Paper #2. The US National Security Strategy Needs Combined Effects

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Americas, Leadership, Strategy
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Strategic leaders blend theoretical and applied thinking to realize goals.

Competitive strategy is a creative process that rearranges ways and means to achieve desired ends. Superior strategy combines interactive effects.

The National Security Strategy of 2017 (NSS) calls for such innovation, so this Paper proposes a combined effects approach to complex competition and warfare. I begin constructively by interpreting the NSS primarily as a competitive security strategy rather than a political posture.

The NSS as Strategy

To interpret the NSS as strategy, I translate the document into the language of joint military operations design. My purpose in doing this is to analyze the NSS in terms of a design that assigns purpose to tasks. Consistent with ICSL Paper #1‘s argument about tactics and strategy, I expand the military definition of tactics to include any instrument of power, not just the arrangement of forces. I treat NSS strategy as a broader-than-military process that considers diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social (DIMES) ends, ways and means.

What happens to the NSS when we do this?

If we take the NSS as an effort to align national goals, objectives, effects, and activities, the document’s headings and key concepts translate as follows:

  • the four featured “pillars” of the National Security Strategy become the “goals”
  • the sub-headings described within each pillar may be taken to be “objectives” intended to realize each goal
  • the occasional sub-headings of the objectives, which the NSS expresses as verbs, can be regarded as desired “effects” to realize each objective
  • the priority actions are “activities” purposed to cause desired effects

Using this language, the four national security goals are: protect the homeland; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence.

Now let’s identify some basic assumptions and logic in the NSS.

NSS Logic and Hierarchy of Effort

The stated assumptions begin with an “America First” argument on page 1: we live in a competitive world; sovereign states are the best hope for peace; and our democratic society based on founding principles in our Constitution is a fundamental strength of American power and competitiveness. The founding principles, which adversaries target, are rule of law, individual rights and liberties, and separation of federal powers.

It’s further assumed that our entrepreneurial system will out-perform others if we don’t take American power for granted. To have a competitive strategy, therefore, requires achieving political, economic and military advantages. By competition, the NSS refers to rivals who contest and control information, conduct unfair economic practices, brutalize populations, propagandize to discredit democracy, and seek access to conventional and nuclear technology.

We can analyze the main ideas in the NSS as a hierarchy of effort. This construct aligns activities to effects to objectives to goals. For the most part, the NSS is already written this way, in reverse order. However there are a few gaps.

So I edit and compress the document to show each of the four goals (in bold), each goal’s objectives (marked by solid bullets), each objective’s effects (in italics), and each effect’s activities to bring them about. To retain the assumptions and logic of the document, a synopsis of each goal and its supporting objectives is included.

The two structural gaps in the NSS concern effects and activities. Except for the first two objectives of the first goal (protecting the US homeland), the concept of effects is entirely missing. For the third goal (preserve peace through strength), effects and activities are missing for the first objective (renew America’s competitive advantage). Why do these gaps matter?

The absence of effects implies that priority actions are expected to achieve objectives and realize goals directly. This thinking may be valid in some situations, but I have inferred desired effects from activities anyway (parenthetically referred to as “inferred effect”). The reason I add desired effects in-between activities and objectives is to allow for activities’ results (effects) to combine in different ways. Why?

Competitive strategy needs such flexibility because activities and effects can and do interact among themselves to yield combined effects otherwise not considered. This rigidity tends to self-induce “black swans” as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The inclusion of combined effects can be applied to red-teaming, too, as we should be attempting to attribute effects from adversary activities without automatically mirror-imaging what we would do.

Therefore in the portion of the NSS where both effects and activities are missing (Goal 3 Objective 1), I’ve deduced effects and activities from that objective (referred to as “deduced effect” and “deduced activities”).

The next section presents the structure of strategic thinking in the NSS. The order of the document (from big to small) is preserved. Goal by goal we can see the supporting objectives, effects intended to realize those objectives, and activities meant to change conditions to bring about those effects.

NSS Structure of Strategy – Goals, Objectives and Effects

Goal 1 (G1): Protect the Homeland
We desire the benefits of connectivity while preventing exploitation of sovereignty. Threats include information theft, disinformation, targeting our way of life and critical infrastructure, natural disasters, and terrorism. So we will secure our borders and territory, pursue threats to their source, keep America safe in the cyber era, and promote American resilience.

  • Secure US Borders and Territory: increase agility and adaptability to overcome vulnerabilities in air, maritime, space, cyberspace domains
    • Defend against weapons of mass destruction
      • Enhance missile defense; detect/disrupt weapons of mass destruction; enhance counter-proliferation and accountability; target terrorists
    • Combat Bio-threats and Pandemics
      • Detect and contain bio-threats at their source; support bio-med innovation; improve emergency response
    • Strengthen Border Control and Immigration Policy
      • Enhance border security; enhance vetting; enforce immigration laws; bolster transportation security
  • Pursue Threats to their Source: stay on the offensive with allies and partners against transnational threats that exploit openness, adapt and encrypt their data, and exploit safe havens and states’ support
    • Defeat Jihadist Terrorists
      • Disrupt terror plots; take direct action; eliminate safe havens; sever sources of strength; share responsibility; combat radicalization and recruitment in communities
    • Dismantle Transnational Criminal Organizations
      • Improve strategic planning and intelligence; defend communities; defend in depth; counter cyber criminals
  • Keep America Safe in the Cyber Era: protect against cyber campaigns conducted at the private network level against our political, economic, and security interests
    • Assess, Secure, Enhance and Defend Critical Infrastructure (inferred effect)
      • Identify and prioritize risk; build defensible government networks; improve information sharing and sensing; deploy layered defenses
    • Deter and Disrupt Malicious Cyber Actors (inferred effect)
      • Empower federal government with authorities, information and capabilities to prevent malicious actions; expand awareness and impose consequences with our allies and partners
  • Promote American Resilience: increase ability of communities and infrastructure to withstand and recover from attacks, accidents, natural disasters, and pressures against our economy and democracy
    • Persuade and Induce to Prioritize and Prepare (inferred effect
      • Improve risk management; build a culture of preparedness
    • Persuade and Induce to Plan and Protect (inferred effect)
      • Improve planning; incentivize information sharing

Goal 2 (G2): Promote American Prosperity
We need a growing, innovative, and confident economy to lead a world liberal order of reciprocal rules. Our economic strategy will rejuvenate the domestic economy, benefit American workers, revitalize our manufacturing base, create middle-class jobs, encourage innovation, safeguard the environment, and achieve energy dominance.

  • Rejuvenate the Domestic Economy: enact tax and regulatory policies to incentivize investing in America, energy trade, and infrastructure
    • Increase and sustain economic growth (inferred effect)
      • Reduce regulatory burdens; promote tax reform
    • Enhance competitiveness in high wage manufacturing, science and technology (inferred effect)
      • Improve infrastructure; reduce debt via fiscal responsibility; support education and apprenticeships
  • Promote Free, Fair, and Reciprocal Economic Relationships: strengthen international trade based on free markets, fair competition and reciprocity; oppose practices such as dumping, non-tariff barriers, forced technology transfers, and industrial subsides
    • Promote free market competition and private sector growth (inferred effect)
      • Work with like-minded partners; facilitate new market opportunities
    • Enforce international standards of free, fair and reciprocal trade and investment (inferred effect)
      • Counter unfair trade practices; counter foreign corruption
  • Lead in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation: prioritize emerging technologies critical to growth and security while attracting innovative partners to advance discovery, improve STEM education, and lead research and development
    • Enhance Strategic Science and Technology (inferred effect)
      • Understand worldwide science and technology trends; attract and retain inventors and innovators
    • Establish Rapid Risk-taking Public-Private Partnerships (inferred effect)
      • Leverage private capital and expertise to build and innovate; rapidly field inventions and innovations
  • Promote and Protect the US National Security Innovation Base: defend and enhance a national network of knowledge, technologies, and creative people against cyber economic warfare that threatens our businesses and competitive advantages
    • Identify Threats and Responsibilities to Protect Property (inferred effect)
      • Understand the challenges; protect intellectual property
    • Prevent Theft and Espionage (inferred effect)
      • Tighten visa procedures; protect data and underlying infrastructure
  • Embrace Energy Dominance: increase access to domestic energy via research and development, technological breakthroughs, and efficiencies to stimulate trade, investment and growth; protect the environment
    • Expand energy capacity and innovation (inferred effect)
      • Reduce barriers; promote exports, further America’s technological edge
  • Protect energy diversification and access (inferred effect)
    • Ensure energy security; attain universal energy access

Goal 3 (G3): Preserve Peace Through Strength
Integrate all elements of power to deter and defeat aggression from revisionist powers, rogue states, and transnational threat organizations that use technology and information to shift balances of power to their advantage. We are in a continuous competition that requires pursuing cooperation from a position of strength.

  • Renew America’s Competitive Advantages: prepare for complex competition as more actors in more arenas vie for influence, accelerated by technology and resurgent great power competition over geopolitical advantage and the international order
    • Reverse strategic complacency
      • Increase awareness of complex threats; reveal adversary narratives and operations (deduced activities)
    • Enhance geopolitical access and deter strategic attacks (deduced effect)
      • Develop all-domains and all-instruments of power concepts and capabilities (deduced activities)
  • Renew Capabilities: achieve military over-match to impose dilemmas and enable other instruments of power
    • Modernize combined capabilities
      • Reforms for rapid affordable acquisition; improve readiness; increase capacity of forces
    • Renew national defense industrial base, manufacturing and supply chains
      • Understand the problem; encourage homeland investment; protect and grow critical skills
    • Maintain credible nuclear forces to deter threats and assure allies
      • Sustain nuclear weapons; modernize us nuclear forces and infrastructure; maintain stable deterrence
    • Maintain leadership, unfettered access to, and freedom of action in space
      • Advance space as a priority domain; promote space commerce; maintain lead in exploration
    • Deter, defend and defeat cyberspace threats
      • Improve attribution; enhance cyber tools and expertise; improve integration and agility
    • Develop intelligence to anticipate and respond to the variety of threats
      • Improve understanding of economic threats; harness all available information; fuse diplomatic, informational, military, and economic analysis
  • Diplomacy and Statecraft: catalyze political, economic, and social linkages to build networks for cooperation and problem-solving in defense of American interests
    • Competitive diplomacy to build and sustain relationships
      • Preserve a forward diplomatic presence with flexibility to advance American interests; catalyze opportunities to create networks
    • Economic diplomacy to create wealth and strategic tools
      • Reinforce ties with allies and partners; deploy economic pressure on security threats; sever sources of funding
    • Information statecraft to counter disinformation
      • Prioritize public diplomacy; communicate based on our values; activate local networks to promote non-violent values; share responsibility for promoting tolerant pluralism; tailor and innovate US messaging

Goal 4(G4): Advance American Influence
Against the diverse challenges of despotic actors, set conditions for peace and prosperity via American influence, values and interests, and those of willing, like-minded allies and partners.

  • Encourage Aspiring Partners: help nations that desire to be prosperous, democratic, and competitive consistent with their cultures, free markets, fair and reciprocal trade, and rule of law
    • Support rule of law and infrastructure (inferred effect)
      • Mobilize financial resources; capitalize new technologies; incentivize market choices
    • Invest in reforms and sustainable development (inferred effect)
      • Selectively empower reformers; synchronize diplomatic-economic-military support
  • Achieve Better Outcomes in Multilateral Forums: lead and engage multinational arrangements that shape rules affecting how states, businesses and individuals interact to protect US sovereignty/advance interests and values
    • Win the competition for influence in multinational institutions that shape international rules
      • Exercise leadership of accountability and shared responsibility in political and security bodies; shape and reform international financial and trade institutions
    • Protect American sovereignty and support US, allied and partner interests and values (inferred effect)
      • Ensure the commons of space, cyberspace, air and maritime domains remain free; protect a free, interoperable, and open internet
  • Champion American Values: promote freedom and equality under the law to inspire, support and improve the lives of others in a more secure and prosperous world
    • Support oppressed peoples and individual rights
      • Support the dignity of individuals; defeat transnational terrorist organizations
    • Promote civic society, minority cultures and freedoms (inferred effect)
      • Empower women and youth; provide humanitarian assistance; protect religious freedom/minorities

Opportunities for Combined Effects

Having injected 16 effects and two new sets of activities into the NSS structure of strategy, I’ll specify how combined effects can create a more competitive strategy by adding flexibility for achieving objectives and goals.

As a motivator, note that three sets of competitors managed to re-design their strategies to turn their challenges into opportunistic successes:

  • Islamic extremists’ 9/11/01 attacks provoked, and continue to activate, the longest war in US history
  • Putin-Russia’s complex warfare against Ukraine invaded, seized, and annexed Crimea
  • Xi-China’s maritime constructions seized, militarized, and continue to hold disputed maritime territory

Naturally, successful outcomes are not an automatic result of a well-designed strategy. Uncertainty is ubiquitous so all sorts of variables influence the application of strategy. Adaptive execution is always important. We also can design more competitive strategies.

The NSS contains activities and effects that can create synergistic advantages to achieve objectives and goals. There are also instances where activities and effects designed for particular objectives and goals can undermine other ones. Both types of possibilities become clear when we seek combinations of effects. I offer two sets of examples—some within goals; and some across goals.

Examples within a Goal

Within each goal we can look for any combinations of effects that help achieve any of the objectives, and for any that help realize the goal itself. This approach may empower leaders to find best activities and effects, despite bureaucratic pressures to own activities and claim exclusive effects.

Consider Goal 1 (protect the homeland). The two effects designed to realize G1 Objective 3 (keep America safe in the cyber era) can also support G1 Objective 4 (promote American resilience) because these effects are about critical infrastructure and malicious cyber actors. The opposite also rings true. That is, the effects that promote American resilience also can help keep America safe in the cyber era because those effects are about preparing and planning.

Achieving a synergistic combined effect requires close collaboration and in-depth knowledge of the threat. In the preceding example (G1 Objectives 3 and 4), people securing infrastructure and disrupting cyber threats need to work with people in preparedness and plans. A potential combined effect is the following:

  • Managing risk via shared information-sensing among allies and partners to induce a culture of threat awareness, to deter cyber attack at multiple layers of exposure, to impose coercive consequences on attackers.

This triple effect of inducement, deterrence and coercion should be more powerful than any of these effects by themselves. An important caveat is that the combined effect needs to be tailored to influence the particular will and capability of the targeted threat.

Another example of mutually reinforcing effects, even if organized to support different objectives, is this combination:

  • Strengthening border control and immigration policy (under G1 Objective 1)
  • Dismantling transnational criminal organizations (under G1 Objective 2)

The combined effect is the dilemma posed to some actors by strengthening friendly control and dismantling threat relationships. How to bring this about? Looking at the activities under each effect tells where to start. Ensure that border and transportation activities are informed by strategic, community, and cyber intelligence.

Examples Across Goals

Now let’s search across all goals for effects that influence objectives placed under other goals.

First, there are positive influences to enhance how we can achieve objectives and goals.

Consider Goal 2: promote American prosperity. G2 Objective 3 (lead in research, technology, invention and innovation) relies on achieving two effects. These are: strategic-scientific discovery; and public-private risk-tasking.

Compare the above to Goal 3: preserve peace through strength. G3 Objective 1 (renew America’s competitive advantages) relies on achieving two effects. These are: reverse strategic complacency; and enhance geopolitical access while deterring strategic attacks.

Combining the preceding four effects can be quite influential in some contexts. The following would be a quadruple effect:

  • Strategically aware, privately-capitalized scientists and inventors fielding innovations that enable geopolitical and cyber access, and repeatedly deter strategic attack

This effect and other ambitious combinations are limited by the individual rights and values the NSS exists to defend. Such as when dominant private actors are unwilling to contract their talent in the nation’s service. Note Google‘s disagreement with the US government over defining the national interest. Hence the importance of public-private relationships to cultivate trust and provide incentives.

Next, there are negative influences that activities’ effects can have on objectives and goals.

Compare the objective of renewing America’s competitive advantages (G3 Objective 3) to the objective of achieving better outcomes in multinational forums (G4 Objective 2).

In some circumstances, activities that achieve better outcomes in multinational forums can undermine America’s competitive advantages. Such as when those successes nurture overconfidence, arrogance, or ignorance of other cultures. The NSS provides a potential offset for this context.

One of the previously mentioned effects designed to help renew America’s competitive advantages (G3 Objective 1) is, reverse strategic complacency. Which activities taken to reverse strategic complacency will also be effective, or at least not undermine, achieving better outcomes in multinational forums?

For instance, activities emphasizing the North Korean nuclear threat to reduce complacency, are likely to increase the credibility of that threat. That could undercut negotiations over de-nuclearization in bilateral and multilateral settings.

In the same way, advancing American influence (Goal 4) by championing American values (G4 Objective 3) via activities that support individual rights and promote minority freedoms will produce ambivalent effects. In all of these examples, leadership matters.

Leaders can focus on which combinations of effects are likely to enhance objectives and goals, when, where, and in what context. All of this knowing that opportunities for combined effects become entangled in information-rich, certainty-starved environments.

Toward Superior Strategy

Combined effects strategy draws attention to developing combinations of desired effects, rather than separately desired effects. With only four NSS goals, it’s easy to see the compatibility of them. But when we add 15 objectives and 35 effects, and three times as many categories of activities, the challenge of creating desired combinations of effects becomes complex. Yet there are inexhaustible combinations of effects. Taking structured approaches such as this one can help us see potential relationships as we embrace complexity.

We need a language with which to take on this challenge. Operations design is adequate to the task, if we broaden a few definitions and start organizing lines of desired effects across agencies. As in any “recommendation to the commander” about the highly dynamic and uncertain information environment, designs for strategy need to be constantly updated to inform planning and operations.

By considering combined effects, the US National Security Strategy can become a more competitive strategy. We can cultivate competitive superior results that achieve national goals, not just superior tactics or operations. A key challenge is to convert lines of operations and lines of effort into lines of effects so we do not miss this aspect of strategy. ICSL Note #4 details how to plan for combined effects.

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

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