WASHINGTON — The Army has outlined, in a recent white paper obtained by Defense News, its “critical” role in great power competition to include deterring conflict, upholding U.S. interests and forging and strengthening relationships with allies and partners.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville writes in the preface of the document that military competition is “an infinite game;” a scenario that will likely continuously play out to different degrees at all times.
“We can define winning in competition in many ways: deterring conflict, upholding our interests, remaining the security partner of choice, keeping allies and partners free from coercion and subversion, and discouraging adversaries from malign actions because they know that these acts will not succeed,” McConville writes. “What we must remember is a win today is an opening for new competition activities tomorrow.”
The Army is in the process of taking its Multidomain Operations warfighting concept and turning it into doctrine. That transition is expected to take place in roughly one year.
But the service has identified MDO operational phases as competition, crisis and conflict. A white paper released earlier this month, “Army Multi-Domain Transformation: Ready to Win in Competition and Conflict. outlines the Army’s plans to transform the force to align with its operational concept,
In the competition phase, which is below the level of conflict, the Army plans to maintain forward presence while building and keeping relationships with allies and partners around the world.
A second white paper, “The Army in Military Competition,” delves deeper into this concept.
“As you know the Army is sized, equipped and trained for combat operations, and other missions are handled mostly as ancillary, with the exception of some units like the [Security Force Assistance Brigades],” Thomas Spoehr, of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told Defense News in an email. “Most of the Army’s thinking has revolved around combat operations.”
So, the new document breaks ground by exploring the idea of competition and defining the role for the Army in competition. This is something the Navy has done well, Spoehr said, through forward presence and port calls.
“It positions the Army well to participate in competitive activities,” Spoehr added, and uniquely breaks down competition into three different dynamics.
Those three dynamics are narrative, direct and indirect competition, according to the document.
In the new paper, the Army explains that the “scope, scale and complexity of great power competition requires it to be broken into manageable subordinate parts.”
“Some capabilities and activities will be more effective or relevant to one dynamic than the others depending on considerations such as thresholds of acceptable risk or the intensity of competition,” the paper acknowledges.
Building the narrative
Reputation is everything in narrative competition. “A reputation for strength and reliability is a significant competitive benefit that might cause adversaries to seek less ambitious objectives or, in some instances, to choose not to compete at all and seek cooperation instead,” the document reads.
And a good reputation can help build relationships with allies and partners to circle the wagons on specific issues that contribute to security, the paper notes.
“The Army contributes to narrative competition by being a lethal, competent, credible force and being recognized as such by key audiences among allies and partners as well as adversaries,” the paper states.
But this also means the Army must invest in military capability that can actually be brought to bear when necessary.
“Simply being a world-class force and demonstrating that quality through successful operations conducted in a manner consistent with institutional values fosters a positive reputation for the U.S. Army,” the document reads.
For the Army, “maintaining high standards and being a partner of choice for military education, exercises, capacity building and equipment sales” is important to winning in narrative competition, according to the paper.
Sometimes U.S. interests are not considered as important, are less defined or “not inherently in tension with the adversary,” according to the paper, making the competition indirect.
The objective, according to the strategy, is to gain a level of advantage or take it away from the adversary, but at a different cost-benefit and risk calculus.
“The Army contributes to indirect competition by offering a range of credible (low- and moderate-intensity and risk) options for policymakers to gain advantage or deny it to an adversary, primarily by shaping adversarial behavior to better align with US interests,” the paper states.
The service will need to offer sustainable presence, regional expertise and intelligence while engaging with allies and partners to ensure strong regional security, the paper argues.
“By providing superior value to allies and partners, Army forces help limit an adversary’s influence, degrades its ability to subvert other states and imposes costs for aggression by causing allies and partners to deepen cooperation with the United States,” the paper states.
The paper describes a scenario involving hurricane response in the Carribean, inspired by real-life operations, to illustrate how indirect competition might play out in the real world.
In the scenario, the Army contributed to providing aid in the form of “useful assistance” while an adversary, unable to get physical resources to the affected area, provided funding which was not as immediately beneficial because economic systems were knocked out of commission.
The U.S. was able to provide assistance because, unlike the adversary, it had bases in the area and had already developed relationships with security forces and other local entities.
If interests are “well-defined” and are “of such overriding importance to the United States as to make armed conflict a plausible means of achieving or preserving the desired ends,” then the type of competition can be considered direct, according to the document.
“The Army contributes to direct competition by enabling Joint Force escalation superiority in relation to adversaries across the full competitive space from low-intensity routine military competitive actions up through conventional-nuclear integration to gain leverage on an issue or to deny an adversary,” the paper states.
In both direct and indirect competition, the Army needs to invest in areas like strategic readiness, calibrated force posture, access and influence.
Capabilities need to provide a full range of options. “Any gap in this range of available options creates a potential vulnerability that an adversary can exploit,” the paper states.
The Army needs to be able to project power and sustain MDO operations at the right scale and tempo and do this with multinational and joint partners.
The service also needs to be equipped to withstand adversaries’ attempts to exploit vulnerabilities and should be able to go after adversaries’ weak spots.
The benefits of exercise
The paper highlights the importance of large multinational exercises across all three dynamics of competition.
“An exercise on the scale of Defender improves U.S. leverage for direct competition,” by strengthening theater-wide command-and-control and the ability to deploy in different types of contingencies. It also builds the ability to compete against China and Russia and other adversaries, the document states.
Multinational exercises provide value to allies and partners through mechanisms like officer exchanges in operational-level headquarters, intelligence sharing and logistical support and can tip the scale toward the U.S. if, for example, a partner is balancing competing interests between the U.S. and China, the paper outlines.
Exercises of this size also show U.S. strength and capability to the general public and civilian policymakers in the region.
But additionally, the reputation earned from these exercises is more wide-reaching. “For instance, demonstrations of the Joint Force’s ability to integrate all domains at strategic distances shapes perceptions of U.S. strength in Iran, even if the actual exercise is far distant.”
The Army has to strike a balance between being ready for armed conflict and suppressing adversaries in the competition phase.
The service acknowledges that its contribution to great power competition is to provide the best fighting force in the world, but, “general excellence only goes so far.”
The U.S. “might have an enormous advantage in the battle of narratives yet still be unable to effectively compete with China in the western Pacific or with Russia in the Baltic region, and thus fail to achieve strategic objectives,” the document warns.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.