Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Defense Playbook for Campaigns

  • Richard Kuzma
  • David Michelson
  • Jacqueline Parziale
  • Kathryn Reed
  • Ryan Solís
  • Tom Wester
  • William Wright
| March 2020

A note to readers:

The Belfer Center has a dual mission: (1) to provide leadership in advancing policy-relevant knowledge about the most important challenges of international security; and (2) to prepare future generations of leaders for these arenas. This means not shying away from the most difficult and controversial issues of our time, like how best to change America’s national security posture to fit a changing world. This also means giving a platform to our students who are eager to join the ranks of the next generation of national security leaders.

The Defense Playbook for Campaigns fully takes up this challenge, with policy guidance for candidates of either party seeking guidance on regional affairs, military technology, and Pentagon reform. None of these issues are easy, and most are controversial. However, these papers provide a blueprint for candidates searching for fact-based, rigorous, bipartisan analysis on the most pressing national security issues of our time. The topics were proposed by our students, who felt that each area could benefit from injecting fresh thought and potential reform. 

The most important thing for the future of our country’s national security will be its ability to debate potential responses to the security challenges that we face, and to emerge from this conversation with the best ideas implemented. These papers are intended as a substantive addition to that conversation.

Eric Rosenbach, Co-Director Belfer Center




The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) is predicated on a single organizing principle: America’s military pre-eminence is rapidly eroding. This is not a new concept. For years, experts have warned that the economic and technological advancements of U.S. adversaries, coupled with the 2008 financial crisis and America’s focus on peripheral conflicts, have caused a decline in America’s military dominance. 

In this context, the advances of near-peer competitors such as China and Russia have created plausible “theories of victory” in potential conflicts across Eastern Europe and East Asia. Competitors’ unaddressed improvements in strategic innovation, economic investment, and dual-use technology increases the risk of conflict and strains the U.S. alliance system. It is urgent that the United States reestablish and maintain credible deterrents against these near-peer competitors. After decades of focusing on post-Cold War ‘shaping’ operations, the American military needs to reinvigorate for full spectrum great power competition.

This report is intended as a blueprint on how to begin that process from graduate students at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Contained inside are 12 memorandums. Each provides a high-level overview and specific recommendations on a key issue of American defense policy. Each memorandum can be read on its own or as part of the broader package. The topics range from regional defense analysis, emerging technology, and cyber warfare, to budgetary process reforms. The papers are organized in broad themes, with the first section focusing on regional conflicts, the second section addressing broad technological issues, and the third section covering internal U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) reform. 

At the highest level, these papers recommend that the next administration: 


China: Prepare the country for escalating competition and potential high-end conflict, by:

  • Pursuing a strategy built for defined, high probability scenarios
  • Advocating for budgets that address the urgency of the challenge


Russia: Improve America’s readiness to respond rapidly to further aggression against our partners and allies in Europe, by:

  • Continuing to push NATO toward greater readiness to respond to the actual threats that its members face
  • Taking actions to signal commitment to American partners
  • Realigning force projection capabilities to specific conventional threats facing non-NATO partners such that a rapid unilateral response is possible


Iraq/Afghanistan: Ensure the successful consolidation of military gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while transitioning to a more resource-sustainable approach in these ongoing conflict areas, by:

  • Expanding interoperability between SOF and conventional forces
  • Maintaining continuity of operations
  • Prioritizing developing relationships with partner forces
  • Utilizing comprehensive deterrence


Allies: Strengthen alignment between the US and foreign military partners, by:
Reaffirming public commitment to alliances

  • Assessing tools to incentivize cooperation and respond to misalignment among allies
  • Increasing strategic defense planning with partners
  • Acknowledging progress towards burden sharing while broadening the scope beyond funding


Hybrid Conflict: Improve the way in which America navigates hybrid conflict, by:

  • Reviewing current US hybrid deterrence posture
  • Ensuring the US and its partners are resilient to adversaries’ influence operations
  • Reevaluating Cyber Command’s authorities to launch offensive cyber operations
  • Strengthening intelligence systems

Emerging technology: Secure U.S. advantage in emerging technologies with military applications, by:

  • Becoming a better business partner
  • Winning the narrative
  • Reforming technical workforce hiring and talent management

Space: Underscore the criticality of ongoing competition in this domain while ensuring that America retains its competitive edge in space, by:

  • Removing regulation and legislation that creates barriers to innovation
  • Allying with the private sector to bring novel solutions to pressing problems
  • Engaging the global community to establish space norms


Nuclear modernization: Direct the modernization of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, by: 

  • Directing an interagency effort to modernize NC3 architecture 
  • Prioritizing investments in the Columbia-class ballistic submarine
  • Prioritizing investments in the Nuclear National Security Administration

Budget: Improve the creation, spending, and oversight of America’s defense budget, by:

  • Ordering a comprehensive review of the defense budget process
  • Ensuring that the Pentagon undergo a full financial audit
  • Prioritize outreach to Congress on needed reform to budgeting

Acquisition: Improve the DOD acquisition process, by:

  • Ordering that all data collected by federal agencies be shared 
  • Working with Congress to establish new processes for software acquisition
  • Seeking to diversify the defense industrial base by establishing partnerships with a wider range of American companies


Readiness: Ensure the DOD maintains constant readiness to fight peer competitors, by:

  • Maintaining readiness priorities within the defense budget
  • Using the deployment power to exercise readiness and deter aggression


Posture: Ensure the Pentagon has the necessary posture to secure national interests, by:
Prioritizing footprints and agreements in the Indo-Pacific

  • Reassessing posture in Europe and the Middle East to deter Russia and Iran
  • Staffing and resourcing other parts of the US government needed to support missions abroad


We hope that these papers will prove useful to campaigns and to others working for the future of US national security.  They are addressed to future administrations, regardless of political party. The reinvigoration of America’s deterrence cannot be accomplished without sustained bipartisan support and reliable execution. This consistency is a difficult demand but is one that must be met if America is to defend its national interests for generations to come. We believe that America can and will succeed in this new era of global challenges.

—Casey Corcoran, Allison Lazarus, and the Defense Playbook student team


For the complete set of memorandums, download the full Playbook:


About the Editors:

Casey Corcoran is a dual-degree Juris Doctorate and Master of Public Policy candidate at Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School. He previously served as an officer in the United States Army. 

Allison Lazarus is a joint Master in Public Policy and Master in Business Administration candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. She previously worked on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and for McKinsey & Company.


About the Authors:

Bo Julie Crowley is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. She previously worked as a consultant on cybersecurity risk and strategy. 

Greg Honan is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He previously worked for David Gergen at the Center for Public Leadership. 

Richard Kuzma received his Master in Public Policy degree from Harvard Kennedy School. He is an officer in the United States Navy. 

David Michelson is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He is an officer in the United States Army.

Jacqueline Parziale is a Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. She previously worked at the Department of Defense. 

Kathryn Reed is a Juris Doctorate candidate at Harvard Law School. She previously worked as a legal analyst and for private defense contractors and law firms. 

Ryan Solís is a joint Master in Public Policy and Master in Business Administration candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. He previously served in the United States Marine Corps.

Tom Wester received his Master in Management Science degree from Stanford University. He is an officer in the United States Navy. 

William Wright is a Juris Doctorate candidate at Harvard Law School. He previously served as an officer in the United States Army. 

Note: The views expressed in these papers are those of the individual authors only and not those of the Department of Defense.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Crowley, Bo Julie, Greg Honan, Richard Kuzma, David Michelson, Jacqueline Parziale, Kathryn Reed, Ryan Solís, Tom Wester and William Wright. “Defense Playbook for Campaigns.” Edited by Casey Corcoran and Allison Lazarus . Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 2020.

The Authors

Richard Kuzma

The Editors


Eric Rosenbach