WASHINGTON — Released with little fanfare July 2, when most of the national security world was focused on the upcoming holiday, the Pentagon's 2015 National Military Strategy serves as a window into a unique time for US security, as the Pentagon grapples with threats from state and non-state actors alike.
However, analysts warn that the document talks too much in generalities while failing to provide much in the way of hard guidance for how the Pentagon should move forward on the major issues of the day.
"Since the last National Military Strategy was published in 2011, global disorder has significantly increased while some of our comparative military advantage has begun to erode," Dempsey wrote in his introduction to the strategy document.
"We now face multiple, simultaneous security challenges from traditional state actors and transregional networks of sub-state groups — all taking advantage of rapid technological change," Dempsey continued.
That is a major shift from where the Pentagon was in 2011 under then-Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, said Katherine Kidder, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
The 2011 strategy, she said, was largely focused on non-state actors. While the fact China could grow into a regional superpower was apparent, its aggressiveness in the region was not expected — and the idea that Russia would invade one of its neighbors and set off a European-wide security panic was certainly not on the table.
"In the Cold War you saw state-on-state violence, but not as much sub-state violence," Kidder said. "In the post-Cold War era you see the concerns turn to the non-state actors."
Now, however, "the growth of tensions with China and with Russia — which look very much like the Cold War — simultaneous with the rise of ISIL and al-Qaeda, you now have an environment with the worst of both worlds," she said.
The strategy specifically calls out Iran, Russia and North Korea as aggressive threats to global peace. It also mentions China, but notably starts that paragraph by saying the Obama administration wants to "support China's rise and encourage it to become a partner for greater international security." This continues to thread the line between China the economic ally and China the regional competitor — something Rebecca Grant with IRIS Research said is a "bad choice of words, at a minimum."
"None of these nations are believed to be seeking direct military conflict with the United States or our allies," the strategy reads. "Nonetheless, they each pose serious security concerns which the international community is working to collectively address by way of common policies, shared messages, and coordinated action."
Later, the strategy authors note that "today, the probability of U.S. involvement in interstate war with a major power is assessed to be low but growing."
In fact, the lack of specifics is a problem all five analysts interviewed for this piece honed in on.
The document may paint a good picture of where things are today, but that doesn't make it a strategy paper, Grant said.
She called the document "a faded and jaded rehash that's too coy about real threats," and noted that there is very little serious discussion about how to deal with those concerns.
"Air Force Space Command and the president's national security strategy tell us to start preparing to defend space control. This NMS hardly mentions space," she said. "We are putting tripwire forces into Europe — where's our clear statement about NATO and Russia? Apparently North Korea can hit our territory with missiles. Where's the strong statement on missile defense priorities?"
Calling it a "strategy" may be a bit of a stretch, said Andy Hoehn, senior vice president of research and analysis with Rand and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.
"A strategy in this regard ought to be telling us how we will be using resources to accomplish objectives. It never really gets to that," Hoehn said. "As a white paper it serves a good function, but real strategy, in this instance, isn't something we're likely to post on a website."
The lack of hard budget discussion was one letdown for Hendrix, who noted, "there is exactly three sentences in this document that goes to resources."
While the words "budget" and "sequestration" appear nowhere in the document, the strategy does acknowledge that "resource shortages" will remain a major factor in any actions the US considers.
Also drawing mixed reviews was the decision to include language pertaining to military ethics and personnel issues. Kidder believes the inclusion of those discussions shows how much the military has changed on the issue in recent years.
"This is the kind of thing that two or three years ago we couldn't even have had a conversation about," Kidder said. "The fact it's in the strategy goes a long way."
Dakota Wood with the Heritage Foundation, however, said, "I don't know how those are relevant to a strategy document to dealing with threats outside border. It should have been in a white paper."
It also provides a roadmap for what his successor, Marine Commandant Gen. Joe Dunford, will have to deal with over the length of his term.
"This is a good swan song for [Dempsey] to go out on, to say 'these are the issues, you need to prepare for the fact the military will face long-term conflict,'" Kidder said. "There's an extra urgency added to it as he's going out the door."
Hendrix, however, says it is "unfortunate" that the paper came out so late in Dempsey's term.
"Does it in fact handcuff Dunford as it comes in? I don't think it will, but it would be really nice to see what Gen. Dunford's thoughts would be within the first nine months of his chairmanship."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.