When Enemies Think Outside the Box

How should the military deal with less traditional threats?

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Several weeks ago at the Brookings Institution, Army Major General H.R. McMaster warned about four myths to watch out for solving America’s defense problems:

  1. “The RMA myth": That high technology solutions (the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs) will pierce the fog of war and allow for rapid, cleaner victories.
  2. “The Zero Dark Thirty myth": That Special Operations Forces can launch discrete raids like a global SWAT team to solve security problems.
  3. “The 'Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom' myth": That just like zoologist Marlin Perkins, the U.S. can send its Jim Fowler abroad to work with others to do the fighting for us.
  4. The Never Again myth: That the U.S. military can disregard entire categories of conflict because it won’t ever have to worry about them. (One might label this the Bizarro World "Field of Dreams" argument: If we don’t build it, they won’t come.)

McMaster argued instead for continuing to maintain a suite of joint capabilities able to deal with a range of strategic potentialities. This is perfectly reasonable. He is right to caution about putting too much stock in any of the so-called myths above to resolve all of our problems, but even he concedes that elements of them provide extremely useful capabilities.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

However, as Jonathan Schroden of the CNA Corporation noted over at War on the Rocks (full disclosure: I occasionally blog there, too) the Defense Strategic Guidance of 2012 seems to be driving us towards a heavy reliance on so-called “small footprint” security assistance and building partnership capacity approaches because of its stated purpose that U.S. forces will no longer be sized for long-scale, long-term stabilization operations. He goes on to argue that:

Perhaps the ultimate implication of an emphasis on small-footprint approaches is the recognition that we will not be “solving” problems of instability or “defeating” terrorist organizations on the timescales that we have become accustomed to thinking about. Rather, an emphasis on small-footprint approaches will require us to take a longer view of international security and stability problems, and a more selective view of the role we play in alleviating those problems. In an age of short-term goals and metrics and even shorter public and political attention spans, this might be easier said than done. Yet, according to the DSG, such is the future of U.S. foreign policy.


This was echoed at a recent Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee hearing when Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, testified that, “We are moving from a state of perpetual war to perpetual engagement — engaging with partners to build their capacity, engaging problems before they become too big to fix and engaging in direct and indirect action to disrupt and destroy our enemies.”

There are some concerns that too much stress is being put upon the types of forces required to carry out this sort of work, particularly special operations forces. As Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., ranking minority member of the subcommittee, said during the hearings where Lumpkin testified, “demand for these elite troops continues to far exceed supply, placing enormous strain on the readiness of the force.” But others say that this can be overstated and could cause problems, particularly in building rapport overseas. For instance, retired Army Special Forces Colonel David Maxwell recently argued:

While the force may be tired from Afghanistan and Iraq, that does not mean that forces conducting special warfare do not want to deploy.  While perhaps counterintuitive to some I think we will face a real morale problem among certain forces if their deployments are scaled back too much in response to the cries of the "stress on the force."


[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Although such small footprint approaches are almost always thought about in terms of working against non-state actors such as al-Qaida and other violent extremists, they may also be increasingly useful in dealing with major state actors, too. Janine Davidson of the Council on Foreign Relations made a compelling argument earlier this week about how the Russian non-invasion invasion of the Crimea may be illustrating a new — or newish, to appease historian readers — state-based tactic for war. To wit:

As savvy as Putin is, his moves reflect greater global trends that challenge our conventional (Western) legal and cultural notions of what constitutes “war” versus “crime,” or other forms of disruptive or aggressive geopolitical behavior. Our separate law enforcement, intelligence, and military bureaucracies have clearly defined roles and missions that align with these rigid constructs. And our national security and international relations architectures — largely forged between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries — bound how we think about and deal with threats to international order. [...]

Putin, as a head of state, can deny he has invaded Crimea, by claiming that the troops occupying buildings, holding territory, taunting Ukrainian soldiers, and intimidating the population could not possibly be under his command because they wear no military insignia on their military-like uniforms and are not, he claims, formally reporting to him up their chain of command. The Chinese play a similar game when they claim that their “civilian” China Marine Surveillance Fleet of coast guard-like ships that harass Japanese and Filipino fishing vessels in the East and South China Seas could not possibly warrant a military response from navies in the region (even though they reportedly coordinate with the Chinese Navy).

In all, these seemingly disparate challenges reflect an understanding by potential adversaries about the limits that Western society and the international community have placed on themselves in conducting warfare and responding to criminal behavior. “Bad guys” will continue to exploit the existing gaps, presenting threats to human, national, and international security in the coming decades if we, as governments and international institutions, do not develop better ways and means to respond.


None of this obviates the need for strong and capable conventional capabilities. They will always remain the bedrock of American military power. But if this trend continues of state and non-state threats and challengers operating against the seams of our legal and cultural notions then military and especially non-military capabilities (diplomatic, informational, legal, law enforcement, etc.) will be equally essential for countering and combating such actors and their tactics.