Special Commentary: Post-COVID Transformation: DOD Goes into the Matrix?
- Nathan Freier, Robert Hume, Al Lord, John Schaus
- Content Type
- Commentary and Analysis
- The Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College
- These are complex, turbulent, and uncertain times to be sure. The Department of Defense
(DOD) is at an important inflection point. COVID-19 has irrevocably altered the dynamics of
international security and reshaped DOD’s decision-making landscape. As a result, DOD will
have to adapt to significantly different strategic circumstances post-COVID than those assumed
operative in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS18). We recommend that DOD recognize
this to be true, seize the initiative, create opportunity from crisis, and recraft defense strategy to
re-emerge from COVID as a stronger, more hypercompetitive institution.
The past is definitely prologue in this regard. DOD’s current strategic circumstances mirror
those of the immediate post-9/11 period. The wars that followed 9/11 forced a substantial
strategic course correction on DOD. By 2003, it was clear that the azimuth set in the 2001
Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR01) was fundamentally compromised by the stark reality of
the Iraq and Afghan wars and the wider “Global War on Terrorism.”
There was corporate recognition at the time that the path described in QDR01 was not likely
to position the American military for the demands of the post-9/11 environment. Just as war
reshaped DOD’s strategic agenda then, COVID-19 will change the dynamics of great power
rivalry and the defense choices associated with it going forward as well. By itself, we suggest this
necessitates a thoughtful re-examination of the assumptions and approach described in NDS18.
To use a pop culture analogy, DOD’s current situation is reminiscent of “Neo’s choice” in the
dystopian movie The Matrix. In the film, rebel leader Morpheus offers protagonist Neo the
choice of a red pill or a blue pill. The red pill extends to Neo an unvarnished view of “the matrix”
and its broader and more difficult set of governing facts. The blue pill, on the other hand,
returns Neo to his prior blissfully naïve existence plugged into a land of computer make-believe.
The blue pill is all about doubling down on a comfortable yet already discredited past. The red
pill offers Neo the opportunity to boldly enter a difficult but nonetheless transformational
future. In the end (spoiler alert), Neo chooses red.
Like Neo, DOD has its own difficult “red or blue” choice on the near-horizon. COVID forced
the issue. DOD’s choice is between prudent risk-taking, transformation, and increased
hypercompetitiveness (red) on the one hand, and status quo, steady decline, and inevitable loss
of position in key regions and domains on the other (blue). As in the case of Neo, we suggest that
DOD choose the former (red pill) transformational option.
- Defense Policy, Armed Forces, Strategic Competition, COVID-19
- Political Geography
- North America, United States of America