Small Wars Journal

Mismatch: U.S. Preparation for Future Conflict During China’s Second Cultural Revolution

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 9:50am

Mismatch: U.S. Preparation for Future Conflict During China’s Second Cultural Revolution

Russell W. Glenn

Multi-Domain Operations must “pull us from the comfort of our tactical-level trenches to develop capabilities that inform up to the strategic level of war…. We cannot do this alone. The armed services can win battles and campaigns, but winning wars takes the whole of government…. It is never just about the fight.”[i]

-- General Stephen Townsend

Initial thoughts

The U.S. Army introduced a new doctrine in 1982, then updated that guidance four years later. AirLand Battle (ALB) was among the most revolutionary advances in formalized army thinking since Emory Upton and Arthur Wagner helped guide the service away from massed formations and volley fire in the years following the Civil War. The country’s primary ground force was in the final stages of recovery from tremors remaining after the earthquake that was the Vietnam War. Its focus had returned to the defense of Western Europe and the Warsaw Pact as primary adversary. AirLand Battle replaced existing doctrine, penned in 1976, that had proven controversial. Very tactical in focus, many felt that earlier effort relied too greatly on technology and was out of touch with soldiers and their leaders.

America’s armed services were not particularly joint at the time. (Goldwater-Nichols would not come about until 1986.) “AirLand Battle”: The new doctrine’s title itself gave notice that such would no longer be the case. It also showed the army was serious about a partnership with the other services. It wasn’t LandAir Battle, after all. The country’s primary ground force had made the seemingly small but significant compromise of putting its oft times Cold War funding rival upfront in the moniker.

The manual that introduced AirLand Battle, Field Manual 100-5, Operations, was a quantum leap forward otherwise as well. Whereas the existing 1976 manual was thought to provide guidance on what to think when it came to fighting, ALB instead provided insights on how to consider America’s approach to winning future wars. It lent coherence to U.S. Army preparations largely lacking since World War II (and certainly no less since Vietnam), years in which leaders struggled to find a role in a security environment dominated by the dawn of atomic, then nuclear, weapons. The Pentomic Division came and went, a failed attempt to deal with the destructiveness of a foe’s use of battlefield nuclear weapons that proved impractical in terms of control and logistical support.

Why this brief stroll through recent military history? Today the army and air force are again partnering – with a tad less but nonetheless existent enthusiasm from the marines and navy – in developing another new concept that goes where services have not gone before: Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) takes up where ALB left off.

Several interim doctrinal evolutions followed AirLand Battle and the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain, Operation Just Cause in Panama that same year, 1993 tragedy in Mogadishu, and a sharp turn from focus on a Soviet threat to counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. Small steps for the army, none of these evolutions were great leaps for joint force readiness. Counterinsurgency (COIN) took center stage. Less an overarching doctrine, certainly not a strategy, COIN was instead an approach to tackle the conundrum of finding success amidst an environment of crippling host nation corruption; tepid population support for both such governments and the outsiders bolstering them; and insurgents, criminals, terrorists, Iranian influence, Pakistani intransigence, sectarianism, intra-governmental bickering, and pick-a-challenge-it-was-likely-there. Lacking a strategy to guide actions on the ground, COIN became a magnet for abuse and superficial condemnation. Counterinsurgency had (as in Vietnam) again proved hard to apply. As a result, many in government – to include the military – overreacted by casting out anything and everything associated with the baby. This included a lesson fundamental to success but rejected as being bureaucratically impractical or impossible to accomplish: effectively bringing all relevant national and super-national capabilities to bear in the service not merely success, but the seemingly-no-longer-attainable-end of victory.

Such a desirable culmination requires at least two intellectual and conceptual leaps forward: (1) Victory is no longer a function of military success alone (if it ever was), and (2) a government cannot focus on merely winning a war. War is simply a spike in today’s environment of constant conflict. Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army authors could not have been clearer in demonstrating that such was understood in Beijing with the 1999 release of Unrestricted Warfare. More recent of China’s strategic writings reinforce and further legitimize these observations as having broad acceptance in that country’s security community.[ii] Too many U.S. leaders seem unable to recognize that those observation also apply to this side of the Pacific.

Enter Multi-Doman Battle…later Multi-Domain Operations

Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) are

operations conducted across multiple domains and contested spaces to overcome an adversary’s (or enemy’s) strengths by presenting them with several operational and/or tactical dilemmas through the combined application of calibrated force posture; employment of multi-domain formations; and convergence of capabilities across domains, environments, and functions in time and spaces to achieve operational and tactical objectives.[iii]

MDO proposes that the U.S. military’s services (and those of multinational partners by inference) reduce the barriers that now constrain their operations so that any service can undertake tasks traditionally belonging to another. Yet important as it is, MDO’s most significant advance toward facilitating victory is not its emphasis on a considerably enhanced cross-service cooperation. It is instead recognition that today’s conflict environment is one of constant competition with spikes of armed conflict followed by a return to a – albeit evolved – state of competition. The U.S. Army respectively defines competition and armed conflict as:[iv]

Competition: The condition when two or more actors in the international system have incompatible interests but neither seeks to escalate to open conflict in pursuit of those interests. While violence is not the adversary’s primary instrument in competition, challenges may include a range of violent instruments including conventional forces with uncertain attribution to the state sponsor.

Armed Conflict: When the use of violence is the primary means by which an actor seeks to satisfy its interests.

These evolutions are not sequential. They are consecutive, coexisting both in different locations at the same time and in a given space over time. This means parties will find themselves opposing an adversary’s disinformation campaign as do, for example, European Union (EU) members and Ukraine confront Russia’s even as the Ukraine conducts armed conflict operations in its eastern territories. The three conditions (competition, armed conflict, and return to competition) likewise have multiple personalities. Armed conflict, for example, involved Russian forces of various types, Ukrainian supporters, and other entities with forms and relationships that morphed over time. Competition included not only public messaging engagements but Russian invasion of cellular networks, attacks directed toward specific individuals such as members of the Ukrainian military and their families, efforts bolstering support from ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, cyber undermining of commercial businesses, and threats directed toward EU members who might resist Russian aggression.[v]

Unfortunately, conceptualizations of MDO appear to have suffered a bit of backsliding since its initial descriptions. Though never robustly comprehensive in its approach, initial discussions on occasion tipped their hats to the possibility of nongovernmental, inter-governmental, and other other-than-government organizations’ participation while somewhat more frequently recognizing the desirability of whole-of-government and multinational partner involvement. Whole-of-government and multinational survived the evolution from the 1.0 version of MDO to that designated 1.5 (though with less vigor than might be hoped) while the former disappeared altogether both in the newer document and related conversations. MDO in its 1.5 form (as published in U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028)[vi] continues to recognize the conditions of competition, armed conflict, and return to competition but is unquestionably armed conflict centric. There is but little consideration given to competition or the challenges inherent in recovering from armed conflict and returning to competition. As America’s conflicts have repeatedly made clear, ultimate success (much less victory) cannot be achieved by winning battles alone. As MDO is a concept likely to soon become U.S. Army – and perhaps joint – doctrine, greater attention must be granted tasks preceding, accompanying, and following combat.

Standing by While Others Eat Our Lunch: China Turns the Tables on the United States

It’s a fair argument that the collapse of the Soviet Union was due primarily to economic shortcomings rather than military, diplomatic, or another of the components of national power. Single-factor explanations are all but inevitably wrong; certainly the USSR’s difficulties in Afghanistan, internal frictions, and other elements played a role, but ultimately the country’s economic system could not keep pace with that of the West. The Star Wars program was as much an economic assault as military and arguably one of the final straws that broke the Soviet camel’s back.

Fortunately far stronger in that arena than was the USSR, there are nonetheless similarities meriting U.S. pause as China uses economics in a rapier-like manner during its ongoing competition with America. In an April 2019 article, The Economist noted that “China focused on punishing Trump voters” with tariffs despite their also having damaging consequences for its own economy.[vii] That China’s tariffs sought to influence select elements in the U.S. electorate seems undeniable. But there was an additional benefit for China’s authorities: influencing the direction of billions of dollars as the president reacted by compensating soybean and other farmers suffering the fallout of China’s economic assault. Yes, a quantum level separates today’s U.S. economy from that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. However, the opportunity cost of redirecting those billions from a less politically-motivated fund allocation has potential national security implications.

Beijing’s approach should surprise no one. China’s Military Strategy champions a holistic approach to “warfare,” an approach that could but need not require combat. It is one instead more akin to conflict generally or what Multi-Domain Operations embraces with the continuum of competition and armed conflict. Russia’s clever maneuvers in Crimea have drawn plentiful attention and no little grudging admiration for their remaining below a threshold that would trigger a Western armed response. China’s more comprehensive initiatives of the past several years have tended to be viewed discretely rather than in terms of their synergistic effects. The Belt and Road initiative; military basing initiatives; economic investments such as purchasing agricultural land overseas, funding major infrastructure projects, and cultivation of political leaders in Africa; suggestions that China has a responsibility to ensure the welfare of ethnic Chinese regardless of country and citizenship; and aggressive challenges in the South China Sea all fit nicely in a strategy practicing what China’s Military Strategy publications and Xi Jinping’s 19th National Congress remarks preach. Several of these Chinese initiatives are logical evolutions of earlier enterprises, albeit ones benefiting from steroids those previous lacked. China’s construction of the visually impressive African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa; funding of East Timor’s defense ministry and other government structures; assistance in building Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port City; creation of alternatives to Western lending organizations and regional cooperative associations; and too many other initiatives to list likewise fit this more-than-military-alone approach to cultivating influence at the expense of the West in general and United States in particular. China’s fueling America’s opioid epidemic (via robust pharmaceutical sales) might in some eyes be considered ironic payback for the West’s flooding of China with opium in the 19th century. Cautious not to venture into the realm of conspiracy theories, could such sales be a component of this strategy to gain advantage? While U.S. executive departments compete for funds in the absence of an overarching security coordinating mechanism, China’s autocratic government orchestrates its elements of national power with symphonic harmony.[viii] China is eating America’s lunch and inviting others to join in the dining while the United States watches.

How to address these challenges? China is not the USSR of the 1980s any more than is the U.S. economy that of the USSR’s. Too stable and too intermeshed with the United States economically for China to gain the same leverage as was done that three decades ago, the West is nonetheless facing a significant threat in the form of a second Chinese Cultural Revolution, one externally rather than internally oriented. Cast aside is China’s less confrontational military profile of the late 20th century.[ix] It is now international audiences in addition to domestic attitudes that Beijing seeks to mold via its many projects, plentiful spending, and benevolent social offerings as exemplified by its Confucius Institutes. While many will resist, others will appreciate a champion that claims to defend the interests of all possessing Chinese ethnicity, particularly in environments where acceptance and social equality are not forthcoming.

One might argue that this increasingly assertive China is more adroit at strategy than tactics or diplomacy. Several years ago, a cab driver in Addis Ababa revealed to this author that he and other Ethiopians were displeased that the African Union headquarters was being built by Chinese rather than his countrymen, Chinese who in addition augmented the capital’s economy virtually not at all given their living in what was effectively an encampment. There are similar, sometimes more violent, expressions of displeasure regarding China’s ethnocentrism during its project work around the world as attacks on workers in several African nations attest. Regular demonstrations of Beijing’s excessive sensitivity to perceived slights such as the award of the Nobel Prize to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo and overzealous aggressiveness in waters to the country’s east arguably reveal skin too thin for an aspiring world power. But these tactical shortcomings have thus far proved to be of little consequence given gains on the strategic front where China seems to be practicing some combination of bleeding its competition with a thousand small cuts and following Sun Tzu’s observation that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”[x]

It is all well and good for Multi-Domain Operations to be military-centric. It is less acceptable for it to swing the pendulum to the extreme of armed conflict at the expense of guidance that recognizes and addresses the armed forces’ roles throughout the range of an ever-present conflict environment articulated in the concept as competition-armed conflict-return to competition. If the current description of MDO is meant to address only (or primarily) the armed conflict component of that trio, recognize it as such. Address the challenges of and provide guidance regarding competition in a second offering. Done correctly, the two documents should then provide council spanning our military’s responsibilities in the service of national strategic objectives.

The truly bold might consider a further step, one that could eventually launch the giant leap needed to orchestrate all elements of U.S. national power in a coherent manner. The Department of Defense is far and away the most robustly funded and manned executive department, but it cannot – and should not – presume to write doctrine for State, Homeland Security, or others in the executive branch. It could, however, offer guidance regarding what is essential if the United States is to persevere in an environment where competition is constant and armed conflict is but one tool, guidance that considers how the military’s capabilities should complement other components of national power – and vice versa – with the objective of more effectively serving our country’s interests.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

End Notes


[i] Stephen Townsend (General, U.S. Army), “Accelerating Multi-Domain Operations: Evolution of an Idea” in READAHEAD: Shaping NATO for Multi-Domain Operations of the Future, Joint Air and Space Power Conference 2019, Joint Air Power Competence Center, undated.

[ii] Xi Jinping, “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in all Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” speech delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017; and “China’s Military Strategy (2015),” The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, May 2015.

[iii] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, December 6, 2018, GL-7.

[iv] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, December 6, 2018, GL-2.

[v] Robert G. Angevine, et al., “Learning Lessons from the Ukraine Conflict,” Institute for Defense Analysis document NS D-10367, May 2019.

[vi] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028, December 6, 2018, https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Portals/14/Documents/MDO/TP525-3-1_30Nov2018.pdf (accessed September 16, 2019).

[vii] “You get what you give: Why you should never start a trade war with an autocracy.” The Economist 431 (April 27, 2019): 77.

[viii] Further discussion of the disadvantages the U.S. operates under in this regard can be found at Russell W. Glenn and Ian M. Sullivan, “Why the U.S. Government Is No Longer Capable of Ensuring National Security: Does America’s system of government prevent it from winning the wars of the future?” The National Interest (March 31, 2018), https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-the-us-government-no-longer-capable-ensuring-national-25160 (accessed September 16, 2019).

[ix] This shift in focus is codified in the 2015 Defense White Paper, Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress Speech, and less obviously in the 2019 Defense White Paper. Thanks to colleague Ian Sullivan for this observation.

[x] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. By Samuel B. Griffith, London: Oxford University Press, 1982, 77.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Russell Glenn serves as Director, Plans and Policy; Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2; U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. He is author of Rethinking Western Approaches to Counterinsurgency and author/editor of Trust and Leadership: The Australian Army Approach to Mission Command as part of the Association of the United States Army book program.