American civilian and military strategists traditionally think of deterrence in two forms: deterring conventional or nuclear war. Obviously, these are important forms of deterrence, and senior leaders are reviewing and taking steps to upgrade both forms. This review, primarily the responsibility of DoD, is long overdue, and the nation will be better situated to meet future challenges because of the current focus.
Deterrence has a third form, however, one that doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. That is, deterring our adversaries from achieving their strategic goals below the threshold of conventional war. Focusing on this form of deterrence is perhaps more difficult to achieve, but it is equally important and relevant. Moreover, the process of including this form of deterrence is not just the responsibility of DoD.
In an April 30 news release, DoD discussed its new concept of “integrated deterrence.” At least from the release, this new concept seems focused only on the two traditional forms of deterrence. This impression also results from a May 5 Washington Post online opinion piece authored by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “The Pentagon must prepare for a much bigger theater of war.” The impression is further reinforced by a Sept. 22 National Defense online article, “ ‘Integrated Deterrence’ to Drive National Defense Strategy,” that says integrated deterrence includes allies, partners and nonmilitary elements of power, but primarily when it comes to deterring conventional and nuclear war. Deterrence in the two traditional forms is necessary to be sure, but insufficient.
In some cases, the U.S. has already failed at this third pillar of deterrence. Russian operations—sometimes called “hybrid” and other times “new-generation warfare” or “gray zone operations”—in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have all succeeded in achieving Russian strategic objectives without crossing the threshold of conventional war and without triggering a counterresponse by the West. The Russians also have interfered and continue to interfere not only in the U.S. political process, but also in European democracies as well as trying to disjoin NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance. Now they are poised to try something more in Ukraine, to threaten the Baltic countries and expand their influence elsewhere.
China Expands Influence
Using similar below-the-threshold-of-conventional-war methods, China has expanded its influence in the South China Sea, and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative ultimately intends to expand China’s influence to Central Europe. Other actions are aimed at increasing its influence throughout the Pacific: on an arc ranging from Japan, to Taiwan, the Philippines, through the Solomon Islands, to Australia.
Both Russia and China are improving their conventional force capabilities and their nuclear capacities. That’s why the current review of U.S. deterrence capacity is so important. Simultaneously with those efforts, however, both countries are proceeding to achieve their strategic aims without crossing the threshold of conventional war and without triggering a response.
They are not acting in concert, at least not yet, but both want to rewrite—to their advantage and to the disadvantage of the U.S. and our allies—the rules-based international order put in place post-World War II. That’s the main reason why the third pillar of deterrence is so important.
Russia and China use a unitary understanding of war to guide their actions. In their operations below the threshold of conventional war, both nations act strategically. That is, each of their decisions and actions flow from strategic, political aims. They view their actions as a coherent whole; each discrete action taken only if it moves them forward toward their ultimate goal: an international order in which they determine the rules and in which they benefit.
At a Disadvantage
The great-power competition that we hear so much about lays not just in competing for conventional and nuclear power. It also concerns power and influence below the threshold of the legal definition of war and below the threshold that would justify a military response from the U.S. and our allies and partners. The Russians and Chinese are waging war in the unitary sense, even if not in the legal sense.
The U.S. is at a strategic disadvantage because it sees only discrete actions below the threshold of war—what American strategists call operations other than war or operations along the spectrum of conflict. Such a perspective results in seeing discrete actions but not the coherent whole that the Russians and Chinese are envisioning as they act.
Deterrence below the threshold of conventional and nuclear war requires an expertise in which the U.S. is weak. For at least the past 20 years, America has demonstrated an inability to identify clear, coherent and achievable strategic aims, then orchestrate all elements of national power (not just military power) to achieve those aims.
The U.S.’s national security systems have come up short in both Afghanistan and Iraq with respect to creating and integrating military and nonmilitary campaigns that, together, increase the probability of achieving national goals. These systems have also come up short in their ability to watch events unfold and adapt quickly and coherently enough. These strategic skills—the ability to identify aims, create and integrate military and nonmilitary plans and campaigns, orchestrate their execution and adapt as events unfold—is just what the third form of deterrence requires. Weakness in these areas creates a strategic asymmetry where the U.S. is at a disadvantage relative to Russia and China.
To address this gap, the current strategic review to upgrade the conventional and nuclear U.S. deterrence capability must also include: first, a recognition that deterrence has a third facet; second, that this form of deterrence is as important and relevant as the other two; and third, that the United States’ capacity to deter below the threshold of the legal definition of war and justified intervention requires more than DoD involvement.
A fully integrated deterrence concept cannot just be a DoD product; it has to be an interdepartmental product. The National Security Council must lead this effort, and if it hasn’t begun already, it should begin immediately.
Doing so would acknowledge that the global security environment of the 21st century as well as a full understanding of war as a unitary phenomenon demand such an expansion. American civil and military leaders—presidential leadership as well as leaders of multiple U.S. departments and allies—took up this challenge in the aftermath of World War II, at a time that was at least as complex and dangerous as the current strategic environment. We should expect equal leadership of those in charge now.
Of course, this is a tall order, especially given there is so much else that has to be done on the national and international stage.
The U.S. is experiencing significant internal division, as are some of its allies. America and its partners remain in a war against jihadi revolutionaries.
The world remains in the midst of a global pandemic and its economic, social, political and international fallout. Global leaders are under significant pressure adapting to these and other pressures, domestic and international.
But what’s the alternative? Focus on the two traditional forms of deterrence and leave the third less than adequately attended? That would be strategic folly: good to prevent conventional and nuclear war, but not good to yield the strategic initiative below the threshold of the legal definition of war and justified intervention to our competitors.
The result would likely be a set of rules governing international transactions that puts the U.S. and its allies at a significant disadvantage. Maybe so much of a disadvantage that just what all want deterred—war itself—is the unintended consequence.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.