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National Defense Strategy: Lethality

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The way war is waged has drastically changed over the decades. Technological breakthroughs are coming faster than ever, and our great-power competitors – namely Russia and China – are all over them.

A projectile shoots from a howitzer, creating a ball of flames and smoke.
Howitzer Blast
The earth shakes as an M109A6 Paladin fires a gas-propelled 155 mm howitzer round through the enormous canon, as the Army’s 1-9 Field Artillery, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, conducts gun calibration at Destiny Range in Mosul, Iraq, April 23, 2010.
Photo By: Gregory Gieske
VIRIN: 100423-A-ZZ999-003A

The U.S. was militarily uncontested in every way for a long time, but nothing is uncontested anymore. Long-term, strategic Cold War-style competition has re-emerged, and we’re being challenged in the air, on the sea and land, in space and in cyberspace.

So how do we prepare for and prevent war? By modernizing the force, thinking ahead, being more flexible with our capabilities, and by having the best and brightest on our side. This makes us lethal.

Black clouds of smoke flank a fireball from a detonation in a field.
Grafenwoehr Detonation
Soldiers assigned to 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Riley, Kan., fire and detonate a mine-clearing line charge in Grafenwoehr, Germany, during a Combined Resolve X live-fire training event, April 19, 2018. Exercise Combined Resolve X is an U.S. Army Europe exercise series held twice a year in southeastern Germany to prepare forces in Europe to work together to promote stability and security in the region.
Photo By: Army Spc. Dustin Biven
VIRIN: 180419-A-ED017-1971A


Preparedness is a priority, and we have to outpace our competitors’ ambitions and capabilities. The new defense budget gives us the opportunity to increase our force, as well as devote more resources to staying on top competitively and speeding up modernization efforts on these fronts:

Nuclear forces
Space and cyberspace
Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and other communications
Missile defense, including threats from North Korea

Several rockets shoot across a field, creating smoke trails.
Wyoming Rockets
Multiple launch rocket systems are fired by the 147th Field Artillery, Bravo Battery from Yankton, S.D., during South Dakota Army National Guard annual training at Camp Guernsey, Wyo., Aug. 2, 2015.
Photo By: Senior Airman Duane Duimstra
VIRIN: 150802-Z-SJ722-166A

Here are some other key modernization efforts:

  • Making sure our forces can successfully strike enemies’ networks and physical terrain.
  • When it comes to air, ground, sea and space forces, we’re transitioning from a large, centralized framework in the field to bases that are smaller and more dispersed, resilient and adaptive.
  • Pre-positioning munitions such as tanks and weapons all over the world so troops can access them easily if we need to mobilize.
  • Investing in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, including those that are commercially developed.
Thinking Ahead

While we’re modernizing, the DOD also needs to be thinking ahead. We need to know what new technologies mean for the battlefield and adjust the way our troops are organized accordingly. We need to build a culture of experimentation and calculated risk-taking so we can be ready for future conflicts and be one step ahead of our enemies.

A graphic showing the National Defense Strategy's lines of effort.
National Defense Strategy
The National Defense Strategy's Lines of Effort - Lethality, Partnerships, Reform.
Photo By: DOD Graphic
VIRIN: 200709-D-ZZ999-001

Being More Flexible

The DOD always needs to account for uncertainty, meaning we have to be more flexible with our combat capabilities. We’re doing this in two ways:

Through Dynamic Force Employment: This means that our joint force will have the size and means to take on a large-scale war for a sustained period of time. At the same time, we’ll have smaller units among those troops that can be increased or decreased in size to adjust to changing scenarios as needed.

Through the Global Operating Model: This calls for four things:

  • Delaying, degrading and denying enemy aggression.
  • Surging war-winning forces.
  • Managing conflict escalation.
  • Defending the U.S. homeland before anything escalates to armed conflict.

A missile launches from the guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance.
Missile Live-Fire
A Standard Missile 2 launches from the guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance during a live-fire as part of a cruiser-destroyer, surface advanced tactical training exercise in the Pacific Ocean, April 27, 2018. Navy photo by Seaman Apprentice Jeffery L. Southerland
Photo By: Seaman Apprentice Jeffery L. Southerland
VIRIN: 180427-N-HS117-089A

Having the Best Workforce Around

It’s been said many times by many DOD officials that our people are our greatest strength. We can succeed by recruiting, developing and retaining the best and brightest in the military and in the civilian DOD workforce. Here’s how we plan to do that:

  • Having professional military education courses, such as leadership schools, focus more on shooting, moving and communicating better to make a more lethal force.
  • Offering service members more options to learn through fellowships, civilian educational options and assignments that work with other agencies, coalitions, and U.S. allies and partners. Expanding access to outside expertise -- including at small companies, start-ups and universities -- is vital.
  • Adding more information experts, data scientists, computer programmers, researchers and engineers to DOD’s ranks. A diverse and skilled civilian workforce keeps the military engine moving.


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