WASHINGTON ― Amid pressure from U.S. lawmakers, the White House is weighing a September rollout for its long-delayed National Security Strategy, now being rewritten to emphasize Russia alongside China following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Defense News has learned.
President Joe Biden and his administration has been making a full-court press in Congress to pass signature legislation aimed at competing with China economically and technologically, but his National Defense Strategy remains secret, fueling frustrations from Capitol Hill that open discussions about strategy-driven budgeting are being hamstrung.
The White House roll-out of its overarching National Security Strategy can’t come soon enough for national security-focused lawmakers on both sides of the aisle because the unclassified version of the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, now four months old, is behind it in the Biden administration’s queue.
The White House contends the broader document needed extra time after the invasion and a personnel shakeup on the National Security Council, but, even from within Biden’s own party, the heat is on. Mandated by Congress, the strategy helps lawmakers weigh the president’s national security priorities for budgeting, shows allies and adversaries those priorities and helps government officials speak with a single voice on national security matters.
“We keep making clear that this is a necessary requirement for the Senate and insisting [the strategy come] as soon as possible,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Defense News last week. The benefits “are a coherent operational view of the world, starting with threats, and then capabilities against those threats. It gives us insight into how much to fund and where to fund.”
‘Impeding our ability to do our jobs’
Then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 strategy is best known for its profound shift away from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars toward prioritizing China and Russia ― a focus that’s since driven innumerable national security budget and policy decisions in the U.S. and among allies. In Washington, the recommendation from the National Defense Strategy Commission for 3%-5% annual defense spending increases became an oft-repeated Republican talking point in Capitol Hill budget debates.
By law, Congress must establish its Commission on the National Defense Strategy no later than 30 days after the defense secretary submits the strategy, but congressional leaders have so far named only a handful of the eight members. According to Reed, Congress must first wait for the unclassified strategy.
Where Trump in 2018 issued a 14-page unclassified summary of his National Defense Strategy, Biden has so far released only a two-page summary in March, with the promise of a fuller version later. In the meantime, lawmakers have had access to the classified defense strategy, but because it’s considered secret, they are barred from discussing it publicly.
The National Defense Strategy is traditionally followed by other topic-specific reviews focused on nuclear weapons and missile defense.
In recent days, lawmakers on the armed services committees have included near-identical language in the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2023 that would order the Pentagon to submit both a classified and unclassified National Defense Strategy ― an expansion from the “summary” required under existing law.
“The unclassified version of the Trump administration strategy was pretty beefy, and it was a document serious enough that we could have a conversation about it in public. Now what we’ve gotten from this Department of Defense is just a fact sheet, and that fact sheet actually says nothing,” said one Republican aide who was not authorized to speak with the press. “I just think it’s a massive middle finger to the Congress.”
Members of Congress are not only seeking answers about how to fix defense industrial base weaknesses laid bare by U.S. efforts to arm Ukraine from its own military supplies, but they’re getting deeper into their debate of the federal budget and mammoth NDAA for 2023.
So far, lawmakers have yet to reach a spending deal, but increases backed by the armed services committees would rebuke Biden’s $802 billion request and instead approve more than $850 billion.
“It has made it very difficult and we’ve expressed our aggravation with the administration — both me and Adam Smith — about it,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said, referencing the panel’s chairman. “We’re gonna go on and do our work. If they don’t want us to factor in what they think, we’re going to do it our own way.”
Smith, in a statement, downplayed those concerns, saying the committee had been aided in its work by its access to and briefings on the classified version, but didn’t deny pushing the administration to release its strategy.
“I do agree that we should get an unclassified version as soon as possible, but we do already have some very deep visibility on the NDS, and that visibility is informing the work of the committee,” said Smith, D-Wash.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, wants to discuss how, in his view, the strategy’s view of China’s designs on Taiwan are clearer-eyed than Trump’s in 2018.
Inhofe in April called for the administration to let Congress know when lawmakers can expect the National Security Strategy, but has yet to receive a timeline, he said in a statement last week. There are “zero excuses” for delaying public debate and “a lot of reasons to move faster,” he said.
“It’s way past overdue, and it’s impeding our ability to do our jobs — and help the military get what it needs, according to the strategy itself,” Inhofe said.
“We know China is our pacing threat — this strategy does a good job of laying that out — and we know the world has gotten even more dangerous since the last National Defense Strategy was released four years ago, but it’s hard to impress on the American people the scale, scope and urgency of the challenges we face if the strategy isn’t public.”
“There’s also some things in the strategy I’m concerned with, and we need to debate those things in public,” Inhofe added.
The Defense Department said in a statement it would release the unclassified National Defense Strategy “after the President’s National Security Strategy is published.” Its classified strategy “was released on March 28, 2022 to inform the budgetary process, and the Department is currently focused on NDS implementation,” said Pentagon spokesman Oscar Seára.
Not ‘China down, Russia up’
While the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents aren’t public, the strategies themselves have not been a complete mystery.
Just 45 days into Biden’s administration, he took the unique step of publicly issuing an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, months before the administration was required to do so. Its emphasis on alliances was seen as a rebuke and reversal of Trump’s “America First” strategy ― as was the Biden strategy’s broad focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shocks associated with it, racial injustice and climate change.
Like Trump’s strategy, Biden’s guidance identified China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as potential adversaries, but Biden has drawn fire from GOP hawks for playing up diplomacy and playing down the role of nuclear weapons. The guidance also codified a call for the military to “shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapon systems to free up resources for investments in cutting-edge technologies.”
The White House had a National Security Strategy drafted in January, when it hit pause to see how the Russia-Ukraine conflict would unfold. Then in February, the official drafting the strategy, Sasha Baker, left NSC to become deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. In late April, she was replaced as NSC’s senior director of strategy by Thomas Wright, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations and foreign policy.
China and the Indo-Pacific will remain a top theme, but for Europe, the strategy will recognize the land war in Europe’s major geopolitical implications, a senior administration official told Defense News. The first six months of the war have seen NATO begin to expand and enhance its force posture, while Ukraine has fought Russia to a near standstill using western aid.
“I think it would be a mistake to look at it and say ‘China down, Russia up,’” said the senior administration official, who spoke with Defense News on condition of anonymity. “That’s definitely not the case, but it will reflect some of the big geopolitical events that we’ve seen.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a speech on May 26, called Russia “a clear and present threat” and China “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order,” but said the U.S. is determined to avoid conflict or a new Cold War.
That’s a subtly different construction from the National Defense Strategy, whose fact sheet released March 28 says it judges China as the “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department,” and identifies Russia as an “acute threat.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Pentagon leaders are caught in “an intellectual straitjacket” in their strategy’s emphasis on China, the complex future threat that they want to confront, while Russia causes the worst security crisis in Europe since 1945. The solution, in O’Hanlon’s view, is to prioritize Russia and China equally.
“There’s this sort of cognitive dissonance, where they are trying to prioritize China, even as Russia is the one that’s obviously threatening global order much more acutely. Their stance doesn’t quite accommodate that reality,” O’Hanlon said.
Beyond a geopolitical view, the strategy lays out three priorities: “integrated deterrence,” or coordinating military, diplomatic and economic levers from across the U.S. government to deter an adversary from taking an aggressive action; “campaigning forward” to build up the capability of international coalitions and complicate adversaries’ actions; and “building enduring advantages” through investing in the right technologies and people.
Military leaders privy to the classified strategy have meanwhile been linking their plans to those public principles. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Mike Gilday, recently issued an updated Navigation Plan 2022 that reframes the role of the service in terms of the strategy, saying, for instance, the U.S. needs a larger and more capable Navy to, “build enduring warfighting advantages.”
Former Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Washington needs to publicly discuss how to budget for a National Security Strategy that prioritizes China, Russia and ― potentially, given Biden’s recent visit there ― the Mideast.
“The interim strategy’s been overcome by events,” Zakheim said of the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. “That version talked about China being the No. 1 threat, but we’ve done so much for Ukraine and will continue to do so. And the president’s visit to the Middle East shows that one hasn’t diminished entirely. So it begs the question, how can we fund all of that?”
Bryant Harris contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.