What to Expect When You Don’t Want Your Adversaries to Know What to Expect
Just days before the Harry S. Truman carrier strike group returned from merely three months at sea in July 2018, Adm. Christopher Grady, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, suggested that the strike group could deploy again at any time. The homecoming reception a few days later was unusually subdued — there was no band and no balloons.
Grady was referring to the Navy’s adoption of dynamic force employment, a concept introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy aimed at making peacetime force movements more agile without compromising on combat readiness. According to then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the goal was to maneuver U.S. forces in peacetime so as to be “strategically predictable for our allies and operationally unpredictable for any adversary.”
The tendency might be to throw out the concept with the bathwater of the last administration’s strategy. That would be a mistake. The initiative has contributed to a more flexible force posture by encouraging maneuverability and strategic advantage in peacetime and stretching geographic and temporal boundaries. It has also contributed to allied interoperability and increased readiness, especially for non-routine operations in new areas of the globe.
Examples of dynamic maneuver have included aircraft carriers operating in the High North, fifth-generation fighter jets flying to Japan for snap exercises with Marine squadrons and allied air forces, and B-1B bombers operating with Norwegian F-35s. The Army has temporarily moved large-scale support forces to Europe as part of dynamic force employment operations.
The Pentagon is embarking on an ambitious global posture review. Part of this review could address some of the concept’s pitfalls and connect it to different aspects of posture such as global basing, access, and cooperation with allies.
Addressing the Downsides
Dynamic force employment has plenty of downsides as well as its share of skeptics. The concept is underdeveloped and light on analytic rigor. Being unpredictable can yield short-term advantage, but the long-term benefits are unclear.
Unexpected force movements can be harmful to alliances and regional stability. Moving forces around the globe episodically comes at the expense of persistent forward presence. That could reduce the perceived reliability of U.S. commitments and the steadfastness of U.S. resolve, thereby weakening deterrence and shaking the confidence of allies.
Non-routine deployments, particularly in areas where U.S. forces do not regularly appear, can lead to unwanted escalation if adversaries misconstrue these actions as indications of aggressive intent. Russian or Chinese forces might be inclined to jump the gun if taken unawares.
Mattis’ intention was to reduce deployment lengths, thereby improving readiness and giving sailors more time at home. But reduced predictability caused other disruptions, particularly to military personnel and their families facing the prospect of snap deployments with little warning.
The concept is almost unworkable if requirements elsewhere remain unchanged. Confrontation with Iran in 2019 and 2020 reintroduced sustained deployments to the Middle East that left little room for snap carrier or fighter squadron maneuvers. The USS Nimitz just returned from a record-breaking 10 months at sea, much of it parked in and around the Persian Gulf.
These downsides are not exactly deal-breakers, but they suggest there is plenty of room for improvement. Dynamic maneuver in peacetime can be a powerful tool in competition, but only if leaders use it judiciously, strategically, and to clear effect. It should not come at the expense of future readiness or critical relationships with allies and partners.
Balancing Predictability and Unpredictability
Dynamic force employment will continue to face resistance from areas of the defense enterprise that rely on predictability in order to generate forces, maintain readiness, and do other things that require a lot of advance notice. Much of this resistance will be healthy and warranted. Complex maintenance schedules can flex only so much without jeopardizing readiness, particularly when it comes to sophisticated platforms. Military personnel and their families need stability. The giant machine that is the U.S. military cannot turn on a dime all the time — nor should it.
Global force movements should have the right mix of predictability and unpredictability, with the former taking precedence. The vast majority of force employment around the globe should remain steady and predictable. U.S. forces cannot be thrashing about in pursuit of perishable, short-term advantages when preplanned presence or maintenance would be a better investment of limited resources. Decision-makers should weigh dynamic maneuvers against tradeoffs with other activities and tie these operations closely with strategic objectives.
Implementation should improve readiness and lethality as Mattis intended — particularly when it comes to the Navy’s ongoing maintenance challenges and stresses on the carrier fleet. If deployments are to be less predictable, they should also be shorter. That means saying no to combatant commanders demanding carrier presence, especially in the Middle East.
Operating Dynamically with Allies
Working with allies and partners on dynamic maneuver could improve allied interoperability and contribute to a more flexible overall posture with allies that improves combined operations and deterrence. Focusing more on cooperative deployments would help, as would allied involvement in planning and force maneuvers — including clear measures of performance (e.g., tactical network interoperability, decision processes for combined targeting, and multinational coordination for information operations).
Many U.S. allies and partners prize stability over maneuverability. Long-term relationships crave routine. Some European allies have complained that dynamic maneuvers in the High North have sent mixed messages about U.S. presence that could be destabilizing. Regional partners often value persistent U.S. presence over episodic deployments. Their main concern is that the United States has their back, not that it can turn up somewhere unexpected, rattle cages, and then leave them with the fallout from a spooked Russian bear or Chinese dragon.
Commanders should be attentive to allied concerns about regional stability and look for opportunities to operate multilaterally. Efforts to improve deterrence and gain advantage cannot come at the expense of allied perceptions of U.S. reliability and reasoned judgement.
Dynamic Basing and Presence
A more innovative future force will need more innovative basing. That means operating globally from longer ranges and a wider array of bases and avenues of approach, often in ways that break with established practice. Improving basing and access would take years, but it is also necessary if U.S. forces are to keep adversaries off balance in peacetime. Future basing will have to support longer-range strike options given the growing threat from standoff weapons, but the same basing can also expand the maneuver space for U.S. forces in peacetime.
New basing and access in places such as the Arctic could enable movements in new regions. A more diverse mix of permanent and expeditionary U.S. and host nation bases could enable a wider range of operations, large and small, that are more proactive in nature. Dynamic maneuvers will compel military logistics to adjust, which could lead to more resilient global supply chains that are less predictable to adversaries and thus less likely to be disrupted in a conflict.
New approaches to basing could include smaller, more dispersed, and more adaptable basing arrays in the Pacific and other theaters that may complicate adversary targeting and peacetime force movements, and enable access in increasingly contested basing environments. Some service concepts, such as the Marine Corps’ expeditionary advanced basing operations and the Air Force’s agile combat employment, are already moving in this direction.
These new operational concepts militate against the idea of forward presence for its own sake, which is a drain on readiness and a constraint on the maneuverability of forces worldwide. Long Middle East deployments, which have put significant strains on the Navy’s carrier fleet, demonstrate some of these tensions.
While some amount of routine presence is necessary, the military can and should retain capacity to pursue targets of opportunity. That means spending less time persistently forward and getting deployment schedules onto a more sustainable footing.
Ensuring Strategic Impact
Implementation should remain strategic. Operational commands are integral to identifying opportunities to seize the advantage, but the Pentagon cannot afford to let commanders and their staffs drag force management decisions into the operational or tactical levels of competition.
Dynamic maneuvers are no substitute for baseline force structure or for persistent forward presence in areas where it is critical for U.S. forces to be active throughout the year. The same is true for places were U.S. forces should make shows of force periodically to deter adversaries and reassure allies and partners.
Top-down guidance from the Pentagon will be critical. The Guidance for Employment of the Force has disappeared from the strategic planning system, according to the most recent revision of the Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Planning. This secretary of defense-signed guidance has proven a key anchor point for joint planning.
Senior leaders will also need options that tailor diplomatic, economic, and military measures to effectively engage allies and adversaries alike. Continuing dialogue among combatant commands could involve more civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and at the State Department and greater integration of other instruments of national power.
The new administration has been crystal clear that defense, especially the use of force, should take a backseat to diplomacy. If the intent is to keep adversaries off balance and send strategic signals, then diplomats should have a powerful say in the matter. That means guiding the intent and substance of dynamic maneuvers as well as the public and private messaging that go along with them.
Refining the Concept
Like all new concepts, dynamic force employment will need further refinement. That means rigorous analysis of implementation and impacts to the joint force and strategic and operational objectives.
Doctrine will need to be more sophisticated when it comes to defining peacetime competition objectives. Military planning needs to find the right balance between armed conflict (e.g., defeat, deny, and degrade) and campaigning through competition (e.g., enhance, manage, and delay). Defense civilians will be critical to ensuring that planning is not overly focused on confrontation and the use of force.
Dynamic force employment can be a way to drive the military further down the road of global integration by forcing units to operate across geographic and bureaucratic boundaries. The concept will push strategic planners to identify and seize on vulnerabilities and blind spots that are unlikely to appear in the course of routine deployments to which competitors have been adjusting for years. It may also encourage greater jointness and force the services and combatant commands to take a wider view and look on global posture as an integrated network of capabilities.
Whether dynamic force employment remains in its current form, the Pentagon should preserve the overall intent, which is to break old paradigms guiding how and where forces are employed and incentivize the military to operate more efficiently, proactively, and globally.
Jerry Meyerle is a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses who has served as an embedded advisor to military leaders in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and U.S. Central Command. He has led studies on strategic deterrence, foreign militaries, joint warfighting, and defense posture.
Amelia MacSleyne is a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses who has led studies for Navy fleet commanders on kinetic and non-kinetic effects integration, force posture, and naval warfare.