In March 2022, the Pentagon released a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) that identified China as the “most consequential strategic competitor” of the United States. The NDS also described two concepts—integrated deterrence and campaigning—as primary means by which the Department of Defense will seek to address the challenge posed by China, as well as lesser challenges posed by other actors. Ten months later, however, DoD has still not issued specific guidance on how to conduct effective campaigning in support of integrated deterrence.
As part of a broader study that I recently led for a DoD sponsor, I identified the critical components of campaigns—in other words, the specific types of military activities—that would enable the United States to compete with state adversaries, in line with the concepts described in the NDS. The resulting framework has the potential to help US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) position itself as the force of choice for competition campaigning and avoid further reductions in its budget and force structure. It can also help the Pentagon sharpen its existing campaign plans and assist the relevant congressional committees as they think about oversight of the Pentagon’s approach to strategic competition.
Competition Campaign Design
The central concept of the 2022 NDS is integrated deterrence, which seeks to combine deterrent effects across warfighting domains, geographic regions, the spectrum of conflict, elements of US national power, and US allies and partners. But the NDS also focuses on the idea of campaigning, which it says DoD must conduct to “strengthen deterrence and enable us to gain advantages against the full range of competitors’ coercive actions” and “to undermine acute forms of competitor coercion, complicate competitors’ military preparations, and develop our own warfighting capabilities together with Allies and partners.” While the US military routinely conducts campaigns—defined as “the conduct and sequencing of logically-linked military activities,” day after day, “to achieve strategy-aligned objectives over time”—in wartime, the NDS’s emphasis on campaigning is focused on improving the military’s ability to do so in preconflict, competitive settings. In this regard, the focus on campaigning in the 2022 NDS is, to a large extent, an extension of the emphasis in the 2018 NDS on strategic competition.
These ideas have helped orient the US military in distinctly different ways than the wars of the past twenty years, but they leave significant questions unanswered. For example, what does a competition campaign in support of integrated deterrence look like in practice? Is it just the same as the global campaign plans focused on specific adversaries? Does it simply comprise the collection of theater campaign plans advanced by the geographic combatant commands? Or is a strategic competition campaign somehow different from these extant plans? The NDS does not specifically address these questions, but the answers to them are “no,” “no,” and “yes,” respectively.
To identify the specific activities that the US military should pursue as part of competition campaigning, I examined a variety of US government documents that are specific to competition—including Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and the draft Joint Concept for Competing (which has subsequently been folded into the Joint Warfighting Concept). I also reviewed scholarly articles on competition from CNA, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the RAND Corporation, and the Center for a New American Security, as well as independent publications by various scholars. In each document, I looked for and cataloged the specific military activities and capabilities the authors described as being necessary for competition. Drawing a cut line at those items called for by at least one government and multiple scholarly sources resulted in the list of campaign components shown below.
Features of the Campaign Design
In looking at the fifteen components of campaigning in competition that I identified, some will be familiar to those who have been involved with US military campaigns against terrorist groups: intelligence operations, information and intelligence sharing, security cooperation, messaging, the use of proxies, interagency coordination, and building networks have been key elements of the wars of the past two decades. The specific ways in which these activities get applied to competition with state adversaries, however, may look significantly different in practice from their use against terrorist threats. For example, while terrorist groups like the Islamic State have some ability to detect and disrupt US intelligence operations, conducting such activities against the likes of China or Russia—which have vastly more advanced counterintelligence capabilities—would look qualitatively distinct. Other components of competition campaigns, however, may surprise some readers. Strategic planning, force design and development, posturing, exercises, and strategic assessment are elements that were not often highlighted as part and parcel of efforts to counter terrorist groups. As a result, the skills and capabilities required to conduct these activities have atrophied across much of DoD.
Interestingly, the fifteen components of competition campaigns break out nearly evenly between two categories. The first (in green) are operational activities, largely conducted to compete for advantage today. The second (in blue) are largely institutional activities, conducted to compete for advantage in the future. As both the temporal and operational/institutional distinctions might suggest, these two sets of elements can be—and often are—in tension with each other. For example, the geographic combatant commands—which primarily conduct the activities in green—focus largely (via their theater campaign plans) on competing with our adversaries today and over the next two to three years. The military services—which conduct many of the activities in blue—are increasingly focusing on designing and generating forces that will have the capabilities and readiness to face challenges in the 2030–2040 timeframe. Debates often arise when tensions flare between these two categories: for example, when the services make decisions to divest themselves of capabilities that might be useful for current competitive activities in favor of investing resources to develop capabilities that might not come online for a decade or more. Because of the way DoD and the US government is structured, the only authorities who can effectively resolve these debates are the secretary of defense or the US Congress.
Implications for USSOCOM
While the tensions just described play out at a macro level within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, they also play out within the special operations enterprise, as a result of the unique nature of USSOCOM. Because Congress endowed USSOCOM with both combatant command (via Title 10, US Code, Section 164) and service-like authorities (via Section 167), the USSOCOM commander is the only entity in DoD aside from the secretary of defense that sits atop both operational and service components. The former, in the form of the seven theater special operations commands, center on supporting their geographic combatant commands’ priorities to compete for today. The latter, in the form of the four special operations service components—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps—are increasingly focusing on designing and developing special operations forces (SOF) for the future.
This arrangement creates challenges for USSOCOM, which must adjudicate tensions that arise between the theater special operations commands and its service components when it comes to the design, allocation, and employment of SOF. But it also creates opportunities for USSOCOM to organically manage that tension by identifying and providing guidance for how to integrate and synchronize activities to compete for today with those designed to create future competitive advantages. In short, USSOCOM should be able to turn the crank of force design, force development, and force employment faster than any other part of DoD, which should lend it an inherent advantage when it comes to generating innovative capabilities and force packages designed for competition today and in the future.
Unfortunately, USSOCOM is not currently positioned to fully seize this advantage. Over the past two decades, SOF have enjoyed unparalleled intelligence and operational advantages over their nonstate adversaries. One result of this is that an emphasis on operations—and procurement to support current operations—has dominated the focus of USSOCOM for years. The command’s ability to effectively conduct some of the institutional elements of competition campaigns—most notably, strategic planning, force design and development, and posturing—have atrophied. Anyone familiar with USSOCOM headquarters can, for example, appreciate the dominant size and stature that the operations directorate (J3) has over the plans directorate (J5). For USSOCOM to reap the advantages of its unique blend of authorities for integrating the yin and the yang of competition campaigns, it will need to reinvigorate and invest in the people, processes, and priority of its J5 relative to other staff sections.
Assuming for the moment that USSOCOM rebalances itself accordingly, the command will still face three key issues when it comes to synchronizing the two halves of competition campaigning. First, it will need to identify the key problems that it—and only it—can solve for the joint force of the future. Potential examples might include finding ways to serve as a key set of sensors for the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept, conducting operational preparation of the environment and information operations, ensuring cross-domain and transregional integration, or imposing costs in other theaters as part of “horizontal escalation” in the context of a localized conflagration with the likes of China or Russia. USSOCOM will also need to come to terms with the idea of playing a supporting role to the joint force, as opposed to being the supported entity as it was consistently for the past two decades. This will necessarily entail spending some of its own Major Force Program-11 funding on capabilities that are inherently designed to support the joint force, as opposed to using that funding exclusively for its own needs. These ideas represent major cultural shifts for USSOCOM and its constituent forces.
Second, USSOCOM will need to identify the proper balance between the operational and institutional aspects of campaigning for the SOF enterprise. Only recently has the command backed away from an overriding emphasis on deploying as many of its forces forward as possible, in part because of issues identified by its comprehensive cultural review. Going forward, USSOCOM will have to continuously strike a balance of current operations to disrupt terrorist groups and generate competitive advantages today and activities designed to identify, generate, and field forces that can maintain advantages against state adversaries for what could easily be several decades’ worth of competition and low-intensity conflict.
Third, the USSOCOM commander will need to decide to what extent he wants to serve as a director of future SOF design versus being an integrator of his components’ efforts. The latter would currently be an easier role for USSOCOM headquarters to play, both because of the atrophy of its force design and development capabilities and because its service components are all at least two to three years ahead of it in this regard (its Navy and Air Force components, for example, have already undertaken major force optimization and reorganization efforts to better align themselves with the NDS and their service priorities). Given USSOCOM’s institutional preferences, however, it will probably want to serve a more directive role. Being more than a force integrator will require USSOCOM to immediately rebalance its headquarters, quickly develop a substantive vision for integrated SOF of the future, and engage in a virtuous cycle of force design, analysis, and experimentation that can leapfrog its own components’ efforts to date.
In some ways, the current environment surrounding the notion of competition campaigning is reminiscent of the immediate aftermath of 9/11. At that time, there was a strong impetus to get after the problem of terrorism, but with minimal strategic guidance. The net result was some overarching principles and a lot of good ideas generated at the tactical level, with little in the way of concrete translation of principles to action. It took well over a decade of sustained counterterrorism operations before the messy middle between policy and action was cemented in the form of systemic operations orders and associated authorities. Today, the special operations enterprise—and DoD more broadly—is lacking the translation of ideas like strategic competition and campaigning to tactical actions via a clear framework of activities and associated authorities, policies, permissions, and oversight. The competition campaign framework described here should help considerably in making that connection.
More specifically, I recommend that the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict should direct USSOCOM to center the next iteration of its Campaign Plan for Global Special Operations on this framework. The Office of the Secretary of Defense should also use it as the organizing framework for the next Guidance for the Employment of the Force and the Joint Staff should use it similarly in the next iterations of its global campaign plans for specific adversaries. Finally, the pertinent congressional committees should employ it as a framework for thinking about authorities, resources, and oversight of DoD’s competition activities.
In addition to addressing the translation of policy to action, this campaign framework makes clear that USSOCOM and its forces have a unique advantage within DoD when it comes to being the force of choice for competition, because of its unique blend of operational and service-like authorities. To fully realize that advantage and position itself within DoD accordingly, however, USSOCOM will need to quickly rebalance to reinvigorate the institutional aspects of competition that are necessary to effectively compete for the future. If it can do that, USSOCOM will enable SOF to claim their rightful place as DoD’s premier force for competition for decades to come. If it fails to do so, SOF will likely face a diminished future as a force holding the line against terrorist groups and facing sustained reductions in size and stature. USSOCOM has the authorities to shape its own future and that of the global competitive landscape as well. Whether it has the vision and wherewithal to use those authorities to that end remains an open question.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Special Operations Program at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. You can find him on Twitter at @jjschroden.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or any organization the author is affiliated with, including CNA.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl, US Army
Can we/should we not look at questions relating to such things as "deterrence" and "campaigning" today; this, more from the perspective of a/the enduring political objective of the U.S./the West?
A/the enduring political objective of the U.S./the West, this is to transform the outlying states and societies of the world (think, for example, of Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.) more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines:
“These combine with the enduring ideal of spreading the benefits of market democracy and a corresponding assumption that other democracies will embrace the US global agenda of opening markets, promoting civil liberties, and confronting organizations and states that seek to challenge the existing American international order.” (See the book “Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military” by Professor Derek S. Reveron; therein, at Page 2 of the Introduction chapter, look to the end of the paragraph that begins “As the United States looks ahead … ”)
As to this such enduring and indeed "revolutionary" political objective/goal of the U.S./the West (which our opponents such as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists [a] rightfully find threatening and, thus, [b] rightfully seek to preven?t),
a. How can USSOCOM (etc.) "campaign;" this, so as to:
b. "Deter" such entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc., from
c. Fighting back so as to not be so "transformed" — more along U.S./Western political, economic, social and/or value lines?
My question above possibly stated another way:
If you are threatening a society and/or a regime — for example — by (a) attempting to work more "by, with and through" their more "pro-change" elements; this, b) so as to "transform" their states and societies more along modern western political, economic, social and/or values lines,
Then, in such "revolutionary" and "threatening" circumstances such as these, how do you — SIMULTANEOUS TO YOUR SUCH THREATENING EFFORTS —
a. "Campaign" so as to "deter" such entities as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc., from
b. Fighting back against you — so as to preserve their regimes and/or societies?
(THIS, I suggest, is the crux of the question; this again being, [a] if you are engaged in threatening behavior against an opponent, [b] how do you "campaign" so as to "deter" such an opponent; this, [c] from fighting back against you and your such threats?)
As to my thoughts immediately above, some examples may prove useful. In this regard, consider the below-described "revolutionary"/"transformative" threats that have been posed to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq — by the U.S./the West — of late:
“Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent (the U.S./the West and its partner governments) represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation.”
(Item in parenthesis above is mine. See David Kilcullen’s “Counterinsurgency Redux.”)
“Dhofar, El Salvador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, (however,) it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly.”
(Item in parenthesis above is mine. See the Small Wars Journal article “Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency” — an interview by Octavian Manea of Dr. David H. Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell.)
From this such perspective, thus, to reissue and/or to restate my question above; this being:
While actively and aggressively threatening and seeking to replace (with our U.S./Western models) the political, economic, social and/or value systems of the outlying states and societies of the world (exs: China, Russia, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc.) — while actively and aggressively doing this, how do we,
a. SIMULTANEOUS to these such "revolutionary"/"transformative" campaigns and attempts,
b. Also "campaign" so as as to "deter" these such states and societies — from fighting back against us — with whatever means and/or capabilities that they might have — this, so that they might prevent these such unwanted "transformations?"
THIS, I suggest, is the — properly described and properly presented — problem that the U.S./the West's special operations and other forces face today.
Based on the information that I provide above, one can see that one the best ways to consider what the U.S./the West's special operations and other forces are up against today, this is view the current "conflict environment" more from the perspective of a New/Reverse Cold War — one in which, this time, it is the U.S./the West that seeks advance its political, economic, social and/or value models more throughout the world (see Kilcullen and Egnell above) — and one in which, this time, such nations as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists, etc. — thus threatened — seek to "contain" and "roll back" these such U.S./Western "transformative" attempts and successes.
a. The problems that faced the Soviet's/the communists' special operations and other forces in the Old Cold War of yesterday (in their case back then, how to support their countries' "campaigns" to advance their alien [in this case communist] ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc., more throughout the world; this, while SIMULTANEOUSLY "campaigning" so as to "deter" their opponents — from fighting back against these such unwanted transformative attempts),
b. These are the exact same problems that U.S./Western special operations and other forces face in the New/Reverse Cold War of today (in our case today, how to support our countries' "campaigns" to advance our alien [in this case market-democracy] ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc., more throughout the world; this, while SIMULTANEOUSLY "campaigning" so as to "deter" our opponents — from fighting back against these unwanted transformative attempts).
Question — Based on the Above:
Based on the information that I provide above, who in the U.S./the West's special operations and/or other military communities and/or organizations are "getting out the books" today — and/or otherwise doing the necessary research — this, so as to better understand how the Soviets/the communist handled these such — "dual campaigning" — responsibilities in the Old Cold War of yesterday — "dual campaigning" responsibilities that now the U.S./the West's responsibilities in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?
Just stay true to the Constitution for the United States, not the constitution of the United States the big difference.
I do not want globalists
USSOCOM is hobbled because they cannot run OPEN exercises and missions in China without waging direct conflict. Thus, USSOCOM needs to focus on Africa and South America and the open seas, but in doing so, runs the risk of a Korean or Vietnam-like war to deter the expansion of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
We see this problem in Ukraine where Russia wanted to sack the resources of Ukraine. If Russia can't have them, they "slash and burn" Ukraine and rob, rape, and pillage.
The problem with SOCOM is that like Afghanistan, "winning the hearts and minds" only works when US SOFs are there. When they leave, the presence wears off unless the US SOFs maintain a constant presence and that is time consuming, expensive, iffy, and requires effort.
When people of Second and Third World nations feed and think off of their stomachs (hunger) and work all day for food and water, WHAT does SOCOM have to offer? A few basketballs, candy bars, MREs, training, and some handshakes aren't going to win "hearts and minds" forever compared to money, Belt Road infrastructure, food, exports, clothing, and PRC goods (that come with strings attached and loans). SOCOM isn't Santa Claus and that is perhaps the main problem. PRC is a "for profit" government in that they mine precious minerals, poach, harvest resources, and hunt for what the PRC needs from these hosting nations. SOCOM doesn't do that and if SOCOM's influence is to make friends, that is hard if people change their attitudes and perceptions. In a world of materialism, something tangible works but how will these people maintain a new vehicle if gas and spare parts are hard to come by? For a Superpower nation like the USA with SO MANY goods, then perhaps SOCOM does need to give out new free sneakers or battery clocks or canned soup or teddy bears or COVID vaccine shots to these people to improve their lives and remember SOCOM by. But would that change the dynamic of warfighting—leaving a calling card that SOCOM was here?
That is where the Western Aid Worker comes in…do good for free to "win hearts and minds." Without the Aid Worker and SOCOM, then security in these nations might be a problem. SOCOM needs to work hand-in-hand with aid workers. SOCOM left Afghanistan and the Aid Workers quit when the Taliban banned women Aid Workers. Aid Workers give what SOCOM cannot.
To deter aggression isn't easy when the peer nation spies on your treats and treasures. SOCOM cannot deter if there is illegal fishing. SOCOM cannot deter if there is illegal poaching. The war for natural resources does not involve SOCOM when perhaps it should. Free reign over resources in a 8 BILLION PLUS world populace needs policing and the responsibility of STEM scientists to study and monitor instead of hungry governments. USA National Defense and Security issues become more complex when a peer nation can grab what they want without punishment or recourse. SOCOM does not do that, unfortunately…it gives limited packages and comes home with (hopefully) allies and all SOFs and that is about it. It doesn't take from the host nation…and that is perhaps where SOCOM needs to concentrate on. If the host nation is being sacked dry by a peer nation, then SOCOM's presence might be at fault like a vampire sucking the blood out of its victim and someone stood by and watched. Such are the embers that might stoke a wildfire for war.
It's hard…just because Aid Workers give vaccine shots to all people in these nations doesn't mean that the mind and heart is friendly and loyal to Western culture, beliefs, and ways. Help has a way of helping, but helping for life is another matter compared to Belt and Road that can be seen each and every day. SOCOM is more of an "in the shadows" type of help. The Western Aid Workers are not…help out in the open.
SOCOM needs the Aid Workers to give our treats and treasures and for that, you need aid = US State Department and philanthropists.
I liked your competition framework that divides operational and institutional focus areas, though I think some of those activities overlap operational and institutional. I also like that you didn't recommend shifting totally away from CT to chase the next shiny thing that SOCOM has had a bad habit of doing. CT can be leveraged to support strategic competition and most of the operational activities that you mentioned. China and Russia see CT security cooperation as a focus area to compete with the U.S. We should not cede that space to them.