The Emergence of the McMaster Doctrine

Intelligence

Lost amid the furor of shutdown mania last Friday was the rollout of the unclassified summary of the new National Defense Strategy. The NDS occupies the middle rung between the National Security Strategy and the National Military Strategy, which together lay out a vision and roadmap for how to ensure the nation remains safe and prosperous.

While the NDS is a product of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and was unveiled by Sec. James Mattis himself in a speech Friday at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the prime influencer of American foreign policy at the moment is not the Secretary of State or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Instead, the man whose fingerprints are most evident on emerging American security and foreign policy is the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. We are viewing the emergence of what I’m now calling the McMaster Doctrine.

One man, three key documents

While others have used the phrase (mostly derisively) over the past year, we now have three cohesive, well-thought-out documents that describe the new security challenges facing the nation, and the means to confront them.

The NDS is tightly integrated with the NSS, as well as the Army’s new concept, Multi-Domain Battle. I gave the MDB authors a fairly hard time in this space last month, but after spending more time with the concept paper, it accurately describes a frightening new competitive landscape… once you get past the dense doctrine writing.

The NSS is a product of the National Security Council, and the MDB concept paper is a product of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). Prior to assuming the duties of the national security adviser, McMaster was TRADOC’s deputy commanding general for “futures” and director of… ARCIC.

The MDB concept paper was only published in early December, but TRADOC’s commander, Gen. David Perkins, has been talking about it for more than a year, and pieces of it found their way into the Army’s field Manual 3-0, “Operations,” last fall. It is, at its core, a McMaster document.

The fact that these three documents — National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Multi-Domain Battle Concept — share not just ideas but the language to describe them, is not just the product of what we’d call “good staff work” in the Pentagon. It is clear evidence that McMaster’s intellectual influence dominates each of them.

Power Politics played across new domains

The central theme of the McMaster Doctrine is that not only have great-power politics made a resurgence — to the point where they have supplanted transnational terrorism as the primary security concern of the United States — but that the country can expect to be in a state of constant strategic competition with “revisionist powers” Russia and China, while still having to contend with the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and the continuing threat of terrorism from non-state actors.

Furthermore, the U.S. will have to shed its past reliance on a binary choice between “war” and “peace,” contending instead with that state of constant competition, where peer and near-peer adversaries seek to achieve military goals through operations that fall short of what we have traditionally considered war. The 2014 Russian fait accompli in Crimea is a perfect example.

Our adversaries have also expanded the battlefield beyond the traditional domains of land, air, and sea, to include the new warfighting domains of space, cyberspace, information, and electronic warfare. These new domains, coupled with new technological capabilities, mean that not only is the U.S. not assured of dominance in any domain, but, in the words of the NSS, “the homeland is no longer a sanctuary.”

Where once we could draw a clear division between the battlefield and the homeland, we no longer have that luxury. Our adversaries can strike us at any place, at any time, across multiple domains simultaneously. Because cyber and informational domains know no geographic boundaries, our installations in the continental United States are as vulnerable to attack as the forces arrayed along what we once called the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (shout out to everyone old enough to remember AirLand Battle).

The National Defense Strategy is earning praise from foreign and national defense policy experts of many stripes. But for all the talk of the contents, Lt. Gen. McMaster is not getting nearly the credit he deserves. Amidst the evident chaos in the West Wing, he has woven a coherent and workable national security doctrine that the nation has sorely needed for nearly two decades. It comes not a moment too soon.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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