“The United States has yet to articulate a comprehensive approach to deterring competitors in the gray zone.”— Kathleen H. Hicks, et al.
Much over the course of the past year has been said (and re-said) about “integrated deterrence.” From our point of view, deterrence is fundamentally about shaping adversary decision calculus which requires, inter alia, communication. Communication is about messaging and perceptions. Yet, in today’s discussions on integrated deterrence, we are losing sight of this important relationship. Integrating deterrence is not so much about developing the perfect strategy that incorporates allies or the interagency, and even less so about working across every military domain. This is nothing new. Instead, right now it is more about articulating what is missing — the political, cognitive, and irregular spaces of the gray zone where China, Russia, and Iran (among others) are actually advancing their interests. While we are not trailblazing a new idea here, it is important to revisit certain fundamentals. The gray zone was a side show during the counterterrorism era, and we cannot afford to let it fade another shade lighter now. The military must remain proactive in competition, and ready for crisis and conflict, not just one of them.
Irregular warfare is not the panacea, but it is perhaps the best opportunity space to shape adversary decision calculus in ways that other military tools cannot. The exhaustive argumentation over defining integrated deterrence, “strategic competition,” or any other moniker is not where we should spend time. A “good enough” answer is visible, and we must act to prevent further erosion of our advantages. This good enough answer involves two practical aspects: expanding the aperture beyond a traditional understanding of deterrence to account for irregular warfare and acknowledging the unique role that special operations forces play in campaigning to deter states in the gray zone. Special operations forces do this now and look to expand their strategic effectiveness in the future.
Baselining deterrence theory — setting up for expansion
Alexander George and Richard Smoke noted in their seminal work “Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice” that “deterrence is simply the persuasion of one’s opponent that the costs and/or risk of a given course of action he might take outweigh its benefits.” Costs manifest in one of two ways: denial and punishment.
Denial makes potential opposing actions infeasible or too costly, usually through some form of defense that makes the adversary think twice before acting. Punishment, on the other hand, threatens severe penalties for unacceptable behavior, usually through retaliation in kind or in escalation. Underpinning both mechanisms is the clarity and credibility of the deterrent signal — the message and perception. If the adversary cannot understand the message or does not believe it, then it is moot and may lead to a deterrence failure.
Integrated deterrence will be a cornerstone of the next national defense strategy, so it is vital to scope the concept correctly. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is right to acknowledge a role for integrated deterrence to address gray zone challenges, which nests neatly with the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance to “better compete and deter gray zone actions.” However, there is danger that high-end challenges like space and nukes may sideline it. We offer considerations for campaigning in the gray zone — focused on irregular warfare, to ensure it becomes more than a platitude. Ultimately, what we are focused on are those problematic acts of competition occurring below the threshold of traditional deterrence. This is where “war without fighting” is waged.
Irregular and gray — closing the gap in a non-traditional way
We need to first acknowledge that we have a “deterrence gap” in the gray zone where the United States is too slow or risk-averse to respond to non-conventional provocations. Because the gray zone seldom involves large or unambiguous challenges, this gap is difficult to quantify and thus easy for planners and programmers to ignore — at least for those sweating the “big stuff.” Trends in the strategic environment, however, are placing a premium for first-mover advantage in the information and human environments, which allow revisionist actors to shape the world in ways inimical to U.S. interests. Most of these actions do not involve going to “war” and seek to “win” well before then, yet we are loathe to commit intellectual capacity or national resources to these subversive activities. Closing this gray zone deterrence gap requires rethinking planning concepts and leveraging new methods of influence in both traditional and non-traditional ways.
Enter irregular warfare as a solution. Irregular warfare offers human-focused deterrence to close the gap by expanding on traditional methods of denial and punishment. The Swiss model of deterrence by resistance is one such example that has been subject of discussion since the 1980s, with the idea recently entering serious dialogue in the security community for today’s challenges. We propose three forms of (irregular) deterrence by denial to add to the body of deterrence literature and practice: cognitive access denial; physical denial through support to resistance; and financial access denial. We also offer two forms of (irregular) deterrence by punishment: unconventional warfare; and subversion.
Cognitive access denial involves fostering partner nation societal resilience in ways that can psychologically harden populations against adversary influence operations to prevent subversion, intimidation, or mobilization as proxies. These activities support partner initiatives, such as the Baltics’ whole-of-society “Total Defense” approach to national security. Targeted U.S. investments in this domain can enable partners with whom we have mutual security interests by providing support against coercion and subversive elements challenging their internal stability and credibility.
Support to resistance consists of creating a “bitter pill” or “porcupine” in the form of partner nation resistance capability to signal that military occupation would be too difficult or costly. Resistance is a form of physical denial that complements traditional deterrence by defense. This can be seen in the Baltics and more recently in Taiwan with potential for expansion throughout the Indo-Pacific. While military occupation itself may not be a gray zone activity (as seen in Crimea), signaling the capacity and will to resist an occupation may change the adversary’s decision calculus and prevent that invasion from ever occurring.
Financial access denial can deny adversaries the influence derived from coercive economic statecraft. This approach hardens partner commercial sectors and influencers against adversary proxy, patronage, or corruption networks and state-owned enterprises. Counter-threat finance proved essential in the counter-violent extremism fight. While Chinese infrastructure spending through One Belt, One Road is qualitatively and quantitatively different than threat finance in Iraq, adapting those tools and enhancing the scale and scope of interagency tools like those found in the Treasury and Commerce Departments could prove critical to deterring gray zone behavior. This is also an entree for increased partnership with the commercial sector and a greater societal approach to strategic competition.
Two forms of (irregular) deterrence by punishment, on the other hand, include holding adversary assets at risk through the credible threat of unconventional warfare or subversion. Although punishment is a less reliable form of deterrence, China and Russia nonetheless have exploitable instability issues that offer outside the box deterrence options.
Punishment through unconventional warfare involves supporting resistance movements to destabilize places critical to the strategic interests of adversaries, whether internal or external to their borders. Punishment by subversion similarly may include imposing costs and creating dilemmas indirectly through cognitive and virtual vectors by shaping and amplifying grievances that divert resources, challenge adversaries’ cohesion, and undermining their strategic positions.
For either irregular deterrence by denial or punishment, the convergence of information-related and human-centric capabilities — specifically language, regional expertise, and culture, will prove necessary in cyberspace and other information spaces. This brings us to our second point: acknowledging the unique role that special operations forces play in deterring gray zone behavior.
Counter-revolution, not evolution
We understand that irregular warfare is not a special operations forces-specific mission, nor is it a panacea or replacement for conventional or nuclear deterrence. However, addressing the gray zone in an integrated way requires a fundamental shift in how the nation thinks about special operations forces beyond their association with counterterrorism. Indeed, the answer lies much deeper in the past with special operations forces’ tradition of problem-solving through indirect approaches, only fused with innovations from today’s recent experiences.
U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Cyber Command, and U.S. Space Command will all play critical roles in the cross-domain aspects of integrated deterrence as Secretary Austin envisions with their specific competencies. Likewise, U.S. Special Operations Command maintains the preponderance of U.S. irregular warfare-focused capabilities (this includes both the service component and theater special operations commands).
For irregular warfare, we have an opportunity to optimize that utility now and effect a counter-revolution that returns special operations forces’ employment to its roots in psychological warfare, building partner resilience, support to resistance, sabotage, and subversion. We offer five key aspects of how special operations forces enable (irregular) deterrence in the gray zone.
Outsized effects at lower political risk. The current nature of global interdependence — one that acknowledges the high cost of potential war — requires the United States to manage all elements of risk carefully and deliberately. This includes not only risk to force and mission, but also buying decision space for our leaders. Special operations forces’ maturity, creativity, flexibility, and diverse talents provide unorthodox military options that may lower the political risk for action in an environment where adversaries deliberately sow discord to capitalize on inaction. Since special operations forces operate with a small footprint, the nature of their activities — those suited for irregular warfare in the gray zone, offer disproportionately favorable effects compared to the investment. This unique branding allows for a training exercise to carry a deterrent message complementary to, but nuanced from, a guided-missile destroyer deployment.
Relationships with allies and partners. The global special operations forces network enables long-term relationships — a vital center of gravity with allies, partners, and nongovernmental organizations — that provide an advanced understanding of resilient and exploitable populations. Special operations forces integrate with these populations to reduce information stovepipes, assure allies and partners, and enhance signaling. Fostering societal resilience against subversion makes adversary coercion more difficult, while hardening partner forces and populations simultaneously assures allies and partners of U.S. commitment to their defense.
Presence and understanding. Deterrence requires assessing relative national power and interests through the lens of the human dimension to better conduct holistic net assessments that account for our own capabilities as well as those of potential adversaries and partners. Special operations forces’ access to key leaders and populations, and persistent forward presence in both permissive and denied environments — including the information environment and across the electromagnetic spectrum — enable a more robust net assessment of U.S., partner, and adversary power to apply the right tool at the right place and time to deter. This includes collection on and defeat of “hard targets” across military domains.
Information and influence campaigns. Many gray zone activities use “salami-slicing” to achieve strategic gains incrementally over time while avoiding a conventional military response. Special operations forces can mitigate vulnerabilities that adversaries exploit in friendly populations that enable salami-slicing. Cognitively, physically, and financially hardening populations can deny adversaries the access and influence derived from information warfare, the threat of occupation, and coercive economic statecraft. Special operations forces can also expand punishment options by creating a credible threat of unconventional warfare and subversion to destabilize places critical to adversary interests. Some of these expanded options are due to the ability to integrate information-related and cyber capabilities through forward positioned or U.S.-based military information support operations platforms.
Continuing habitual linkages with interagency. Special operations forces are proven team players who build coalitions, which can (with the proper authorities) naturally extend the scope, scale, and reach of deterrent tools across the interagency. When dealing with adversary economic coercion, special operations forces can serve as a tipping and cueing function to agencies such as the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls by enhancing sanctions support capability on the ground or in the information environment. Likewise, special operations forces can amplify State Department-led public diplomacy at the country team level through military information support operations and civil-military engagement, or via U.S.-based operational support. Overall, special operations forces’ unobtrusive, small footprint can augment interagency efforts to create time and space for policy makers, mitigate violence, and foster understanding, influence, and interpersonal relationships.
Deterring Where it Matters
China and Russia erode America’s position of advantage because we often lack the will, theories of victory, and future-looking concepts to challenge them in the gray zone. “Integrating” deterrence will not solve this until we move beyond legacy ideas that hamstring our approach — limiting factors that exist not only in our budgets, but between our ears. This means expanding the aperture beyond a traditional understanding of deterrence — acknowledging that irregular warfare is a critical missing ingredient — and that special operations forces are uniquely suited to serve as an integrator in this approach. To close the gap and make integrated deterrence a reality we can start with a few actions across strategy, legislation, and daily campaigning.
First, the next national defense strategy must explicitly account for irregular warfare as a tool for strategic competition and deterring gray zone actions. The 2018 National Defense Strategy created momentum but ultimately relegated irregular warfare to an annex. While placing it in an annex may have served to “focus efforts,” we need irregular warfare to instead serve as an integrated cornerstone. Explicitly weaving irregular warfare into the primary document would elevate its importance as a signal to the entire defense enterprise, and more importantly — to our adversaries and challengers.
Next, the Defense Department can work with Congressional partners to revise legislation that inhibits the combatant commands’ ability to foster partner nation resilience against China and Russia. This could include updating Section “333″ — currently geared toward building partner capacity to conduct counterterrorism, border security, and maritime security operations, to a wider remit including strategic competition. It also should include revising Title 10 U.S. Code § 322 to remove the “primary purpose clause” that limits the purpose of joint combined exchange training exercises to training U.S. special operations forces as the primary mission. This will allow a refocus on fostering partner nation resilience against coercion and subversion as a priority objective. We could start with the next National Defense Authorization Act, similar to how the Fiscal Year 2022 proposal directs a briefing on the progress of the Irregular Warfare Annex’s implementation.
Finally, strategists and planners can build on existing tools to find creative ways to contribute to integrated deterrence right now. This includes making better use of the 1202 authority (and enshrining it in code versus temporary defense authorizations) to counter China and Russia outside of their direct spheres of influence — such as the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In other words, “you’re not going to take China in China” to make gray zone deterrence work while minimizing escalation. It also includes adapting tools that worked well in the counterterrorism fight — such as joint, interagency task forces and “big data” exploitation like Project Maven.
Closing the gray zone deterrence gap requires a little bit of critical thinking to move outside our comfort area and venture into spaces where China and Russia are making gains. At a minimum this means conceptually expanding on traditional methods of deterrence by denial and punishment — by using irregular warfare. These ideas should be adopted into strategy, legislation, and campaigning — beginning with the coming national security strategy and national defense strategy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Lt. Col. Katie Crombe is an Army Strategist and Director of the U.S. Special Operations Command Central J5 Strategy, Plans, and Policy Division. She holds a Master of Arts Degree in National Security Affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. She is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and has published previously in War on the Rocks and Army Magazine.
Lt. Col. Steve Ferenzi is an Army Strategist and Special Forces officer in the U.S. Special Operations Command Central J5. He contributed to the development of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy and holds a Master of International Affairs Degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Mr. Robert C. Jones is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel and the principal strategist for the U.S. Special Operations Command’s Donovan Integration Group. He holds a Juris Doctorate Degree from the Willamette University College of Law, a Masters in Strategic Studies from the Army War College, and is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).
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