WASHINGTON ― The Biden administration laid out a national defense strategy aimed at China, which it views as America’s most consequential strategic competitor, and Russia, which it sees as an “acute threat” capable of cyber and missile attacks on the U.S.
The administration’s first National Defense Strategy highlights Beijing’s growing military strength as well as its provocative rhetoric and coercive activity toward Taiwan as part of a broader pattern across the Asia-Pacific region. The 80-page unclassified version comes six months after it was sent to Capitol Hill and two weeks after the White House released its long overdue National Security Strategy.
“The NDS bluntly describes Russia as an acute threat, and we chose the word ‘acute’ carefully,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters. “Unlike China, Russia can’t systemically challenge the United States over the long term, but Russian aggression does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s reckless war of choice against Ukraine, the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II, has made that very clear for the whole world.”
Pentagon officials said they did not substantively change the strategy, which was completed in March, in response to Russia’s 8-month-old invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the U.S. has sent more than $17 billion in military aid to Ukraine, the fight has severely degraded Russian forces and Moscow is threatening to employ nuclear weapons.
A senior Pentagon official told reporters there was “overlap” between how the Pentagon is meeting challenges from both countries, particularly through investments in cyber, space and undersea capabilities, among others. “I like to think of it as the ‘two for one,’ if you will,” the official said.
The Pentagon is dealing with Russia’s threats to escalate the war in Ukraine, China’s reaffirmation of threats to annex Taiwan by force, an increasing alignment between the two, and mounting nuclear concerns from North Korea and Iran.
The Ukraine crisis delayed the rollout of the White House’s overarching National Security Strategy, which was released Oct. 12. The administration initially planned to release the strategy in February; that delay also encompassed the defense strategy.
The National Defense Strategy’s centerpiece is “integrated deterrence,” or coordinating military, diplomatic and economic levers from across the U.S. government to deter an adversary from taking an aggressive action. But it also stresses “campaigning” to build up the capability of international coalitions and complicate adversaries’ actions.
It also calls for making “the right technology investments” as it points to new threats from space weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, and new applications of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. Along with investments in directed-energy and hypersonic weapons, the strategy says it would be a “fast-follower” where market forces are driving commercialization of capabilities the military would use, like artificial intelligence, autonomy and renewable energy.
The Nuclear Posture Review, also released Thursday, emphasizes the need to modernize nuclear forces and highlights the dilemma of deterring two nuclear-armed competitors, Russia and China. It emphasizes the need to maintain robust nuclear command, control and communications through satellites and cyberspace.
Biden came to office championing nuclear weapons reduction, and the strategy stresses efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. But administration officials acknowledged that arms control efforts have been stymied by China’s refusal to participate.
Though the document calls for the B83-1 nuclear gravity bomb to be retired and development of the sea-launched cruise missile to be halted, Congress appears poised to preserve the latter, amid support from top generals, through the 2023 defense policy bill. The administration is yet to decide on how it will approach its plan to retire the B83.
Administration officials previewing the strategy said the sea-launched cruise missile and gravity bomb had been deemed unnecessary after broad consultations in and outside the Defense Department.
When asked what message Putin would receive from any move to scuttle the nuclear-armed SLCM, Austin defended the U.S. nuclear arsenal’s ability to deter Russia.
“As you know, our inventory of nuclear weapons is significant. And so we determined, as we looked at our inventory, that that — you know, we did not need that capability,” Austin said of the SLCM-N. “We have a lot of capability in our nuclear inventory, and I don’t think that sends any message to Putin. He understands what our capability is.”
The strategy’s force-planning construct aims for the ability to respond to short, small-scale crises without substantially impairing its readiness for high-end conflicts with Russia and China.
“Our force posture will focus on the access and warfighting requirements that enable our efforts to deter potential PRC [People’s Republic of China] and Russian aggression against vital U.S. national interests, and to prevail in conflict if deterrence fails,” according to the document.
That will include investments in cyber, space and undersea capabilities in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, a senior defense official said, as well as exercises in those areas.
“And so as we understand our posture, how do we make sure that we don’t just think about sort of folks on the ground, which is just our more traditional view, but, for example, in our space capabilities?” the official said.
Though officials have been mum on any negotiations about changing the mix of forward-deployed and rotating troops abroad, defense officials in recent years have put both of those possibilities on the table.
“My advice would be to create permanent bases, but don’t permanently station,” Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee in April. “So you get the effect of permanence by rotational forces cycling through permanent bases.”
At the time, the U.S. had mobilized roughly 20,000 troops to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calling into question whether a more robust presence in Europe would be necessary going forward.
In the preceding years, the Army had closed some of its permanent garrisons in Germany and replaced that posture with heel-to-toe rotational deployments.
And in Asia, the discussion of whether tens of thousands of permanently based troops in Japan and South Korea is the best way to deter China and North Korea has continued.
In 2021, the Army announced it would move an artillery headquarters from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to South Korea, while a previously rotational attack helicopter presence would also be permanently based in South Korea.
“I don’t think we’re looking to have fixed bases in fixed places, right?” a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command official told reporters in 2020. “I think that’s, one, too expensive. Two, I think that you rely, then, on all of the agreements that you have to have to do that, and time.”
“The Department is establishing a new framework for strategic readiness, enabling a more comprehensive, data-driven assessment and reporting of readiness to ensure greater alignment with NDS priorities,” the new document reads, but the senior defense official didn’t offer any details on what that should look like.
The strategy itself describes an approach where ships, aircraft and other capabilities will be deployed, keeping in mind that they must be preserved long enough to have a clean handoff when new technology goes operational, with no gaps in availability.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.