You Can Teach a Marine Deterrence: Understanding Coercion Requires Changing PME
There is a disturbance in the force. A return to great-power competition requires an understanding of the competition continuum. Generals want a new breed of officer that is able to generate global campaign plans and propose operations, activities, and investments that compete with and deter rivals while reassuring partners and allies. These same leaders want staff who can visualize and describe joint campaigns integrating cyber and space with air, land, and maritime effects to create multiple dilemmas for rivals. Such officers must balance an understanding of warfighting with an appreciation for employing military forces in support of broader campaigns that fuse multiple instruments of power and depart from traditional war plans. This logic also applies to containing regional powers and disrupting global terror networks. Multiple commenters in War on the Rocks have discussed this new demand signal. From calls for implementing new Joint Chiefs of Staff guidance on professional military education to reflections on the difficulty of teaching coercion to field grade officers, there is a sense that the schoolhouse — and possibly the military profession itself — is not keeping up.
In her recent article and podcast, Professor Tami Davis Biddle offers the military officer a good introduction to the concept of coercion. As professionals who have talked about coercion theory and topics like deterrence to elected officials and senior appointees through the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, and have worked on global campaign and contingency plans, we can attest to a widespread lack of understanding of deterrence and compellence. Biddle should be applauded for seeking to connect theory and practice.
We agree with the majority of Biddle’s perspective less two points. First, the better place to find the latest thinking on coercion is in the series of publications linked to the concept of a competition continuum and new global integration, and in the campaigning model used by the Joint Staff. These documents lay out a vision more aligned with coercive diplomacy, to include the use of positive inducements and cooperation mechanisms similar to the work of Alexander George, than classic coercion as described by Thomas Schelling, the main subject of Biddle’s article. The military manual that Biddle cites often lags new concept notes and doctrine. While it should be updated and corrected per Biddle’s points, there is a growing literature on coercion set in motion by the National Defense Strategy and a deep concern that existing phasing constructs for war are outdated.
Second, Biddle contends that “military culture and identity thus prevent many practitioners from embracing a body of theory that offers them crucial insights into the nature and practice of their own profession.” From our vantage point, theory actually follows practice and is usually an attempt to systematize the chaotic attempts of professionals to muddle through. Contrary to Biddle, this lack of understanding is not reducible to military culture or the military mind and has more to do with outdated approaches to teaching coercion. Specifically, how contemporary professional military education approaches planning exercises and wargames tends to reinforce a tired, ideal type of war as a decisive struggle. There is a formulaic plot arc that takes combatants from a distinct beginning through a climatic struggle and deposits them at a clear endpoint. While that trajectory is helpful for training, it obscures more than it clarifies with regards to great-power competition.
Helping military professionals understand coercion and the broader competition continuum therefore requires a new approach to conducting planning exercises and wargames in professional military education. This article recounts our experiment to do so over the last year. Traditional planning exercises tend to reduce complexity for the sake of clear instruction. They focus on war — not competition — and value tangible products over creativity and higher-order thinking. To overcome this deficiency, the School of Advanced Warfighting developed a new breed of planning exercise. This exercise series, called Agile Competition, was supported by seminars on coercion and military power as well as perspectives on deterrence and crisis management that extended beyond Cold War-era constructs. The exercise forced students to develop flexible deterrence options, experiment with contingency planning from the perspective of Chinese planners, and deal with the complexity of great-power competition. Students had to compete with other students and deter a larger war while supporting alliance commitments and flowing forces into the theater for follow-on operations during the opening stages of contingency in the South China Sea.
It’s Not the Student, It’s the Teacher
For over a generation, attendance at resident professional military education institutions has entailed a mix of academic seminars and functional planning classes that certify officers for joint assignments. In this respect, professional military education is more like a law school or Master of Business Administration program than a graduate degree in history or international relations — the two disciplines upon which it predominantly draws for academic instruction.
The way military and civilian instructors teach often forgoes coercion and narrowly focuses on warfighting. Planning exercises in professional military education tend to focus on products over the development of creative options appropriate for senior leaders considering wartime contingencies or managing crises. Planning problems typically present students with fixed means and circumstances. The structure puts students in a box, giving them a large military force to defeat a clear enemy. As students are given detailed task organization, they know exactly what forces are available for planning and execution. These forces are already postured for conflict. This simplification means that students don’t have to consider vital aspects of force generation and force flow with regards to resourcing their plans. The scenario presumes that they have uncontested power projection into the operating area. The adversary is too weak to challenge the United States globally. Local partners provide key bases, overflight rights, and even military forces. The small box in which students plan places them in a conflict without them having to think about how they got there. They are not shown the diplomatic context, how deterrence failed, or the escalation pathway that brought them to the precipice of war. The net result is a formulaic approach to warfighting that skips the nuances of competition and how to set conditions or define the tempo of operations while shaping adversary decision-making.
Planning exercises inside this small box result in planning for planning’s sake. They pit student teams against hypothetical countries like “Indolaysia” or “Donovia,” missing opportunities for the in-depth exploration of contemporary challenges based on geography, alliances, and economic considerations. Exercise designers often struggle to update orders of battle with new capabilities and then default to either dice rolling for space, weather, electronic warfare, and cyber or simply wishing them away. It’s as if the single battle concept only applies within the box provided to the students rather than presenting them with problems that instigate deeper thinking through multiple levels of war, across all domains, and throughout multiple regions if not globally.
However, there is a deeper problem. The way military and civilian faculty teach is etched with unspoken assumptions that breed, often inadvertently, dangerous myths. War is decisive, with clear phases and a beginning and an end. Good strategy is easy and about alignment. Disruptive capabilities offset adversaries. There are levels of war that connect clear strategic guidance with aggressive tactics, making war and competition more functional and technical (i.e., science) than art.
Civilian and military faculty should not reduce a key strategic decision, campaign, or battle to a simple choice devoid of context. Such a reduction is the pedagogic equivalent of armchair quarterbacking. Yet, in search of great men and command decisions, classes tend to reduce complexity to caricature. There is little about the enemy, the environment, or social history — just a modern military version of Whig history: great men doing great things and showing us the way.
There is a solution: Take the training wheels off and develop a new type of planning exercise that stresses competition and strategic ambiguity — one that balances global commitments with limited resources and complex mobilization dynamics, and focuses on crises that emphasize escalation management as much as they do warfighting. This new, more realistic type of exercise should be grounded in case studies on coercive campaigns as well as literature from security and strategic studies about how different states approach crisis management.
A Novel Experiment: Agile Competition
In 2020, the School of Advanced Warfighting shifted from a single “one and done” capstone planning exercise to a series of events exploring integrated campaigning. Consistent with the National Defense Strategy, the exercise put students in various U.S. Indo-Pacific Command planner roles to develop competitive plans against China. While war with China is not inevitable or even likely, competition is assured.
The exercise had three successive modules: competition, emulation, and response. The first module, competition, had students replicating joint planning groups to develop a theater campaign order specifying operations, activities, and investments that would help deter Chinese aggression in the region while assuring partners and allies. There was no box. Students could propose a wide variety of options, to include non-military instruments of power, and had to consider how their activities ensured peace while posturing to limit Chinese military options. Students began the competition stage with a series of seminars on Chinese strategy and military capabilities. Over the next three months, students met periodically to refine their steady-state plan and develop theories of competition. The competition stage culminated with a final presentation by the planning teams to a “strategic opportunity board” run by faculty and external subject matter experts from the Joint Staff. This presentation gave students a chance to brief their concepts and request additional resources in a manner consistent with global integration.
The second module, emulation, had students flip the map to consider how the Chinese would respond to a United States-led coalition challenging territorial claims in the South China Sea. This design helped students develop a Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operating Environment assessment based on a likely crisis scenario. It also combined critical red team techniques to help students evaluate the scenario. Additional seminars on Chinese strategic thinking, domestic politics, doctrine, and new military concepts helped the students evaluate different perspectives. Of note, this module’s design helped students understand the pressures on Chinese leaders, how such leaders see deterrence, and key bureaucratic changes affecting crisis decision-making. The emulation stage culminated with a wargame in which students role-played the Chinese Southern Theater Command responding to a territorial incursion that Beijing perceived as hostile in the South China Sea. By approaching a crisis from a Chinese perspective, students gained a new appreciation for escalation risks and military capabilities. After this module, students discussed the inherent challenge of balancing tactical initiative and firing effectively first with the strategic risk of expanding the conflict.
The third module, response, had half of the students return to their role as a joint planning group in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and placed them in a crisis scenario involving an escalating dispute between China and the Philippines. Each team had their scenario modified to reflect their earlier competition planning. The other half of the students remained planners for the Chinese Southern Theater Command. Each side developed a series of flexible deterrent options to manage the crisis and seek favorable outcomes. The faculty used a matrix game to exercise these dueling deterrence options, altering military posture and diplomatic influence in the region. The results of the matrix game set the stage for the final confrontation: a limited, conventional engagement between a United States-led coalition and China.
This segment of the response module involved a three-day wargame that featured a mix of strategic messaging — students sending public and private diplomatic messages to each other — and theater-level joint planning. Each side had to manage force flows and integrate air, naval, land, space, and cyber effects. The game used the Command software developed by Matrix Games, with external experts providing additional adjudication support. The student teams started each day with a strategic dialogue, discussing viable response options with their national command authority to develop new plans. These plans were then submitted to the adjudicators, who ran them through the Command software. In the morning, students would receive a crisis update packet containing the results of the Command run and then begin the cycle again. During their moves, students experimented with new military concepts like expeditionary advanced base operations, mosaic warfare, and the Chinese concept of systems confrontation. They even tested new force structures like the Marine Littoral Regiment.
At the end of the three days, the students briefed each other on their plans, theories of competition, and overall military response options. They discussed the challenges of balancing the global risks of escalation — the ever-present shadow of nuclear confrontation — with the desire to gain local tactical initiative. Students discussed how they developed targeting lists to break alliance cohesion and signal other states globally. They debated which capabilities, from strategic cyber attacks to broader offensive space operations, should be held back to preserve response options and limit non-nuclear strategic escalation. The U.S. teams in particular discussed the challenge of deploying forces and sequencing air and maritime effects relative to Chinese rocket forces, electronic and cyber attacks, submarines, and long-range air-launched cruise missiles. They also discussed a 21st-century maritime Verdun: a vain bid for a quick victory that digressed into a painful and attritional struggle. In the end, students not only learned coercion theory but also experienced the inherent challenges of practicing the latent diplomacy of violence in a precision-strike era.
Conclusion: Best Military Advice in Great-Power Competition
Contrary to the view that teaching coercion theory is hard because of the military mind or culture, a large part of the problem resides in legacy professional military education practices. The Agile Competition exercise continuum is one effort to overcome this stagnation. The experiment shows how to combine seminars on deterrence, naval integration, and Chinese strategy with joint planning exercises and wargames. Going forward, there are a number of refinements that would further strengthen this approach.
First, the exercise would benefit from additional strategic dialogue. Planning teams need additional meetings that give them an opportunity to provide best military advice and shape larger strategic debates. This advice should be based on a better assessment of the strategic messages the planning teams receive from their competitor and whether they think they are signaling an escalatory or de-escalatory posture and why. During Agile Competition, the faculty noticed a decoupling between military actions and strategic messaging. Forcing students to balance rhetoric and reality will help them further appreciate strategic ambiguity, uncertainty, and the challenge of signaling.
Second, the exercise would benefit from more detailed intelligence and deception planning. Because the student teams were small and knew they only had a few turns, some rushed to attack and suffered the consequences. Future iterations will require more emphasis on early-stage intelligence collection to reveal enemy disposition and composition. In addition, faculty will require deception plans and have students factor sacrificing resources for deception and how military deception might undermine their broader strategic messaging and signaling efforts associated with flexible deterrence options.
Third, the exercise would benefit from additional strategic role-players and a dedicated green cell to role-play neutral countries in the region as well as partners and allies. To simplify the exercise, the faculty emulated the national command authority and partner nations. Having students work through intermediaries to conduct negotiations for basing rights and access while managing alliance operations with shifting rules of engagement would be more realistic. This approach would force students to appreciate that alliance warfare is slow by design and deliberate, and tends to limit military options in the short run. In the long run, alliances produce significant strategic advantages and increase military options. Understanding this trade-off will help students better appreciate global campaigning and military strategy.
Agile Competition represents a step towards replicating the challenges of global integration and coercing rivals short of armed conflict. It was not about warfighting in a small box. It was a competitive planning exercise. The idea was not to go to war with China, America’s third-largest trading partner. The idea was to explore coercion and setting conditions in a theater of operation in a manner that provided multiple credible and flexible deterrence and military response options to national decision-makers. As a result, students gained a better understanding of new concepts like the competition continuum and were able to evaluate them in relation to a larger body of literature on coercion, military power, and crisis management. These linkages are critical. In great-power competition, victory only goes to those that successfully deter war in their pursuit of national interests.
Benjamin Jensen, PhD, holds a dual position as a professor in the Marine Corps University’s School of Advanced Warfighting and as a scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an officer in the United States Army Reserve. The views expressed are his own.
Lt. Col. Matthew Van Echo is a Marine infantry officer and operational planner currently serving as the operational planning course director at the School of Advanced Warfighting. The views expressed are his own.