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Joe Biden's national defense strategy: Nice words, but what's new?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Joe Biden meets with Department of Defense leaders to discuss national security priorities at the White House on October 26. Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/7b0f0e98257201122aff405883137556/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
President Joe Biden meets with Department of Defense leaders to discuss national security priorities at the White House on October 26. Photo by Chris Kleponis/UPI | License Photo

Last week, the Biden administration released its unclassified National Defense Strategy.

The document was well-written and proposed several new concepts and definitions that differed from the past strategies from former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

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The aims of these two prior strategies were variants of "contain, compete, deter and if war arises defeat" China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and violent extremism. However, none of those objectives was translated into specific force structure and budget numbers, leaving open the perplexing question of how much is enough for defense. Indeed, cynics assert that the defense budget, not the NDS, determines the strategy.

The Biden NDS posited four major strategic aims: defending the homeland; deterring strategic (nuclear) attack against the United States and allies; deterring aggression and, if needed, prevailing in conflict; and creating a resilient joint force and defense "ecosystem." The means to accomplish these aims are to deter by "denial, resilience and cost imposition." And "integrated deterrence" and "campaigning" are central concepts to a future force that is "lethal, sustainable, resilient, sustainable, agile and responsive."

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Definitions of the threat have also been reworded. China is "systemic" and "pacing." Russia is "acute." And Iraq and North Korea are "persistent." But what do these terms mean for the strategy and the size and composition of future force structure and budgets? That is unstated.

Is integrated deterrence more than a new name for past "whole of government and closer allied partnership" approaches? That, too, is unclear. Likewise, is "campaigning" simply a new version of traditional "presence"? Campaigning, certainly as practiced by the British empire and the Marine Corps a century ago, was waging "little wars" and lesser forms of conflict in distant places, certainly a far different concept than today's.

Similarly, the characteristics required for the joint force from lethal to agile are not new. Substituting new terms for old ones can create the impression of innovation. However, without further explanation, renaming does not equate to creating new concepts. The same reservations apply to the "defense ecosystem." What does ecosystem mean? How is it different from a defense intellectual, logistical and industrial base and what are the consequences for strategy?

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Attached to the NDS were the Strategic Nuclear Posture and Missile Defense Reviews. The NPR called for a future deterrent force of 10 Columbia-class ballistic nuclear submarines estimated at $10 billion each, less new missiles; 100 B-21 Sprint bombers, estimated at $2 billion each; 200 B-52H modernized bombers; and 400 Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missiles with a projected 50-year total cost of about $270 billion. Based on history, these costs likely will increase. The same cost issues will affect missile defense.

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In terms of aspirations and foundational constructs and concepts, Biden's NDS provided better direction than past NDSes. However, relating the NDS to force structure and budget is missing. The current joint force consists of about 1.4 million active duty personnel and next year's budget is estimated at about $850 billion. That spending is 3.8% of GDP and, because of growth in mandatory spending, 14% of the total budget. Is that appropriate and enough? Or is it too much or too little?

Could an alternative smaller active duty force of 1 million and an annual budget of $650 billion to $700 billion meet the strategy? Some argue for spending at least 5% of GDP, equating to a larger force of 1.5 million-1.6 million and a $1.2 trillion-dollar budget, even though, short of a war, that is fiscally and realistically infeasible. This NDS is silent on how much is enough.

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Two Damoclean swords, unmentioned in the NDS, cannot be ignored: cost growth and recruitment. To pay for dramatic, uncontrolled annual cost growth in the Pentagon for every item from precision weapons and people that continue to soar, to pencils, 5% to 7% is needed. Add inflation of 8% to 9%, an annual increase in excess of $120 billion is needed just to stay even. That would bring a $1 trillion 2024 defense budget.

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Recruitment is becoming a crisis, not just a problem. With the exception of the Marine Corps, which met its numbers by increasing retention of senior personnel (that is costly and does not fill empty junior positions), each of the services failed to meet recruiting goals. The NDS makes no mention of how both will be resolved and how, if neither is, the strategic consequences.

The publicly released NDS is more a policy statement than a strategy to drive the size, deployments, composition and costs of the joint force. Perhaps the classified version does. But what is new?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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