Superpower: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint Bridge-CIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

So the U.S. military has a blemished record of delivering miracles…here’s a reminder of what militaries “do”

Hold on to your hashtags, we’re talking realpolitik now.

A state can exist as poor or rich, powerful or weak, and even very crude military strategies may suffice because a state can appeal to the order provided by alliances with superpowers and international conventions sustained by superpowers to meet their control needs. On the other hand, a superpower must, by definition, remain preeminently powerful and well resourced. This modifies a superpower’s definition of control. Superpower control includes the ability to establish advantageous, self-replicating rule-sets, and moderate the control exercised by competitive superpowers.

“Superpower” used here is not an egotistical moniker, but one that is appropriate to use for certain nations when they reach a condition of effective dominance — where externally expressed policies set conditions for the internal politics of less powerful nations. The reason this is important is that the theory of military power must be based upon the configuration of the political body that the military serves. America is a superpower; therefore it is appropriate to understand the roles of various military capacities from the perspective of a superpower.

Externally, a superpower is at risk of adverse control by other superpowers or a balancing coalition of states. Internally, superpowers must avoid exhaustion. Superpower theory must accommodate continuous maintenance of operative and potential advantage. This means that efficiency — while often tactically irrelevant — is of paramount strategic consideration for a superpower.

Passive Control: Deterrence and Assurance

Occasionally, the military is used strictly to signal political intentions to a friend or adversary through passive posturing. Deterrence relies upon an adversary being so convinced of your capacity to exert control that he censors himself in accordance with your political wishes. The assumption of rational self-interest drives deterrence theory.

However, “rational self-interest” has been a shaky basis for deterrence throughout the last two millennia of warfare. Not all potential combatants share the same sense of rational interest. The modern example would be Saddam Hussein’s choice to maintain the charade of possessing WMD in the hopes of intimidating Iran, even though it caused an invasion by the United States in 2003. While the United States believed he would not take brinksmanship so far as to risk a repeat of 1991, Hussein was calculating his self-interest relative to the specter of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980.

Ancient examples abound and Baron Jomini wrote that in the early 1800s that there were essentially nine kinds of war, and that at least half of them served deeply secreted and irrational factors like wounded pride, religious zeal, need for conquest, or “wars of opinion” (ideology). Despite the fact that diplomacy and deterrence often fail, the fact that they have often succeeded legitimizes them. MajGen Perry Smith (USAF) wrote that within the Pentagon, the most politically sheltered weapons programs are those explicitly designed to “signal intentions” to potential enemies.

The problem with deterrence of adversaries is that it depends on the adversary’s perception and willingness to be deterred. The less forces appear able to enforce control over an adversary, the less deterrent effect they generate. As such, deterrence often fails.

Methods of Active Control : Conquer, Capture, Contain, and Convert

It seems time to remind ourselves of what a military can actually do. Awareness of which may limit how frequently the military is asked to provide policy makers PFM.

First is the capacity to conquer an opposing military force in either offensive or defensive operations. Militaries must engage the adversary’s instrument of political violence — his force that achieves through hostility political objectives unavailable in peace. Military forces designed to conquer must be sufficient to exploit vulnerabilities of the victim force they are operationalized against. As adversary vulnerabilities become mitigated by complex defenses, the force design to defeat them must become more complex as well. The “American way of war” specifically prefers high-tech solutions and “quality over quantity” solutions to dis-enable an adversary’s home-court capacity advantage. During stasis periods between technology shifts, complex adversary capabilities develop slowly, and the United States has intelligence collection capabilities to anticipate these vulnerabilities and inform force design.

Capturing means to seize an objective held or safeguarded by an adversary. Engagement with defending forces is incidental to mission success and not the driving objective or design consideration. The disposition of the prize, once achieved, could include manipulation (becoming a bargaining chip), destruction (hence the “kill” in “capture/kill” operations), or to rescue an objective that was lost to the adversary. Superpowers have always had need of forces that could seize objectives without risking or requiring all-out war. Examples include Roman raiders and British privateers, and modern SOF.

While SOF are almost entirely responsible for “capture” missions, certain exceptionally clandestine employments of conventional forces constitute “capture” missions as well. McRaven in SpecOps said the Doolittle raid on Japan was an example of a special operation by a conventional force; capturing a moral objective against Japan. By the same token the Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 was a capture operation to deny Saddam Hussein a future capability. The measure of success for capture missions is that the objective was achieved and that the raiding forces returned with the boon. The key capability of capture forces is special training and equipment that allows them to achieve a targeted effect with a small force. The key constraint is that such exceptional forces require exceptional selection, training, equipment and support.

Containment is, by far, one of the most important military methods of a superpower. Throughout history, superpowers’ need for efficient active containment is a recurring theme. Unlike a state, whose containment tasks are generally the security of boarders and domestic territorial integrity, a superpower must project containment for its own defense as well as the defense of external alliances, institutions and systems upon which it depends.

The Pentagon’s assignment of containment tasks as “lesser included” in planning scenarios treats containment as a mere dilution of efforts to defeat an adversary, but this is not an accurate simplification. There are times when decisive resolution to conflicts thru diplomacy, defeat, or deterrence is either impossible or undesirable. That is when a military force can simply be used to contain and shape violence. “Success” in a containment campaign means setting conditions whereby less and less exertion of force still yields a satisfactory measure of control.

Within containment challenges certain adversary CoGs may be initially unknown or politically off limits. When both occurred in South Vietnam, US “conquer” aviation forces designed to crush Soviet CoGs became largely irrelevant. This is not because the B-52s and F-4s became less effective instruments of bombing, but because conquer events had marginal effect on the political contest. When contested CoGs exists either beyond the reach, or outside of the political will of the Nation, “conquering” military forces routinely devolve to use in a containment role — at high cost.

Containment involves prolonged national exertion and exposes forces to fatiguing constant threat of harassment and attack. The goal of containment is to create time and space by frustrating the adversary, either making them easier to defeat or increasing the strain of their operations to the point where they lose political coherence under the weight of unmet aspirations.

The format of containment depends on the nature of the adversary and the measure of control sought; but containment campaigns are rarely short, so efficiency over a long campaign is a necessary consideration. Efficiency is enhanced by eliminating unnecessary capabilities that drive cost. The design goal of containment is to sustain the containment effort with “just enough” tactical power to achieve the control objective without contributing strain that breaks political resolve. A frequent challenge in containment is the ever-present temptation to pursue decisive “defeat” operations tends to work at cross-purposes to sustainability.

Finally, conversion is a military task that is rarely considered in strategic writing, but it is a task that explains the need for foreign internal defense (FID), civil affairs operations (CAO), psychological operations, and a host of other activities that are the backbone of Unconventional Warfare (UW) doctrine for the Special Forces. The conversion required to reconfigure perverse social order-structures (i.e., warlordism) into more accessible order-structures (a police-state or functional proxy) calls for “armed social-work.” Armed social work, often exploiting containment efforts, creates time and space in which non-military efforts can resolve the issues that undermine a superpower’s control. Conversion is required to allow containment to end, so containment and conversion often go hand in hand.

Converting foreign institutions and structures into more effective proxies reduces the requirement for employment of the superpower’s force. The key capability for conversion is the ability to operate within a targeted population. This requires significant linguistic skill, cultural awareness and expertise about the institutions you’re trying to create (such as effective police, finance, civil administration, or agriculture). The key constraint on conversion is that the conversion efforts must not appear to be for the sole benefit of the superpower. Such an image becomes easy fodder for adversaries who style themselves as resisting imperial oppression.

Jeremy Renken is an Air Force Weapons Officer. He has fought for America in Iraq, Afghanistan, and within the beltway. His opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Sisyphus, sculpture by by Steven Allen (Artslant)