As the war in Ukraine rages on, military experts are collecting information and assessing whether current and future warfighting concepts are adequate to deter or, if necessary, fight and win future wars against a powerful enemy. Whether the U.S. military will use Ukraine to fairly stress test these concepts or simply interpret the findings to confirm the efficacy of these warfighting theories remains to be seen.
The United States military is currently organizing around the concept of Multi-Domain Operations. Multi-Domain Operations consist of the physical domains, and places increased emphasis on space, cyberspace, the electromagnetic spectrum, the information environment, and the cognitive dimension of warfare, sometimes referred to as the human terrain. The concept envisions combat forces working as part of joint, interagency, and multinational teams to deter and, if necessary, defeat highly capable peer enemies. The war in Ukraine has already provided insights that are at odds with key aspects of multi-domain operations. Most significantly, the multi-domain operational concept was irrelevant in its primary goal of deterring Russian aggression.
The American style of warfare has generally sought to crush opponents through offensive strategies of attrition or annihilation. Historically, U.S. military doctrine has asserted that offensive operations win wars. Multi-Domain Operations have a similar offensive orientation. The fighting in Ukraine is reminding us that war is still a brutal, destructive, protracted enterprise that can render grandiose concepts irrelevant. Geography and distance still matter. Weather continues to impede operations and break troop morale. Dumb, WWII-type munitions, rather than precision munitions, remain the greatest killer on the battlefield and may ultimately be decisive. A key question for American political leaders is whether the U.S. military can withstand such a war of attrition.
Multi-Domain Operations take for granted political willingness to directly engage targets deep inside the enemy’s homeland. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated an unwillingness to face off against a nuclear-armed enemy, unless, presumably, attacked first. This lack of will seems to hold regardless of the stakes. To be sure, U.S. offensive operations, especially inside of Russia, could broaden the war, particularly if the Russians believe that they are facing defeat. According to Russian doctrine, such a scenario meets the conditions for using nuclear weapons. If Russia used a low-yield nuclear weapon against a U.S. offensive thrust inside Russia, it is doubtful the U.S. would respond in kind or continue offensive operations. This makes much of Multi-Domain Operations unusable and increases the freedom for maneuver for nuclear armed opponents.
Still, for many military thinkers, it seemed unlikely that the kind of warfare taking place in Ukraine would ever happen again, especially in Europe. Russia’s war with Ukraine has become a clarion call for military planners to rethink the importance of “hard power” and to invest more in artillery, infantry, and armor and reduce investments in cyber, electronic warfare, and even air power. After all, it has been on the ground, the physical domain of land, where most of the fighting in Ukraine has been taking place. Activities in the other domains have been peripheral.
Because of the failure to deter and an unwillingness to fight, the critical question seems to be how best to deter adversaries in the future. Given the realities of what we are observing in Ukraine, future concepts and capabilities should focus on deterring Russian (and Chinese) aggression. Future concepts must rethink how best to deter and defend in depth to deny a Russian or Chinese win. Deterring aggression by making it infeasible to succeed, and reducing an aggressor’s confidence in attaining its objectives, should be prioritized above defeating the aggressor. The proponents of the American style of war will not be happy with a shift to a defensive posture. But it appears that a theory of victory against a nuclear armed opponent will not be an offensive one.
The Russians and Chinese are undoubtedly making their own assessments about the “limited military intervention” in Ukraine. The cost of the war in blood, treasure, economic well-being, and prestige foreshadows a dark future for the Russian people. This reality is in sharp contrast with how Russia, prior to the war, successfully achieved policy and security objectives minimizing the risk of confrontation with the U.S. The Russians used non-standard, unorthodox means to advance their interests below the threshold that would generate serious opposition. The Russians know that the U.S. is poorly organized to operate in what is referred to as the “gray zone.” The return on investment for Russian operations short of conventional war and in the gray zone, stands in sharp contrast to what will ultimately be a dismal return on investment for their “limited military intervention” in Ukraine. This likely portends a greater use of non-standard, unorthodox means by Russia in the future.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin set in motion his plan to rebuild the empire and reestablish Russian prominence on the global stage. Adding to his motivation was his intense anti-West attitude. Russia accommodated the West to secure the acquisition of technologies, cooperated on combating terrorism efforts, and for tactical purposes accepted pro-Western revolutions. At the same time, Moscow used physical, social, economic, political, and informational tools to shape international reaction to accept Russian actions.
In the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow advanced the narrative that local Ukrainians and pro-Russian supporters were seeking closer relations to the Russian Federation using multiple forms of messaging. Russian special operatives were covertly operating to advance Moscow’s control while masking attribution. Putin announced that foreign interference would be costly, deterring any meaningful international response. Cyber-attacks that cut phone, internet, and military communications blinded civilian and military leaders as Russian conventional forces rolled into parts of Ukraine and Crimea unopposed. Ukrainian forces in Crimea had few options other than surrender. International outrage was muted due to limited physical damage and loss of life. Russian media stayed on message, legitimizing Moscow’s actions while jamming Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcasts. Russian information warfare shaped the almost negligible international response, facilitating the endgame. Moscow successfully exploited America’s gray zone paralysis.
The Chinese have undoubtedly been watching and learning from Russia’s “special military operation” too. Xi Jinping has observed the unprecedented global response to Russian aggression and is likely calculating the cost of a war over Taiwan. For Xi, invading Taiwan may risk his broader goal of global domination. More importantly, Xi Jinping’s grand strategy has advanced China’s interests while operating below the threshold that would generate serious global opposition. Like their Russian ally, China has successfully operated in the gray zone, the space that paralyzes U.S. policy makers.
China has actively exploited the features of free societies. China has used its cyber capabilities to steal billions of dollars in sensitive intellectual property to fast track the development of sophisticated military weapons. Additionally, China uses its information warfare capabilities and leverage with American media to undermine democratic elections and sow seeds of dissension domestically.
For decades American policymakers wrongly assumed that facilitating China’s economic expansion would lead to liberalization. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) successfully hid its intentions and was able to use the United States while remaining hostile to it. The CCP’s use of economic warfare and economic espionage has made the U.S dependent on supply chains that originate in China, and have given the CCP a near monopoly on semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, and the production of rare earth metals that are crucial in electronic components, lasers, glass, magnetic materials, and industrial processes. Fortunately, America and its allies have awoken in part because Beijing no longer hides its ambitions and is strong enough to both deter and challenge the United States openly and aggressively. The CCP has played its hand well by exploiting America’s gray zone paralysis.
The United States and its allies have been sluggish in recognizing and adequately responding to both Moscow’s and Beijing’s aggression inside the gray zone. Satisfied with avoiding general war, the U.S. missed, or looked the other way, as its enemies used potent, unorthodox methods to achieve their policy objectives and undermine the position of the United States. To be clear, the American conception of war and peace created structural deficits that facilitated Russian and Chinese advances.
Why can’t the U.S. succeed below the threshold of conventional war? In 1955 Henry Kissinger wrote a prescient article titled, “Military Policy and Defense of the ‘Grey Areas’.” Although the article was about the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, its logic remains relevant against today’s threats. The logic that has deterred general war has blinded American leaders in the post-Cold War era from considering the alternative options being employed by our adversaries. And by extension, has paralyzed the U.S. from adequately responding.
Kissinger’s conception of “grey areas” cautioned about the serious consequences of being satisfied with avoiding general war at the expense of losing in peripheral areas. Rather than advancing Kissinger’s ideas, contemporary gray zone literature makes the zone an unworkable area and indirectly reinforces the preference for the American style of warfare that seeks to crush opponents through strategies of attrition or annihilation.
The current conception of the gray zone is the space between war and peace. Unfortunately, there is a lot of area in this space with too much going on to make the concept useful. More importantly, for the last half century the distinctions between war and peace have faded. The United States gets taken advantage of because of its simple binary conception of war and peace. We tend to either over-militarize policy or over-constrain the response. By contrast, America’s key adversaries do not distinguish between war and peace.
Our enemies have been successful in accomplishing their strategic goals without pushing the United States out of the peace end of the peace-war continuum. The United States struggles to properly respond when denied a trigger. One important lesson of the last twenty years is that the U.S. military is designed for conventional interstate conflict and ill-equipped for the full range of contemporary security challenges. A more recent lesson from the war in Ukraine is that the U.S. will avoid direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed opponent regardless of what is at stake, making the American way of war mostly obsolete.
The methods used by Russia and China are manifestations of what George Kennan called “political warfare.” As the architect of the Cold War strategy of containment, Kennan was arguably the most consequential U.S. diplomat of the 20th century. He recognized the potential catastrophic consequences of traditional war with the Soviets but simultaneously cautioned national security officials about their attachment to their binary conception of war and peace. For Kennan, war would have to be fought in the political realm to counter the Kremlin’s “most refined and effective” use of political warfare. In a 1948 Policy Planning Staff Memorandum, he defined U.S. political warfare as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.”
Although Kennan’s memo offered some detail about the nature of political warfare, it was incomplete. It is important to state that political warfare is not unethical or illegal actions. Nor is it simple encouragement or military and economic assistance to friends and allies. It must be viewed as an act of war whose outcome depends on the seriousness of the actor’s commitment and how the actions are calculated to further the national interest. Political warfare requires a war-like mentality. Anything less will result in the same type of failure one would expect from a flippant, conventional military excursion.
Kennan’s recommended government structure for planning and executing political warfare never materialized. But Washington successfully organized an international coalition that contained and ultimately caused the Soviet Union to collapse. It is very likely that capable Western leaders, who were battle-hardened in WWII before transitioning to the Cold War, contributed to this success. It is also likely that the clear and serious threat posed by the Soviets focused everyone’s interest. Additionally, the “internal convulsions” within the Soviet system that Kennan referred to in his “Long Telegram” aided the Western cause. And finally, a consensus among the allies emerged after WWII, making clear the values worth fighting for. Most of the elements that helped defeat the Soviets were absent before Russia’s current “limited military intervention.” But they have returned. And recent Chinese actions against Taiwan should reinforce those values.
No longer can America’s security be guaranteed exclusively by relying on traditional tools of statecraft to deter general war. Furthermore, a nuclear-armed adversary will likely deter the United States from general war absent an existential threat to the homeland. The United States has and will continue to lose ground against Russian and Chinese aggression without developing an effective political warfare mindset and the capability to deter and roll back enemy actions in the periphery. The ability to engage in traditional great power competition and political warfare are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary and equally powerful. The best way for the United States to ensure deterrence and generate support from allies is to defeat our common enemies at their own game of political warfare. This lesson must be an important element of what we learn from the war in Ukraine.