Home / Articles / Waiting for the Documents: The Function of U.S. National and Defense Strategic Documents
We are anxiously awaiting the release of a new National Security Strategy (NSS) from the Biden administration, from which more detailed strategies will be crafted that will lay out the challenges and priorities for the U.S. national security establishment. These strategies will then provide greater detail for how the U.S. military, in particular, is expected to respond to these challenges and will guide the military services in developing their concepts and in outlining the capabilities they need. In turn, that should inform budget requests and the allocation of resources.
It all starts with the President’s National Security Strategy—in theory. This caveat is quite critical. As Mara Karlin (now serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities) and Christopher Skaluba (who served as principal director for strategy and force development in the Pentagon during the Obama administration) have observed:
The practice, on the other hand, is a messier proposition. As Peter Feaver thoughtfully explains, there are myriad obstacles to an effective process for developing strategy. The sequencing is inescapably star-crossed. The budget cycle intervenes, forcing the department to make critical decisions without an agreed-upon strategy. Real-world events might intercede to modify the direction of the discourse, as the staff working on the 2002 Quadrennial Defense Review found on September 11, 2001. Any sane Pentagon strategist is resigned to the fact that disorder is inherent to the exercise. Yet there is an often-overlooked variable that can be controlled and that is necessary to make the strategy business more orderly: less strategic guidance and clearer lines of direction.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act mandates that the Chief Executive issue a yearly national security strategy that is supposed to provide strategic guidance for the entire federal government. That requirement is often honored in the breach, with a strategy generally produced within each presidential term.
The NSS is released in the President’s name and is supposed to encapsulate his thinking, perspective, and worldview. Thus, the starting point for any draft of the NSS will be the President’s own cognitive makeup and his ideological preferences. If the President wishes the document to retain a close fidelity to his personal view, he will attempt to limit the number of people who play a role in its conception and drafting. He may be particularly attentive to efforts to turn the strategic prose into an exercise in satisficing between different bureaucratic and policy interests of the various departments of government and the political factions that make up his administration. In turn, there can be intense competition within the White House staff for who is given the ability to craft and fine-tune the President’s voice on foreign policy.
However, because the NSS is titled the “National Security Strategy of the United States,” it is impossible to exclude the different agencies and departments that make up the U.S. national security establishment from having any input or contribution to its drafting. There will be intense efforts to introduce and then defend language that is seen as vital to preserving existing programs or institutional preferences (for fear that if particular issues or regions of the world are not mentioned in the NSS, they become more vulnerable to the budget axe). As drafts of an NSS are circulated via the interagency process, there can be significant pressure to modify, insert, or delete language that would support or threaten ongoing initiatives that matter to different parts of the national security bureaucracy.
Sometimes, the compromise is to water down or eliminate specific items of language so that a degree of ambiguity is preserved. (Concepts like “strategic partnership,” for instance, were coined in an effort to avoid having to make binding alliance commitments or to take on treaty-based obligations.) Or, differences in assessment will be left unharmonized and simply appear in different sections of the document to satisfy competing constituencies—for instance, labeling a country a partner in one section of the document but describing it as a competitor or a threat in another.
Nevertheless, despite the incoherencies that may result when the President’s personal opinions (and those of his key advisors) meet and are worked through the interagency process, the NSS that emerges provides a critical first draft of what the administration sees as its strategic priorities. Usually framed in broad, aspirational language, the precepts of the NSS are meant to serve as the foundation for the strategic documents and policies of the various departments—and, in turn, their respective strategies are meant to align and “nest” within the overall NSS.
A consistent premise in American national security documents is that the expansion of commerce among nations serves as the basis for growing global prosperity and thus a way to tap down conflict. Perhaps the President and his national security team have been won over by the arguments advanced by proponents of the “great capitalist peace” theory—that countries that expand trading relations are, over time, less likely to go to war with each other because their prosperity is now mutually intertwined. Thus, encouraging trade might be identified as a U.S. strategic goal because a more prosperous world would make the United States more secure.
In turn, different departments of government will be tasked to identify ways in which they might help advance that goal. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), for instance, might take this as a mandate to negotiate further free trade pacts; the Department of Commerce could use the NSS to justify expanding its efforts to promote American business abroad—and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tsai and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have both made this part and parcel of their efforts. This goal might find its way into State Department guidance calling for expanding the economic sections of U.S. embassies and placing more emphasis on trade issues in bilateral and regional diplomacy.
For the Department of Defense, the general aspirational goals of the NSS will be interpreted and given greater definition through the issuance of the National Defense Strategy (NDS) or the Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG), a document that is developed and released by the Secretary of Defense. In turn, the National Military Strategy (prepared by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) will provide an outline of how the U.S. military will work to implement the NSS.
Expanding free trade, on the surface, is not a military mission; the Marine Corps is not in a position to negotiate free trade pacts, the Army to set regulations for technology transfer, or the Air Force to stabilize international currency markets. But the Department of Defense might look for military missions that would underwrite or secure efforts to promote free trade—which cannot take place in conditions of insecurity or chaos. Thus, the imperative to advance trade might lead DoD, as a whole, to identify the protection of the global commons as a key strategic mission of the U.S. military.
The Services, in turn, might identify even more specific tasks in their Service strategies arising from this conclusion—the U.S. Navy, for instance, might then put forward protection of the sea lanes and ensuring that sea lines of communication would remain unobstructed for the passage of trade goods and personnel as critical missions, in alignment with the President’s strategic direction.
Once strategic documents have been elucidated, different parts of the Pentagon will engage in the effort of strategic assessment to determine threats and opportunities—to include offices and staffs under the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Services, the Joint Staff (especially the J8—the Force Structure, Resources, and Assessment Directorate), and the combatant commands. In keeping sea lanes open and navigable, what might be the challenges? Is a nation-state deciding to use its conventional navy to engage in pirate attacks (as the emirates of North Africa did several centuries ago)? Is a state hostile to U.S. interests in a position to shut down a vital shipping lane that transits energy and natural resources to the American homeland or to key U.S. allies? Does the proliferation of different technologies (unmanned underwater craft or high-tech mines, for instance) empower non-state actors to target shipping either for profit or for destabilization? Are there particular areas of the world where geography or climate create special conditions for operations? As these assessments are performed, collected and analyzed, specific missions can then be identified.
Concepts (whether Service-specific or Joint—involving several different branches of the military) can then be developed to deal with likely eventualities or anticipated tasks. Concepts lay out what the military is expected to do to achieve a successful outcome and what operations would need to be conducted in support of those objectives. However, a concept on its own does not provide detailed guidance, although it describes the likely operating environment and the attributes that would be needed to achieve success. Concepts serve as the bridge from strategic guidance to the development of doctrine and the guidance that will shape the development of the force. They will also shape the development of operational plans.
As concepts are developed (for instance, the joint operating concepts, the joint functional concepts, and the joint integrating concepts), capabilities must be identified that are necessary to execute the concepts. (The Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System—JCIDS—is the process by which DoD identifies, assesses, and prioritizes what capabilities the military requires to fulfill its missions.) Capabilities are expressed in terms of tasks that must be performed—e.g., the capability to launch and recover aircraft, to conduct persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), to detect and eliminate mines, etc. As capabilities needed to carry out a concept are identified, it then becomes possible to determine whether existing platforms and forces—as well as other material and non-material solutions (such as partner capacity, actions of other departments of the U.S. government, or those of other states)—can support the execution of the concept, or whether gaps exist that necessitate new systems.
Validation of capabilities—which occurs under the aegis of the Joint Staff [via the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC)]—plays an important role in the procurement process. The combatant commands or the Services indicate what capabilities they need to carry out missions; as those capabilities are validated, they serve as the basis for the generation of requirements that, if they cannot be provided for by a non-material solution (e.g., a change in doctrine or training), will be used to justify improvements to existing systems or the procurement of new ones.
An important goal of the process is to avoid capabilities mismatches and misalignments—having a force that is trained and equipped in a way that does not possess the needed attributes to execute the concepts derived from U.S. strategy. At the same time, given the long-term nature of U.S. defense procurement—where systems, particularly naval and air platforms, may be expected to be useful for decades—it is critical that when strategies change (thus leading to changes in concepts and capabilities requirements) the possibility is left open that a platform designed to achieve one particular mission can be retooled to carry out different functions. For instance, the B-52 strategic bomber—originally designed to deliver atomic bombs against the Soviet Union—has, in a post–Cold War era, found new purpose in the types of conflicts the United States has engaged in throughout the Middle East—because of its capacity to remain in the battlespace for extended periods of time and the ability to retool the B-52 from carrying nuclear ordnance to deliver precision conventional munitions against a wide variety of targets. As we return to a period of great power competition, the original strategic mission of the B-52 is again assuming greater salience.
It is important to note that validation of capabilities is still a separate process from budgeting; validation of a capability does not mean that a system will be procured or that additional funds will be expended to ensure that the validated capability is achieved. Technological development is also a separate process—a desired capability may not be technically feasible or affordable under current conditions. Funds may be expended by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to take a capability that is not attainable under current technologies to explore what would be needed to engineer the necessary technical breakthroughs.
Thus, in theory, defense resourcing decisions flow from strategy. The platforms that are produced and a specified number of personnel who are trained and equipped to carry out discrete missions should be derived from the guidance that sets out what the missions of the U.S. military are. The major shifts that occurred in U.S. national security documents in 2017–18 “shifted the focus from wars in the Middle East to ‘near-peer’ competitors China and Russia, and influenced everything from budgets to programs to training.” What strategic changes—and shifts in emphasis—the Biden administration makes will have a similar impact, and what they choose to stress (or de-emphasize) will have a direct and measurable impact in how and where the U.S. deploys its influence.
 This reality can lead to complications because, in theory, lower-level strategic documents produced by the U.S. government and the Defense Department are supposed to be based on and guided by the National Security Strategy. Yet, even if the deadline for issuing the NSS is missed, other planning and assessment processes must continue. Planners and strategists may then need to rely on the previous iteration of the NSS, augmented by Presidential and Secretarial guidance as reflected in memoranda, statements, and speeches, to carry out their tasks. Until the Biden administration releases its complete strategy, its March 2021 “interim guidance” sets the agenda.
 Any national strategic document, issued at the Presidential level, is meant to be operative guidance for the various departments and agencies of the Executive branch and sets priorities and tasks that individual departments are then expected to address in much greater detail. For instance, the “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, “released by the White House in May 2015 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Health%20Strategy%202015.pdf), contains appendices laying out guidance not only for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture, but for the Departments of Defense and State, as to how each part of the Federal government will carry out different tasks outlined in the overall strategy.
 A related document was the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which was a Congressionally mandated document that the Defense Department was required to produce every four years. In 2016, Congress scrapped the QDR and replaced it with a requirement for the Department of Defense to incorporate QDR elements into the NDS and mandated that the NDS include:
The priority missions and key force-planning scenarios;
The projected strategic environment and the strategies that the Department of Defense will employ to counter key threats;
A strategic framework guiding how the Department of Defense will prioritize among threats and military missions, manage risks, and make resource investments;
The roles and missions of the armed forces to carry out key missions;
The size, shape, posture, capabilities, and readiness of the force, along with other elements of the defense program necessary to support the strategy;
And the investments in capabilities, structure, readiness, posture, and technological innovation that the Department of Defense will make over a five-year period to execute the strategy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.