By: Tom Drohan
Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes
Excerpt: Smart competitors are using tactics of strategy to achieve broader-than-military objectives, while United States (US) policies produce strategies of tactics that deploy military forces for ambiguous purposes. To wage and win today’s complex competition and warfare, we need to broaden our conceptions of tactics and strategy.
Complex Competition and Warfare
Within the context of this article, complex competition refers to the use of confrontation and cooperation in any operating domain and for multiple purposes. Competitions of will and capability among great, small and whatever powers have existed since the first millennium. They were not absent during the Cold War, but rather filtered out by over-simple lenses.
Today these struggles are about control, access, and influence in land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Competition remains confrontational and cooperative at the same time. Objectives are as diverse as the actors involved. Let’s say the scope is at least DIMES-wide, such as Diplomatic compellence, Informational persuasion, Military deterrence, Economic inducement, and Social coercion. Competition is not necessarily violent because there are so many means and ways available to achieve desired ends. Thus, technology weaponizes complexity. Revolutionary advances in miniaturization, communication, computer processing, digitized weapons, and virtual socialization place power in more hands, minds, and algorithms.
That complex competition is not necessarily violent, means that it does not fit the nature of war as put forth by the still influential military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). By nature of war, I refer to enduring attributes of war, as distinct from changing characteristics of war. Clausewitz used contemporary terms of his day, such as the physical forces of attraction and repellence in electromagnetic theory, to describe the nature of war in terms of a “wondrous trinity.” The concept describes war in terms of polarized relationships among three tendencies: (1) violence, hatred and enmity; (2) probability and chance, within which creativity is free to roam; and (3) subordination as an instrument of policy, which subjects war to reason. While Clausewitz focused on what he observed to be the enduring nature of war – the why of war behavior, this paper is also concerned with the how of war–warfare.
Although complex competition is not inevitably violent, the use of force can quickly transition a competitive situation into warfare that is also DIMES-wide: complex warfare. The key difference between complex warfare and complex competition is that warfare manifests violent hatred and enmity. It follows that when states wage warfare, they do not stop exercising non-military instruments of power. States combine DIES with M action.
So the conditions of complex competition well fit the second element of Clausewitz’s trinity: probability and chance. The production and distribution of more data and information and influence than ever before, and the efforts of state and non-state actors to harness much of that, make complex competition highly random.
This paradox of more information leading to more not less uncertainty is explained as sensitive interdependence in Edward Lorenz’s so-called Butterfly Effect and in Stanley McChrystal’s call for new rules of engagement for a complex world (see Chapter 3).
Facing a multitude of possible conditions, strategists are challenged by the third element of Clausewitz’s trinity: the use of reason to subordinate war to policy goals. Policy goals, however, are not just political priorities. Cultures infuse politics with different social, economic and religious values.
Drawing from contemporary physics today, we can observe that complex competition behaves in terms of quantum mechanics as well as the classical Newtonian physics of Clausewitz’s day. Uncertainty is pervasive at fundamentally small levels of observation, such as an electron or a photon. Larger, human-level outcomes may be probabilistically predicted as the average behavior of small elements, or by classical laws of motion. However, we still can’t predict with certainty what an individual will do. How do we compete in such an environment?
Ideally, we study the environment, understand the problem, design approaches, proactively plan, and adaptively execute. Let’s focus on the strategy and operations design pieces.
Joint military operations design basically aligns constructed causes with desired effects to achieve end states in support of strategic priorities. The doctrinal evolution of “lines of operation” to “lines of effort” recognizes the need to orchestrate activities and tasks beyond military force maneuvers. I advocate thinking in terms of “lines of effect” that include the activities and tasks of operations and efforts. The reason is, we often lose sight of creating superior strategic effects because we confine ourselves to favorite actions.
Combinations of DIMES-wide (or whatever framework/experiences get thinking started) effects matter more than combined operations or efforts. Effects help set and reset security priorities as we compete with other actors trying to achieve theirs. In complex competition, military tactics are necessary, but insufficient, to secure relative victory at the strategic level of significance. Recognizing the need to adapt our tactics of strategy to the realities of security competition begins with an updated understanding of four key concepts: security, security environment, tactics, and strategy.
First, by security, consider a definition put forth by Arnold Wolfers — the absence of perceived threats to acquired values, and the absence of fear such values will be attacked. This broad understanding of security applies to any spectrum of ideal values: individualist-collectivist, liberal-realist; absolutist-relativist; localist-globalist. Wolfers’ definition remains relevant because national security involves ambiguous threats that cut across many contexts. Consider: the use of public diplomacy disinformation to undermine a targeted audience’s confidence; proxy political-military subversion that acquires territory; currency devaluation that expands market share and triggers sector-specific unemployment; and cultural penetration that changes national identity. We need at least a DIMES-wide perspective on security because contested space is wider and tighter than ever.
Second, by security environment, I refer to the operational environment (OE) and the information environment (IE). The following depiction of the OE by Richard Berkebile is useful here as an illustration of the information environment IE that permeates it. In this rendition, dimensions of the IE are cognitive, informational, and physical.
Consider the range of security-related departments and agencies that fit into this model of the OE and IE, and fit Wolfers’ broad definition of security. Many entities are in the business of countering threats to values, and/or reducing fears that such values will be attacked in some way. The scope of just US Department of State undersecretaries includes: Arms Control and International Security; Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights; Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment; Management (includes diplomatic security); Political Affairs, and Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Now add 17 agencies of the US intelligence community drawn from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury, Energy, and various bureaus, agencies and councils. We also should include state and local law enforcement, firefighters and other first-responders. Finally, add private sector security and intelligence contractors, weapons manufacturers and defense services corporations.
Each of these organizations conduct operations in operational environments that affect, and are affected by, an information environment. From statecraft to first-aid, security operations generate information about which different decision makers can easily assign different meaning. Competing narratives fill the IE. Differences about intent, among perceptions, and in the transmissions of what is happening impact future operations. Both the operational and information environments are broadly contested areas where actors pursue various security goals.
Third, by tactics, I refer to the joint military doctrinal definition: the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other.
Tactics are often paired with techniques and procedures to guide how military activities ought to be done. Operations and operational design are considered to be part of a larger framework that arranges tactical actions and tries to understand the changing environment.
Fourth, by strategy, I refer to the joint doctrinal definition as well: a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national and/or multinational objectives. More specifically, strategy as a process, rather than as a level of analysis (tactical, operational, strategic), consists of ends (goals or objectives), ways (approaches to influence will and/or capability) and means (resources or instruments).
Now let’s relate the foregoing definitions of tactics and strategy to each other. When we do this, the tactics of strategy becomes, the ordered arrangement of forces to employ instruments of national power. The strategy of tactics becomes, employing the instruments of national power to arrange forces in relation to each other. What’s the difference?
A key difference between the tactics of strategy and the strategy of tactics concerns the types of advantages actors want to achieve. Tactics by themselves should not be self-justifying; they need to serve larger purposes. Tactics should be instruments of influence. Otherwise, we are inclined to expend equipment and personnel to win battles but lose wars. Strategy has to enlist tactics in its service, not the other way around. What about US security strategy?
US security strategy has emphasized military advantage, partly because this is what our periodically polarized democracy can agree on. Getting consensus on the political, economic and social matters is much more difficult. Our military component of security strategy seems to be moving from combined arms to multi-domain operations (MDO). MDO’s purpose in gaining and maintaining a decisive advantage in military forces is critical to winning battles. Integrative units such as Intelligence Information Cyber Electronic Warfare battalions are part of this movement and should not become ends in themselves. More than what such innovations “bring to the fight” is the question, what are the potential effects for grand strategy? That is, MDO should be an instrument to achieve a range of desired outcomes, such as from deterrence and defense to dissuasion and persuasion. Military advantage remains foundational to all of our bilateral and multilateral alliances. But most military alliances broaden into security alliances with shared political, economic and social interests.
Toward Tactics of Strategy
Relatively speaking, US strategy emphasizes military superiority for deterrence, defense, compellence and if need be, coercion. And it is the relative character of strategy that matters, because contending strategies interact with each other. So, how can MDO help create a superior strategy?
The concept of MDO is an important move toward more strategic relevance. There is general recognition that we need a common operating picture and integrated sensors, networks and forces to create effects from, through and in air, space, cyberspace, land and maritime domains. The US Army TRADOC concept in particular stresses MDO’s potential strategic significance by advocating capabilities for “layered standoff” to compete “short of armed conflict.” The idea is to deter and defeat adversaries in both competition and conflict. This focus on strategic objectives is meant to strengthen deterrence and defense.
However, the complex challenge is when armed conflict is waged at the same time as false narratives, political subversion, anti-access and area denial. When a competitor arranges forces in combination with political and economic activities, the question of what constitutes use of force is key to determining whether we regard ourselves in complex competition or complex warfare. This matters most in systems where the authorities and permissions for each set of conditions differ drastically. If an authoritarian system can wage complex competition or complex warfare that a democracy cannot counter, then such a master of strategy can effectively be a superpower.
The need for more-than-military tactics to connect to more-than-military strategic objectives becomes clear when a leader tries to make grand strategy. Sensitive issues with competing domestic constituencies and cross-cutting global connections often are involved. To illustrate the challenge of linking and de-linking of sensitive issues, consider the following examples of issue linkage, issue de-linkage, and both at the same time.
- An example of issue linkage is when the US President wants to make a deal with North Korea by offering the prospect of enhanced economic ties in exchange for compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Trade and investment are being linked to nuclear dismantlement.
- An example of issue de-linkage is when Beijing militarizes artificial-constructions in the South China Sea (treating them as “islands”) while pushing a One Belt, One Road initiative and other forms of economic cooperation. Internationally illegal acquisition of territory is being de-linked from cooperative legal expansion of infrastructure and presence.
- An example of using an issue linkage to coerce weak states and then de-linking the same action to deter strong states, is more complex. Moscow coercively creates a statelet in Ukraine that it annexes, causing fear, while at the same time cooperating with NATO member Turkey elsewhere. The illegal acquisition of Ukrainian territory can be linked to other potential targets when it serves Moscow’s interests, while that same aggression can be de-linked from cooperation gained from a NATO member in order to deter NATO reactions.
An ongoing challenge for US national security operations is, how can we make better grand strategy than authoritarian regimes?
Sustaining effective tactics of strategy requires a whole-of-government-plus approach, an approach that uses most appropriate and effective instruments to achieve desired effects. Public and private sector instruments are needed. If such an approach is being implemented, then military force arrangements are more likely to serve broader diplomatic and economic desired effects. A healthy policy process among all agencies is needed to yield combinations of effects that complement each other and are superior to those of competitors. The politics of shared responsibility for national security, and the fact that primary responsibility for foreign relations resides in the Department of State, reinforce the need for integrated strategic thinking.
At a minimum we need a common language of strategy that State, Defense and other security-related departments and agencies, and private partners, speak. One way to start is by expanding the joint military doctrinal definition of tactics from the arrangement of forces to the use of any instrument of power. This adjustment could help coordinate military and non-military means and ways, such as statecraft and joint operations design, respectively. The adjustment is compatible with the integrated country strategy, a process that falls under the responsibility of the US State Department.
Getting from tactics to combined effects strategy requires broadening our military-centric concept of tactics and distinguishing tactics from strategy, so that tactics are subordinated to achieving superior effects. Given the global leveling effect that the information environment is having on instruments of power, designing best tactics to achieve strategic effects in support of security priorities is vital to implementing a competitive strategy.
Brig Gen (ret) Thomas Drohan is Director of the International Center for Security and Leadership, JMark Services Inc. (securityandleadership.com). He formerly headed the Department of Military & Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force (USAF) Academy. He holds a PhD from Princeton University, an MA from the University of Hawaii, and a BS from the USAF Academy. Brig Gen Drohan’s publications include American-Japanese Security Agreements, Past and Present and articles in journals such as Joint Force Quarterly and Defense Studies. His career includes combat rescue, airlift and anti-terrorism in East Asia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He is a Council on Foreign Relations Japan fellow and Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies scholar.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.