For all its talk of great power competition, the US military—and the Army in particular—remains poorly structured to help the United States maintain a decisive advantage in contemporary strategic competition. This is largely because it still subscribes to a now outdated understanding of warfare. Losing to a materially inferior nonstate adversary like the Taliban is one thing, but the Army, as the joint force’s premier capability for strategic competition on land and in the human domain, is not able to help the United States “win without fighting,” as Sun Tzu put it, against the likes of Russia and China.
To contend with the unique challenges of strategic competition, the Army needs to think beyond doctrinal updates, techno-centric silver bullets, and operational quick fixes—it must fundamentally change its strategic and organizational culture. Rather than emphasizing geographic key terrain, the Army needs to recognize that traditional centers of gravity have shifted from the power of states and militaries to the perceptions of populations; it has to focus on what Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales described nearly two decades ago as “capturing the psycho-cultural rather than the geographical high ground.” As the war in Ukraine is reaffirming, war, which is as much about people as politics, is above all a contest of wills.
Ultimately, how well the Army learns from its recent defeats, as well as from its partners in places like Ukraine, will determine how well it performs in the “infinite game” of strategic competition.
The American Way of War is Outdated
Today, the Army remains fixated on major combat operations and deterring conventional threats as its organizational identity. This imbalance reflects a limited understanding of competition, if not of modern war itself—an undervaluing of psychological factors compared to physical ones, disregarding Napoleon’s dictum that in war moral factors far outweigh the material.
The central problem is that the United States remains heavily invested in a twentieth-century way of war involving overwhelming force, firepower, and technological superiority. This core playbook has remained unchanged since World War II. Despite its first major strategic failure in Vietnam, the United States again pursued a strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan that tried to repurpose forces designed for short, sharp, force-on-force battles for protracted, people-centric, irregular warfare and stabilization, with similarly disappointing results.
The US military, in the words of irregular warfare expert David Kilcullen, has been “excellent at high-end technical combat but massively suck[s] at translating battlefield success into successful outcomes outside the narrow, technological definition of warfare.” As a result, it “flounders in the human domain of conflict,” and its “failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality.” For decades now, the way to beat the Americans has been an open secret—go asymmetric, irregular, and indirect. Attacking this US Achilles’ heel subverts both the material and moral advantages the United States would otherwise enjoy across the competition continuum.
The United States may not like winning without fighting, but it has also been fighting without winning, repeatedly failing to achieve political and strategic outcomes while winning battles and firefights on the ground. The military’s demonstrated inability to “fight and win the nation’s wars” has produced what the Quincy Institute’s Andrew Bacevich calls a “yawning gap” between its reputation and its actual performance. Its failure to win on the ground has called into question its ability to maintain the confidence of allies as well as deter adversaries. Many have surmised that the debacle in Afghanistan emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, as China and Russia open a new “Great Game” against the West.
The Army’s cut-and-paste application of Cold War–era conventional-force deterrence theory in its concept of competition doesn’t help matters, either. “Traditional deterrence no longer works,” observes Sean McFate, author of The New Rules of War, because US adversaries “wage war but disguise it as peace.” In complex strategic competition, deterrence works more subtly, situationally, and regionally—and relies more on economic than military power. Besides, as the Royal United Services Institute’s Peter Roberts has pointed out, “what deters the Kremlin doesn’t necessarily deter Tehran.”
This implies even more of a premium on geostrategic and cultural understanding, which must exist long before a crisis breaks out. Understanding the geostrategic, sociocultural, and historical context for the war in Ukraine, for example, with its implications for runaway escalation between nuclear-armed powers, is even more critical than it was in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Further evidence of what former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster calls our “strategic narcissism” lies in the five “core tasks” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth has identified for the Indo-Pacific region. They are all about major combat and the usual firepower and technology, with practically no discussion about how to win influence among populations. While the Army has to be “looking at everything” going forward, Wormuth stressed how it must “ruthlessly prioritize” materiel modernization and preparedness for major combat. Even Project Convergence, the Army’s aggressive force modernization program, is almost wholly about enhancing technical combat capabilities, reflecting an ongoing obsession with “lethality” and “large-scale combat operations.”
The Army is right to take into greater consideration how its great power and irregular warfare adversaries see the field—not just to understand them, but to learn from them. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sees competition as an extension of conflict, using all national “lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interest” before the West can bring superior combat forces to bear. The PLA plays a pervasive but clearly supporting role in interagency-led civil and economic “white area warfare,” in more practical terms and at higher levels of civil-military integration to which the US Stabilization Assistance Review still only aspires.
The Challenge of Strategic Competition
America’s outdated approach to warfare prevented success in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is now prohibiting it in strategic competition—where the stakes are dramatically higher. Eric Wesley, the former deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command, has put it bluntly: The United States is “poorly postured for competition,” and the Army is “not able to compete aggressively left of bang.” There is “no consistent or coherent understanding of what competition really is,” added retired Lieutenant General Michael Nagata, the former National Counterterrorism Center strategy director: “You cannot solve a problem if you don’t understand what it is.”
The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning sees competition as “the friction between cooperation and conflict activities” over time. This framing limits competition as a precursor to major combat and inspires little more than risk avoidance—especially in what Nagata calls the “cumbersome, bureaucratic, risk-averse nature” of US information operations. The joint competition continuum construct, which includes rather than separates out armed conflict, creates the right contextualization, but is the Army buying it any more than it bought the idea that stabilization was equal to major combat operations back in 2005?
Army doctrine, in Field Manual 3-57, Civil Affairs Operations, calls competition “the condition when two or more actors in the international system have competing and potentially incompatible interests but neither seeks to escalate to open conflict in pursuit of those interests.” In its truest sense, strategic competition is the moral, societal, and political struggle between (and within) states—above all, between authoritarianism and democracy. Far more than whole-of-government, it is whole-of-nation—a form of total rather than limited war, as old as war itself, but at much lower levels of violent intensity and mainly along political, economic, and informational lines. This is what an Army Chief of Staff paper means by “winning without fighting by leveraging all elements of national power.”
The military has a critical supporting and enabling role in strategic competition. This role must be understood as a continuously active task of forward engagement that goes well beyond the conventional understanding of strategic landpower simply being ready for major combat operations. To have an active role in strategic competition, the US military must first “stop pretending that the military instrument can be separated from diplomacy,” as McMaster testified. Other than to achieve strategic outcomes with an economy of military force, strategic competition aims to preserve a rules-based international order favorable to Western values and interests—an order that is currently jeopardized in Eastern Europe.
Access, influence, and legitimacy are the vital positional advantages in strategic competition that visiting teams like US forces in particular need, lacking the interior lines of advantage that first-hand cultural knowledge brings. “Influence and information are so disproportionally important in great power competition that [they are] actually decisive,” Nagata has pointed out.
The Army’s multi-domain operations concept limits its understanding of warfare as being largely physical. To gain the upper hand in competition, the Army must expand this concept “from the material to the moral.” This means that information- or influence-related capabilities such as civil affairs, psychological operations, information operations, public affairs, and foreign area officers must be organized, managed, and resourced with the same institutional as well as operational seriousness as combat forces.
Rather than merely “force multipliers” or “enablers,” these forces are themselves maneuver forces in the psycho-cultural spaces of war—moral warriors who gain, maintain, and deny political, narrative, and perceptual positional advantages in the human domain, or what NATO calls “cognitive warfare.”
The forward presence of such strategic enablers—especially in expeditionary forces—increases situational understanding, provides early warning, and enables superior politico-military decision-making through continuous civil reconnaissance, engagement, and networking activities. Local relationships and context in the competition continuum matter deeply in contemporary warfare. Such specially selected, educated, trained, and steadily deployed personnel must constantly gain and maintain extensive learning networks by, with, and through an immense, well managed mix of host-nation, interagency, and interorganizational partners.
This strategic capital comes through security cooperation activities, which remain “a central feature of the indirect approaches to warfare that are a hallmark” of strategic competition. Such activities must enjoy the same level of institutional seriousness as, say, intelligence operations. If the Army is looking for stark examples of forces failing to fully integrate soft and hard (or moral and material) power, it need only look at Russian armed forces in Ukraine.
Structuring for Competitive Success
In addition to rethinking its concept of warfare, the Army needs to reinvent its forces to help the United States win without fighting—success that will come from “from a stacking of local successes, the sum of which will be a shift in the perceptual advantage.” A good start is to focus force development efforts around the central military problem stated in the Joint Concept of Operations in the Information Environment:
How will the Joint force integrate physical and informational power to change or maintain the perceptions, attitudes, and other elements that drive desired behaviors of relevant actors in an increasingly pervasive and connected IE [information environment] to produce enduring strategic outcomes?
The Army needs to move on this now—the new great game of strategic competition is already long in play, and it has yet to complete its game plan or its roster. For one, it must lobby the joint staff to recognize the human domain and develop a framework for the concepts and capabilities needed to help the United States compete effectively today, not tomorrow. It also needs to overhaul its approach to security cooperation, integrating security force assistance brigades, the National Guard State Partnership Program, theater and embassy civil-military support elements, and other proven engagement activities within a concept of cognitive warfare, with the same urgency as Project Convergence.
The US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command exemplifies much of the solution as well as the problem. It is the Army’s key capability to win without fighting. However, it is poorly structured and empowered to deliver on this. With 76 percent of DoD’s civil affairs, 63 percent of psychological operations, and nearly 70 percent of information operations personnel, this Army Reserve organization is the ideal core of a more robust, multi-component Army command to manage and deploy integrated influence-related capabilities—even as the basis of an Army center of excellence for information, influence, and engagement.
In the twenty-first century, as Military Strategy in the 21st Century concludes, “strategic advantage will emerge from how we engage with and understand people and access political, economic, and social networks to achieve a position of relative advantage that complements American military strength.” In such moral struggles, those who can best understand local context and build networks around relationships that come from continuous, multifaceted human domain engagement are “winning without fighting.” The post–World War II Army has looked to be ready to fight and win the first battle of the next war. Across the competition continuum, however, it must be constantly ready to help the United States gain and maintain decisive strategic advantage because “in this connected world, even more than before, the decisive battle will occur before the first shot is fired.”
To help move to a better American way of war and peace, the Army must see itself within a whole-of-nation framework in strategic competition, build global and regional networks with allies and interorganizational partners, and integrate moral as well as material maneuver forces—or else it may risk losing without fighting.
Retired Colonel Christopher Holshek is vice president for military affairs of the Civil Affairs Association, where he organizes the annual CA Symposium and Roundtable and edits the Civil Affairs Issue Papers. He is also a senior civil-military adviser at Narrative Strategies, LLC, the International Preparedness Associates’ Global Strategy Group, and the NATO ResilientCivilians project.
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, or that of any organization with which the author is affiliated.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Micah VanDyke, US Army