April 15, 2021

Building the Future Force

The Department of Defense (DOD) develops a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) every four years to align the U.S. military’s force structure, operational concepts, programs, and budgets with the president’s national security priorities. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin plans a comprehensive review of the present NDS, published in January 2018, and has indicated that while the strategy’s focus on great power competition and conflict remains sound, updates may be warranted. Austin suggested during his confirmation hearings the next NDS must address “the continued erosion of U.S. military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia, in key strategic areas” due to trends such as China’s accelerating military modernization, its increasingly belligerent activities in the Indo-Pacific, and its growing ability to project power against the U.S. homeland. 

Three issues threaten to further erode the U.S. military’s advantages in the future, increasing the risk of failure in the event  of great power conflict. Two of these stem from the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which directed how the services should size and shape their forces, while the third results from DOD’s inadequate means for calculating the relative benefits of investment trade-offs. Left unaddressed, these issues threaten to increase gaps in U.S. forces and capabilities and to reduce the nation’s ability to defeat peer aggression, deter nuclear attacks, and defend the U.S. homeland.

The 2018 NDS requires the U.S. military services to be able to defeat an attempted Chinese or Russian invasion of a U.S. ally before that invasion becomes a fait accompli, as occurred when Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Similar threat scenarios include the potential for China to invade and occupy Taiwan or for Russia to invade a NATO member in the Baltics. In the face of a peer aggressor that achieves its objectives within days or weeks, the United States and its allies would face a choice: accept the new status quo or mount a major counteroffensive to evict those occupying forces, an effort so massive and escalatory that it could threaten a nuclear response. 

The 2018 NDS aimed to deny China or Russia the chance to achieve a fait accompli in the first place by requiring that U.S. military forces be able to immediately engage invading forces, even in the face of anti-access/area-denial defenses. U.S. forces in theater would be the first responders and would be rapidly backed up by blunt forces able to operate both in theater and from long range with the intent to degrade, delay, and deny a peer adversary from achieving its campaign objectives. Critically, the 2018 NDS assumes that China or Russia would seek an off-ramp from conflict if their fait accompli strategy failed. This assumption minimizes the potential that China or Russia could instead choose to continue offensive and defensive operations. Failing to size the U.S. military for this longer conflict creates risk it would suffer from significant—and possibly decisive—capacity shortfalls.