Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Conflating Great Power Competition with High-Intensity Conflict

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

The clear takeaway from the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) is that the United States is shifting its focus to great power competition with Russia and China and U.S. conventional military deterrence. This shift was arguably already underway in the Obama administration, and it is likely to continue in the Biden administration. As our colleague Zack Cooper points out, the “great power” phrasing may not be ideal for several reasons, including that it lumps Russia and China into the same category when they pose significantly different security challenges. Our issue with the phrase is more about how it is used — and sometimes abused — when translating strategy into capabilities. Like the little kid Ralphie in A Christmas Story who is so intensely set on getting a Red Ryder Carbine air rifle that nothing else seems to matter, it is easy to become so enamored with high-intensity conflict that we begin to conflate great power competition with the capabilities needed for high-intensity conflict, and thus ignore the other dimensions of this competition.

When considering the sophisticated military threats posed by both Russia and China, it is natural to focus on the capabilities needed to counter these threats directly. As former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated, “we must move away from low intensity conflict and prepare once again for high-intensity warfare.” Esper is correct that after nearly two decades of combat at the lower end of the spectrum, our forces are not optimized for the capabilities needed in a highly-contested environment. This is the impetus for many of the modernization programs being pursued.

However, continued improvements in U.S. military dominance at the high end will have limited coercive impact on near-peer adversaries like China and Russia if they are not balanced by investments in other areas. As noted in the Irregular Warfare (IW) Annex to the 2018 NDS, “Past U.S. approaches to IW have been cyclical and neglected the fact that IW — in addition to nuclear and conventional deterrence — can proactively shape conditions to the United States’ advantage in great power competition.”

Russia and China are conducting operations to advance their influence, legitimacy, and capabilities in the gray zone — below the threshold of conventional warfare — using irregular forces and activities that are sometimes ambiguous or difficult to attribute. China is leveraging influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries, weaponizing international law to erode norms as a component of its strategic doctrine, and dumping sand and concrete onto reefs to create artificial militarized islands in the Pacific. The Chinese also appear unfazed by conventional U.S. military responses in the South China Sea, such as freedom of navigation and military exercises.

Russia is discrediting and subverting democratic processes throughout Europe by cultivating malign influence networks, deploying private military companies to advance national security interests across the globe in a quasi-deniable manner, and conducting malicious cyber operations in the form of disruptive malware. More recently, Russia engaged in a form of gray zone aggression in space by launching what it claimed to be an inspector satellite that closely trailed a classified U.S. government satellite. In July 2020, it used that same satellite to test fire a space-based anti-satellite weapon, contradicting its pledge to not deploy weapons in space. The risks of allowing these activities to go unchecked is that they can slowly change the status quo, erode norms, and create new norms of behavior that disadvantage the United States and its allies. 

Advanced weapons systems are absolutely essential for high-intensity conflict, but these systems are often not well-suited to help with the gray zone or irregular warfare challenges described above. The U.S. military needs a range of other capabilities that can operate in more permissive (yet still challenging) environments. For example, Special Operations Forces can be used to train, equip, and augment friendly forces that are fighting Russian or Chinese proxy forces. Contractor-operated aircraft, ships, and satellites can be used to augment organic U.S. military intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and communications capabilities in an environment where policymakers are not willing to directly involve U.S. forces, where a U.S. military presence could be counterproductive, or where U.S. government capabilities could be compromised.

As a recent RAND report notes, the U.S. has “never maintained a standing capability for designing, conducting, or overseeing irregular warfare campaigns…” We have assumed that conventional military dominance will trump any need to specifically address irregular activities. Some may argue that high-end capabilities should be the focus because high-intensity conflict poses the greatest risk to national security. But gray zone conflict and irregular warfare are more probable, and these types of conflicts — and the operations needed to deter them — are likely to occupy the United States for much of the foreseeable future. Moreover, China and Russia are likely to use hybrid tactics before, during, and throughout a high-intensity conflict, both within and outside of the primary theater of action.

U.S. policymakers must set the expectation that protecting America’s security interests will require long-term engagement abroad — both covert and overt. In Africa, for example, China and Russia have made aggressive, targeted investments as both powers look to expand their influence. As a bipartisan group of representatives noted, ongoing U.S. stability operations against violent extremist organizations in the region aid the larger counterterrorism mission and provide “democratic values and military expertise with developing nations across the continent.” A myopic focus on deployments risks ceding critical areas of influence to U.S. adversaries.

Additionally, using high-intensity conflict as a stand-in for great power competition implicitly devalues innovative concepts for using lower-end capabilities. Lower-end capabilities, such as non-stealthy aircraft and surface ships, can provide support at the edge of the battlespace — just beyond the limits of Russian and Chinese anti-access and area denial capabilities. For example, aerial refueling, ISR, and transport aircraft can serve as communications relays or data processing nodes to enable new levels of automation and integration in the kill chain. These “edge” capabilities are also well suited for supporting other nations in conflicts where the U.S. may want to limit its involvement and may serve as an important layer of deterrence for allies and partners.

Importantly, these capabilities complement but do not replace the high-end capabilities needed to take the fight directly to an adversary. Oversimplifying U.S. defense priorities as a zero-sum fight between counterterrorism (“forever war”) missions and high-intensity conflict is unhelpful. Despite the prospects of a flat or declining defense budget, it is not an either-or choice — it’s a matter of balance. Though today’s great power challenges differ from the bipolar era of the Cold War, history indicates the U.S. has renewed its focus on irregular activities at little cost to other defense priorities before. At the same time, however, this should not be construed as a justification for keeping legacy capabilities and force structure that are not well suited for any dimension of great power competition. Difficult choices must still be made.The new administration has an important task before it: to continue the lagging process of rebalancing the budget while prioritizing the capabilities needed for great power competition. But in this quest to rebalance and reprioritize, we should listen to the mom in A Christmas Story when she issues this dire warning to her son: “you’ll shoot your eye out.” An excessive focus on high-end capabilities and high-intensity conflict will blind us to the other dimensions of great power competition that must also be prioritized.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Ben Mota

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