war on the rocks

A New Blueprint for Competing Below the Threshold: The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning  

May 23, 2018

 In The Weary Titan, Aaron Friedberg paints a picture of a global power that cannot bring itself to adapt to changing times. Comfortable atop the world order, Britain saw the tempest brewing on the horizon, but proved unable to sufficiently adjust to challenges posed by rising powers. Rather than changing its ways, it remained steadfastly focused on a formulaic understanding of means. Decline was indeed a choice; it was not foreordained.

The U.S. military is at a similar strategic crossroads. On the one hand, its power is unmatched. America spends as much as the next eight countries combined on defense, and its military remains the only one with truly global reach. On the other hand, its global operations and presence have failed to translate into lasting political success. Though there is broad recognition of the changing nature of international power balances, the military’s operational thinking has failed to catch up. Ever-focused on strategies of domination, America and its  position in the world have been undermined by adversaries whose operational approach has drawn the effectiveness of the American Way of War into question.

In an effort to address this gap between power and efficacy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently released their Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC), a document more than three years in the making (full disclosure: I participated in the development of the concept). Although the concept reflects the competitive environment described in the recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, much of its development preceded the release of those documents. This is not a coincidence. Before serving as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster led the Army Capabilities and Integration Center, which, in addition to sponsoring other reports on gray-zone challenges, helped lead the development of the JCIC. The intellectual commonalities among these documents present an exceptional opportunity to align military operations with broader national security objectives.

The JCIC was designed to solve a specific problem: how to apply the power of the American military when adversarial behavior falls below the threshold that would trigger a direct response. While the global distribution of America’s joint force positions it well to contribute to broader government strategies in the space “short of war,” such activities have mostly been limited to the domain of special operations forces. The JCIC marks an important step toward improving the ability of the entire military to contribute to international competition outside of combat.

The authors of the concept struck a balance between the strict guidelines typical of operational documents and the unstructured, opportunistic approach that America’s adversaries take to gray-zone competition. While the concept does not refute the obvious fact that the military’s primary value is as a tool for violence, it recognizes the myriad ways that the threat of violence — not just violence itself — can and should be used in a number of competitive realms. Moreover, it underscores the military’s important role outside of hostile confrontations. In this way, the concept provides a starting point for thinking about how to harness military power to improve cooperation with allies and complicate an adversary’s calculations across the spectrum of America’s diplomatic, informational, and economic engagements.

Some may wonder why the military should be involved in these aspects of competition at all. The State Department, intelligence agencies, and the Treasury and Commerce Departments have vital roles to play in America’s approach to international competition, ones that are quite separate from the military. America’s armed forces cannot and should not seek to replace the contributions made by these organizations, but none of them can match the Defense Department in terms of funding or global presence. Moreover, it would be naïve to dismiss the impact that the military can and does have on non-military aspects of national power. The JCIC recognizes that its implementation is not without risks — ones that are relevant to military and civilian decision-makers alike. Nonetheless, the concept provides a window into how the joint force might institutionalize an operational response to competition below the threshold of war.

The Problem

America’s adversaries have recently demonstrated a knack for competing below the threshold of war, as catalogued in literature on “gray zone” threats and “hybrid warfare,” but the problem the concept seeks to address is a timeless one. Sun Tzu references the superiority of achieving one’s aims outside of battle; Lenin found that the soundest strategy in war was to eventuate a “moral disintegration” of the enemy before engaging force, and Liddell Hart, in his 1947 classic Strategy, defined the aim of strategy as “dislocation” of enemy forces, ideally achieved through indirect methods. What we now characterize as competition outside of war is the norm rather than the exception in international relations. Yet America has become ineffective at translating its power into desired policy results in this timeless competitive space.

That the authoritarian nature of the state competitors addressed in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy — Russia, China, and Iran — helps those regimes align all tools of national power has become a common refrain. The fact that these countries each have a long history of seizing opportunities to compete outside of combat is less discussed. Either way, developing a coherent approach to competition will expand the military’s toolkit for achieving results outside of armed conflict, and mark a step toward addressing America’s current gap between power and efficacy.

Some have argued that this gap stems from amnesia over the political nature of warfare. Still others point to the structural and bureaucratic challenges that have stymied the creation of an American way of political warfare. In a forthcoming book, I argue that it is an inevitable byproduct of the outsized power that the United States enjoys relative to its adversaries, an argument similarly made in recent analysis by Michael Mazarr and Michael Kofman.

Whereas Friedberg likened Britain’s attempts to modify its outmoded approach to “putting new wine into old bottles,” America needs to put old wine into new bottles. It has been effective at international competition — and political warfare — in the past. Throughout much of the country’s history, the state of international relations has necessitated a shrewd employment of diplomatic, economic, informational, and military tools. As America’s security bureaucracy expanded, particularly after World War II, aligning all of these tools toward a common goal required clear direction and articulation of threat perceptions. National Security Council Memo 68 and George Kennan’s long telegram, in addition to setting a clear policy course, also guided the deliberate application of “all measures short of war.”

The fall of the Soviet Union called the relevance of these frameworks into question. The potential of the “unipolar moment” led many strategists to ignore the rise of new powers, or at the very least, the ways that the sustainability of American power might come under threat. Operational concepts from this period, from “shock and awe” to the phasing construct in Joint Publication 3-0, reflected an assumption that the outsized power of the U.S. military would be sufficient to deter serious challenges to American supremacy. Joint Publication 3-07, Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War marks an important exception. But its prescriptive rather than descriptive approach precluded a full understanding of the strategic significance such operations could have.

This tendency toward prescriptive operational approaches is evident in other operational concepts. The much-maligned phasing construct in Joint Publication 3-0 conceives of operations as invariably leading to the decisive application of force, and prescribes military actions accordingly. Counterinsurgency doctrine unfolds in a similar manner, providing specific tools and techniques to address adversaries’ actions. There is nothing wrong, of course, with providing guidance. But when guidance becomes a template, actions become predictable. Adversaries learn how America will respond to specific actions and what combinations of tactics it has not thought to address.

Rather than encouraging creative and critical thinking among leaders, many operational concepts offer rote, cookie-cutter solutions that limit agility and responsiveness to adversarial behavior. This is part of the reason why, when compiling its report on the gray zone, the U.S. Army War College insisted on “describing” the condition rather than “defining” it — prescriptive concepts neither map to the reality of how enemies behave nor equip the U.S. military to consider the breadth of response options available to it.

The Military Component of the Solution

The JCIC marks a departure from the prescriptive approach to operational planning. It provides a framework for thinking rather than a prescription for action and calls for tailored responses rather than predictable ones. It also marks a return to a pre-1990s understanding of the utility of force. In addition to the aforementioned Strategy, it draws from the Cold War-era deterrence concepts of Thomas Schelling and Alexander George by recognizing the coercive dynamics unleashed when direct confrontation is implausible or undesirable. It reflects an understanding of the role that compellence and adversarial perceptions must play in constructing effective military campaigns in the space between war and peace.

More than any other work, the concept draws heavily from Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan’s 1978 Force Without War. This book examines the effectiveness of the use of America’s armed forces as a “political instrument,” that is, cases where “forces were used without significant violence to underscore verbal and diplomatic expressions of American foreign policy.” Blechman and Kaplan arrived at several important conclusions that informed the development of the JCIC.

First, they found that instances of reduced preparedness and global presence — such as when U.S. forces were undergoing periods of neglect and instability — correlated with increased use of the military as a political instrument. This implies that as readiness, presence, and investments in capabilities decrease, so too does the force’s deterrent effect, leading to an increased need to employ it. This trend held true through a number of administrations, suggesting that the finding is insensitive to changing political circumstances.

Second, they found that while the “discrete application of military power” had limited utility in coercing or encouraging a state to change an ongoing behavior, such engagements became more effective when the goal was to convince an adversary or ally to maintain a particular course of action. This conclusion is counterintuitive but demonstrates the important role the military plays in maintaining situations favorable to the United States, not just in forcing other actors to comply.

Third, a “positive outcome” was most likely when America was involved from the outset of a conflict, and that desirable outcomes were more likely when the United States had a track record of previous military engagement in the region. This suggests that continual military engagement increases the likelihood of success, if and when the need for armed conflict arises.

The book is inescapably a product of its time, and bipolar Cold War dynamics run through it. The work’s state-centric viewpoint does not easily map onto the threat posed by transnational extremist groups, and its binary treatment of foreign actors (“antagonists” and “protagonists”) better reflects a world neatly divided into two camps than the complexities of the current one. Nevertheless, the book’s conclusions about the utility of the armed forces outside of combat gave the authors of the JCIC an important foundation for understanding the role that military presence and engagement play across a wide variety of circumstances.

The concept first calls for decision-makers to describe the nature of the relationship between the United States and a foreign entity. Rather than neatly dividing foreign entities into binary buckets, as in Force Without War, the concept introduces a “competition continuum” that runs from actively hostile (including, at one extreme, a state of armed conflict), to competitive, to cooperative. Foreign actors may occupy more than one of these domains at a given time, extending the continuum’s applicability to just about any international relationship. America’s relationship with China, for example, is generally thought of in security circles as one of competition; in the diplomatic, informational, and military realms, this is generally the case. Yet there are aspects of Sino-American relations that are in fact cooperative, especially in the economic realm.

This is not to say that the military should take the lead on America’s economic ties with China. But creating space for the military to consider how it impacts other activities of the U.S. government facilitates an understanding of the relationship between, say, freedom of navigation operations and America’s broader national security goals. Allowing for such subtleties in a military concept unlocks additional leverage points and enables a more sophisticated approach to basing and ongoing regional operations in a way that previous operational concepts did not do. Whereas the goal of domination in combat underpins Joint Publication 3-0, the JCIC allows the military to apply its power to a range of national security priorities. And whereas Military Operations Other Than War limited its scope to specific mission sets, the JCIC enables an analysis of the effects of any and all proposed military missions.

To create those effects, the JCIC adds a number of thematic objectives to the joint lexicon. In addition to destroying, dislocating, and isolating, operational planners will now be equipped to construct campaigns that strengthen, preserve, weaken, position, inform, or persuade. Expanding the objectives to cover goals that typically do not involve combat allows for the entire force to contribute to noncombat efforts while also amplifying the impact of units more typically associated with each goal. Efforts to “position,” for example, may include the deployment of forces to create a regionally targeted deterrent effect. Similarly, efforts to “inform” might include military information support operations as a primary activity, rather than one that supplements other military actions.

It is worth noting that American special operations forces currently employ many of these mechanisms, and not always without controversy. Having participated in the design of the JCIC, special operators will retain a critical role in this space. Yet the problem the concept seeks to address requires a larger and more sustained response than special operations forces alone are equipped to provide, as David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and others have argued. The JCIC reflects an understanding that the utility of special operations disciplines — such as psychological operations, unconventional warfare, and training, advising, and assisting — extends throughout all “phases” of combat operations and also into ongoing efforts in the competitive and cooperative domains. By infusing these concepts into joint doctrine, the JCIC will enable the expanded application of competencies traditionally associated with special operations forces.

Many observers, including myself, have criticized recent administrations for overrelying on special operations forces to achieve foreign policy objectives. One might also argue that the JCIC extends the overreliance on special operations forces to an overreliance on the military more generally. By directly addressing the limitations of military action, the concept anticipates such criticisms. It repeatedly cites the importance of ongoing dialogue with civilian agencies and leaders and provides mechanisms to adjust ongoing campaigns based on changing circumstances. Without buy-in and direction from civilian agencies such as the National Security Council and the Department of State, the concept will fail.

The Risks

The JCIC offers a blueprint for U.S. military contributions to strategic competition. As with any doctrine, however, there are a number of second- and third-order effects that military and civilian leaders should consider.

Friction. The emphasis on flexibility and agility will likely cause friction, in both the bureaucratic and Clausewitzian senses of the word. Though the importance of rapid adaptation has long been understood in the special operations community, achieving this in the larger joint force will prove challenging, especially from a command and control perspective. Devolving decisions to lower levels of the military hierarchy will inevitably challenge existing structures and organizational functions. Furthermore, the concept implicitly eschews reliance on standard operating procedures. This tension between theory and practice may limit the utility of the concept in circumstances where friction must be minimized, especially in the armed conflict phase of competition.

Civil-Military Relations. The framework’s broad applicability may also be used to justify military involvement in any number of government initiatives. Absent effective civilian oversight, extending the military’s role to all types of international engagements could enflame and exacerbate civil-military tensions. The concept also risks committing military resources in perpetuity: remaining engaged in each competitive domain requires constant involvement rather than tidy beginnings and endings. Even if this were financially plausible, it would be problematic from an oversight standpoint. Although the concept outlines the importance of interagency engagement, the onus lies with civilian leaders to exert appropriate oversight of the national security decision-making process.

Resource Allocation and Effective Deterrence. Relatedly, a singular focus on competition outside of armed conflict could lead to a lack of preparedness to execute armed operations. Echoing Blechman and Kaplan’s first conclusion, this would undermine the effectiveness of both competitive operations and America’s national security posture more generally. The concept document recognizes this risk, but, curiously, exacerbates it through its cautious description of armed conflict. Rather than describing the objective of armed conflict as the domination and destruction of the adversary, the concept employs the “defeat, deny, degrade” construct. Such terms may mirror the objectives of America’s recent military engagements but are out of step in a concept whose success will ultimately hinge on effective deterrence. Leaders should thus see the JCIC as an enhancement to America’s national security toolkit, not as a justification for forgoing the ability to dominate in armed conflict.

Mimicking and Mirroring. America and its allies are not the only audiences that will read the JCIC with interest. China’s unrestricted warfare and Russia’s so-called Gerasimov doctrine are just two pertinent examples of foreign actors observing American operations and concepts and then mounting efforts to circumvent them. Civilian and military leaders should thus consider how this concept may change competitive dynamics with its adversaries. While this is true of all concept documents, it is an especially important consideration for the JCIC because, by taking its cues from adversarial behavior, it instructs the U.S. military to operate in a way that is particularly easy for its enemies to mimic.


The recently published National Security and National Defense Strategies herald a return to great power competition, and rightly so. But they also introduce a risk that the military will double down on operational models that were designed for direct confrontation with a near-peer adversary. For its part, the National Defense Strategy mitigates this risk by calling for an approach that is “strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.” The JCIC offers exactly this, by providing tools to ensure the agility and adaptability — and, therefore, the unpredictability — of the military’s operational approaches. The concept nests well within current strategic guidance and mitigates its risks.

The JCIC is an important starting point for thinking about whole-of-government responses to unconventional challenges. The civilian component of the solution, however, has not yet been devised. While that conversation is largely outside the scope of this article, the risks of implementing the JCIC increase as civilian engagement decreases. The concept provides tools to expand campaigns in scale, scope, time, and substance, and only civilian leaders can shape the parameters that will guide — and bind — the direction these campaigns will take. Civilian leaders must also decide how other tools of national power can complement military efforts, and how the military might complement theirs.

Much work also remains to determine what the U.S. military operating under the document’s guidance might look like. The concept will likely face resistance from leaders who spent their careers with a narrower understanding of the role of military power, and there is a danger that the JCIC will retain a small group of adherents and be overlooked by the vast majority of operational leaders.

Furthermore, as budgets have flatlined and the military and public grow more skeptical of ambiguity and endless campaigns, leaders in suits and uniforms alike may bristle at the thought of expanding the military’s roles and responsibilities. But helping the military think more broadly about the impact of its operations may increase the effectiveness — and efficiency — of a variety of missions and reduce the need for armed conflict to occur in the first place.

Much like Britain established naval power as a standard by which all aspirational powers were judged, contemporary rising powers have devised their operational approaches in a mold of America’s creation. Change is difficult for a status quo power — all the more reason for a rising power to pursue strategies that challenge the hegemon’s ability to adapt. Setting the agenda is an enviable position, but it also requires the continuous generation of new ideas and directions.

The JCIC is by no means a silver bullet — it will not be responsible for the restoration or continuation of American primacy. It is, however, a step toward operational adaptation at a time when political paralysis and bureaucratic sclerosis endanger even the most modest policy proposals. Its implementation would indicate a willingness to once again set the operational agenda to which the rest of the world must respond.


Phillip Lohaus is currently a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on special operations forces, the intelligence community, and competitive strategies. He previously served as an intelligence analyst in the Department of Defense. He is the author of a forthcoming book that contrasts the historical and contemporary approaches of the United States and rising powers below the threshold of armed conflict.  

Image: U.S. Army/Sgt. First Class John Gonzalez