As Ashton Carter prepares for his Senate confirmation hearings, he will need to consider not just defense budgets but the creation of new strategies and operational capabilities to meet 21st century geopolitical challenges.

But with his experience and skills, Carter can use the next two years to design changes to significantly improve US national security capabilities. Here are six key areas where American security demands innovative strategic development:

Building partnership capacity. The collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the face of the Islamic State's advances illustrates the difficulty of developing the forces of another country. Multiple billions of dollars were spent to build up those forces and several of America's best generals led the program at various times. By contrast, the Islamic State developed its forces with substantially fewer resources, as did the Taliban in Afghanistan, and yet they have done very well against American-trained forces.

The US generally builds forces to its own model, which works well when one has America's resources. Few countries have such resources, however, and the question is how to build forces in constrained circumstances. Partnership capacity is especially important as the US defense budget is under limits.

Countering violent extremism. One of the key issues for the Middle East and Africa is the spread of violent extremism. Why such extremism appeals to its adherents and how to reduce that appeal are critical questions. To be sure, this may not involve guns as much as other capabilities. Ever since Sun Tzu's Art of War, it has been recognized that a vital military question is how to achieve success without the necessity of battle.

Effective use of force. The United States is fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Our capacity to put weapons on target is excellent and we have even organized a useful (and still-developing) coalition, but as the outcomes in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the results have often been less than desirable. The problems arise from a combination of strategic and capability deficits. Winning the battles is not the same as winning the war. Building effective governance is key, and here DoD must partner with the State Department, which itself needs restructuring for this task. But most important will be a strategy for Iraq and Syria that takes into account the needs of our allies, most particularly Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

Cyber. The capability of cyber attackers has been well documented. Most recently, the head of US Cyber Command raised the specter of a significant attack on critical American infrastructure and shortly following that, a private firm reported on substantial Iranian capabilities to that effect. While the economic effects on companies like Target may not rise to a national security level, infrastructure such as the electric grid, water and the financial system are a different matter.

DoD has done some important work with its research programs through the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, but it is past time to bring such capabilities on line.

Countering subversion. Russia's incursions into Ukraine and other actions in the Baltic area have raised the issue of dealing with subversion supported by outside resources. For the Ukraine situation, the West has relied on sanctions, but the results are far from clear. Development of border control, intelligence, police and information capabilities could play an important role in Eastern Europe.

Creating a stable Asian defense strategy. The development of Chinese military power and the aggressive pursuit of maritime claims has raised key defense issues in the Pacific. The United States has five treaty allies there as well as partners who are confronting Chinese activities. But the US and China share significant interests so there is great value in establishing stability.

The recent development of an air-sea strategic approach to respond militarily to Chinese aggression has undesirable escalatory implications; it implicitly contemplates attacks on China's mainland. While that possibility should not be taken off the table, a far more stabilizing defense strategy would envision limiting Chinese advances without the necessity of escalation. Proposals have been made to improve defense in the maritime arena, including through sea denial.

The secretary of defense cannot do all this work himself, but he can place it at the highest priority level for the department and its private sector partners. He can especially establish focused task forces with the brightest minds to develop solutions.

As he has written in a different context, the "upper echelons of the department cannot simply issue policy guidance; they need to focus on specific threats and capabilities gaps."

As in his prior positions, Carter should use all his skills for innovation to get the department to do more than their "day jobs" and meet the actual challenges that have gone unresolved.


Franklin D. Kramer is a distinguished fellow and board member at the Atlantic Council and a former assistant secretary of defense. Hans Binnendijk is a former National Security Council senior director for defense policy and is currently a senior fellow at the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations

More In Commentary