Missing the Seam

US Marines pause during counterinsurgency operations as part of Operation Moshtarak. Photo from USMC via Wikicommons.

Earlier this month, the new National Military Strategy (NMS 2015) was released, and garnered attention for its focus on hybrid warfare — notably the style of coercion and disruption through various means Russia has employed against Ukraine for more than a year now, or that Iran has exported for a generation. Hybrid warfare, according to Rep. Mac Thornberry as quoted by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “poses a challenge for us, and adversaries know that. They’re looking to run between the seams and confuse and delay us.”

Unfortunately, this seam is likely to remain ever visible and accessible to our adversaries. A policy document of this nature is not a comprehensive assessment of ongoing and planned operations to counter adversarial moves. One should not expect much more than bureaucratic posturing in such a document. But, this document and its predecessor (NMS 2011) do outline what the Defense establishment considers to be our vital interests and at least expresses what the military and government’s expected results for these policies should look like.

In 2011 our military leaders stated that the operational fundamentals of US military power were either going to improve or tank

The NMS 2011 and NMS 2015 identified similar interests for the nation and its military. Security, economic strength in a liberal global system, advancing universal (or our) values, and ensuring US leadership of the international order — or roughly preserve the same global order that has prevailed since World War II. The NMS from 2011 stated “our ability to lead will determine how well we advance America’s interests through this strategic inflection point.” What does that mean, you ask. Well, here’s a diagram:

Andrew Grove’s diagram of a “strategic inflection point.” Somewhat ominous.

“Strategic inflection point” is a phrase I had never read before, so I looked it up. It’s a business term coined by Andrew Grove and means “a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.” In 2011 our military leaders, either knowingly or not — I can’t determine which — stated to the public that the operational fundamentals of US military power were either going to improve or tank based on the decisions we started making. What trajectory do you think we are heading in?

The NMS from 2015 focuses on the intertwined and rapid developments seen in demographics, technology, and “globalization.” The document states in the conclusion that our strategy “recognized the increasing complexity of the global environment” as well as “our significant advantages, our commitment to international norms, the importance of allies and partners and the powerful allure” of our values. But, the strategic mantra that this document reinforces is only able to address the idealized worlds of either massive conventional warfare or countering violent networks of limited means.

NMS 2015 fails to address the seam that Congressman Thornberry has identified. This is alarming because that hybrid seam has been evident for some time now, and directly witnessed by every senior leader in the US military. Not to mention the fact that hybrid forms of warfare have been in use for centuries as either partisan, insurgent, or terrorist means of combat. And this is a critical point. Our strategic thinking has been, as many have pointed out, less than successful in recent years. The hybrid seam, though identified in the most recent NMS, is lost in Power Point fueled analysis. It is essential to point this out now, and attempt to overcome it. To do otherwise will endanger those interests and — worse — waste a lot of money on a declining power sunk low by bad planning. One can debate who our greatest threat is, but few note that our own incompetence should also be high on the list.

The Chairman’s Foreword to NMS 2015 identifies the potential for prolonged, complex challenges in the future. This was often commented on when the document was released about two weeks ago. The document acknowledges that the military is more likely to face prolonged campaigns and even goes so far as to state “with reduced resources, we may have to adjust our global posture.” The brass wants to pin this on sequestration, which is definitely causing problems. As @pptsapper pointed out to great effect last week, there are huge personnel issues looming in the Army. The three goals of deterring state aggression against our allies or interests, countering any aggression should it occur, and pursuing extremist networks throughout the globe will be difficult to achieve.

But, it is not just the budget and the Congress that should be blamed for this. We have been unable to develop workable strategies to reinforce the “seam” that hybrid forms of warfare (or politics, or economics, whatever the term) exploit. The track record of late has been terrible. We have been unsuccessful in two large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns, our other actions in the Middle East have produced incredible levels of instability, our response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been excessively sluggish, and China now has the greatest and most complete intelligence profile of an adversary that any power has ever possessed in history.

Graphics in Power Point should not be mistaken for a solution to your problems
Graphics in Power Point should not be mistaken for a solution to your problems

If one wants to see where the trouble resides in this document, one merely has to look at the Power Point slides (of course). We have an idea how to attack violent non-state actors and cause those groups a great deal of trouble. Our operations in this regard are resource intensive, but they degrade the ability of these networks to operate effectively unless they receive external support. When that does happen, and it has occurred frequently in recent decades, we are stuck in the complex and prolonged task of countering hybrid warfare. The current Beltway “solution” to this is to build partner capacity. This is now followed with the customary clarification that challenging political, social, and economic issues will also need to be addressed. But, we encounter great difficulty in understanding let alone addressing these issues. We don’t really have a strategy, we have acceptable talking points to muddle one’s way through a confirmation hearing or press conference.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize the “seam” that we can’t defend will remain the focal point of attack for all our adversaries.

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