MACK WILLIAMS. New US National Defense Strategy: Back to the Cold War?

Jan 22, 2018

The new US National Defense Strategy heralds a new strategic direction under Trump which significantly reduces the priority of counter-terrorism and confirms a return to global competition with China and Russia with the basic objective to “outspend” both in defence. All of which has some serious implications for Australia. The influence of the US ‘junta of generals’ is apparent.

The sanitized summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS18) just released by US Defense Secretary Mattis provides the clearest sign yet of a significant change in the directions of US strategic policy under President Trump. And will need to be digested carefully by adversaries and allies alike. Much of the shorthand commentary has presented it as a “return to the Cold War” – not unfairly – with the key strategy to “outspend” its rivals (“revisionist” China and Russia) in defence technology and equipment.

It also reveals is the powerful influence of the “junta” of generals behind Trump. Many commentators have come to rely on generals Kelly, Mattis and Masterton (and their supporting military staffs) and to a lesser extent Secretary of State Tillerson to be a steadying influence on Trump. A view repeated often by Ministers and senior defence officials in Canberra. The past six months ( especially since the abortive Special Forces operation in Niger) has seen a growing concern in Washington (including some senior military) about the extent of this influence on Trump and the very narrow base that it provides for longer term US policy making – not only in strategic matters. Some have even pointed out that none of the “junta” have the stature to compare with other generals who have played key roles in previous administrations – such as George Marshall or Colin Powell.

NDS18 , of course, bears all the hallmarks of its writers – not only the military jargon. Given the way things operate in Washington under Trump it was probably not widely discussed in its drafting stages. On an initial reading of the summary there are a number of points which will necessitate close consideration and possible rejigging of existing strategic thinking for Australia including :

  • Counter-terrorism has been significantly relegated in priority as strategic concern with the main target being global rivalry with China and Russia
  • The Indo-Pacific (not Asia/Pacific) is one of four regions in which the US will be seeking to maintain “favorable regional balances” – there is speculation that the US is trying to entice India into the “Quad” by essentially subcontracting it a key role in managing the Indian Ocean
  • It emphasizes the importance of “allies and partners” in meeting US strategic objectives and the need for them to pull their own weight more. But suggests little constructive about how the list of allies and partners might be extended and strengthened. They seem to be expected to rally to the US call as the US grows militarily more powerful – ‘might is right’! The tenor of the whole strategy would indicate that the pressure to line up will return to the last Bush era of “with us or agin us” if not more. No mention of a parallel State Department campaign to ramp up supporters !
  • In one of the most telling statements, NDS18 sets as a key strategy for the US to be “strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable”. The US “must introduce unpredictability to adversary decision-makers”. Then as a last mouthful : “With our allies and partners , we will challenge competitors by maneuvering them into unfavorable positions, frustrating their efforts, precluding their options while expanding our own, and forcing them to confront conflict under adverse conditions”. How are allies supposed to insert that into their own Plans?

Mack Williams, Former Ambassador to the ROK, graduate of Royal College of Defence 

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