Small Wars Journal

Sharpening Our Military Edge: The NDS and the Full Continuum of Conflict

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Sharpening Our Military Edge: The NDS and the Full Continuum of Conflict

Frank Hoffman

The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) identifies China and Russia as our primary competitors.[1]  Some members of the defense community misread the NDS as embracing great power wars and perceive these as purely conventional wars.  Some even suggest that the Pentagon reflexively yearns for a large conventional threat, so it can get back to what it wants to, fighting peers and justifying its technologically oriented hardware programs.  This oversimplifies the underlying assessment of the future environment in the strategy and misreads the strategy’s explicit appreciation of the various dimensions of great power competition.  Concerns about the future of small wars should not be dismissed, but proponents of the study of irregular wars should also accept the need to prioritize threats and risk in any strategy.  The NDS does reflect a mindset shift and shift in modernization given the scale of the two major competitors.

But there is more to the strategy than a repeat of our “big war” syndrome.  As a member of the NDS Core Task Force and very familiar with the debates involved in the NDS, I understand how the distinctive shift in priorities and the resulting shift in force design and modernization can be interpreted as a reflex action against 17 years of counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism and stabilization operations.  But there is no blind lust for Great Power War amongst the leadership of the Pentagon, just a clear recognition that geopolitical competition poses severe threats to our way of life and economic prosperity.  Thus, the strategy does not overlook the various forms that warfare may take in the future.  Peacetime competition, “gray zone” tactics, Small War or hybrid combinations are not dismissed.  Granted, there is a need to reinvest in atrophied skill sets and domains to sharpen the U.S. military’s competitive edge for the coming decade.  This is a clear-eyed evaluation of the near to mid-range security environment, coupled with an appreciation of how much our education and training and readiness has been altered to support Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other missions for so long.  It also reflects a well-founded assessment of the ambitions and investments made over the last decade by two geopolitical challengers.

Nor does the strategy lack of appreciation for both Chinese and Russian strategic culture which both recognize unconventional methods and non-military conflict.  The Secretary of Defense and his NDS explicitly recognizes a full spectrum of conflict and warns against over-investing in a single and preclusive form of warfare, which an adversary will surely exploit.[2]  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 strategy also explicitly states that Irregular Warfare will be retained as a core competency.

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.”[3]  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.  

If the defense strategy released by Secretary of Defense Mattis this past January was myopically oriented entirely on high-intensity and conventional warfighting, some clear force structure and budget shifts would be evident.  For example, 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 .[4]  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 we 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.

Understanding future security challenges requires that policy makers interpret the past, understand the present, and think rigorously about what lies over the horizon in order to adapt to the changing character of conflict.[5]  This requires keeping an open and informed mind about the breadth of the various modes of conflict that exist.  The wars of the twenty-first century may take many forms.  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.

End Notes

[1] James N. Mattis, Summary of the National Defense Strategy, Sharpening the U.S. Military’s Competitive Edge, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 2018.

[2] James N. Mattis, transcript, Roll Out Speech for National Defense Strategy, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, January 19, 2018.

[3] General Joseph Dunford, USMC, Remarks at National Defense University Graduation Ceremony, Ft. McNair, DC, June 10, 2016.  Available at .  

[4] See the FY19 Defense Department detailed defense of the budget submission, which is explicitly tied to the National Defense Strategy, at

[5] Brian McAllister Linn, “The U.S. Armed Forces’ View of War,” Vol. 140, no. 3, Daedalus (Summer 2011), 34.


About the Author(s)

Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine infantryman and veteran Pentagon policy and program analyst. The comments in his articles reflect his own positions and not those of the Department of Defense.


Overall agree with the author. Readers of SWJ should welcome the direction the NDS to develop means and ways to wage so called small wars that are more sustainable, since they will be an enduring effort.  It is clear to all but the most stubborn that our failed strategic approaches relying on a large force structure and hyper-expensive smart bombs to fight terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq has ironically degraded our national security rather than enhancing it. Back to the small wars drawing board, and we already know that more forces and more bombs will more than likely be the wrong answer. 

We clearly need to invest in other areas based on significant changes in the global environment that only became apparent after they were in our rear view mirrors, and then we wonder how we missed it when we drove by it. Countering WMD and protecting ourselves from cyber attacks isn't sexy, but it is absolutely critical. Having a credible conventional military to provide our leadership to counter near-peer and peer adversaries is still a must, but shouldn't be the sole focus of our strategy. Addressing the gap between peace and war (competition short of traditional armed conflict) is just as important as war fighting capability because our adversaries can achieve war like objectives in this space that seriously threaten U.S. security and prosperity, and as we now know even our political legitimacy. 

At the end of the day, a strategy is interpreted by those implementing it. It is clear that the military industrial complex and bean counters in OSD have interpreted the NDS call for greater lethality (instead of more effective military power that is relevant across the spectrum of conflict) as a call to build more conventional and nuclear capability and capacity to reinforce the American way of war, even if it is a way that is increasingly irrelevant based on emerging adversary strategies that largely neutralize our conventional capabilities. 

Unfortunately, competition in practice, at least to date, is dumbed down to more deterrence, instead of developing and implementing complex strategies to advance our interests short of traditional armed conflict. Regardless of intent, in practice the NDS seems to violate the wisdom of Heraclitus, who wrote, "A man cannot step into the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." Replace man with nation and that wisdom applies equally to nations who seek to adapt to a changing world.  Relying on out dated war fighting strategies where our former industrial might determined the outcome is no longer a reality.  Even if we could afford to significantly increase the capacity of our conventional forces, our adversaries have developed new strategies that more often than not will neutralize that expensive conventional military. We're not the same nation, our industrial base and social norms have changed, and that must change the way we fight. It isn't the same world, our adversaries have evolved in ways we still don't full comprehend.  

To be clear, despite the criticism I levied, I support the major tenants of the NDS. I think the NDS implies more than the way it is being interpreted. Yes, spend more on modernizing our military and getting ready for higher intensity combat, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.  We have a lot of serious challenges short of major combat that also must be addressed.