As budget pressure causes the US Army to shrink, our national unwillingness to scale back the scope of our mission causes tension between warfighting doctrine and what the Army feels it can reasonably achieve with the tools at hand. This is exemplified in the transformation of “deterrence” from a strategic goal to a tactical task. Deterrence as a task reflects a failure to do the staff work necessary to translate a desired end state articulated by a higher headquarters into a clear task for a subordinate unit.

In US joint doctrine deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat.” Deterring “opportunistic aggression” during wartime and deterring “nuclear and non-nuclear strategic attacks” feature prominently in the National Defense Strategy.

In US Army doctrine, deterrence is one of the purposes of unified land operations. The Army threw “deter” into its kitchen sink of a definition in an effort to comprehend all the things an army does in one place. Nevertheless, “deter” is not what an army does. Although having a trained, ready, and lethal army may well help prevent conflict—indeed, this may be the strategic rationale for having a standing army in the first place—it is a mistake to think of an army primarily as a tool that prevents conflict. “Preventing conflict” is a bad way to explain what an army does. The plain English meaning of deter is “to turn aside, discourage, or prevent from acting.” If the most excellent form of war is to subdue the enemy without fightingdiscouraging an enemy from fighting is useful for both military strategists and civilian policymakers. But describing the benefits of an army isn’t the same thing as describing what an army does. Owning a cat may calm a person, provide them with a sense of well-being, or provide companionship. What a cat actually does is sleep, eat, and sometimes sit on the person who shares its living space.

What “deter” is not is a task. Deter is absent from the US Army’s list of tactical mission tasks. Deter is not even included as one of those tactical mission tasks defined by its effect on the opposing force (fix, block, canalize, contain, clear, disrupt, turn, suppress, destroy, neutralize, isolate, interdict).

Similarly, there is no tactical mission task symbol for either “deter” or “defeat.” Both are results, either of a battle (in the case of “defeat”) or of the adversary’s decision that a battle will not take place (in the case of “deter”). The reason for this is simple: like “defeat” (whereby the enemy is made unwilling or unable to pursue his adopted course of action), “deter” describes an effect on the mind of the enemy commander. The friendly commander takes actions on the battlefield to incentivize the enemy commander to respond in a certain way. The enemy commander, of course, has a choice. The success or failure of a mission to “deter” depends on that choice.

Although there is no way to quantify this, it does appear that more and more staffs are using “deter” incorrectly, transforming it from a purpose into a task. Instead of maneuvering forces to a position of advantage to deter or, if necessary, defeat the enemy, now units are ordered to “deter” the enemy in order to achieve the commander’s desired end state. As deterrence depends on a choice to be made by the enemy commander, defining the mission in this way (at least on the tactical, or battlefield, level) is not really defining the mission at all and falls into the “hope is not a plan” category.

My peer group saw the migration of a strategic/operational purpose into a tactical task before, when we were platoon leaders. An offensive or security-focused task like a combat patrol became a “presence patrol” during the Iraq War, designed merely to demonstrate a US presence to the local populace and enemy commanders and perhaps encourage non-confrontational interaction between US forces and local populations. The problem occurred when the desired effects on the minds of the local population or enemy commander was (poorly) translated into a tactical task for troops. The “presence patrol” was a failure of staff work at the intermediate levels, using “cut and paste” as a substitute for doing a proper analysis of which tactical tasks would allow the lower echelon’s plan to truly accomplish the end state in the higher headquarters’ order. Soldiers went out into the field unsure what they were supposed to actually do. Faith in the Army’s counterinsurgency strategy was undermined.

It is perfectly fine as a matter of COIN strategy to advocate that friendly troops must both be out among the population and be seen to be out among the population. Similarly, encouraging or directing troops to come into non-confrontational contact with locals can be a legitimate part of a counterinsurgency strategy. That said, staff work is required to make this into a tactical task that troops can meaningfully execute. Soldiers can secure a location through active patrolling. They can reconnoiter. They can meet with locals (“engagements”). Soldiers can perform these tasks openly, with restrictive rules of engagement, and in a manner that ensures they treat the people they encounter with courtesy and respect. Such operations may have a beneficial purpose, namely showing the flag to the locals and to the enemy. That may even be their primary strategic effect. But, just as the Army has institutional difficulty understanding “building personal relationships” when it is expressed as a task, “showing the flag” makes for an equally lousy tactical task. So it is with “deter.”

A junk dealer may choose to buy a loudly barking, ferocious-looking dog. His or her purpose may be to keep people from trespassing on his lot; the junk dealer has no desire to actually injure anyone but is prepared to do so to prevent theft (strategy). He researches breeds and training programs and manages to buy a suitable dog from an out-of-state breeder and transports it to his junkyard (operational). When the dog arrives he trains it to bark at anyone approaching the fence and attack any trespassers (tactical). The junk dealer’s purpose is to deter theft. However, the thoughtful dog in this example understands what his primary task is: security.

This is more than just a doctrinal discussion about which level of war (strategic, operational, tactical) best corresponds with the appropriate use of deterrence as a concept. The transformation of deterrence from a purpose to a task is also a symptom of our loss of focus concerning how military power is to be employed. This is itself linked to the retrenchment of the global superpowers in the contemporary operating environment.

America is experiencing growing support for limiting its armed forces’ overseas military presence. Russia experienced a similar shock much earlier, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the catastrophic loss of military bases, forces, and capabilities (and they have less economic and demographic depth with which to absorb the shock to their defense capabilities). Although the transformation has been relatively gradual, the US Army has resisted the inevitable and appropriate shrinking of the active component in the aftermath of the Cold War and, more recently, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Instead it appears that the Army has found a level of conflict that suits the amount of force structure it feels it can maintain.

By putting off the deliberate realization of the peace dividend the Army has been forced into ad hoc and poorly planned reductions based on congressional budgetary action without a realistic reduction in our overall military goals. Such reductions as have come have been more to explain how the smaller force may still be employed, rather than to plan for reduced responsibilities. Over the last few years, our military has been attempting to do the same job with fewer forces.

This is the peril posed by “deter.” Instead of a hollowing out of the force (which occurred during the last major drawdown in the aftermath of the Korean War) the Army is experiencing a hollowing out of our fighting doctrine. There are insufficient forces to decisively accomplish the tasks the Army has been set. The Army transitioned from using overwhelming force to defeat an enemy to using under-resourced forces to “deter” an enemy and, in its most extreme form, a reliance on “influence operations” to maybe convince the enemy of something. The world watched the Russians go through the same transformation in the aftermath of their defeat in Afghanistan; now the West contends with little green men, troll farms, cyber-attacks, election interference, and other manifestations of much less expensive, “gray-zone” conflict. These gray-zone activities have, in the United States, traditionally been the purview of clandestine services and intelligence agencies.

As ever, the nature of warfare has not changed. From Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s desire to invade Iraq without an occupying force of sufficient size to “effects-based operations” to our current obsession with influence operations, there are powerful political reasons to drift away from mobilizing the necessary forces to achieve comprehensive victory in battle.  Perhaps the political and military costs of mobilizing greater forces should constrain the circumstances in which America is willing to use military force. Indeed, it has been argued that the abdication of congressional control over the war-making power makes sliding into (limited) armed conflict far too easy. It also makes waging decisive war more difficult, hence the Long War in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A willingness to manage big tasks with fewer forces has permeated our military, no doubt because the civilian authorities both set the mission (big) and the budget (shrinking). As always the National Command Authority has been seduced by the sirens of technology and innovation, which has become a destructive side-effect of inter-service rivalry for dwindling defense dollars (“Airpower!” “Mutually Assured Destruction!” “Effects-based operations!”). This sliding scale of military conflict serves the military’s inherent bias against diminution in size as well as panders to the congressional reluctance to clearly demarcate the boundary between peace and war.

There is nothing wrong with modifying how the Army does business to accommodate a smaller force, but there is risk in slicing the salami too thin in attempting to cover the same area with an ever-shrinking national resolve and an ever-shrinking pool of human and material resources. “Right-sizing” the war to fit the forces available is the tactical tail wagging the strategic dog. Perhaps Americans are having trouble coming to terms with the failure of US forces to bring about transformational effects in other countries since the end of World War II. Or that America’s pre-eminent role in world affairs may be shrinking. The money just is not there to maintain a military force of sufficient size to decisively influence events in the four corners of the globe. Maintaining a perpetual war footing was never possible in any event, as war has always meant borrowing and debt. Better to bite off smaller problems—or, at least develop an appreciation that large problems can only be tackled intermittently, mobilizing all our national resources—and, when a military solution is necessary, adopt a decisive one.

A large, toothless dog is a bad investment compared with a smaller dog that always goes for the throat.

In other words, our identity crisis as the world’s policeman should not be a reason to forget how to effectively employ military forces. Integrating the military into a whole-of-government approach is different from forgetting how the military works. The Army is part of the M in the DIME acronym that describes the various levers of national power (diplomacy, information, military, and economics), and the M works by closing with and destroying things. If putting one’s army in the field makes one’s opponent less willing to go to war, so much the better. But this is a D victory. If messaging directed at an adversary is sufficient to preserve the peace then one has scored a victory without fighting and can chalk up a win for the I. If economic sanctions achieve the desired effect – good going E. But let us have no doubt what the M’s role is in this equation (with all due respect to stability operations and the foreign internal defense mission). The military prepares to fight and fights to win decisively when called upon. That’s what the M does.

What fights America picks—or when America chooses to fight—may change as the military scales up and down in size. But the essential nature of military force remains unchanged. Studying Russia’s recent experiences, and Britain’s before them, can influence how we tackle this challenge. My vote for the Army: a smaller active component, combined with a vastly increased reserve component, mated with an effective and scalable mechanism to effect conscription at whatever level is necessary to meet future contingencies. The current Selective Service system lacks political support, resulting in a laughably small mission; it is not designed to be used. A credible plan for victory tomorrow is a more effective deterrent than a plan to deter today. America’s enemies must have no doubt that she has both the will and the way to muster the necessary resources necessary to win a future conflict.

Being less willing to use land forces in the absence of full mobilization means that the Army may have to accept that the inherently expeditionary Navy will receive proportionally greater funding in peacetime. The Air Force—the king of both selling strategic deterrence and capturing DoD dollars—will continue to do what the Air Force does. One can only hope that they are chastened somewhat by losing space as a line of effort.

Unfortunately, the Army resists structural change instead of advocating for a leaner service with a smaller mission set. It maintains its attachment to the same big goals, but shrinking forces water down what those forces are called upon to do. When those forces are too small to achieve decisive effects, simply move the goalposts back. Can the force attack to defeat? No, then defend. Forces insufficient to defend? Then deter. Are the forces too small to be an effective deterrent? Then use them to “influence.” Facebook may help shape the battlefield or put off the day of reckoning, but it isn’t going to win America any wars.

Hoping the enemy will be deterred by smaller forces instead of defeated by decisive ones is not a plan for victory, but a path to inevitable defeat. True deterrence is based on having effective, lethal military capabilities. Staffs at the tactical level of war adopting “deter” as a task not only negatively influences how those of us in the Army think of our forces, it affects how those forces are trained, and how our mission objectives are executed. In doing so, we trade on our past battlefield successes but fail to ensure future victories.


Garri Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and strategic planner with the 28th Infantry Division. He is also a former cavalry troop commander as well as a former civilian branch chief in the Army National Guard G-1.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army