The purpose of net assessment is to gain an asymmetric advantage over competitors. US goals generally seek technological superiority.
The US Office of Net Assessment, in a rare run of leadership continuity (Andy Marshall, 1973-2015), analyzed strategic competitions and recommended offsets against adversary strengths. Some offsets threatened the mutual vulnerability of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD)-based deterrence, such as missile defense. That technology was offered to the Soviet Union during the Cold War but rejected due to distrust and cost. Soviet goals were to gain a “favorable correlation of forces at decisive places and times.”
The Russian Federation broadened those goals to “correlation of forces and means.” What does adding “means” mean? The effort includes conventional force modernization to enable preemptive strikes, if needed, to control “escalation dominance.” The extension of the US-Russia New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) for another five years reduces mutual perceptions that the other side seeks an invulnerable second-strike capability which would threaten the “stability” of MAD. Where there is MAD stability, however, hybrid and unrestricted warfare are free to roam.
China refuses to be a party to US-Russia nuclear negotiations even as it builds silo-based and mobile ICBMs. The launchers and warheads are estimated to be in the hundreds, not thousands of US-Russia combined. Its “unrestricted warfare” is broader than Russia’s hybrid warfare and better resourced. Against such competitors, the US approach has been to develop strategies to “offset” quantitative advantage. China’s advances in quantum computing, encrypted communications, and artificial intelligence are qualitative improvements as well.
The race for offset strategies includes technology, operational concepts, and organizational constructs. US strategy produced three offsets: tactical nuclear weapons (the 1950s); precision-guided munitions, stealth, and networked communications (the 1970s); and artificial intelligence and autonomous systems (2014). Whether the latter competes well is pending.
US initiatives to develop and limit AI and autonomy have produced a welter of competing weapons and ideas. The only overarching concept so far seems more operational than strategic: joint all-domain command and control (JADC2). JADC2 seeks asymmetric engagements by linking “all military sensors to all shooters” via shared networks. Its emphasis is on joint operations for “the high-end fight” of great power competition.
One way to evaluate how strategic JADC2 is, is by asking, What does the common operational picture look like? Many operations can be strategically significant in the information environment. Chinese and Russian strategies combine cooperation with confrontation. Confrontation includes conflict (violence) and non-lethal ways and means. To compete, we need a more-than-military all-domain approach. A common operational picture should include non-military platforms, information effects, and whole-of-government lines of effort against all asymmetric threats.
Democracies need to be able to counter and carefully wage all-effects warfare, not just all-domain military warfare. When an adversary takes down an oil pipeline with cyber, imposes economic costs with systematic theft and ransomware, ignites political violence with polarizing disinformation, that’s more than a criminal offense. Threatening one’s way of life is warfare. The problem is, how to control escalation among nuclear-armed or mass-effects powers?
The ability to “horizontally” escalate (without violence) contains the implicit threat of vertical escalation (with violence).
Russian doctrine includes “escalate to de-escalate” with horizontal and vertical escalation. Vostok 2018, for instance, was a military exercise claimed to number 300,000 Russian and 3500 Chinese troops. Its employment of dual-capable (conventional-nuclear) bombers and missiles served dual effects: (1) deter NATO enlargement and deployments, and (2) coerce resistance to NATO’s first-use of nuclear weapons policy. How did NATO countries react? Measured increases in monitoring and deployments, and no information warfare.
China’s recent testing of Taiwan’s defense is similar. China launched over a hundred aircraft into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone with at least two desired effects: test and stress Taiwan’s reactions to impose human and maintenance costs; and test US resolve to defend Taiwan. US policy is to abide by the Taiwan agreement with China. For the US, that means only peaceful means will determine Taiwan’s future. What does it mean for China, given this week’s deliberate intimidation?
It’s reasonable to assume that it means continuing to exploit the US’ “when deterrence fails” lethal approach to warfare. How? With unrestricted warfare. That includes cyber theft, disinformation, seizure and militarization of disputed maritime territory, predatory economics that favor domestic firms, and cultural cleansing against ethnic minorities in China. All while building conventional, nuclear, and information superiority.
 Moscow’s Response to US Plans for Missile Defense, https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/DOC_0006122438.pdf
 See the chapter by John A. Battilega, “Assessing Soviet Military Capabilities,” in Net Assessment and Military Strategy: Retrospective and Prospective Essays, Cambria Press, 2020, pp.117-137, p. 122.
 Russian Chief of the General Staff quoted by Clint Reach, Vikram Kilambi and Mark Cozad, Russian Assessment and Applications of the Correlation of Forces and Means, RAND RR-4235, 2020, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR4200/RR4235/RAND_RR4235.pdf.
 For a critique of offsets as reactive, see Aaron Wellman, Parity Avoidance: A Proactive Analysis of the Obsolescence of the Third Offset Strategy, Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, 2019, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=825212.
 For an insightful article on operational and organization constructs of JADC2, see Ernest Nisperos, “Joint All-Domain Effects Convergence: Evolving C2 Teams,” Over The Horizon Journal, https://othjournal.com/2020/03/10/joint-all-domain-effects-convergence-evolving-c2-teams/
 For a perspective away from land wars to to air and naval competition, see Robbin F. Laird, Training for The High-End Fight: The Strategic Shift for the 2020’s, Robert F. Laird e-book, 2020.