The Pentagon on Thursday released an unclassified version of the new National Defense Strategy (NDS) that reinforces the “pacing challenge” of China as the department’s prime focus over the more “acute threat” presented by Russia.  

The document, released months after a classified version was delivered to Congress in March, also provides further details on the department’s new “integrated deterrence” concept, which it cites as a “centerpiece” of the strategy.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III conducts a press briefing after the release of the unclassified National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Oct. 27 2022. (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)

“The key theme of the NDS is to sustain and strengthen the U.S.’ deterrence, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our pacing challenge. As the president’s National Security Strategy notes the PRC is the only competitor out there with ‘both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do so,’” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Thursday.  “At the same time, the NDS bluntly describes Russia as an acute threat. And we chose the word ‘acute’ carefully. Unlike China, Russia can’t systemically challenge the United States over the long-term but Russian aggression does pose an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values. And [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s reckless war of choice against Ukraine, the worst threat to European security since the end of World War II, has made that very clear for the whole world.”

The NDS is also “clear-eyed about other serious threats,” including from North Korea, Iran, global terrorist networks, climate change, pandemics and “other dangers that don’t respect borders,” Austin said during his press briefing, while noting the document is nested under the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy released earlier this month (Defense Daily, Oct. 12). 

China, specifically, is cited in the NDS as “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security” and notes Beijing’s “is rapidly advancing and integrating its space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities to support its holistic approach to joint warfare” and “accelerating the modernization and expansion of its nuclear capabilities.”

“The 2022 NDS advances a strategy focused on the PRC and on collaboration with our growing network of allies and partners on common objectives. It seeks to prevent the PRC’s dominance of key regions while protecting the U.S. homeland and reinforcing a stable and open international system,” the Pentagon writes. “Conflict with the PRC is neither inevitable nor desirable. The Department’s priorities support broader whole-of-government efforts to develop terms of interaction with the PRC that are favorable to our interests and values, while managing strategic competition and enabling the pursuit of cooperation on common challenges.”

The NDS cites Russia’s “extensive track record of territorial aggression,” including the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and highlights bolstering NATO capability as a key factor in addressing the “acute threat” presented by Moscow.

“The Department will support robust deterrence of Russian aggression against vital U.S. national interests, including our treaty Allies. We will work closely with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and our partners to provide U.S. leadership, develop key enabling capabilities, and deepen interoperability,” the Pentagon writes. “Over time, the Department will focus on enhancing denial capabilities and key enablers in NATO’s force planning, while NATO allies seek to bolster their conventional warfighting capabilities. For Ally and partner countries that border Russia, the department will support efforts to build out response options that enable cost imposition.”

Austin noted the new NDS represents the first time in the Pentagon’s history that the department conducted all of its three “major strategic reviews,” including the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense, together. 

“By weaving these documents together, we help ensure that the entire department is moving forward together and matching our resources to our goals,” Austin said.

The new NDS also expounds on the new concept of “integrated deterrence,” with further details on how the approach is set to drive operational and technology initiatives. 

“Integrated deterrence entails working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, all instruments of U.S. national power, and our network of Alliances and partnerships,” the Pentagon writes in the new NDS. “In the past, the department’s approach to deterrence has too often been hindered by competing priorities; lack of clarity regarding the specific competitor actions we seek to deter; an emphasis on deterring behaviors in instances where department authorities and tools are ill-suited; and stovepiping.”

DoD officials first began previewing the focus on “integrated deterrence” last year, describing the approach as bringing together cross-domain aspects and a whole-of-government approach to offer a layered deterrence capability (Defense Daily, Dec. 9 2021). 

“I think it’s fair to say that our thinking on deterrence has atrophied a bit in sort of a post-9/11 era, I mean really throughout the ‘90’s as well, one could say. I think the concept of integrated deterrence reminds us how it has to be really front and center to how we think about dealing with challenges and, in particular…how you think about your priorities,” Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said at the time.

Kathleen McInnis, a senior fellow with CSIS’ International Security Program, said she views integrated deterrence as providing more clarity on the Pentagon’s ‘back-to-basics’ approach for deterrence rather than presenting an entirely new organizational approach.

“The concept has been getting a lot of pushback across the community because nobody’s really quite sure what it means or how it might represent something new,” McInnis told reporters in a call following the strategy’s release. “A lot of people are scratching their heads because they’re like, ‘Well, what’s new here?” And the answer is not much. But actually that return to that ‘back-to-basics’ approach is actually pretty important because, in recent years especially, the department has been using the term deterrence pretty fast and loose”

For a specific example in the strategy, the Pentagon cites integrated deterrence as leading the department’s push to develop new operational concepts and warfighting capabilities “against potential Chinese aggression.”

“Collaboration with allies and partners will cement joint capability with the aid of multilateral exercises, co-development of technologies, greater intelligence and information sharing, and combined planning for shared deterrence challenges. We will also build enduring advantages, undertaking foundational improvements and enhancements to ensure our technological edge and joint force combat credibility,” the Pentagon writes. 

Austin specifically cited the Pentagon’s investments in FY ‘23 budget request more than $40 billion “to maintain our dominance at sea” and nearly $13 billion to “support and modernize our forces on land” and around $34 billion to sustain and modernize nuclear forces as the highlighting the NDS’ “strength and combat credibility of the joint force [remaining] central to integrated deterrence.”