The 2011 National Military Strategy: Resetting a Strong Foundation

May 2, 2011

The 2011 National Military Strategy of the United States of America (NMS) discusses how the Joint Chiefs of Staff intend to employ the military in advancing American interests. Composed in the wake of broader strategy statements such as the National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review, the document serves two main purposes: to assess the global security situation and some emerging forces likely to mold it in the future, and to identify a set of discrete national military objectives that define the main missions to be undertaken by the armed forces.

The international security environment has changed since the last time such a document was produced in 2004—when the war in Iraq was entering just its second year. The U.S. military has been continuously engaged in combat operations for the longest span in its history. This commitment has presented many challenges, foreseen and unforeseen, but the experience has also taught the military important lessons about which competencies are most valuable in the full spectrum of 21st century warfare. In addition, the nation’s civilian leaders have substantially shifted their foreign policy priorities toward issues of broadly shared mutual interest, including energy security, climate change, poverty and pandemic disease. Meanwhile, America’s adversaries have been innovative: state actors have been arming, nonstate actors have been subverting and the nexus of state and nonstate actors has become even more threatening. The new NMS incorporates these recent developments and aims to supply the armed forces with strategic direction for the future.

It should be no surprise, then, that the 2011 NMS is markedly different from the previous version. But what is remarkable is that it defines America’s defense objectives even more broadly than before. This philosophical shift is potentially problematic because the United States cannot afford, strategically or financially, to pursue every interest equally. It must therefore wisely wield its military capability to make efficient, appropriate use of limited national resources.