The U.S. National Defense Strategy calls for increased investments to “restore warfighting readiness and field a more lethal force” capable of defeating aggression by the nation’s most capable adversary states. This is warranted: War gaming and analysis done at the think tank Rand point to troubling trends in the capabilities of U.S. and allied forces relative to those of key adversaries.

  • U.S. and allied forces today could not expect to be able to defeat a short-warning Russian invasion of the Baltic states.
  • China’s growing military capabilities, combined with unfavorable geographic asymmetries, raise questions about the future credibility of U.S. security guarantees to Taiwan.
  • U.S. and allied forces lack satisfactory answers to the growing threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Congress has registered its concerns as well. The Senate’s version of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, seeking to strengthen the defense secretary’s hand in shaping the defense program, calls for a new position of assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, assessments, readiness and capabilities.

These are salutary developments that can help put U.S. forces on a path toward recovery. But to be most effective, the NDS and the steps mandated by the NDAA must be accompanied by actions that cannot be directed by strategy or mandated in law. Most importantly, the secretary and deputy secretary of defense should engage personally in a thorough review of the major war-fighting challenges facing U.S. forces and options for reshaping the defense program. Over the next 12 months, they should implement a five-step process:

1. Glean. First, empower someone within the Department of Defense to gather, review and synthesize existing assessments of the war-fighting scenarios encompassing the state adversaries in the DoD’s “four plus one" problem set: China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. The “gleaner” should create four presentations that, collectively, would constitute a baseline assessment of the programmed joint force’s ability to achieve war-fighting objectives against each of these state adversaries.

2. Engage. Next, the secretary should sponsor a series of meetings of the Senior Leadership Council or other senior groups to review each of the four assessment briefings. These meetings would ensure that all senior stakeholders share a common picture of the state of affairs.

3. Focus. Next, there should be a fifth meeting to discuss a (short) list of priority challenges facing U.S. forces. The challenges should be cast at the operational level of warfare. The secretary could table the draft list at the meeting and invite comment, putting out the final list shortly after the meeting. Once approved and promulgated, the list could be used to focus concept and capability development efforts, with an eye toward filling the most serious gaps and shortfalls in capabilities, as revealed by the assessments. Getting there will require new hardware, but also new operational concepts and enhanced regional force and base postures.

4. Incentivize. Once the list is finalized, the secretary and deputy could announce that, beginning in six months, they will begin to review proposals that address each of the priority operational challenges and start to allocate money to develop and evaluate the most promising concepts. This is critical: If the “prize” for coming forward with the best new concept for, say, defeating advanced integrated air defenses is to have an unfunded mandate added to one’s program of record, the leadership is unlikely to spur much innovation. Rather, the leadership must declare and then demonstrate that money will flow to organizations that bring forward winning concepts.

5. Share. When the secretary is satisfied that the department has satisfactory briefings that present the DoD’s assessments of the adequacy of programmed U.S. forces vis-a-vis their adversaries, he or his representative should brief congressional committee members and staff.

The actions recommended here are intended to spur rapid action to address the most serious operational challenges facing the DoD. If this effort were to prove fruitful, the secretary could take steps to improve the analyses that underlie force development in the DoD.

Specifically, the secretary should ensure that, going forward, the Office of the Secretary of Defense has the ability to produce credible assessments of the ability of programmed forces to accomplish assigned missions in realistic conflict scenarios. Today, the joint community’s efforts in this regard are scattered, poorly documented and largely unheeded.

The approach advocated here has the potential to address the causes of the DoD’s lagging response to the changing security environment. Specifically, this approach could:

  • Create a mechanism for ensuring that the defense community’s assessments of the “state of the force” are reviewed by the DoD’s leadership and relevant audiences in Congress.
  • Make provisions for improving the quality of those assessments over time.
  • Change for the better the incentives that components have for developing innovative capabilities and concepts.

David Ochmanek is a senior defense analyst at the think tank Rand.

More In The Americas