New Era of Deterrence
The return of great power competition blurs the line between conflict and peace
Col. (ret.) Arthur Tulak/U.S. Army
The world today is not at war, but neither is it truly in a condition of peace. To help visualize the complexity and scope of the 21st-century security environment, visit the Council on Foreign Relations’ online Global Conflict Tracker (see below). It shows 25 ongoing conflicts — six of which are rated as having a critical potential impact on U.S. strategic interests, and six of which are characterized as territorial disputes. These include conflicts where the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia are making claims to the sovereign territory or maritime rights of other nations, but not all such unresolved disputes are included, so the current and potential conflicts are actually more numerous.
The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS), published in December 2017, and the National Defense Strategy, published in March 2018, have sharpened the national focus on interstate competition and conflict and elevated the need for effective deterrence.
In the new approach, deterrence is returning as a priority in response to the aggressive actions and policies of great powers that seek to undermine and overturn the current world order.
The renewed interest in deterrence parallels the deterioration of the security environment, which the U.S. Army has described as the “complex world” that is constantly changing, where the anticipated enemies are operating with the advantages of interior lines, while also fielding increasingly modern and capable combat systems. Not surprisingly, in Europe, where NATO faces a resurgent and revisionist Russia, deterrence is making a comeback as NATO is once again re-examining the role of deterrence to prevent war. In the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. and its allies and partners are collaborating to deter the PRC from further eastward expansion at the expense of its neighbors, and the PRC’s ever-expanding claims of air and sea space obtained via military means.
The 2017 NSS lists the potential adversaries of the United States in the following order: China and Russia, followed by North Korea and Iran, all of which have seen tremendous growth in key military capabilities designed to counter U.S. strategies, operations, theater access, warfighting concepts and weapons systems. Likewise, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) joint strategic plans imply the PRC is threatening the international rules-based order.
Across the globe, the United States faces near-peer adversaries who seek to fracture U.S. alliances and defeat U.S. allies and security partners below the threshold of armed conflict, employing hybrid warfare, which “challenges the traditional metrics of deterrence by conducting operations that make unclear the distinctions between peace and war,” according to U.S. Army doctrine.
The 2017 NSS consistently identifies the PRC and Russia as challenging U.S. power, influence and interests while attempting to erode U.S. security and prosperity. The NSS also characterizes both nations as “revisionist powers” and singles out the PRC as seeking to “displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.” A shared characteristic of both countries is their use of hybrid warfare in peacetime competition to achieve military objectives below a threshold that would trigger a direct military response and potentially a larger military conflict, according to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning published in March 2018. As potential U.S. adversaries continue to catch up with U.S. capabilities and carry out aggressive territorial conquests, “the risks of actually fighting a major war are more significant than ever,” observed Michael Mazarr, a Rand analyst.
U.S. National Military Strategy published in 2015 was the first to mention hybrid warfare. It’s described as a blending of conventional, nonconventional, law enforcement and criminal gangs, information warfare, media warfare, and even terrorist means and methods in deliberate actions carried out by military, paramilitary, mercenary and nonmilitary forces to achieve traditional military objectives, including territorial control or conquest. Hybrid warfare seeks to create uncertainty by increasing ambiguity of national aims and official involvement, providing plausible deniability. Hybrid warfare also seeks to complicate adversary decision-making on how to appropriately respond and slow the coordination of effective responses.
In this manner, nations deploying hybrid warfare carry out operations in a manner designed to avoid triggering a larger military conflict. As then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has said, today’s revisionist powers and rogue regimes deploy the techniques of hybrid warfare such as “corruption, predatory economic practices, propaganda, political subversion, proxies, and the threat or use of military force to change facts on the ground.”
As employed by the PRC and Russia, hybrid warfare disrupts and sidesteps traditional deterrence efforts by using combinations of surrogates and proxies, along with military, paramilitary and nonmilitary forces supported by information warfare, subversion, coercion and unconventional warfare. The U.S. Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning predicts that the interstate competitions challenging the United States will be persistent and enduring and that adversaries will continue to use coercion and hybrid warfare techniques in pursuit of their strategic objectives.
Dictatorial regimes are now seeking territorial conquest by military means simultaneously in the European and Pacific theaters for the first time since World War II. The PRC, using the world’s largest ocean-going dredging fleet, has created artificial islands atop maritime features that are within the economic exclusion zones of countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and at a great distance from Chinese shores. Having secured them by hybrid warfare, the PRC has built airstrips capable of handling intercontinental strategic bombers, installed hardened fighter shelters, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles, and more. One of the most famous examples of this fight is the Scarborough Shoal, which is only 354 kilometers from Manila, the capital of the Philippines, but it is 2,658 kilometers from the nearest Chinese shore. This maritime feature, once a popular fishing spot for Filipino fisherman, is now patrolled by the PRC’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia and the People’s Armed Police China Coast Guard — both watched over from a distance by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The PRC has already extensively militarized other outposts in the Paracel Islands and South China Sea, increasing tension in the region.
In Europe, the Russians employed hybrid warfare to support seizing Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014, and to start and fuel an insurgency in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. There, the Russians have deployed sophisticated electronic warfare weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles in support of targeting and reconnaissance, modern tanks and even advanced anti-aircraft missile systems. These missile systems, manned by Russian soldiers posing as separatists, succeeded in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight No. 17, killing 298 civilians in 2014. Pushing their hybrid warfare to new locales, the Russians have used mercenaries in Syria to launch a ground attack against U.S. forces, and electronic warfare attacks against U.S. aircraft are rising, Jane’s Defence Weekly reported.
What is exceptionally concerning about the foregoing examples of hybrid warfare is that upon securing ground using hybrid forces in military operations, the PRC and Russia then deployed the sophisticated military capabilities just described to occupy and hold their territorial gains. Each nation then subsequently projected combat power along ever-expanding range-rings, extending their battlespace control via anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, while using multifaceted strategies that would delay and complicate U.S. military deployment in a crisis.
Conventional deterrence concepts are being challenged in novel ways by hybrid warfare, as opponents use these methods to steadily achieve territorial victories, short of war, while changing the battlefield geometry to their future combat advantage, should armed conflict occur.
From these previous examples, it is clear that the U.S. is entangled in a new conflict with the PRC and Russia over ideological differences, a conflict that is being carried on by methods short of sustained overt military action without breaking off diplomatic relations. Traditional conventional deterrence designed to deter armed conflict has largely failed to deter the hybrid warfare that the PRC and Russia successfully employ.
The consequences of failed deterrence strategies are a seemingly continuous cycle of competitor nations using hybrid warfare to seize terrain to control the battlespace, followed by A2/AD threat envelopes via the deployment of weapon systems to deny entry, supported by a steady information campaign attacking the strength and cohesion of U.S. alliances and security partnerships. The United States and its allies have a compelling need to disrupt that cycle through deterrence, and this effort must be carved out during the competition (peacetime) phase. The new U.S. NSS addresses this, highlighting that deterrence today is “significantly more complex to achieve than during the Cold War.”
The new 21st-century security environment presents a new condition of “challenged deterrence,” which the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have defined as “the effectiveness of U.S. conventional deterrence being put into question both by the adversary’s use of actions below the threshold of conflict to achieve strategic aims, and by the adversary’s potential ability to conduct aggressive actions and consolidate gains rapidly before the U.S. and allies can respond.”
The concept of challenged deterrence highlights the impact of subversion, information warfare, hybrid and unconventional warfare on conventional deterrence, as the state using these methods will deploy hybrid means and methods to exploit opportunities, while simultaneously avoiding responsibility and complicity with the actions of hybrid forces.
U.S. Response Options
The traditional concept of deterrence is straightforward, as analysts at the Brookings Institution explain: “Persuade a potential adversary that the risks and costs of his proposed action far outweigh any gains that he might hope to achieve.” Rand’s Mazarr provides the framework of deterrence, explaining that it can be either direct or extended, general or immediate. Direct deterrence is characterized by efforts to prevent an adversary from attacking the U.S. and its territories and possessions, while extended deterrence aims to deter attacks and aggression against U.S. allies and partners. Extended deterrence is more challenging than direct deterrence, relying on credible force projection of capable forces to reinforce the threatened ally or partner. When the U.S.’ extended deterrence has failed, as it did in the Korean War and prior to Desert Shield, costly wars have followed. According to Mazarr, general deterrence is the steady-state effort in the competition phase, or in noncrisis situations. In contrast, immediate deterrence is the short-term and urgent effort to prevent imminent attack that would be considered as the crisis phase. Having forces and capabilities forward deployed, carrying out general deterrence in the competition phase, provides trained and ready forces who can respond in crisis for immediate deterrence.
Several lessons learned have emerged regarding deterrence of hybrid warfare, Dr. Christopher Chivvis, a Rand Corp. senior political scientist, testified in 2017 before the U.S. House Armed Services Committee. First, military forces alone cannot deter hybrid warfare strategies: Effective deterrence will require nonmilitary efforts and capabilities, such as diplomacy and foreign aid, experts contend. Second, simply responding to hybrid warfare actions by deploying forces to the incident area is usually insufficient, even if deployed rapidly, because these enemy actions are designed to unfold “under the radar,” deliberately delaying and confounding United States and ally decision-making to achieve objectives before friendly forces are able to exert any influence.
Third, hybrid warfare strategies are always underway, dispersed across the battlespace, modulating the amplitude of action, taking advantage of opportunities in the gray zone between peace and crisis, now known as the “competition phase,” and the use of military force that is acknowledged as a crisis requiring a prompt military response.
The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning explains that “competition below [the threshold of] armed conflict requires different ways of thinking about escalation and deterrence” and provides a three-pronged framework for military operations in the competition phase — contest, counter and improve. For example, today it is possible to defend or mitigate the effects of a cyber attack. However, deterrence will need to focus on shaping targeted actors’ behavior and deterring actions (individually or as part of a larger campaign) above a certain threshold, rather than preventing all forms of cyber attacks, which is impossible.
Deterrence in a complex world characterized by hybrid warfare and A2/AD can be accomplished by conducting military operations and activities in the competition phase designed to achieve effects in this framework. Efforts to prevent the competitor from achieving its aims and improve the overall strategic position, efforts to prevent the adversary from achieving further gains, and efforts to contest adversary actions seek to obtain the best possible strategic outcome (policy goals), while managing risks.
Prevention efforts in competition can be achieved by using conventional forces to strengthen the conventional and irregular capabilities of U.S. allies and partners and by operating in areas or spaces the enemy seeks to control. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command explains this approach as “demonstrating the ability to turn spaces the adversary can deny into contested spaces and demonstrating the ability to maneuver from operational and strategic distances.”
In this complex environment, deterrence efforts to contest adversary actions will require observable action, as a static theater force posture model alone is insufficient to deter hybrid warfare. What is required to defeat aggression is to actively disrupt the adversary’s systems that enable its operational approach of using hybrid warfare.
If the U.S. and its allies and partners intend to stop the enemy’s advance, hybrid warfare must be contested with more than just a demonstration of forces and capabilities. The enemy’s forward advance must be blocked by turning areas the enemy believes it does or can control into contested space. Effective deterrence, which prevents the adversary from deploying hybrid warfare, or initiating open-armed conflict, requires that the U.S. and its allies and partners defeat the adversary’s systems during the peacetime competition phase.
Russia is now in a state of permanent confrontation with the United States and its NATO allies, according to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian army. Russian aggression typical of the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine was recently put on display on November 26, 2018, when Russian coast guard ships rammed, fired upon, boarded and seized three Ukrainian Navy ships that were conducting peaceful transit of the contested Kerch Strait separating the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The Russian law enforcement vessels used asymmetry of forces to attack Ukrainian military vessels, wounding two sailors, imprisoning the crews and impounding the vessels, the Associated Press reported.
In the Indo-Pacific, communist China has ratcheted up tensions, exhibiting the very “Cold War mentality” of which it has accused of the United States and its allies. Speaking as the commander in chief of China’s military forces, during a tour of several military commands, Xi Jinping told his admirals and generals to “prepare for war” and to ramp-up opposition to U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations in international waters, according to Australia News Corporation reports. Xi’s threats of military action followed actual aggressive maneuvers by the Chinese navy’s Luyang Class Destroyer Lanzhou against the USS Decatur on September 30, 2018. The dangerous confrontation was in breach of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which China joined as a signatory in 2014, according to an October 2018 Maritime Executive report.
With the latest set of security, defense and diplomacy strategies, the U.S. has a coherent framework to counter adversary activities. More resources, including greater force strength, are needed to implement this policy and enable these strategies. The world is more complex, more volatile, uncertain and ambiguous than it has been in years. Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today’s global security environment was “the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service.” These are the security conditions of which military professionals and citizens must stay abreast.
Deterrence as a complex and nuanced enterprise
The traditional concept of deterrence in the modern era is exemplified by the “frozen conflicts” of the Cold War front lines along the inner-German and inner-Korean borders. A 2008 Rand Corp. report predicted that deterrence would once again feature prominently in U.S. national security and defense strategies and advised that understanding the logic of Cold War deterrence will be crucial to developing effective deterrence against peer/near-peer competitors, regional powers and nonstate actors. The character of these frozen conflicts was that of forward-stationed conventional forces prepared to engage in combat within the well-recognized battlefield geometry of three areas of engagement: close, deep and rear. In these settings, conventional forces, supported by tactical, theater and strategic nuclear forces, held opposing forces at bay.
The extensive battlespace of focus for NATO and the Warsaw Pact militaries was bounded to the north and south by the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, organized into Army Group sectors, and separated by the Iron Curtain. Alert-ready, forward-stationed forces, supported with prepositioned war stocks, conducted annual exercises to practice war plans and demonstrate immediate readiness. This has also been the model for United Nations and Combined Forced Command, which postures United States and Republic of Korea military forces for action along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) against the North Korean military. These Cold War battlefields fit the pattern of contiguous, well-defined, and mostly contained battlespace, with little room for maneuver due to the lack of uncontested space at the front line. In both cases, the border was the first line of defense in a “forward defense” posture.
The Cold War battlefields of these frozen conflicts did not see any movement of the front lines, which remained static until the end of the Cold War in Europe and remain fixed today on the Korean Peninsula. The contested space was filled by occasional flare-ups, demonstrations near the main battlefield, and by proxy wars in Asia, Africa, South America and Central America. By comparison, the front lines of the 21st-century security environment are in flux, as national borders are shifted by irregular and hybrid warfare means and methods, and then secured and defended by conventional military force and anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.
With the exception of the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula where the first Cold War never ended, the current battlespace in the Indo-Pacific is characterized by opposing forces that are separated by great distances. Much of the battlespace, or competition space, in between these forces is contested, as demonstrated by U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation operations, competing territorial claims and efforts by nations to assert physical control in support of their claims. This environment provides many opportunities for adversaries operating according to their own rules of hybrid warfare.