Analysis / Acquisition, Budget, Forces, Reform, Strategy

Defense Outlook 2018: Report

Defense Outlook Series

This volume presents CSIS experts’ assessment of the Trump administration’s strategy documents and FY 2019 budgets for defense.

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This assessment can be done now because, as the Trump administration moved into its second year in office, it has laid out its vision for national security. In December 2017, the president signed the National Security Strategy (NSS), the capstone document for national security. The secretary of defense then released the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which contains his vision for the department. The secretary has also published one targeted strategy document—the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which describes plans for nuclear capabilities—and will soon publish a second—the Missile Defense Review (MDR), which will do the same for missile defense. To implement these plans, the White House released its FY 2019 budget request, and the Congress has begun hearings to consider the new strategy and implementing budget.

The strategies and associated budgets contain much continuity with those of the Obama administration but also move in new directions. The strategy, for example, emphasizes great power competition with China and Russia. It outlines a more ambitious national security effort that requires a substantial increase in resources devoted to defense. The proposed FY 2019 base budget, indeed, contains a large increase—$52 billion above what the Obama administration had forecast and $85 billion above the caps of the Budget Control Act.

Back in January, CSIS national security experts provided their views about the emerging strategy in a podcast, “Examining the New National Defense Strategy.”

With the administration’s strategy and budget documents now published, CSIS experts have been able to analyze the concepts and policies they contain, along with the trade-offs they made and the challenges that they face. The 10 analyses in this volume—originally published on the Defense360 website—collectively provide readers with a broad overview of “Defense Outlook 2018.”

These analyses begin with a strategy overview, then look at budgets, forces, and acquisition. The remaining six analyses examine specialty topics from nuclear weapons to regional strategies.

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Defense Outlook 2018
Kathleen H. Hicks, February 23, 2018

The unclassified summary of the NDS provides the broad strokes of Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s strategic framework, if not the desired details of its connective tissue. He foreshadowed the document’s key themes—lethality, alliances, and defense reform—early in his tenure and highlights the same primary challenge to U.S. interests as the National Security Strategy: winning in competitions against capable adversaries, with special emphasis on pacing the multidimensional threats posed by China and Russia. However, ambition often outpaces resources and plans. Although the defense agenda for the Trump administration may now be clear, its outcome is not predetermined.

Making Sense of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 and What It Means for Defense
Seamus Daniels and Todd Harrison, February 20, 2018

On the morning of February 9, roughly eight and a half hours into the second government shutdown of FY 2018, President Trump signed H.R. 1892, the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (BBA 2018),” into law. The bill raises the spending limits for both defense and nondefense funding imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 for two years, FY 2018 and FY 2019. BBA 2018 differs from previous agreements in the sheer magnitude of the deal that increases funding above the spending caps by $165 billion for FY 2018-2019.

Military Force Structure: Trade-offs, Trade-offs, Trade-offs
Mark Cancian, February 26, 2018

DoD’s large budget increases in FY 2018 and FY 2019 allow it to do a lot more than it was doing before, but not everything. A major trade-off is with force structure. The forces proposed are more than what Secretary of Defense James Mattis had originally signaled but less than what President Trump’s rhetoric had implied. Other trade-offs appear in modernization—focusing on existing programs rather than starting expensive new programs—and in force mix—continuing development of some less expensive, lower-end capabilities rather than focusing completely on high-end capabilities.

A Strategic Approach to Defense Investment
Andrew Hunter, March 26, 2018

The NDS issues an urgent call to action to a community—the National Security Innovation Base—that has never been called out so explicitly before. The strategy calls upon the National Security Innovation Base to gear up for a “long-term strategic competition” with nations like China and Russia and assigns it the task of maintaining DoD’s technological advantage, an advantage that is currently being “contested in every domain.” Significantly, the strategy states that the accelerating pace and increasingly commercial nature of technological advancement will require the National Security Innovation Base to adopt “changes to industry culture, investment sources, and protection.” However, the budget is not yet postured to resource these changes, and the great question for the Department of Defense is whether the window of budget opportunity closes before it can get its investment aligned with its strategy.

Nuclear Posture Review: The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same 
Rebecca Hersman, February 6, 2018

Judging by reactions to the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), there is something in it for everyone. That means almost no one is happy. Initial reactions suggest the review opens the door to nuclear “war fighting,” or closes it; raises the nuclear threshold, yet lowers it; continues some Obama administration policies and programs, or departs from them dramatically; goes too far in portraying a confrontational approach to Russia and China, yet does not go far enough. It’s fundamentally different from the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, but it is also largely the same.

The Forthcoming Missile Defense Review
Tom Karako and Ian Williams, April 6, 2018

Later this spring, the Trump administration will release its 2018 Missile Defense Review (MDR), which is expected to better align U.S. missile defense policy with the present security environment. President Barack Obama’s 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) reflected the security environment of the time and the aspirations of the Obama administration. In particular, technological advances by U.S. adversaries and a renewed focus on long-term competition with Russia and China drive the need for a new review.

The Return of Political Warfare 
Seth Jones, February 2, 2018

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy outline a U.S. shift from counterterrorism to inter-state competition with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. However, U.S. policymakers need to be prepared for much of this competition to occur at the unconventional level—using proxies, cyber, psychological operations, and covert action—since the costs of conventional and nuclear war would likely be catastrophic.

The Limits of Good Strategy: The United States in the Asia Pacific in 2018 
John Schaus, February 2, 2018

The release of the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy offers a window to evaluate current and ongoing U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region. But while the documents offer bold, clear strategic direction at a time the United States and the world need clear guideposts, the administration’s actions are at odds with the strategies.

U.S. National Security and Defense Goals in Africa: A Curious Disconnect 
Alice Hunt Friend and Ariel Fanger, February 13, 2018

Despite the brief notoriety of U.S. special operations activities in Africa after the tragic ambush in Niger last October, U.S. strategic priorities there remain inscrutable. For a recent example of the administration’s enigmatic approach to the continent, look in turn at the Africa sections in the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS). You will find a curious disconnect.

Don’t Let the Budget Deal Kill Defense Reform 
Todd Harrison, February 20, 2018

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, signed into law on February 9, is a victory for defense hawks in Congress and the administration. It increases defense funding by $165 billion over the next two years—the most that anyone could have reasonably expected. But defense hawks shouldn’t start popping the champagne corks just yet. While this deal may ease the budget pressures on the Department of Defense (DoD) for now, it comes with many risks—namely that policymakers will lose interest in much needed defense reforms and squander much of the additional funding.

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Kathleen Hicks, Mark Cancian, Alice Hunt Friend, Todd Harrison, Rebecca Hersman, Andrew Hunter, Seth G. Jones, Tom Karako, John Schaus, Ian Williams, Seamus P. Daniels and Ariel Fanger, "Defense Outlook 2018: Report," Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 23, 2018, last modified April 23, 2018,