Small Wars Journal

Resource-Sustainable Counterterrorism in an Era of Great Power Competition

Tue, 10/20/2020 - 9:47am

Resource-Sustainable Counterterrorism in an Era of Great Power Competition

Kevin Bilms and Douglas A. Livermore


To seek a more efficient campaign against extremists is a prudent undertaking. What should characterize this resource-sustainable approach, and what could it look like in execution?

            The Department of Defense recently released an unclassified summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the National Defense Strategy. While it directs the Department to “institutionalize” Irregular Warfare (IW) and “operationalize” IW for great-power competition, the IW Annex to the NDS also calls for a “resource-sustainable” approach to counterterrorism (CT) and counter-violent extremist organizations (CVEO).      

A refocus on competition with state adversaries requires harnessing lessons learned from the past 19 years of CT-centric IW missions while changing the way the Department conducts its business. But “resource-sustainable” does not mean to ignore CT and CVEO missions entirely. Instead, the NDS IW Annex attempts to bring CT into full alignment with the NDS while providing guidance for the Department to prioritize, innovate, and partner effectively in its part of the enduring CT mission—which, in turn, provides opportunities to support broader IW requirements for strategic competition.

Placing CT and CVEO in Context

            The National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) heralded a renewed focus on “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” as the primary threat to U.S. national security. The shift seemed dramatic in the post-9/11 environment given the continuous operational tempo of CT and counterinsurgency operations since 2001. However, as many have observed, the pivot away from predominately focusing on the threat of terrorism represents a shift back to focusing on traditional state activities in the international system. When viewed from a longer perspective, the anomalous trend was actually everything that occurred in the years following 9/11.

            The post-9/11 CT campaign was never envisioned as a “multi-generational war.” The campaign generated notable operational successes by severely degrading al-Qa’ida and eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) so-called caliphate. However, the price tag of the campaign clearly became unsustainable. This strategic cost came in the form of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars, and an immeasurable opportunity cost to U.S. national interests.

            Exemplifying this point is the growth of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) since September 11. USSOCOM’s budget more than tripled between 2001 and 2017 as Special Operations Forces (SOF) were increasingly relied upon to conduct direct action CT missions. CT-related expenditures between 2002 and 2017 totaled $2.8 trillion, with $175 billion allocated to CT in 2017—an 11-fold increase over the figure spent in 2001, according to the Stimson Center.

            Financial impacts are not the only costs imposed on the U.S. military. A relentless operational tempo severely challenged the force’s readiness and pushed deployment-to-dwell ratios for U.S. Special Operations Forces (USSOF) and other high-demand skillsets to unprecedented levels, generating significant stresses on the USSOF community. Countless American lives were also committed to this struggle, often at great sacrifice. During this same period, SOF expertise related to those non-CT skills required to contest state adversaries atrophied to an extent that now requires significant reinvestment.

These tolls came in response to an extremist threat initially posed by al-Qa’ida, who expended about $30 million in 2001 to conduct its activities. At its peak in 2014 and 2015, ISIS generated about $1 million to $3 million per day. This vast disparity in investment played into al-Qa’ida founder Osama bin-Laden’s strategy of economically “bleeding” the U.S. through a “War of a Thousand Cuts” while also affording opportunities for state adversaries to close their technology gaps relative to the United States.

When considering the implications of a rising China and reasserted Russia—who spent approximately $228 and $66 billion on defense in 2017, almost exclusively for state-versus-state competition—it becomes clear that reprioritization and reallocation was required to maintain military advantage and outpace these competitors. The force also desperately needed to address its readiness, which faced strains caused by a grueling deployment cycle.

Importantly, the shift to competition also provided opportunities for USSOCOM and the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps to adapt their capabilities and expertise for competition in response to this new strategic reality. While CT must remain a persistent, no-fail mission, rebalancing mission priorities is necessary to alleviate pressures on the force and ensure that the force is postured to meet the full range of new and emerging security challenges. Rather than completely abandon its CT efforts, the Department can and should leverage its successes in IW to support a comprehensive campaign.

Framing a New Approach

Mindful of the shifting global landscape, the NDS IW Annex directs the Department of Defense to “degrade and, on order, defeat designated priority VEOs… [and] sustain a network to share the burden with willing and capable partners.” Three important themes emerge which give guidance for the future of “resource-sustainable” counterterrorism.


First, the Department must carefully consider which extremist groups it dedicates limited resources towards pursuing. With 9/11 in mind, the easiest solution is to prioritize extremist threats with the capability and intent to attack the U.S. homeland or its vital interests. This focus is consistent with the 2018 National Strategy for Counterterrorism (NSCT), which emphasizes all terrorists with the ability and intent to harm the nation, and distinguishes itself from previous national CT strategies by not focusing on a single organization or ‘type’ of extremist. These criteria helps to filter groups with limited capabilities or more regional aims, and allows the Department to focus its finite CT resources on the most pressing threats.

Although this sounds straightforward, numerous departments and agencies do their own threat prioritization processes, which creates “siloes of excellence” that can challenge effective resource allocation. To remedy this, DoD and the broader U.S. Government should base its resource decisions behind risk analyses and threat assessments generated by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), whose mission is to provide terrorism analysis and foster whole-of-government action in support of national CT objectives. Leveraging NCTC’s analytic capabilities and its mandate would align DoD resources with national-level priorities where military power may be the best option. More importantly, this approach could ensure that contemplating use of DoD CT resources resists developing tunnel vision on a narrower subset of extremist threats, or viewing every extremist as a “nail” best addressed with the direct action “hammer.”

Load Sharing Across the CT Enterprise

Second, a resource-sustainable approach requires greater burden sharing among partners within the U.S. Government. The NDS IW Annex recognizes that tactical successes do not always translate into lasting gains and enduring strategic outcomes. By no means a fault of the Defense Department, several political administrations have shared an overreliance on military solutions to CT problems while detaching these temporary solutions from a wider political strategy to achieve a durable endstate. This overreliance on the CT “hammer” is a driving factor for the dramatic budget increases for USSOCOM’s expenditures mentioned previously.

However, this historical precedent should not cause the Department to assume that U.S. military action will remain the preferred or only course of action. The NDS IW Annex’s direction to “foster and sustain unified action” also applies to the resource-sustainable CT approach as well as broader competition requirements, and aspires to place DoD CT and CVEO within the context of a whole-of-government CT enterprise that has also matured since 2001.

Before 9/11, the nation’s domestic counterterrorism strategy was disjointed from its response to overseas threats. In the bipartisan report on the 9/11 terrorist attack, over-compartmentalization of intelligence on al-Qa’ida was identified as a significant factor to the U.S. Government’s failure to detect and thwart the attack. Significant post-9/11 reforms correctly adjusted intelligence and information-sharing arrangements in response, and these adjustments have largely allowed the United States to avoid another strategic surprise and large-scale attack.

Complementing these measures are numerous undertakings to generate public awareness and increase local capacity to counter the underlying causes of terrorism; reforms in law enforcement and legal authorities to prosecute terrorism suspects; enhanced biometric screening and vetting; as well as a variety of programs to provide antiterrorism training, counter-threat finance (CTF) expertise, and other tools necessary to pursue extremist threats and isolate their sources of strength and support at the earliest stage. The 2018 NSCT further directed departments and agencies to prioritize a broad range of capabilities that could build resilience to terrorism, leverage the skills of civil society and non-traditional partners, and diminish the efforts of extremists to recruit and radicalize in the information space.

Taken together, this national guidance and the preponderance of non-kinetic programs illustrate the expanded range of more affordable, non-military ways and means for the United States to counter extremist challenges without solely relying on kinetic options. They provide a solid foundation for DoD’s CT tools to nest within a unified, national-level approach to CT campaigning and realize efficiencies from operating more closely with national priorities. If an ounce of prevention can prevent a pound of cure in the form of CT direct action, the Department can focus its energies and resources elsewhere, consistent with the NDS.

Burden-Sharing with Partners and Allies

Third, this guidance calls on the Department to share burdens with willing and capable partners abroad. “Burden sharing,” however, is not merely a divide-and-conquer approach to confronting disparate extremist groups. Instead, a burden sharing emphasis within a resource-sustainable approach calls on DoD and its interagency partners to provide support to allies and partners who can produce outsized CT benefits with modest enabling capabilities and security assistance. As a secondary benefit, the NDS IW Annex further adds that such support provides a deterrent effect to state competitors and maintains the U.S. as a preferred partner of choice.

U.S. support to the French-led operations in North Africa and the Sahel is one example that validates the merits of this approach. U.S. “intelligence and (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)) support” underscores the substantial upside that support to partner-led CT operations can provide for U.S. interests. Through provision of support to committed and highly capable French forces, the United States and its allies secured a significant counterterrorism objective through the removal of a senior al-Qa’ida official in June 2020; this occurred without risking the lives of U.S. military personnel or beginning a prolonged campaign akin to those in Iraq or Afghanistan. By comparison, previous direct U.S. CT support in neighboring Niger resulted in the bloody loss of four U.S. Army SOF soldiers in 2017. 

In a similar way, investments in viable partner forces to achieve U.S. CT objectives provides low-cost, high-impact opportunities to support non-traditional CT partners seeking similar end states. If the United States and the Defense Department could commit to enabling partners pursuing common extremist threats elsewhere, Washington could buy down its compounding CT costs and direct political risks while still moving towards its core objectives. Consistent State Department security assistance to these same partners would, over time, increase their ability to conduct CT with less DoD support. By doing so, the United States would also maintain and expand its international influence, which is vital to compete against global adversaries, by demonstrating continued—but affordable—commitment in the fight against terrorism.

Doing More with Less—or Different—Means

All three of these themes underscore the constant requirement to be smart with resource allocation. This requirement is even more acute today within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as budgetary pressures could exceed those of sequestration and challenge how the Department allocates resources in response to pressing national security priorities.

A cost-effective approach to CT must harness and incorporate commercial technological advances realized since CT operations began in earnest in 2001. At that time, the United States was the sole large-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) producer. Since then, UAV use and production has proliferated globally, and the costs of UAV platforms has decreased significantly. Properly harnessing this trend would provide two valuable dividends for a resource-sustainable CT approach: drastic cost reductions in procurement and maintenance of expensive UAV platforms, and increased likelihood that partners and allies may have access to UAV technology and be willing to carry out its own operations. Both of these benefits would enable U.S. resources and personnel to commit to the requirements of great-power competition while widening the aperture of potential partners and allies to continue the CVEO mission.

            Moreover, the IW Annex also provides direction for the Defense Department to harness advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to transform how the Department processes information and understands trends. DoD’s Project Maven, which seeks to augment, accelerate, and automate collection from a variety of platforms and sensors, was unheard of at the outset of the war on terrorism in 2001. If utilized effectively, Project Maven and similar initiatives stand to streamline existing resource-intensive counterterrorism tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). Similarly, AI gives opportunities to achieve a deeper understanding of behavioral patterns to facilitate quicker responses to potential threats. These capabilities represent significant means to offset potential shortfalls associated with diverting resources or personnel away from CT missions if they are not solely limited to priorities associated with great-power competition.

            However, as mentioned previously, the rest of the U.S. Government also enhanced its CT toolkit following 9/11. Assuming these efforts remain properly resourced, the Department may be able to pivot from its recent CT emphasis and more fully commit to realizing the requirements of competition and conflict with state adversaries. With greater bandwidth afforded by less focus on CT, the Department would be better positioned to compete short of armed conflict, build the readiness necessary to sustain deterrence against state opponents, and still be positioned to fulfill its obligations to pursue the most pressing terrorist threats.

            Change is hard. But realizing the changes necessary to adopt a resource-sustainable approach to CVEO, as prescribed by the NDS IW Annex, does not have to be painful. The framework provided by the NDS IW Annex allows the Department to align its CT efforts more closely with other elements of the U.S. Government, and calls for enabling partner nations to assume their share of the burden. Meanwhile, it allows the Department to redirect its focus on returning to steady-state activities against state competitors. These directives fully align with the NSS and NDS. If implemented alongside the NDS IW Annex’s direction to institutionalize IW as a long-standing competency for DoD, these changes should position the Defense Department and the nation to compete against all challenges in an increasingly complex security environment.

Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the Irregular Warfare team chief in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. He most recently served as the Senior Policy Advisor for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council.

Doug Livermore is a contracted advisor in the Office of Special Operations and Combating Terrorism and a Special Forces officer in the Army National Guard. He is the Communications Director for the Special Forces Association and was recently selected as a Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.

The views expressed belong to the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Bilms is a career Department of Defense civilian serving as the Irregular Warfare team chief in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. He most recently served as the Senior Policy Advisor for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council.

Doug Livermore works as a contracted operational advisor to ASD SO/LIC while continuing his military service as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. Previously, Doug served for a decade on active duty as first an Infantry officer and later a Special Forces officer. He holds a Master of Arts degree in International Security Studies from Georgetown University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Military History from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff Course. Doug is the National Director for External Communications for the Special Forces Association and the National Capital Region Ambassador for the Green Beret Foundation. He was also recently selected as a 2020-21 Fellow to West Point’s Modern War Institute.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:19am

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