On the Need for a Blue Theory of Victory

 In Intelligence, Defense, FVEY, P5

The United States could well lose the next big war — not because it lacks the right capa­bil­i­ties but because it has not done the hard intel­lec­tu­al work to know how to win. This is a cen­tral con­clu­sion of the bipar­ti­san National Defense Strategy Commission in its November 2018 report. It goes on to argue that defense plan­ners under­stand nei­ther the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of region­al con­ven­tion­al wars against adver­saries capa­ble of all-domain, tran­sre­gion­al esca­la­tion nor how to shape the dynam­ics of such wars to safe­guard U.S. inter­ests.

As com­mis­sions come and go fre­quent­ly inside the Washington belt­way, their impact on public policy is typ­i­cal­ly short-lived. But this report struck a nerve — and right­ly so. At a time when the risks of such region­al wars are rising, the United States has lagged behind in the devel­op­ment of the needed new strate­gic thought, which has mag­ni­fied risk. It is time for the U.S. defense com­mu­ni­ty to put its intel­lec­tu­al house in order about modern major-power war and espe­cial­ly its strate­gic dimen­sions.

Lest anyone think that the crit­i­cism emanates from a single cranky com­mis­sion, con­sid­er the judg­ment of Gen. Joseph Dunford, who as chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2016 declared that “we’re already behind in adapt­ing to the chang­ing char­ac­ter of war today, in so many ways.” Or con­sid­er the views of the direc­tor of mil­i­tary sci­ences at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Peter Roberts, who wrote in 2017:

Potential adver­saries … have recon­cep­tu­al­ized war­fare and reimag­ined con­flict with­out the bound­aries the West impos­es upon it. … A belief in Western con­cep­tu­al or intel­lec­tu­al supe­ri­or­i­ty remains deeply entrenched in the Western ortho­doxy; such hubris has dis­tinct dan­gers.

The United States is “already behind” because Russia and China have worked for three decades to put their intel­lec­tu­al houses in order. Their devel­op­ment of new strate­gic thought has been robust, sus­tained, and dis­tress­ing. Russian and Chinese plan­ners have “recon­cep­tu­al­ized war­fare and reimag­ined con­flict” with the United States in ways that the West has been slow to grasp. They stud­ied the American way of war in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc. They mon­i­tored close­ly peri­od­ic U.S. reviews of defense policy, strat­e­gy, and capa­bil­i­ties for what they signal about U.S. mil­i­tary ambi­tions and the future American way of war. They then revised mil­i­tary strate­gies, devel­oped new con­cepts of oper­a­tions, realigned mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures, devel­oped and tested new doc­trines, and designed, acquired, and field­ed new capa­bil­i­ties aligned with those con­cepts and doc­trines. Finally, lead­ers in Russia and China mus­tered the polit­i­cal will and sus­tained focus to over­come sig­nif­i­cant bureau­crat­ic, tech­ni­cal, and finan­cial obsta­cles.

Their intel­lec­tu­al home­work has focused on a realm most U.S. mil­i­tary experts have long con­sid­ered America’s to dom­i­nate — the realm of esca­la­to­ry action. But where Americans per­ceive strength, experts in Russia and China per­ceive oppor­tu­ni­ty. This mis­match is at the core of the National Defense Strategy Commission’s con­cern. U.S. adver­saries have put togeth­er ideas about how to shape region­al con­flicts by shap­ing the deci­sions of the United States and its allies in a manner con­ducive to their objec­tives by impos­ing cost and risk through esca­la­tion and the threat of more to come. This implies that future major-power wars are likely to be con­tests of will, stake, and risk-taking, involv­ing coer­cion, black­mail, and brinkman­ship at least as much as direct armed hos­til­i­ties between gen­er­al-pur­pose mil­i­tary forces. Accordingly, the com­mis­sion was crit­i­cal of the absence of clear think­ing at the Defense Department on “what deter­rence means in prac­tice,” “how esca­la­tion dynam­ics might play out,” “how the U.S. mil­i­tary would defeat major-power adver­saries should deter­rence fail,” and how to win against an adver­sary will­ing to employ nuclear weapons “in ways that would fall short of jus­ti­fy­ing a large-scale U.S. nuclear response.”

Theories of Victory

As I argued in my 2015 book on U.S. nuclear policy, the col­lec­tion of ideas about how to shape these region­al con­flicts com­bine into some­thing that can use­ful­ly be labeled as a theory of vic­to­ry. A theory of vic­to­ry is not a strat­e­gy. Strategy, in Thomas Schelling’s foundational formulation, is a “ratio­nal, con­scious, artful kind of behav­ior aimed at trying to ‘win’ a con­test.” A strat­e­gy should plau­si­bly link actions and out­comes. In the more formal cat­e­chism of the war col­leges, strat­e­gy is an approach that aligns ends, ways, and means. It seems log­i­cal that a strat­e­gy for “trying to win a con­test” would encom­pass a theory of how to do so — that is, of vic­to­ry. But strat­e­gy is not nec­es­sar­i­ly explic­it about the logic behind the links between actions and out­comes. In the ends-ways-means con­struct, the theory is unex­pressed even if the ends, ways, and means are lined up. It is implic­it, not explic­it. Thus, a theory of vic­to­ry is a set of propo­si­tions about how and why the behav­ior of one bel­liger­ent in war or con­flict short of war will or might affect the behav­ior of anoth­er bel­liger­ent in a desired manner. It is a “con­tin­u­ous thread” running through strategy with an “inter­nal logic” and “causal links” among ends, ways, and means. Invoking Clausewitz, a theory of vic­to­ry explains how to bring an enemy to a “cul­mi­nat­ing point” where it choos­es not to run the costs and risks of fur­ther con­flict and instead to acqui­esce to the pref­er­ences of the first actor in ter­mi­nat­ing the con­flict. A vari­ant invokes Sun Tzu, with vic­to­ry asso­ci­at­ed with sub­du­ing an enemy with­out fight­ing.

Borrowing from the wargamer’s vocab­u­lary, in 2015 I asso­ci­at­ed Red with the the­o­ries of vic­to­ry of Russia, China, and North Korea, and Blue with those of the United States and its allies. There is a Red theory of vic­to­ry — that is, they have devel­oped a set of ideas about how to out-com­pete the United States and its allies to a prefer­able region­al order and, if nec­es­sary, to deter and defeat them in crisis and war. The Red theory of vic­to­ry con­sists of two notions. First, that deci­sive mil­i­tary action by the United States to reverse a fait accom­pli can be pre­vent­ed by exploit­ing divi­sions within and among its allies and the United States itself. And second, that the United States can be per­suad­ed to cede some impor­tant region­al inter­est rather than employ its full mil­i­tary poten­tial because its stake is not suf­fi­cient to engage in sus­tained brinkman­ship and com­pet­i­tive esca­la­tion. The Red con­cept of vic­to­ry includes more than just seiz­ing and hold­ing some gain. It encom­pass­es also the choice by Blue to ter­mi­nate con­flict on terms that sac­ri­fice the inter­est it was defend­ing, there­by show­ing America’s secu­ri­ty guar­an­tee to be unre­li­able.

There is no com­pa­ra­ble Blue theory of vic­to­ry. Until 2014 or so, the United States and its allies were too busy fight­ing other wars to focus ade­quate­ly on this task. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have taken some steps in the right direc­tion. The Obama administration’s “third offset” and call for a “new playbook” on Russia helped to restore focus on major-power war and to renew think­ing about the require­ments of deter­rence at the con­ven­tion­al level of war. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy put the defense plan­ning focus on region­al con­ven­tion­al con­flicts against major-power rivals with nuclear and other high-lever­age means to defend their inter­ests. The Joint Staff and armed ser­vices have begun to update doctrine to fight in con­test­ed envi­ron­ments. And the expert com­mu­ni­ty has begun to explore Russian and Chinese strate­gic thought about modern con­flict. This was all hard-won progress. But does it add up to suc­cess, in the form of a cred­i­ble Blue theory of vic­to­ry? The harsh judg­ments of Chairman Dunford in 2017 and of the National Defense Strategy Commission in 2018 pro­vide a stark answer. In turn­ing to the prob­lem of modern war in 2014, the United States dis­cov­ered the price of three decades of strate­gic atro­phy in the form of the clut­ter of old think­ing, the allure of quick fixes, and lim­it­ed ana­lyt­i­cal capac­i­ty for new prob­lems.

A Blue theory of vic­to­ry can be fur­ther devel­oped in a three-step process: “go to school” on Red the way Red has gone to school on Blue; devel­op a gener­ic counter to the gener­ic Red theory of vic­to­ry; and tailor that model to spe­cif­ic region­al con­texts. As sug­gest­ed above, pieces of this puzzle exist, but the puzzle as such has not come togeth­er. Its core con­cept should not be deter­rence or esca­la­tion con­trol. Rather, it should focus on strip­ping away the con­fi­dence of lead­ers in Russia and China in their esca­la­tion cal­cu­lus. This is their assess­ment of the ben­e­fits, costs, and risks of esca­la­to­ry action in crisis and war and also in the gray zone (i.e., part of the spec­trum of con­flict not involv­ing armed hos­til­i­ties). Blue must be capa­ble of reduc­ing Red’s expect­ed ben­e­fits of actions while increas­ing Red’s expect­ed costs and risks. Think of this as a counter-esca­la­tion strat­e­gy and not as an esca­la­tion dom­i­nance strat­e­gy. The gener­ic Blue theory of vic­to­ry should also account for the require­ments of deter­rence in a second the­ater from which assets might be stripped in time of crisis and war. A cred­i­ble theory of vic­to­ry in the neglect­ed second the­ater requires that the United States both become more depen­dent on allied deter­rence capa­bil­i­ties and more will­ing to ensure a cred­i­ble nuclear deter­rent for this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem.

Despite many years of pros­e­ly­tiz­ing for a Blue theory of vic­to­ry, I con­tin­ue to find many skep­tics in the United States about the value of such a way of think­ing (among America’s allies, there are few such skep­tics). Some are uncom­fort­able with the word “vic­to­ry” (espe­cial­ly in con­junc­tion with nuclear con­flict) and with being asked to win, as opposed to deter or pre­vail. Conspicuously, the word “vic­to­ry” is not in the offi­cial Defense Department dictionary. Other skep­tics place great con­fi­dence in U.S. mil­i­tary suprema­cy and believe that no adver­sary would ever dare to cross major American red­lines, includ­ing the employ­ment of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies, because they must fear a pun­ish­ing American response. Still others believe that the cur­rent imbal­ance in Red and Blue strate­gic thought and pre­pared­ness can be quick­ly rec­ti­fied by a supe­ri­or American abil­i­ty to out-think, out-inno­vate, and out-com­pete its adver­saries (to cite the National Defense Strategy). These skep­tics simply haven’t taken on the mes­sage of the National Defense Strategy Commission. The United States has been out-thought and out-inno­vat­ed by adver­saries with clear visions of vic­to­ry in crisis and war and also in peace­time. Moreover, as the com­mis­sion argues repeat­ed­ly, U.S. mil­i­tary suprema­cy is slip­ping away. Put dif­fer­ent­ly, the skep­tics noted above have no reason to be com­pla­cent. Dangers are mount­ing.

What might be the con­se­quences of con­tin­u­ing to limp along with­out a Blue theory of vic­to­ry? Four stand out. First, with­out such a Blue theory, lead­ers in Moscow and Beijing could be embold­ened to test their new­found con­fi­dence and the per­ceived weak­ness of under­pre­pared U.S. alliances. They might pre­cip­i­tate crises and try to manip­u­late them to their long-term advan­tage. Second, the United States and its allies, though armed with many pow­er­ful tools, mil­i­tary and oth­er­wise, have no coher­ent set of ideas about how to mar­shal them to achieve objec­tives in crisis and war. The United States and its allies “could lose,” in the words of the National Defense Strategy. Or they could win — but in a heavy-handed manner that only sows the seeds of resent­ment and fur­ther con­flict.

Third, with­out such a Blue theory, the United States may be inef­fi­cient and/or inef­fec­tive at mobi­liz­ing com­pet­i­tive respons­es to multi-domain strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion in a mul­ti­po­lar secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment. And fourth, with­out such a Blue theory, lead­ers in allied coun­tries could choose inde­pen­dence and pro­lif­er­a­tion rather than con­tin­ued reliance on the United States as guar­an­tor of their secu­ri­ty. Doubts about U.S. cred­i­bil­i­ty are an endur­ing fea­ture of alliances but they have spiked in recent years. Both right and left in America talk today about the sup­posed bur­dens allies impose on the United States. Allies seek­ing strate­gic auton­o­my from neigh­bor­ing major powers face sharp­er than ever choic­es about how to secure that auton­o­my and/or how much def­er­ence to show to those neigh­bors.

In sum, a Blue theory of vic­to­ry is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for strate­gic com­pe­tence and strate­gic suc­cess. And in 2022, the National Defense Strategy Commission will again come look­ing for one. With the next iter­a­tion of the U.S. defense strat­e­gy in hand, it will again render judg­ment on the mil­i­tary thought devot­ed to modern war, espe­cial­ly its strate­gic dimen­sions. If we in the U.S. defense com­mu­ni­ty have failed by then to make sig­nif­i­cant head­way in putting our intel­lec­tu­al house in order on this new prob­lem, the com­mis­sion will have to report a fur­ther deep­en­ing of the crisis of American power.

Brad Roberts is the direc­tor of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views expressed here are his per­son­al views and should not be attrib­uted to his employ­er or its spon­sors. This essay is a dis­til­la­tion of key argu­ments from a new mono­graph of the same title and avail­able at https://cgsr.llnl.gov/research/livermore-papers.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Heather Salazar)

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