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Lessons From Previous Competitive Strategies

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Lessons From Previous Competitive Strategies: Interview with Thomas G. Mahnken

Octavian Manea

Thomas G. Mahnken is currently the Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and a Visiting Scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Dr. Mahnken served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning from 2006-2009.

SWJ: When we talk about the history of the Cold War, we tend to focus on pivotal personalities like George Kennan or Paul H. Nitze. But what was the role of the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) in shaping the history of the Cold War and the decision-making process in the competition with the Soviet Union?

Thomas Mahnken: The mission of the Office of Net Assessment has been to provide strategic advice to the Secretary of Defense and other senior leaders. In order to understand the specific contributions of the Office to U.S. strategy during the Cold War, one needs to focus on decisions that various Secretaries of Defense made and to understand how they were informed by strategic insights and advice from the Office.  The Office also played a critical role by sponsoring research and developing intellectual capital on a whole range of topics that have proved to be important to the Defense Department and the United States. To take just one example, a good portion of the field of military innovation studies arose out of investments that the Office made in trying to understand military innovation and military effectiveness.

SWJ: A key concept that Andrew Marshall and ONA developed and shaped is that of competitive strategies. To what extent did the concept of competitive strategies provide an intellectual construct for winning the Cold War and managing the great power competition during peacetime?

Thomas Mahnken: At one level, the term “competitive strategies” is a redundancy - one certainly wouldn’t want to implement uncompetitive strategies. Indeed, the very notion of competition lies at the heart of strategy.  That having been said, the logical notion that one should pay attention to one’s enduring comparative advantages and exploit a competitor’s enduring comparative weaknesses can at times be an alien way of thinking in a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon and the national security community.

One of the things that the Office of Net Assessment did from its founding in the mid 1970s was to tap into thinking in the business and management literature about how to formulate and implement a long-term strategy for competition. A competitive strategy is focused on peacetime interaction and is about the peacetime use of military power to shape a competitor’s choices in ways that favor our objectives. That is, it is concerned with the development, acquisition, deployment, and exercising of forces, as opposed to their use in combat. A competitive strategy assumes that the choices that the competitors have to make are constrained. A competitive strategy seeks to identify and exploit these constraints.

This overall concept did play a role in U.S. strategy in the 1970s and 1980s by pushing the senior Defense Department leadership to think more in these terms. That meant thinking more about areas of comparative advantage and disadvantage, about areas where we needed to be ahead and areas where we could afford not to be ahead. Over time, that approach played an important role in the U.S. strategic effectiveness, particularly in the late Cold War. First unconsciously and later consciously, the Defense Department carried out a series of competitive strategies against the Soviet Union and in the end that approach played a role in convincing the Soviet leadership that they couldn’t compete with the U.S. in a whole series of areas. 

SWJ: How important is it in developing your own competitive strategy by understanding what is happening in the competitor’s mind and what is shaping it? 

Thomas Mahnken: Certainly a deep understanding of Soviet strategic culture and proclivities, decision-making, and bureaucratic processes was an important ingredient of U.S. success.  That understanding was imperfect, to be sure, but it was sufficient to develop strategies to exploit Soviet tendencies.  And again, a good deal of this insight emerged as a result of investments made by the Office of Net Assessment.

SWJ: Should we see the Air Land Battle concept developed and institutionalized in late 1970 early 1980s as a product of a competitive strategy framework?

Thomas Mahnken: Air Land Battle had a number of origins, both within the Army and Air Force and external to them. One important one was the experience of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which seemed to show that guided weapons held the promise of really changing the character of air and ground combat. A second origin had to do with the fact that United States and NATO faced a considerable strategic challenge: how to turn back a Warsaw Pact attack short of the use of nuclear weapons while preserving the territorial integrity of West Germany in particular. These collectively drove the Army and the Air Force to explore ways to exploit emerging technologies to extend the battle space back into Eastern Europe. It was also a way to bolster deterrence and to compete with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. In retrospect, this ended up having second- and third-order consequences even beyond what the authors of the Air Land Battle envisioned. It was definitely an effort to exploit U.S. competitive advantages in advanced technologies (PGMs, battlefield command and control, ISR) to counter the mass of the Warsaw Pact as well as its first-mover advantage, since it was assumed that the Soviet Union would start a conflict.

SWJ: Going back to the Cold War competition, what was the effect of ALB on the Soviet Union’s perceptions of the military balance, as well on the European allies?

Thomas Mahnken: Beginning in the late 1970s, Soviet military thinkers perceived the advent of advanced sensor, network, and strike technologies, and the development of the concepts and organizations to use them, as heralding a new “Military Technical Revolution” or “Revolution in Military Affairs”, and they believed that the United States had the lead in exploiting that revolution.  And America’s NATO allies were reassured by the development of ways of war that promised credibly to deter a Soviet conventional attack.

SWJ: Do you see the broader historical experience of AirLand Battle as informing the development of the current AirSea Battle?

Thomas Mahnken: There are a number of similarities, but also a number of differences between the two cases. One similarity that I would point out is that each was at least in part a response to an emerging strategic challenge. Back then, what the U.S. (and NATO) faced in Central Europe was the challenge of how to defend Western Europe without resort to nuclear weapons given an increasingly sophisticated Soviet threat. The challenge the U.S. faces today is continuing to be able to defend its allies and protect its interests in the light of the emergence of anti-access/area denial capabilities, which are in fact another manifestation of the growth and spread of precision weapons. But there are also differences.  Although we are in a peacetime competition with China, we are not in a Cold War. Moreover, that competition is only now starting to take shape. An analogy with the 1970s and 1980s is inapt because the strategic situation that we face now is much more akin to the late 1940s or early 1950s. We are in a pre-strategic phase. We are just starting to talk about broad strategies for long-term peacetime competition. It is a very immature debate. ASB is part of that, but we are in a very early stage of the debate.

SWJ: Is China implementing a competitive strategy of its own? Aren’t China’s A2/AD capabilities their comparative advantages?

Thomas Mahnken: The Chinese military has invested a lot over decades in its ballistic missile programs and related capabilities, such as its direct-ascent anti-satellite program. One of China’s comparative advantages is in ballistic missile technology and China is exploiting that.   The United States for various reasons has not been competing in that realm, but we have invested a lot in ballistic missile defense. From a Chinese perspective it makes a lot of sense to invest in ballistic missile capabilities, both because they represent an enduring strength, but also because they impose costs on its competitors whether they are U.S., Japan or Taiwan. Ballistic missile defense is expensive, and there is an ongoing debate about how effective active defenses can be. China’s reliance on ballistic missile has been in itself a cost imposing strategy and it reflects the organizational, bureaucratic preferences of the 2nd Artillery, which is a powerful actor within the PLA. What they are doing makes perfect sense.

SWJ: Is it in the U.S. interest that China is investing in defensive A2/AD? What matters in the end are their power-projection capabilities.

Thomas Mahnken: Certainly the Chinese see investments in A2/AD capabilities (or, as they term them, counter-intervention capabilities) in defensive terms. They frame them in terms of allowing China to defend itself against foreign intervention. However, where it becomes problematic is when one considers the strategic geography of the Western Pacific. Something that China considers defensive nonetheless threatens U.S. allies such as Japan, Taiwan, U.S. bases, and even U.S. territories in Western Pacific. The distinction between offensive and defensive is not always particularly helpful. Now, just because China invests in anti-access/area denial capabilities doesn’t mean that they can’t also invest in power projection capabilities. I would fully expect them to invest in those capabilities as well. I don’t see this as a matter of either or, it is a matter of degrees. But historically, China has been a continental power and brings a continental outlook to sea power and thinking about issues of defense. In U.S. for generations, as a maritime power, we have equated defense with forward defense and with the ability to project power. As a continental power, China sees things differently.

SWJ: Does the global spread of A2/AD capabilities change the conditions under which the United States has been accustomed to operating since World War II? Is forward defense still sustainable?

Thomas Mahnken: The growth and spread of the precision munitions has already increased the risk to power projection and the risk to forward-deployed forces; this risk will increase in the future.  That having been said, I would put things into historical perspective, which is to note that over the last 20 years we have faced relatively little risk to our power projection and forward deployed forces. We faced much greater risk during the Cold War and we managed to live with that for decades. What I would foresee is that we are likely to go back to a situation in terms of risk that much more resembles the Cold War than the past two decades. So risk will go up, but we’ve dealt with risk before. We are just unused to deal with that type of risk in recent experience. It will be a learning process on our side to develop the appropriate ways to respond.

SWJ: The competition in Central Europe with the Soviet Union and the focus on finding comparative advantage, generated a focus on conventional conflict. Is this what left U.S. unprepared for nation building and fighting insurgencies post 9/11? Is this one of the lessons that we should keep in mind as we move forward?

Thomas Mahnken: The U.S. military’s conscious effort to move away from counterinsurgency after Vietnam had two components: one was the painful legacy of Vietnam that made officers want to avoid thinking about future irregular wars; the other was the very real threat posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. However painful Vietnam was, we could afford to lose in Vietnam and not have our international standing and existence threatened. A loss against Warsaw Pact in Central Europe would have been much more consequential. It was both the negative –we don’t want to think to Vietnam anymore- but also the positive –let’s focus on existential threats. For the Army today, there is the mixed legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is no existential ground threat that the U.S. faces. I personally believe that the Army should continue to focus much more on irregular threats and how it can combat those. For the Navy and the Air Force, I think that it has always been true that they play an important, but secondary, supporting roles in dealing with non-state actors and irregular threats, but their main value lies in dealing with state-based threats.

SWJ: What role can the strategic landpower play in the Air Sea battle framework?

Thomas Mahnken: The Army has a role to play, but that is more likely to be a subordinate one. Army air defenses, missile defenses, some security cooperation, even its very capable cohort of foreign area officers all have important roles to play, but we shouldn’t think that each service will have an equal role to play in every contingency. Looking backwards, the roles of the Navy and Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan were subordinate to those of the Army and the Marine Corps. Looking forward, we shouldn’t expect the Army and Marine Corps roles to be co-equal with those of the Air Force and the Navy in another contingency.

SWJ: Keeping in mind Secretary of Defense Hagel’s latest Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), what should U.S. choose to invest to preserve a good foundation for implementing a competitive strategy over the long term?

Thomas Mahnken: First, the U.S. needs to devote greater attention to that which deters and reassures. We need to think about what parts of our force structure provide the most credible deterrent to potential competitors and most credible forms of reassurance to our allies. Those should weigh heavily. Second, we should focus on maintaining a qualitative edge over potential competitors. In its post-World War II history, the U.S. defense community has periodically debated the merits of quantity vs. quality.  In the past, the historical verdict has always come out in favor of a qualitative advantage. I think it is very important for the U.S. to preserve that qualitative advantage, which means investing in R&D and game-changing capabilities. In the end the decisions are never black and white, but to the extent it needs to be a bias in one direction or the other, the bias should be in terms of quality.

SWJ: Do you expect that the design and implementation of a competitive strategy to change in a time of diffusion of power and democratization of high-tech warfare?

Thomas Mahnken: It will force us to be more strategic in our thinking because we will have to rely on comparative advantages rather than absolute advantages. We will have to work even more closely with our allies and develop alliance capabilities as well. But a number of these trends can be made to work in our favor. To the extent that our goals are defensive then the spread of PGMs, ISR and command and control capabilities can benefit our allies who try to defend themselves against aggression.

SWJ: In the mid 1970s, when Soviet power was rising and Soviet influence was expanding, before the development of Air Land Battle Admiral Thomas H. Moorer warned that “the U.S. is crossing the threshold of the last quarter of the 20th century in a mood of confusion-confusion over America’s place in a rapidly changing world and over the correct path to a dimly perceived future”. Is U.S. in a similar position today?

Thomas Mahnken: There are a lot of parallels between the current situation and the context the United States faced in the mid 1970s. We were leaving behind a long conflict, we faced a drawdown in defense capabilities, and there was a domestic mood of uncertainty about the U.S. role in the world. Although history does not repeat itself, I think it is worthwhile thinking through the past situations. There were scholars like John Lewis Gaddis who in the fall of 1980 wrote in International Security that it was inconceivable that the U.S. would be able to increase significantly its defense budget. That piece was published on the eve of Ronald Reagan’s election as president, which saw one of the biggest defense increases in American history. If we think of the analogy between today and the mid of 1970s, we also need to hold out the possibility of greater certainty over America’s mission and greater capability to carry out that mission. At the same time, I think that it is very important for the U.S. to preserve its capability to wage irregular warfare and be more effective. There is no doubt that this should remain a core part of the U.S. capabilities. But the bureaucratic incentives against doing so are as strong as they were in the post Vietnam era.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


Another great interview by Octavian. I found the point made by Thomas Mahnken that we are still pre-strategic with China to be both accurate and interesting. And after years of dominating all the physical domains, it is quite a paradigm shift to shift our strategic thinking from absolute advantage to comparative advantage. Well worth the short amount of time to read this.