Achieving a Balance in Support of Great Power Competition

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The Department of Defense (DoD) is implementing the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), and to be successful, must strike a balance between resourcing Conventional and Irregular Warfare (IW) capabilities.  Most of the attention is on Service Conventional force modernization programs to prepare for armed conflict with peer or near-peer competitors, hereafter referred to as "adversaries.”  This includes a drive for new weapon systems, programs that increase lethality in support of armed conflict, and capabilities that require vast resources to develop and field.  However, armed conflict is only a portion, albeit an important portion, of great power competition.  Competition short of armed conflict is what precedes, and if successful, can prevent armed conflict.  IW should be at the center of competition short of armed conflict as DoD's ability to effectively execute IW operations will have the greatest impact in achieving the United States Government’s (USG) objectives.

This paper focuses on the competition short of armed conflict Joint Force activity as it supports the NDS and Great Power Competition.  It highlights opportunities for Combatant Commanders (CCDR) to utilize IW to be successful in contested spaces.  It also addresses why it is critical that IW capabilities are sustained and/or expanded.

The NDS signals a “back-to-the-future” type change in DoD’s focus, with DoD continuing the enduring mission to provide combat credible military forces needed to deter war and protect the security of the nation.  Of course, should deterrence fail, the mission is to win in war.  The mission has not changed.  However, the threats have, and so has the environment in which the joint force will fight.  The NDS is clear that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”  Similar to the heady Cold War days of old, the great powers will square off on the global stage.  Only now there are three; the United States, Russia, and China, as well as other lesser regional actors.  Not unlike the Cold War, the great powers will compete largely through proxies.  The great power nations will develop and support smaller combatant nation states that serve their interests instead of waging war directly between themselves.  The result of these activities is a world that is becoming more unstable.    

To be successful in this competition, the NDS speaks to three lines of effort (LOE); LOE One “Build a More Lethal Force,” LOE Two “Strengthen Alliances and Attract New Partners,” and LOE Three “Reform the Department for Greater Performance and Affordability.”  Implementing these LOEs requires tough decisions and trade off analysis on where to cut funding in order to resource new capabilities.  The first LOE, rebuilding military readiness and a more lethal force, rests largely with the Services who have the Title X responsibility to organize, man, train, and equip our forces and to develop the doctrine for employing those forces.  The second of these LOEs, strengthening alliances and attracting new partners, is largely the domain of the Joint Force CCDRs. They must take the forces and the doctrine generated in LOE One and employ them as part of a whole-of-government approach across all phases of military operations.  The third LOE, Reform the Department for Greater Performance and Affordability, although important, does not have a direct impact on the thesis of this paper and is not discussed in any detail.

Similar to what the United States saw in the Cold War, the NDS calls for increased lethality.  During the Cold War, this resulted in weapon systems such as (Army) Pershing II Missile System, the M1 Main Battle Tank, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, and the AH64 Attack Helicopter; (Air Force) B-1 Bomber, F-15 and F-117 Fighter and Attack Aircraft; (Navy) Ohio Class Submarines, Aegis Combat System, F-14, and F/A-18 Fighter and Attack Aircraft.  Not only increased lethality in terms of new weapon systems, but also in the tactics, techniques, and procedures to harness and enable a synergy from those systems, working together in an increasingly complex environment.  Towards the end of the Cold War, the doctrine was “Air Land Battle.” Today the emerging doctrine is “Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).”

The concept of MDO is supported by a “continuum of competition” that spans three phases; cooperation, competition short of armed conflict, and armed conflict.  It is in the competition phase where IW operations can have the greatest impact in the grey zone between peace and war.  During competition, IW strengthens the USG’s position by building a proxy base, denying space to adversaries, and turning denied space secured by those adversaries into contested space.   A successful competition phase sustains USG partners and deters armed conflict indefinitely on terms favorable to the USG.

Strengthening existing USG alliances and attracting new partners or proxies generally takes place during what CCDRs refer to as the shaping and deterrence phases of a campaign and what MDO now refers to as cooperation and competition short of armed conflict.  In competition, DoD seeks to advance national interests without large scale violence.  The intent is to deter, or if necessary, defeat the USG’s adversaries' efforts and their proxies to deny space while maintaining conditions favorable to USG interests.  At the same time, where there is denied space secured by USG adversaries, competition seeks to turn these areas into contested spaces.  DoD's primary means to achieve this end state are IW capabilities such as unconventional warfare, counterterrorism, security force assistance, stabilization, and counterinsurgency.   

Growing global instability brought on by great power competition is expanding requirements for IW.  To be successful, DoD must adequately resource those IW capabilities and the doctrine for their employment.  Of course, this is the friction point between the Services, as discussed in LOE One and the Joint Force, as discussed in LOE Two.

Given finite resources, DoD and specifically the Services, face tough decisions regarding the allocation of those resources.  The Services focus on warfighting and increasing the lethality of the force, while harvesting the resources of organizations and or capabilities that do not directly contribute to this increase in lethality as bill payers.  For example, the Army had planned to shutter the Peace Keeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI).  This move appears to be a result of some in Army leadership positions laser focused on a return to peer competition using largely conventional ways and means.  This position contrasts with that of other Army leaders who support the future requirement for a counterinsurgency (COIN), specifically the stability component of COIN, as a future multi-domain operations warfare requirement.  Even in great power competition, USG adversaries will likely not fight the United States head-to-head.  They will use other countries and even non-State actors (violent extremist organizations, trans-national criminal organizations, etc.) as proxies or attempt to destabilize USG partner nations.  Institutions such as the PKSOI exist to provide DoD leadership and Joint Force Commanders with a broader range of options to employ in the protection of USG interests.

The Air Force has also signaled a shift towards more lethal capabilities.  Like the Army, Air Force Special Operations Command is already conducting a strategic shift from a focus on counterinsurgency (COIN) operations to preparing for “high-end” combat against technologically advanced adversaries.  Although this shift includes a range of missions from COIN to major war and identifies a “combat continuum” for Special Operations missions that includes low-intensity conflict operations, the continuum does not guarantee that appropriate attention and resources will be given to the “low-end” of that spectrum.

In both examples, the Army and the Air Force are focused on increasing the lethality of the force in support of the less likely but most dangerous scenario, which is the armed conflict phase of multi-domain operations.  However, in doing so, the Services are potentially placing DoD. By extension, the USG is at risk by under-resourcing DoD’s capability to effectively engage in competition short of armed conflict. 

DoD must not lose focus of the larger picture.  Unmatched lethality is important.  However, the pathway to success is achieving a balance between unmatched lethality in support of armed conflict; and not only sustaining but expanding IW capabilities in support of competition short of armed conflict.  During the time that institutional DoD (the Services) is shifting resources to increase lethality and prepare for the possibility of the first big, MDO; the Joint Force (the CCDRs) will fight hundreds of non-kinetic battles out in the competitive spaces between USG proxies and those proxies of America’s adversaries.  If DoD is successful in this competition short of armed conflict, the USG will gain an advantage and can deter MDO.  If DoD is not successful, the USG will be placed at a competitive disadvantage, a situation that may actually lead to MDO.  DoD would be foolish to allow great power adversaries to succeed in the competitive space, gathering support, while the USG is marginalized and placed in a position of weakness.  IW represents the best set of capabilities DoD and the USG can employ to win in the competitive space as part of great power competition.  These capabilities must be adequately resourced.


Mr. Charles Barham is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with 29 years of service (1981-2010).  He also served for four years as a Department of the Army Civilian, Management and Program Analyst in the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program (2010-2014).   He currently serves as a Department of the Air Force Civilian, Management and Program Analyst at USCENTCOM in the Operations Directorate, Interagency Action Group, Civil Affairs Operations Division as a Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Analyst, and the Assistant Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Program Manager.  He served for more than three years in Afghanistan as; Assistant Director of the Police Reform Directorate, Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan 2006-2007, Senior Socioeconomic Advisor in HQ ISAF-DCOS/STAB under Generals David Petraeus and John Allen 2011, as Deputy Director of the NATO/Afghan Transformation Task Force, HQ ISAF under General Joseph Dunford 2013, and as a Senior Planning, Programing and Budgeting Advisor to the Afghan National Army Special Operations Command 2014.  He has served for over eight years in HQCENTCOM in positions including Senior Socioeconomic Advisor, Interagency Planner, Stabilization Analyst, and Foreign Humanitarian Assistance Analyst.  He has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the University of Richmond, a Master of Business Administration from Oklahoma City University, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.  He has published on-line articles in Small Wars Journal, SOF News, and Real Clear Defense.



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