Small Wars Journal

Deterring “Competition Short of War”: Are Gray Zones the Ardennes of our Modern Maginot Line of Traditional Deterrence?

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:51am

Deterring “Competition Short of War”

Robert C. Jones

Author’s Note:  I wrote the following piece in the spring of 2016 to help provoke thinking on how the concept of deterrence should evolve in order to stay in step with the rapidly evolving strategic environment. I wrote this in my capacity as the strategic advisor to the Director of Plans, Policy and Strategy at United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).  My boss was preparing to serve as a panel member at the United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) annual Deterrence Symposium held in the July of that year. The paper was distributed to each of the 650 symposium attendees. Over the course of the event, several experts on traditional approaches to deterrence engaged me to discuss the paper. Most of those conversations consisted of explaining to me how my thoughts did not comport with deterrence theory and doctrine. Getting the deterrence experts to think about their area of expertise in a new context was the primary goal of the paper, so I considered these all positive engagements.

I titled it Deterring “Competition Short of War,” as that was the buzz phrase of 2016.  In 2019 the buzz has evolved to “competition short of armed conflict.” If I were to re-title the paper today, I would call it Deterring Competition Below the Threshold of Traditional Deterrence.  After all, that is the primary challenge facing the US military today.  Traditional deterrence works very well to deter war; but competition is peace.  Traditional deterrence is largely impotent in addressing unwanted, sometimes aggressive, often illegal, acts of competition by revisionist actors to seek to expand their own claims to sovereign privilege at the expense of another.

I confess that I am not a deterrence professional, and certainly not an expert in that field. If I were to claim any expertise at all, it would be in attempting to understand the strategic implications of our rapidly evolving world; it would be in attempting to understand the fundamental nature of population-based conflicts and how their character is evolving; and it would be in attempting to appreciate how those changes of environment and conflict affect the family of activities and forces we bundle under the umbrella of Special Operations. I am a contentious thinker in a contentious field of study. Perhaps the most contentious element of this paper is the section where I discuss a concept I call “Unconventional Deterrence.” The premise is simple – deter unwanted competition with little risk of escalation through the credible threat of unconventional warfare. 

The idea is that special operations forces could, and should, enhance and refocus operations in permissive spaces in ways that are both transparent and benign, while at the same time creating a new layer of deterrence that could operate effectively below the threshold of traditional approaches. The immediate benefits to the US would be enhanced understanding of foreign populations, and a refreshing of our language skills and cultural awareness that comes with being freed from the tyranny training partner forces. In plain clothes and in plain sight, joined by members of those partner forces, we would instead be out and among the populations of the human competition space that is coming to define our era.

Many are quick to say, “Oh, you mean Unconventional Warfare (UW). That is about overthrowing governments and is a toxic term among senior military leaders and at the policy level in Washington.”  UW is indeed a toxic term in many circles. UW is even a toxic term at USSOCOM, where the command remains overly fixated on the largely conventional tasks of countering terrorism and building partner capacity to do the same. But what is really toxic are the UW campaigns of state actors like Russia and Iran. What is really toxic are the UW campaigns of al Qaeda and Daesh. Our aversion to UW is not shared by our greatest opponents. I realize that US military doctrine paints UW into a small corner with narrow utility; but when viewed in fundamental terms, UW-related activities and approaches offer a wide array of population-based policy tools.  The US may not be ready to embrace the many variations of UW as part of our overall approach to competition, but rest assured, the UW efforts of others drive many of our most frustrating foreign policy challenges.

I need to be clear, however, that Unconventional Deterrence is not Unconventional Warfare any more than Nuclear Deterrence is Nuclear Warfare. The goal of UD is not to destabilize the societies of our enemies, rather the goal of UD is to deter our enemies from destabilizing our own society, and those of our Allies and Partners. While most of my contemporaries overly fixate on the strengths of our opponents and how they match up with inherent weaknesses of our own; I am far more interested in where their inherent weaknesses play to our strengths. After three decades of playing not to lose, it is high time for the US to reframe our understanding of the global strategic environment and devise a new version of the great game of advancing national interests that we too can play to win.

(While cause and effect are always difficult to prove, I wondered as I read this article a few months later, if perhaps our competitors were revising their thinking as well.)

These are my thoughts, and do not reflect the official positions of USSOCOM, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.


Deterring “Competition Short of War”: Are Gray Zones the Ardennes of our Modern Maginot Line of Traditional Deterrence?

Robert C. Jones


In August 1914, Germany implemented the now famous “Schlieffen Plan” in a desperate 6 week gamble to attack France through the low lands of Belgium and the Netherlands to force their surrender in time to shift the Army back to the eastern front in time to meet a Russian assault.  The campaign fell short, and Germany was ultimately defeated. In 1929, French Minister of War, Andre Maginot, began construction of a vast system of fortifications to deter, and if necessary, defeat any future German effort to revisit the misery of World War I. The Maginot Line performed as designed but did not cover routes through the rugged Ardennes Forest region perceived as infeasible for supporting a major attack. In May of 1940 German armor employed those “infeasible” routes to quickly split and flank the French defenses, achieving the success that had eluded them on their previous attempt. In 2016 the United States finds itself in a situation very similar to that faced by France in 1940. This is the Gray Zone.


In April 2016, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford stood before his assembled 4-star leaders as the 19th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and bemoaned the corrosive effect that the operational phasing construct was having on strategic thinking. He was equally concerned about the growing ineffectiveness of a family of military options designed nearly exclusively to deter some state actor from engaging in decisive (phase III) military action.[1] Increasingly, revisionist state challengers to the existing system of sovereignty are appreciating and exploring new opportunities to expand their privilege.  These efforts incrementally erode the sovereignty of others in ways carefully designed to avoid clear triggers of phase III responses. Campaigns are being waged and won, while the US stands waiting impotently for clear signals the conflict has even begun.  This is competition.

We are effectively frozen by our own self-imposed and outdated bureaucratic framework. US deterrence stands like a modern Maginot Line, deterring dominating military action, while all activities short of war have become our Ardennes Forest. Like powerful France in 1940, we find ourselves at risk of being out-witted, out-flanked, and potentially defeated by more flexible and adaptive foes.

We label these interest-driven efforts, designed to expand one’s sovereignty at the expense of another, as gray zones. General Dunford pragmatically sees this as “competition short of war.” The tendency is to fixate on the ambiguity of individual actions, rather that appreciating the very clear intent and unambiguous goals of the campaigns being waged. New labels applied to old perspectives are unlikely to resolve this growing challenge. In his acclaimed book The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo advises, “When living in revolutionary times, one must think like a revolutionary.”[2]  

While it is clear that we do indeed live in revolutionary times, the challenge for the United States is that we have lost much of our revolutionary mindset. Instead we see our duty as being to sustain the existing rules-based system as it currently is.[3] Sustainers of systems rarely think like revolutionaries. Perhaps the first step toward dealing more effectively with these gray zone challenges is to recognize that no amount of leadership can preserve the system as it is. A more appropriate way of thinking about the duty of US leadership is as one of facilitating the evolution of the global system to what it needs to be

Now is not the time to double down on the thinking that brought us to where we are - thinking designed to hold others back. Now is the time to invest in the thinking that will take us to where we need to be; thinking designed to help carry everyone forward. Welcome to the revolution.

Deterrence in the Modern Era

If the Maginot Line comparison is accurate, a few points worth considering emerge. The first point is that traditional deterrence continues to perform as it was designed to perform. Adding additional capacity to traditional deterrence will provide only limited additional deterrent effect to what is already deterred – and little to no deterrent effect to what is currently undeterred. This is an essential insight for assessing both opportunity and risk.  While our instinct may be to invest in more and improved conventional and nuclear capabilities, the reality is that those are capacities in which we can currently assume risk. Opportunity lies elsewhere.  Enhancing deterrence need not increase our debt.

The second point is that while the actual Maginot Line could have been physically extended to cover the Ardennes approaches, the challenge facing modern deterrence is much more functional than physical.  Our phase III deterrent options effectively deter phase III conflict, but there is a threshold below which undesirable competition is undeterred. It is the lack of effective phase 0 through phase II deterrent options that are leaving our functional flanks open to gray zone competition short of war. 

The first new deterrence concept offered here is focused deterrence (FD). Focused deterrence is unique in that it identifies all of the actors with vital interests in a particular issue, and then shapes a flexible and adaptive package of activities designed to appropriately encourage positive behavior and discourage negative behavior across the spectrum of interested parties. The second concept, unconventional deterrence (UD), is rooted in the principles of unconventional warfare. UD recognizes that today’s revisionist regimes share common traits of brittle internal stability and an intense desire to maintain power within a relatively small group of paranoid stakeholders. These leaders fear the revolutionary energy of their own populations far more than they fear the combined power of external parties. The final deterrence concept offered here is unconventional resilience (UR). UR is in many ways the mirror image of UD. Both theories are rooted in an understanding of those aspects of human nature necessary across cultures for a society to achieve a sustainable stability. The goal of UR is to help those willing to work within the existing world system to achieve and sustain conditions across their respective populations that increase resilience to shocks (economic, ideological, climatic, etc.) and reduce the likelihood of exploitable internal instability. All three theories are imagined working as a system to help deter competition short of war. All also operate as suitable, acceptable and feasible peacetime activities within this dynamic strategic environment that continues to evolve rapidly about us.

It is unlikely that our major challengers[4] are likely to change their perspectives as to what is in their respective interests anytime soon. Therefore, we must find new ways to effectively lower our threshold of deterrence.  We must deny the temptation offered by our current vulnerability if we hope to deter activities of revisionist regimes set on modifying the current world order in their favor. As the Greek theorist Thucydides sagely observed, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” As our competitors grow stronger, they are done suffering unmet interests, and are actively doing what they can to bring their sovereign privilege in line with their growing power.  We should not judge too harshly, as a United States rising from the industrial age acted this way as well.  But we need not simply yield to their ambitions either.

The following three proposals for deterring competition short of war in the current strategic environment are not conceived as uniquely SOF options. Like most policy options, these proposals would include focused teams cutting across the entire joint force, our interagency community, non-governmental organizations, as well as a wide range of partners and allies working together around those interests we share and avoiding unnecessary friction where our interests diverge.

Focused Deterrence (FD)

Focused deterrence steps back from thinking in terms of friends and foes, or permanent allies and enduring enemies. Focused deterrence is based in realist theory, recognizing that around any particular issue there will be a unique and dynamic group of actors who perceive themselves to have vital interests at stake. Focused deterrence recognizes we compete with friend and foe alike, and that’s ok.


Focused deterrence is different from specific deterrence[5] or tailored deterrence[6] that seek to deter a particular actor. In contrast, focused deterrence seeks to deter challenges to a particular interest. This is a critical distinction and is one more reason why a realist approach like focused deterrence is increasingly appropriate. As the US works to find a balance between the permanent allies so necessary for Cold War containment, toward a more pragmatic and flexible approach to partners and alliances better suited to the restive peace of today, FD provides a powerful tool. 

In the emerging strategic environment even the best of allies may find themselves strongly divided over a particular issue, or in aggressive competition to advance a specific interest. The strong network of US alliances provides a major advantage over rising challengers, such as China or Russia. However, those same alliances, if over-used or allowed to grow dysfunctional with time, can quickly become major points of vulnerability for the US as well.  Focused deterrence provides a vehicle to help nurture and refresh alliances in a very positive way that should help to soften perceptions of abandoned allies, or abused friendships when and where interests inevitably diverge.

The focused deterrence process is simple in concept.  First, identify who the interest-based stake holders in an issue are, and then sort stakeholders by strategically significant criteria.  A nuclear state, for example, is very different than one without those weapons. Similar states possess similar deterrence characteristics.  Sorting parties by significant characteristics frames the deterrence problem for clear analysis.  This framing facilitates the design of a focused deterrence approach that incorporates a range of activities designed to most effectively encourage or discourage the behavior of each stakeholder across the spectrum. These bundles of carrots and sticks are then continually refined over time as conditions change. Actors can be added, deleted, or moved to different categories as the situation changes. 

By being interest-based, focused deterrence helps overcome the urge to assume where a party might stand on a particular issue in general terms, and helps one see more pragmatically both the vulnerabilities and opportunities associated with any issue. This approach to deterrence is less likely to be excessively provocative than traditional approaches to deterrence. In the emerging strategic environment, we must understand the evolving mosaic of shared and competing interests with clear eyes, and continually design and refine deterrence/foreign policy approaches for best effect.

The United States has rarely appeared more ideologically guided and divided than it does today. For any decision on how to best advance an interest, address a threat, or engage an ally today, there is an equally passionate objection advocating wildly differing approaches. There are few foreign policy problems in the emergent strategic environment to which there is broad consensus on how to best secure US interests. Focused deterrence provides a mechanism to focus on what is truly important, and to find positions for advancing and securing those interests with broader consensus across government and among partners and allies. 

Focused deterrence also helps guard against the degree of strategic overreach that can exhaust a state’s will and ability to respond to crisis. The example of Great Britain in the previous century is illustrative. Great Britain faced a similarly dynamic era as the industrial age generated rising powers such as Japan, Germany, Italy and the United States. As these revisionist powers placed pressure on the Empire from the outside, breakthroughs in information technology empowered the ability of populations to place growing pressure on the empire from within.  The challenge of preserving a British-led system across their own empire proved to be a challenge that ultimately exhausted Great Britain. This does not bode well for a United States seeking to sustain a US-led system globally in an era where the factors of change are exponentially greater than those of a century ago.


The United States risks becoming an exhausted state. The perceived urgency of failing and failed states demands our attention, but far more dangerous to the global system is the looming emergence of powerful states that are becoming increasingly brittle or exhausted.[7] Yes, the collapse of governance in Libya is a major problem for the world and a potential hotbed of insurgency and terrorism into the foreseeable future. Such is the problem of failed and failing states. But the shattering of a brittle state such as China, Russia, North Korea or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could be catastrophic. The rapid, internal collapse of brittle states, or an increased reluctance to engage externally by exhausted states, poses the potential of drawing the entire globe into the resultant vortex. 

Focused deterrence helps prioritize what is truly important and lends clearer context to issues that are clearly urgent but arguably less vital in the big scheme of things. Focused deterrence also provides a mechanism to help nurture resilience where it is in our interest to do so, and to avoid inadvertently shattering an adversary in ways that are both unintended and unforeseen. However, focused deterrence is not enough to ensure effective deterrence of competition short of war. The following two approaches are variations on unconventional warfare and focus on the growing power of populations to minimize gray zone incursions. Both are forms of specific deterrence but could nest within various focused deterrence programs as well.

Unconventional Deterrence (UD)

Many brittle states appear as unsinkable as the Titanic, and in truth, they are just that – titanic disasters waiting to happen.  These states steam along with apparent invulnerability but possess inherent flaws that make them unable to sustain the shocks that a healthier, more resilient society would easily weather. The four major challenger states share this vulnerable characteristic – all are brittle states.  As such, these states are all extremely susceptible to the credible threat of unconventional warfare (UW).

While the inadvertent collapse of a brittle state could be a disaster for global stability, leveraging the fear of the potential destabilization and collapse of a brittle state could be a boon for the deterrence of competition short of war. Most governments of brittle states are far more aware of the degree of their internal vulnerabilities than outsiders. These governments also tend to be paranoid about outside powers exploiting this vulnerability. Unconventional deterrence plays upon these fears.

Ideology does not cause insurgency (or “terrorism”). For conditions of insurgency to grow with any population, they must first perceive the governance affecting their lives as being “poor.” Poor governance is not a function of effectiveness, rather it is a function of how a population perceives the governance affecting their lives.[8] Contrary to popular Western misconception in the post-9/11 era, a population generally satisfied with their conditions of governance is not easily incited to insurgency by some malign actor armed with an enticing, but radical ideology.[9] But where such conditions do exist, as they do within many identity-based populations within Russia, China, Iran and North Korea - any number of factors, internal or external, could incite those people to action; and those governments know it.

This latent energy of discontent with governance is the essence of political instability, and it is the essence of UW as well. In fundamental terms, unconventional warfare is any activity intended to leverage the insurgent energy resident within a population governed by another in order to advance one’s own interests.[10] Doctrinal definitions of UW are more detailed and tend to reflect the bias of our history, culture and military experience. This bias distracts from an appreciation of which aspects of human nature contribute most toward any society being fundamentally stable and resilient, or unstable and brittle. For purposes of deterrence it is essential to understand the drivers of insurgency at a fundamental, human nature level - and guard against overly coloring our understanding with a Western bias born of our colonial experiences. Human nature provides a framework for understanding human endeavors and is constant over time and across cultures.

The energy behind revolutionary insurgency is a naturally occurring thing and perhaps the greatest driver of societal evolution in the history of mankind. Understanding that energy and creating lines of influence to shape that energy to one’s advantage, allows for the creation of an incredibly flexible and powerful form of unconventional deterrence.[11]

Unconventional deterrence is a concept that creates several concerns for those with backgrounds in more traditional forms of deterrence.  Once a society is nudged into full-blown instability, how does one control what they have begun?  Given our track record with regime change and stabilization operations, do we really want to get sucked into even larger potential quagmires?  Is it even possible in the current strategic environment to conduct the type of clandestine operations necessary to develop the UW infrastructure mandated by doctrinal approaches without a very high risk of creating an embarrassing and counterproductive international incident? The greater one’s appreciation of the fundamental nature of revolution and unconventional warfare becomes, however, the smaller these concerns appear to be.

One beauty of unconventional deterrence is that it pits an inherent strength of the US against an inherent weakness of our most challenging competitors – and they know it. This is not the case with nuclear deterrence, which pits strength against strength with Russia and China, and has been a powerful incentive for North Korea and Iran in their respective quests to become credible nuclear powers. Yet when one speaks with experts in nuclear deterrence about the concept of unconventional deterrence it can trigger a response of shock and concern. How could the US consider the potentially devastating consequences of intentionally destabilizing the society of another?  Yet somehow the idea of incinerating the society of another and inviting the inevitable retaliation in kind is one we have become disturbingly comfortable with. Nuclear weapons are with us forever, and continued proliferation is inevitable. However, by expanding our deterrence options to include unconventional deterrence we redefine the deterrence paradigm in ways that help turn back the nuclear doomsday clock.


With a focus on unconventional deterrence, gaining nuclear weapons is no longer the critical step allowing a rising power to compete with the US and to pursue their interests free of coercion – that step becomes building greater resilience into their own societies instead.  By threatening a challenger with unconventional warfare, one incentivizes that challenger to take the actions necessary to reduce their vulnerability by improving their governance.  Unconventional deterrence does not just deter bad behavior, unconventional deterrence is uniquely a form of deterrence that encourages positive behavior in equal measure.  The same cannot be said for more traditional forms of deterrence.

Unconventional deterrence, like nuclear deterrence, is about establishing a credible threat, and not about actually employing the threatened action.  The US should indeed become as loathe to destabilize another state for political purpose as we are to engage in nuclear or conventional warfare.  That would be a positive change from our historic willingness and belief that we can simply replace governments we disapprove of with ones we deem as more appropriate, and somehow create government that is both sovereign and possessed of the popular legitimacy[12] necessary for natural stability.  But the very fact that the US has been so quick to employ unconventional warfare in the past is what lends credibility to our willingness to do so again.  This implicit will to act is a major component lacking in our current family of deterrence.  Our major state challengers are well aware that the US is unlikely to employ a phase III response to phase I aggression, thus the rise of competition short of war and the creation of gray zones.

Unconventional Resilience (UR)

In many ways, unconventional resilience is the opposite of unconventional deterrence.  Instead of deterring the bad actor, unconventional resilience works to preclude the bad actor by denying the opportunity for action. Just as one can deter a brittle state through a credible threat of UW; so too can one help facilitate resilience within the society of an important partner or ally whose stability is essential to one’s interests. While focused deterrence relies upon a balanced blend of carrots and sticks, these two UW-based approaches rely upon a sophisticated understanding and balanced leveraging of political grievance.   Essential to all UW approaches is adopting a more realist perspective than characteristic of most post- Cold War policies.  Foreign internal defense (FID) remains a major line of operation for the US, but far too often FID is about preserving in power some foreign government and enabling their continued poor governance as assessed by their own population.  Increasingly, interests are better served by commitment to the facilitation of good governance, not the preservation of any particular government.  UW-related approaches facilitate this transition and prioritizes one’s own interests over the preservation of any particular foreign government, friend or foe.  UW focuses on interests wherever they reside, and then seeks to either agitate or relieve insurgent energy within the populations occupying those spaces toward greater instability, or stability, as serves our interests.  Understanding and leveraging political grievance among discrete population groups is how and where much of the great power competition short of war is likely to occur.

The idea for UR comes from other widely recognized programs designed to prevent naturally occurring, undesirable conditions from occurring. The prevention of cancer[13] and the prevention of wildfire are two solid examples of this approach.  Neither cancer nor fire are actually “prevented” by these approaches, as true prevention is neither feasible nor desired.  Prevention is more accurately about understanding natural dynamics for what they actually are, and then employing that understanding to nurture conditions that facilitate the positive aspects of some force, and minimizing the negative.  For all of its destructive potential, fire plays an essential role in natural ecosystems.  Revolutionary insurgency is also naturally occurring and can be devastatingly destructive to a political ecosystem. If left unaddressed, revolutionary energy can grow to dangerous levels and ultimately destroy a society. But by understanding and proactively addressing the forces of revolution energy one can thicken the relationships between governance and populations, thereby creating a natural resilience inherent to healthy societies.


Military doctrine lumps revolutionary insurgency in with other forms of war and warfare.  One important concept emerging from the apparent chaos of the current strategic environment is the understanding that political conflict within a single system of governance is fundamentally different in nature than political conflict between two or more systems.  This helps explain why warfare approaches to revolution tend to suppress, rather than resolve the problems behind the conflict.  It also helps to reveal that revolutionary insurgency is most accurately a form of illegal democracy, not war. This is perhaps the rawest, and most dangerous form of democracy, but often the only form available to populations where more traditional mechanisms are denied.  If war is the final argument of kings, then truly, revolution is the final vote of the people.  “Ultima Ratio Regum,”[14] meet Ultima Ratio Populo.

Because firefighters understand the nature of fire, they attack the elements of the “fire triangle” (fuel, heat, oxygen) to put out a fire.  In this process smoke and flame are only managed, and not attacked; even though smoke causes the most deaths, and flame causes the most destruction.  By understanding the nature of fire, one’s focus naturally shifts from flailing at problematic symptoms, to addressing actual problems.  Just as effective firefighting focuses on addressing some mix of fuel, heat and oxygen; effective stability operations must focus on some mix of governance, population and grievance.  By understanding the instability triangle, it serves to shift the focus away from overly fixating on problematic symptoms, like ideology, violence and catalytic events. 

Ultimately resilience in a society is about trust.  Populations form around identities in every system of governance.  Those populations who perceive good governance have the type of trust necessary for natural stability.  Those populations outside of that figurative “circle of trust,” however, are vulnerable to exploitation by both internal and external actors who would leverage that negative energy to their own advantage and agendas.  By understanding these populations, how they feel about the factors affecting their lives, and who they blame, it allows one to identify where the points of fracture are within a society and to help inform relatively simple, low-cost approaches for encouraging and restoring trust.


In the modern era, thinking like a revolutionary is as important to sustaining stability where stability is desired, as it is to threatening instability where behavior demands modification.  Revolution is to a state what wildfire is to a forest.  Both are examples of complex and dynamic ecosystems.  While fire plays a critical role in preserving the health of a forest ecosystem, fire can also destroy a forest if that ecosystem is manipulated in unnatural ways, or otherwise allowed to decay.  Revolution plays a similar role in the ecosystem of a state.  As Thomas Jefferson famously observed, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.  It is its natural manure.”[15]  Just as man’s instinct is to suppress fire for fear it would destroy the forest, often to the ultimate detriment of the forest’s health; so too is it our instinct to suppress revolution.  Unconventional resilience appreciates the positive role of revolutionary energy, but the dangers as well, and seeks to nurture societal ecosystems that are refreshed, but not destroyed by this process.


The United States possesses tremendous capability and capacity to deter war.  While we must maintain that capacity, we will not solve our current inability to deter competition short of war by enhancing war capacity.  The US must develop new approaches to deterrence designed for the mission of deterring competition short of war within this strategic environment that continues to emerge and evolve around us.  The good news is that we have cheap and effective options for solving this problem.  We need only change how we think about the problem, and then make the minor adjustments necessary in how we operate and for what purpose to begin effecting a grey zone solution.

The four major state challengers identified by both the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs share a handful of critical vulnerabilities.  Each is led by a small governing elite who are determined above all other things to retain control and power within that elite group.  Each employs autocratic forms of government that inadvertently create powerful pockets of revolutionary energy within several significant identity-based populations within their borders.  These governments are very aware of this situation and accept it as a necessary cost of retaining power.  Each employs security measures designed to suppress that revolutionary energy.  However, the most significant truly game changing aspect of the current strategic environment is the relative shift of power everywhere from governments to the governed.  It is this shift of power that has enabled the rise of organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State; and it is this shift of power that can enable a new layer of flexible and adaptive deterrence options designed to effectively deter unwanted competition short of war.

Through focused deterrence we can design and employ highly efficient and effective deterrence packages built around specific vital national interests.  This approach employs a realist perspective that is better suited to the emerging strategic environment than the more ideological perspectives that evolved during the Cold War era.  By managing a sophisticated system of carrots and sticks across the full range of stakeholders in a particular interest we can avoid many of the frustrations and unintended consequences associated with broader, threat-focused deterrence options.

With unconventional deterrence and its companion activity of unconventional resilience we leverage the principles of unconventional warfare to optimize the ongoing shift in power from governments to the governed.  These approaches target the paranoia of our greatest competitors, and create options for us, while denying opportunities to others for waging UW-based competition short of war.  This is a capability that will take time to develop to its full potential, but the psychological effect of deterrence will begin to accrue immediately.  Many of the activities necessary to create this powerful deterrent effect will come from programs of relatively benign engagement conducted in permissive spaces.  

Reinforcing the thinking and capabilities that brought us to where we are today is unlikely to solve the growing problem of gray zone aggression.  However, by changing how we think about the problem and by creating new deterrence options we can better deny opponents the opportunities currently provided by our modern “Maginot Line” of phase III deterrence.

End Notes

[1] Dunford, Joseph; Senior Strategic Leader Seminar, April 2016.

[2] Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Age of the Unimaginable,

[3] National Security Strategy; “Any successful strategy to ensure the safety of the American people and advance our national security interests must begin with an undeniable truth—America must lead. Strong and sustained American leadership is essential to a rules-based international order that promotes global security and prosperity as well as the dignity and human rights of all peoples. The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

[4] Secretary of Defense Ash Carter identified five major challenges during a speech at the US Military Academy on March 23, 2016: Violent Extremist Organizations/terrorism; China; Russia; Iran and North Korea.

[5] Specific Deterrence – “Deterrence, as an objective of sentencing, which is fit to a particular offender.” A law enforcement concept of deterrence that works in partnership with General Deterrence – “Deterrence concerned with trying to persuade others who might be inclined to offend not to do so.” Duhaime Law Dictionary.

[6] Tailored Deterrence –“Tailoring deterrence operations to specific adversaries in specific strategic contexts…tailored deterrence strategies and operations should be developed, planned, and implemented with reference to specific deterrence objectives that identify who we seek to deter from taking what action(s), under what conditions (i.e., Deter adversary X from taking action Y, under Z circumstances)”. Deterrence Operations Joint Operating Concept 2.0, 2006.  

[7] Brittle state -  a state appearing fully functional state and stable, but due to high perceptions of poor governance among one or more identity-based populations lacking the resilience of healthier societies to withstand

[8] Jones, Robert C.; “Understanding Insurgency: The Condition Behind the Conflict,” Small Wars Journal, Oct 2011.

[9] Jones, Robert C.; “Winning the Ideological Battle for the Support of the Populace (Understanding the Role of Ideology in Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, Apr 2008.

[10] The doctrinal definition of unconventional warfare is overly tactical and derived from the Allied experience in working with resistance movements during World War II.  By using a definition describing the fundamental nature of UW one gains a clearer perspective and a more versatile foreign policy tool.

[11] Unlike “effective governance” that focuses on the existence and performance of governmental institutions; “good governance” focuses on how populations formed around specific identities feel about the governance affecting their lives in five areas deemed historically critical to societal stability across cultures:

Popular legitimacy - the recognition by the governed of the right of any system of governance (foreign or domestic; formal or informal) to affect their lives;

Culturally Appropriate - the recognition in a population that governance is formed and operates in a manner perceived as appropriate in the context of their culture;

Justice - not the existence of rule of law, but how people feel about the rule of law as it is applied to them;

Respect/dignity - how this distinct segment of society perceives they are treated uniquely from other similarly situated populations as a result of some immutable status or characteristic; and lastly Empowerment - the belief that trusted, certain and legal means to effectively address such grievances exist. Empowerment, or hope, is the great off-ramp from insurgency. A government faced with growing conditions of insurgency can create more positive effect through a few pen strokes creating modest enhancements of empowerment, particularly those that go directly to the other critical perceptions, than by any amount of effort designed to simply suppress the symptoms of these conditions. All of this combines to create trust.  It is this form of trust that is essential to the resilience of natural stability.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the risk of getting cancer. National Cancer Institute.

[14] Ultima Ratio Regum, the final argument of Kings, the phrase directed to be engraved on all of the kingdom’s cannon in recognition that war was the final arbiter of policy by France’s King Louis XIV in 1650.

[15] Extract from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Paris Nov. 13. 1787.


About the Author(s)

Robert Jones is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel, serving the past ten years as senior strategist at USSOCOM. His focus is understanding the nature of the strategic environment, the evolving character of conflict, and the implications for our Special Operations Forces. He is a core member of the Joint Staff’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) network, and a regular lecturer at the Joint Special Operations University and the Air War College. A Cold War and Gulf War vet, he stepped away for a bit to gain experiences as both an emergency manager and a deputy district attorney prior to returning to the Special Operations community post 9/11 to serve from Zamboanga to Kandahar, and places in between.