Next National Defense Strategy Should Address Hybrid Warfare, Experts Say

Embracing innovative technology and more data sharing with allies should be part of the coming strategy, accordingto former Defense officials.

When the Biden administration releases its National Defense Strategy 2022 in the next month or so, it should reframe global affairs in terms of the competition continuum, “a world of enduring competition conducted through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict.” 

This is one recommendation made by a panel of national security experts on Jan. 5 in a webcast hosted by the Atlantic Council to encourage discussion of its new report, “Seizing the Advantage: A Vision for the Next US National Defense Strategy.”

“We think of warfare and conflict as being kinetic,” said Ellen Lord, former undersecretary of defense, acquisition and sustainment and now a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, but the reality is, “most of it’s in the gray zone, [like] economic welfare and supply chain security.”

As part of embracing that paradigm, Lord said the Defense Department has to move quickly to implement new technologies.

“The real key here is to focus on critical technology and getting it into the hands of [service members]. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” she said. 

Lord suggested that the procurement model for military systems needs more flexibility so that there can be more experimentation, more trial-and-error. “Don’t break any [procurement] laws, but give everybody a little breathing room to try and fail and come back and try again.”

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said the new NDS is likely to be “evolutionary more than revolutionary,” so he is more interested in what happens after it is released.

The current state of the world presents “arguably the most complex set of challenges we’ve faced since the end of the Cold War,” Petraeus said. “What happens when it comes to procurement: investment in systems of the future or legacy?”

Part of the answer to that question rests on the “military-industrial-congressional complex,” he said. “All of this is great until it collides with reality on Capitol Hill. How much will Congress support this, and how much will be stymied?”

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of Strategic Command, pointed to the need for a significant strengthening of U.S. relations with its allies and partners, including much greater sharing of unprocessed data.

“This is the reason for a global [focus] over regional,” Cartwright said. “To the extent that we become regional and put forces where we think [the stresses are], we’re going to lock them down and hurt their ability to maneuver and close … Even though we may see where the most dangerous is,” that is not usually where the most likely conflicts will occur, he explained.

Lord agreed that U.S. partners and allies need to be much more deeply involved, which means sharing both data and technologies. Over the past several years, the definition of the National Technology and Industrial Base has been expanded to include Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, she said, “but we’ve never … given any teeth that would allow the transfer of more technology and data. [Take] that NTIB framework and build it out so we can more easily export, [get] greater interoperability … We need enablers here. Leveraging the NTIB would be a great place to start, and the NDS would be a great vehicle.”

Petraeus agreed that stronger alliances and partnerships are important, but “there is an enormous gulf between us and everyone else [put] together … The U.S. doesn’t just spend more than all our NATO allies put together, it’s now 2.3 times greater.”

He pointed to the Afghanistan withdrawal earlier this year as an example of the problem. There were NATO allies in the coalition there who resented not being consulted in advance, but they didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to stay after U.S. troops left, he said.

“The gray zone is central,” Cartwright said. “Nobody can afford to act on their own in global affairs. [The] tools that are coming out in the 21st century are global tools. … We do have an issue with [the attitude of] ‘deny people the knowledge and control it yourself.’ We can’t do that anymore.”