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CAMPAIGNING IN THE AGE OF 5 AGAINST 1

Updated: 3 days ago

Making a Case For a Global Asymmetric Competition Campaign

By Monte Erfourth

Strategy Central – May 11, 2024






















 

INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

The contemporary geopolitical landscape presents a complex array of threats to the United States, particularly from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and various violent terrorist organizations. These adversaries, once operating in isolation, have forged an alarming collaboration that spans economic, military, and technological domains. This union poses a grave threat to U.S. global dominance and strategic interests.

As these adversarial relationships deepen, the United States faces a strategic disconnect. The Joint Force currently employs separate strategies tailored to individual threats, neglecting the collaborative nature of these adversaries. This oversight renders the U.S. response fragmented and less effective, exacerbating the risk of strategic failures.

 

ANALYSIS OF THREATS AND THEIR COLLABORATION

The contemporary geopolitical landscape presents a complex array of threats to the United States, most prominently from China, Russia, and Iran. These nations have shifted from relatively isolated stances against the United States to a more collaborative approach in geopolitical maneuvering. This collusion spans economic, military, and technological realms, intensifying the threat to U.S. global dominance in the post-Cold War era. Each nation contributes uniquely to this emerging coalition, leveraging its strengths to challenge U.S. interests globally.  The fifth threat is violent extremists, but this article will focus on the threat posed by nation-states. 

As the primary strategic competitor, China is rapidly expanding its military capabilities, economic influence, and technological advancements to project power globally, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Economically, China supports Russia by purchasing increased amounts of oil and gas, helping Russia withstand Western sanctions related to the Ukrainian conflict. This financial support not only strengthens Russia's economic stability but also secures energy resources for China, potentially at lower rates. Additionally, China supplies Russia with critical military technologies, including semiconductor technologies and radar and communications jamming equipment, which are crucial for enhancing Russia's capabilities in electronic and cyber warfare. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and militarization of the South China Sea further signify its long-term ambitions to reshape the global order in its favor.[1]

Iran contributes to this alliance by supplying drones to Russia, significantly enhancing Russian military effectiveness in Ukraine. Plans are reportedly in place to establish a drone manufacturing facility in Russia, aiming to increase production capacity and technological self-reliance. Iran's regional activities, particularly its support for proxy groups and its ballistic missile and nuclear programs, exacerbate tensions with U.S. allies and pose significant risks to regional stability, especially around the strategic Strait of Hormuz.[2]

Russia uses a hybrid warfare strategy that includes disinformation campaigns, political interference, and military engagements, particularly noticeable in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The annexation of Crimea and military presence in Syria are clear indicators of Russia's intent to reassert its influence over former Soviet states and challenge U.S. interests directly. This reassertion poses a heightened threat to NATO, reminiscent of the tensions experienced during the 1980s.[3]

These nations support each other's immediate strategic needs, such as Russia's in Ukraine, and share a broader objective to counterbalance American influence and reshape global alliances traditionally dominated by the West. Their strategic alignment and cooperation are evident in their unified stance in international forums against Western policies, indicating a deepening geopolitical strategy with potentially enduring impacts on global stability.

The current U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Joint Force strategies must be better aligned to counter this multidimensional threat effectively. The DoD operates with separate plans for each major threat, lacking a unified strategy that considers the collaborative nature of these threats. This approach results in fragmented and insufficiently coordinated efforts across the Geographic Combatant Commands and the Functional commands that operate globally and in space. The existing disjointed strategy exposes the United States to significant risk and undermines its ability to maintain a dominant position in an increasingly unified multipolar world aligned against it.

The threat posed by China, Russia, and Iran, particularly in their collective capacity to challenge U.S. interests, underscores the urgent need for a cohesive and strategic response from the United States. This response should integrate all elements of national power and leverage the unique capabilities of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). USSOCOM is strategically positioned to develop and lead a global irregular campaign to deter, degrade, contain, and defeat these asymmetric threats. With its specialized capabilities and global reach, USSOCOM is ideally suited to spearhead this critical initiative, ensuring the United States can effectively respond to and overcome the challenges posed by this axis of autocrats. This approach is necessary and essential to sustain U.S. supremacy and safeguard global stability.


STRATEGIC RE-ALIGNMENT UNDER USSOCOM

In an increasingly complex global security environment, the United States faces sophisticated threats from state actors like China and Russia, who prefer asymmetric strategies to counter traditional American military might. This evolving context demands an adaptive and integrated approach to national security, particularly through the lens of irregular warfare. While impressive and vital, the conventional capabilities commonly imagined by tanks, planes, and ships are often circumvented by adversaries skilled in asymmetric warfare, a domain where China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) and other adversaries excel. It might be possible to characterize the PLA’s center of gravity as its organization, doctrine, strategy, and activities grounded in asymmetrical warfare and coordinated through an asymmetrical campaign.

Asymmetric warfare represents a critical vulnerability for the U.S., highlighted by the PLA’s strategic focus on leveraging such tactics to exploit gaps in traditional American military responses. The current structure of the Joint Force further exacerbates this vulnerability due to its traditional emphasis on direct conflict, relegating asymmetric warfare to a secondary role primarily within counterterrorism (CT) frameworks. This strategic oversight leaves a significant gap between peacetime competition and outright conflict, a gap that adversaries are poised to exploit.

Both conventional forces and Special Operations Forces (SOF) engage across the full spectrum of military competition. However, the conventional forces primarily confront the challenges posed by conventional military strategies and activities, often without sufficient integration of ways and means to confront the asymmetric approach favored by all nations hostile to the United States.  Even when the conventional forces in the Joint Force consider asymmetric attacks, they rarely consult with the asymmetric expertise residing within the SOF community. This disconnect results from organizational and operational silos that hinder effective collaboration and strategic alignment across different military domains.

The Goldwater-Nichols Act restructured the military command, streamlining command from the President through the Secretary of Defense to the Combatant Commanders and establishing six geographic theaters of operation. This artifact of Cold War structure has its merits. However, this structure has also left a Department of Defense that lacks a unified, globally coordinated campaign strategy, resulting in fragmented and locally focused campaign plans that fail to synchronize efforts across theaters effectively. This lack of global coordination is a glaring weakness that China and Russia exploit strategically.

Addressing this gap requires rethinking the current command structure to enable more effective global coordination against asymmetric threats. Potential solutions include establishing a global command or adapting existing structures to better integrate and leverage U.S. capabilities across theaters. USSOCOM, with its unique focus on irregular warfare and global reach, is well-positioned to lead an integrated global asymmetric effort under a unified command.

USSOCOM, designated as a Functional Combatant Command (FCC) under Section 164 of Title 10 U.S. Code, operates beyond geographic constraints and, much like a service, brings specialized capabilities to the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCC). Through its Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), which are tactically aligned to GCCs, USSOCOM resources SOF operations regionally. As the Joint SOF Headquarters and irregular lead within the Joint Force, it retains the capacity to operate globally, making it a potential cornerstone for a new, integrated approach to asymmetric threats.

The concept of USSOCOM evolving into a “Global Task Force” to counter named threats underlines its capability to coordinate efforts across theaters, utilizing its global situational awareness and operational flexibility. If given Operational Control of all SOF in all theaters as required, a truly global asymmetric campaign could be made. JSOC and the TSOCs could remain the primary operational elements, and USSOCOM could operate as the strategic command responsible for designing and coordinating a campaign.  This would streamline efforts and enhance the effectiveness of U.S. responses to global asymmetric strategies employed by state adversaries.

Augmenting USSOCOM's role and reconfiguring it as a global command authority could bridge the existing strategic and operational gaps. This approach would leverage the unique capabilities of SOF in a globally coordinated campaign, enhancing the United States' ability to deter, degrade, and defeat asymmetric threats effectively. Such a strategic realignment would address current vulnerabilities and fortify U.S. national security against sophisticated global threats.

The evolving nature of global threats necessitates a unified command structure to enhance the effectiveness and responsiveness of U.S. strategic efforts. USSOCOM, with its unique capabilities and existing infrastructure, is ideally positioned to lead this charge. By leveraging its Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs) network, USSOCOM can orchestrate a cohesive and integrated response that spans multiple theaters and domains.

This re-alignment under USSOCOM would consolidate the currently disparate strategic efforts into a singular, focused campaign. This approach not only streamlines command and control but also enhances the operational flexibility necessary to address the multifaceted nature of the threats posed by these adversarial alliances. However, it still leaves the conventional efforts in a state of plans and command disunity. If the DoD were to retain the GCC structure, the only remedy to achieve unity of command is a General Staff led by a five-star General or Admiral.

 

CHALLENGES TO A GLOBAL IW CAMPAIGN

The endeavor to enact a globally coordinated irregular warfare campaign led by USSOCOM faces several substantial challenges, including military resistance, political hurdles, and legal constraints. Each of these factors plays a critical role in shaping the feasibility and effectiveness of such a strategy.

There are three primary dimensions to resistance for any command that would assume the lead as a unified command combating asymmetric attacks from our nation’s rivals.  Each is considered as follows.

Institutional Resistance: The institutional inertia within the broader Defense Department, and to a lesser extent within USSOCOM, is a significant barrier. USSOCOM has yet to propose a global irregular strategy or explore how to effectively counter the main threat posed by the PRC's "Three Warfares" asymmetric approach to degrade the United States’ global superiority.  The command is currently developing a revised Campaign Plan – Global Special Operations (CP-GSO). Still, it is unclear if it will focus on CT with competition as a secondary mission or place competition above CT.

The lack of advocacy for a leadership role in asymmetric warfare is compounded by a fragmented command and control structure. Currently, there is no unity of command at the global level, which severely hampers the Joint Force's ability to coordinate actions and fully understand the scope of rival activities. This disjointed view contrasts sharply with the more holistic perspectives of adversaries. Additionally, the predominant focus on conflict overshadows the necessity for an asymmetric strategy tailored to the modes of competition preferred by rivals. Furthermore, two decades of emphasis on counterterrorism have dulled strategic thinking regarding unconventional threats from peer rivals, leaving a leadership deficit trained or experienced in crafting comprehensive global strategies.

Political Resistance: The integration with other agencies has historically been poor, and attempts at improvement have consistently fallen short. Carl von Clausewitz's concept of the 'remarkable trinity' reflects the complex interplay of violence, chance, and the political use of war, highlighting the contradictory and unpredictable nature of warfare that involves the people, the military, and the government. In the U.S., fractured politics often allow emotionally driven public opinion to influence foreign policy, undermining the rational application of military strategy as a tool of national policy. This disconnect leads to a lack of coherent political objectives, complicating the strategic direction of the Joint Force and making integration of the DIME elements of power that much harder.  There is also an outsized fear of political risk that hinders bold action and stymies initiative, which could be mitigated by AI power risk analysis that has yet to be adopted.  If USSOCOM were to be designated the lead for a global irregular campaign, this problem must be addressed.

Legal Resistance: Legal hurdles also impede USSOCOM's operational flexibility. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) reflects public and political apprehension toward special operations, further restricting USSOCOM's capacity to act decisively and expansively.  Revising Title 10, the Unified Command Plan, Joint Strategic Campaign Plan, and other legal and strategic documents would be required. 

Conclusively, while the path to assigning USSOCOM as the lead for a global irregular campaign is fraught with obstacles—ranging from structural limitations and legal constraints to political inertia—the command's proven adaptability and expertise in unconventional warfare make it the ideal candidate to develop and lead efforts to deter, degrade, contain, and defeat the asymmetric attacks against the United States. Such a leadership role would not only leverage USSOCOM’s specialized capabilities but also significantly enhance the overall strategic posture of the United States in the face of global threats.

 

CONCLUSION AND CALL TO ACTION

The strategic landscape has undeniably transformed with the increasing collaboration among major U.S. adversaries such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The disjointed nature of the current U.S. strategic response is being systematically outpaced and outmaneuvered by these adversaries' cohesive and concerted efforts. In this new era of warfare, USSOCOM stands out as the most capable command to lead a global irregular campaign. Its expertise in asymmetric warfare and its global operational reach position USSOCOM as the ideal leader to effectively counteract evolving threats.

Adopting a coordinated and globally oriented irregular warfare framework under USSOCOM’s leadership, or some other unified structure is not merely an option but a strategic imperative. This point bears repeating: asymmetry is a critical vulnerability of the U.S. An asymmetric campaign under a unified command is crucial for deterring, degrading, and defeating the asymmetric strategies that peer competitors like China and Russia employ. If pursued with vigor and strategic foresight, this approach will advance U.S. national security interests and preserve its position in the global order.

As we face this new age of strategic competition, the call to action is clear: reorient U.S. military and strategic postures under USSOCOM to effectively compete asymmetrically on the global stage. The DoD desires to maintain strategic advantage and secure a stable international environment conducive to U.S. interests and values.  This can only be achieved through a unified and focused approach. The stakes are high, as the threats from China, Russia, Iran, and the DPRK are not just persistent but are strategically aligned against U.S. global interests. USSOCOM must be empowered to lead this critical mission, as it is uniquely equipped to orchestrate a comprehensive and integrated response to these asymmetric threats.


[1] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine. “The Axis of Upheaval. How America’s Enemies are Uniting to Overturn the Global Order.” Foreign Affairs. April 23, 2024

[2] Niall Ferguson. “The Second Cold War Is Escalating  Faster Than the First . To understand what is at stake in the fight against the axis of China, Russia and Iran, just read “The Lord of the Rings.” Bloomberg. April 21, 2024

[3] Lucas Winter, Jemima Baar, and Jason Warner. “The Axis Off-Kilter: Why An Iran-Russia-China “Axis” Is Shakier Than Meets The Eye.”  War on the Rocks. April 19, 2024

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