Paper #13. Comparative Threats and Integrated Effects: Concepts for Complex Warfare in East Asia

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Security, Strategy
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Complex warfare is a high stakes competition in learning and we are being out-thought.

Contemporary warfare cuts across all domains, subsumed by the information environment. In land, sea, air, space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum, information is what creates and influences behavior. Information is as basic as DNA, the blueprint for the replication and construction of life itself (Chapter 1). We upgrade our genetic software by learning. 

We compete with concepts such as strategicoperational and tactical to make sense of what’s happening and to shape outcomes. To gain advantages in operational domains, we consider such factors as terrain elements, sea states, properties of air, cyber infrastructures and electromagnetic frequencies. We attribute meaning to those domain features by consuming and creating information at all levels of our environment.

Even at the quantum level of photons, we create constructs of information (digits and qubits of 1’s and 0’s) to understand the uncertain behavior of particles and waves. Given its foundational importance, the information environment (IE) is the best Petri dish in which to compare threats and integrate effects. This paper offers a conceptual foundation to understand complex warfare in context across the globe. We will follow up this foundation with analyses of regions, beginning with East Asia.   

Basic Terms 

To understand the diverse IE, we tend to break it down into systems, subsystems, objects and attributes, such as in JMark Services Inc.’s Information Environment Advanced Analysis (IEAA) course. We analyze threats, effects, and ultimately, power and influence. Within the inhabitants of any region, there are important similarities and differences. Therefore this paper takes a comparative view of threats to security, allowing for different world views—aggregates of groups and individuals. 

We turn to four basic terms that are central to understanding differences in complex warfare —security, effects, integration, and security bargain.


We adopt Arnold Wolfer’s definition of security—the absence of threats to acquired values. This basis for agreement or disagreement about values encourages different perspectives to understand threats, values, and interests. Unknown or ignored differences matter, as we find out when we make bad assumptions. So we use a comparative prism to avoid mirror imaging others’ behaviors and desired effects.


As for effects, we use the US joint military doctrinal concept, placed into the following hierarchy designed to shape the IE: activities create effects in support of objectives in support of desired end states in support of strategic priorities. Why so many, in support of’s?

Well-intentioned people at all levels of command hardwire themselves to be “the supported” instead of “a supporting” person or organization. This tendency reinforces rigid identities. Instead, we believe in flexible organizational identities to promote learning that enhances strategic thinking. The bottom line is to out-compete strategies that are producing better combinations of effects. Leaders can improve their organization’s effects by promoting integration. 


If our strategies are to compete well against clever threats, we need to be more than adaptive. Out-pacing adversaries in effective ways requires more than having a faster OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop. We need integrated effects. By integration, we refer to combining ends, ways and means to produce synergistic advantages.

While we might integrate ways and means well, integrating the effects of causes is more difficult. The Hierarchy of Effort (adapted from IEAA) can help us orchestrate multi-level aims of strategy. These aims or desired outcomes are effects, objectives, end-states and strategic priorities. Democracies struggle in specifying aims because we value differences and freedom of expression. In a general cause-and-effect sense, however, effects are what matter in strategy.    

To reflect the reality of competing aims, we describe alliances and partnerships in terms of desired effects, which may be different for each side. Rather than assuming simple agreement on common threats, we will specify the actual bases of cooperation and confrontation. Why?

Allies, partners and various others exchange different interests as well as embrace identical ones. For instance, the close relationship among the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, and the United States) is assumed to be based on areas of mutual interest. However, there are areas where each state bargains over the terms of cooperation, or does not cooperate at all. Areas that are deemed to be sovereign matters (elections, borders, heads of state) are potential areas of confrontation and conflict…perfect for an adversary to target.  

Security Bargain

Therefore we use the term, security bargain to describe agreements based on differentiated exchanges of political, military and economic interests. Particularly in security arena, it’s not unusual to miss complex exchanges of unlike contributions to mutual security because they are covered by a veneer of common-threat language. We need to identify opportunities to exchange different interests hiding behind conventionally accepted assumptions. 

For instance, even the current US National Security Strategy (NSS), remarkably blunt in asserting “America First,” does not necessarily mean “America Only.” The NSS should permit exchanges of different national interests: reciprocity in economic relationships (Goal 2, Objective 2); competitive cooperation in diplomacy and statecraft (Goal 3, Objective 3); new partnerships (Goal 4, Objective 1); and better outcomes in multilateral forums (Goal 4, Objective 2). A Hierarchy of Effort analysis of the strategy clarifies this implicit logic. Why is this important?

An effective global strategy needs to make room for legitimate differences and non-security-related competition to accommodate change without war. Otherwise, how can we expect to find new partners, and retain legacy allies and partners, as we seek reciprocity, competitiveness, and mutual interests? 

Therefore to expand our options for effective strategy, we should look for desirable security bargains that exchange different interests. We need not cede that space to opponents. We have to be in the arena to wage to win complex warfare. 

Complex Warfare

The arena of complex warfare blends confrontation and cooperation in a struggle to achieve national “security” objectives, and is not necessarily violent. This type of warfare is consistent with East Asian-style Sunzi warfare as distinct from Western-style Clausewitzian warfare. Sunzi warfare is heavy on deception and indirect use of force to subdue the adversary, while Clausewitzian warfare is heavy on the use of force against the adversary to get him to submit.

If the fusion of confrontation and cooperation is true, it follows that violence and consent are mixed, too. To understand this way of thinking, consider the following combinations. Complex warfare can be competition (without violence) as well as conflict (with violence), and can be cooperation (mutual consent) as well as confrontation (absence of mutual consent). 

What?! Competition and conflict, cooperation and confrontation…aren’t these contradictory?

Only if we assume a perfect either-or, friend-or-foe, peace-or-war, world. In reality, actors can be adversaries (who wage warfare) and competitors (who compete) to different actors, and when they can get away with it, to the same actors at different times and in different interactions.

So, is China an adversary or a competitor? Yes; yes. Is North Korea an adversary or does Pyongyang compete for influence at times legitimately? Yes; yes. Next, we chart this imperfect reality of complex warfare.

Blends of Complex Warfare

Consider two factors that help explain human behavior: (1) actors’ will with respect to consent; and (2) actors’ capabilities with respect to the actions they take:  

                                  Blends of Complex Warfare

ACTORS / ACTIONSViolentNon-Violent
   Mutual Consent1. conflict, cooperation3. cooperation, competition
   Absence of
Mutual Consent
2. conflict, confrontation4. confrontation, competition

Let’s step through each blend, from Violent to Non-Violent characterizations.

Violent Mutual Consent

Conflict cooperatively waged according to established norms; legitimate warfare. States recognize this as war limited by the law of armed conflict and the like.

Such as formally declared wars: US Congress passes several declarations of war from 1941-1942 at the outset of World War II. 

Violent Absence of Mutual Consent

Conflict confrontationally waged as illegitimate warfare. The side that wages such warfare as a legitimate form of warfare has a domestic advantage.

Such as Russia’s violent hybrid warfare against Ukraine since 2009.   

Non-Violent Mutual Consent

Cooperation and competition based on accepted rules. Actors cooperate and compete within international norms to achieve advantages its adversaries regard as complex warfare.

Such as Iran’s inducement of the UK, France and Germany to implement INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) to circumvent US sanctions relying on SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications).   

Non-Violent Absence of Mutual Consent

Confrontation and competition according to rules that are not accepted and therefore of contested legitimacy. The use of variously defined criminal or terrorist networks by state and non-state actors yields such methods.

Such as China’s de facto seizure of disputed territory, advanced cyber espionage and theft, and persistent disinformation campaigns. 

If we take the extreme blends of complex warfare characterized in each box, we can see the fundamental importance of information. Competing narratives and practices can reinforce each other, and condition people to think a certain way.

Idealists of Complex Warfare

So let’s imagine a group or individual that fits a blend of complex warfare. We denote each as idealists in the sense that they view their perspective of security—their acquired values—as ideals of some sort.

Violent idealists

Quadrants 1, 2. Want perpetual war of either Violent Mutual Consent or Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. Anarchist-terrorists fit this type.

Example: the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Mutual Consent idealists

Quadrants 1, 3. Want an enforced peace based on either Non-Violent or Violent Mutual Consent. The prime value is consenting (no dissent allowed) to authority, as in tribe and/or religion-based autocracies.

Examples: Qataris in Qatar, and Emiratis in the United Arab Emirates.

Non-Violent idealists

Quadrants 3, 4. Want peace with Non-Violent Mutual Consent, or Non-Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. They eschew violence, even in totalitarian states.

Example: civil disobedience pacifists in China.   

Absence of Mutual Consent idealists

Quadrants 2, 4. Want a world of enforced peace in terms of either Non-Violent or Violent Absence of Mutual Consent. They are universalists looking to impose their will on the unenlightened.

Examples: jihadists (Al Qaeda) and imperialist state leaders (Russia’s predations against sovereign states in the “near abroad”). 

For each blend of complex warfare and idealist group, shaping an information narrative is critically important. Here are two inter-related reasons.

First, justifying a strategy of conflict and confrontation by providing meaning (Narratives are About Meaning, not Necessarily the Truth) is essential to maintaining domestic support where rule is fragile.

Examples: North Korea, China, Iran, and Russia.

Second, generating the will and capability to create and sustain a superior strategy depends upon the internal and external strength of the narrative strategy, which can be contested.

Example: oppressed minorities in China who consent to, but do not believe, Beijing’s anti-imperialist narrative.

A superior strategy combines a variety of effects that are difficult for your opponent to counter, or perhaps even recognize as warfare. Such as Chinese construction of illegal territory and Russian cyber subversion of democratic elections. Isn’t this peace and war?

Complex Warfare Strategy in Peace and War

Strategies of complex warfare seek competitive advantage over threats and can involve conflict but do not have to, especially when employing cyber tools.  

For instance, a cooperative strategy might seek to diplomatically persuade and economically induce a target to forgo cyber attacks. Whether this strategy is regarded as warfare depends partly on whether a worldview regards such actions as a threat to security.

Does our cooperating with a totalitarian Chinese regime to prevent cyber attacks on critical infrastructure constitute American complex warfare? If it doesn’t, then we are unilaterally disarming ourselves from considering all available tools. This restraint can be a disadvantage for effective strategy. Threat perceptions matter.  

If China is not perceived to pose a threat, then non-violent cooperation and competition is not seen as complex warfare. The difference between peace and complex war is a matter of trust—whether an actor is perceived to be a threat. Both peace and war are relative conditions in the IE. We usually have a bit of both. What do they look like?

Peace is a blend of cooperation and legitimate competition, with limited conflict and confrontation. War is an opposite—little cooperation and legitimate competition, and a lot of conflict and confrontation. We need to plan for relative peace by engaging in effective complex warfare. There are differential restraints among actors

Strategy is constrained by the laws of war and peace, at least for those states that adhere to them. Consider the impact of the law of armed conflict that grew from conventions, treaties and other agreements. Legal constraints such as jus in bello are rules of conduct during war. Jus ad bellum are justifications for the use of force and limits on forces. Jus post bellum are post-conflict legal norms.

Complex warfare can exploit such norms based on the use of force. For instance, North Korea’s destruction of evidence of its illicit weapons grade plutonium program prevented the International Atomic Energy Agency from certifying North Korea as ”irreversibly noncompliant.” Pyongyang’s effective deceit enabled the regime to exchange its promise to stop that program for non-weapons grade-capable Light Water Reactors.

That security bargain deterred US intervention while continuing to conceal its nuclear weapons program. And so while North Korea waged its war of brains (dunoejeon, xxvi) and war of wisdom (jiheyjeon, xxvi), the US did not regard itself at war. That’s quite ironic, given the armistice agreement, not peace treaty, that ended most (non-North Korean) hostilities in 1953.

Moreover, Western laws of war do not even recognize complex warfare that mixes cooperation with confrontation to achieve security objectives. To repeat, complex warfare can be waged with violence (conflict) or without violence (competition). Western laws are written for violent warfare. This condition is a vulnerability when facing strategies that blur the attribution of violence via protests, proxies, and other means. 

What about laws of unarmed competition? These laws are the accepted practices that rule economic standards and markets, set diplomatic norms, judge narrative warfare, and proscribe military operations other than war. Adversary strategies exploit such gaps and engage in lawfare to create disruptions and uncertainty for unarmed and armed operations. 

If we are to have competitive strategies for complex warfare, we need to have at our disposal all appropriate tools on targets to create superior combinations of effects. We are concerned mainly with the how of war: warfare. Whether conditions are seen to be war or peace varies across state and non-state actors. Complex warfare subsumes cooperation, confrontation, competition and conflict. 

Warfare historically has been recognized as constituting a state of war when a threat pertains. But not always right away. The broad effects of European global expansion beginning in the 15th century, for instance, were not appreciated by their targets until disease, manufactures, and ideas began to kill people, productivity, and legitimacy of rule. From an East Asian perspective, historical attempts at modernization to deal with Western imperialism produced dependent (Korea), insufficient (China), and predatory (Japan) outcomes. 

In order to understand the contemporary strategies of various state and non-state actors, we will apply the preceding concepts and considerations of complex warfare to states in several regions. We begin with a framework for analysis that compares world views, threat assessment and combined effects strategy. 

World Views, Threat Assessment, and Combined Effects 

We will look at three great or potentially great, East Asian powers — China, Japan, and the Koreas. As the second and third largest economies in the world, China and Japan are indisputably great powers. South Korea is the 11th largest economy but if combined, Korea could overtake all G7 economies except that of the US.  By 2030, a Korea could be the world’s sixth largest economy

Why do we focus on world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy? 

World View

The major components of world view is a two-fold adaptation of Alastair Johnston’s work on cultural realism.

First, we expanded Johnston’s conventional view of warfare to fit an information-age definition of complex warfare. Namely, we include cooperation and confrontation with or without armed force. In contrast, US strategies and military doctrine tend to separate the two types of activities.

Second, we included diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES) types of threats—both variable and zero-sum. These additions reveal broader world views about the effectiveness of DIMES-wide combinations of power.

Threat Assessment

Threat assessment describes the nature and criteria of threats. The idea is that historical experiences that shape world views also affect the context and validity of threats, sharpened by shortfalls in technology. Gaps of consequence to security include military advantages, economic competitiveness, political decisiveness, susceptibility to disinformation, and social resilience.

US strategies struggle with those last three. Such vulnerabilities can threaten sovereign borders, global influence, indigenous industries, access to energy, legitimate governance, and national identity.

Combined Effects Strategy

Combined effects strategy refers to influencing relationships using psychological and physical means in cooperative and confrontational ways. These strategies create and/or exploit activities in two ways.

First, activities shape lines of effect to achieve objectives. By focusing on effects rather than efforts, actions that otherwise might justify themselves (conventional naval forces “showing the flag” in disputed maritime territory) are dropped in favor of actions that bring about the effects (dredging operations that create artificial territory).

Second, activities set conditions that realize strategic priorities. By participating in the 2000 Olympics in South Korea, North Korea gained positive media coverage. If a desired strategic effect is to reinforce South Korean public opinion supporting North Korea in a war with Japan, that sports activity could be one of many that creates favorable conditions.

For these reasons, we find “condition-setting” to be a more accurate and useful description than “end-state.” Condition-setting can apply to a broader range of world views that admit persistent complex warfare. The need for a broad approach becomes very clear when we consider US military doctrine.

We Need A Broad Approach

The US military doctrinal definition of ”end-state” really makes the case for a broad approach to security. The definition is for a military end state, “which normally represents a point in time or a set of conditions beyond which the President does not require the military instrument of national power as the primary means to achieving national objectives.” 

This narrow definition describes the end state as military, which seems understandable. We’re in military doctrine, after all. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the doctrine defines a military end-state as one in which the military instrument is the primary means. As a result, condition-setting in which military forces might play a supporting role (rather than a primary supported role) is not recognized in the doctrine. This is doctrine used to plan joint operations. What happens to overall effects?

Is this narrow perspective part of a US world view regarding the use of force, which always needs to be in the lead as a last resort? Perhaps.

We think we can improve our efforts in support of the NSS, such as “Renewing America’s Competitive Advantages,” by comparing threats and integrating effects.

As we shall see, a set mindset is a strategic vulnerability when compared to some other world views, threat assessments, and combined effects strategy. The next three papers focus on China, Japan, and the Koreas.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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