alliances in the Middle East and Asia. The Defense Department has also worked with allies to expand the military readiness, capability, and capacity of NATO. With some success, the Trump administration has pressured NATO allies to spend more on defense. As it turns out, the defense spending of our NATO allies has actually been increasing since 2015.4 However, doubts about the president’s commitment to the alliance and collective defense have compounded concerns about NATO’s deterrence of Russian aggression.
Congressional testimony less than a month after the president’s inauguration demonstrates the severity of the readiness challenge that the administration inherited. A failure to modernize had led to an “outranged, outgunned, and outdated” Army that could accomplish its missions only at “high military risk.”5 The Navy was the smallest in nearly a century, and “overall readiness [had] reached its lowest levels in many years.”6 The Air Force’s fleet was the oldest in the service’s history, with readiness “at a near all-time low.”7 Given these facts, it is not surprising that the congressionally mandated 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission concluded, “America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt.”8
The congressionally mandated 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission concluded, “America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt.”
This readiness crisis emerged over an extended period and will take years to reverse. Since 9/11, the pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the bipartisan failure to provide sufficient, timely, and predictable funding, forced the Department of Defense to postpone modernization. Meanwhile, China and Russia studied American weaknesses, developed asymmetric capabilities, and modernized their forces.
On balance, thanks to a generally well-formulated strategy and increased funding, the administration has begun addressing America’s military readiness crisis. In April 2018 testimony, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford testified, “we have begun to arrest the erosion of our competitive advantage,” citing investments in end strength, training, ammunition stocks, and modernization.9
In addition to these areas of focus, the Army has increased soldier deployment readiness and implemented key institutional reforms, including the creation of Army Futures Command.10 The Navy has invested in ship and aircraft depot maintenance and procured 22 battle force ships in FY 2017 and 2018.11 The Air Force has achieved weapons systems sustainment improvements, expedited acquisition processes, and eliminated a 4,000-airman maintainer shortage.12 The Marine Corps has met aviation combat readiness standards for the first time in years and achieved significant improvements in readiness rates for mission essential equipment.13
The administration has also taken initial and long overdue steps to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent – which includes the nuclear triad and associated nuclear command, control, and communications (NC3) systems.
In summary, the administration has made significant initial progress over the last two years to address America’s readiness crisis, but much work remains. The continued progress American security requires depends on Congress’ ability to provide sufficient, timely, and predictable funding.
A failure by the president to demonstrate an unambiguous and consistent commitment to allies will increase the chances that America’s men and women in uniform will be called upon to respond to unprovoked aggression.
The administration’s record with respect to alliances is more mixed. NATO’s military readiness is better today than it was two years ago. However, potential adversaries assess not only NATO’s military capacity but also its political will to respond to aggression. Periodic statements by President Trump have undermined alliance cohesion and generated troubling doubts about U.S. willingness to fulfill its Article 5 collective defense commitment. As Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter suggests, America’s alliances are a key U.S. grand strategic asset that must be nurtured – rather than a burden to be abandoned.14 A failure by the president to demonstrate an unambiguous and consistent commitment to allies will increase the chances that America’s men and women in uniform will be called upon to respond to unprovoked aggression.