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HOPE, DELUSION, AND REALITY Joint Force Campaigning

Three Vital Changes to  Facilitate a Global Campaign

By Monte Erfourth

Strategy Central – May 4, 2024

“If the Joint Force does not change its approach to strategic competition, there is a significant risk that the United States will “lose without fighting.” Time is of the essence, and it is not on the side of the Joint Force."

        -     The Joint Concept for Competing 10 February 2023


The Department of Defense (DoD) has been navigating a strategic shift for nearly seven years, moving its focus from counterterrorism to engaging in strategic competition with other major powers. This transition, underscored in two successive National Defense Strategies, reflects an expanded mission to contain terrorism while simultaneously confronting specific nation-states.

To compete and prevail in conflict if necessary, the DoD will defend, expand, and realize national security interests by defending the homeland, deterring nuclear attacks and aggression, and building the Joint Force and its support structure.  The Joint Force will use Joint Integrated Campaigning to advance and protect interests by deterring aggression, preparing for conflict if competition fails, and countering adversaries’ threatening competitive strategies while supporting the efforts of inter-organizational partners.

The core aim of the 2022 DoD National Defense Strategy (NDS) is to ensure national security by deterring threats through integrated deterrence, proactive campaigning, and the cultivation of enduring advantages. This approach demands a nuanced understanding, as it spans a spectrum of at least five domains and a geopolitical landscape that convulses from peace to conflict while continuously adapting evolving global dynamics.

Key military leaders, such as former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairmen General Joseph F. Dunford and General Mark A. Milley, have emphasized the blurred lines between peace and war as seen by our adversaries, describing their tactics as a form of "conflict without combat." Countries like Russia, China, and Iran exemplify this strategy by seeking to disrupt the international order and pursue their expansionist and strategic objectives through a mix of asymmetric and conventional tactics.

In theory, a combination of integrated deterrence and campaigning achieves conflict avoidance. In practice, the Joint Force must find a way to do everything, everywhere, all the time while working with the interagency, international allies, and partners in the rough and tumble of the global fight for power and access to resources. The United States has all the elements of national power to thwart the coalition of adversarial powers such as China, Russia, and Iran who aim to force the U.S. from its global leadership role. Without a unified and proactive approach, the risk of losing strategic dominance in global affairs looms large, especially against the backdrop of a coalition of adversarial powers such as China, Russia, and Iran. A fragmented approach to strategy, coupled with a dissonant command structure and an inability to convey risk to civilian decision-makers, severely hampers the military's ability to do its part in maintaining the nation’s global supremacy. This leaves the U.S. with a critical vulnerability because the current strategies and structure are not aligned to effectively counter the primary methods used by rival nations to erode U.S. power.

This document identifies three primary challenges that hinder effective integrated campaigning. First, there is a notable gap in the unity of command across the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) and functional areas. This lack of cohesion inhibits strategic and operational synergy, which is essential for executing comprehensive military strategies against multiple threats concurrently. Second, current U.S. strategies are predominantly oriented towards conventional warfare and tend to overlook the subtler, asymmetric strategies employed by adversaries. These gray zone tactics, which include cyber warfare, economic coercion, and disinformation campaigns, often fall below the threshold of traditional U.S. military responses and are therefore not sufficiently countered. Lastly, there is an inability to convey the risks of military action or inaction. The tendency to seek permission for military action without a way to convey political risk, the risk of inaction, the risk to the IA-partners-allies, or the probability of reprisal is simply unacceptable given today’s technological tools.

Hope that we can protect and advance our interests with the current ill-suited structure, strategy, and acceptance of risk leaves the military out of step with the reality of asymmetric attacks and our rival's desire to avoid a direct conflict. Despite sound doctrinal advice and a steady drum beat of criticism about the Joint Force response to competition, the military seems content to ignore reality and live with the delusion that all is well. Addressing these internal vulnerabilities is crucial for the United States to retain and solidify its strategic dominance. This article will delve into specific issues and solutions to overcome these obstacles.


Integrated Campaigning: Unity of Command

To better understand the challenges of strategy and command, one must slog through doctrine and the current structure mandated by law. While the armed services build the force, it falls to the Joint Staff to make sense of fitting them together and developing doctrine and strategies to employ them.  The eleven Geographical and Functional Combatant Commands receive the forces, develop limited theater strategies based on DoD strategy, and “fight” as a Joint Force.

The Joint Force has lived with the current structure since the Cold War. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act restructured the military chain of command, creating a direct line from the President through the Secretary of Defense to Combatant Commanders. This Act also established seven theaters of operation (6 terrestrial and 1 space) within the Combatant Command.[1] Despite developing a useful structure and chain of command,  there are problems with it, especially given the current geopolitical environment.  

The system built in the Soviet era now faces a multipolar problem that is not restricted to a predominant theater.  The Department of Defense does not have a unified global campaign strategy. Each theater develops independent campaign plans that are minimally coordinated with the other GCCs. Despite developing the Global Campaign Plans (GCP) and creating a “Coordinating Authority” for particular threats, the GCPs remain largely parochial. The absence of directional authority means no Global Commander is accountable for degrading, deterring, or defeating rival operations across several theaters to the Secretary of Defense or President.[2]Consequently, seven separate and loosely coordinated local campaigns are barely synchronized across theaters in terms of time, space, or effects. This prevents the United States from fully leveraging its global capabilities and creates a gap in American deterrence. China and Russia are keenly aware of this situation and exploit it as it suits them.[3]

Despite efforts to align various global plans with the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP) and UCP, the current command structure lacks a unified operational or strategic commander. While CJCSI 3100.01F recognizes the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) as the key integrator of global military strategy, Title 10 does not designate a global integrator of military operations, leaving this role to the SECDEF or the President by default.[4] The Office of the Secretary of Defense, not structured or directed for such a role, inadvertently becomes the de facto global operational headquarters. The President and/or the SECDEF may direct the Joint Staff to coordinate actions among COCOMs, but typically only relies on the Joint Staff for directing administrative and limited operational tasks. The Joint Staff itself is not equipped or authorized to serve as the global command center for Joint Force operations.

The structural flaw creates a critical operational vulnerability: no unified command is responsible for global operations against the five strategic threats identified in the NDS. The geographic confines within which each GCC operates limit their perspective and capacity to a fraction of the global problem. As outlined by the UCP, the current authority structure allows horizontal command extension but does not facilitate comprehensive coordination or strategic integration across the GCCs.

This structural fragmentation is compounded by having five separate strategies crisscrossing five domains while subdivided by eleven commands.  This poses a stark challenge to the fundamental military principle of unity of command. Without a global commander, synchronized and timely coordination across GCCs is unfeasible. To rectify the question of command unity, the five principal threats may be assigned a separate global commander, one commander over them all, or several Joint Task Force elements be assigned to specific threats. There are other options, but all of these solutions imply a radical restructuring.

The function of command and control is constant; the form of providing it is open to debate. The fundamental quality of the command choice boils down to one thing: effectiveness. Change in structure should never be the first choice as it often comes at great expense and added confusion.  Change for change's sake would be detrimental. However, change that brings effectiveness to military campaigning is required and must be sought even if it appears infeasible under the current military and political framework.


Integrated Campaigning: Asymmetry Not Addressed

The nature of the threat has also changed radically since the Soviet era. The Department of Defense (DoD) faces significant challenges from adversaries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, who primarily employ gray zone tactics to challenge the existing international order dominated by the United States. These tactics, which include cyber and space operations, disinformation, economic coercion, and the use of proxy forces, are designed to fall below the threshold of U.S. military response and exploit vulnerabilities in the conventional approach to warfare.

China, for instance, leverages a broad spectrum of strategies, including the use of state-controlled forces, academic and industrial espionage, lawfare, economic coercion, and informational and psychological operations against the U.S. and its allies. Russia utilizes disinformation and cyber operations, in addition to irregular proxy forces and direct military engagements, as seen in Ukraine. Both Iran and North Korea, while more limited in scope, follow similar methods of asymmetric engagement. These strategies enable these nations to exert influence and achieve strategic goals without triggering a full-scale military response from the U.S.

The DoD acknowledges this shift in the nature of threats but continues to prepare predominantly for conventional conflicts, possibly overlooking the subtler but equally dangerous aspects of strategic competition. Despite strategic declarations of preferring to win without fighting, this focus on conventional warfare preparation reveals a gap between stated intentions and practical application. The United States has a revealed preference for conflict that creates a gap between what it recognizes is happening in reality and what is actually doing about the problem. U.S. rivals exploit this gap by engaging in activities that intentionally avoid crossing American red lines and conflict, thereby avoiding significant retaliation or resistance in the “competition zone”.

Integrated deterrence is the strategy proposed to counter these asymmetric threats, aiming to combine military capabilities with diplomatic, economic, and informational tools (DIMEFIL) to outmaneuver adversaries in peace rather than just in war. However, the lack of a unified command and a comprehensive asymmetric strategy across all domains and threats poses a considerable challenge to implementing this approach effectively. The DoD needs to develop and integrate campaigns that attack the strategies of adversaries and degrade the means that enable them.

The current structure of the Joint Force, with its conventional focus and relegation of asymmetric warfare capabilities primarily to Special Operations Forces (SOF), fails to effectively address the continuous competition continuum. The specialized capabilities of asymmetric experts within the force are underutilized, and there is a lack of integration between the conventional forces and these asymmetric capacities. Metaphorically, these rivals are running the ball right up the Joint Force gut, and the Joint Force keeps lining up to stop the pass.

In response, the DoD must embrace a broader view of asymmetry, encompassing not just military strategies but also political-strategic and operational dimensions. Asymmetry involves acting, organizing, and thinking differently to exploit the opponent's weaknesses and achieve strategic advantages. This could mean adjusting time perspectives, employing innovative technologies, or integrating unconventional methods alongside traditional military tactics.

Ultimately, the implication for the Joint Force is to recognize and adapt to the distinct ways in which rivals engage in competition and to demonstrate an ability to successfully confront asymmetry. This requires a robust, integrated approach that prepares for conflict and actively campaigns in peace, using all available tools to out-compete adversaries. Developing a global asymmetric strategy, led by a unified command and informed by asymmetric experts, is essential to protect and advance national security interests against the preferred attack methods by adversaries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.


Integrated Campaigning: Risk Aversion

A more assertive approach to competition necessitates a nuanced discussion of risk tolerance and the assumptions underlying the red lines that signify actors’ perceived response thresholds. While policymakers set these thresholds, the military must provide a broad spectrum of options to address asymmetric threats, such as disruptive cyberattacks or aggressive influence operations that do not surpass the lines. These options should be developed with a clear understanding of the political decision space and the level of risk leaders are willing to accept without stifling innovation or action.  This can be achieved by providing empirical evidence on past performance and using AI to generate risk models well suited to the geo-political environment.

A scientific approach to risk involves both quantitative and qualitative analyses. Quantitative analysis assesses the effects of actions by measuring the impact and outcomes utilizing mathematical and statistical modeling. Examples would be battle damage assessment, number of violent attacks, or audience size in information operations. Qualitative analysis, on the other hand, evaluates effects based on subjective judgment using non-quantifiable information. For example, determining the possible results at access, placement, and influence generated while training or operating with allies and partners.  This would be a judgment based on human interaction with only a few tangible elements of evidence.  Despite the subjective aspect, developing frameworks to capture and store the information can and should be done.  Both data types should be captured in an AI-powered system to generate analysis revealing results, trends, and relationships. 

During the Global War on Terror, decision-makers became accustomed to lower-risk activities, but interactions with capable nation-state competitors in a complex strategic environment demand a recalibration of political risk assessments. Political, ethical, legal, and military considerations must guide the development and deployment of military options, with due consideration given to policymakers’ limitations. The Joint Force must convey to policymakers with a more scientific approach that a proactive posture in campaign form carries increased risk, but a reactive stance will pose a greater risk from long-term threats.

The current reactive strategies predominantly focus on deterrence through a static posture. This approach is less effective against dynamic threats that require an agile and preemptive strategy. A more dynamic campaign approach provides a spectrum of offensive options aimed at decisively influencing adversaries' actions and forcing them into dilemmas that disadvantage them in strategic competition. Such an approach should synergize various actions globally to safeguard and advance U.S. interests.

Joint Force leaders should also consider when not to engage, potentially supporting interagency or multinational partners better suited to specific missions or allowing rivals to compete among themselves. This team approach will benefit U.S. interests more than defaulting to direct military engagement. In this dynamic framework, competitive campaigning should contribute to a global strategy that protects and promotes U.S. national security interests. This requires a dynamic global strategy with an asymmetric focus, innovative command and control structures, a campaign culture, and a better use of all of the tools available to the elements of national power.

To increase risk tolerance, the U.S. military should focus on restructuring command and control (C2), enhancing ethics training, and exerting a more deliberate influence in the information environment. This approach is particularly pertinent against adversaries during the Global War on Terror, where the U.S. benefitted from superior technical and organizational capabilities. However, against more capable adversaries, this model needs adaptation to maintain operational agility and strategic flexibility.

The relationship between asymmetry and risk in global military campaigns is crucial. Asymmetric strategies, such as cyberattacks or influence operations, often incur higher risks due to their potential to trigger unforeseen and widespread consequences. A global campaign integrating asymmetric tactics heightens complexity and risk, particularly if interagency and international partners are misaligned. Nevertheless, these risks must be balanced against the potential cost of inaction or reactive postures which could result in diminished global influence and competitiveness.

Asymmetric options should also focus first on non-kinetic methods targeting the human domain, cyberspace, and the information environment, emphasizing deception and influence over destruction. That does not mean that hard targets or sabotage should be ignored, only that the former are generally lower in risk and potentially more conducive to competition. If sabotage is part of the deception, for example, then it should be considered, and the risks should be fully detailed using a scientific approach.  These efforts should align with broader interagency campaigns, supporting or leading as conditions warrant.

Adopting a comprehensive, integrated competitive strategy involves significant risks, including potential overextension and misalignment with interagency and allied efforts. However, the failure to adapt to the evolving nature of global competition presents a more severe risk of losing U.S. global dominance without ever fighting for it. Although policymakers set these thresholds, the military must provide a broad spectrum of options to manage asymmetric threats effectively. These options should be developed with an awareness of political decision space and the risks leaders are willing to accept, encouraging innovation without being constrained excessively by the fear of escalation. They must also account for perceptions and redlines of the adversary. Enhancing risk management practices and adopting a proactive, dynamic campaign approach are essential to maintaining U.S. strategic superiority in an increasingly competitive global environment.



It’s hard to imagine maintaining the United States’ position as the global leader with a dissonant command structure, failing to address rivals’ primary way of attacking the U.S. position, and having no means to successfully account for risk when seeking permission to campaign. To achieve its full potential, the Joint Force must overcome three major challenges to integrated campaigning:

  • Dissonant Command Structure: The document highlights a significant gap in the unity of command across the Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) and functional areas. This fragmentation inhibits strategic and operational synergy, which is essential for executing comprehensive military strategies against multiple threats concurrently.

  • Asymmetry Not Addressed: Current U.S. strategies remain heavily tilted towards conventional warfare, overlooking adversaries' subtler, asymmetric strategies. These gray zone tactics, including cyber warfare, economic coercion, and disinformation campaigns, often fall below the threshold of U.S. military response and are thus not sufficiently countered.

  • Risk Calculation Improvement: Adopting a more scientific approach to risk must include quantitative and qualitative analyses. The Joint Force should use advanced analytics and AI to better understand and predict the outcomes and impacts of various military and non-military actions. This would allow for more informed decision-making and enable proactive rather than reactive responses to global threats.

To maintain U.S. global dominance, the Joint Force requires a unified command and strategy that can effectively address both conventional and asymmetric threats. To achieve this, an integrated strategic framework should be developed that takes into account all elements of national power (DIME) while considering both conventional and asymmetric threats.  A unified commander and a fully integrated strategy will have the best chance to deter adversaries and maintain U.S. strategic advantages when executed as a campaign.

By enhancing risk assessment through a blend of quantitative and qualitative analyses, the Joint Force can utilize advanced analytics and AI to predict the outcomes and impact of various actions, enabling informed and proactive decision-making. As risk calculus is incorporated into the planning and “battle updates,” the unified commander must strive for a campaign that achieves strategic outcomes by coordinating effects globally in time and space. Risks, operational agility, and adaptability must be incorporated to account for the evolving threat landscapes.

There is a lack of urgency and operational focus on continuous campaigning against the threats posed by state adversaries’ actions in the gray zone. Special Operations Forces' expertise in asymmetric warfare should also be effectively utilized. Any campaign to compete with nation-states must value results, not activity for the sake of doing something. The SECDEF must cultivate a culture that values skilled empirical assessment and integrated campaigning. This will help to enhance the execution of strategies and ensure more effective outcomes. 

It seems delusional to think the Joint Force is successfully campaigning across eleven commands, with five distinct strategies and in five domains without a unified command or strategy. The Joint Force is doing its best with an antiquated structure that no longer conforms to the reality of the nation's current threats.  Change should be taken with great care and much deliberation, but change it must.  If not, we are left to hope for the best.  As we all know, hope is not a viable course of action.


[3] Monte Erfourth. “Open Letter to a USSOCOM Commander.” Strategy Central March, 2024.

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