Sunday, July 12, 2015

US National Military Strategy (NMS) Shaped by an Uncertain Strategic Environment

The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) have just released a new National Military Strategy (NMS), which forms part of the overall US defense strategy.  Janine Davidson, along with noting that the document is quite readable (only 20 pages!), breaks down what she perceives to be the five key takeaways:

 “U.S. forces must use forward presence to counter emerging threats, both state and non-state” [1]. 

The NMS discusses the emergence of ‘hybrid war’.  Global security threats are increasingly likely to have both asymmetric and symmetric components and operate across the spectrum of conflict.  As an example, “such ‘hybrid’ conflicts may consist of military forces assuming a non-state identity, as Russia did in the Crimea, or involve (extremists) fielding rudimentary combined arms capabilities, as ISIL has demonstrated in Iraq and Syria” [2].  These hybrid strategies favour the aggressor; thus, the US must place forces strategically to enable deterrence or rapid response as countermeasures [1].

“Coalition building and security cooperation are crucial, but each partnership must be tailored for the  job” [1].

Part of the strategic environment also includes the strategic situation pertaining to allies.  The US has identified that they need to operate in coalitions and assist local forces as a key pillar of their strategy.

“The U.S. military cannot solely rely on its traditional technological advantages” [1].

The NMS declares that the “current global environment is categorized by complexity and rapid change” [1] with emerging technologies providing adversaries with the ability to target or circumvent US strengths.   As Davidson notes, “Future warfighting is not just about building better robots, lasers, and satellites—it will continue to turn on smart planning and strong, creative, and empowered leadership” [1].

The threat of interstate war is “low but growing” [1].

While the world has seen a shift away from conventional conflict in previous decades, these threats have not disappeared as evident in some of the activities of North Korea, Iran, and Russia.  The probabilities of such events are low, but the NMS considers the severity of their consequences as a key factor to their inclusion in guiding strategic planning.

Figure: Continuum of Conflict [2]

“The U.S. nuclear arsenal needs an overhaul” [1]. 

The NMS states that a re-investment in US nuclear capabilities is required to address “nuclear saber rattling” [1] by Russia as well as to counter “proliferation by revisionist states” [1]. 

My Commentary:

The NMS provides a good example of appreciating the wider environment.  Several resounding themes are evident including the diversity of threats and the complex, dynamic, and unpredictable character of the security environment.  The major issue arising from this complex environment is that in order for the US and its allies to be prepared for all possible scenarios, they are required to tailor readiness activities such as capability development, training, and troop deployments towards multiple scenarios; in essence, attempting to be ‘strong everywhere’.

The NMS, for its part, acknowledges this and attempts to view its strategy from a risk management perspective, taking into account both the likelihood and consequences of each scenario.  That said, I do question as to whether or not they are seeking to do too much based on a perceived need to prepare for everything as opposed to focusing efforts on what is needed to succeed in the operations they are mostly likely to undertake.  Post-Afghanistan and Iraq reflections may lead us to believe that we are losing the ability to fight in conventional conflicts and thus, must refresh these perishable skill-sets and capabilities.  The question is whether a renewed focus on these areas will then cause us to lose skill-sets and capabilities necessary to address the non-state conflict that has become commonplace, resulting in a ‘swinging pendulum’ effect.  As such, we can see how a solid understanding of the strategic environment is critical to developing strategy; however, planners must be careful to distill what is truly important and make tough, risk-based decisions to develop a truly effective strategic plan. 

[1]  Davidson, Janine.  (7 Jul 2015).  Five Key Takeaways from the New U.S. National Military Strategy.  Defense in Depth Blog.  Retrieved 11 Jul 2015 at:

[2]  United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.  (June 2015).  The National Military Strategy of the United States of America.  Retrieved 11 Jul 2015 at:

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