“Winning” Complex Wars: The Challenge of Combined Effects Strategy

By: Thomas A. Drohan

Winning modern wars requires coordination across government agencies and the private sector. Many think this is inappropriate for democracies, but our competitors are all able to do this.

 Approximate Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Complex warfare involves confrontation and cooperation. “Winning” requires creating relative advantage with all instruments of power. For the purposes of this analysis, instruments of power are diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social (DIMES). Strategy is a continuous competition to create superior combinations of effects.

Consider Sunzi’s advice, “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”  This adage does not mean the military instrument of power is not to be used. Military forces and other instruments of power are combined to create “attack by stratagem” (Sunzi’s chapter 3) preferably without the application of violence. How could this naïve idea possibly work?

Look no further than Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. China’s economic construction of artificial islands and military buildup in disputed territory diplomatically coerces neighbors into accepting its socially-mobilized information narrative of a rightful rise to great power status.

Winning such wars requires coordination across government agencies and the private sector. Many think that this is impossible or inappropriate for democracies. After all, strategies must be feasible, executable, and consistent with national values. I think the US has to up its game with bold new thinking about combined effects strategy. Competitors are able to do this.

Consider the Korean security predicament.

In his 2018 New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un stressed three goals: (1) deterrent capabilities of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs; (2) national economic development after achieving a nuclear weapons capability; and (3) improved relations with the South in anticipation of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Kim’s message complemented that of South Korean President Moon Jae-in six months earlier. Moon’s Berlin speech of July 2017 posited goals to achieve improved inter-Korean relations.

At the inter-Korean Summit in April 2018, both leaders took steps toward building trust for peace, property and unification by signing the Panmunjom Declaration. At the US-North Korea Singapore Summit in June 2018, Kim Jong-un garnered from President Donald Trump a concession to halt “war games” by US and South Korean forces. The signed agreement included promises to cooperate, establish new relations, work toward complete denuclearization of the peninsula, and build a lasting and stable peace regime.

With that future in mind, what could be the North Korean grand strategy in terms of combined effects?

Combined Effects Strategy

Consider the following instruments of power. Each example describes a combined effect in terms of ends, ways and means, then details how.

Diplomatic: normalized relations with the US to persuade or compel acceptance of North Korea as a sovereign state, and to induce North Korean political influence in a re-unified Korea.

How? Extract interactions and rewards from US administrations that lead to recognition of North Korean sovereignty. This achievement could leverage Pyongyang’s influence over Seoul in re-unification talks. Sustaining rewards from successive US administrations is difficult, particularly when North Korean behavior fails to meet its part of a bargain. Differences between US administrations (Clinton-Bush), between Congress and the President (provision of Light Water Reactors under the Agreed Framework), and within administrations (State-Defense-White House during the Six-Party Talks) guarantee that any North Korean failure will be subject to public scrutiny.

Informational: a narrative of self-reliance (juche) and historical victimization by main powers (sadaejuui) to induce social control, and to persuade or compel diplomatic effects.

How? Facing the US as an equal is propagated as righteous juche, not humiliating sadaejuui. This strengthens the regime’s social legitimacy. If Kim Jong-un led a narrative of cooperation with South Korea and the United States, and China, it is possible to imagine how Japan could become part of that storyline. Japan’s early involvement in helping to fund the ill-fated Korea Energy Development Organization (1994-2007) was positive until the North Korean missile overflight of Japan in 1998.

Military: capability to deter and defend against external influence, to compel or coerce diplomatic effects, to secure or coerce economic effects, and to compel or coerce social effects.

How? Besides trying to deter or defend against a US-ROK attack, the Kim regime must counter subversion of North Korean domestic rule. A large army serves this purpose. In addition, offensive forces that can devastate Seoul are useful during negotiations to obtain favorable terms. These capabilities will be difficult to negotiate away unless initial negotiations are successful in other ways.

Economic: domestic reforms to persuade and induce investment, trade, and economic aid.

How? Economic reforms to experiment with small markets and establish trade zones may attract external investment for state use. Controls over individual choices deemed to undermine the regime could take several forms.  Other family conglomerates that rule by controlling corporate ownership and investment in key industries provide options for reform.

Social: ethnic exceptionalism and strict loyalty to secure the regime against subversion, and to induce external acceptance.

How? Korean exceptionalism and loyalty to Kim Jong-un are intense yet similar in kind to other elitist systems that instill patriotism and social order. State instruments of social control include surveillance and coercion short of killing one’s rivals. If the latter tendencies can be curbed, Kim Jong-un might gain support in South Korea to the degree that ethnic identity is valued, and personalized politics pertain.

Overall, Pyongyang wages complex warfare through blends of confrontation and cooperation:

  • Diplomatic, informational, and economic persuasion;
  • Diplomatic and informational compellence;
  • Diplomatic, informational, and economic inducement;
  • Military deterrence, defense, compellence, and coercion;
  • Social inducement and security.

The desired combined effect is two-fold: (a) gain acceptance as a sovereign state with greater political influence, social control, investment, trade and aid; and (b) prevent external influence and subversion. These ends are reasonable, which can yield opportunities to shape mutually acceptable ways and means.

Pyongyang’s strategy is hard to counter because different instruments are used to bring about different types of effects. This asymmetry between ways-means, and ends, presents challenges for the South Korea-US alliance in terms of who is responsible for what effect. For instance, North Korea’s diplomatic, informational and military tools intend to compel alliance behavior, so which organizations are responsible for countering this strategy? Can the alliance empower initiative to solve problems that are “outside my lane”? To do this the alliance needs a superior strategy not just superior military strength.

Competition for Advantage

Complex warfare on the Korean Peninsula is not new. Historically, Koreans have sought any available means to eke out sovereignty among predatory powers. Thus, North Korea is planning to win every relative advantage it can. It follows that North Korean operational-level planning will focus on three condition-setting activities:

  1. Information campaigns to leverage diplomatic recognition, external political influence, and internal control
  2. Military actions that enhance diplomacy and generate or attract financial resources
  3. Domestic reforms that grow the economy and complement social control

Uncertainties abound. Consider the following possibilities from the condition-setting activities just mentioned.

First, a national narrative of self-reliance and external victimization could backfire in the international marketplace of ideas. Alternatively, Pyongyang’s messaging could persuade some foreign audiences via internet trolls and blog influencers who exploit the increasingly self-selected news feeds that individuals choose.

Second, stopping nuclear and missile tests may generate some degree of global support, but not so much if illicit North Korean operations continue. Stoppage also risks military opposition inside North Korea, making foreign travel by Kim Jong-un dicey.

Third, foreign investments and social media can destroy core national myths that underpin legitimate rule. Despite attempts to geographically contain markets and restrict internet access, any leakage will be damaging. Think, globalization in a one-party, ethnically homogenous state headed by a single-family supreme leader.

Given these risks, what are the US and South Korean strategies against which the North Korean strategy competes?

Since 1991, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have attempted to bring about the following combined effect: military deterrence, defense and coercion; and political dissuasion and compellence.

This strategy has preserved a favorable balance of military-to-military forces on the peninsula. The alliance intended to deter the North’s development of nuclear weapons, deter and defend against another invasion of the South, and coerce compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US also tried to politically dissuade Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons and economically compel Pyongyang to comply with the NPT by providing assurance of reciprocal US actions and using economic sanctions.

South Korean strategies have varied, in and out of synch with US strategy. Some have dispensed aid and expanded ties to persuade and induce moderate behavior (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Moon), while others have withheld aid to compel reciprocity (Kim Young-sam, Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye).

The results have been mixed. The alliance has deterred another large-scale North Korean attack but has not deterred small-scale aggression and the development of nuclear weapons. This outcome is not surprising when we compare the unified North Korean strategy to periodic cross-purposes in South Korean and American strategies.


We should expect to see unpredictable flexibility in North Korean strategy. Pyongyang may shift its victim’s revenge to territorial disputes with China and Japan. Military deterrence may not require nuclear weapons on the peninsula but is likely to require the ability to acquire them if circumstances change. Economic and social controls are likely to adapt over time with threat perceptions. US leaders, therefore, are well advised to choose words and direct actions to encourage flexibility in North Korean strategy and to support desirable reforms.

We should see a four-fold mix of North Korean promises and tactics.

  1. Old promises such as the 1992 agreements on denuclearization and reconciliation, which were unfulfilled.
  2. New promises such as the offer to stop missile firings and nuclear tests (then threaten to restart them).
  3. Old tactics such as treating reciprocal South Korean or American concessions as bargaining baselines for North Korean demands.
  4. New tactics, such as withholding promises to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its nuclear safeguards, unless the US supports a nuclear-free zone.

Overall, we should anticipate alternating words from North Korea that promise and threaten.

Meanwhile, US and ROK strategists should attend to the key question, what does North Korea intend to cause and what does it intend to prevent? This can help “wargame” actions, reactions and counteractions. For instance, President Trump’s announcement that the US was withdrawing from the planned Summit in Singapore due to North Korean hostile words (no surprise there) was exploited the next day by Pyongyang’s assurances that it was ready to talk whenever the US was ready.

Any lessening of US pressure also needs to be carefully considered. Following the Singapore Summit, President Trump announced the cancellation of war games (readiness exercises to defend South Korea from another North Korean invasion). In order to convert this concession into a dynamic of reciprocity that can withstand posturing from both sides, the alliance needs unprecedented trust and cooperation. Domestic advantage-seeking will not go away, such as the US claim that maximum pressure created the Singapore summit, and the North Korea claim that the US President admitted that the alliance was hostile.

States attempt to win advantages. The prudent strategist plans for a conditional peace of legitimate competition. Principled agreement on details is often difficult even among western democracies, but even more so among different forms of government and cultures.

Therefore, any US administration would be wise to plan for cooperation as well as confrontation. Creating areas of engagement can help overcome the inevitable instances of diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social confrontation, and broken promises. Pyongyang-Seoul ties could lead to including Japan as an economic partner. A mutual force reduction agreement may be possible with China-US power projection guarantees. Yet military excellence in multi-domain operations is insufficient to win complex wars. Multi-domain operations need to be embedded in grand strategy that considers all instruments of power. As a start, military effects can be discussed with respect to winning combinations of diplomatic, informational, economic and social effects.


Thomas A. Drohan is Dean of the National Defense College of the United Arab Emirates. He previously served as Permanent Professor and Head of the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the US Air Force Academy, Visiting Professor at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; Adjunct Professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver; Division Chief of Force Protection and Antiterrorism, US Forces Korea; Division Chief of Air and Missile Defense, Combined Forces Command, Korea; and Vice Commandant of Cadets at the US Air Force Academy.

 Dr. Drohan is the author of A New Strategy for Complex Warfare: Combined Effects in East Asia (Cambria Press, 2016) and Security Agreements between Japan and the United States: Past and Present (McFarland, 2007)” and various articles on security, strategy and military education. For contact, please email him at tadrohan@gmail.com.

 The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any department or government.

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