Irregular warfare is fundamental to strategic competition with China and Russia. In his recent congressional testimony, General Richard Clarke described the critical space in which this competition will unfold and who should play a key role: “SOF [special operations forces] remain ideally suited to identify an adversary’s challenges in the ‘gray zone’ and counter those malign activities with firmness while managing escalation.” The United States is uniquely postured with this offset capability to dissuade China and Russia from destabilizing activities. Employment of unconventional deterrence methods “by, with, and through” US partners and allies will further enable SOF assets to amplify disincentives. The application of this suite of irregular warfare capabilities is most effective when comprehensively applied to a foreign internal defense enterprise. Accordingly, the United States must fortify the organic capabilities of partner nations, develop a sustainable resistance capacity to increase the potential costs to US adversaries, and ultimately, shape their behavior.
Identifying the Levers of Influence
In the sphere of deterrence, building partner nation competency requires training, advisement, and assistance to improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for domain awareness. Developing the resistance capabilities of partner nations enables the effective imposition of costs through sabotage, subversion, and information warfare. The examples used in this article are focused on China, but similar activities and methods would likely have similar influence against Russia. Ideally, the analysis expressed here is not seen as the only answer, but rather a spark to ignite an ongoing dialogue on the use of irregular warfare as an integral component of a competitive military strategy.
Strategic competition requires implementing strategies that employ one’s inherent strengths against competitors’ inherent weaknesses, compelling them to respond. In its most impactful form, this strategy elicits an overreaction by aggravating visceral fears within a competitor’s strategic culture. Such strategies target the instinctive fear of domestic instability among Chinese and Russian leadership, which often results in a diversion of resources from external activities to internal security. China and Russia perceive this situation as particularly costly because it demands they reorient their focus from the world stage to more insular maintenance and management. In these scenarios, they may also have to tamp down influence from neighboring states that can further foment internal unrest.
Building and Brokering Strategic Cooperation through SOF
Competitive strategies require all instruments of national power to synchronize efforts in the space short of armed conflict, but the focus here is on the asymmetric capabilities that the SOF missions deliver. The activities discussed in this article are not exclusively a function of SOF; however, within the range of military operations, SOF heavily specialize in building relationships to further military engagement, security cooperation, and deterrence. The lines of effort argued here are in support of the 2022 National Defense Strategy, specifically through “campaigning,” which is designed to “undermine acute forms of competitor coercion, complicate competitors’ military preparations, and develop our own warfighting capabilities together with Allies and partners.” Before the United States can build and train resistance forces, it must first work to find willing partners through strategic engagements.
Using US naval assets and SOF in tandem to equip and train maritime forces will harden the resolve of partner nations facing China’s activities in the South China Sea. Leaders in China are known to subscribe to the maxim attributed to Vladimir Lenin. Probe with a bayonet, it advises, and stop if you meet steel, push if you meet mush. The objective of this activity is to forge that steel to persuade China to ease or cease their probing actions. Advising partner nations in capabilities to patrol their shores and enforce international law provides an avenue to hold China accountable for its aggressive behavior more effectively. Training for incident resolution against China’s maritime militia, which operates with impunity and without regard for international law, requires specific de-escalatory measures to avoid potentially violent encounters.
Some argue that China will see increased patrols as a threat and escalate matters to force its will upon smaller states more rapidly, thereby limiting the response time for a third-party intervention from countries such as the United States. Still, combining an increased patrol and law enforcement capability with adept statecraft provides a potential diplomatic and informational advantage to the partner nations. Recently, the Philippines’ government recognized the benefit of such advantage when its increased patrols confronted Chinese militia vessels near Sabina Shoal and escorted them from the area. Increasing maritime patrols and training effective maritime law enforcement protects the shores of partner nations and provides legitimacy under international rule of law to territorial claims and disputes.
No Silver Bullet
Importantly, these capabilities must be contextualized and aligned with other functions. Increasing the effectiveness of maritime patrols will not be efficient without the improved capacity for domain awareness. While conducting destabilizing operations in the South China Sea, “Chinese maritime militia ships simply turn their AIS [Automatic Identification System] transponders off to mask their activity.” The attempts to hide the activity of these Chinese vessels show the need for countries with sovereign claims in the area to ramp up their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Through equipment sales and the use of air commandos in an advise-and-assist capacity, countries with aerial capabilities will gain efficiency in their maritime patrols and law enforcement.
Exploiting and disseminating the collection results also creates a deterrent effect by providing technical data to support diplomatic efforts in reducing Chinese aggression. Even though Hanoi has a “Three Nos” defense policy—“no military alliances, no aligning with one nation against another, and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil”—continued Chinese aggression provides an opportunity for Vietnam to officially recognize a partnership with US strategic messaging. Simultaneously, building partner capabilities heightens both transparency and legitimacy for the United States with the oversight of international organizations should China attempt to cast aspersions on US actions or intentions.
Information: A Multifaceted Environment and Weapon
A dedicated effort to target Chinese coercive activities could also deter China in the information environment. US SOF, working with and through partner nations, are critical assets for altering Chinese behavior with the use of military information support operations (MISO). The cognitive dimension of a population is the focal point of MISO activities. In his congressional testimony, General Clarke highlighted the Joint MISO WebOps Center as an example designed to “actively engage foreign audiences to illuminate and counter hostile propaganda and disinformation online.”
By broadening awareness of China’s destabilizing actions, foreign partners can help persuade other countries to hold China accountable and strengthen their capacity to do so. Video and technical evidence helps cultivate the necessary psychological impact to bolster the population’s resolve to impel change with respect to malign behavior. A valid argument against this type of operation is the fact that the Chinese government censors the information its population receives, and the people of other nations in the region are already aware of China’s actions. However, exercises in Eastern Europe focused on shaping behaviors regarding Russia showed the power of precision messaging by MISO operators to influence views of a population. The ability to influence the narrative and apply MISO techniques in the South China Sea is necessary for the United States and partner nations to dissuade China from further destabilizing actions.
Also in the psychological realm, resistance activities tend to carry elevated political risk for the United States but also offer a high return on investment in strategic competition. Recruiting dissidents and resistance fighters to execute subversion and sabotage operations allows partner nations to create opportunities that deter Chinese aggression. Additionally, partner nations trained by SOF in nonviolent resistance techniques could provide the ability to impose higher costs for Chinese aggression. US SOF can complicate Chinese decision-making by “supporting resistance activities that undermine sources of adversarial material power.” To effectively deter, a “credible threat of unconventional warfare” must exist, and that takes “years of purposeful relationship nurturing” between SOF and surrogate forces.
Setting the Course for the Future
A deliberate operation needs to start now with the understanding that accomplishing these objectives could take years if not decades. Such operations seek weaknesses in the system and create cognitive influences on the Chinese government and its citizens. If these vulnerabilities do exist, then it is the role of SOF to exploit them in support of US strategic objectives and in cooperation with partner nations. Many will argue a strategy focused on increasing resistance to China’s malign activities is too aggressive and could escalate competition into armed conflict. But if the United States and its partners continue to allow aggressive behavior without risk of response, China will slowly assert its dominance in the region as a fait accompli until it controls all the territory currently in dispute. China’s budding regional dominance demands that the United States, alongside its partners and allies, demonstrates a credible countercurrent. Otherwise, the United States risks losing the strategic competition for partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Using irregular warfare methods, the United States can strengthen deterrence, create robust resistance within partner nations, and use the information environment to influence the decision-making of Chinese and Russian leadership. Moreover, the use of SOF to build relationships in these regions provides placement and access should the worst happen: the eruption of armed conflict. As General Joseph Votel and coauthors have written, it is essential to remember that “a gray zone ‘win’ is not a win in the classic warfare sense,” but rather, “maintaining the U.S. Government’s positional advantage . . . or simply denying an adversary a decisive positional advantage.”
Competitive strategies in the gray zone must include irregular warfare focused on partnerships and US positional advantage. It is time for some unconventional deterrence and the concept must include the use of SOF to work by, with, and through partner nations for foreign internal defense and resistance activities. Forcing China and Russia to expend resources on domestic security lessens the resources available to them to allocate to coercion or expansion in the future. Though creating and training resistance forces may seem antithetical to promoting stability in the region, the objective is to harden the steel that halts the probe with the bayonet.
Lieutenant Colonel Clifford Lucas is an Air Force special operations aviator with over 1,800 combat hours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He is a graduate of the US Air Force Weapons School, the College of Naval Command and Staff, and the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Thinker Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has practical experience at the operations squadron and group level, and staff experience at the major command, Headquarters Air Force, and Joint Staff level.
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.
Image credit: Spc. Joshua Oller, US Army
Consider the following from the third paragraph of the GEN Votel (et. al) item — "Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone" — linked at the second-to-last paragraph of our article above:
"The Gray Zone is characterized by intense political, economic, informational, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war. It is hardly new, however. The Cold War was a 45-year-long Gray Zone struggle in which the West succeeded in checking the spread of communism and ultimately witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union."
From this such perspective, it would seem that, today, once again, we are engaged in a Cold War but (a) one in which now the Soviets/the communists are no longer doing "expansion" and (b) one in which the West — thus threatened — is no longer doing "containment" and "roll back."
Q: What then ARE the parameters of this New Cold War?
A: In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, now it is the regimes of the U.S./the West that seek to do "expansion" (of market-democracy in our case) and now it is the regimes in Russia and China — thus threatened — who seek to do "containment" and "roll back." As to this such contention, consider the following two items:
a. First — re: U.S./Western "expansionist" efforts post-the Old Cold War — from the book “Exporting Security: International Engagement, Security Cooperation, and the Changing Face of the US Military” by Professor Derek S. Reveron:
“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 Page 2 of the Introduction chapter to the above-referenced book. Once there, look to the end of the paragraph that begins “As the United States looks ahead … ”)
“Since the 1990s the focus of American international security policy has been focused on creating conditions for extending zones of security and prosperity to other states under the theory that ‘political as well as economic globalization would make the world safer — and more profitable — for the United States.’ Consequently, the United States saw expansion, rather than retraction, of American military presence around the world.” (See the bottom of Page 2 and the top of Page 3 of the Introduction chapter of the above-referenced book.)
b. Next — re: Russia and China's "containment" and "roll back" efforts post-the Old Cold War — from the paper "The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain" by MG James B. Linder, Spencer B. Meredith III and Jason D. Johnson:
"Differing from the previous Tsarist regional empire and the Soviet globalist one, the new Russian foreign policy has a more pragmatic goal. It aims to build different types of buffer zones against NATO encroachment to the West and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. These can come as much from misinformation campaigns as traditional basing in former Soviet countries, what U.S. Army senior analyst Timothy Thomas describes as a flexible 'initial period of war'. Most critical throughout these considerations, remains the reassurance of sovereignty from foreign challenges to the Kremlin’s control over its vast historic empire, to include the Caucasus and parts of Ukraine.
China’s 'unrestricted warfare' follows suit with striking similarities, even if the configuration of national power tilts more towards economic influence. Yet economic power serves the same goals as do manmade atolls that visibly violate international maritime laws. Both are clear symbols of power projection, just as joint military training and image branding also play more than supporting roles in the promotion of China’s efforts. Like Russia’s approach, unrestricted warfare recognizes the human domain as the critical area of competition, and both identify society as the current and future battlefield.
These strategies present serious challenges for the United States, not least because they utilize successful U.S. strategies of the past century (containment and roll back?) – shaping perceptions to support goals through all elements of national power." (Item in parenthesis here in mine.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the above:
Based on the information that I provide above, now we can understand that:
a. Post-the Old Cold War, and continuing today, it was, and still is, the regimes of the U.S./the West who were/are the ones engaged in achieving "revolutionary" objectives; that is, engaged in efforts to spread market-democracy more throughout the world. Whereas:
b. Post-the Old Cold War, and continuing today, it was, and still is, the regimes of Russia and China (etc., etc., etc.) who — thus threatened — are engaged in "resistance" activities; resistance activities which — in the New/Reverse Cold War of today much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday — come under the heading of "containment" and "roll back."
(From this such perspective, the use of our special operations and other forces today, this is to — working "by, with and through" our partners and allies — thwart these such "containment"/these such "roll back"/these such "buffer zone creating" efforts and activities of our adversaries?)
Re: my New/Reverse Cold War thoughts immediately above (U.S./the West, post-the Old Cold War, doing "expansion" of market-democracy; nations such as Russia and China — thus threatened post-the Old Cold War — doing "containment" and "roll back"); re: these such New/Reverse Cold War thoughts, consider the following from the first paragraph of our article above:
"The application of this suite of irregular warfare capabilities is most effective when comprehensively applied to a foreign internal defense enterprise."
As to our such foreign internal defense programs, consider the following quoted item:
"a. An IDAD (Internal Defense and Development) program integrates security force and civilian actions into a coherent, comprehensive effort. Security force actions provide a level of internal security that permits and supports growth through balanced development. This development requires change to meet the needs of vulnerable groups of people. This change may, in turn, promote unrest in the society. The strategy, therefore, includes measures to maintain conditions under which orderly development can take place.” (Item in parenthesis here is mine. See our own Joint Publication 3-22, "Foreign Internal Defense;" therein, see Section II, "Internal Defense and Development," and Chapter 2, "Construct:")
Herein to note that:
a. As to these such "development"/these such "change" initiatives ("development"/"change" more along market-democracy lines),
b. It is the "unrest in the society" groups — i.e., the more conservative/the more traditional population groups who our opponents such as Russia and China will seek to work more "by, with and through." In this regard, consider the following two quoted items:
"Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past." (See The American Interest article "The Reality of Russian Soft Power" by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova.)
“In his annual appeal to the Federal Assembly in December 2013, Putin formulated this ‘independent path’ ideology by contrasting Russia’s ‘traditional values’ with the liberal values of the West. He said: ‘We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilization in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.’ He proclaimed that Russia would defend and advance these traditional values in order to ‘prevent movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.’
(See the Wilson Center publication “Kennan Cable No. 53” and, therein, the article “Russia’s Traditional Values and Domestic Violence,” by Olimpiada Usanova, dated 1 June 2020.)
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
From this such New/Reverse Cold War perspective, U.S./Western and partner and allies' special operations and other forces will be working more "by, with and through" the more liberal/the more progressive/the more pro-change elements of the states and societies of the world; this, so as to:
a. Overcome these such "containment" and "roll back" efforts of such nations as Russia and China (wherein, they seek to work more "by, with and through the more conservative/more traditional elements of the various states and societies of the world)
b. Advance market-democracy anyway/in spite of these such Russian and Chinese "containment" and "roll back" efforts?
Based on how the gray zone is described, SOF is not uniquely or ideally capable of identifying gray zone threats. Our strategic intelligence community working with all U.S. interagency organizations, industry, and foreign nations leads the network in identifying adversary gray zone strategies and activities across multiple areas including economic coercion, political corruption, information operations, military and paramilitary posturing, and so forth. SOF has many capabilities that can assist an integrated whole-of-government approach in defending the U.S. and its partners from select gray zone activities, and SOF is probably the primary military organization to proactively employ irregular warfare methods to offensively expand the competitive space.