Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Does the 2011 National Military Strategy fail to satisfy the requirements of U.S. law?

As you may have noticed, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff released the 2011 update to the National Military Strategy a week ago today. I've seen it asserted that the Chairman is required to review the strategy every two years, but only required to publish a new one when changes are necessary; I can't locate that provision in the law, but I might be missing something. (I've been going through Title 10 over the last couple of days. Don't ask. 10 U.S.C. Sec. 153 (d): "Not later than February 15 of each even-numbered year, the Chairman shall submit to the [Congressional defense committees] a report containing the results of a comprehensive examination of the national military strategy.") In any event, this is the first NMS to be published since 2004.

I sat down and read the NMS the morning it came out, and I'll admit that I wasn't terribly impressed. But I didn't write about it, because frankly there's just been too much going on. And that may be exactly what the Chairman and the SECDEF were hoping: that everyone would be too busy to really look at the thing. Not only does it suffer from many of the same failings as the National Security Strategy (namely: failure to actually be a strategy), but it seems to me that it fails to satisfy the statutory requirements that bear on the CJCS. So I'm going to go through the bit of the U.S. Code that specifies what "each report on the examination of the national military strategy" must include and just take a quick glance at whether or not that happened. You with me?
(A) Delineation of a national military strategy consistent with [the NSS, the QDR, and the SECDEF's required reports]
Ok, yes, we have a document called "the National Military Strategy." I'll let lawyers decide whether its not actually being a strategy is a violation of the spirit of the statute, but we'll give them a pass on this one.
(B) A description of the strategic environment and the opportunities and challenges that affect United States national interests and United States national security.
There is definitely a section entitled "Strategic Environment" (section II, page 2). Let's ignore the fact that it's merely a restatement of the same specious vagaries about "demographic trends," "nonstate actors," "weapons of mass destruction," "global commons," etc. that appear in every "strategy" or operating concept published by the Department; we'll give 'em two for two so far.
(C) A description of the regional threats to United States national interests and United States national security.
This wholly absent from the document. Threats are simply not discussed outside such vague assertions as "states with weak, failing, and corrupt governments will incresingly be used as a safe haven for an expanding array of non-state actors that breed conflict and endanger stability" -- and that's in the "strategic environment" section. The NMS does deal with several geographic regions individually in the section detailing the third "National Military Objective," to strengthen international and regional security. But this bit lays out U.S. goals and priorities in each of the regions, not "a description of regional threats."
(D) A description of the international threats posed by terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and asymmetric challenges to United States national security.
Again, there is no description of these threats, but merely an assertion of them as a feature of the "strategic environment." The word "asymmetric" is used only once in the document, in the context of desired U.S. space capabilities: "Joint Forces will... maintain symmetric and asymmetric capabilities to deter adversaries [in space]," which doesn't even make any damn sense. (What is an "asymmetric capability"? Here I feel compelled to paraphrase Conrad Crane and note that there are only two types of warfare: asymmetric and stupid. But asymmetric capabilities? Can anyone give me an example?)
(E) Identification of United States national military objectives and the relationship of those objectives to the strategic environment, regional, and international threats.
As noted above, the NMS does identify four "National Military Objectives": 1) Counter violent extremism; 2) Deter and defeat aggression; 3) Strengthen international and regional security; and 4) Shape the future force. It's not clear to me that the document identifies or explains "the relationship of those objectives to the strategic environment, regional, and international threats," seeing as threats are basically not identified at all, but this provision of the law could probably have been written more clearly.
(F) Identification of the strategy, underlying concepts, and component elements that contribute to the achievement of United States national military objectives.
This is what the entire middle section of the document is meant to accomplish, but it's a pretty poor show. I don't see a lot about underlying concepts (except "leadership") or component elements, or really much of anything beyond "this is what we want to do" without a whole lot of detail on the "how."
(G) Assessment of the capabilities and adequacy of United States forces (including both active and reserve components) to successfully execute the national military strategy.
If I've never read a National Military Strategy in my life and I'm trying to imagine what it should look like from reading the law, this is the section I'm going to focus on. Strategy -- as we've discussed many times -- is about means, ways, and ends. Objectives, of course, are the ends. Concepts of operation and force employment are the ways. Capabilities and resources are the means. You work backwards from what you need to accomplish (ends), figure out the mechanisms through which those things are accomplished (ways), and then identify and budget for the necessary tools (means). So yeah, an assessment of the adequacy of your capabilities is pretty freakin' important to understanding the risk you accept when implementing a particular strategy. More on that in a second.
(H) Assessment of the capabilities, adequacy, and interoperability of regional allies of the United States and or other friendly nations to support United States forces in combat operations and other operations for extended periods of time.
Probably shouldn't shock us that there's no assessment of partner forces' ability to support U.S. operations when there's not even an assessment of U.S. capabilities.
(3)(A) As part of the assessment under this subsection, the Chairman, in conjunction with the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commanders of the unified and specified commands, shall undertake an assessment of the nature and magnitude of the strategic and military risks associated with successfully executing the missions called for under the current National Military Strategy.
This is a separate subsection of the bit that pertains to the NMS; it's not something that is mandated for inclusion in the report, but a task the Chairman is expected to perform as a part of the broader review process. There's nothing that says he has to put the results of this assessment down on paper, but it sure would be nice to know, huh? Of course, in order to perform an assessment of strategic and military risk vis-a-vis the current strategy, you have to have a real strategy, right? You have to have clearly outlined missions, right? As should be pretty plain by now, that seems to be a bridge too far.

So what did we get? Well, we got plenty of meaningless boilerplate like "Leadership is how we exercise the full spectrum of power to defend our national interests and advance international security and stability." We got a restatement of a whole bunch of vague principles of national security and military force. We got a paean to the power of the interagency. We got a potentially meaningful hint that the outgoing Chairman sees a need to rebalance our military posture in favor of traditional missions and away from the sort of manpower-intensive land wars represented by current operations. But we didn't get real strategy. Here's how the document concludes:
This strategy is derived from a thorough assessment of the strategic environment and how to advance our national interests within it. It describes how the Joint Force will redefine America’s military leadership by enabling whole-of-nation approaches to address national security challenges. It calls for a broad portfolio of leadership approaches – facilitator, enabler, convener, and guarantor - to address problems that are truly international in nature. Our leadership approaches magnify the capabilities we possess, making them just as important to assuring favorable outcomes. Our ability to lead will determine how well we advance America’s interests through this strategic inflection point.
Um, right. So we use leadership to assure our interests. Which we advance to assure our leadership. Uh, and so on.

Congress should really be outraged about the whole thing. Presumably they enact laws for a reason, and they should either insist upon their satisfaction or take them off the books. Do I think this disappointingly shallow public-relations document represents the entirety of the U.S. military's efforts to think through global challenges, develop appropriate capabilities, and do the real scutwork of strategy development? No, I don't. But the weakness of this statutorily-mandated review is emblematic of a bigger, more meaningful failure in that regard, and the failure of Congress to perform due oversight helps to perpetuate that failure.


  1. Enjoyed the post, and agree wholeheartedly with what you've said about the weaknesses of the NMS. Yet, reading it and your post, I can't help but say a piece in defense of the ole CJS. Granted, he should probably be complying with the letter of the law, but that aside:

    The distinct (and glaring) weaknesses of the NMS seems to me to stem directly from the utter lack of strategic clarity from the civilian policymakers. The way civil-military relations are setup, the "ends" need to flow from the President through the SECDEF. The military's role then becomes to develop the ways and elucidate the means for Congressional approval. Obviously, this is a simplification and there is some blurring and overlap, but that's roughly how it is supposed to work. Take away the ends, and, as you indicated, darned near impossible to develop ways or evaluate means.

    I don't see how the CJS is supposed to delineate a "national military strategy consistent with [the NSS, the QDR, and the SECDEF's required reports]" when not one of those documents has itself delineated a clear, consistent national strategy or even coherent set of strategic priorities or objectives.

  2. Stilicho -- I'm with you on this, and it should be clear from my criticism of the NSS (and of the fact that we don't even HAVE an updated NDS) that I see the failure of the civilian leadership to elaborate real strategic objectives as a major, major problem. But the NMS should still elaborate clear and meaningful military objectives and then explain how they'll be attained. It's a bit like a campaign support plan to the "national campaign plan" of the NSS, to use explicitly military terms of reference.

  3. Isn't the "real problem" that the U.S. currently doesn't have any "real ennemies" except maybe Iran ?
    Venezuela is way to small to really matter and still sells you oil. Russia isn't a friend but not an enemy either. Same for China. Both are needed to run the world in an orderly fashion.
    Do you really want the President come out and say "China and Russia are potential ennemies, her's "my" strategy how to cut them down to size if they get uppity".
    Sure, this would fulfill the requirement of the law, but there is a catch: wrt to foreign policy and military matters, POTUS is granted lots of leeway by the US constitution and it's nowhere near certain that COngress could constitutionally force the President to publish such a paper if the President judges that doing so would create problems for his foreign policy ...

  4. Positroll -- You're muddling up the NSS and the NMS. Yes, the president is granted leeway to conduct foreign and security policy. No, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should not shirk his statutory responsibility to present a comprehensive report on the national military strategy, including all of the specified elements. If he needs to do that in a classified format, I'm sure it can be accommodated.

    Also: no one said anything about "enemies," but rather threats.

  5. Wait -- I thought our "national strategy" entailed keeping the revenue stream of Lockheed Martin et al fat and deep and sweet. Surely by that criterion WE'RE NUMBER ONE, right?
    -- sglover

  6. But is it politically practical for civilian leadership to advance their foreign policy objectives in a document like this? They have their own operating concerns, and this WH has taken plenty of heat over their approach to foreign policy without making explicit statements for vultures in the punditocracy to leap on.

    I think there's a good argument to be made about the strategic failures of modern civilian leaders in our system, but fixing on this as the case in point is misguided.


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