UPDATE: After publication, Pat Ryder, spokesman for Gen. Joe Dunford, issued the following statement: "To clarify, an unclassified overview of the National Military Strategy is in development and will be released to the public. However, it’s important to highlight that compared to previous versions of the NMS, this document goes into a higher degree of detail on how the Joint Force will be employed to meet 2018 National Defense Strategy objectives and tackle existing and future security environment challenges. It’s because of the sensitive nature of this information and operational security concerns that the 2018 NMS will remain a classified document.

“In addition, I would point out this NMS is an excellent example of civil-military teamwork and partnership in that it takes the objectives outlined in the NSS and NDS from senior civilian policy makers and translates them into clear, executable strategic guidance for combatant commanders and service chiefs on how the Joint Force will employ, adapt, and innovate to meet the requirements of policy and defense strategy.”

WASHINGTON — Gen. Joe Dunford, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has finished his new edition of the National Military strategy — but currently has no plans to roll out a public version of the traditionally unclassified document.

“The 2018 National Military Strategy was approved by Gen. Dunford in December and submitted to the secretary of defense and Congress in accordance with statutory requirements,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Dunford’s spokesman, in response to a question from Defense News.

“The strategy is classified to enable the chairman to fully assess the joint force operating environment and provide unfettered military advice in support of the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” Ryder continued. “An unclassified version is not currently available.”

The National Military Strategy is perhaps best thought of as the operational version of the National Defense Strategy outlining how the military will execute the goals laid out in that document, which was released in January 2018. Ryder described the NMS as the “strategic framework to inform the prioritization of force employment, force development and force design for the joint force. The NMS explains how the joint force will maintain its military advantage now and in the future to implement the defense strategy as articulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy.”

Traditionally, the National Military Strategy, published at different intervals since the late 1990s, has come in an open format, including as recently as the 2011 and 2015 editions. However, in 2016, Dunford said that it was his belief the document should be more heavily classified than it previously had been.

While there currently is not an unclassified version, Ryder did not rule that out as a future possibility — and keeping the document fully classified would go against Dunford’s own comments made in the last year.

Last January, the chairman said “We’ll come out certainly with an unclassified description of it, so that we’re transparent — as we were last time.” And during a speech last July, Dunford told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that “it’s an unclassified document that has historically been written for the public. And we will certainly articulate to the public the guts of a National Military Strategy.”

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon and National Security Council staffer now with the Center for a New American Security, questions how much benefit the National Military Strategy brings given the recent publication of the National Defense Strategy — let alone the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review documents published in the last year.

“The NMS could be a useful process, but in the past it's just been a way to insert confusion and to overstress the civ-mil tensions in the department without resulting in distinct military priorities to execute the strategy,” she said.

Still, while saying it is “wise” for the Joint Staff to keep the bulk of the document classified in order to avoid worrying about public perception of their work, Schulman warned that keeping the document entirely behind walls could backfire.

Doing so would be part of “an unfortunate, and frankly undemocratic, tendency by this administration to withhold basic defense information from the general public,” she said.

“DoD believes that intensified ‘opsec’ and overall discretion is a virtue and a return to the days of the Cold War. This is a total misread of that period. It is also going to do more harm than good when they need the support of Congress and the American people,” Schulman added.

What to expect

Thematically, the NMS is expected to follow the broad layout from the National Defense strategy which prioritized dealing with the so-called “2+3” challenges to America – China and Russia as the primaries, followed by North Korea, Iran and violent extremism.

Structurally, Dunford described four key focus areas for the NMS over the summer: providing best military advice, strategy development, supporting the secretary of defense and making sure that the joint staff provides the integrating functions for war plans.

“In my mind, what the national military strategy ought to do is drive the development of our operation plans and, more importantly, drive the development of viable options that we would need in a crisis or contingency,” Dunford said.

He also emphasized that this document is being formulated at the highest levels of the Joint Staff, saying “this is not a document being written by the staff and then subsequently sent out for comment. We sit in. We’re framing the problem. We’re providing top-down guidance on each of these problem sets and then pulling that together.”

Although reluctant to get into details, Dunford did hint that part of the NMS is focused on more effective ways to use intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

“We can’t buy more Predators. We can’t have more CAPs and think that we’re getting out of the problem,” the chairman said. “So if you talk about an area where something disruptive is necessary, something innovative is necessary, it’s what information do we need to make decisions and how do we get that information is the question we’re trying to solve, not how can we afford to buy more CAPs.”

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.

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