Small Wars Journal

Competing through Deception: Expanding the Utility of Security Cooperation for Great Power Competition

Fri, 06/25/2021 - 10:46am

Competing through Deception: Expanding the Utility of Security Cooperation for Great Power Competition

James P. Micciche

Abstract:  In the paradigm of strategic competition the United States should increase the use of strategic deception to impede competitor’s decision-making processes, increase rival competition costs, and better protect U.S. interests. Security Cooperation is an instrument that enables the generation of strategic deception by potentially confusing rival nations about what the U.S. interests and objectives are or even causing that rival to expend unnecessary resources. The United States Army is the service best postured to support combatant commanders to develop and execute strategic deception through cooperation. Executing any form of strategic deception entails a level of risk to reputation but provides the United States an invaluable tool in a geopolitical environment in which competition below levels of conflict has become the norm. 


The 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’s (INSSG) stated goal is to be an agenda allowing the United States to “prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.” The INSSG continues a trend from the previous administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) that not only declared “great power competition has returned” but codified China and Russia as “revisionist actors.” Despite the continued emphasis from two consecutive administrations on strategic competition as the focus of U.S. security strategy the Joint Force and the Services are only now beginning to establish and codify their role within the nebulous concept of competition. The Joint Staff published Joint Doctrine Note (JDN) 1-19 (Competition Continuum) in June of 2019 and as of June 2021 only the Army and Marines have drafted service specific guidance on competition, with Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1-4 (Competing) publishing in December 2020 and Chief of Staff Paper #2 (The Army in Military Competition) in March 2021. 

Transitioning to strategic competition has remained challenging to the Joint Force and the Services who must reorient existing activities and generate new capabilities to address deficiencies often overlooked during two decades of national security policy focused on non-state actors. In addition to capabilities, the Joint Force faces a rival who seeks to avoid not only decisive engagement with the United States but conflict in general, attempting to attain “victory without fighting,” the antithesis of current U.S. military education and operational art. Exacerbating asymmetric strategic views is the inherent interdependent nature of the modern operating environment that restricts the use of force. Furthermore, unlike the Global War on Terror (GWOT) the military must not remain the primary implement of foreign policy and instead enable competition through other instruments of national power (diplomacy, information, and economics), something the INSSG specifically addresses with the initial outlines of a “diplomacy first” doctrine. 

At the intersection of adaptation, innovation and addressing inadequacies lies enabling processes that generate strategic deception. A 2008 Defense Science Board report declared the “Department of Defense (DOD) understands and plans for military denial and deception at tactical level, but presently there is no process to enable defense strategy to be informed by the potential for strategic denial and deception.”  Developing strategic deception provides the United States a tool in competition that creates effects across multiple contested domains and geographic regions while concurrently increasing competition costs to rivals, impeding competitors’ decision-making processes, and protecting U.S. interests. The Joint Force can enable the United States to utilize strategic deception through its extensive security cooperation activities but must do so in a deliberate, pragmatic, and coordinated manner to avoid potential risks. Confusion and ambiguity will add complexity to a competitor's planning processes, thus raising competition costs without using military force.

While security cooperation is a whole of DoD initiative the United States Army, which regularly executes a wide range of overt cooperative activities, is uniquely postured to facilitate strategic deception when coordinated with other instruments of national power. Furthermore, new Joint and Army concepts emphasize competition below levels of armed conflict and the synthesis of operations across multiple domains and environments. These two conceptual tenets support the development of DoD strategic deception guidance by synchronizing ongoing security cooperation programs with existing Military Deception (MILDEC) doctrine. Despite possessing underlying structures to execute strategic deception the DoD and the greater USG must change longstanding practices associated with security cooperation from restricting access to regional and country priority lists to increasing the emphasis on and authorities granted to information operations tied to cooperative activities. In developing a cooperation-based strategic deception framework, the DoD enhances its capability to support United States Government (USG) objectives and interests in competition below levels of conflict with strategic competitors.

Strategic Deception

Joint Publication 3-13.4 (Military Deception) defines Strategic MILDEC as a process “conducted to undermine adversary national leaders and senior military commanders’ ability to make accurate decisions.” In its simplest form strategic deception obfuscates priorities, intentions, and interests of the United States from rival nations inhibiting and influencing competitor’s foreign policy and security strategy decision making processes. If a strategic rival is uncertain where and through what instruments of national power the United States is focusing regional competitive efforts then that rival will be unable to design and implement country specific campaigns to challenge and mitigate U.S. influence. The United States currently fails to obscure many of its foreign interests. By reading publicly available posture statements and prioritized lists of interests to Congress or lines of effort on Global Combatant Commands (GCC) websites it is easy for U.S. rivals to know where and how to economize their malign competitive efforts. 

Strategic deception is far from a new concept and derivations of its application range across a wide spectrum of historic military theorists. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” written nearly 2500 years ago not only declares that “All warfare is based on deception” but also details the important role of exploiting known enemy agents by “doing certain things openly for purposes of deception, and allowing our spies to know of them and report them to the enemy.” In “On War” Carl von Clausewitz delineates between the concepts of surprise and stratagem; with the former pertaining to tactical and operational application of forces in battle and the latter “implies a concealed intention” and “sleight of hand with actions” at a far larger scale. Clausewitz was highly critical of deception due to the already inherent fog of war but he was writing in the early nineteenth century, a period in which intelligence was a nascent and underdeveloped staff function. It is worth noting that the emphasis current U.S. professional military education places on Clausewitz and other Napoleonic era theorists impedes a greater understanding of the role of deception, influence operations, and competitive efforts below conflict in the modern operational environment.

While in its most basic applications strategic deception creates a cloud of vagueness around U.S. interests it can also be operationalized to specifically target rival states producing a false perception of regional and global U.S. objectives. Creating an artificial emphasis on nations of negligible strategic importance can mislead rivals into expending limited resources in a way that has little to no effect on U.S. security interest. A 1973 RAND report for the CIA specifically outlines the concept of operationalizing strategic deception against rival nations, “Strategic Deception in its more ruthless aspects yields more than uncertainty and the consequent spreading of enemy resources; skillful deception causes a redistribution of the adversary's resources in the wrong direction, thereby assuring not only surprise but its full exploitation."  The United States could potentially deceive a great power competitor to commit to a peripheral nation undergoing protracted intrastate conflict, thereby restricting that rival’s ability to compete elsewhere, draining their resources, and potentially degrade their international public standing, a major component of narrative competition one of the three dynamics of military competition. 

New Concepts for Competition

In response to the return to great power competition the joint staff has adopted the non-binary non-linear concept of the competition continuum which outlines the environment in which the United States holistically applies “the instruments of national power to achieve objectives.” The competition continuum outlines how the Joint Force campaigns through the simultaneous combination of three overarching activities: cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict. Concurrently the Army has developed the  Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept emphasizing “successful competition requires Army forces actively engaging across domains, in the Electromagnetic Spectrum (ESM), and in the information environment.” The Army now can adapt and develop methods that fulfill its strategic initiatives to better support USG efforts within these two emerging frameworks. One such adaptation is synthesizing fundamentals of MILDEC and whole of government influence and information operations to enhance ongoing cooperation activities to achieve strategic deception and generate cross domain effects in support of strategic competition. 

ADP 3-0 (Operations) outlines four strategic roles through which the Army “accomplishes its mission by supporting the joint force and unified action partners.” The role of shaping operational environments is paramount to creating conditions that enable the Army to support and execute competitive efforts below levels of armed conflict against great power rivals. Much like the inherent nature of competition, “Army operations to shape are continuous throughout a geographic combatant commander’s area of responsibility and occur before, during, and after a joint operation within an operational area.” Activities that fall under shaping operational environments include security cooperation and forward U.S. presence both of which can be combined with information domain activities and other elements of national power to strategically deceive rival states of regional U.S. interests.

The development of Security Forces Assistance Brigades (SFABs), regular deployment of Civil Affairs (CA) teams, execution of Foreign Internal Defense (FID) through special operations assets, and the prominent role in bilateral and multinational exercises all make the Army a viable platform to execute strategic deception through cooperation. Furthermore, the Army not only possesses multiple information related capabilities (cyber, public affairs, PSYOP) and information operations officers (FA30) but also has established G9/S9 staff sections facilitating interagency coordination and collaboration. Joint and interagency elements can utilize tactical and operational Army capabilities in conjunction with instruments of national power to generate strategic deception by exploiting cooperative activities through the information domain.  

Executing Deception Through Cooperation

The Army cannot execute strategic deception through cooperation unilaterally and must do so at the behest of a combatant commander as part of an integrated campaign coordinated with Joint Force and other instruments of national power across multiple domains to achieve effective results. Additionally, strategic deception is predicated upon establishing regional and global priorities as there is no utility in strategically deceiving rivals if the United States chooses to compete in an omnipresent or hyperdynamic manner. It is therefore imperative that GCCs establish prioritization systems for the importance of nations within their Areas of Responsibility (AORs) as they relate to national policy, objectives, and interests. The GCCs must not only nest their prioritization system with national policy but also attempt to harmonize it with interagency partners operating within a given AOR to facilitate unified action.  Joint Doctrine Note 1-18 (Strategy) provides a three-tiered framework classifying national interests as vital, important, and peripheral assigning specific criteria to each. GCCs can adapt and expand this taxonomy to set conditions to generate strategic deception through cooperation by simply adding two additional categories of non-interest and rival.

  • Vital interests: What are we willing to die for? States generally have four vital interests: security of the home territory, safety of citizens at home and abroad, economic prosperity, and preservation of the national way of life. 
  • Important interests: What are we willing to fight for? Nations important interests generally include freedom of access to the global commons, regional stability, secure alliances, or the promotion of the state’s values. 
  • Peripheral interests: What are we willing to fund (deploy peacekeepers, balance trade deficits)? 
  • Non-interest:  This nation is of negligible interest to the United States, nor does it enable or empower rival nations. 
  • Rival:  This nation is a designated competitor, revisionist power, rogue state, or active belligerent. What can we do to compel or deter their actions? How can we mitigate threats from this nation to our interests and objectives?

FM 3-22 (Army Support to Security Cooperation) outlines the purposes and goals of Army executed cooperative security activities to include “promoting specific U.S. security interests” and “providing U.S. forces with peacetime and contingency access to a host nation”. Security cooperation encompasses a wide range of activities that fall within four overarching categories of security assistance (foreign military sales, donations, leases, and exchanges), SFA, FID, and security sector reform. Engaging in any form of overt security cooperation signals intentions and interests with the partnering nation, which competitors can clearly identify. FM 3-22 specifically identifies developing of defense and security relationships shape operating environments by, “sending a compelling regional and often global strategic communication message of a commitment to threat interdiction.” It is through overt messaging tied to cooperation that theater commanders can utilize Army assets to generate strategic deception to impede an adversary’s ability to compete and degrade regional U.S. influence.

The Army executes deception through either increasing or decreasing ambiguity in the enemy’s decision-making process.  FM 3-13.4 (Army Support to Military Deception) defines the former as operations “designed to generate confusion and cause mental conflict in the enemy decision maker” and the latter as efforts to “manipulate and exploit an enemy decision maker’s pre-existing beliefs and bias through the intentional display of observables that reinforce and convince that decision maker that such pre-held beliefs are true.”  Simply put, increasing ambiguity clouds the information space hiding overall intent. Inversely, decreasing ambiguity presents a false and focused perception of your design to the enemy. The Army achieves tactical level deception by executing diversions, feints, demonstrations, ruses, and displays. While tactically focused the diversion, ruse, and display can all be adapted to enable competitive strategic deception through Army security cooperation activities. A diversion draws the attention of a competitor away from main efforts and induces the misallocation of resources; a ruse utilizes false information to mislead competitors often targeting their intelligence activities; and a display overtly attempts to enhance or exaggerate friendly activity or capabilities. 

To operationalize the concept of generating strategic deception through competition the DOD must conduct two primary activities within a given theater while simultaneously restricting access to overall USG priorities and interests. The first is the execution of ruses and diversions by conducting security cooperation activities in peripheral and non-interest states while heavily emphasizing these efforts through multiple information and diplomatic domains. These efforts would either attempt to increase ambiguity by diverting attention away from primary U.S. interest (diversion) or attempt to decrease ambiguity by drawing rival states to commit resources to nations that are of negligible interest to the United States. These two actions are not mutually exclusive and in fact could be executed concurrently to reciprocally support each other. Successful execution of either a ruse or a diversion within competition would be predicated on the synchronization of multiple information related capabilities promoting and emphasizing the activities of these teams and potential Distinguished Visitor (DV) engagements and support.  For example, SFABs deploy force packages of 20 advisory teams to a given GCC, if the GCC commander purposefully deploys two of those teams to lower priority nations their presence creates ambiguity. If those nonpriority deployments were also heavily emphasized through information operations, diplomatic engagements, and DV support than they could be used to divert attention from ongoing U.S. activities in higher prioritized nations or even draw competitors into those peripheral states to counter what are designed to look like major U.S. outreach efforts. 

The second activity is related to the fact that the United States cannot hide or conceal all its national interests from rival states. Nations that control or influence key geographic features, are geopolitical treaty allies, or possess resources integral to U.S. security are clearly vital interests.  While strategic deception cannot hide the importance of such states it can augment existing U.S. activities. Using information operations to enhance security cooperation activities within key states can make them appear larger or more effective, potentially discouraging rivals from competing due to perceived inflated costs of entry and U.S. competitive overmatch. Enhancing cooperative activities would require whole of government coordination and support beginning with the country team to enhance perception through other instruments of national power. An example of this is if a four-person Civil Military Support Element (CMSE) is operating in a nation deemed a vital interest than a focused deception campaign can amplify all of its mil-to-mil and civ-to-mil activities across all public messaging mediums. Additionally, the Combatant Commander or Chief of Mission can even grant that elements leadership the ability to exaggerate their authorities, funding, and capabilities making it appear to be a greater asset than it is and integrate these messages into diplomatic engagements.

Utilizing security cooperation to generate strategic deception creates a risk the United States could lose rapport with peripheral or non-interest states utilized as part of larger deception campaigns. By their very nature, a loss of rapport, access, and influence with non-prioritized nations has minimal effects on U.S. security interests but if aggregated this risk becomes exponentially larger and can degrade the ability to compete through narratives. The Army defines narrative competition as enduring and cumulative processes that results in, “the rise and fall of a country’s reputation based on general perceptions of its strength, reliability, and resolve.” Losing in narrative competition affects the ability for the United States to execute cooperative activities globally and enables rival influence operations. Additionally, operational risks exist around how well the United States can control the narrative in the information domain of multiple foreign audiences a task that requires an elevated level of local knowledge and cultural understanding. Complicating the need to control the narrative is the highly contested nature of the information domain in the modern operating environment in which misinformation and disinformation are regular tactics of strategic rivals. Despite the contested nature and important role of the information domain in strategic competition there exists no unifying agency or organization within the United States government to synchronize, organize, and conduct influence operations. The lack of a centralized influence agency or unifying influence strategy is a massive impediment to conducting strategic deception. Further restricting the use of strategic deception is a lack of robust legal authorities to conduct influence operations globally. A final risk exists in attempting to draw strategic competitors into protracted conflicts, which can increase the length and intensity of intrastate wars potentially leading to regional instability. The United States can mitigate risks associated with using security cooperation as a mechanism to generate deception by emphasizing how the United States is providing high quality training or other cooperative activities at no to little cost wherever they are occurring regardless of underlying goals. A secondary risk exists in exaggerating or enhancing efforts in vital nations, which can be partially alleviated by regular and open communication with partners and ensuring not to promise anything that cannot be delivered to partner nation officials. Finally, carefully planned, executed, and monitored strategic deception campaigns require close control of information to reduce the overall risk of their discovery. 

All Warfare Competition is Deception

Despite the lack of contemporary employment, the Joint Force has a long and storied history of successfully using deception to enable operations and achieve strategic objectives. In World War II the Allies used inflatable “armies,” fictitious radio broadcasts, and even a disguised corpse with forged documents to divert German forces away from invasion sites. In the 1991 Gulf War the United States employed positional forces, DV visits, and information operations to deceive Iraqi leadership into diverting a large allocation of their forces, enabling the main U.S. effort to conduct an envelopment along the Iraqi flank. As the Joint Force focuses on how it can support strategic competition in an operating environment where force is inherently restricted it can use historic examples of deception to build new models and methods that increase a rival’s competition costs while concurrently protecting long-term U.S. interests. The world has long evolved from radios, balloon armies, and even cable television providing the United States a new range of means and ways to deceive rivals below the level of conflict. 

As the nation enters an environment defined by competition below levels of armed conflict, it becomes paramount to establish capabilities that both support the United States while concurrently impeding rival great powers. The Joint Force must think beyond tactical and operational applications of its various capabilities and focus on generating strategic effects across multiple contested domains. The use of security cooperation to generate strategic deception offers one such opportunity that the Joint Force and the greater USG must explore. In the “Art of War” Sun Tzu states “all warfare is based on deception,” 2500 years later warfare has changed many times over but at its core, the axiom remains true as all competition is based on deception.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)

James P. Micciche is a U.S Army Strategist (FA59) and Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific. He holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University and can be found on Twitter @james_micciche.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.



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