Short of War: How America's Competitors Chip Away at Its Traditional Military Might

"The time has come for American political and military leaders alike to take a hard look at the way the United States counters threats outside of traditional wartime environments." 

The United States military remains the world’s most sophisticated and capable fighting force. Hostile foreign players know that the only way to compete with the United States on the international stage is either to engage on a level playing field, or take advantage of new ones. Subtle and indirect actions that fall below the threshold of war are often used to decrease America’s chances of success in the event of direct conflict. In short, America’s enemies know how to shape a situation to gain advantage over the United States. At the same time, despite all its capabilities, the American military has yet to devise an effective way to counter these shaping operations.

Examples abound. The administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” for one, does not appear to have convinced America’s Pacific allies that the United States is willing to stand with them against China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the South and East China Seas. By simultaneously pursuing an ambitious military modernization program and stridently extending its orbit of influence in the seas, skies, and cyberspace, Chinese actions, whether intentional or serendipitous, have chipped away at America’s edge in the Pacific without a single bullet being fired.

Also consider Russia’s revanchism in Eastern Europe. In addition to seizing the Crimea, waging a thinly-veiled military campaign in Eastern Ukraine, and interfering with the domestic politics of countries from Estonia to Greece, the Kremlin has deployed fighter jets to fly over Eastern European nations and has further expanded its sphere of influence northward through its newly established Arctic Command. Despite, or perhaps because of, Putin’s repeated claims that his aggressive foreign policy actions are in response to NATO, America and its allies seem fearful of upsetting a bear that is just awakening from its slumber. When Eastern Europe looks westward, they see timidity and hesitation; whether these feelings are valid or not, they shape and constrain the options that America has, and will have, in countering Russia’s advances.

The situation in the Middle East is no different. There, two collocated but competing players use very different methods to challenge the American-led status quo. The first, Iran, cleverly uses diplomacy and sponsors proxy groups throughout the region to protect its interests, which are frequently in opposition to those of the United States. The other, ISIS, zealously leverages social media platforms to recruit new followers and to wage a war of ideas with the West. Though we are not at war with Iran, or technically with ISIS, their preparations and regional activities—whether in the form of supporting proxies and developing innovative, asymmetric capabilities in the case of Iran, or establishing efficient streams of foreign fighters as ISIS has been doing—impact America’s current and future involvement in the region and beyond.

Make no mistake: China, Russia, Iran and ISIS are succeeding because the United States is allowing it to happen. Despite America’s recent budget infighting, its resources are still unmatched. The increasingly global disposition of American special operations forces is a good first step, but by placing the weight of protecting America’s national security interests solely on an elite but small segment of our armed forces, we risk missing the forest for the trees. What’s missing is a coherent method to address adversarial actions outside of war, one that incorporates all of the tools at the U.S. military’s disposal.

Three dynamics have so far have stymied America’s ability to do so. First, even though counterinsurgency doctrine has recently been in vogue, America’s strategic outlook has historically been geared toward winning conventional conflicts with peer and near-peer adversaries. Consider an illustrative analogy from boxing. A heavyweight in a boxing ring could crush a featherweight in a direct confrontation, but the latter is lithe, fast, and adaptable in ways that the former is not. A heavyweight can deliberately train to improve his skills in these areas, but it does not come naturally. In the international arena, there are no weight classes; all must compete in the same ring.

Second, America’s civilian and military leadership have little political will to conduct operations whose benefits are ephemeral, difficult to measure, or both. Shaping operations require a persistence, patience, and presence. These neither track well with election cycles, nor guarantee a demonstrable return on investment. Few appropriate metrics exist today to measure the success of shaping operations, especially over the short-term. Conventional military leaders measure a winning mission through reams of metrics and outcome assessments. These instruments do not lend themselves to assess how shaping operations have changed the nature of conflicts and reduced their occurrence.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, civilian and military leaders have yet to determine what America should aspire to shape. Not every action taken by a foreign power can—or should—be countered. American shaping operations will only succeed if the highest levels of government first identify clear goals and priorities, communicate and similarly prioritize them throughout the executive branch.

The time has come for American political and military leaders alike to take a hard look at the way the United States counters threats outside of traditional wartime environments. Pursuing a strategy that will maximize America’s chances of success both in and outside of conflicts may, ironically, reduce the likelihood of them occurring in the first place. To preserve the peace, our leaders should recognize that the only actual difference between “peace” and “war” is the way we compete, not the existence of competition itself.