Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 4 – Bridge Colby

We just held our fourth sessions of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition.

Catch up with the class by reading about all the class sessions here.

Our guest speaker was Bridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ point person for articulating his vision for the National Defense Strategy. Some of the readings for this fourth class session included: National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy Summary, The Age of Great-Power Competition, The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied America’s Expectations, The Administration’s Policy Toward China, The End of American Illusion. Trump and the World as It is, Indo Pacific Strategy Report 2019

In this session we provided the students with an appreciation of how the United States National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China. Next, we introduced the National Defense Strategy (NDS) which describes how the military supports the overall National strategy. The NDS observed that we not only faced non-nation states (terror organizations,) but going forward we have to plan for 2+3 adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states.) The NDS provided an outline of what we need to do (called Lines of Effort) to transform our military.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Joe Felter (who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia) began the lesson providing background and context for understanding – What happened? Why did we shift our strategies and military plans? And what do these plans look like today.

Great hopes for international security
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. The United States emerged as the dominant power in the international system and its Cold War rivals appeared to be moving down a path of reform. We had great hopes for an international security environment that would advance common interests among large and small nations through international cooperation and engagement. Russia at the time showed promising signs of moving closer to democracy.

The break-up of former Soviet states put the country on the path of increasing liberalization and reform. Former Warsaw Pact nations expressed interest in working with and aligning more closely with its former rivals. Several joined NATO. Meanwhile, China’s economy was growing at an extraordinary rate and becoming more integrated with countries across the region and beyond. All prevailing theories of modernization predicted that this growth and would lead to increasing liberalization and reform in China. It was considered to be on a trajectory towards becoming a “responsible stakeholder” willing to play by the rules of the established order. Beyond these encouraging developments with our former Cold War rivals the US assumed a position of unparalleled military dominance. Shortly after the fall of the wall this overmatch and dominance of US military power was put on display during Desert Storm where the US achieved quick and decisive victory destroying the world’s 4th largest Army in 100 hours of ground combat.

Optimism turns into reality
Fast forward to 2017. Conditions were far from where we hoped in the heady optimism following the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is intent on undermining the US and West in any way it can –  aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine and destabilizing activities in Syria; Venezuela and beyond. Adding to this are it’s state sponsored poisonings and assassinations, cyber-attacks against nations and election meddling in the U.S. and other countries. In China Xi Jinping and the CCP pursuing a deliberate whole of government approach to projecting influence if not dominance of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Disappointingly, the liberalization and reforms so many assumed would accompany its rapid economic growth did not occur.  

The CCP explicitly states its intention for China to be a dominant power with benchmarks and years identified. For example, President Xie leads the Central Military Commission that in 2012 committed to building a military that can dominate the region and “fight and win global wars by 2049.” To do this, China is pursuing a military build-up of an historic scale with a seven-fold increase in its defense budget in the last two decades. It is investing in high tech weaponry to close the gap and in many cases extend their advantage in a range of military capabilities and technologies. Beijing engages in predatory economics – driving states into significant debt burdens forcing them to make “debt- for equity” swaps in places that undermine their sovereignty Its Belt and Road Initiative makes infrastructure and other investments with a clear nationalist agenda. It is increasing its de facto project power projection capabilities by developing and establishing access to a network of dual use ports, airfields, and other facilities across region

Some argue that China is even in the early stages of establishing a strategically located naval base in Cambodia which course co-instructor Joe Felter raised the official alarm following a visit to the southern port while serving as a senior official in the Department of Defense. China’s militarization of features in the South China Sea is perhaps the most egregious example of its illegal efforts to build military capabilities and extend the PLA’s ability to project power. Despite Xie’s promise to President Obama in Jing Peng Rose garden 2015 and the international tribunal ruling by the Hauge in 2016 that its claims have no basis in international law, China continued to fortify its illegal claims building runways, radars, missile sites, storage facilities and other improvements. See time-lapse videos of the reefs turning into a military base here and here.

The U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy
These were the conditions we confronted in 2017 when the current National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy was developed. These strategies reflected the realization we are in long term competition with Russia and China and must make a clear-eyed assessment and treat these competitors for who they are and not as we want them to be. As the NSS states Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) pulled no punches. It was a real wakeup call for the military and the country. As Bridge Colby said in his talk to the class, “others described it as the first realist document we’ve had as a country in a long time.” Bridge points out that after the Berlin Wall fell we were the sole superpower and the country really didn’t need a defense strategy. We had so many resources relative to the plausible threats that we could essentially overwhelm any adversary. Besides explicitly acknowledging we are in long term strategic competition with Russia and China. It said that our regional priorities would shift from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific and China. And China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat. The National Defense Strategy outlined three major lines of effort that the Department of Defense needed to execute to face these new 2+3 challenges: 

  • Line of Effort I: Build a more lethal force
  • Line of Effort II: Strengthen Alliances and Build partnerships
  • Line of Effort III: Reform the Defense Department

And the US has made important progress across all three of these lines of effort. (Our students heard this quarter about some of the efforts aimed at reforming the Department of Defense – requirements and acquisition reform from Will Roper, new innovation organizations like the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center,) from General Shanahan, AFWERX, Kessel Run, NavalX,…and they’ll hear more later this quarter from General Raymond about standing up a new service branch – the Space Force.) So how are we doing so far? First the bad news. China is making gains and many are at the expense of state sovereignty across the region which in some cases will be difficult to reverse (ie Hong Kong.) Under Xi and the CCP, China is structurally set up in many ways to compete more effectively e.g. with its coherence and continuity of leadership, civil/academic/military fusion. Other examples include how China’s State-Owned Enterprises can be employed by the CCP for coordinating and projecting influence more efficiently. But there is good news that bodes well for the outcome of this long term competition.  The US has a vision that is largely shared and embraced by those that wish to see the region remain free and open and for the rules-based order to endure. Significantly we are not asking states to choose between the US and China- but rather to choose their own sovereignty and a vision for future. Our challenge, however, is to ensure our actions match our strategy- demonstrating that the US is a reliable partner and will deliver on its stated goals and objectives. Bridge Colby gave us some compelling insights on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and participated in an informative Q&A session with our students. He provided an insiders account of the development of the National Defense Strategy and an informed assessment of its execution.

Read the transcript of Bridge Colby’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Bridge Colby talk click here

Lessons Learned

  • The National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China
  • The National Defense Strategy (NDS) describes how the military supports our nations overall strategy
    • It observed that we still face non-nation states (terror organizations,) but have to plan for 2+3 adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states
    • Our regional priorities shifted from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific
    • China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat
  • We want our adversaries to choose diplomacy not war. To do so, we..
    • are developing a lethal force (the NDS Line of Effort I) to decisively defeat adversaries in future conflict
    • this ensures no state calculates it can successfully use force against the US to achieve its objectives
    • and therefore it must rely on diplomacy and other means short of war
  • The US has a significant advantage in its network of alliances and partners
    • Strengthening these alliances and building new partnerships (the NDS Line of Effort II) will be critical to our ability to compete effectively

One Response

  1. Full transcript would be terrific!

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