New National Defense Strategy Must Focus on Competing ‘Where It Makes Sense,’ Pentagon Official Says

December 10, 2021 2:12 PM

A key point in the new National Defense Strategy will be the recognition that “we have to compete only where it makes sense,” according to a senior Pentagon official.

Speaking Thursday, Mara Karlin, performing the duties of the deputy under secretary for policy, said, “we’ve tried to shift the conversation to strategic competition,” and not just competition for its own sake because someone else like the Chinese are doing it.

“Forcing that rigor on the department is going to be challenging,” she said during a Center for New American Security online forum.

“We need to enhance our thinking on deterrence” beyond denial or imposing costs on an adversary, Karlin added. “Our thinking on deterrence has declined a bit” since the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

The question now for “integrated deterrence,” she said, is “how do you integrate across domains,” across the whole of the United States government and “across the web of allies and partners.” Karlin said that would be the approach in the other reviews the Pentagon is conducting, like nuclear and missile defense.

“I think we’ve done a really good job in laying the groundwork” by being very inclusive of viewpoints inside and outside the Pentagon and developing the strategy through an iterative process, Karlin later added of developing the new NDS.

“We’re really stress-testing ideas … like integrated deterrence [so that] everybody knows what we’re talking about,” she said.

In any new roles and missions reviews, “there needed to be a tight understanding of what missions are” and not simply adding more to an existing list, Karlin said.

Looking back at the 2018 NDS, Karlin said it “was doing a nice job in that view” of identifying China as a pacing competitor. It also identified Russia as a great power competitor.

Karlin reminded viewers of Russia’s 2014 escalation of tensions with Ukraine that led to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and overt backing of separatists trying to wrest parts of Kyiv’s easternmost provinces out of its control. She added that the Kremlin moving almost 100,000 troops and equipment close to the Ukrainian border in recent weeks is troubling.

Now, in addition to the over threat to Ukraine, Moscow is operating with expertise and frequency in “gray zone areas” to stir conflict in Europe, she said.

When asked whether the Kremlin and Beijing were planning to operate simultaneously to create crises in different parts of the globe, she said, “it can be a little bit too early to project something” that may not happen. “We need to be sober and clear-eyed [with] what we’re asking the force to do” in developing strategy and in follow-up planning.

Karlin added that threats from North Korea, Iran and terrorist groups are “metastasizing and shifting and not going away.”

Describing the recently completed Global Posture Review as baselining to determine what forces were where and how they were equipped, she said it provided the “disciplining framework” for future requirements. Karlin announced the completion of the review late last month at the Pentagon.

The posture review also created room “for thinking about host nation views” and their requirements for deterrence. “We want to collaborate in meaningful ways” with allies and take advantage of their strengths, like in cyber.

Karlin welcomed Congress’ insistence on having the strategy assessed annually.

The biggest obstacle to implementation of a new National Defense Strategy is “the things we will get wrong” and not expect, like COVID-19. “As you’re going, there’s going to be twists and turns” that need reassessment, she said.

After reviewing the changed circumstances, “are we still on that trajectory” that was the strategy’s “lodestar,” Karlin asked rhetorically.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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