Marco J. Lyons is a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who has served in tactical and operational Army, Joint, and interagency organizations in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and in the Western Pacific. He is currently a national security fellow at Harvard Kennedy School where he is researching strategy and force planning for war in the Indo-Pacific. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature, nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has a new classified National Defense Strategy (NDS), not yet released in an unclassified version, which is an occasion to consider what the next central defense challenge should be. The central defense challenge shapes prioritization of ends, ways, means, and helps define risk for U.S. defense policy makers.
Date Originally Written: May 15, 2022.
Date Originally Published: May 23, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: If well-articulated, the NDS-established central defense challenge can drive the defense establishment to field more relevant forces, with decisive capabilities, that are postured to bolster deterrence and assurance in ways that help the U.S. avoid great power war. The author believes the 2018 central defense challenge – revisionist power plays – should be updated based on an assessment of the emerging security environment.
Background: The first NDS of the Biden administration is complete. A classified NDS was submitted to Congress in late March 2022, and an unclassified version is planned for release later in May or June, according to a Defense Department fact sheet. The geostrategic situation is rapidly changing and where world politics and the international system are headed is hard to predict. Foreign policy expert Zalmay Khalilzad and defense expert David Ochmanek wrote in the late 1990s that the United States had not yet settled on any fundamental principles to guide national strategy. The situation doesn’t seem that different today, and American defense discussions reference various state and non-state threats as primary. Great powers, bloc-based rivalry, and the possibility of major power war seem to be on the rise. National consensus on the central defense challenge will help lay a foundation for coherent security policy.
Significance: The emerging U.S. national security situation is especially volatile with the potential for major war, protracted violent competition, and weakening international order. The geopolitical commentator George Friedman has highlighted Chinese and Russian vulnerabilities – economic and military – while emphasizing that the United States has the opportunity to be the greatest of the great powers and steer international system to peace and stability. The United States still possesses great capabilities and opportunities, but defense analysts need to clearly see the emerging situation to successfully navigate the threats and changes.
How U.S. defense leaders prioritize challenges affects foreign perceptions of American commitment. U.S.-driven sanctions and materiel aid in the current Russo-Ukrainian war demonstrate that American power will continue to be directed toward stability and improving European security. The truth remains that U.S. great power is preferable to the hegemony of any other great power in the world. Still, it is well for the United States to guard against overreaching. American policymakers face a problem of spreading national security resources too thin by prioritizing multiple state challengers, like China, Russia, and Iran or North Korea. The next central defense challenge needs to prioritize U.S. military resources, planning, and posture – the full breadth of defense activities.
More than at any time since 1991, as some kind of multipolar great power international system emerges in the coming years, U.S. policy makers can ensure the best investment in capabilities for achieving objectives over time by properly prioritizing challenges.
Option #1: The Secretary of Defense identifies China’s ability to impose regional military hegemony as the central defense challenge. This option would prioritize investing in a Joint Force that demonstrates the ability to counter hard military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has twice the U.S. number of active duty soldiers, a larger surface navy, the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile and DF-17 hypersonic missile, as well as increasingly capable joint commands. Some researchers point to China’s recent fielding of powerful space-based capabilities to allow for real-time targeting of moving targets without ground support. This option acknowledges that the geostrategic pivot for U.S. security is in Eurasia and especially the far eastern part.
Risk: Prioritizing the challenge from the PLA may embolden Russia, North Korea, and other capable threat actors as they assume American leaders will overfocus on one region and one great power rival. Development of capabilities for China and particularly the Western Pacific may leave the Joint Force poorly equipped for large-scale combined arms operations based on heavy, protected, mobile firepower and closer-range fires. A future force designed for maritime, air, and littoral environments might lack the ability to conduct prolonged urban combat.
Gain: Identifying PLA capabilities for regional hegemony as the primary defense challenge will make it easier to marshal resources and plan to employ joint forces in high-technology, protracted warfare – a more cost-intensive force development. Even a smaller-scale war with China would require prodigious amounts of long-range fires, air, surface, sub-surface, space, and cyberspace warfighting systems because of China’s potential economic and diplomatic power, and the ranges involved in reaching high-value PLA targets.
Option #2: The Secretary of Defense identifies the Russian Armed Forces’ ability to defeat U.S.-European security ties as the central defense challenge. This option would prioritize investing in a more capable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through Joint Force capabilities that are substantially more combined/coalition interoperable than today. This option acknowledges the Russian Armed Forces that invaded Ukraine in February 2022, after threatening Kyiv to varying degrees since 2014, and suggests that NATO deterrence was ineffective in convincing Moscow that military aggression was a losing policy.
Risk: Over-focusing on building alliance capabilities to counter Russian tank and artillery formations might inhibit needed modernization in U.S. air, maritime, and space capabilities, including artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and fully networked joint/combined command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Gain: The Russian Armed Forces will likely continue to rely on hybrid forms of warfare, mixing conventional force employment with irregular ways, including information and psychological warfare, due to economic limitations. Focusing on building U.S. capabilities for state-based hybrid warfare will allow the future Joint Force to operate effectively along the full spectrum of conflict.
Option #3: The Secretary of Defense identifies transregional, non-state threats like climate change as the central defense challenge. This option acknowledges that non-state threats to U.S. interests are mixing with traditional military threats to create an especially complicated security environment. Focusing on transregional, non-state threats aligns with prioritizing a stable global trade and financial system to the benefit of U.S. and partner economic interests.
Risk: The defense capabilities to address transregional, non-state threats do not have extensive overlap with those needed for state-based threats, conventional maneuver warfare, or great power war. The United States could reduce investment in great power war just when the chances of this form of conflict is rising.
Gain: Investment in addressing transregional, non-state threats could make the Joint Force more affordable in the long-term if breakthrough capabilities are developed such as new forms of energy production and transportation.
Other Comments: Core defense issues are always contentious as committed constituencies leverage establishment processes for the resources needed to realize their aims – this is true today about how to prioritize resources for the most capable future Joint Force. There are impassioned pleas for investing in military capabilities for competition, limited conflicts, and gray zone challenges. Others argue that investing for gray zone conflict is a waste. U.S. defense leaders are at a fork in the road.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,” Defense-dot-gov, March 28, 2022, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Mar/28/2002964702/-1/-1/1/NDS-FACT-SHEET.PDF.
 Zalmay M. Khalilzad and David A. Ochmanek, Strategic Appraisal 1997: Strategy and Defense Planning for the 21st Century (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1997), https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA325070.pdf. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. defense leaders have opted for ambiguity in defining defense challenges primarily because the nation faced so many. The options here assume that as the United States loses its unipolar dominance, the value of stricter prioritization of challenges will become clearer.
 George Friedman, “The Beginning of a New Era,” Geopolitical Futures, May 3, 2022, https://geopoliticalfutures.com/the-beginning-of-a-new-era/.
 Robert Kagan, “The World After the War,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-04-06/russia-ukraine-war-price-hegemony.
 Francis P. Sempa, “Our Elites Need to Recognize that America’s ‘Unipolar Moment’ is Over,” RealClearDefense, March 24, 2022, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2022/03/24/our_elites_need_to_recognize_that_americas_unipolar_moment_is_over_823466.html.
 Shawn Yuan, “Just How Strong is the Chinese Military?” Al Jazeera News, October 29, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/29/just-how-strong-is-the-chinese-military.
 Ashish Dangwal, “Shadowing F-22 Raptor – China Plans To Turn Its Low-Cost Satellites Into Spy Platforms That Can Even Track Fighter Jets,” Eurasian Times, April 8, 2022, https://eurasiantimes.com/china-plans-to-turn-its-satellites-into-spy-fighter-jets/.
 Sean MacFarland, “Joint Force Experimentation for Great-Power Competition,” Heritage Foundation, November 17, 2020, https://www.heritage.org/military-strength-topical-essays/2021-essays/joint-force-experimentation-great-power-competition.
 Justin Magula, “Rebalancing the Army for Military Competition,” Modern War Institute, April 5, 2022, https://mwi.usma.edu/rebalancing-the-army-for-military-competition/.
 Lyle Goldstein, “Commentary: The New Indo-Pacific Strategy is Too Shallow,” Defense News, February 24, 2022, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2022/02/24/the-new-indo-pacific-strategy-is-too-shallow/.