Paper #54. Effective Ops Require Competitive Initiative in a Multi-Dimensional Strategy

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The Imperative for Competitive Initiative

Democracies need multi-dimensional strategies suited to the highly competitive information and AI age. There are dozens of regional and functional US national strategies, but the overarching one is the US National Security Strategy (NSS).

For historically understandable reasons, the NSS focuses on weapons technology as the most effective approach to countering and defeating threats to the nation. Changes in information and material technology, however, have weaponized information to empower combatants beyond organized military forces. As a result, we wait to win battles that satisfy our narrow definition of warfare as if that wins contemporary wars. Despite huge changes in the character of war, our historically accepted nature of war is that it’s violent, uncertain, and goal-oriented or “rational” (Clausewitz’s Trinity from the 19th century). Brian Cole’s insight that this Trinity describes a complex adaptive system reinforces why the concept still pertains—war reflects societal and technological changes. 

Given such changes, however, violence is not always necessary for warfare in the information environment (IE). Battles in the IE wage warfare via lethal and/or non-lethal ends, ways, and means. The strategically significant contest is over the influence that sets conditions for future competition, including warfare, and the values we preserve in “peacetime” operations. Strategy matters as much as technology. As a practical application of scientific knowledge, strategy is technology, both human and AI-assisted. 

The problem for democracies today is our strategy, not our technology. Even when we’re ahead in critical technologies, our “when deterrence fails” security strategies are hard-pressed to defeat authoritarian, civ-mil fused regimes in Russia and China. Putin still plans to fracture NATO’s unity with a Pyrrhic victory that deters direct military intervention in Ukraine. Domestic influence is what can oust him as more Russians become aware of his ruinous campaign in Ukraine. Xi may not be as incompetent, overconfident, and wreckless as Putin. The People’s Liberation Army’s non-nuclear joint force capabilities are improving, and China’s economy is the second largest. But it’s the Communist Party’s coercive influence that maintains authoritarian rule. To be sure, democracies need to win the nth-G, quantum, and AI races, but not only to create superior military capability. We need to generate influence, an integral part of any operation that contributes to lasting results. Have we forgotten that lesson from World War II?

The US led the liberal “postwar” order still reflected in the United Nations Charter today after democracies defeated fascist expansionism. The wartime effort required massive industrial mobilization, sacrifice, destruction, and an allied strategy that exploited the overstretched territorial conquests of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The subsequent Cold War emerged as a struggle for influence over the rules and norms of world order, national sovereignty, and human rights. Led by Japan and West Germany (both “occupied” for seven and eleven years), a number of authoritarian states developed into representative democracies. Former colonies won their independence. The Soviet Union’s collapse freed others from oppressive rule but reignited historical rivalries and resentment. Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia emerged as the new fascist threats to a liberal world order, complete with victimization narratives, xenophobic nationalism, and endemic corruption.

Defeating these threats requires us to conduct operations skillfully with competitive initiative. Operators need to have more than situational awareness (SA) of the enemy. We need a broad SA of our hierarchy of effort (see ICSL Paper #41) from unit-level activities to effects, objectives, end states, and strategic priorities. Our SA needs to be better than those our competitors have and use, because today’s battles for initiative occur 24/7 in a hyper-connected IE that permeates all operating domains and missions.

In that arena, competitors weaponize psychological and physical information to influence thinking and behavior. We don’t classify many of them as combatants. Exploiting that restraint and employing lawfare, the PRC routinely operates its Coast Guard, militia, and other proxies for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in disputed territory to intimidate national leaders, while its diplomatic and economic initiatives shape sub-national leaders’ loyalties and interests via development contracts.

Despite this technological and social expansion of the battlespace, the US National Security Strategy (NSS) still reflects uncompetitive assumptions about warfare and information advantage. For the first time, the latest NSS (October 2022) was formulated simultaneously with the Nuclear Posture Review and Missile Defense Review. The touted purpose was to integrate resources-to-goals across all three national documents. The top four NSS priorities are:

  • Defend the homeland, paced to the multi-domain threat posed by China
  • Deter strategic attacks against the US allies, and partners
  • Deter aggression while preparing to prevail in conflict when necessary, in particular against China then Russia
  • Build a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem

From the perspective of an operator, analyst, planner, strategist, commander, manager, or any leader charged with competing against an opponent, these priorities share a glaring weakness. Defending, deterring, and being resilient are reactive, not proactive. The NSS priorities reveal an after-the-fact “when deterrence fails” mindset. That’s not a competitive position. In an Age where more actors have more access to more weapons with significant societal effects, resilient deterrence and defense alone cede the initiative. Whether this mindset stems from American exceptionalism, isolationism, or idealism, the thinking is dangerously naive. It’s narrower than authoritarian competitors’ and ill-equipped for the AI-driven fights to come.

In an AI Age, losing the initiative against an opponent with a more proactive strategy may be irrevocable 

Our challenge in securing competitive initiative is self-imposed, rooted in two unrealistic assumptions that restrict the operations of every security practitioner, military or civilian: 

  • During wartime, winning decisive battles win wars
  • During peacetime, winning without fighting wins peace

Two Too-Narrow Assumptions

  • Winning is a military end state. US joint doctrine defines an end state as a military one, despite calling for collaborative, whole-of-government lines of effort. In reality, winning is a continuous process of gaining and maintaining advantages over opportunistic competitors who employ overall combined effects, not just military combined arms. In some situations, military effects can secure diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social advantages, but this requires military leaders to manage civil-military collaboration. Failure to do so reduces the strategic effectiveness of military and non-military practitioners. Perhaps it’s safer for career-wise senior leaders to stay within their exclusive lane. This practice fits and reinforces the narrow assumption that peace is simply the absence of lethal conflict and all the military has to do is plan and practice for wartime. This perspective perpetuates the popular belief that the US only wages warfare “when deterrence fails.” Deterrence of what? Violent conflict.

    Despite that assertion, we know the IE enables many forms of competition that achieve lethal and significant non-lethal effects. Still, democracies tend to be reluctant in recognizing non-lethal and some indirect lethal effects as war. In 2016, for instance, an explosion caused indirectly by Darkside’s cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline that serves the US east coast killed an American and coerced the company’s CEO into paying $4.4m in ransom. Was that a crime or act of war? The ambiguity empowers rogues. Putin’s Russia actively sets conditions enabling such malicious actors to conduct lethal attacks in Russia’s interests by providing sanctuary. Our self-imposed definition of war permits such criminal warfare. Granted, expanding the definition would restrict our own “peacetime” cyber operations, but authoritarians ignore the peace-war distinction anyway.

    What’s the result for strategy? A virtual DMZ between democracies and authoritarians permits the latter plenty of maneuver space for hybrid, grey zone, and great power competition that produces the same effects as what we recognize as warfare. Examples include:

    • cutting off energy and food supplies
    • disrupting financial and trade transactions
    • seizing and expanding territory
    • igniting social violence
    • destroying public trust in democratic governance

Unless uniformed military are observed doing these things (“little green men” in Crimea was not enough), it’s not war.

  • “Winning without fighting” does not involve lethal effects. This Sunzian adage is routinely quoted out of context, as if ancient Chinese leaders simply avoided killing. The reality was more complex. Qin Shih-huang-di unified “China” in 221 BCE by fighting across three dimensions of strategy that combined different effects. The strategy was cooperative and confrontational (including violent conflict), preventive and causative, and psychological and physical. How did this multi-dimensional strategy work?

    The Qin “Tiger Emperor” persuaded and induced competitors with political-agricultural diplomacy, compelled splits in their alliances, and coerced (used violence) their armies and population centers into defeat and subjugation. His “irrevocable expansion” of one state (the Qin) at the expense of others (five Zhou states) broke the norms of interstate fighting, eradicating other sovereign claims while establishing standards and networks for trade, communication, and imperial rule. Xi’s China behaves similarly today, fueled by a propaganda work department, while we plan to wage war when deterrence of “real war” fails.

Assumptions Matter for Winning and Losing

Uncompetitive assumptions might be useful to reinforce a warrior identity, but they lose complex wars. Why? Because “winning” is more than achieving a military end state. 

It’s true that military victories can lead to political, economic, and even social change. However, success takes more than off-ramps and exit-strategies that flip-flop with each administration.

It’s also true that we can win a military engagement and fail to achieve the larger-than-military end state, losing the war. Such as in Afghanistan, for every “great power” that has tried. We can (a) lose military engagements that (b) help win a more significant end state through persistent, more-than-military campaigning, such as (a) US marines’ fighting retreat from the Yalu River during the Korean War after China’s massive invasion to save North Korea from its failing invasion of the South and (b) supporting the Republic of Korea’s development into a thriving democracy with the 13th largest GDP today. That fighting retreat was a strategic win enabled by individual and collective courage (see Hampton Sides’ On Desperate Ground) and the subsequent commitment to and transformation of the ROKUS alliance.

Winning in any persistent sense involves fighting with lethal and non-lethal instruments of power. Winning and sustaining favorable conditions results from combining synergistic effects such as persuasive inducement and compellent coercion (the Qin example above), which generates influence for more effects.

Where democracies fail to resist (not in Ukraine so far), the holistic, competitive strategy is “winning without your opponents recognizing your fighting as fighting.”

The competition to produce superior effects involves simultaneously cooperative and confrontational relationships.

This feature of the IE means that operations are more complex than a 1-D spectrum of conflict, with peace on one end and war on the other. 

Looking at competition more broadly through a 3-D lens—coop-frontational, preventive-causal, and psycho-physical— we can see strategies with eight basic effects.

In the order of the four cooperative ones first, these eight effects are—dissuade, persuade, secure, induce, secure, deter, compel, defend, and coerce. These indeed don’t encompass all possible effects, but they’re more precise than peace and war. The basic effects provide a general foundation for thinking about inexhaustible combinations of ends, ways, and means across those three dimensions. The point is to learn how to compete with better strategy in a dynamic environment.

Rather than “winning without fighting,” here’s a more relevant extract from Sunzi’s Art of War:

Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.

There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.

In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack: the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.

The direct and the indirect lead to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle—you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

Contrary to democracies’ peace-war distinction, authoritarians’ confrontation is not a last resort. Confrontation is an integral part of cooperation. The Communist Party of China (CPC), the one Party permitted to rule the so-called People’s Republic of China, cannot maintain its domestic legitimacy without systematically enforcing propaganda that free minds find ridiculous. The Party judges failure to comply as uncooperative, just as failure to comply with or “respect” the PRC’s foreign policy is cast as failure to “cooperate.” “Insulting China” is a crime. Censorship functionaries delete online comments and topics to promote issues that foment anti-foreign rage. “Xi Jinping Thought” propaganda is institutionalized in the PRC Constitution. When Xi makes a mistake—such as the zero-COVID policy’s economic effects—Party-government organs enforce its Party line to change the narrative. The CPC-run state routinely changes the historical record.

The effective strategy is manipulative coercion that exploits biases and logic errors to evoke apparent cooperation.

The PRC uses the same flaws in critical thinking in a line of effort to dupe external audiences, too (see ICSL Paper #23Collapsing the Loop: How China’s Narrative Subverts OODA Decision-making & What to Do About It).

What can we do?

Instead of a conflict spectrum from non-violent peace to violent war, we can recognize three competition spectra that include conflict and other forms of lethal and non-lethal competition. These distinctions are practical, not just theoretical. As we prepare for joint all-domain command & control in military operations, authoritarians are already waging all-effect, all-domain competition including violent warfare. The ideologically justified practice extends to tactics, operations, and strategic policy. Strategy, a basic process defined below, permeates all three levels of activity.

Four Practical Considerations

Suppose we recognize that national security-related competition subsumes conflict and not the reverse. In that case, we can wage contemporary competition and warfare for different effects, not just brute force “when deterrence fails.”

This combination of different types of effects is an expansion of “coercion theory,” the national security language that dominates policy and strategy in the US. Coercion theory assumes that deterrence is coercive deterrence or compellent deterrence and that “brute force” is what we do when that deterrence fails. Those options are far too limited to be effective in the IE/OE today.

In planning operations to produce superior effects, we can start with four basic considerations:

Confront or Cooperate

Psychologically or Physically

to influence will or capability

for Preventive or Causative effects.

Desired effects can be preventive and causative, but they also vary in terms of how confrontational and/or cooperative they are and the extent to which they are psychological and/or physical.

Desired effects also differ in how they arise from concepts of influence (CONI) that target an actor’s will and/or capability.

Furthermore, to influence an individual or group over a long period, how an effect is generated is very important. Suppose the Russian Federation’s desired effect is to arouse anti-Western sentiment in a local population that believes Western Europeans have historically victimized them. If that case, a fabricated story of an atrocity against ethnic Russians is more likely to go viral than an evidence-backed argument about traditional Russian values.

Strategy and Concepts of Influence, Examples

Consider the following three distinctions among effects, targets, and tools. 

First, effects may be diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES). In adding the “S” to the popular acronym DIMES, recall that Clausewitz emphasized war was a social phenomenon.

Second, targets to influence consist of will and capability.

Third, the tools of strategy are DIMES-wide (or PMESII, etc.), too.

The basic language of strategy arranges the tools as means (what resources) and ways (how to use them) to influence will and capability to achieve ends (goals at any level, from effects to strategic priorities). To compete against other strategies, we need better concepts of influence.

Concepts of influence describe how ways and means act on, and react with, will and capability to bring about particular desired ends. Some CONOPS do this, but a concept of influence specifies how. Implementing a concept of influence requires us to think through our activities’ actions, reactions, and counteractions.

Together, these distinctions can yield holistic strategies that produce superior causative and preventive effects.

Confrontational Concepts of Influence

Psychologically Intimidate Will / Neutralize Capability to Deter or Compel

Physically Punish Will / Deny Capability to Defend or Coerce

In confrontational interactions, psychologically, an actor could try to intimidate another’s will to deter or compel behavior. Such as bullying a vulnerable neighbor into opening/closing borders on desired terms and times (Iran military-economic ops against Iraq). Or, an actor can attempt to neutralize another’s capability to perceive, such as using state propaganda to deter the development of external loyalties and to compel attitude formation among citizens (North Korea cultural ops on its citizens). Physically, an actor could confront a threat by punishing another’s will, in order to defend against or coerce behavior. Such as operating large steel-hulled ships to ram small wooden vessels (China military-proxy ops against Vietnam and the Philippines) in disputed fishing grounds. Or the actor could try to deny another a capability, such as by cutting off energy sources, in order to defend against or coerce that perceived or manufactured threat (Russia economic ops against Ukraine).

Cooperative Concepts of Influence

Psychologically Assure Will / Enhance Capability to Dissuade or Persuade

Physically Demonstrate Will / Exercise Capability to Secure or Induce

How about cooperative interactions? Psychologically, an actor may use methods designed to assure the will of another in order to dissuade or persuade behavior. Such as confidence-building measures to promote an agenda (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pol-mil-economic effort to resolve various disputes). Or, an actor could enhance another’s capability to perceive by providing intelligence in order to dissuade or persuade another with respect to maintaining a partnership (FVEY partners’ intel-sharing). Physically, an actor might demonstrate the will to secure or induce a commitment, such as joint statements and strategic dialogues (Mekong-US Partnership Joint Ministerial Statement). Or, an actor might exercise a military or economic capability to secure or induce a commitment from an ally, a partner, a neutral, or even a competitor (US military-economic agreements with African, Latin American, and Asian states).

Prepare for All-Effect All-Domain Competition

There are so many agents and options in the IE that competing along a one-dimensional conflict spectrum cedes vast battlespace to opponents. The three basic competition spectra of cooperation-confrontation, psychological-physical, and preventive-causative are a simplification of the competition that rages in the IE. With just eight basic effects, there are 16 concepts of influence to bring them about (each of the eight examples in the preceding section can produce two different effects). 

An approach to warfare that exploits the advantages of combining eight effects across the three basic elements of strategy (ends, ways, and means) can develop even more combinations of effects. Many of these are synergistic, such as persuasive inducement combined with compellent coercion.

Authoritarians seem to have the advantage against our “when-deterrence-fails” approach to warfare. Combined effects and concepts of influence offer many more options for more contexts. This difference in strategies permits actors who employ all-effect all-domain strategies to gain and maintain the initiative in various types of operations, from humanitarian relief operations (HRO) to general warfare. Indeed, general warfare is not necessary when other operations achieve the desired effects and shape conditions for favorable end states and strategic priorities.

Under our current restraints, what we can do is examine our assumptions, consider acceptable combinations of effects, and develop acceptable concepts of influence to gain competitive initiative against multi-dimensional opponents. Our tactics and operations need to be executed better than our competitors. However, we need to perform more effective activities and have the flexibility to seize opportunities. Authoritarians, after all, have particular vulnerabilities. They also make big mistakes. 

Author: ICSL admin

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