“If the Joint Force does not change its approach to strategic competition, there is a significant risk that the United States will ‘lose without fighting.’” The newest Joint Concept for Competing offers a powerful explainer of the problem, yet fails to fully identify the solution. For an Army whose raison d’etre is to fight and win our nation’s wars, what does it mean to compete? Hostile forces already view themselves as at war with the United States. The Army has a critical role to play in defense of the nation and can contribute prior to conflict. However, to do so effectively some additional considerations must be addressed.
At present, the Army is expected to prepare for conflict during a time of strategic competition. The key term, however, is competition. Of the three phases of the conflict continuum, the most ambiguous for the role of the Army is competition. The Army is manned and equipped to fight. It prepares from home station and certifies at national or regional training centers. And yet, under multidomain operations doctrine and with wide-ranging current requirements, it is increasingly tasked to compete. How can an army deliver effects in competition without forward placement, authorities, or the organizational structure to do so? The competition phase is different than conflict and crisis and consequently should be executed and designed differently.
A one-size-fits-all solution does not work in this instance. The demands are too great and even the most creative leader will struggle to find the time or resources required. In short, the US Army must fundamentally reexamine how it operates in the competition phase. It must be prepared to win in competition so we don’t have to win by fighting. Better yet, it must be able to set conditions during competition so we can win in conflict. These are more than just catchphrases. They provide focus amid ambiguity—ambiguity about competitors, the strategic landscape, and even the fundamental nature of competition and the Army’s role in it.
Absent such focus, the Army and the joint force are perilously close to an identity crisis in which expectations of it do not align with its reason for being. The first step toward addressing the issue is acknowledging that the Army’s role isn’t just to prepare and win in conflict. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is currently leveraging a whole-of-government approach to compete and win without fighting. The CCP’s authoritarian government gives it an edge in directing all resources and tools toward a single goal of undermining the Western-backed order and the US hegemony that underwrites it. Beijing has been competing for a decade. Importantly, however, China does not use the term “competition,” but rather “struggle.” Competitions connote rules-based contests. A struggle can more closely imply a fight without limits. Terminology matters. It sets the framework and conceptual approach.
US policymakers have caught on to this threat and are focused on the China problem set. Naturally, they have called on the joint force to provide deterrence—and options in this competition. For the Army, the primary contradiction, as described above, is the Army’s mission statement and resourcing to accomplish it. The Army is simply not a competition Army. It fights wars and it fights to win. If our primary adversary’s goal is to win without fighting, then traditional deterrence options will be ineffective.
The Department of Defense use of the phrase “pacing threat” says it all. To pace something is to make progress at the same speed. Gone are the days of rapidly established dominance and complete overmatch. The US strategy is to keep pace with our adversary. In many instances, China has the advantage. In the Indo-Pacific region, China has interior lines, mass, and magazine depth. Further, China isn’t just competing—it is leveraging a whole-of-government, globally integrated plan to gain influence and redefine the international world order.
The US Army is only one portion of one of the DIME instruments of power. However, to compete it must perform elements of all four instruments without the resourcing, expertise, or authorities.
The US Army Pacific uses a different term for competition. The command defines this phase as “campaigning.” DoD joint publications state that when done correctly campaigning through competition below armed conflict “creates strategic opportunities for the US and its partners.” Time is the critical variable for this method. Efforts will be protracted and require a long-term approach. The question for DoD then becomes this: How do we resource a protracted campaign below armed conflict? If the Army is the tool of choice, it needs to be equipped, manned, and trained for this mission. Requiring the same Army to maintain readiness for war will result in strain and suboptimal outcomes in both campaigning and warfighting. Evidence of an overstretched Army is obvious with current commitments spanning the globe. Ground forces provide national decision-makers options. Ongoing conventional regional conflicts in Ukraine and Israel highlight the necessity of a trained and ready land force. However, the gray-zone activities of adversaries and other hostile actors also require a deliberate approach.
All warfighting functions must be considered as part of any revision to US Army force structure or operating concept alterations. For example, military intelligence collection is different prior to hostilities. In the competition phase, setting the theater and providing early warning are paramount. During crisis or conflict, a shift to targeting becomes necessary. While targeting is also possible during competition, it is heavily if not exclusively weighted toward nonkinetic effects. In competition, countering malign influences, information operations, and deception are more immediate and important than weaponeering a tomahawk solution. Additionally, during this phase a humanitarian-assistance/disaster-relief event or an engineering operation to improve seaport capacity might be more critical than a show-of-force operation. While all options should be maintained, their prioritization and resource allocation should necessarily vary based on the phase of the conflict continuum. How the Army is currently structured matters when balancing winning in competition versus traditional, kinetic warfighting.
The new Army chief of staff, General Randy George, is recalibrating the force. His message and guidance to focus on warfighting and to do so efficiently is a crucial first step in winning in competition. His strategy provides greater flexibility and surge capacity by eliminating wasteful practices. However, without a fundamental reorganization of Army forces or a wholesale philosophical shift the US Army will continue to react to the pacing threat.
The coming decade will be one of increasing risk. The People’s Republic of China has declared its intentions. Beijing is assembling a military capable of challenging the world order. The US Army’s time to prepare for war is now. However, preparation for war isn’t sufficient. It must also start competing.
George Fust is an active duty Army officer currently serving in the INDOPACOM AOR. He is an intelligence officer and advisor to senior leaders within US Army Pacific. He is a graduate of Duke University and is currently an adjunct professor of political science. He previously taught at the US Military Academy in the Department of Social Sciences and served in the 75th Ranger Regiment. He has multiple deployments and experience in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. David Resnick, US Army