WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has developed a national defense strategy targeting China, which it views as America’s key strategic competitor, and Russia, which it views as an “imminent threat” capable of cyber and missile attacks on the United States
The government’s first national defense strategy highlights Beijing’s growing military strength, as well as its provocative rhetoric and coercive measures 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 imminent threat, and we chose the word ‘acute’ carefully,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters. “Unlike China, Russia cannot systematically challenge the United States in the long term, but Russian aggression poses an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ruthless electoral campaign against Ukraine, the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II, made this clear to the entire world.”
Pentagon officials said they had not changed significantly the strategy, which was finalized in March, in response to Russia’s eight-month-old invasion of Ukraine. Since then, the US has sent more than $17 billion in military aid to Ukraine, the battle has severely weakened Russian forces, and Moscow is threatening to use nuclear weapons.
A senior Pentagon official told reporters there are “overlaps” in the way the Pentagon is tackling challenges from both countries, particularly through investments in cyber, space and underwater capabilities, among others. “I like to think of it as ‘two for one,’ if you will,” the officer said.
The Pentagon is addressing Russia’s threats to escalate the war in Ukraine, China’s renewed threats to forcibly annex Taiwan, a growing alignment between the two, and growing nuclear concerns from North Korea and Iran.
The Ukraine crisis delayed the launch of the White House’s overarching National Security Strategy, which was released on October 12. The government initially planned to publish the strategy in February; This delay also included the defense strategy.
At the heart of the National Defense Strategy is “integrated deterrence,” or the coordination of military, diplomatic, and economic levers across the US government to deter an adversary from aggressive action. But it also emphasizes “campaigns” to build the capabilities of international coalitions and complicate opponents’ actions.
It also calls for “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. Alongside investments in directed energy and hypersonic weapons, the strategy says it would be a “rapid successor” where market forces drive the commercialization of capabilities that the military would use, such as artificial intelligence, autonomy and renewable energy.
The Nuclear Posture Review, also released Thursday, stresses 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 took office to advocate for nuclear weapons reduction, and the strategy emphasizes efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. However, government officials acknowledged that arms control efforts have been hampered by China’s refusal to participate.
Although the document calls for the B83-1 nuclear gravity bomb to be phased out and development of the sea-launched cruise missile halted, Congress seems poised to get the latter through the 2023 Defense Policy Act, with the backing of top generals. Administration has yet to decide how to approach its plan to retire the B83.
Government officials previewing the strategy said the sea-launched cruise missile and gravity bomb were deemed unnecessary after extensive consultations inside and outside the Defense Department.
Asked what message Putin would get about an attempt to destroy the nuclear-armed SLCM, Austin defended the US nuclear arsenal’s ability to deter Russia.
“As you know, our stockpile of nuclear weapons is substantial. And so, when we looked at our inventory, we realized we didn’t need that capability,” Austin said of the SLCM-N. “We have a lot of capacity in our nuclear inventory and I don’t think that sends a message to Putin. He understands what our abilities are.”
The strategy’s force planning construct aims to be able to respond to brief, minor crises without significantly compromising readiness for high-level conflicts with Russia and China.
“Our force posture will focus on the access and warfare requirements that enable our efforts to deter potential PRC [People’s Republic of China] and to deter Russian aggression against vital US national interests and to triumph in the conflict when deterrence fails,” the document said.
That includes investment in cyber, space and underwater capabilities in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, a senior defense official said, as well as exercises in those areas.
“And if we understand our posture, how do we make sure we’re not just thinking about people on the ground, which is just our more traditional view, but about, for example, our space capabilities?” the official said.
Though officials have remained silent throughout negotiations to change the mix of forward-deployed and rotating troops abroad, defense officials have brought both possibilities to the table in recent years.
“My advice would be to build permanent bases, but not station permanently,” Army General 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 having rotational forces circulating through permanent bases.”
At the time, the US had mobilized some 20,000 troops into Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raising questions about whether a stronger presence in Europe would be necessary in the future.
In previous years, the Army had closed some of its permanent garrisons in Germany, replacing this stance with toe-to-toe rotational deployments.
And in Asia, debate continues over whether having tens of thousands of permanently stationed troops in Japan and South Korea is the best way to deter China and North Korea.
In 2021, the Army announced it would move an artillery headquarters to South Korea from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, while a previously rotating attack helicopter presence would also be permanently based in South Korea.
“I don’t think we want fixed bases in fixed locations, do we?” A US Indo-Pacific Command official told reporters in 2020. “I think that’s too expensive. Second, I think you then rely on all the arrangements you need to have to do that and on the time.
“The Department is establishing a new strategic readiness framework that will enable more comprehensive, data-driven assessment and reporting of readiness to ensure better alignment with NDS priorities,” the new document said, but the senior defense official did not give any details of how it should look like.
The strategy itself describes an approach using ships, aircraft and other capabilities, bearing in mind that they must be sustained long enough to have a clean handover as new technology comes into service, with no gaps in availability .
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, government and the defense industry. He was previously a convention reporter.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon Bureau Chief at the Military Times. She addresses operations, policies, personnel, leadership, and other issues affecting service members.