Why We Need a New National Defense Strategy

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist at The Cipher Brief.  Pincus spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (releasing November 2021)

OPINION — The hasty U.S. departure from Afghanistan may be politically costly to the Democratic Party in the short term, but for sure it will be financially costly long-term to the Biden Administration, whose fiscal 2022 and 2023 defense budgets will have to increase proposed spending on counterterrorism as well as on great power confrontation.

Biden’s fiscal 2022 defense budget request for $715 billion represented a 1.6 percent increase over fiscal 2021, but with inflation running above 2 percent, that meant an effective reduction in next year’s Pentagon spending. It also reduced spending on counterterrorism activities.

However, the Senate Armed Services Committee increased Biden’s request by $25 billion with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) indicating, even before the Afghan pullout, that the bill would never pass the Senate and thus Congress, without adding significant additional funding.

The one bit of flexibility is that the Biden budget proposal had $3 Billion to continue support of the Afghan National Army and National Police, but both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee added language saying those funds could only be obligated in the next fiscal year – which begins October 1 – “if the Secretary of Defense certifies that the Afghanistan Security Forces are controlled by a civilian, representative government that is committed to protecting human rights and women’s rights and preventing terrorists and terrorist groups from using the territory of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and U.S. allies.” It remains to be seen what will happen to those funds.

Meanwhile, the events this month in Afghanistan are bound to have an effect on the major Biden studies already underway that will set defense policy for the coming years. The major one is the National Defense Strategy, but also the Global Posture Review of our forces abroad, and the Nuclear Posture Review.

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In June, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told the 2021 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference that the National Defense Strategy would “hopefully” be “out sometime early next year.” The other two studies would be “nested” within it, and together, they would determine the Biden defense budget recommendations for fiscal 2023 and the years thereafter.

The Global Posture Review, which looks at the size, location, types, and capabilities of overseas-deployed military forces, interests me because back in 1969, I ran an investigation of U.S. bases abroad for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee’s chairman, Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), believed the stationing of American military forces abroad, along with their weapons, represented a commitment to that country that was almost as good as a treaty.

The Bush administration’s post-9/11 war on terrorism has led to American troops, mostly Special Forces, being in more than 80 countries, training local counterterrorism teams and in some cases, undertaking operations with them.

In the February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, the Afghan Taliban leadership pledged to prevent the use of Afghan territory to plot attacks on the United States or its allies. However, last Thursday’s bombing at the Kabul airport by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), killed 13 American military personnel. The subsequent U.S. retaliatory, drone-launched strikes against ISIS-K personnel in Afghanistan all but guarantees the threat from that terrorist group will continue for Americans, not just from Afghanistan, but from Syria and Iraq as well, where ISIS-K also has followers.

In recent years, the belief was that the terrorist threat was receding. The 2018, Trump administration National Defense Strategy stated that “Inter-state strategic competition [meaning with China and Russia], not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” although “terrorism remains a persistent condition driven by ideology and unstable political and economic structures, despite the defeat of ISIS’s physical caliphate.” The Trump strategy listed as one of many secondary Pentagon objectives: “Preventing terrorists from directing or supporting external operations against the United States homeland and our citizens, allies, and partners overseas.”

An August 3, 2021,  Congressional Research Service paper on defense issues for Congress to consider listed first, “the emergence of great power competition with China and Russia,”  saying that, “Counterterrorist operations and U.S. military operations in the Middle East—which were moved to the center of discussions of U.S. defense issues following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—are now a less-dominant element in the conversation, and the conversation now features a new or renewed emphasis on the topics…which relate to China and/or Russia.”

I believe in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the emergence of ISIS-K, whatever hopes existed for a reduction in concern about terrorist threats should vanish. The Biden team must look realistically at the global security environment in putting together its National Defense Strategy. Given the current atmosphere, a terrorist attack against Americans, at home or abroad, should be seen as much more likely in the immediate future than any kinetic military action generated by Moscow or Beijing.

The Biden Interim National Strategic Guidance, released last March, continued the Trump emphasis on great power confrontation while recognizing the need to “disrupt international terrorist networks,” and work with regional partners to “disrupt al-Qaeda and related terrorist networks and prevent an ISIS resurgence.”

When the focus moved to China and Russia, the initial concern was always related to nuclear weapons, along with the standard declaration, repeated by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at his confirmation hearing, that “nuclear deterrence is the Defense Department’s highest priority mission.”

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However, Austin has more recently introduced a broader concept using the phrase “integrated deterrence.”  In a speech in Hawaii on April 30, he said, “The cornerstone of America’s defense is still deterrence, ensuring that our adversaries understand the folly of outright conflict.” But he added, “Our challenge is to ensure that our deterrence holds strong for the long haul, across all realms of potential conflict.”

He went on, “That means that our view of deterrence has to rise above the old stovepipes that can build up in any big organization. Deterrence in the space and cyber domains, and nuclear deterrence itself, shouldn’t be seen as somehow entirely separate from the sweep of our operations. Truly powerful deterrence doesn’t rely on any particular platform or service. It relies on the networks we all build across the force.”

He said, “In space, for example, integrated deterrence would mean ensuring that capabilities like our Global Positioning System can continue even if adversaries attack it with missiles, cyber tools, or space-based weapons. Integrated deterrence could also mean employing cyber effects in one location to respond to a maritime security incident hundreds of miles away.”

As a former combatant commander, Austin said he knew “the temptations and the impulses, the desire to preserve what you believe is your equity. I indulged in that kind of thinking myself back in the day. But I also see what’s coming. And there are some old habits that just don’t serve our core mission anymore.”

Defense Under Secretary Kahl, in his June speech, expanded on Austin’s approach saying “He’s talking about deterrence…that is integrated across nuclear, conventional, space, cyber, informational — deterrence across the spectrum of conflict. So, everything from high-end nuclear and conventional conflict scenarios on one end, to hybrid and gray zone competition on the other end. He means integrated across the instruments of national power. Since many of the things we need to be doing to deter don’t necessarily fall in the military domain, it may be elements of our diplomacy or economic statecraft or intelligence and information operations. And then lastly, integrated across our allies and partners, because the distribution of power is changing, and the real ace in the hole for the United States is the fact that we are the only country that has such a robust network of allies and partners.”

Austin has proposed a new way of looking at deterrence which all but guarantees that when the Biden National Defense Strategy emerges this winter, it could well be far different from any Pentagon strategy paper that preceded it.

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