Five Key Questions to Ask About the National Defense Strategy 2021

 In Proving Ground

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will lead a revision of the defense strategy to fit the Biden Administration’s policy priorities – and its budget plans.

At his confirmation hearing, Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the “core concepts” of the current National Defense Strategy 2021 are “fundamentally sound.”

The broad embrace of much of the existing National Defense Strategy reflects a broad consensus on how to reshape US forces in light of China’s rapid closing of longtime US advantages in capability and regional capacity.

The Biden Administration is likely to advance what Deputy Defense Secretary nominee Kathleen Hicks called an “innovation superiority” strategy while she was with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

This strategy focuses resources and reforms to usher in new concepts and technologies that reimpose US military advantage over adversaries.

The strategy emphasizes investment in a familiar array of technologies:

  • Hypersonics,
  • 5G,
  • AI and machine learning,
  • Robotics and autonomous systems,
  • Attritable air and space vehicles,
  • Digital design,
  • DevSecOps, and others.

These will be very similar to priorities advanced under the Trump Administration, but the Biden team can be expected to impose some new labels.

However, trying to advance similar goals as outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, but with a smaller budget, raises five critical questions the Biden Administration will need to resolve in the National Defense Strategy 2021:

  1. Where does the DoD topline budget end up?
    It will be weeks before we see the FY22 President’s Budget request. And it could be months before an agreement on discretionary spending gets hammered out between the White House and narrow Democratic majority in Congress. But an FY22 topline of about $708 billion, growing at a rate of 1.4% through FY26 is Avascent’s current base case estimate. This would require cuts from the FY21 Trump plan in all major accounts.
  1. How big a cut will be made to the Army?
    The next defense strategy could decide to take more risk in the amount of resources devoted to land forces. This may affect a mix of Army endstrength, force structure, and modernization. How will the Army prioritize reductions? The Army may need to reconsider the balance it has struck across its six cross functional teams. The severity of belt tightening, the progress of projects through development and testing, and the influence in Congress and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense will be key signposts to watch.
  1. How will the Services take risk in readiness?
    If DoD needs to generate savings for modernization, it may have little choice but to take risk in operations tempo and readiness, which require robust growth in operations & maintenance accounts. The Services may each have different tolerances for lower readiness and different approaches to making trades.
  1. Any change in approach to nuclear modernization?
    Modernization of strategic nuclear forces was perhaps the top priority in the Trump Pentagon, propelling the Columbia-class submarine, the B-21 bomber, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, Long Range Standoff Missile, and other elements of the nuclear infrastructure modernization program. This Biden Administration will look to renew the New START strategic weapons limitation treaty with Russia. That will not obviate the underlying modernization requirements. But budget limits and hopes for further strategic limits could lead the new administration to explore a more go-slow approach to some elements of the strategic deterrent portfolio. The fact that the major pieces of the portfolio are already under contract could limit the administration’s freedom of movement, however.
  1. Will Congress curtail legacy programs to help fund next-generation capabilities?
    This is a central tenet of the National Defense Strategy, but one the Congress has consistently, decidedly declined to implement. The incoming DoD leadership is likely to take the same view on the need to trade off current capability to invest in the future. But it seems unlikely that the Biden Administration will get a lot more cooperation from the Congress in making painful decisions than the previous Administration did.

These are the largest of the “major muscle movements” that might reshape the Pentagon spending and capabilities. It is notable that only the middle two, involving the rebalancing of Service shares and force management practices, are mostly within DoD’s own control.

Failure to get good outcomes on the total budget or on critical portfolio trades could force the new DoD leadership team to rely more on pushing its internal trade space to make progress on strategic priorities.

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