Strategic Reform: Strategy in a time of more uncertainty or less?

Three fundamentally flawed assumptions dominate the Pentagon’s current “strategy.” The first is that uncertainty in our security environment is growing, requiring us to spend ever more to secure general readiness for a dizzying array of contingencies. The second is that our only reliable guide star is a need to pace China with high-end forces optimized for an eventual force-on-force clash close to their coast. The third is that all other potential adversaries constitute “lesser included” cases, requiring merely diminished application of high-end U.S. strength. All are wrong, and all drive the Pentagon to demand an overage of unaffordable forces while neglecting long-term investments that could ensure that the 21st century will be an American century.

Some see reduced Defense spending as the end of American Superpower. I disagree. This is not the beginning of the end, but merely the passing of a phase. America can and must continue to be a global superpower, but the DoD owes the Nation a strategic posture that is affordable and feasible. That requires optimizing our forces to better enable diplomacy while still providing an ample backstop of U.S. hard-power. Re-establishing a viable strategy must therefore be at the heart of an overdue defense reform.

Strategy in a time of more uncertainty, or less?

Military planning periodically cycles between “capability based” and “context based” paradigms. [1] In the first case, the nature of the next adversary is so unknown that the military is forced to turn from looking outward to inwards and focus on development of advanced tech-vs.-tech capabilities, often devoid of a realistic operational context.[2] In the second case, the nature of future conflict is predicted and the planner can optimize for success by cultivating our own, and allies’, strengths versus adversary vulnerabilities.

Three conditions generally determine which paradigm is preferred. The first is the degree of uncertainty in the security environment. The second is the degree to which military perceives an internal or external a mandate to move beyond an undesirable “way of war.”[3] And the third is the desire to curate some aspect of present force structure—such as force size, technology investments, or particular missions—absent explicit justification.[4] The more uncertain the world is, the more the military wants to turn its back on the past, or the more military leaders are driven to act as parochial caretakers rather than engineers of American superpower, the more capability based planning dominates.

The United States has undergone two prolonged periods of “capability based” planning; first Eisenhower’s “New Look” at the onset of the Cold War, and again following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In both cases the potential for military action was high, but certainty about the context of the next war was low. Planners point to Saddam Hussein’s surprise invasion of Kuwait, peace-keeping in the Balkans, 9/11, and the rise of China as evidence of uncertainty. They go on to postulate that the devolution of destructive technologies from near-peers to client states to non-state actors will lead to even greater potential for danger to gestate in unexpected corners of the globe. All are treated as proof of uncertainty and co-opted into a narrative justifying broad defense spending rather than being recognized as indications of global trends that enable strategic focus.

The U.S. did go through a major period of uncertainty as the world unthawed from the Cold War, but the trends connecting recent events enhance certainty about the competitor archetypes that the military may be called upon to engage. The first includes WMD-enabled rogue states such as Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. The second archetype includes “competitor superpowers” attempting to create regional hegemonies to challenge U.S. primacy and undermine the U.S. rule-sets that ensure our peaceful geo-political and geo-economic power. This archetype is distinguished by competitive power projection and is exemplified by Russia and China, though the former may be collapsing back towards rogue status. The final archetype is the global insurgent who seeks to carve out an enclave of controlled territory or population. There will be other enduring missions—missile defense, nuclear deterrence, maintenance of a strategic reserve, rescue, non-combatant evacuation, and humanitarian aid, etc.—but these are set-pieces within a grand strategy. The grand strategy must address archetype cases while freeing national treasure to either enable domestic re-investment or reduce the Nation’s destabilizing debt.

Archetypes of Adversary

Against a WMD equipped rogue state, the military must be prepared to deter, coerce and compel desired actions thru air-strikes followed by containment of the State’s regular and irregular forces. The United States’ recent experience in Iraq demonstrates that full regime change of rogue may be less desirable than strikes in support of limited objectives while leaving the state largely intact. To maintain the strategic initiative to deter, coerce and compel these rogues, the US Air Force and Navy must be equipped to perform short-duration, limited scale penetration of defended territory and conduct precision strikes.

The scale of these operations is likely to require less capacity for high-end “penetrating” forces than the DoD is currently planning since they are likely to be used briefly and quickly returned to a deterrence posture. As predictably as the US will use our asymmetric advantage in the vertical flank, rogue adversaries will likely exploit their asymmetric advantage in local human and physical terrain, unleashing reprisals via conventional, unconventional, and proxy forces. For that reason, the United States’ land forces—experts in territorial security and human terrain—must be ready to assist those foreign partners most likely to feel the brunt of reprisal as a strategic extended conventional defense. This is where the Army, Special Operators and the U.S. intelligence enterprise, supported by low-end airpower must be ready to assist regional allies thru partnership and cooperation.

Of the two “competitor hegemons,” China is by far the most important. While the rise of an Asian peer competitor tempts many to dust off Cold War power models, a fundamental distinction between the Soviet Empire and the People’s Republic of China merits discussion. Following WWII, the globe was rebuilt into two distinct economic spheres of influence. The Western world, led by the United States, was distinct from the Communist bloc. The economy of the one could rise or fail without significantly impacting the other.[5]

Such is not the case today.

Globalization requires multiple powerful participants. The United States may currently establish the rule-sets which enable the globalized market space, but that market itself—upon which the US economy depends—requires the manufacturing engine of China, the resource base of the Middle East and Latin America, and the technology development of the US, Europe, Japan, Brazil and India (to name but a few). The globalized marketspace would be diminished if a major player were knocked out, so purely competitive economic theories are insufficient to optimize creation of global wealth and security. The most promising economic strategy for the United States is to pursue a blend of cooperation and competition to ensure that the international market grows writ large, but remains ultimately aligned to US championed rule-sets, such as rule of law, protection of intellectual capital, transparent multi-lateral treaty structures, access to the global commons, and respect for human rights.

Maintaining “co-opetition”[6] between the US and China ensures that the economies of the United States and China remain intertwined. This provides our two great nations mutual levers of influence well short of warfare on a new “ladder of escalation.” Considering the tremendous value added to the global market by China, and the damaging void that would be left by China’s departure or diminishment, US policy should manage the rise of China to ensure it is the world’s “second greatest” superpower. We must use soft power to condition China to perpetuate the liberal institutions that underpin the current world order. Our own rise as a superpower, beginning in the 19th century but exploding in the 20th, was managed in part by Britain; the “special relationship” and allied success in two World Wars is testament to Britain’s grand strategy of cultivating the international order.[7]

While economic co-opetition and superpower cultivation often requires accommodation, the US must maintain hard power levers that can hobble China if it seeks exclusive regional control or pursues unacceptable policies. To that end, we must contextualize why, where and how the United States can assert control over China through military action. Although an invasion of Taiwan by the PRC to force reunification is the oft-cited casus belli for US intervention, the far more important concern is managing China’s broader rise as a global power. China’s rise forces them to accept an unprecedented reliance on external resources and markets, and President Hu Jin Tao’s “New Historic Missions” established a new role for the Chinese military ensuring those markets.[8] That new role exposes new vulnerabilities.

Countering force-projection, and holding a nation’s vulnerable lines of communication at risk (sea-lanes, supply-chains and pipelines) happens to, again, be a specialty of the US Air Force and Navy. Since the abject “defeat” of China may be undesirable given our economic interdependence, and unnecessary given China’s frequent accommodation of US pressure, ensuring our ability to exploit specific vulnerabilities and respond to limited escalations may be a far more effective military contribution to US grand strategy. Such limited actions allow the United States to modulate our “red-lines” and ensure China must continually adapt to us rather than setting the agenda of engagement.

The most obvious vulnerability of China’s power projection capability is its reliance on imported oil to produce the aviation fuel that runs both their ships and aircraft. The geography of their southern, western and northern borders means that the majority of the oil that eventually becomes aviation fuel arrives by trans-oceanic vessel. At home, China has built an impressive Air Defense system to maintain its sovereignty (a cultural fetish for homeland security and interior control exemplified by the Great Wall and “great firewall”), but China lacks the away-game to defend energy in-transit against the US military. This does not imply that the USAF or USN will sink Chinese oil tankers in the Indian Ocean (and cause environmental disasters) whenever tension escalates past diplomacy. Options well short of sinking a vessel, to include influencing port access, closing straits, and use of boarding parties to waylay vessels, exist to apply scalable pressure on China’s vulnerabilities.

The Chinese could respond by attempting to convoy their energy shipments with the protection of Peoples Liberation Navy vessels, but the DoD has Air-Sea Battle CONOPS that can continue to hold maritime assets at risk—particularly in the Indian Ocean where the US has near-total submarine dominance. One of the required “new” tactics is actually a return to use of Marines (and now SEALs) as boarding parties to take a non-cooperative ship and hold it as a prize for political leverage. It will also require the use of US military engineers, Sailors and Marines to bolster partner control over contested ports from the Philippines to Africa.

Affecting China’s power projection and access to energy provides an affordable and reversible set of escalation options that the US military can do now (and afford now) through doctrinal modifications and redirected near-term investment. Victory in a military contest against China does not look like either a Normandy landing or “shock and awe” over Baghdad. The U.S. will not be putting boots on their shores or attempting a decapitation strike against the Communist Party of China—an act that would likely unleash their weapons of last resort. Furthermore, many of China’s external vulnerabilities are best exposed beyond the South China Sea, meaning they will lack the excuse of defending their dubious sovereignty over territories they assert to be historically Chinese. Success in such a pressure campaign, or even in the unlikely event of a war, looks like the Allied maritime interdiction campaign against Japan in 1943-45, strangling the flow of necessities leading to an inevitable, albeit slow, victory.

“Slow, long-term, persistent;” words like these are likely to characterize successful US strategy in the Pacific. Just as we must give up aspirations of an unaffordable short-war to more confidently embrace a successful long-war strategy; the DoD must begin the long phase of shaping the Pacific environment to gain robust access. We often talk of partnership and engagement, but limit our portfolio of Pacific allies to those most interested in a brilliant high-end conflict. This cedes our potential to on-ramp partners who either cannot bear the financial strain of high-end forces, or whose position within China’s sphere of influence means they cannot bear the diplomatic strain of an unambiguous alignment to the United States. This is an area where the US Army, SOCOM, and Air Force’s security force assistance (SFA) and partnership-building specialists are uniquely optimized to provide rugged, inexpensive, tailored activities that build on touch-points of shared interests. Many of these engagement activities thrive on shoestring resources now, but could be upscaled to increase our agile strategic access.

Finally, irregular adversaries and global insurgents, whether unleashed by a rogue state or coalescing in pursuit of their own agendas, are likely to continue demanding low-intensity containment and engagement. These threats are so consistently likely, across any strategic forecast, that failure to develop low-cost/low-intensity engagement capability is likely to waste vast resources through constant over-match. Pirates, third generation gangs, cartels, and Takfiri terrorists have all proven capable of threatening US interests, and the fiscal strain they impose has proven to be our Achilles Heel.

Containment of irregular adversaries is a long-term affair, often continuing until they collapse under the frustration of denied objectives. Successful containment can be measured by ever less expenditure of resources yielding a satisfactory measure of control. Fortunately commonality exists between the type of forces required for containing a rogue’s irregular proxies, establishing partnerships for SFA, and those optimized to handle global insurgents; so these low end forces are multi-mission, enhancing their efficiency. Planning to use high-end forces against such threats gives these adversaries more clout than they merit by amplifying their impact on our own resources.

The DoD must resolve its core strategic crisis or risk frittering resources in pursuit capabilities it cannot afford rather than reforming itself for success within a context we can create. The Nation needs a respite from massive defense spending, but cannot afford to give up an activist, full-spectrum, foreign policy or risk allowing alternative superpowers to destabilize the world into fragmented power blocs that communicate thru military might. The DoD can only accomplish this by contextualizing our adversaries, if not by name at least by archetype. We need to optimize to these archetypes or we will be left unable to prefer anything but pinnacle capabilities, at a premium price, to deal with impossible chimeras. America requires more than the defeatist refrain “undo sequester or face the horror of global threats.” The DoD must reform. The reform must begin with strategy.

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[1] The author’s use of “context based” expands upon the better understood rubric of “threat based” planning. The critical differentiation is that “capability based” periods focus on the enhancement of own attributes, while context based focuses on exploitation of a context—including threat specific vulnerabilities—to ensure success. An excellent review of the cyclical transition between capability based planning, and threat based planning can be found in

[2] Case in point the F-35, optimized in the 1990s to fight former Soviet Union air defenses associated with the bygone “central front” in Europe, is abysmally suited to the Pacific. The F-35 lacks the range to cover the larger PACOM AOR and requires creation of expensive NATO-style “main operating bases” to satiate its intense logistical demands. This has been the subject of multiple reports, but a particularly relevant assessment is found in: “Test Pilot Tried to Warn Navy About Troubled Stealth Jet Vertical-landing F-35B is the wrong airplane for the wrong mission, Chip Dudderar told officers”

[3] See for instance the Air Force’s advocacy of “The New American Way of War,”; and a critique of such “new way of war” concepts expertly presented by LTC Antulio Echevarria in “An American Way of War or Way of Battle”

[4] “The theory of ‘anti-access / area denial’ … is gobbledy goop that we sell to Congress because if we just told them ‘we can kick anybody’s asses’ they wouldn’t buy us all the stuff we want.” Quote from well known Pentagon planner and author of The Pentagon’s New Map Thomas P. Barnett “Let's rethink America's military strategy,”, video time 2:04-2:15.

[5] “There is one clear similarity and one important difference between Chinese–US relations today and USSR–US relations in the second half of the past century. The similarity is that there is a likely enduring gulf in core principles and world views between China and the United States—certainly making possible another intense and lasting geopolitical rivalry. The difference, however, is that China is deeply integrated into the global economy and joined at the economic hip with the United States, whereas the USSR was not part of the global capitalist economy and its economic ties with the United States were close to nonexistent.” Proff Geoffrey Garrett, “China-US Economic Relations after the Global Financial Crisis,” chap 10, pp 149, inRising China, Global Challenges and Opportunities, ed Jane Golley, Ligang Song, Australian Ntional University Press, 2011.

[6] Barry J. Nalebuff, Adam M. Brandenburger, (1997) "Co-opetition: Competitive and cooperative business strategies for the digital economy", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 25 Iss: 6, pp.28 – 35.

[7] “Through the 19th century and up until World War II, Europe led the effort to spread liberal democracy and capitalism--and to guide Western nations to a position of global dominance. Not until the postwar era did the United States take over stewardship of the West. Pax Britannica set the stage for Pax Americana, and Washington inherited from its European allies a liberal international order that rested on solid commercial and strategic foundations.” Charles Kupchan, “The Decline of the West: Why America Must Prepare for the End of Dominance,” The Atlantic,

[8] The "new historic missions," otherwise known as the "three provides, and one role" are defined as follows: "(1) providing an important guarantee of strength for the party to consolidate its ruling position, (2) providing a strong security guarantee for safeguarding the period of important strategic opportunity for national development, (3) providing a powerful strategic support for safeguarding national interests, and (4) playing an important role in safeguarding world peace and promoting common development." Provide number two elevates the military’s role from a domestic guarantor of security and communist party rule to a force projector who can ensure access to the global market. Mulvenon, James, “Chairman Hu and the PLA’s “New Historic Missions,” China Leadership Monitor, 27,