As the Biden Administration prepares to roll out an abruptly revised and more Russia-focused national security strategy within the next few weeks, it is no secret that the process of formulating America’s national security strategy is broken. America’s strategic challenges are multi-faceted, the formative process is bureaucratically painful, and, by the time America’s grand new national defense strategy is finally ready to be implemented, it is either overtaken by events or a whole new team is settling into the White House.
It is a corrosive exercise. As one Administration after another produces National Security Strategies full of little more than watered-down, overly-broad proclamations about protecting the “American people, the homeland and the American way of life”, talented national security operators are opting out of the entire process, leaving it to folks who enjoy nothing more than long DC meetings and slapping backs during mid-meeting coffee klatches. But the failure to produce a durable, long-term national security strategy is trickling down to other components within the national security space. Rather than build to a defined strategy, the U.S. Navy and others take refuge in a “warfighter” ethos, focusing on building a grab-bag of tactics with no defined goal or end-state.
At the top, America’s leisurely path towards an underwhelming and watered-down strategic “document” does America no good. This failure to quickly generate bold, responsive and longer-term strategies leads to strategic paralysis and has real national security consequences.
The world moves quickly. Rivals quickly identify and focus in on America’s policy gaps, knowing that America’s ponderous national security processes won’t respond.
After 7 Years, America Still Has No Response For Strategic Nihilism:
Take America’s strange somnolence in the face of Russia’s thirst for nihilistic doomsday weaponry.
In late 2015, Russia “revealed” plans for a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed autonomous torpedo, variously called Satus-6, Kanyon or Poseidon. Built solely to deliver and detonate a nuclear weapon near coastal cities, the resulting fallout from irradiated seabed would be catastrophic.
Even worse, opposing forces are likely unable to distinguish between a deployment, an “unmanned” test cruise of the weapon and an actual attack.
Despite the emergence of a tremendously destabilizing weapon—a mortal threat to every nation with a coastline—America has done very little. At the time Russia revealed their new new weapon, U.S. national security thinkers did an obligatory round of timorous handwringing, but, other than that, the U.S. was largely—and strangely—silent. American diplomats failed to organize international push-back, national security leaders offered no deterrence-oriented declaration of principles, and the U.S. Navy offered no publicly releasable tactical outline of how America and other free nations might broadly respond to such a terrifying weapon.
Facing no push-back, the Russians marched the “doom torpedo” through operational trials. Last month, with the commissioning of the Poseidon-ready K-329 Belgorod submarine, a long-building “modified” variant of older Oscar II-class cruise missile submarines, Russia can now do more realistic testing and potentially, even send the nuclear-armed sub out for an operational deployment with a Poseidon.
And yet, America is sill silent.
It is simply stunning that, seven years after Russia revealed their doomsday torpedo. nobody seems to know how America will deal with this new device. America has no strategy.
This never happened during the later stages of the Cold War. As Russia expanded their ballistic missile submarine fleet, John Lehman and others built out a multifaceted strategy to deal with the Russian ballistic missile submarine fleet, and asked Congress to fund it. And while the public may not have known the precise tactical aspects of the strategy, the basic strategy was there, for all to see. And that strategy helped win the Cold War.
But now, with no effort to deter Russian nihilism—no real U.S. pushback and no attempt to forge a cohesive international response to these weapons—China, ever ready to exploit nascent gaps in America’s national security policy, is quickly following along in Russia’s wake, proposing to build swarms of long-range nuclear-powered torpedoes of a similar nature.
Outside of a few brave diplomats on the marginalia of American strategic policy, America is still largely mute.
The world could use a cohesive public response to deter such weapons. A Lehman-like leader—somebody with a bias for action in place at the Navy Department, State Department or the Defense Department—would have put forth a robust, specific doctrine long ago, stating, for example, that any Poseidon-like weapon found an autonomous mode beyond Russian national waters would be considered a viable and sinkable target, and then spent the rest of their tenure getting the tools and support needed to back the strategy. Such an effort would give Russia pause and help the world begin a long-overdue discussion on next-generation terror weapons.
The lack of open discussion or any wider effort to build international consensus on nihilistic weaponry is deafening. And as the Greek philosopher Plato cautioned, “silence gives consent.” America’s ponderous strategic silence on fast-moving and dangerous strategic innovations only encourages rivals.
How Can America Build Back Better…Strategy?
Strategic formulation is a challenging process, and there is no magic bandaid to offer as a solution. Speed, however, can help. In the future, U.S. Administrations must be faster off the mark, following Australia’s example. This week, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, announced a comprehensive strategic review, and demanded his government complete the review within eight months—less than half the time the Biden Administration required to present theirs.
Delegation may also help. Future administrations must resist their efforts to control everything and, instead, enable departments and components to hammer out their own long-term strategic goals, following the U.S. Coast Guard’s model of identifying and addressing long-term goals within their various remits.
A set of gutsy, specific goals may help, too.
Hopefully, after getting a few much-needed national security “wins” on the board, the Biden Administration’s newly-revised National Security Strategy will change direction, offering a bolder vision with specific goals. Focusing global attention and outrage upon the proliferation of autonomous nuclear torpedoes, fallout-spewing cruise missiles and other nihilistic, doomsday weapons would be a good start.