Op-Ed: Trump National Defense Strategy Marks Near-Peer Rivals Return

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, officers and soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy hold a welcome ceremony as a Russian naval ship arrives in port in Zhanjiang in southern China's Guangdong
Military.com | By

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker.

The Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986 requires the president of the United States to submit yearly to Congress their administration's National Security Strategy (NSS).

That report is supplemented by two additional reports. The National Defense Strategy (NDS), produced by the secretary of defense, lays out how the Defense Department will execute the president's NSS. A second report, the National Military Strategy (NMS), by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, describes how the military command will implement the NSS and NDS.

Past presidents have been lax in following through on the requirement of submitting a yearly NSS. In eight years in the White House, Barack Obama bothered to submit the report only twice. President George W. Bush didn't do any better, also submitting the report twice over the two terms of his presidency.

In response, Congress, in the 2017 Defense Spending Authorization Act, reaffirmed the requirement of the secretary of defense to submit to Congress a National Defense Strategy.

National Security: A New Strategic Focus

On Dec. 18, the Trump Administration outlined its National Security Strategy. That strategy outlined four principal objectives: protect the homeland, promote American prosperity, preserve peace through strength, and advance American influence. The document was presented as the implementation of the Trump Administration's America First Strategy.

A month later, on Jan. 19, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis released the DoD's National Defense Strategy. This was the first NDS in a decade.

Much of the report is classified. The 11-page unclassified summary, however, underscores a sharp reorientation of U.S. strategic priorities. Climate change, an issue that the Obama administration called one of the most important strategic threats to American security, is not even on the radar.

Except for climate change, the strategic threats identified in the NDS are consistent with those identified by the Obama administration. What is different is their relative ranking in priority -- a policy that will spell major changes in military strategy and procurement.

Russia and China are identified as revisionist powers whose attempts to remake the international system pose "the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security." The return of big power rivalry in an increasingly multipolar world is presented as the defining element of the international environment.

The report claims that both Moscow and Beijing seek to intimidate their neighbors, striving to have the power to "veto other countries' choices." China was singled out for what the report called "predatory economic policies" and its continued militarization of the South and East China Seas.

Terrorism from transnational organizations is acknowledged as a security threat, as are the policies of regional rogue actors such as North Korea and Iran in promoting local instability.

In his presentation of the NDS at a speech on Jan. 19, at the John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, Mattis characterized U.S. military strategy as emerging from a period of "strategic atrophy." The NDS contends that the United States must make a significant financial investment in its military to overcome its consequences.

Specifically, it calls for strengthening military alliances around the world and reaffirms the centrality of the American multilateral mutual defense treaties. It also calls for creating a larger, more agile military. In addition, it urges a revamping of the DoD's weapons acquisition programs, so weapons and military hardware are deployed more quickly.

The strategy also advocates enhancing the lethality of American military forces, greater deployment of autonomous robotic weapons, modernizing missile defense and nuclear weapons, and deploying U.S. forces to fight from smaller, dispersed bases.

One of the recurring themes in the NDS is the importance of American economic power as a foundation of American military and strategic security. Describing the document as a "clear-eyed" appraisal of the international environment, Mattis went on to add, "This required tough choices -- and we made them based upon a fundamental precept: Namely, that America can afford survival."

For the first time in a generation, the NDS returns the strategic focus of U.S. defense policy to competing with near power rivals in a multi-polar world. The era of unrivaled American power that emerged following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 has officially ended.

In the NDS, Mattis also pointed out that the military edge historically enjoyed by the U.S. has eroded and that, "America's military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield."

There are inherent risks in drawing conclusions from an 11-page summary when most of the report remains classified. Moreover, the strategic objectives outlined in the report have to be translated into budget priorities.

It is in budget priorities that the hard decisions between strategic choices have to be made. Ultimately, where the Pentagon wants to spend its budget and where Congress will let it, will say more about America's security doctrine than a strategy document.

Nonetheless, the NSS and the NDS have clear objectives, ones whose milestones can be identified and whose potential repercussions can be anticipated.

Implications of China as a Great Power Rival

The U.S. is reaffirming its pivot to Asia and the centrality of China in American strategic thinking.

The Trump Administration is clear that it is pivoting the focus of U.S. policy to Asia. The Obama Administration had announced an Asian pivot, but largely failed to follow through. Its primary focus emphasized, instead, the multilateral trade agreement represented by the Trans Pacific Partnership. The Trump Administration quickly repudiated the TPP and withdrew U.S. participation immediately upon assuming power.

Although both China and Russia were identified as revisionist powers whose challenge to the international order posed a strategic threat to the U.S., it is China that is identified as being, ultimately, the most significant challenge. That's because China is a rising power whose growing economic strength has already financed a substantial modernization of China's military and will continue to drive the expansion of its capabilities.

That means economic policy toward China can't be divorced from the security threat posed by rising Chinese military strength. If the Trump Administration is serious about challenging China's ambition for regional hegemony in East Asia, then it will also have to deal with what it describes as Beijing's unfair economic competition, which is, in part, financing that military expansion.

The Trump Administration has several ways of responding to unfair Chinese competition short of an outright trade war. These include impositions of selective tariffs, creation of administrative and regulatory barriers, legal challenges to the source of underlying intellectual property, and so forth.

Of course, China can do the same thing and has done so in the past. Even if both sides want to avoid an all-out trade war, Chinese countermoves to a tit-for-tat response may make a trade war difficult to avoid.

So far, the Trump Administration has been vague about what steps it would take to reverse the trade gap with China other than suggesting the imposition of blanket tariffs to combat what it sees as currency manipulation and unfair competition.

U.S.-China trade has been growing. In 2017, the U.S. replaced the European Union as the largest exporter to China. Notwithstanding the growth of Chinese imports from the U.S., however, its exports to the U.S. are growing even faster, and the trade gap is widening rather than shrinking.

Moreover, a trade war with China may have far-reaching domestic political consequences. There are 22 states whose largest import source is China. Roughly half of these are red states. There are five states whose largest export market is China, three of which are reliably red states.

With the 2018 midterms just around the corner, an aggressive China strategy could produce a domestic backlash that might well put control of the House of Representatives into play.

As Chinese industry, especially its electronics sector, becomes increasingly more technologically sophisticated, its growing role in the Asian supply chain is assuming national security implications. A confrontation with China could result in critical electronic components becoming unavailable.

Moreover, there is also the risk that China's military could develop an ability to interfere remotely with the proper functioning of those components. These kinds of "back door scenarios" into American military systems have long been a favorite of fiction writers and are a popular theme in thrillers. While this is still a remote possibility, its far-reaching consequences mean that the DoD can't be oblivious to it.

If the Trump Administration is preparing to more resolutely challenge China, then it is likely to seek to de-escalate the confrontation with Pyongyang. Beijing has skillfully played the North Korea card, cooperating with Washington on the imposition of ever increasing economic sanctions and, in doing so, successfully deferring any U.S. moves against China's trade practices.

Since Pyongyang has given no indication that it is willing to abandon its nuclear program, de-escalation means accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea. Despite continued American threats to opt for a military response, it's hard to see how, given South Korea's unwillingness to support it, a military response is viable. De-escalating the confrontation with Pyongyang may simply reflect the present reality.

Outside of a confrontation over North Korea, the issue where Washington and Beijing are most at odds is China's ongoing militarization of the South China Sea. China has persisted with creating artificial islands from existing reefs in the region and with establishing military bases on them.

The U.S. has responded with Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) exercises where U.S. warships pass within the 12-mile territorial limit claimed by China around these artificial islands. China's actions in region, as well as its continued military buildup, have resulted in increasing military cooperation between Japan, the U.S., India and Vietnam.

Essentially, the U.S. has responded legalistically and diplomatically to China's actions in the East and South China Seas. While Beijing is unhappy about the U.S. response, it has not changed its plans in the region.

Indeed, China has claimed that American opposition to its militarization of artificial islands in the region is forcing it to "accelerate" its program.

Otherwise, Beijing is relying on a combination of Chinese investment and trade development to persuade its neighbors to accept Chinese actions in the region while relying on a combination of unofficial trade boycotts, the discouragement of Chinese tourism and other economic and diplomatic disincentives, to punish its more vocal neighbors.

There is one other aspect of Sino-American rivalry that was not explored at length in the public summary of the NDS but is already a source of significant concern within the Pentagon. China is emerging as a major source of technological innovation in peripheral areas, such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence and quantum communications, for example, that may have far-reaching military implications.

Experimentation on human subjects, for example, is considerably laxer in China than it is in the U.S. The Pentagon believes that China may be already, or is at least seriously considering, experimenting with the genetic enhancement of humans to optimize their battlefield capabilities. This is the stuff of science fiction, but more practical applications -- i.e., enhanced eyesight, better endurance, etc. -- are likely to be within grasp over the next several decades.

In its heyday, the Soviet Union proved to be technologically adept at developing new weapons systems, but in these sorts of peripheral areas it lagged significantly behind the U.S. China does not yet have as broad or as sophisticated an R&D infrastructure as does the United States, but is making rapid strides in creating one.

Recognizing the emergence of China as America's principal near power rival does not mean that a U.S.-China confrontation is imminent, nor does it mean that a trade war is just around the corner. The focus of the NDS is to ensure that the U.S. retains and enhances its capability to deal with a near-power rival like China, should it need to, not immediate confrontation.

What confrontation might occur will likely be gradual, by degrees rather than an ultimatum, and will ultimately be designed to show Beijing that cooperation with the U.S. rather than confrontation is in China's long-term best interest. What it does mean, however, is that economic competition between the U.S. and China is now squarely on the table as a critical component of U.S. national security.

Déjà-vu All Over Again: The Return of Russia as a Great Power Rival

Despite the Kremlin's attempts to project the image that it has restored Russia's status as one of the world's superpowers, the recognition of Russia as a near-power rival does not herald a return to the rivalry of the Cold War, nor does it require the same type of military response.

Russia is a declining power. Time may favor China, but it does not favor Russia. Beset by declining population, a stagnant economy and an overreliance on the extraction of commodities to drive economic growth, Russia cannot compete economically with the United States. Russia's GNP is roughly equivalent to that of Texas. While Texas has a formidable economy, it hardly qualifies it for the status of a military superpower.

The Soviet Union was a nuclear armed superpower, however, and Russia has retained a large amount of the USSR's military infrastructure. That alone makes it a significant military power, even if large parts of that infrastructure are badly in need of modernization.

Russia has a competent military. Although it lacks the ability to engage in an arms race with the U.S., and it lacks the ability to project military power simultaneously around the world in a significant and sustained way, it does have the ability to project military power around its periphery, principally in the former Soviet states that surround it, and in the former members of the Warsaw Pact.

In recent years, the Kremlin has emphasized its military standing by restoring Soviet-era air and naval patrols around the world and by frequently testing the air defense capabilities of its Eastern European and Scandinavian neighbors and over the U.S. and Canadian arctic.

While such incidents raise alarms, they are little more than empty gestures; they seem of little practical consequence beyond their propaganda value for domestic consumption.

Russia also has the ability, as its intervention in Syria demonstrated, to use its military forces to tip the balance in a local conflict to its preferred side. That does not make Moscow a superpower, regardless of what the Kremlin would want to make the rest of the world believe.

It does make Russia a dangerous opponent -- one that can be expected to act to stymie U.S. foreign policy objectives where it can. In addition, it still retains the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Where Russia has emerged as a significant challenger to world order is in its ability to weaponize the public space.

It's clear that Kremlin proxies interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections and attempted to create social unrest and discord. While it is highly unlikely that they affected the outcome of the election, they did succeed in casting doubts about the legitimacy of the election outcome and in further polarizing American society.

To be sure, they are not the cause of that polarization. We accomplished that dubious distinction entirely on our own, but their disinformation campaigns have certainly encouraged the mistrust and rancor that characterizes American politics today. Moreover, it is equally clear that this was not an isolated act but part of a broader Kremlin strategy to undermine the U.S. and its allies.

Disinformation has long been one of the black arts practiced by the Kremlin, dating back to the early years of the Bolshevik regime.

The digitization of media, however, has meant that such tactics have a far further reach than before and can be implemented much more anonymously than in the past. Moreover, over the last 30 years, digitization of media has made Western societies much more accessible to foreign influencers.

At the height of the Cold War, for example, the idea that the Soviet Union would have been allowed to operate its own news channel over American airwaves would have been preposterous. It certainly would not have been allowed.

Russia Today (RT), a Kremlin proxy, can operate in the U.S. subject only to having to register as a foreign agent. The U.S., on the other hand, cannot operate a comparable news channel within Russia.

Likewise, China can operate China Global Television Network (CGTN) in the U.S., even though the U.S. has no reciprocal right to do so in China.

Cyber warfare is another area where Russia has shown itself to be particularly adept, both at infiltrating and disrupting computer networks around the world, and in doing so anonymously. The implementation of expert systems within the infrastructure and industrial plants of the U.S. and their increasing linkage has also made those systems highly vulnerable to disruption by hackers.

Isolated computer "glitches," either accidental or possibly deliberate, such as problems in the scheduling systems or power supply of a single airport, can cause widespread havoc around the United States that can take days to remedy.

We simply can't imagine nor are we prepared for what a widespread cyber warfare campaign, involving dozens if not hundreds of disruptions, could do to the U.S.

The U.S. response to the challenges posed by Russia appears primarily twofold: to strengthen alliances with nations on Russia's periphery, which are most vulnerable to both overt and anonymous attack by the Kremlin or its proxies, and to improve U.S. capabilities in cyber warfare

For all practical purposes, this is a modern variant of the containment strategy that underlaid American policy to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That policy will likely take the form of strengthening multilateral alliances like NATO, as well as bilateral defense treaties with those countries most vulnerable to Russian pressure. The challenge for U.S. policy is that the threat perception among NATO members posed by Russia varies widely.

The prospect of Russian armies rolling across Western Europe to the channel is virtually nil. Russia poses little military threat to the countries of Western Europe, although its ability to disrupt elections and sow social turmoil remains significant.

Former Soviet republics, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, and the former members of the Warsaw Pact, however, see Russia as a present and real threat.

The challenge for Washington is to maintain the relevance of NATO at a time when some of its members no longer feel threatened by Russia and to get the organization to spend more on its collective defense, while at the same time strengthening the defense of NATO's East European members.

The NDS strongly implies that the focus of increased U.S. defense spending will be in Asia, while Washington is looking for Western Europe to take more responsibility and a greater share of the financial burden of its collective defense.

That's consistent with the White House's past position. It also means that despite the reorientation of U.S. strategic doctrine toward dealing with near-power competitors, the Trump Administration's complaints about European free riders are not going away.

The NDS also calls for enhancing U.S. capabilities to fight in cyberspace and in what the Pentagon calls the "grey zone."

The Trump Administration's National Security Strategy and the DoD's National Defense Strategy have correctly identified China and Russia as two near-power competitors that pose the most significant long-term threat to America's position in the world.

This is not, however, a return to the bipolarity of the Cold War.

The international environment today is significantly different than it was in the post World War II-Cold War period. For one thing, the U.S. is facing two near-power competitors, not one.

Moreover, China is not simply sliding into the role previously held by the Soviet Union. Beijing poses not just a military challenge but an economic and technological one on a scale that the USSR never did.

Having identified the principal threat to American security and how this administration intends to reconfigure the American military to respond to it, we shall now have to see how and when that strategy gets implemented and what it means for U.S.-China and U.S.-Russian relations in the years ahead.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.