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Sharpening Our Military Edge: The NDS and the Full Continuum of Conflict
The Secretary has stressed that “a paradox of war is that an enemy will attack a perceived weakness, so we cannot adopt a single preclusive form of warfare.”
The Joint Force must be ready and able to respond to numerous challenges across the full range of conflict including complex operations in peace and during war. This is not an easy task given the complexity of the projected operating environment. Partially because of this conceptual challenge, we are falling behind in our readiness for the future. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, concluded “We’re already behind in adapting to the changed character of war today in so many ways.” The U.S. defense community faces global challengers, and must devote sufficient attention to the breadth of adversaries facing it. The first step is understanding the range of conflicts we may face and the relative risks of each. Some threats pose existential challenges, but these will be quite rare. Other adversaries can generate more frequent but less consequential risks. We need to be able to assess these risks and prioritize accordingly.
Security Force Assistance Brigades would have been still born, and the resources for Special Operations Command would have been curtailed. But, as clear evidence of the Department’s embrace of the full continuum of conflict, the opposite happened. The SFABs are being deployed and SOCOM received budget increases and its FY19 budget adds 1,700 military and civilian personnel . The NDS calls for the SOF community to take on more tasks beyond its current counter-terrorism tasks, and broaden its consideration of and application of Unconventional Warfare to major powers. This would not be happening if DoD thought it was walking away from irregular warfare or conflict short of conventional wars. To be clear, the strategy recognizes that e face an array of different threats and require a comprehensive suite of skills and competencies to address the full range, and the strategy matches goals to resources in accordance with clear priorities. We have some catching up to do in some key warfighting domains.
As conflict reflects a greater degree of convergence and complexity, so should our mental models and frameworks. But our strategies must also be driven by our national interests and the assigned national security and defense objectives. The Pentagon’s leadership and its strategy, Sharpening the U.S. Military Competitive Edge, reflects those interests and an acute appreciation for tradeoffs and priorities. The essence of strategy is to wrestle with the choices presented with the risk/resource balance and the tradeoffs required. In my view, the Pentagon has done that.
Readers of this journal and its community of interest should not be worried that the National Defense Strategy ignores the more frequent and the more likely forms of conflict. It embraces a full continuum from competition, to conflict, and to various forms of war. However, we should be vigilant about the sine wave of U.S. policy interest in complex conflicts into the future. The United States has made that mistake before and paid for it.
 James N. Mattis, Summary of the National Defense Strategy, Sharpening the U.S. Military’s Competitive Edge, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 2018.
 James N. Mattis, transcript, Roll Out Speech for National Defense Strategy, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, January 19, 2018.
 General Joseph Dunford, USMC, Remarks at National Defense University Graduation Ceremony, Ft. McNair, DC, June 10, 2016. Available at http://www.jcs.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/797847/gen-dunfords-remarks-at-the-national-defense-university-graduation/ .
 See the FY19 Defense Department detailed defense of the budget submission, which is explicitly tied to the National Defense Strategy, at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf
 Brian McAllister Linn, “The U.S. Armed Forces’ View of War,” Vol. 140, no. 3, Daedalus (Summer 2011), 34.