Communicating With the Enemy During a Conflict

Communicating With the Enemy During a Conflict

Failing to effectively communicate with an adversary in the midst of crisis or conflict is no simple or unimportant problem.

In an ongoing effort to better understand the characteristics of a potential crisis or conflict between the United States and a nuclear-armed adversary, US Strategic Command’s Plans and Policy Directorate plans and conducts a series of strategic level wargames in association with the US Naval War College’s Wargaming Department. The Deterrence and Escalation Game and Review (DEGRE) series of Top Secret wargames matches a blue team (the United States) of senior government officials (civilian and military) against a red team (the adversary) of country experts as the two teams seek to resolve the crisis or conflict utilizing a realistic scenario. Games also attempt to consider Allied perspectives thru the use of experts emulating Allied decision making. The scenario for each game is designed to explore deterrence, assurance, and escalation control dynamics.

While the specific details of each game are classified, one of the common themes that emerges is the challenge of communicating as intended with an adversary via word or deed. Frequently, teams fail to effectively convey a desired message (signal) that is both received and understood. Failing to effectively communicate with an adversary in the midst of crisis or conflict is no simple or unimportant problem because it is the desire to terminate the situation before strategic weapons are used or with as limited use as possible. From our experience, the miscommunication occurs for four reasons.

Messaging a “Deaf Adversary”

All too often a team undertakes a carefully planned military action, but is surprised when the message is not received. This first example of a failed strategic message is the result of a failure to communicate in a way that is certain to be received. For example, a side may openly generate its strategic bombers as a way of signaling a willingness to escalate in the conflict. The objective is sending a clear signal of resolve that causes the adversary to back down. Unfortunately, in the midst of a crisis or conflict, the fog and friction of war often causes one side to miss the message sent by the other.

Likewise, a team may desire to communicate escalation or restraint through nuanced strategic effects, but the other side does not receive the message because of inadequate national technical or intelligence means, which are critical in detecting and/or confirming the actions or effects of the other side. All too often one side “mirror images” the other and assumes both has the necessary capability to receive the message and the ability to understand its meaning.

The Strategic Message that is misunderstood

Another frequent problem occurs when a team crafts a message that it views as clear and straightforward, but is understood by the adversary very differently than it was intended—leading to an unexpected and undesirable action in response. A strategic message that is misunderstood is not only undesirable, but it can be dangerous as the failure to communicate can lead to uncontrolled escalation. One of the primary reasons for a misunderstood message is failure to understand the context (culture, history, interest, etc.) in which the adversary will receive and interpret the message. With responsibility for effectively communicating intent squarely on the shoulders of the sender, it is critical that the sender communicate in a way that ensures the receiver understands the desired message.

The Strategic Message to the Unconvinced

The adversary may also properly understand the message, but be unconvinced that the sender will follow through with the communicated action. This failure can occur because the sender’s previous or current behavior leaves the sender with a lack of credibility. As with contextual misunderstanding, in the face of overwhelming facts the adversary may simply choose not to believe what they see in a crisis because of longstanding mistrust. An adversary who has a history of invasion, occupation or maltreatment may have a predisposition toward distrust.

Likewise, if during the crisis/conflict, the adversary believes the other state has acted aggressively or treacherously, a lack of trust is rational. While the decision to disbelieve may seem illogical, this mistrust may be understandable considering the context through which one party interprets the other party’s actions. This is perhaps the most difficult communications challenge and the one that requires at the very least a demonstrable credibility in the short term to overcome.

The Learning Adversary

In the movie Patton, there is a scene where George C. Scott, playing General Patton, overlooks a defeated German Army says, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard I read your book!”  This scene manifests the “know thy enemy” passage from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but it is a lesson that has not been lost by Red teams in wargames. Being predictable can lead to disaster on the battlefield, but it can also make efforts at strategic communication ineffective. When a team plays as predicted by the adversary, the adversary may begin to tune out the diplomatic chatter and instead choose to rely on the facts on the ground. Disrupting an adversary’s decision calculus by compromising predictability, a team can shepherd the opponent back to the strategic communication as they attempt to build their situational awareness.   

Bottom Line

Attempts to effectively communicate with an adversary and signal intent—to escalate or deescalate—during a crisis or conflict is exceptionally hard and prone to failure. Thus, in the event of an actual crisis, American decision makers should be skeptical of attempts to send subtle messages to an adversary. Ensuring messages are framed within the proper context is key.   

Adam Lowther is the Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies.

Joe Williams is the Chief, Planning Tools, Concepts, and Exercise Branch, Plans and Policy Directorate, US Strategic Command.  He is the team leader of 10 military, government, contract planners, senior analysts, and subject matter experts providing STRATCOM and Joint Service planning, policy, and analytical products.  Mr. Williams is responsible for developing and conducting war games, exercises, studies, and technical assessments of STRATCOM primary lines of operation including strategic deterrence, space, and cyberspace operations.  He also serves as the STRATCOM director for the “Deterrence and Escalation Game and Review” (DEGRE); a cross-domain strategic level war game executed annually with the US Naval War College.

Image: U.S. Navy