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New Strategy Seeks to Reinvigorate Deterrence in a Changing World

The challenge of the National Defense Strategy is to ensure U.S. deterrence at a time of profound change, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told an audience at the Brookings Institution.

Kahl, who spoke Friday, said the defense strategy fully supports the National Security Strategy and takes into account the range of threats the United States faces.  

A man at table listens to a conversation.
Bilateral Meeting
Colin H. Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, listens to Kenyan Chief of Defense General Robert Kibochi during a May meeting at the Pentagon. On Friday, Kahl told an audience at the Brookings Institution that the U.S., allies and partners must work on integrated deterrence as a means of keeping China, Russia and terror groups in check.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee, DOD
VIRIN: 220502-D-WA993-2003

China is the pacing threat for the United States — the one threat U.S. planners must measure their decisions against. But that doesn't mean the Indo-Pacific nation is the only threat. 

The geopolitical landscape is fundamentally changing, Kahl said. "You have a rapidly rising China; you have a more aggressive Russia; you have persistent threats from Iran, North Korea and violent extremist groups," he said. "But you also have a technological revolution, which is informing all of those trends, and a set of transboundary challenges, climate change, pandemics and others, which are generating real international security challenges, and also real demands on the Department of Defense." 

Kahl said the National Defense Strategy grapples with this complicated world. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has always emphasized the fact that China is the only country with the intention to reorder the political landscape and overturn the rules-based system that has served the world in the years since World War II.  

Kahl said China seeks to challenge the United States, militarily, economically, diplomatically and technologically. 

But the fact that the United States must keep apace with China doesn't mean the department ignores other threats, he said. The strategy notes "the most acute challenge at the moment is obviously Russia," Kahl said. "That word 'acute' is very intentional because it means both immediate and sharp." 

Kahl said Russia does not possess the capabilities to remake the world the  way that China could, he said. But Russia "does have the capability to blow up the world," he said. "And [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be reckless and capable of profound miscalculation and is directly threatening the security order in Europe and beyond through his aggression toward Ukraine." 

North Korea and Iran remain lesser threats, and the threat from international terrorist groups can flare up at any time, he said. 

Kahl said these threats are the reason that "integrated deterrence" is a concept applicable across the range. 

"Integrated deterrence and what that means … is a way to remind ourselves that deterrence activities have to be integrated in various ways," Kahl said. Deterrence must be integrated in the domains of land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. It must be integrated with allies and partners. Deterrence must be integrated within the U.S. government, he said.  

Two men sit next to one another at a table and shake hands; in front of them, are documents and pens.
Signature Handshake
Colin H. Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, and Minister of State and Head of the Security House of the President of the Republic of Angola, Francisco Pereira Furtado, sign a joint declaration at the conclusion of talks at the Pentagon earlier this year. On Friday, Kahl said the U.S., allies and partners must work on integrated deterrence as a means of keeping China, Russia and terror groups in check.
Photo By: Lisa Ferdinando, DOD
VIRIN: 220408-D-BN624-0182

"We also need to make sure that we're integrated across the tools of the U.S. government," he said. "The U.S. military needs to remain the most potent military in the world — and it will — but we have other potent tools in our toolkit to include U.S. dominance of the global financial system and our unmatched political power." 

Kahl said another core concept in the National Defense Strategy is resilience. "The reason resilience is important is that our adversaries have gone to school on the American way of war," he said. "They understand the American reliance on various networks in cyber and space in the informational domain, and they have spent hundreds of billions of dollars to try to hold those networks at risk." 

These networks are too vast to defend every point, "so, you have to make sure your networks are resilient so that you can fight through the inevitable disruptions that your adversaries plan for you," he said. 

Some critics say that integrated deterrence is a means to pass along missions to other agencies or countries. "Integrated deterrence is not an argument for our interagency partners doing more or our allies and partners doing more so we can do less," he said. "It's an argument that we need to do more, and others need to do more alongside us. And as we all do more together, we have to integrate those efforts together. And I would hope that that would be relatively non-controversial."

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