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Summarizing the 2022 National Defense Strategy

Brad Carney, Olivia B. Hoff
Friday, November 18, 2022, 9:16 AM

In October, the Department of Defense released an unclassified version of the National Defense Strategy, the Nuclear Posture Review, and the Missile Defense Review, outlining four main defense priorities to strengthen deterrence.

The U.S. Department of Defense building, also known as The Pentagon (Photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond,; Official United States Government Work)

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On Oct. 27, the Department of Defense unveiled the unclassified version of the 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS), Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and Missile Defense Review (MDR). The NDS outlines the department’s path forward for the “decades to come” to advance U.S. “defense and security goals.” After Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017—pursuant to the National Security Act of 1947—the NDS replaced the Quadrennial Defense Review. Now, the NDS is published every four years and is required to consider the “global strategic environment, force posture, and the role of the U.S. in global security.” To answer new challenges, the Defense Department conducted its strategic reviews by “ensuring tight linkages between [their] strategy and [their] resources” and aligning the department’s goals with President Biden’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released in early October. That tight linkage resulted in publishing the NDS, NPR, and MDR together for the first time. In support of the NDS and NSS, the current NPR describes the U.S.’s nuclear strategy and posture, while the MDR informs the Defense Department and its partners on “U.S. missile defense strategy and policy.” 

Defense Priorities

These reports emphasize four main defense priorities that the Defense Department will pursue to strengthen deterrence as well as the means to achieve its priorities. The four priorities are: 

  • Defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
  • Deterring strategic attacks against the United States, allies, and partners.
  • Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary—prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe.
  • Building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem. 

To meet these priorities, the Defense Department will employ “integrated deterrence, campaigning, and actions” that strengthen deterrence. Deterrence will be achieved through denial, resilience, and cost imposition. While the report isn’t specific about the timeline, new capabilities such as “undersea, hypersonic, and autonomous systems” are planned for the “mid- to long-term.” To become more resilient, the plan is to fortify the cyber and space domains that “empower the entire Joint Force.” The department also seeks to shape norms in technological spaces and increase “international consensus” on how aggressive behavior is defined. There is an acute focus on the PRC throughout the strategy because of the country’s “increasingly coercive actions to reshape the Indo-Pacific region,” rapid modernization and expansion of their military forces, and desire to reshape the international system to fit their authoritarian preferences. With the focus on the PRC and Russia, the modernization of nuclear forces plays a pivotal role in deterrence. This article lays out some of the main points addressed in the NDS, as well as those presented in the NPR and MDR.

People’s Republic of China

As the NDS notes, China is the most “comprehensive and serious” challenge due to its holistic joint warfare approach. China seeks to undermine U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region and mold the region to fit PRC authoritarian preferences and interests. The PRC has modernized the People’s Liberation Army to offset U.S. military advantages and seeks to destabilize areas such as the East China Sea. The PRC is also evolving to advance national interests in space, counterspace, cyber, electronic, and informational warfare capabilities. 


Russia is labeled an “acute threat” and presents “serious, continuing risks in key areas” because of the unprovoked war against Ukraine and nuclear threats to the U.S. and allies. Although the PRC and Russia have diverging interests and a history of mistrust, their relationship continues to increase in breadth. Both Russia and the PRC are noted as more dangerous threats to the U.S. than terrorists due to their holistic approaches to military power on the global stage. 

Beyond State Actors

Transboundary challenges such as climate change and extreme weather “transform[] the context in which the Department [of Defense] operates.” Indeed, increasing temperatures, extreme weather, and rising sea levels degrade “readiness, installations, and capabilities.” In the Arctic, climate change will open “new corridors of strategic interaction.” The department anticipates increased demands for disaster response and other support for allies and partners because of the insecurity and instability also arising from climate change. Lastly, while the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect global supply chains, it also serves as a spotlight for the costs, risks, and damage of future biological threats. Although not a state actor, the Defense Department recognizes the transboundary threat as an increasing pressure on the Joint Force that must be considered.  

Force Planning

The Defense Department’s force planning requires “building strength and capability in key operational areas,” including “maintain[ing] information advantage”; “preserv[ing] command, control, and communications in a fast-paced battlefield”; “enhancing [the U.S.’s] ability to deny aggression”; “mitigat[ing] adversary anti-access/area-denial capability”; and reinforcing the U.S.’s “ capability to quickly mobilize and deploy forces and to sustain high-intensity joint denial operations despite kinetic and non-kinetic attack and disruption.” To that end, the department will prioritize a future force that is lethal, sustainable, resilient, survivable, agile, and responsive. The department seeks to balance the Joint Force’s ability to employ forces on short notice, ensuring that capability does not erode readiness for future missions or bias investments “at the expense of building capability and proficiency for advanced threats.”

Building Enduring Advantages

The effort to build enduring advantages calls for federal departments and agencies, Congress, the private sector, and allies and partners to effect change in five ways to combat competitors that are putting the U.S. defense ecosystem at risk: (a) “transform[ing] the foundation of the future force” by solving key operational challenges through faster experimentation, acquisition, and fielding of cutting-edge technologies; (b) “mak[ing] the right technology investments,” for example, in advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, and advanced materials to integrate and speed up the delivery of their capabilities to the warfighter; (c) “adapt[ing] and fortify[ing] our defense ecosystem” by strengthening the defense industrial base, which includes research institutes, small businesses, and innovative technology firms as well as better supporting advanced manufacturing processes; (d) “strengthen[ing] resilience and adaptability” through fully assessing and incorporating considerations for climate change and extreme conditions into account at all stages—threat assessments, training, and logistics; and (e) “cultivat[ing] the work force we need” by streamlining hiring practices, offering better incentives, increasing the availability of growth opportunities, broadening the recruitment pool, and continuing to counter harassment in the workplace. 

Risk Management

The NDS calls into focus two risk management areas: foresight risk and implementation risk. Foresight risk considers unforeseen developments from the U.S.’s competitors, the possibility of over- or underestimated threat assessments, and failure to anticipate what capabilities could change the U.S.’s relative military advantage. Implementation risk encompasses failure to “align available resources with the strategy’s level of ambition,” “effectively incorporate new technologies,” bolster the workforce, and reduce barriers limiting collaboration with allies and partners.

Nuclear Posture Review

Part I 

Part I of the NPR calls for a “comprehensive, balanced approach to defending vital national security interests and reducing nuclear risks.” To that end, it states that the U.S. will maintain nuclear forces responsive to threats the U.S. faces. While the section affirms generally that the U.S. will pursue engagements with other nuclear-armed states to reduce nuclear risks, it specifically calls out two of those states: the Russian Federation (Russia) and the PRC. Russia’s penchant for using nuclear capabilities as a threat raises, in conjunction with its invasion of Ukraine, the risk of “deliberate or unintended escalation.” The U.S., the review states, emphasizes that the PRC has a responsibility as a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to reduce the risks posed by Russia’s rhetoric. In contrast to Russia’s and the PRC’s positions, the U.S. has made a list of nine specific goals focused on achieving “sustained security and stable deterrence” in an effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S.’s strategy.  

Part II 

This part reviews the current security environment, which has deteriorated in recent years, and details a number of risks the U.S faces. The risks that contribute to the deteriorated security environment stem in large part from the PRC and Russia. Both states seek to expand and modernize their nuclear forces while growing their kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities in fields such as “cyber, space, information, and advanced conventional strike.” The PRC’s trajectory could result in nuclear weapons being leveraged for coercive purposes against the U.S. and allies. The NPR goes on to label Russia an “enduring existential threat” to the U.S., NATO, and neighboring countries as it seeks to modernize and expand nuclear capabilities. 

Other destabilizing factors and persistent concerns include North Korea’s expansion and improvements of its nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities, prevention of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the potential acquisition of nuclear capabilities by other states, and the continuing threat of nuclear terrorism against the U.S. and its interests. 

Therefore, the strategy emphasizes, the U.S. must deter Russia from using nuclear capabilities in regional conflict, account for new complexities stemming from the PRC’s nuclear expansion, posture itself with military capabilities that can deter and defeat actors seeking to take advantage of military confrontations between the U.S. and other major powers, and face new dilemmas arising from advances in nonnuclear capabilities.

Part III

Here, the strategy cites the U.S.’s historical nuclear strategy and continued assurance that it “will not use nuclear weapons to intimidate others or as part of an expansionist security policy.” The NPR affirms three roles for nuclear weapons—deter strategic attacks, assure allies and partners, and achieve the U.S.’s objectives if deterrence fails—so that the U.S. is capable of providing deterrence “in the face of significant uncertainties and unanticipated challenges.” Deterring strategic attacks includes the capability to deter large-scale and limited nuclear attacks, plus the capability to deter nonnuclear, high-consequence, strategic-level attacks. The U.S.’s national security and defense strategy requires credible extended nuclear deterrence in order to assure allies and partners that the U.S. is committed to and capable of deterring a range of threats. The NPR states that, if deterrence fails, the U.S. will maintain the ability to achieve its objectives “should the President conclude that the employment of nuclear weapons is necessary.” To that end,

As long as nuclear weapons exist, the fundamental role of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our Allies, and partners. The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its Allies and partners.

The incorporation of nuclear weapons into the U.S. defense strategy is intended to complicate an adversary’s decision-making process and, therefore, is foundational to all of the U.S. defense strategies. Maintaining the incorporation of nuclear weapons requires an integrated deterrence strategy aimed at combining nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities and the planning, training, and operations necessary to elevate the threshold where an actor would consider using nuclear weapons. A collective response mentality grown from extended nuclear deterrence relationships is essential to deterring aggression.

Part IV 

The fourth section of the NPR stresses the necessity of the U.S. engaging in a tailored approach to effectively deter adversaries based on what differing adversary leaderships value most. For example, the U.S. maintains a flexible approach aimed at preventing the PRC from “concluding that it could gain advantage through any employment of nuclear weapons, however limited.” To deter large-scale attacks from Russia, the U.S. will “field a modern, resilient nuclear Triad” (land, sea, and air capabilities), with the added benefit of reducing Russia’s confidence in a conventional war against NATO. With regard to threats posed by North Korea, the NPR states in no uncertain terms that a nuclear attack against the U.S., its allies, or partners will result in the end of Kim Jong-un’s regime. While Iran does not currently pose a nuclear threat, it continues to develop the capabilities to do so, and U.S. policy states that “Iran will not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.” 

The NPR pledges that, in order to cope with complex operating environments, the U.S. will follow guidelines for managing escalation risk and will seek to manage adversary misperceptions that could lead to miscalculations. The U.S. has protections in place to mitigate the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons and has taken steps to modify its nuclear posture to enhance stability. As directed by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, the Defense Department will commission an “independent review of the safety, security, and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3), and integrated tactical warning/attack assessment systems.” 

Part V 

As the fifth part of the strategy states, the U.S.’s nuclear forces remain essential to NATO’s deterrence and defense posture: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.” The U.S. plays a vital role in that alliance as it provides a political and military link between Europe and North America. In the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. maintains “steadfast” security commitments to those allies and partners and seeks to strengthen deterrence in ways that are responsive to growing concerns about nuclear capabilities in the PRC, North Korea, and Russia. 

Part VI 

The 2022 NPR is placing renewed emphasis on arms control, nuclear non-proliferation, and risk reduction. Therefore, the U.S. “will pursue new arms control arrangements that address the full range of nuclear threats and advance our global non-proliferation interests.” The U.S., the strategy states, views “[m]utual, verifiable nuclear arms control” as the best path to reducing the role of nuclear weapons. However, the PRC’s and Russia’s efforts to expand their nuclear capabilities make those goals a challenge. 

In an effort to maintain mutual, verifiable arms control, President Biden extended the New START Treaty in January 2021 for five years, which extended limits on Russian intercontinental-range nuclear forces. Without a replacement for the treaty after five years, however, Russia will be free to expand strategic nuclear forces. The U.S. seeks negotiation of a new arms control framework to replace the New START Treaty when it expires. Although the PRC remains reluctant to discuss “mutual restraints in capabilities and behaviors,” the U.S. remains poised to discuss and engage the PRC on a full range of issues. 

The U.S. reaffirms its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and the NPT and will continue to support NPT state parties enjoying peaceful nuclear technology. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and limit its activities applicable to a nuclear weapons program. In a similar vein, the U.S. seeks the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In seeking multilateral arms control and disarmament, the U.S. pursues two avenues toward international agreement: the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). The CTBT would ban nuclear explosive testing and require Russia and the PRC to comply with a “zero-yield” standard. By currently maintaining a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear explosive testing, the U.S.advances its non-proliferation objectives. Under the FMCT, the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons would be banned. Despite pursuing two avenues toward international agreement with regard to nuclear development and elimination of nuclear weapons, the U.S. does not view the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as a means to effectively reach those ends. 

The U.S. seeks to prevent nuclear terrorism through active nuclear counterterrorism strategies in effort to deter both “non-state actors and hostile states that might contemplate providing nuclear material or other assistance to would-be nuclear terrorists.” 

Part VII 

The U.S. will continue to comply with the New START Treaty in fielding and maintaining its nuclear capabilities, which includes continuing to deploy a nuclear triad. Currently, the U.S. is working toward modernization of the nuclear triad and will field modernized systems at the end of the decade.

To ensure the five essential functions of the NC3, the U.S.seeks to employ a mix of approaches to protect next-generation NC3 from threats posed by competitor capabilities. The U.S. will employ a systematic approach to technology innovation by placing importance on investing in new technology efforts—investments, research, development, data rights, and experimentation—to promote “technology-based resilience.”

Part VIII 

The strategy concedes that much of the U.S.’s nuclear stockpile has aged and that the best deterrent requires modern weapons and infrastructure. To that end, the strategy presents a three-pillared plan for modernization and sustainability. Pillar one calls for the Defense Department and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to develop and implement a Nuclear Deterrent Risk Management Strategy to “identify, prioritize, and recommend actions across the portfolio of nuclear programs and monitor the overall health of the nuclear deterrent as [the U.S.] sustain[s] current capabilities and transition to modernized systems.” Pillar two requires the NNSA to institute a Production-based Resilience Program that will “establish the capabilities and infrastructure that can efficiently produce weapons required in the near-term and beyond, and that are sufficiently resilient to adapt to additional or new requirements should geopolitical or technology developments warrant.” Pillar three mandates that the NNSA establish a Science and Technology Innovation Initiative “to accelerate the integration of science and technology … throughout its activities.” Evident in all of these initiatives, the U.S. is placing just as much importance on recruiting and retaining a skilled and diverse workforce here in the NPR as it did in the main body of the NDS.

Missile Defense Review

As part of its efforts toward developing an integrated deterrence, the MDR provides direction to the defense priorities of an evolving U.S. missile defense scheme.

The MDR includes an overview of the technological concerns of a rapidly evolving world for the U.S. and its allies. Traditional weapons such as ballistic and cruise missiles are still evolving “enabled by sophisticated information systems and sensors.” New threats, such as “small Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (sUAS),” serve as a challenge to the traditional air and missile defense paradigm.

Unsurprisingly, the MDR places the PRC and Russia as the top priorities. According to the MDR, the PRC is making rapid advancement in “its development of conventional and nuclear-armed ballistic and hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities,” and is closing the gap between it and the United States. For its part, Russia’s “[c]urrent battlefield losses threaten to reduce Russia’s modernized weapons arsenal.” Further, the strategy states, international economic sanctions due to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine “may hinder its future ability to effectively produce modern precision-guided munitions.” 

Other threats, such as North Korea, Iran, and non-state actors, continue to pose danger to the U.S. and its allies. North Korea is developing its intercontinental ballistic missiles technology and signals it will continue to increase the “size and complexity” of that program. Currently, Iran has the “largest missile force in the Middle East” and a “growing UAS capability,” serving as a risk to U.S. forces and allies in the region. Non-state actors employ “increasingly complex offensive sUAS, rocket, and missile capabilities.” The UAS concern is unique insofar as they “can have similar lethality to cruise missiles” while launching, undetected. Usage is expected to expand, posing a danger overseas and “potentially to the U.S. homeland.” Responding to UAS threats through the development of counter-UAS responses is an “area of importance” and an increasing challenge. 

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is the center of the “homeland missile defense mission.” GMD is a part of an “integrated approach to deterrence” and consists of “interceptors emplaced in Alaska and California.” The report specifies that any attack on Guam or other U.S. territories “will be considered a direct attack” on the U.S., as Guam is an “essential operating base for U.S. efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”


Brad Carney is a J.D. student at Harvard Law School. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Dartmouth College and served as a Ranger in the U.S. Army.
Olivia B. Hoff is a student contributor at Lawfare completing an LL.M. in Cyber, Intelligence, and National Security Law from the National Security Institute at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. She is an active duty JAG who received her J.D. from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2015. Any views presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of the DoD or the Air Force.

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