Towards a More Comprehensive Understanding of Lethality
W.A. Rivera and Arnel P. David
Word choice matters. The definition of a word even matters more. Why bother defining something as obvious, as clear a word, as lethality. Everyone knows what it means, so why define it. Well, that is precisely the problem. You see, the minute people say, “everyone knows what it means,” that is when a clear definition is needed. Why? Because what “everyone knows what it means,” usually means is that no one really knows what it means, everyone has different and possibly competing definitions of what it means, or the thing is so insignificant that no one cares what it means. A similar point on lethality was made by Olivia Garard in the Strategy Bridge.[i] Absent a clear understanding of lethality the term becomes a catchall or worse, diverts attention and resources away from other critical requirements. Zachary Tyson Brown warns it risks “putting on conceptual blinders that, while keeping an organization focused on an immediate goal, prevent it from seeing vulnerabilities or opportunities that lie beyond its immediate field of view.”[ii]
This article argues that a more comprehensive understanding of lethality is necessary to improve US strategic performance in present and future wars. We argue that central to lethality at the strategic level is influence. LtGen (ret) James Dubik emphasized foreign influence operations as the #1 strategic-level preparation civilian and military leaders must make for the next war.[iii] To view lethality only through a physical lens limits its full potential. Take the example of the Vietnam War.
A country smaller than California, Vietnam received thirteen million tons of high explosives. This was more than six times the weight dropped in all theaters during the Second World War and enough to displace 3.4 billion cubic yards of earth which was ten times the amount of ground dug from the canals of the Suez and Panama combined. In terms of deaths it is estimated the US killed between one to two million people.[iv] There was no shortage of tactical lethality delivered to Vietnam yet the US military was unable to influence a desired strategic outcome. A similar finding may be found with Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is deeply rooted in a strategic culture that privileges the tactical and physical view of lethality. It has been said that we have more a way of battle than a way of war.[v] The National Military Strategy makes this clear by concluding “the Joint Force must be able to strike diverse targets inside adversary air and missile defense networks to destroy mobile power-projection platforms. This will include capabilities to enhance close combat lethality in complex terrain.”[vi] Consequently, the disparity of understanding is further illuminated with other DoD comments. Keith Jadus, acting director of the lethality portfolio for the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology claims “It is the ability to provide protection. Lethality is what protects our Soldiers.”[vii] The views of lethality are wide ranging and lack coherence. In the US Army the view of lethality leans principally on the physical and tactical side.
The US Army’s modernization strategy declares it “has one focus: make Soldiers and units more lethal to win our Nation's wars, then come home safely.”[viii] To nest within defense strategy the Army is singularly focused on lethality. The picture that emerges is clear. The DoD and the US Army are committed to increasing lethality, and they will do so using best of breed technology, reaching into academia, industry, or other arenas to make the DoD more lethal. Yet, lethality, not clearly defined,[ix] seems to mean the ability to kill.
But some in DoD argue that lethality is more than just the ability to kill. In an article titled National Defense Strategy: Lethality, author Katie Lang writes, “So how do we prepare for and prevent war? By modernizing the force, thinking ahead, being more flexible with our capabilities, and by having the best and brightest on our side. This makes us lethal.”[x]
And there is the heart of the problem. The DoD, in keeping with the National Defense Strategy, recognizes that we are in a more lethal and disruptive battlefield and that competitors are using “other areas of competition short of open warfare to achieve their ends (e.g., information warfare, ambiguous or denied proxy operations, and subversion). These trends, if unaddressed, will challenge our ability to deter aggression.”[xi] Further, it is indeed thinking ahead, being more flexible with capabilities, and having the best and brightest, that makes the DoD lethal. Therefore, given the problem space and the capabilities available, lethality must mean more than just killing. Indeed, since the best way to win a war is by getting your opponent to quit the field before a shot has been fired, the DoD must recognize that the constant state of competition that our competitors are engaged in at the strategic level is about gaining and exploiting influence. This implies that lethality must mean being able to kill, but also to destroy and infinitely important, is the ability to break the enemy’s will to fight.
Lethal Narratives and Strategic Influence
The point we made above warrants reiteration. Lethality should be understood in the context of the battle or war one is fighting. If we think of lethality strictly in terms of kinetic action, we lose the use of information-advantage specialists and the knowledge gained in over 17 years of war. That approach will only keep us in a perpetual battle akin to punching our way out of a paper bag. DoD, particularly special operation forces (SOF) and the Army Futures Command must think of lethality as the blow that breaks the enemies will to fight. This is not a pacifist’s call to lay down your arms and talk peace. This is recognition that the greatest military power the world has ever seen after 17 years of war, of taking village after village, and toppling dictatorships, we face conflicts shaped more by narratives than by traditional weapons. It is true that Russia will use proxies and special forces disguised as mercenaries or civilians to disrupt, but this is after their influence campaign has gained them access to the populace. The battle for the narrative is essential to shaping the environment and deterring aggression.[xii]
Every war is population-centric and involves humans. SOF understand this. From building up insurgent forces behind enemy lines, to crafting narratives that delegitimize hostile forces and/or governments, to helping emerging allies build up their ability to govern contested spaces, to kinetic action against high-valued targets, the business of SOF is to destroy the adversaries will to fight—strategic influence. They are the premier instrument of influence and their lethality, of course, is beyond question. But for Civil Affairs troops it is not weapons systems but cultural knowledge that can prove lethal to our enemies. For Psychological Operations troops it is not weapons systems but narrative crafting that can prove lethal to our enemies. For Special Forces troops it is not only weapons systems, but the ability to build up allies through training and joint missions, influencing them to trust the US and ally against common foes that can prove lethal to our enemies. In the twenty-first century, strategic advantage will emerge from how we engage with and understand people and access political, economic, and social networks to achieve a position of relative advantage that complements American military strength and influence. Power projection will be through people, networks of people and not just platforms.[xiii]
Given this it is imperative that DoD recognize lethality more broadly than just the ability to kill and to kill more efficiently. It is crucial they understand lethality in terms of the battle or war currently being fought—in context. Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are not eager to get into a shooting war with the United States. Rather, they are happy to try to degrade US legitimacy, win over local populations, and use irregular or asymmetric means to degrade the US will to fight. In a world of gray zone battles from the South China Sea to Iraq to the Sea of Azov, lethality must mean more than better weapons systems. It must mean strategic influence.
The Lethality of Strategic Influence
What is strategic influence? It is the use of the elements of national power—diplomatic, military, economic, with and through information—to capture the narrative in order to persuade local and regional audiences and erode the will of the enemy. For countries like Russia, China, and Iran information is the main currency of their strategy, even if their main goal is to dominate a region. Because the cost of militarily occupying a land is so high, the new way of war is predicated on building narratives, activating identities, mobilizing proxies, and disorientation through the use of information in service of strategic goals. The Grand Strategy of the actor may be traditionally understood as hegemony, balancing, or revisionism, but the main strategy deployed is meant to influence local populations to create new strategic realities favorable to their national ends. Theirs is a fight to win the narrative. Strategic influence is about influence because even military assets are used in support of the narrative. Strategic influence is about strategy because it is orchestrated at the highest levels of government and is developed and deployed with intent to achieve a strategic end.[xiv] Strategic influence means shaping the integrated informational and operational environments to impact allied and adversarial decisionmaking, with the ultimate goal of eroding the enemies’ will to fight.
Ultimately, this is the key. If shaping the environment is how we do influence, then impacting decisions is the why. In other words, the effective shaping of the environment enables and disables certain types of decision-making. This is the thrust of Eastern Ways of Warfare. Whether it is the Russian’s hybrid approach or China’s ‘win without fighting’, they collectively aim to elude US strength and exercise speed of action to reach a fait accompli with strategic influence. It is in this emerging character of conflict and competition - primarily in a virtual battle space[xv] - that lethality must be reconceptualized and applied coherently at the strategic level.
Understanding the New Eastern Ways of War
“Therefore, the Russian view of modern warfare is based on the idea that the main battlespace is the mind. As a result, new-generation wars are to be dominated by information and psychological warfare, in order to achieve superiority in troops and weapons control, morally and psychologically depressing the enemy’s armed forces personnel and civil population. The main objective is to reduce the necessity for deploying hard military power. Instead, the objective is to make the opponent’s military and civil population support the attacker to the detriment of their own government and country. It is also interesting to note the notion of permanent war. It denotes a permanent enemy. In the current geopolitical structure, the clear enemy is the Western civilization, its values, culture, political system, and ideology.”[xvi]
If this is an accurate way to capture what US rivals are doing, while it is essential to have the best weapons systems, and by far, for they are a very important part of influence, they cannot be enough. “In other words, the Russians have placed the idea of influence at the very center of their operational planning and used all possible levers to achieve this: skillful internal communications; deception operations; psychological operations and well-constructed external communications.”[xvii] The Chinese Communist Party invests heavily in its ‘influence machine’ to maintain power.[xviii] There are two major points to stress here, since so much has been made about warfare in the Gray zone. First, this “new” form of warfare is a sign of weakness not strength. They have adopted this approach out of necessity, not desire. It is precisely because of US superiority in conventional arms that they adopt this approach. Further, it relies on particular conditions on the ground and to extend it beyond their near abroad presents significant challenges. This implies inherent weaknesses that can be exploited. However, the response of moving large conventional forces may send an important signal, but it does not reverse gains because it doesn’t exploit known weaknesses. Like David against a stronger Goliath, victory was secured by exploiting the giant’s weakness.[xix]
How can strategic influence be lethal? It strikes at the center of gravity, the core weakness, of their influence campaigns. This requires certain capabilities. Can we detect at a distance and in anticipation what the next few moves of their influence campaign will be? Can we detect vulnerabilities along with opportunities? How effectively have we used AI and Machine Learning techniques to model and generate responses to these influence campaigns? How carefully have we mapped and attempted to experimentally replicate these influence campaigns? If we can anticipate their next moves in a strategic influence campaign, we can kill it before it takes effect—this is the necessary theoretical expansion of the term lethality we promote here.
With the understanding that most conflicts today are described in the strategic influence framework we must emphasize that superior conventional forces and weapons systems are essential, this is not an argument against those, but rather an argument for elevating the importance and investment in weapons systems for strategic influence. These include computational tools, but technologies based on AI and ML must be held suspect until they can be vetted and their claims verified. Further, these influence weapons systems, to be truly lethal, must be able to project, forecast, and predict moves. This remains a challenge because humans have a nasty habit of surprising us. Therefore, we recommend systems that are human and machine combinations to capture human expertise and supplement, not supplant human expertise through data and AI/ML technologies. These approaches should be able to answer these questions:
- Where is the next place/space a strategic influence attack will occur?
- How will we know when the lethal blow struck?
- Is Lethality a single act in a single point in time?
- If we redefine Lethality thusly, what then of our mission?
- How best do we deploy resources, human and otherwise to develop and execute our own strategic influence campaigns?
Commanders should embrace what the latest technology enables, but they should remain skeptics knowing that their experience and the experience and insight of their troops are invaluable and irreplaceable assets, this includes transitioning and transitioned troops as well. However, to be able to capture, aggregate, disseminate, and automate these insights requires a very special ability to capture the essence of such insights which can be developed into algorithmic mechanisms that will make sense of data. The future depends on recognizing the next fight, as well as winning the current fight. The lethality of influence must be front and center, then, since it is both the current fight and the most likely future fight. Are we preparing properly for this fight? Have we mastered the lethality of strategic influence? There is more to be done and we believe our imaginations must be stretched to find human-machine holistic approaches to improve performance and achieve a competitive advantage over adversaries.
The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. or U.K. government.
[iii] James M. Dubik, “It’s Time to Strategize for the Next Fight,” Army Magazine, (January 2019)
[iv] Norman Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (NY: Basic Books, 1976): 15
[v] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, March 2004), p.1.
[ix] The DOD’s dictionary of terms does not include Lethality,
[xi] , p. 3
[xii] Ajit Maan, Narrative Warfare (KY: Narrative Strategies Ink, 2018).
[xiii] Charles T. Cleveland et al. Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition (NY: Cambria, 2018).
[xiv] Rivera, Iranian Strategic Influence, forthcoming.
[xv] Stefan J. Banach, “Virtual War: A Revolution in Human Affairs,” Small Wars Journal,