The Buzz

How Russia and China are Using America’s Predictability as a Weapon

Along the way other nations realized that the American military and their political masters liked “good” or “clean” wars with force on force contact and defined outcomes that allowed them to bring the full might of the American military to bear in a decisive campaign. Other types of competitions and conflicts, those characterized by asymmetric campaigns or forces that were not easily recognizable as combatants repulsed both American military and civilian leaders and left them hesitant.  Competitors also recognized that Americans, over time, had built up and defined a semipermeable barrier. Cross it and you trigger decisive war, stay below it and more than likely the Americans will not respond. So beginning in 2008 both Russia and China began to test the theory that emerged from their reading and interpretation of the American book of war, and it worked.  For the past eight years they have dodged, ducked, prodded and poked the United States in Asia, Europe and at sea with Little Green Men and fleets of coast guard ships and fishing boats, with great success. Today Russia sits in Georgia and the two Ukrainian regions of the Crimea and Donbass and China has managed to erect three artificial islands on reefs well within the extended economic zone of a key U.S. ally, all without triggering a military reaction from the world’s most powerful superpower.

To reverse these trends, the United States must recognize that its predictability has turned into a weapon that is being used against it.  Strategic ambiguity needs to be reintroduced back into the equation.  Instead of climbing one rung up the escalation ladder during strategic standoffs, climb two every now and then.  Make the enemy guess.  Make them nervous.  

The United States Department of Defense should deemphasize “phasing” in Joint Doctrine. Instead describe the iterations of American strategic responses in another, more fluid, manner. Perhaps the United States should present its range of options as irregular waves of capabilities that wash up and down the beach, so far this time, perhaps more the next time, and possibly less in the future. Instead of a ladder-like, lineal scale of responses, perhaps present a hub-spoke paradigm with different options at the end of each spoke. Let everyone know that U.S. forces transitioning from point “A” to point “C” do not necessarily have to pass point “B”. Meet Little Green Men with little gray unmanned vehicles.

In the 70 years since the end of World War II, the United States military has been the guarantor of security for allies and partners around the globe. It’s time for the rest of the world to trust us, but not anticipate us.  It is time to reintroduce strategic ambiguity and unpredictability back to the international conversation.  It’s time to throw away the book.

Dr. Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and Program Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain of the United States Navy, Hendrix previously served as the Director of Naval History and Military Assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment

Image: US Air Force