Experts: US faces daunting challenge in new defense strategy

U.S. Marines from Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, ascend to the top of the Kansas Tower hill during a 6 mile hike around the base, Oct. 6, 2017. On Thursday, Nov. 11, 2017, a panel of defense experts told senators that the U.S. will face challenges developing a new defense strategy with a military facing a readiness crisis.


By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2017

WASHINGTON — A panel of defense experts told senators on Thursday that the United Sates will face a daunting challenge in developing a new defense strategy with a military facing a readiness crisis against the backdrop of deteriorating foreign affairs in several regions around the world.

The wide-ranging discussion, which was the subject of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, comes ahead of a Department of Defense plan to release a new mandated defense strategy in the coming months.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the competing demands facing today’s military has resulted in a “crisis in confidence” in U.S. defense-making strategy.

“We have a problem and this is the last, best chance to fix it,” Eaglen said. “There is a disconnect between reality as it is in the world and what those forces are being told what they should be doing on paper.”

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Defense to develop and implement a new national defense strategy that would lay out the military’s top priorities and plan to achieve warfighting superiority, detailing U.S. threats and the strategy to address them.

Growing threats from North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, continuing efforts to combat new terrorist efforts, Russia’s aim to expand its influence around the world and growing instability in the Middle East are among some of the challenges a new U.S. military strategy must address, lawmakers and experts agreed Thursday.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said the strategy could be finalized by early 2018.

“The Department of Defense faces many complicated and rapidly evolving challenges,” he said. “This is not the first time in our nation’s history that we have had to confront multiple threats from abroad, but it is an incredibly dangerous and uncertain time.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr, who is director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said plenty of work remains to return the military to robust levels in light of the threats and ongoing conflicts.

“There are no shortcuts to rebuilding the military,” he said. “It took years to get into this position and it will take years to get out of it.”

Mara Karlin, associate professor of the practice of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said another increasing concern is seeing the State Department in an increasingly “neutered” position with fewer diplomats dispatched around the world.

As a result, the burden will fall increasingly on the military to help resolve conflicts globally.

“They’ll be trying to be pseudo-diplomats,” Karlin said.

Several Democrats of the committee also used Thursday’s discussion to harp on the tax reform bill, which has some lawmakers concerned will boost the national debt and in turn, hurt national defense funding.

“It’s a nonstarter,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, said of the potential tax reform plan co-existing with significant military funding in the future. Thursday’s discussion is part of an armed services committee effort to help guide the Pentagon into developing a more strategic approach in response to “an increasingly dangerous world,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman.

“Our military advantage is eroding,” he said. “[The Defense Department] will have a tough road to reverse current trend lines. Restoring readiness, modernizing the force and reforming acquisition will all be necessary to renew American power. But ultimately, all of these efforts will be in vain without clear strategic direction.”

During the hearing, the committee also confirmed two pending civilian nominations at the Defense Department. John Rood was approved as undersecretary of defense for policy and Randall Schriver as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. Also, 275 other pending Defense Department nominations were approved.

Rood had faced a tough grilling Nov. 16 over his defense industry background. He was told to resolve any conflict of interest questions that remained before he would see confirmation.

Twitter: @cgrisales