The Pentagon has a new National Defense Strategy (NDS), and, on Friday, released an 11-page summary of it. Signed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, the NDS flows from the broader national security vision outlined in President Donald Trump’s recently signed 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), and it replaces the formerly required Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). As a foundational matter, we admittedly do not have access to the full contents of the more comprehensive classified version, but it’s fair to assume that the summary provided to the public serves as an accurate proxy. Like most strategic documents of its nature, it has been both praisedand criticized on various grounds. And it also raises some important questions.
One remarkable feature of the document is that it makes clear that terrorism is not the highest-priority issue, placing “inter-state strategic competition” as “the primary concern in U.S. national security.” To some, this assertion might suggest that the Pentagon is willing to acknowledge that it may not need to maintain a wartime posture in order for the country to address terrorism.” And the opportunity to focus on other, more threatening issues seems promising. Whether this is a harbinger of an end to the “Forever War” is yet to be determined, however, as reality demonstrates that the Trump administration still uses military force to confront terrorism around the world, seemingly with carte blanche from Congress.
Yet the document is just as striking for what it omits as it is notable for what it asserts. Two significant exclusions in the NDS summary demand a closer look and further analysis: climate change and the expanding role of special operations forces.
First, the document follows the lead of the recently released National Security Strategy in omitting any reference to climate change. This is disappointing. When the Pentagon began discussing climate change, the military became a noticeable and credible voice in the discourse surrounding the issue. Even as early as 1990, a military assessment notedthat “nearly all areas of operational effectiveness are threatened by these environmental changes should they occur.” And the defense community has only grown more aware of climate change’s national security impacts since then. The Bush administration first included climate change in the 2008 NDS, and the Obama administration highlighted it rather prominently in both the 2010 National Security Strategy, mentioning it 28 times, and the 2015 National Security Strategy, listing climate change as one of the top eight strategic security risks facing the nation. And both the 2010 and 2014 QDRs featured climate change’s myriad national security threats, with the latter affirming that it “may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity” of future military missions.
In addition, the NDS does not mention the Arctic (which is mentioned only passingly in the 2017 NSS) and does not meaningfully touch the issue of energy security (which, concededly, is addressed in the 2017 NSS). But the Pentagon has a clear interest in confronting both topics. The NDS prominently features both Russia and China in its section on the strategic environment, and both countries have moved aggressively in the Arctic in recent years. Russia is expanding its military presence in the Arctic, and China is seeking new Arctic trade routes. The Arctic region is uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but alas, the NDS omitted any reference to it. What is the vision for the military’s presence in that part of the world in light of our changing climate and its increasingly understood effects? Relatedly, a continual focus on energy security should both save the Department of Defense significant money and empower troops in the field who remain vulnerable due to substantial supply lines associated with delivering fossil fuels.
Interestingly, both Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford have explicitly identified climate change’s security implications. And Mattis, in particular, has highlighted the importance of energy innovation on the battlefield, previously exhorting policymakers to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”
Given these statements and the Pentagon’s previous clear-eyed outlook on climate change, the sudden about-face in the new NDS is puzzling. Did senior Trump administration officials, who are hostile to the idea of addressing climate change, intervene? Did the Pentagon want to avoid creating friction with Trump’s political circles over the climate change issue, thereby creating space to continue addressing the issue without drawing too much scrutiny?
With these lingering questions about climate change, it’s important to be frank about what the NDS really is and is not. It is a statement of defense priorities and values. As such, the words used in the document do carry weight—for both domestic and foreign audiences. Considering this dynamic, it would have been ideal for Mattis to include the issue, and its absence from the document is discouraging.
The NDS, however, is also not a binding, controlling, and exhaustive blueprint for the Defense Department’s activities. Department of Defense Directive 4715.21, issued in 2016, outlines policy and responsibilities for “climate change adaptation and resilience.” Until this directive is rescinded, it still governs. And in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the Pentagon to prepare a report assessing not only risks to military bases but also the threats that climate change poses to security interests worldwide. There is also nothing technically stopping the Pentagon from preparing to respond to these threats, including extreme weather disasters and potential resource conflicts.
So, regardless of the Trump administration’s political rhetoric and dismissive attitude on climate change, the Pentagon will almost certainly continue addressing the issue. It still has the authority to do so, and it would be irresponsible not to. It’s just unfortunate that the administration has put the Pentagon in a position where it might be more prudent to bury its strategic analysis and climate plans. And it’s even more troubling that the Pentagon won’t be joined by the rest of the federal government in what could be a comprehensive effort to help adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Special Operations Forces
Second, the NDS omitted any explicit mention of the rise of special operations forces (SOF) as the U.S. military’s tool of choice. And it has been a staggering rise. Consider the numbers: Around the time of the 2008 NDS, special operations forces reportedly operated in roughly 60 countries, but that number has more than doubled to an estimated 138 countries. That’s 70 percent of the countries in the world at last count. Beyond Middle East deployments, special operations forces are increasingly deployed to places such as Africa, South America, and Europe on wide-ranging missions. The increased reliance on SOF has coincided with elevated numbers of personnel dedicated to the mission, a larger SOF budget, and expanded authorities. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) now has approximately 70,000 personnel assigned to its headquarters and subordinate commands. Its budget has more than tripled, and it is now charged with leading all U.S. efforts to counter weapons of mass destruction. And SOF are increasingly employed alongside the CIA and non-military elements, muddying the lines between traditional military activities and covert actions. The government’s role in a covert action, according to existing law, is not intended to “be apparent or acknowledged publicly.” The issue is not necessarily that SOF are involved in some covert actions, but rather that such activity might consume an expanding amount of what would otherwise be an attributable and publicly noticeable war effort.
The utilization of SOF is a brilliant tactical tool available to the president and the national security apparatus more broadly, but it cannot solve all problems. And special operators are increasingly overworked and operate in perilous environments, conducting the most dangerous missions on behalf of our nation. Indeed, in a recent yearlong period, two-thirds of all American troops killed in action served in special operations units. The classified version of the NDS may address the precise role of SOF in the larger defense strategy, but based on the lack of insight in the publicly available NDS, important questions arise. Are we asking too much of SOF personnel and their families? Will SOF continue to be called upon to shoulder the burden of achieving our military objectives? The NDS discusses “Dynamic Force Employment,” which is described as a “concept [that] will change the way the Department uses the Joint Force to provide proactive and scalable options for priority missions.” What, even in general terms, is the role of SOF in this force posture?
The omission and ambiguity related to SOF shine a spotlight on a deeper issue. We live in a democracy, which means that the government should be accountable to the people for its decisions to use military force. But the American public has little to no understanding of the immense role of SOF in conflicts and operations worldwide. When four members of a SOF unit were killed in Niger in October, even U.S. senators claimedthey were unaware of the U.S. troop presence in the country. Under these circumstances, how can we reasonably expect average Americans—with little information and very few, if any, direct connections to the military—to develop informed views about the decisions that political leaders make, largely unbeknownst to the public, to deploy our military so extensively? And with wars that seem nearly invisible to the public, can we really expect Congress to feel enough constituent pressure to revisit the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) debate? Right now, in order to learn something about the true extent to which our military is used, Americans would likely have to proactively dig through media reports or discreet official documents. Addressing the role played by special operations forces in the NDS—one of the Pentagon’s more noteworthy reports—would not solve this problem, but it would help, even if only slightly.
It’s also worth noting that the NDS rightly identifies that our military should be “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.” It is not only understandable but also advisable to classify operational details related to SOF. Yet maintaining secrecy for such matters and making an official, strategic outlook for the use of SOF public are not mutually exclusive. That is, the government need not compromise tactical capabilities and sensitive operations in order to give America some basic clue as to how it utilizes SOF. The 2006, 2010, and 2014 QDRs, for example, all included sections addressing SOF, apparently without endangering their missions. And after all, the government has seemed to blur the lines between operational and strategic matters by using specialized units more and more to achieve strategic goals. How is there any strategic predictability in obscuring the fact that the U.S. so actively deploys military forces to conflicts in order to pursue these objectives? If it seems counterintuitive, you’re right: As the role of special operators has become more central in our wars, the new NDS brings a decline in strategic transparency on the issue.
Make no mistake—the National Defense Strategy is laudable for many reasons. But the document should have addressed climate change and special operations, given the unavoidable role they play in how and where the U.S. military operates—now and in the future. Instead, basic questions related to these topics remain unaddressed or unanswered. Eventually, though, the issues will likely catch up with us, and the government will have to answer to the public.