A New Blueprint for Competing Below the Threshold: The Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning

A lone soldier in kit walks away towards the horizon. (source: U.S. Army/Sgt. First Class John Gonzalez)

A lone soldier in kit walks away towards the horizon. (source: U.S. Army/Sgt. First Class John Gonzalez)

June 18, 2018 | Source: War On The Rocks, warontherocks.com, 23 May 2018, Phillip Lohaus

Phillip Lohaus is currently a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on special operations forces, the intelligence community, and competitive strategies. He previously served as an intelligence analyst in the Department of Defense. He is the author of a forthcoming book that contrasts the historical and contemporary approaches of the United States and rising powers below the threshold of armed conflict. 


 In The Weary Titan, Aaron Friedberg paints a picture of a global power that cannot bring itself to adapt to changing times. Comfortable atop the world order, Britain saw the tempest brewing on the horizon, but proved unable to sufficiently adjust to challenges posed by rising powers. Rather than changing its ways, it remained steadfastly focused on a formulaic understanding of means. Decline was indeed a choice; it was not foreordained.

The U.S. military is at a similar strategic crossroads. On the one hand, its power is unmatched. America spends as much as the next eight countries combined on defense, and its military remains the only one with truly global reach. On the other hand, its global operations and presence have failed to translate into lasting political success. Though there is broad recognition of the changing nature of international power balances, the military’s operational thinking has failed to catch up. Ever-focused on strategies of domination, America and its  position in the world have been undermined by adversaries whose operational approach has drawn the effectiveness of the American Way of War into question.

In an effort to address this gap between power and efficacy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently released their Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC), a document more than three years in the making (full disclosure: I participated in the development of the concept). Although the concept reflects the competitive environment described in the recent National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, much of its development preceded the release of those documents. This is not a coincidence. Before serving as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster led the Army Capabilities and Integration Center, which, in addition to sponsoring other reports on gray-zone challenges, helped lead the development of the JCIC. The intellectual commonalities among these documents present an exceptional opportunity to align military operations with broader national security objectives.

The JCIC was designed to solve a specific problem: how to apply the power of the American military when adversarial behavior falls below the threshold that would trigger a direct response. While the global distribution of America’s joint force positions it well to contribute to broader government strategies in the space “short of war,” such activities have mostly been limited to the domain of special operations forces. The JCIC marks an important step toward improving the ability of the entire military to contribute to international competition outside of combat.

The authors of the concept struck a balance between the strict guidelines typical of operational documents and the unstructured, opportunistic approach that America’s adversaries take to gray-zone competition. While the concept does not refute the obvious fact that the military’s primary value is as a tool for violence, it recognizes the myriad ways that the threat of violence — not just violence itself — can and should be used in a number of competitive realms. Moreover, it underscores the military’s important role outside of hostile confrontations. In this way, the concept provides a starting point for thinking about how to harness military power to improve cooperation with allies and complicate an adversary’s calculations across the spectrum of America’s diplomatic, informational, and economic engagements.


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