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Reforming the US Military for a New Era

Bryan Clark, Timothy A. Walton & Dan Patt

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The Look Ahead Series is a collection of policy memos examining the challenges that political, military, and business leaders must contend with today to ensure a secure, free, and prosperous world tomorrow.


The United States will enter 2021 facing an array of security, public health, and economic challenges that should shape the next presidential administration’s defense strategy. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is our most immediate concern, the United States also faces threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where General Secretary Xi Jinping’s vision of national rejuvenation seeks to restore his country’s primacy in world affairs. In the process, Xi would subordinate the United States, along with its friends and allies.1 The PRC will be empowered in this effort by its strong post-pandemic economic position, which could allow it to continue entangling partner nations in damaging economic relationships while modernizing the People’s Liberation Army to rival US and allied forces in relevant scenarios.2

However, the administration that takes office in January may have difficulty finding money to address the pandemic’s continued economic impact and the challenges posed by the PRC. US public debt is at more than 135 percent of gross domestic product, the US government has incurred record-breaking federal deficits, and interest on the debt risks crowding out future discretionary spending on everything from infrastructure to military hardware.3

The next national security strategy will need to chart a course toward improved US and allied security within the government’s resource constraints. An essential element of future US strategy should be catalyzing the efforts of manufacturers, universities, laboratories, and suppliers in the National Security Innovation Base (NSIB). This community underpins American economic strength, supports the US military, and generates new technologies and concepts like those that enabled US predominance at the turn of this century. An invigorated NSIB could help carry the United States toward a successful whole-of-society competition against the PRC without breaking the federal budget.

The administration will need to complement its broader governmental and commercial security initiatives with a new approach to defense. Some tenets of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) remain sound, including its emphasis on using dynamic force postures and distributed operations to deter aggression.4 Other elements—such as prioritizing lethality or attrition above the force’s overall effectiveness and separating concept development from modernization—fail to exploit changes in the character of warfare and emerging technologies.

The team that takes office in January should address the evolving strategic environment and the shortfalls of 2018’s defense strategy through three lines of effort: accelerating introduction of new force designs that better integrate decision-centric operational concepts with new technologies; implementing new priorities in force employment; and managing personnel in ways that attract and retain people with needed skills who can enable faster introduction of new capabilities.

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