Over the past year, senior Pentagon officials have begun to sound increasingly strident warnings about the nation’s lack of preparedness for future conflicts. Unfortunately, the primary focus of such warnings has been on the decline in U.S. military preeminence. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L, Frank Kendall, have all but driven themselves hoarse lamenting the ability of prospective adversaries, both state and non-state, to close the technology gap with the U.S. military, deploying effective and relatively low-cost capabilities that often exploit commercial technologies. In a recent speech at the Army War College, Secretary Work warned in particular of the challenge posed by adversaries able to marry advanced weapons systems with unconventional tactics and techniques – otherwise termed hybrid, non-linear warfare or informationalized warfare. To address this new danger, the Pentagon has announced a Defense Innovation Initiative, a key aspect of which is to identify and develop technologies needed to implement the so-called Third Offset Strategy that will restore U.S. technological preeminence.
Unfortunately, in many ways the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Initiative and Third Offset Strategy are focused on the wrong part of the problem. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is focused on the wrong part of the federal bureaucracy. Everyone with a modicum of familiarity with military-technical affairs knows that the U.S. military is entering a period of maximum danger. But they also know that more and better weapons will not address those aspects of hybrid/non-linear conflicts that are best fought by other means – political, economic, ideological, informational and psychological.
Perhaps the best appreciation of the true nature of the challenge posed by the range of unconventional warfare approaches is provided in a commentary on the subject by Dr. Nadia Schadlow, a long-time student of military strategy.
“Hybrid tactics are not a random sequence of improvisations but reflect an order behind the spectrum of tools used. That makes it incumbent upon political leaders and strategic thinkers (not always one and the same) to fit such activities squarely within the political objectives discussed by Carl von Clausewitz, who explained that war was an extension of politics by other means. In thinking through the ongoing competition with Russia, we must keep in mind that “hybrid” refers to the means, not to the principles, goals, or nature of war. There is nothing inherent about the concept that prevents this. Indeed, the Russians have it down. We do not.”
The primary reasons that the Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and various terrorist groups have it down and we do not is because they are committed to an implacable political struggle with their enemies, most particularly the United States. Warfare, hybrid and otherwise, is merely part of their tool kit. All other elements of national power, every international association, treaty or forum and the entire spectrum of organizations of influence including media, think tanks, centers of religion and academic institutions also are tools in this struggle. We talk about the whole of government as an ideal; our adversaries practice it as a seamless continuum in the use of force.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a career intelligence officer, appreciated the evolving nature of modern conflict. He understood better than both administration’s in which he served that the struggle against Islamic terrorism was primarily political and religious in nature, not military. He also understood that the best response to this kind of conflict was by orchestrating our own global hybrid strategy. You might recall that he stomped the halls of Congress to request a bigger budget for the State Department. Gates also proposed a $2 billion funding pool be shared between State and Defense for common activities such as security capacity building, stabilization, and conflict prevention.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter raised this idea in a recent speech to senior State Department officials.
“Although the term “whole-of-government” and “smart power,” are relatively new – but still already overused – the basic concept clearly isn’t. It’s been around from Sung China to the Holy Roman Empire, the idea of leveraging all resources of state is an enduring principle of strategy and statecraft.”
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has been particularly inept at implementing its own form of hybrid warfare. It has consistently failed to successfully exploit non-military advantages to gain and maintain positions of advantage vis-à-vis adversaries practicing their own versions of 21st century warfare. Beginning with Iran’s aborted Green Revolution and continuing through the Arab Spring, Libyan revolt, the Syrian uprising and Orange Revolution, this administration has failed to capitalize on opportunities for political action in support of U.S. national interests (and those of people seeking political freedom) and against our adversaries.
Proponents of innovation in defense affairs need to stop talking to captive audiences of military personnel, defense industry and think tankers. They need to focus on the sources of the problem: the White House, State Department and Congress.
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