The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The National Defense Strategy and the Indo-Pacific

May 15, 2018

Elbridge A. Colby , the deputy assistance secretary of defense for strategy and force development, was a guest speaker at the Japan-US Security Dialogue, co-organized by the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and the US embassy in Japan. The following are his prepared remarks on the US National Defense Strategy , presented on May 15, 2018, at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

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Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) as it relates to the Indo-Pacific region, and more specifically to Japan.

I am especially pleased to be here because strengthening alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific is a key theme of the NDS. The US-Japan Alliance remains the cornerstone of US strategy throughout the Indo-Pacific region. There are more than 54,000 US service members deployed throughout Japan—more than in any other foreign country.

Dialogue on our shared security challenges is a critical part of our alliance and so I welcome this opportunity to talk about the NDS. As I hope will become apparent over the course of this discussion, neither the strategic “problem” identified by the NDS, nor the strategic “solution” it offers, is isolated to the US. Instead, they go to the very heart of the free and open Indo-Pacific order that has brought security and prosperity to nations throughout the region.

The core principles of the NDS are derived from the National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS outlines a strategic vision that affirms:

—The US’s constellation of allies and partners are our way to promote and defend free and open international orders. Although in today’s strategic environment, this requires a more equitable sharing of burdens as well as a focused emphasis on shared interests.

—The US will seek to preserve peace through strength by rebuilding our military and maintaining our military advantage.

—Favorable regional balances of power, especially in key regions like the Indo-Pacific, are the right yardstick for assessing US security interests.

The NDS builds on the NSS. It identifies the primary problem as the erosion of US military advantage, which if left unchecked, could lead to the consequent erosion of our deterrent. The NDS characterizes this problem as one of “long-term strategic competition” with China and Russia. Our competitors have grown increasingly assertive in their efforts to undermine the international order. China leverages military modernization, militarization of the South China Sea, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries and reorder the Indo-Pacific region to its advantage. Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations, pursues veto authority over its neighbors’ decisions and seeks to fracture NATO. They are acting as “revisionist” powers, seeking to exploit the benefits of the international order while undercutting its principles.

It is important here to emphasize the NDS’s attunement to the link between military power and coercive political leverage. Our competitors may not seek to start wars, but they likely aim to create regional military balances and economic levers in their favor. They seek to use a variety of means short of armed conflict to coerce their neighbors and change facts on the ground. These practices include corruption, predatory economic practices, and political subversion. In other words, our competitors likely seek to achieve their objectives without fighting a major war by generating sufficient military power to create fear and uncertainty. From a strategic perspective, it is with the shadow of military power as much as its direct use that we need to be concerned. If not addressed, such gray zone activities may escalate if they cause inadvertent confrontations or if competitors believe they can employ military power without consequences.

At this point, let me offer two stipulations as to how the NDS and, by extension, the US, approaches this competition. First, the NDS is a strategy that recognizes the reality of competition so we can maintain our interests and keep the peace. It is not a strategy of confrontation. Second, the US does not seek hostility with China or Russia, but we will resist their revisionist efforts. This is not a Cold War and we don’t intend to start another one. We will continue to seek open dialogue and areas of cooperation to mitigate the chances of misperception. Our goal is to set our relationships with our competitors on a path of transparency and nonaggression, thereby keeping competition from the military domain and supporting broader strategic stability.

The NDS is a firm signal to our allies and partners, as well as to our common strategic competitors, of the U.S’s resolve. We will uphold our vital interest in the maintenance of a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific, as well as globally. Ever since the earliest days of our Republic, the United States has held an abiding interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our historical record is proof of our commitment to ensuring stability and security in this critical region.

The NDS is a strategy focused on deterring—and if necessary forcibly defeating—aggression by potential adversaries and regional rogue nations. It is a back-to-basics strategy that recognizes state competition as the principal dynamic shaping today’s strategic environment. Concurrently, the NDS highlights the continued, if lower priority, threats posed by destabilizing regimes such as North Korea and Iran as well as by terrorist groups.

The magnitude, scope, and scale of these challenges to the free and open Indo-Pacific order are the reason prioritization in the NDS is so critical. The NDS sets clear direction for the US military and makes hard choices with respect to prioritizing the allocation of US defense resources. For example, the NDS places highest priority on sustaining favorable military balances in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle-East regions.

The NDS seeks to advance US defense objectives by “expanding the competitive space” and through the implementation of three strategic ways. Expanding the competitive space means considering how our decisions, actions, and tradeoffs challenge competitors where we have the advantage and they lack strength. The strategy outlines three distinct lines of effort:

—Construct a highly lethal, agile, resilient, and ready Joint Force;

—Strengthen relationships with existing allies and partners while we develop new partnerships; and

—Reform the Department of Defense’s business practices for greater performance.

The NDS states “the surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one”; this means building a war-winning force that can prevail over any adversary. To achieve this goal, the NDS prioritizes warfighting preparedness and restoring readiness above day-to-day missions and presence. The primary objective is for the Joint Force to be prepared for major power competition, while also being ready to respond to other potential contingencies. The need to deter aggression and coercion by potential adversaries therefore forms the basis for determining the requirements for the US Joint Force—for its size, structure, and posture. Our competitors’ A2/AD capabilities, power projection capabilities, and improved warfighting craft necessitate changes in our operational art and science of warfare. We will not be afforded the luxury of fighting another Desert Storm.

We will invest in the lethality of the Joint Force so it possesses the requisite capabilities to compete, deter, and—if necessary, fight, and win—against potential great and regional power adversaries. Modernization of key capabilities is critical given the US now faces credible competitors in air and space, on and under the sea, in contested urban areas, and in cyberspace.

In addition to the need for sustained, increased investment in key capabilities, the NDS highlights the importance of how the Joint Force operates and is deployed. The strategy focuses the Department on addressing specific operational problems which require joint solutions.

The NDS also fundamentally changes the way the Department provides combat-credible forward presence in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. A new Global Operating Model describes how the Joint Force will be postured and employed to achieve its missions. It builds four mutually reinforcing layers to compete and prevail: contact, blunt, surge, and homeland. The Dynamic Force Employment concept will allow the Joint Force to break out of our pattern of predictable deployments and become more operationally unpredictable.

The breadth of the security challenges we face is one of the reasons why the NDS identifies the US’s alliances and partnerships as a crucial component of the strategy. The US will deepen our alliances and partnerships, and we look to allies to make complementary investments in their own forces so we can work together more effectively and equitably in the Indo-Pacific. We will pursue cooperation on shared interests and outcomes through building interoperability, joint exercising and training, and security cooperation. We will also seek to develop new partnerships with other countries who share our commitment to a free and open international order.

The US derives considerable benefits from the unique perspectives, knowledge, and relationships that our allies and partners bring to the table. We drew on this experience during the drafting of the NDS as we consulted extensively with allies and partners on the key strategic issues facing our region.

The implementation of the NDS will offer further opportunities for cooperation. I’ll briefly highlight three aspects of the NDS that are relevant and we can potentially discuss these in further detail during the question and answer session.

The NDS highlights specific investment priorities to build the lethality of the Joint Force, including nuclear forces, C4ISR, missile defense, space capabilities, cyber capabilities and advanced autonomous systems. Interoperability with allies and partners will be a critical factor in the development of these capabilities. We will seek to deepen interoperability by leveraging existing efforts to achieve greater connectedness and compatibility between our major warfare systems.

The NDS requires the US military to be strategically predictable but operationally unpredictable. This will entail introducing operational surprise and less predictable force employment. We also seek to develop new operating concepts that take advantage of our respective capabilities, improve our forces’ abilities to communicate with each other, and enhance our already robust series of bilateral force exercises.

The four mutually reinforcing layers in the new Global Operating Model will allow the Joint Force to better compete and prevail in this competitive environment. We welcome opportunities to explore how we can integrate our defense concepts along the various layers of this model. There is scope for us to work together to deter aggression.

The US will continue to share more of our thinking with allies and partners, as well as do more to listen to your views. We accordingly need our allies and partners to adopt an equitable approach to pursuing our shared interests and security efforts. The US cannot carry the burden of defending the free and open order Indo-Pacific on its own. We face common threats and we must work together to address them collectively. The US is committed to our allies and partners and to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our bottom line is that if you are committed to defending yourself, the United States is and will continue to be here to help you do so. Our shared ability to prevail in this geostrategic competition depends upon an equitable sharing of the burden that leverages our respective strengths.

Let me conclude where I began. US-Japan defense cooperation is the cornerstone of the networked security architecture which will sustain peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. Our two countries have worked together to support a free and open Indo-Pacific region and we will continue to do so. The NDS will offer further opportunities to strengthen our alliance, and I look forward to continued discussions about how we can do more to increase mutually beneficial cooperation. Thank you.

    • Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, US Department of Defense
    • Elbridge A. Colby
    • Elbridge A. Colby


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