February 1, 2018 | By Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Making Sense of Our National Defense Strategy

The United States faces a new era of great power conflict, according to the Trump administration's new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. Naval Commander Thomas Bodine joins this week's podcast to help make sense of the strategic shift away from terrorism and toward peer on peer state competition. 


[Thomas Bodine: …25 years we lived in a world that has been dominated by US, in which US power, again all instruments, diplomatic information, military and economic, were able to really answer the bell to any security issue that came up. But now have this return, this return to a multipolar world, competition, and I think that scares some people, and what I like to remind people is we were there before. We've done this before. We can rise to this challenge.

Brian Hanson: In an environment like this where we've got this new strategies identifying new threats and the need to respond to new threats, can that be done inside of a continuing resolution world or why is it important that you actually get a budget to be able to deal with this?]

This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're discussing the Trump administration's new national security strategy and national defense strategies. I'm joined today by Commander Thomas Bodine, who is a Navy Federal Executive Fellow here at the Chicago Council on Global affairs. He is also a Commanding Officer in the U.S. Navy. Tom, welcome. It's good to have you here.

Thomas Bodine: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure being here.

Brian Hanson: Recently, President Donald Trump delivered his first national security strategy in December of last year and this month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, delivered his national defense strategy as a follow-on to this strategic document, with both of these out I want you to help us understand what these documents are and how they guide strategy and decision-making. So to start off, if you could just talk about what the national security strategy is, what role does it play and how important is it? What is this thing supposed to do?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. I think to fully understand that question we got to go back to the source of it, coming out of the very epic failures in the Iran hostage crisis, followed up by Grenada and some failures there, there was a noted lack of interoperability within the services, so Congress got together and decided to solve that and they did so through the Goldwater and Nichols Act of 1986. This really forced integration within the military services.

Embedded in that act was also this piece that said, "Hey, when the president delivers his budget to Congress annually, with that he is also supposed to outline the major security issues going forward," and that has evolved into what is now known as the national security strategy. So coming out of that, that's kind of the evolution of the NSS, and then the national defense strategy is just a subordinate document for the DOD. So when you think of the national security strategy, that's kind of the whole of government strategy that the president delivers and then the national defense strategy is taking that down a step in, really, DOD.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. I think there is a classified version of this, which is much more longer and detailed, and this unclassified version that was released is 11 pages long and that's what we talk about publicly on this. You mentioned that one of the things that this does is sets out priorities, how does it differ? How has it evolved? What's called out here as the most important threats or issues? Does that change from where we were before?

Thomas Bodine: I think what you'll find in both of those documents is that they have what they like to label as a principal realism approach to threats, security issues that will affect America's vital interests now and into the future, and I think what you see from both of these documents and how they differ from previous documents is that there is an acknowledgment, a tacit acknowledgment, that we're no longer in a unipolar world driven and led by the United States. So there's this rise of state-on-state or peer-on-peer international competition which has the potential, if gone unaccounted for, has the potential to undermine really America's prosperity and peace moving forward in the future.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that really struck me in the document was a sentence that says, our competitive advantage has eroded in every domain of warfare, that's a pretty big call. So as this strategy lays out a response, what are the most important threats identified that the US military has to be able to respond to?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So it goes back, and it's very clear-eyed, and I think unlike some of the past NDS's and NSS's, so national security strategy and national defense strategy, both of these documents are very clear on the threat environment where in the past we've used very diplomatic language in defining the security environment as well as the threats associated with this one, these two documents pinpointed and are very focused in that the main priorities going in the future are China and Russia followed by North Korea, Iran, and then you have terrorism and TCO's [inaudible 00:05:22] national criminal organizations, and it's really in that order, which I think makes it notable for these two documents because they are so focused on the threat environment. So when you look now at, how do we defend against those? Well, you take a look at what Russia and China are doing, both in their aggressive actions with their neighbors, but just with their militaries individually, and you can see they're investing heavily in both capacity and capability.

Over the past 16 years, America have been in a unipolar world that allowed us to slip into what sometimes has been labeled strategic apathy, but we've had throughout all the instruments of power, diplomatic information military, economic, the ability to kind of handle, mitigate, blunt or even reverse any gains that might affect or put at risk American vital interests. That's been over the past 16 years.

Really, I would go back to maybe about 2012, maybe Mitt Romney had it right when he said, hey, Russia should be who we're looking at. These countries are investing in their military because they recognize that strong military is a way to national power, and what we've done is we said, hey, all our instruments are good enough over that 16 year period. So we've allowed ourselves to kinda go along that line and haven't really kept our eye on these other countries, and I think these two documents reversed that and say, hey, we need to look at picking up capacity and capability. We really haven't modernized and there are a lot of issues, I'm sure we'll get into that on what is delayed and for stalled modernization, some of them internal and some of them external.

Also, capacity wise, from a strength capacity wise, we're the smallest military both Army, Air Force and Navy that we've been since World War II, and size in a peer-on-peer competition does matter. So I think in both of those rounds, yes, we have lost advantage and these two documents look to reverse that.

Brian Hanson: As you point out, one of the things that these documents do is they're very specific about what the nature of the threats are, what do you see as changing because of that wen we say it's China, it's Russia, it's North Korea? You talked about the size of our force, are the implications about what kinds of forces we need more of, what kinds of forces we need fewer of? How do you see this being implemented in those kinds of decisions?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So I'll talk very broadly because I'm obviously not the expert in military affairs across the board, but I will say that when you're fighting a regional regime that is misbehaving or you're fighting TCO's, those transnational criminal organizations or terrorist groups, while they're worldwide in reach, they're usually regionally focused. You can go somewhere and get them. You can go to Afghanistan, Iraq, places in Africa and attack the root of the problem. But when you start looking at peer-on-peer competition now you're really talking about global scale, large force-on-force conflict in which air, land and sea superiority is not guaranteed, which is a little bit different than how we're used to fighting. So how your range your forces, how you equip them, the number you bring and then the whole logistics tail, which is pretty important when you think about it, the whole logistics tail to then sustain an ongoing effort of that size and magnitude, and quite honestly that intensity, is different than what we have currently.

So I think you'll see, as we ship to this strategic outlook of the world, you will see that our forces will also need to shift in capability and capacity to meet those demands.

Brian Hanson: You serve in the Navy and have for many years now, as you read this strategy do you see specific things that you might expect to see occur in the Navy in terms of building capabilities or shifting priorities?

Thomas Bodine: Yes. So in the Navy there's a big push to 355 ships, we're currently at around 280, so that in and of itself I think is in line with this strategy. Now, that push internal to the Navy came out before this strategy, but I think is in line and helped informed by some of the same security environment that informed the national security strategy and formed the Navy's decision in that method. So we will need just more, in general more.

Within the Navy, when you start looking at peer-on-peer competition, the Navy is also responsible for one leg of the nuclear triad, and that's the ballistic missile subs, so I think we're going to see, and already are seeing, the revamp and modernization of those forces to help ensure that our nuclear deterrence remains a credible threat. You're going to see additional capacity and capability within our submarine force. And then within our destroyer and cruiser force, I think we're looking at ways to increase capacity there because one of the big issues, especially with North Korea is the threat of a nuclear missile hitting the homeland. Well, BMD has provided-

Brian Hanson: Ballistic missile defense.

Thomas Bodine: Yeah, sorry, ballistic missile defense is provided by US naval ships and those are high demand, low density assets, and I think we're going to look to add to the number of those. So I think when you talk about where does this strategy affects the Navy, I think those are some pretty big points to start from.

Brian Hanson: Do you see other developments in other services that would be driven by this strategy as well?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So going along that same line of ballistic missile defense, you're seeing the Army reap the benefits, especially in their missile defense forces, the acceleration of not only THAAD missile systems, which are highlighted at least in the South Korean, Chinese row that just occurred. So the ballistic missile defenses there are definitely getting an upgrade, and that's on the Army side. Most notably, you see the Air Force is starting to develop their follow-on strategic bomber, which is in line with that nuclear triad and nuclear deterrence modernization.

And I think if you look across the four structure, beyond just everybody kind of feels like, hey, we need to have more to meet those Chinese or Russian threats, you can see a increased emphasis on cyber security, cyber hardening, AI. In that whole cyberspace realm I think you're going to see more just capability and capacity being built into those areas, which maybe you didn't necessarily need as much of when you're fighting rogue regimes or terrorist organizations.

Brian Hanson: So we've talked about hardware, the other piece obviously is people, who are a huge and essential part of the military, there's been a lot of discussion about readiness of forces and depending on what people are talking, they're talking about 50% of the forces being undeployable, or whatever the number is in this specific consideration, what's the nature of this issue and what do you think needs to happen? I mean, I'm sure there's always people who are training, there's always stuff getting fixed so it's never going to be 100% of everything is deployable, but where are we now and where do you think we need to go in order to be in line with this kind of strategy?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So the readiness issue is a complex ... What some of my friends in the Northeast would call a wicked problem. I think what you see is ... Back it up to 2008 and you see a general decrease in budgets, starting with sequestration, but just not necessarily decreasing but not rising at the same level that GDP or inflation is occurring, which is effectively a decreasing budget, and then you tap into that and you say, hey, how many forces do we have? And those have been on the constant decline. However, the call for those forces has not declined at all, and in fact, has only picked up, and in an attempt to answer that call we've just been using our forces up. So as you use your forces up, operationally, as they move forward operationally, they're not back home training, they're not back home repairing or modernizing their equipment. So once they deploy you put them in a static state and you have what you have. The famous [inaudible 00:14:34], you go to the war with the army you have, not the army you want. So that occurs.

And as you pick up the operational tempo, because you have less forces, the time when these forces will come back home, refit, requip, rest, retrain, doesn't exist, at least in the amount of time that was traditionally, and I hate to use the word traditionally because what was traditionally, is not optimal maybe is the best way to put it, not what is modeled because the demand is so high. So you have less time just to train and equip. So if you get a new piece of equipment, maybe you don't have enough amount of time to train on that equipment as you would like. If we get a new piece of equipment, maybe because installation of that piece of equipment takes a little longer because the equipment is a little more degraded than, again, what was planned for, so now the installation takes longer, then you finally get it and then you have less time to train. It just constantly eats into that training aspect of it. So that's one, is this constant demand versus supply, what I would say is a mismatch that we've had really over the past 16 years, and I think most exaggerated since sequestration.

And then you tie in budget uncertainties into that, where without a budget the military's forced to work off a continuing resolution, which is last year's money, which prevents a lot of, hey, the new equipment being installed or contracts being even put in place to develop new equipment, and so that really delays your modernization as well. So from a readiness, from a peer-on-peer perspective, you seem less ready because you have less capability baked in because that has been delayed due to that budget uncertainty.

Brian Hanson: So this is a really important point and I want to probe it a little more because you've talked about these new strategic documents as really laying out some new priorities for the forces and we've talked about what that means in terms of equipment, we've talked about what that means in terms of personnel, and I think most people don't understand what a continuing resolution is and why a budget is so important. But you just said something I think important and I want you to elaborate on, which is when it's a continuing resolution it's basically you can spend what you spent last year on the same stuff, to be really crude about it, right?

Thomas Bodine: Correct, yes.

Brian Hanson: And in an environment like this where we've got these new strategies identifying new threats and the need to respond to new threats, can that be done inside of a continuing resolution world or why is it important that you actually get a budget to be able to deal with this?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So the short answer is no. So within a continuing resolution, we cannot implement really any strategy. When you take a look at the national defense strategy specifically, I think it goes to great pains to call out that how much the DOD, Department of Defense, needs to work with Congress to develop that stable revenue stream.

What we've seen over the past eight years, 36 months over that past eight year period, the government has operated either on no budget, being shut down, or continuing a resolution. Well, compare that to the eight years previous to that and it was only seven months. So what you see is this stream inconsistency, and that has large impacts across the force. And what people may not realize, first and foremost, year-to-year Congress says you are authorized to buy five submarines, well okay, if that's what we need that's what we need, but if we're go into a continuing resolution for the next year and the Chinese built eight submarines, and now I'm just making up numbers for example here, and now we need to match that with eight more submarines, so that's what we want, but if we get a continuing resolution that means we can only buy five submarines. So now we're already deficit three submarines.

But it goes deeper than that as well because now you have the shipyards who are expecting eight submarines because that's what they've been told and now they hire on all the people to build eight submarines and now all of a sudden the money isn't there. So what do they do with all this excess capacity that they now have? Well, they got to let people go. And in a lot of the defense industry you have very specialized career paths, professionals who do Marine welding for instance, and without a stable revenue stream that person who's got family to feed, mouths to feed at home, may decide I'm going to quit relying on DOD contracts and I'm going to go off into the private world and do something with Viking Marine company. So not only have you now lost that individual but you've ... It's not one for one because the person you bring in behind him, he may have been a master welder, or the person you bring in behind him is going to not take six months, probably three years, to train to the same level. So now you've just lost that capacity for three years because of this lack of stable revenue stream, and that's just on the people side.

On the capacity side, maybe not so much in shipbuilding, but let's talk about building tanks or aircraft, expecting a certain amount doesn't occur or you can't start because the money hasn't been allotted because you're in a continuing resolution. Well, now the companies that build these have excess manufacturing capacity, well, they could be building cars or any other widgets, so now they retool their shop because they have to make money because they've got employees who've got mouths to feed and stockholders to answer to. So they retool that whole factory as they wait for six months for a budget to be passed in a fiscal year. And so now you finally get a budget passed, and guess what, now you've got to go back and retool that manufacturing spot now to build those tanks and planes again, so you lose even more time. So you essentially lose a lead time and whatever that lead time is, depending on the specific widget that you're building, so it's not a one for one, it's a two for one, or even a three for one in some cases, that your forces are delayed by going into this continuing resolution or no budget at all. So those are the real dangers because that has long-term ramifications.

Brian Hanson: One of the implications from that, I think, for our listeners is that where we need to be paying attention to, there's a strategy out there [inaudible 00:21:19] clarifying as you've pointed out, but the key is how is this going to get implemented, and that's congressional action. We should be looking at whether or not there's a budget, how the budget aligns with the strategy.

Thomas Bodine: Yeah, and I don't want to say the whole strategy revolves around the budget because there are lines of effort in both strategies, of pillars are what they're referred to, in the national security strategy lines of effort and the national defense strategy, of which some of those can be undertaken under the current budgetary system. But the aspirational part, and any good strategy has an aspirational aspect to it, requires a stable revenue stream to fully implement what it wants to get at and yes, so aspects of it, and truly the aspirational aspects of the two strategies, in my belief, requires Congress in close coordination with the other organizations within the government to come up with a budget.

Brian Hanson: So we've talked about a number of different aspects of these strategies, what else, as you look at these, jump out to you and is important to see in these strategies that people might not notice?

Thomas Bodine: So I will refer back to the multipolar world versus the unipolar world. I think that's a big change and I think that got lost a little bit in the presentation and a little bit of politics between the two, but that I think is a mental mind shift. I think for a lot of people it's a bit scary because really since 1991, 25 years, we've lived in a world that has been dominated by US in which US power, again all instruments, diplomatic, information, military and economic were able to really answer the bell to any security issue that came up internationally. Nut now we have this return, this return to a multipolar world, competition, and I think that scares some people, and what I like to remind people is we were there before. We've done this before. We can rise to this challenge. It's just we now have to think, okay, we are going to be put at risk and we have to come together because we can no longer stand and really mind our own business and allow somebody else to take care of that issue. We've got to come together and really be focused on what are the issues at hand, what is putting at risk our vital interests, our peace and prosperity, and then what do we need to go about doing that. So that's first and foremost.

The documents themselves ... I'm a big fan of military background, being very clear both in the threat analysis and in the objectives you're looking to achieve, that principle of realism I find very attractive in these specific documents, so those are the ones I see, the items I see that I think we should be concentrating in on and focusing in on because, again, aspirational but realistic, and I think puts the country in a direction that will allow it to successfully compete, if implemented, for now and well into the future.

Brian Hanson: Over the last many years, since the end of World War II, a big part of US military strategy has involved a cooperation with allies, as you look at this set of strategies moving forward, how important are those relationships with allies and does this strategy contemplate changes in the way we work with our allies at all?

Thomas Bodine: Simple answer, no. Both the national security strategy signed by Donald Trump, specifically calls out our allies and partners and strengthening those relationships. It clearly calls out the need for those to cultivate what we have and strengthen what we have, as well as develop new ones. The national defense strategy, same lines. There's been a lot of hey made about the differences between what the president himself has said and done, and the verbiage in what is called out in these particular documents, I would tell you that I think if you take a look at our actual actions there well in line with these documents and very centered, and put alliances and partnerships at the forefront. I think what you're seeing though is that clear-eyed view of hate.

We've lived in a unipolar world, we've all been a little lax, but Russia's in the backyard. Russia is a revisionist power, they've done things in Georgia and Ukraine and other parts of the world that are, quite honestly, counter to the international order of the last 70 years. That really has undergirded not only the US's, but all of the worlds prosperity over that same period of time. What you see is Russia and China acting in ways that are a bit insidious, they're trying to get into those organizations and then change the very fabric, the rules of those organizations. We've been very fortunate in that as a business person in America, if I wanted access to open markets, I would just go, and if something egregious happened then I had all these international institutions that would hear my case and then find in one manner or another ... And that has allowed me to, I wouldn't say narrow focus because I think that would be doing a disservice, but to focus mainly on market access as being my number one priority. But what happens when you get into a market and then the rules change to your disadvantage and now you have no place to go for that grievance? That changes the dynamic completely, and I think that is what Russia and China are looking to do.

I think that's why you see them bubbling to the top because I think in the long term that is what actually has the greatest potential to really undermine America's peace and prosperity. So how do we do that in this day and age when there has been 16 years of really military and strategic apathy from the West, let's call it? Well, you do that by grouping together, by coming together and building alliances and partnerships through multilateral and bilateral organizations, and I think you see these two documents spell that out clearly. "Hey, we're not going to be able to do it on our own, and quite honestly, a lot of these issues are going to hit other friends of ours first before they hit us and so we need to come together and agree and move forward together."

Brian Hanson: As you look at this document from a personal capacity, you've already commented on some of the areas that you like, but as you look at this, what's your assessment? Is it on target? Are there things that are missing from this document? What do you think of it?

Thomas Bodine: I may be biased, and some would argue that the authors of these are military men and I've been trained to think like a military man, but I think there are important ... Again, there's a lot that appeals to me. If you asked me if there's things that are missing, I don't know. At some point what you got to say enough is enough because we only have a finite amount of resources and when you start prioritizing the threats, which there are many and complex to America's security, at some point you got to say enough is enough. But I like it, again, because it calls out by name the threats to America internationally. Not only does it call out by name, but it also says why they're the threats and then it prioritizes for us, and I think that makes then developing an objective to counter that, a clear-cut matter, at least in here's the objective and now here are five or six methods to get to that objective.

And so I think both of these documents do that quite effectively, and that's what I like about it. I know there's criticism that climate change has fallen off of it and North Korea isn't as prominent as maybe some people feel it should be and debt fell off, and that's not to say that the debt or climate change aren't threats to national security, because they actually are, but where are you going to put your limited resources? I mean, we've already talked about this being from a budgetary standpoint aspirational, so where are you going to draw the line with what you can and can't do? I think this document has done a very good job in that matter.

Brian Hanson: As we close I want to bring it back to the individual level here of the listener, we've had a really robust and interesting conversation about strategy defense, strategy ... Some people's eyes may glaze over and say, that's all fine and good but what's it have to do with me? For somebody listening to this show, why should they care about this? Why is it important to them in their lives?

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. So I think first and foremost I go back to my statement about China and Russia being revisionist against international arms. If you got to ask that question, go speak to the folks in Georgia or the folks in Ukraine, go talk to the Philippines who won at The Hague but China said "we don't care what they say about your territory, this is our territory," and Russia's doing much the same same way, and if you think that both China and Russia's aspirations stop there then you're not paying attention. So I think it's important for the average US citizen to take a look at that and go, "Okay, what do we need to do to make sure that we check what has already occurred and possibly bolster the international norms which have allowed us to prosper over the last 70 years?"

Combine that with ... I think there is a clear link in these two documents between America's prominence within the world tied to both their military and their economics. That is clear-cut in both of these documents. If you read it, it's undeniable. So for the nonmilitary types, you need to take a look at the economics and what undergirds that economic success that we've had, and that's a good military, a strong globally deployed military that is capable of enforcing international norms and standards in areas where there's nobody else to do it and in areas in which actors who don't agree with that last 70 year's rule, are looking to actively change those rules in their favor. If you want to continue to have the economic success that has driven our peace and prosperity, then we need to take a hard look at the security environment and what strategies we need to do to implement, especially on the military side, to ensure that we maintain those same economic appendages that we've enjoyed to this point.

Brian Hanson: Thanks, Tom. I really appreciate the discussion. I think you've done a great job of opening up what can be opaque documents and connecting them to really important issues in our world today. So thanks so much for being here.

Thomas Bodine: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: For Deep Dish listeners, I'd like to invite you to come to the Deep Dish Facebook page where you'll be able to ask questions about this episode and the conversation I had with Tom, and he will reply to your questions online. So check it out, Deep Dish Facebook page, Deep Dish on Global Affairs' Facebook page, and please extend the conversation by engaging Tom with what you want to know about.

Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions on Deep Dish are those of the people who express them and not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global affairs, or the United States Navy in this case. If you liked the show, please subscribe and share our show with someone who you think would enjoy it as well. You can find this podcast under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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