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National Security Perspectives Column, Column 3, Introduction

The Complexity of our National Security Strategy

Dr. A.J. Briding

The Complexity of our National Security Strategy

In a previous Inside Homeland Security article, I commented about the various elements that provide national security, and mentioned the role of the National Security Strategy (NSS). I’d like to spend more time in discussing this seminal document, now that the Obama administration very recently published its current version (February 2015).

As I mentioned in that article, determining a workable national security strategy that then can be promulgated throughout the Executive Department agencies to direct their strategies and goals is a complex, time-consuming challenge. Think about that. First, you must create a strategyi that is intended to posture the U.S. for both proactive and reactive programs that ensure our wellbeing as a nation in a very tumultuous world, one that our military often characterizes by the acronym VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In many ways, the end of the Cold War ushered in an era of increased risk and conflict as the communist coalitions disintegrated, replacing the threat of nuclear confrontation with regional wars, rogue states and what could be described as sociopathic international terrorism. Once that national security strategy is created, its key concepts must cascade down through the Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy and other federal agencies that have applicable roles. Then each agency must shape its driving vision and goals accordingly, to include organizing capabilities, budgeting, and conducting operations with that overall direction in mind. That’s a big challenge for any large organization, and immensely bigger for the Executive Department.ii


The Product

Both the National Security Act of 1947 and the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 mandate that the President should deliver to Congress an annual national security strategy that would be used primarily to validate budgeting. Five points are required to be addressed: (1) “The worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States that are vital to the national security of the United States”; (2) “The foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy”; (3) “The proposed short-term and long-term uses of the political, economic, military, and other elements of the national power of the United States to protect or promote the interests and achieve the goals and objectives”; (4) “The adequacy of the capabilities of the United States to carry out the national security strategy”; and (5) “Such other information as may be necessary to help inform Congress on matters relating to the national security strategy.”iii Once the NSS is written, DOD, DHS, and DOS attempt to coordinate their Quadrennial Defense Review, Defense Strategy, Military Strategy, Homeland Security Strategy, Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and DOS Strategic Plan with those goals. That leads to a lot of intra-agency coordination, both top-down and bottom-up, and that is not a quick or easy process in large, complex organizations.


Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy: “Strong and Sustainable American Leadership”

With that backdrop, let’s look at President Obama’s recently published NSS. To preface its release, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated, for your consideration:

Strong and sustained American leadership remains essential, as ever. Think for a minute where the world would be today without decisive U.S. leadership. Ebola would be spreading throughout West Africa and likely to far corners of the world. Instead, America galvanized the world to roll back this horrible disease. Without us, Russia would be suffering no cost for its actions in Ukraine. Instead, the ruble is in a free fall, and Russia is paying dearly for flaunting the rules. Without us, there would be no military campaign or sixty countries countering ISIL’s advance. There would be no prospect for a global deal on climate change; no pressure for Iran to be at the negotiating table; and, no potential for trade that meets a higher standard for our workers and businesses.iv

This NSS sets the following principles and priorities, selected from among others given in the document:v

  • Transitioning to a sustainable global security posture that combines our decisive capabilities with local partners and keeps pressure on al-Qa’ida, ISIL, and their affiliates.
  • Striving for a world without nuclear weapons and ensuring nuclear materials do not fall into the hands of irresponsible states and violent non-state actors.
  • Strengthening American energy security.
  • Promoting and defending democracy, human rights, and equality while supporting countries such as Tunisia and Burma that are transitioning from authoritarianism.
  • Leading the international community to prevent and respond to human rights abuses and mass atrocities as well as gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.
  • Rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific.
  • Pursuing a stable Middle East and North Africa by countering terrorism, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and reducing the underlying sources of conflict.

As we watch events transpire today, these make interesting reference points, and whether they simply represent lofty ideals or are actually translated into concrete and effective policy and action is the prime measure of the utility of each administration’s NSS process.


Life Is What Happens While You’re Busy Making Other Plansvi

In a perfect world, the U.S. bureaucracy could objectively assess the threat spectrum to national security and the American way of life, develop a strategy to acceptably mitigate the associated risk, break that down to rational ways and means to be used by DOS, DOD, DHS, and the other federal agencies, and determine a practical budget that would balance national security with other national programs (e.g., infrastructure, healthcare, education) and that would be acceptable to Congress, starting with a yearly NSS as Goldwater-Nichols mandates. Unfortunately, few would characterize the VUCA world we face today as anywhere near perfect, nor would ‘perfect’ apply to the national security planning process, which has many detractors.vii And then there’s the content that each administration formulates, setting national priorities that agree with political viewpoints. Obama’s 2015 NSS was delayed for over a year, as its assumptions were continually overturned by world events; his national security advisor, Susan Rice, summed it up: “If we had put it out in February or April or July, it would have been overtaken by events two weeks later, in any one of those months.”viii It’s a bear when your prime premises prove to be unsustainable. An excellent example is given during President Clinton’s administration:

As it happens, I can empathize a bit with President Obama’s predicament. I worked on two NSS that faced somewhat similar challenges. I was the junior staff member on President Clinton’s NSC in 1993-94 responsible for shepherding his first NSS through the interagency wickets. There was a draft almost ready to go in September, but the dramatic reversal of fortunes in Somalia made famous in the movie “Black Hawk Down” forced endless rewrites and it was not until the following summer that we finally released a much-revised NSS. The early drafts were much more forward-leaning on the “assertive multilateralism” the Clinton administration hoped to pursue; the final version was far more modest, more in keeping with the curtailed global role President Clinton was actually willing to fulfill.ix

So is there benefit to the process? I would suggest that the NSS gives a window into the soul of each administration, helping policymakers and Congress understand executive priorities, and those priorities presumably guide the vision of each executive agency; that’s a good start. The limitations of this planning process also emphasize the importance of a robust capability to flex with and respond to events, and that’s where the NSC and HSC earn their pay.

General (later President) Eisenhower mentioned that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,”x and in this case, the enemy is the unpredictable nature of the VUCA environment. So why waste the time? My view:

  • Planning forces you to analyze the environment, threat and risk, and priorities. If well done, that provides a defensible foundation for budget formulation, and a touchstone for actual operations. Without a plan, you’re shooting from the hip. Without the ability to react to unanticipated events, your plans will fail.
  • The more specific you try to make your strategic plans, the better the likelihood of failure. DOD and DHS use capabilities-based planning to introduce the necessary flexibility for lower levels to best adapt to their environments. But there’s a balance that should be maintained: Too little specificity at some point makes the plan too ambiguous to be useful. Good strategic planning is an art.
  • Understanding planning limitations should force your focus onto building responsive situational awareness, decision support, and command and control into your emergency operations procedures, as you’ll need all that to effectively react to unanticipated events.
  • Be thorough in your risk assessment, and think through all the possibilities, not just what conventional wisdom would suggest.
  • Don’t underestimate your foes, or you’ll be setting up your own surprises.
  • And use any strategic documents created by higher levels to better understand what the organizational vision is.

And a recommendation: Don’t let your idealized priorities prevent you from shifting perspective and handling the real world.


IThis strategy is intended to determine and prioritize ‘ends’ (goals and objectives) and link the ‘means’ (resources) and ‘ways’ (approaches) that will lead to the attainment of those goals and objectives.

II The combined size of DOD and DHS alone represents almost 3.5 million employees (including the National Guard and Reserve forces).

IIIFrom Catherine Dale, National Security Strategy: Legislative Mandates, Execution to Date, and Considerations for Congress. CRS Report May 28, 2008.

IVSomanader, T. (2015). President Obama’s National Security Strategy in 2015: Strong and Sustainable American Leadership. White House blog https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/02/06/presidents-obamas-national-security-strategy-2015-strong-and-sustainable-american-le

VThese were selected from among 30 points from the White House Fact Sheet: The 2015 National Security Strategy, due to their particular relevance to current events and homeland security.

VI Contrary to the conventional wisdom attributing this to John Lennon, a version appeared first in 1957, attributed to Allen Saunders.

VIIThe previously mentioned CRS report brings out some of the criticism of the process.

VIIILander, M. (Oct 29, 2014). Obama Could Replace Aides Bruised by a Cascade of Crises: The New York Times.

IX Feaver, P. (February 6, 2015). Grading Obama’s National Security Strategy 2.0: Foreign Policy.

XA more effective distillation of Von Moltke’s mid-nineteenth century phrase, “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” (taken from The Quote Verifier).


A.J. Briding Dr. A.J. Briding

Dr. A.J. Briding has been involved in emergency management and military operations for over 40 years. He holds the CHS-V, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and Certified Organizational Resilience Executive (CORE) certifications, and is a Project Management Professional (PMP). His Ph.D. is in Public Policy and Administration, with concentration on homeland security policy and coordination; he also holds an MS in Laser Engineering. He teaches courses on intercultural competence for the Air Force, and The Impact of National Cultures on Resilience Programs for the International Consortium for Organizational Resilience (ICOR) online.

Dr. Briding was a principal consultant for the City of New Orleans’ Office of Emergency Preparedness after Katrina hit, and wrote the City’s 2006 Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan and restructured its emergency operations center to be fully NIMS compliant. As a senior solutions architect and the principal consultant for homeland security and emergency management for CIBER, Inc., A.J. put together solutions that blended operational procedures and information technology support systems for federal, state, and local government agencies, to include proposals for a $10 million physical security integration system for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority and a $10 million computer-assisted dispatch system that spanned all of the Federal Protective Service’s dispatch megacenters that handled all calls for security of federal buildings across the U.S. Prior to working for CIBER, Dr. Briding was a senior defense analyst in U.S. Northern Command’s Futures Group, analyzing American nuclear and radiological defense capabilities and liaising with the National Laboratories and DOD WMD defense agencies. He is a retired Air Force colonel and pilot.

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