Gap Warfare: The Case for a Shift in America’s Strategic Mindset

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Contrary to prevailing wisdom, America’s traditional methods for securing global preeminence are no longer applicable to the current dynamics of great power competition. The key to prolonging global influence in this new global dynamic is not a continuation of the traditional use of the instruments of national power, but instead an approach that requires a dramatic shift in strategic mindset. The United States, in order to maintain its status as a global hegemon, must adapt to the new rules of great power competition and change its focus from threat mitigation to targeted opportunism. In short, it must engage in Gap Warfare. Gap Warfare is the proactive exploitation of global opportunities via the coordinated application of instruments of national power to gain strategic advantage and ultimately displace or deter an opponent's influence.

America’s chief competitors, China and Russia, have been practicing this form of warfare for several years and, as a result, are gaining ground.[1] Both voraciously proactive and unapologetically predatory, they have demonstrated a pattern of preying on the gaps of vulnerable nations and providing enticing – albeit self-serving – solutions, ultimately gaining strategic advantages at the long-term expense of their new partners, as well as the United States and its allies.[2] Prime examples include the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative and Russia’s turbulent supply of oil and natural gas to Europe.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has historically focused its energy on the preservation of its post-Cold War influence, reacting to the emergence of threats and potential competitors via mitigation and deterrence. Yet despite these efforts, as was highlighted in the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, a new competitive space has emerged courtesy of America’s rivals, where initiative is the name of the game, and increasing hegemony is match point.[3] In order to remain both competitive and relevant, the U.S. has no choice but to adapt and conduct its own form of Gap Warfare, one that maintains its values but is also strategically sound. By focusing its efforts on addressing prospective partners' economic shortfalls, gaps in military capability, or even cracks in internal infrastructure, America will not only counteract opponents' efforts to displace its influence but strategically posture itself to disrupt their hegemonic aspirations.

The Game Has Changed

As the character of war has evolved over time, so, too, has the effort to codify the types of warfare needed for a nation to defeat its adversaries. Technological advancements, military professionalization, and nationalist movements have all punctuated nation-states’ steady adaptation to the persistently changing dynamic of strategic competition.

Carl von Clausewitz, a vaunted 19th Century Western military theorist, posited that war “is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”[4] Almost two centuries later, his words still ring true. But war, and the ‘other means’ by which it is fought, have made one transformational leap after another.

Today, with the emergence of a new ‘Great Game,’ the United States has come to yet another inflection point in the steady evolution of both war and great power competition. Gone are the days of the U.S. Department of Defense being the sole entity synonymous with the management of conflicts. The United States now finds itself in a competitive space that transcends the traditional domains of warfare and encourages the mixed employment of power to gain the upper hand.

The Need for Unified Action

The instruments of national power (Diplomacy, Information, the Military, the Economy, Finance, Intelligence, Law, and Development) are readily available for coordinated application in this new arena of great power competition.[5] In order to successfully employ these instruments and reaffirm its status as a global superpower, the United States must not only further enable the Defense Department but also its fellow government agencies.[6] As crucial players in the arena of great power competition, the agencies charged with the wielding of these instruments of power must work as a team to identify and exploit gaps that will provide the United States strategic advantages over its rivals. And they must do so continuously if the U.S. hopes to maintain its dominance.

Perhaps in another bout of dialectic prescience, Clausewitz made the argument that “even the ultimate outcome of war is not always to be regarded as final.”[7] In an era of Gap Warfare, truer words can seldom be invoked. Not only has the competitive space evolved, and the number of participants grown, but the very outcome of conflict has changed. Great power competition is now about maintaining dominance in a stadium where the goalposts are constantly shifting, and the game lasts as long as the participants have the nerve to persist. Accordingly, Gap Warfare is a way to maintain the initiative in this new environment, lest it be seized by an adversary first.

Fortuitously, no one is better equipped to succeed in this form of warfare than the United States and the government agencies defending its preeminence. Much of the necessary framework has already been codified in contemporary U.S. Military Joint Doctrine,[8] within which the salience of coordination between government entities is eminently clear.[9] To boot, doctrine continues to evolve in recognition of the changing geopolitical dynamic.[10] Of particular note is the emphasis on 'Unified Action,' or the concerted application of whole-of-government solutions to achieve objectives at all levels of war (strategic, operational, and tactical). These solutions array themselves across a wide, shifting, and cyclical continuum of conflict.[11] And their coordinated application, via unified action, has the greatest potential to ensure the U.S.’s successful deployment of Gap Warfare.[12]

Not only does the framework for unified action already exist, but so does precedent. Among agencies with which the U.S. military regularly coordinates are the U.S. Department of State,[13] the U.S. Agency for International Development,[14] and all 17 members of the Intelligence Community.[15] Their efforts, and the resultant support to U.S. interests, fundamentally involve the employment of several of the instruments of national power. And in the modern era, no agency can afford to have a monopoly on one instrument of national power. Rather, cooperation is key, lest an objective be forsaken due to stove-piping bureaucracy. Moreover, instruments can oftentimes synchronize efforts, mix together, or queue one another, ensuring mutual success and multiplying their overall effectiveness. [16]

One example of interagency cooperation is the 2011 non-combatant evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Libya, during which the military worked directly with the State Department at a time of crisis.[17] Another instance is the Invasion of Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11th, where U.S. Air Force personnel coordinated with the CIA to project American military power during the initial weeks of the conflict.[18] In both cases, agencies belonging to different instruments of national power worked hand-in-hand for the strategic success of the homeland.

The Joint Force and Multi-Domain Operations

The theme of unified action permeates not only the community of U.S. government agencies but also exemplifies the hallowed – and ever-expanding – practice of 'jointness' within the Defense Department's ‘Joint Force’ (a.k.a the U.S. Military).[19] Since the passing of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, the U.S. military has emphasized the value of joint operations and steadily updated its doctrine to reflect the multitude of arenas in which it will be called on to project power.[20] In recent years, the term ‘multi-domain operations’ has gradually gained traction within military circles,[21] going so far as to be included in new U.S. Army doctrine.[22] The inclusion of cyberspace in multi-domain operations,[23] along with the recent foundation of the U.S. Space Force,[24] also highlights the U.S. defense establishment’s increasing awareness of the need for power projection outside of the traditional warfighting domains of land, sea, and air, [25] and its acknowledgment of the evolving arena in which the United States must compete.

The world, it would seem, is in the midst of a new military revolution, leading to battles that are fought and won within the confines of cyberspace or in the expanse outside the earth’s atmosphere.

That day is perhaps already here. In the summer of 2019, rather than employ a more traditional method of retaliation against Iran for the downing of a U.S. drone, the national command authority ordered an “offensive cyber strike” against Iranian rocket and missile control systems.[26] In effect, the U.S. enacted the continuance of its policy via other means in an emerging domain.

And as if the fluid nature and spiraling complexity of the modern great power competition were not enough, the U.S. Space Command recently noted that “space and cyber operations are intertwined” and that it would be setting up its own cyber arm.[27]

As is apparent, both within the Joint Force and amongst the government agencies as a whole, there exists the necessary framework and precedent for the successful execution of Gap Warfare. Having operated at all levels of war and employed foreign policy options across the conflict continuum, the proponents of the American instruments of power are well prepared. They can effectively coordinate their efforts to project U.S. influence, exploit strategic opportunities, and displace America's competitors. This, in short, is a great start. But it is not enough.

History Does Not Reward Complacency

Given the institutional attention awarded to synchronizing the instruments of national power, why, then, is this seemingly comprehensive approach still insufficient? The answer lies, like many others, in the context of history.

Learning from the Downfall of the Roman Empire

While the Roman Empire reached the height of its prominence in the 1st Century A.D.,[28] it spent much of the next few centuries struggling to maintain its power.[29] By the 5th Century, with Barbarians harassing its borders, reduced economic strength due to years of constant war, and the challenge of managing the two separate halves of one empire, Roman emperors had a difficulty safeguarding – let alone increasing – the influence that their predecessors had achieved.[30] The Roman Empire, having conquered much of what was considered the known world, had shifted into preservation mode. But due to poor resource management, government corruption, and a seemingly unending series of geopolitical threats, the empire subsequently grew weaker and more difficult to preserve.[31] In the year 476, the western half of the empire collapsed,[32] leaving the Eastern Roman Empire (commonly known as Byzantium) to continue on in its wake, and eventually fall to the Ottomans in 1453.[33]

Presently, the United States, a global hegemon with the ability to project power across six continents and five warfighting domains, is arguably the world’s lone superpower.[34]

But for how long? In 1991, this enviable status was incontrovertible. Today, America’s chief rivals, China and Russia, both highlighted within the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, are intent on eroding the superiority of U.S. global influence. [35] And China could potentially overtake the U.S. both economically and militarily in the coming years.[36] Meanwhile, the U.S., much like Rome at its height, has sought to preserve its preeminence in the three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Yet these efforts have not been enough to prevent the inevitable challenges to its influence and the resurgence of great power competition.[37]

Prior to 9/11, the absence of an existential threat or any potential rivals on the horizon yielded a false sense of security. The military shrank, Western economies globalized, and American hegemony transitioned into preservation mode. The attacks of September 11th served as somewhat of a wake-up call, bringing the fragility of American security back into focus.

But the ensuing runaway brushfire wars exacerbated instability in the Middle East.[38] And their cost was an ample amount of American blood and treasure. Whether these efforts were worthwhile at all remains to be judged by history, but America’s would-be great power rivals have not spent the last two decades waiting around to find out.

While the U.S. was mired in a situation, the National Security Strategy harshly refers to as an era of "strategic complacency,"[39] its main rivals patiently and gradually set the conditions for strategic gains.[40] They crafted an “arena of continuous competition” in which U.S. influence is constantly checked “below the level of conventional military conflict.”[41] While America was looking the other way, a great power competition made a comeback, leaving the U.S. with no choice but to participate.

A New Great Game

A new ‘Great Game’ has come into being and with it a new set of rules, to which the traditional U.S. method of power projection must adapt. As John Boyd, the military theorist and creator of the “OODA Loop,” postulated in his briefing “Patterns of Conflict,” the key to defeating one’s opponent is aggressively injecting oneself into his decision cycle, thereby gaining the ability to disrupt, confuse, and eventually unravel and defeat him.[42]

A surefire way to infiltrate an opponent’s decision cycle is to leverage its predictability and anticipate its decisions. After three decades of strategic complacency, one could argue that the United States and the methods by which it projects power became all too predictable and thus vulnerable to exploitation.

This argument is reinforced by Russia's audacity in Ukraine in 2014,[43] as well as China’s gradual build-up in the South China Sea.[44] While U.S. rivals’ power has grown, the U.S. and its allies have reacted mostly by increasing multilateral deterrence efforts, issuing sanctions, or conducting freedom of navigation exercises. That is to say, within the arena of modern great power competition, the overall theme of U.S. strategy has been by and large reactive and thus vulnerable to disruption.

Conversely, as reverberated in the National Security Strategy, China and Russia have leveraged every available opportunity to outpace the United States, each action “calculated to achieve maximum effect without provoking a direct military response from the United States.”[45] The overall theme of their strategies has been a proactive application of their instruments of national power.

The stark contrast presented by the difference in initiative implies, at best, a laconic reluctance to adapt to the new rules of great power competition, and at worst, an abject ignorance of a new global dynamic.

This, to put it lightly, is alarming. Though the U.S. may remain the world’s dominant military power and strongest economy, this enviable status is far from a fait accompli.[46] Should the U.S. fail to shift out of its complacency and adapt its vast resources to the new dynamic, its influence will continue to wane, and its rivals will continue to seize on inaction and predictability as opportunities for the extension of global influence.

While the U.S. was Looking the Other Way

While the U.S. has been mired in an era of hegemonic maintenance, its main rivals have focused on hegemonic expansion, enabled by their unabated application of Gap Warfare.

China: Belt & Road Initiative, Revisionism in the South China Sea, & COVID-19 Response

A watershed example of China’s form of Gap Warfare is its ongoing Belt & Road initiative (BRI),[47] a mechanism used to invest in foreign countries' economic gaps to exploit them for strategic gain. Billed initially as a China-centric global infrastructure-building initiative, the project has morphed into what some call a form of "debt-trap diplomacy"[48] by an emerging power eager to expand its influence and “forcefully assert itself on the world stage.”[49]

Via an ingenious combination of tailored diplomacy and economic opportunism, China’s BRI targets countries in dire need of economic investment, yet brimming with strategic potential. These partners have shown themselves all too eager to sign up for cash injections from the world’s second largest economy.[50] Whether they’ve been in need of wireless communication infrastructure, access to sea trade, or new railways, close to 60 countries have signed on to the Chinese initiative, many of which “are close economic or military partners of the United States.”[51] Though the BRI’s terms are often exploitative, to those in need of financial salvation, these terms are a happy alternative to nothing at all.

As a result, since the BRI’s launch in 2013, China has seized control of a port in Sri Lanka,[52] begun developing a foothold around the Panama Canal,[53] secured the British government’s go-ahead to build part of its 5G wireless infrastructure,[54] and established a military base in Djibouti.[55]

Another seminal example of China’s strategic exploitation is the build-up of military bases in the South China Sea. Since 2013, China has engaged in a deliberate effort to assert questionable sovereignty over the disputed waters.[56] And as a result of China’s concerted effort to project military power therein, the waterway, “which holds massive untapped oil and gas reserves and through which about a third of global shipping passes,”[57] has come under increasing Chinese control. This, in turn, has significantly displaced U.S. influence in the region.[58]

To make matters worse, some estimate the Chinese Navy’s presence could double that of the U.S. Navy in the coming decade. Already, over 27 Chinese military complexes span the Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as Scarborough Shoal,[59] establishing a significant military deterrent in an area that was previously regarded as being “of little practical use.”[60] Now widely regarded as providing the Chinese a strategic advantage in the event of a military conflict with the United States,[61] this exploitation of a military gap puts a long-standing status quo into question. The resulting expansion of Chinese influence could potentially jeopardize the United States’ traditionally close relationship with the Philippines,[62] further threaten Taiwan’s sovereignty, and severely degrade America’s hegemony in the Pacific altogether.

In light of the recent novel coronavirus (a.k.a. COVID-19) outbreak, China’s opportunistic BRI and revisionist build-up in the South China Sea seem to be harbingers of its current efforts to assert itself on the world stage. While the United States and Europe continue to battle a viral pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China, the Chinese government, fresh off an allegedly successful containment of the disease, has begun offering aid to several countries that are still feeling its wrath. They include the Philippines, Liberia, and Serbia, as well as NATO members Czechia and Italy, one of the most deeply affected countries to date.[63] Despite allegations that China intentionally covered up information about the virus during in the early days of the outbreak,[64] Chinese government officials, scientists, and social media outlets have sown confusion and doubt into the narrative, suggesting that COVID-19 may not have originated in China at all, and going so far as to insinuate that members of the U.S. military brought it into Wuhan.[65] In a masterful play, China has actively sought to usurp a role traditionally held by the United States, casting itself as a benevolent power with a far reach and deep pockets, while simultaneously trying to shift blame for the pandemic onto another nation-state.[66]

This attempt to control the second and third order effects of the outbreak constitutes a genius approach to 'never letting a crisis go to waste.' Faced with the potentially disastrous choice of accepting blame for causing a global pandemic, likely followed by surrendering its inestimable economic power to massive international divestment, China ingeniously maneuvered away from impending doom and used Gap Warfare to do it. By exploiting the inward focus of the United States and Europe while they leverage every available capability to fight the disease, China has formed a new narrative, portraying itself as a vanquisher of the virus, an example to follow, and a global benefactor.[67] Rather than conceding global influence, it may have found a way to capture more.

It is important to note that the dust kicked up by the pandemic has far from settled, and whether or not China faces backlash for COVID-19 remains to be seen. At the very least, it will likely suffer from severe economic consequences due to the virus itself, along with the rest of the world.[68] But regardless of whether or not its attempts to re-write history and portray itself as a blameless do-gooder are successful, China will benefit from the resultant confusion. Its preemptive initiative in times of crisis, on full display during the pandemic, is nothing short of a stroke of brilliance and bodes poorly for powers that remain passive in its wake.

In sum, China’s BRI and activities in the South China Sea are nothing short of strategic victories, and its exploitation of the COVID-19 crisis may well turn out to be the same. China has shown an aptitude for upending previous status quos, projecting the reach of its instruments of national power, and spinning potential catastrophes in its favor. These examples illustrate China’s unsettling adeptness at targeting and exploiting opportunities to gain strategic advantage, further showcasing the applicability of Gap Warfare.

Russia: Interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Eastern European Oil Strategy, Military Intervention in Ukraine

Russia’s use of targeted opportunism is yet another example of an adversary strategically outmaneuvering the U.S. With an economy smaller than that of Italy and largely dependent on oil exports,[69] Russia is arguably not as much of a rival as China. After all, it is an enthusiastic participant in China’s BRI.[70] That said, it has also proven itself to be an aggressive and exploitative competitor.

A case in point is Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[71] This was a definitive example of injection into and disruption of an opponent’s decision cycle. By introducing confusion and distrust into the American electoral process, Russia benefited regardless of which candidate won. Either way, it cast a permanent shadow on the integrity of the American government and disturbed the congruity of U.S. foreign policy.

A more common model of the Russian application of Gap Warfare is its turbulent supply of oil and natural gas to Eastern Europe.[72] By filling Eastern European countries’ gaps in access to energy with its own resources, Russia has created – and often exploited – an opportunity for economic and political leverage. This is yet another example of a U.S. rival using a singular instrument of national power to expand the potency of its other instruments.

Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 is an example of Gap Warfare through the combined application of the informational and military instruments of national power. In January 2014, anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv seemed to indicate a rejection of a pro-Russian government and popular gravitation toward the West.[73]

This unsettled Russia. And after correctly identifying a threat to its sphere of influence, and leveraging a gap in Western willingness to match military force with force, Russia responded by seizing Crimea and instigating a still ongoing civil conflict in Eastern Ukraine.[74] The Russian Federation thereby asserted its regional clout and deterred its adversaries by signaling its willingness to project military power and exploit gaps in political influence.

Though it may lack the economic power of China, Russia has no shortage of gumption or assertiveness. There are also no foreseeable limits to its global ambitions, as indicated by its intervention in Syria.[75]

Conversely, its decisions may also lead to detrimental consequences, like the continued pivot of former Soviet Republics toward the West.  Such pivots provide opportunities for the expansion of American influence. In either case, given President Putin’s potential plan to stay in power via a union-state with Belarus,[76] it would be unwise to discount the impact of Russia’s future actions in the modern-day arena of great power competition.

The root cause of these instances of blatant outmaneuvering and disruption of U.S. superiority is rooted in a simple difference in mindset. China and Russia have been opportunists, focusing on gaps they can fill in order to increase their global influence. On the other hand, the U.S. has acted much like the Roman Empire prior to its downfall, focusing on threats rather than opportunities. This disparity exemplifies a fundamental difference in outlook. Having seemingly reached the pinnacle of global hegemony after the fall of the Soviet Union and pursued an obsession with non-state actor terrorism since 2001, America’s prime focus has been on threat mitigation and power preservation.

While the United States has been steeped in the war on terrorism, China and Russia have been carving out spheres of influence of their own. They have persistently targeted opportunities for strategic advancement, filling power vacuums, investing in economic gaps, and disrupting the predictable decision cycles of the United States and its allies. Clearly, despite the suite of instruments of national power available to the U.S., it has failed to adapt to the new global dynamic, while its primary competitors have aggressively exploited the resultant power vacuum, along with many other opportunities that have presented themselves in recent years.

So What Happens Now?

If the U.S. is to gain primacy within the continuum of great power competition, it must beat its opponents at their own game. Nowhere is it written that the U.S. cannot engage in its own form of Gap Warfare. And given the resources at its disposal, there is no reason not to do so.

American Resources for Gap Warfare

The U.S. has 800 military bases strewn across 70 countries,[77] a considerable influence over both the International Monetary Fund and World Bank,[78] possession of the world’s largest economy,[79] status as one of the world’s top innovators,[80] leadership roles in numerous intergovernmental organizations, and membership in several influential multilateral alliances. These being merely a few examples of American influence, the U.S. has more than enough capability to conduct an effective and coordinated Gap Warfare campaign against its adversaries.

What’s more, the U.S. still holds the moral high ground, though much can be critiqued given its recent track record. Notably, U.S. military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq did not necessarily produce resounding successes. Strategic miscalculations, a lack of understanding of grassroots cultural realities, and the constant sway of election-driven foreign policy yielded opaque objectives and indiscernible end-states.

That said, the U.S. has a proven history of both upholding national self-determination and providing benevolent humanitarian assistance. The United States’ security cooperation with Taiwan,[81] continued efforts to stabilize the Middle East,[82] intervention to prevent mass atrocities in Bosnia,[83] humanitarian aid to developing nations around the world,[84] support to Ukraine and the Baltic States,[85] and overall support of democracy are overwhelming indications of America’s good intentions.

The same cannot be said for its main rivals. In the past 15 years, Russia has invaded two sovereign nations,[86] interfered in a number of national elections,[87] and assassinated political dissidents in broad daylight on foreign soil.[88]

Similarly, China has brazenly violated the sovereignty of its neighbors,[89] oppressed the freedoms of its religious minorities,[90] promoted conspiracy theories to shift blame for a global catastrophe, and blatantly exploited the vulnerable economies of developing nations for its benefit.

America may have its fair share of indiscretions, but they pale in comparison to those of China and Russia. By and large, the U.S. retains a strong reputation for respecting sovereignty, acting under the auspices of legitimacy via intergovernmental organizations, and protecting the interests of both itself and its allies.

So what is to prevent the U.S. from targeting prospective nations with economic or infrastructural solutions that rival those of China while successfully forgoing the nefarious nature of debt-trap diplomacy?

And thanks to its efforts during World War II, the U.S. already has a military infrastructure that spans the globe.

So what, then, is to stop the global network of U.S. Geographic Combatant Commands from looking at the world through the lens of unified action, identifying opportunities for strategic advancement via whole-of-government solutions?

The answer to both questions is, quite simply, nothing.

Hurdles to American Deployment of Gap Warfare

Though the end goal may be clearly visible, this does not make the journey there an easy one. Leaders within the proponents of American instruments of power may have the expertise and ability to exploit strategic opportunities, but significant obstacles remain in their way.

And these impediments all abide by one common thread: money. Given the inherently fiscal nature of Gap Warfare, this presents a significant challenge. With the U.S. national debt surmounting $23 trillion,[91] which will most assuredly be magnified by the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is only so much to go around.[92]

The military industrial complex, as President Eisenhower astutely warned, has attained arguably as much influence on foreign policy decisions as the statesmen appointed to make them.[93] Defense Department procurements like the F-35 fighter aircraft epitomize projects with big budgets and even bigger lobbies, regardless of their necessity.[94]

The military industrial complex aside, one cannot afford to ignore the heavy burden brought by government bureaucracy.[95] Reams of red tape stovepipe countless government efforts and stifle the creative use of funding lines,[96] making the principle of unified action easier said than done. In a liberal country where government agencies answer to congressional representatives holding the purse strings, and who in turn answer to a voting electorate, this state of affairs is normal. Authoritarian regimes like China and Russia do not face the same obstacles as the United States. And in a centralized government where the national leader ultimately answers to no one, competitive lobbies and bureaucratic red tape are of little concern.

However, the disparity in flexibility between America and its rivals does not excuse it from adapting to the new arena of competition. Whether a regime is authoritarian or liberal, prioritization of efforts is still key to the formulation and execution of foreign policy. By using its instruments of national power to target gaps with the greatest potential for strategic – and perhaps even financial – dividends, the United States can practice fiscal responsibility while actively outmaneuvering its competitors.

Yet, given the volume of U.S. foreign policy initiatives, each with their individual price tags, the United States cannot hope to compete without a reassessment of its priorities. And what must come before a shift in priorities is a shift in mindset.

Hints of a Potential Shift in American Mindset

Thankfully, leaders within the U.S. foreign policy establishment seem to be catching on to Gap Warfare’s potential. The U.S. European Command’s use of the “Dynamic Force Employment” model for deterring Russian aggression via military presence,[97] for instance, demonstrates the type of opportunistic thinking that the U.S. should replicate across the globe.

America’s burgeoning diplomatic dalliance with India is another example of this mentality, laying the groundwork for the potential displacement of Chinese economic competition.[98] Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Belarus is yet another,[99] signaling the possible exploitation of a political gap left unattended by Russia.

Another way the United States can view Gap Warfare is the employment of smart powerSmart power, once proposed by vaunted political scientist and academic Joseph Nye as an alternative to the application of soft power and hard power, is the projection of dominance in a way that provides a public good in conjunction with strategic influence. British protection of sea lanes during the height of its empire is one example of smart power.[100]

A prime example of an American altruistic application of Gap Warfare is the recent deployment of the USNS Comfort on a five-month humanitarian mission to South and Central America.[101] Tasked with providing medical aid to Venezuelan refugees displaced by an economic crisis in their country,[102] the hospital ship serves as a symbol of both American power and goodwill. Combined with diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions against Venezuela, the United States used to this form of power projection to put multi-pronged pressure on an adversarial government, highlighting the Venezuelan regime’s neglect of its own people, while offering support in its stead.

Meanwhile, in a show of military force, Russia landed two long-range bombers in Caracas, Venezuela, at the tail-end of the USNS Comfort's deployment.[103] This presented a stark contrast between Russia's military support for an abusive regime and America's benevolent aid to an aggrieved citizenry. One can only assume how this image is interpreted by neighboring countries and Venezuelans themselves. But it is likely a strategic win for the United States and could pay dividends in the years to come.

Recent instances of the United States skillfully targeting and exploiting opportunities are hopeful signs for the future, and indicative of the U.S. government’s innovative efforts to compete against both China and Russia. Yet as seen in China’s provision of aid to countries stricken by the coronavirus pandemic, America does not hold a monopoly on benevolence. Its rivals can also develop an appreciation for the potency of goodwill. And they are likely to replicate newfangled ways of projecting global influence. If America hopes to beat its rivals at their own game, its implementation of Gap Warfare must not only be coordinated and creative but also far-sighted.

An oft-repeated term during the early days of the War on Terror was “preemptive war.”[104] In the wake of the shocking and brutal devastation of 9/11, national leadership began making a case for neutralizing threats before they were able to strike at either the homeland or American interests. The concept of preemption fell on "hard times," however, after the failed pursuit of elusive weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.[105]

Despite the model’s fall from grace, the logic behind it is still sound. Both China and Russia have been practicing it for years to America’s detriment. The intervention in Ukraine and the build-up of the South China Sea are obvious examples, having preemptively stifled the influence of the United States and its allies. And they achieved all of this without drawing the U.S. into direct conflict, demonstrating the frightening prescience of Gap Warfare.


If America is to outmaneuver its adversaries in this new era of great power competition, it must seize back the initiative by changing its approach to power projection from threat mitigation to the proactive, targeted exploitation of global opportunities. This form of Gap Warfare should be preemptive and morally justifiable and should yield strategic advantages. Thus the U.S. must coordinate its instruments of national power accordingly and leverage the institutional discipline and experience that already exists within the proponents of America’s power. It has the capability and experience. A change in mindset will give it purpose and direction.

What is to say that the U.S. cannot utilize the collective potential of its present influence, resources, and institutional experience to project its own form of smart power? An approach that is both targeted and benevolent toward global opportunities would seem to be the smartest approach to disrupting its competitors' decision cycles, displacing their influence while presenting a stark contrast to the predatory natures of both China and Russia. The American application of Gap Warfare is, in essence, a combination of smart power and preemption, projected against the backdrop of America’s benevolent character.

Whether supporting good governance in oil-rich Venezuela, providing energy alternatives to Eastern Europe, or helping decrease Taiwan’s economic dependence on a potential invader, there remain countless opportunities for the U.S. to not only disrupt its rivals' bids for hegemonic expansion but to expand American influence in the process. The prospects and resources are readily available. What remains is a dramatic change in outlook.

It is often said that the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one. Perhaps America’s first move in this new ‘Great Game’ should be to recognize the gap in its own strategic mindset. Only then can it hope to be competitive in an era of Gap Warfare.

Emmanuel C. Gfoeller is a U.S. Army Officer currently stationed in Washington, DC. A graduate of West Point, Emmanuel has spent much of his life overseas, to include growing up abroad and tours of duty in Japan, South Korea, and Afghanistan. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, the US government, or any organization or institution with which the author is affiliated."




[3] 2017 National Security Strategy, 28

[4] On War, Carl von Clausewitz, 87

[5] Joint Doctrine Note 1-18, II-8

[6] Joint Publication 1, I-12 – I-14.

[7] On War, Carl von Clausewitz, 80

[8] Joint Publication 3-0, I-8

[9] Joint Publication 3-0, V-4

[10] Joint Doctrine Note 1-18, i

[11] Joint Doctrine Note 1-9, 2

[12] Joint Publication 3-0, I-9

[13] Joint Publication 3-0, I-9

[14] Joint Publication 3-0, V-2

[15] Joint Publication 2-0, III-3

[16] Joint Doctrine Note 1-18, I-14



[19] Joint Publication 1, I-2
















[35] 2017 National Security Strategy, 25.

[36] Economically: 1) Militarily: 2)

[37] 2017 National Security Strategy, 25


[39] 2017 National Security Strategy, 27

[40] 2017 National Security Strategy, 28

[41] 2017 National Security Strategy, 27 - 29

[42] Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, 334.



[45] 2017 National Security Strategy, 28

[46] 2019 EUCOM Posture Statement to Congress, 6







































[85] 2019 EUCOM Posture Statement to Congress, 12












[97] 2019 EUCOM Posture Statement to Congress, 10









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