Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

Andrew Marshall’s Reflections on Net Assessment

Andrew W. Marshall, edited by Jeffrey McKitrick and Robert Angevine, Reflections on Net Assessment. Andrew W. Marshall Foundation and Institute for Defense Analyses, 2022, 331 pp, US $10.00., ISBN 978-0578384238.

By BJ Armstrong

Known throughout parts of the American national security establishment as “Yoda,” referred to by The Atlantic as the “Brain of the Pentagon,” and respected worldwide for his decades of strategic work at RAND, the National Security Council, and finally in founding and running the Office of Net Assessment, Andrew Marshall was a critical figure in the Cold War and post-Cold War history of American security and strategy. He was also an intellectual figure who left a limited imprint on the literature of American national security, having written the vast majority of his work for classified audiences and publishing very little in the open.

The two generations of “Jedi” who were trained by him during their time working in the Office of Net Assessment are strategists, scholars, and consultants who prefer their own moniker as “graduates of St. Andrew’s Prep,” and who have published widely and influentially in a myriad of topics. For those who never attended the “prep school” before it closed with his death in 2019, Marshall’s own words and thoughts are much harder to come by. Today’s scholars and practitioners of national and defense strategy are reliant on these acolytes for much of our insight into the running and thinking of ONA. Reflections on Net Assessment, edited by Jeffrey McKitrick and Robert Angevine for the Andrew W. Marshall Foundation, offers a rare glimpse into Marshall’s own thoughts and approaches to strategy and security, and is an insightful contribution to the wider national security community.

Across seven chapters, Reflections offers transcripts of a series of oral history interviews primarily conducted and transcribed by Kurt Guthe during the 1990s. The interviews included Guthe and Marshall, as well as a number of unnamed colleagues who likely were contemporary or former members of the ONA staff, in dialogue about a wide range of topics. It appears, from several comments made during the interviews, that Marshall was considering writing a book or memoir reflecting on his then nearly five decades of service. He ultimately never wrote the book. However, the content of the interviews overlaps so clearly with the content and details included in former ONA staff members Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts’ book, The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, that it seems likely they carried forward on Mr. Marshall’s intent by writing the book themselves based largely on these oral histories. For Reflections, McKitrick and Angevine took the transcripts made by Guthe and formatted and edited them, created short contextual essays to remind readers of the milestones in American history which the interviews often mentioned, and overall did an excellent job of organizing the book for publication.

As is the case when reading raw or lightly edited oral histories, anyone looking for insights will be taken on a circular trip. In the case of the interviews with Marshall this often includes fascinating minor details of his background and education, insights into the inner workings of multiple Presidential administrations and their Departments of Defense, and occasionally sharp personal opinions and foibles. In the case of these transcripts, the interviewers themselves often head off on tangents sharing their own memories and interests. While this sometimes derails Marshall’s intended subject, and sometimes moves the conversation away from Marshall’s personal insights (even occasionally trying to answer questions for him rather than letting us read what he really thought), it is also likely the price of admission for such candid discussions with interlocuters who themselves are likely highly accomplished and intelligent strategists and researchers.

In addition to the fascinating look inside the mechanisms and intellectual infrastructure of American national security and strategy making, three key insights from Marshall repeatedly rise to the surface of the conversations included in this book. First, the importance and role of asking good questions. Second, the nature of influence within the American national security establishment. And finally, the ability, or lack of ability, of security organizations to do intellectual work together or share insights, and the training or lack of training of the members of these organizations in deeply intellectual work.

Marshall repeatedly shares that his primary goal throughout his career was not to find solutions to American defense and security problems, but instead to find ways of asking the right questions. By finding and researching the right questions, his view of net assessment was that it could present the military with the real parameters of the problems that needed to be solved. He quite clearly believed that the military services themselves were the real experts at determining the tactical, operational, and strategic solutions to the challenges of the Cold War (and eventually post-Cold War world). But he seemed to believe that they often struggled to do the deep work and research needed to ask the right questions and determine what the root challenges actually were.

In this respect, Marshall was a deeply inductive thinker. His instructions to members of his staff to “go read everything” on a topic in order to get started, presupposed his intense dislike of strategic work that tried to shoehorn threats or challenges into an already existing framework or the use of a deductive model that insisted on following a theory. He described two types of defense analysts, “theory oriented” versus “reality oriented” people, and lamented that there were far too few focused on reality. In this approach, inductive instead of deductive, Marshall might be seen more as a historical thinker than the social scientist he was by training, and his ideas followed in the wake of strategists of prior generations like Corbett and Clausewitz.

When considering the nature of influence within the American national security establishment, Marshall was far more sanguine that someone of his reputation might be expected to be. Despite being held up as something like the godfather of American success in the Cold War, Marshall instead saw influence as a far more nuanced and limited thing. He did not seem to believe that very many of the reports and studies conducted by ONA or for ONA really affected the military services or overall national strategy very much. As he repeatedly points out, his audience was actually the Secretary of Defense individually in an effort to (once again) get the Secretary thinking about how to ask the right questions.

In Marshall’s opinion, new ideas often simply resulted in the services rebranding things they were already doing. In the case of both “competitive strategies” and the “revolution in military affairs,” which described the development of the reconnaissance and precision strike complex of the future, Marshall and his staff described how the services merely attached those labels to programs or new weapons that were already in development or in service. Marshall claimed that real influence only came when you changed the vocabulary of strategic discussions, and moved beyond the initial re-labelling phase to get service staffs to rethink their approaches by forcing them to consider the ideas behind the new labels. This kind of influence, interestingly, was not something Marshall believed he genuinely could control once released into the wild.

Finally, Marshall returns in his discussions to the relationships between the organizations inside the intellectual infrastructure of American national security and strategy making. The National Security Act of 1947 fundamentally reformed the American government’s security elements just as Marshall’s career was beginning. Across almost six decades he observed how new organizations, like the CIA and the National Security Council, changed over time. One of his strongest observations was how over time, convinced of their own expertise, these organizations became less collaborative and less open to outside ideas, either from government or civilian sectors. As organizations built their own internal cultures they entrenched and became less and less likely to share ideas or information. These organizations and their enclosed cultures, Marshall observed, also became less and less capable of producing the kind of inductive and deep-thinking analysts in their newer generations of employees. By the Reagan Administration, not only were the military services treating each other as bureaucratic adversaries, but so was much of the intelligence community and other elements of the intellectual infrastructure of American security and strategy.

As the U.S. Navy continues deeper into the twenty-first century, talk of a “new” Cold War is common and there has been a strong tendency to reach back on the successful methods of the “old” Cold War. The history of ONA and Mr. Marshall’s methods seem ripe for replication in our contemporary world as we face the challenge of China, the resurgent but chaotic Russia, and regional challengers in a multipolar world. There will be a temptation to ask about the “competitive strategies” necessary to overcome our adversaries, or to determine the next “offset” in a new “revolution” in military affairs that will lead to success. But, following Marshall and his interlocutors through their circling discussions of his experiences and approaches, this starts to appear exactly like the kind of “theory-oriented” thinking that he lamented from defense analysts. In order to be “reality-oriented,” perhaps we need to return to the roots of Marshall’s insights.

Today, who is making sure that the U.S. Navy is asking the right questions? Who is defining the vocabulary and the intellectual infrastructure of how we think about our contemporary challengers? And are we learning from each other, and developing the next generation of analysts who will be creative and intelligent enough to do the deep work, “read everything,” and come up with creative new ideas rather than rehashing old models? Andy Marshall believed in focusing on finding the right questions and defining their parameters. In Reflections on Net Assessment, naval and national security practitioners and analysts can still learn a great deal from Yoda in his own words, if we do the reading and remain reality-based in our search for wisdom in confronting the challenges of the 21st century.

BJ Armstrong is a historian and Principal Associate of the Forum on Integrated Naval History and Seapower Studies. He is the co-author of Developing the Naval Mind and author/editor of the forthcoming revised and expanded second edition of 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. Opinions expressed here are offered in his personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the policies or views of the U.S. Navy or any government organization.

Featured Image: Andy Marshall attends his retirement farewell ceremony at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2015. (Photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)

The CIMSEC Holiday Reading List 2022

By the CIMSEC Sea Control Podcast Team

Happy holidays Shipmates! We’ve have put our heads together for our third annual Holiday Reading List. Below you’ll find a selection of books that we’ve read and enjoyed over the last year and some that we plan on enjoying in the future (and that we think you might enjoy, too). And of course, it should come as no surprise that we’ve interviewed more than a few of the authors we have recommended. Enjoy, and happy holidays from the CIMSEC team to all our readers and listeners!

Joshua Groover
Sea Control Associate Producer

Freaks of a Feather by Kacy Tellessen

The book that started it all, Freaks of a Feather led me down a rabbit hole of memoirs written by Marines. Tellessen, a Marine Corps machine gunner and the alleged only Marine to ever carry a .50-cal receiver the full 20 kilometers during the final hike at the School of Infantry, tells the story of his time in the Marine Corps. He was deployed twice to Iraq and saw significant combat during his first deployment. Tellessen’s relaxed tone and honesty make for an interesting read that grapples with the trials of combat, and its long-term impacts on the individual.

Guns Up! by Johnnie M. Clark

My favorite read this year, Guns Up! follows Johnnie Clark, a Marine Corps machine gunner in the famed 5th Marine Regiment, through the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The book is a gripping testament to the courage, dedication, and grit displayed by Clark and his fellow Marines during the Tet Offensive – I could hardly put it down when I was reading it!

With The Old Breed by E.B. Sledge

A Marine Corps and American Classic, With The Old Breed puts you in the shoes of E.B. Sledge aka “Sledgehammer” through his time in the Pacific during the Second World War. Sledgehammer served as a mortarman in the 5th Marine regiment. He chronicles the heroism, bravery, and sacrifice shown by Marines fighting in the Pacific, and the horrors and ravaging effects of war through his experiences at Peleliu and Okinawa.

19 Stars by Edgar F. Puryear Jr.

If you are looking for a book on leadership in the military, look no further. 19 Stars documents the “military character and leadership” of generals George S. Patton, Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and George C. Marshall. The book is informative and provides the reader with excellent templates on how to lead themselves.

To Be Read:

The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan by Elliot Ackerman

Very excited to read this book given how recent the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred. Ackerman is a retired Marine and former CIA paramilitary officer who spent considerable time deployed to Afghanistan. He also played a significant role in the evacuation of Afghan nationals who helped the Coalition in Afghanistan. In the book, Ackerman documents this and other events that occurred in the week leading up to the U.S. withdrawal. The first part of the book sucked me right in – can’t wait to read the rest! Ackerman talked to us for Sea Control 247 about his recent book War in 2034.

Anna McNeil
Sea Control Co-Host

Best Cutters of the Best Coast Guard by The Claw of Knowledge

This much-anticipated Kickstarter project is the author’s second book. Written to honor the crews of the Coast Guard’s most famous ships by connecting their efforts in a long blue line, this effort reflects on just how significant (and often overlooked) an impact each ship can have over the span of their operational service. Illustrated with the plucky sort of self-effacing humor that has endeared the author to Coasties everywhere, this book is nonetheless an extensively researched and smartly assembled account of relatable events given historical context. You won’t want to miss it, and we simply must have the author on the podcast once he or she is ready for a book tour!

Maritime Cybersecurity by Dr. Gary Kessler and Dr. Steven Shepard 

This 2022 refresh to the highly regarded original has been well0received by maritime security professionals everywhere. Chock full of case studies and practical content, this is an excellent reference written by experts in their craft. Check out CIMSEC Sea Control Episode 293 to hear from Dr. Kessler and Dr. Diane Zorri on cyber threats and chokepoints.

This is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth

Recommended to me by an academic well-versed in both engineering and legal disciplines, this New York Times Best-Seller is a journalist’s account of how a single conversation overheard by chance led her down a winding path of intrigue and strategic competition. This book promises to be an interesting read, and to give context to how we have arrived in an era of modern ‘bug bounty’ programs. 

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

This book is a fictional account an Information Technology employee at a big business. You might not think this is for you at first blush, but it was recommended to me when asked IT professionals for a case study on successful ‘steering the boat’ of an enterprise’s security architecture to head in a new direction. If you’d like a pragmatic solution which gives you hope for your own organization’s security architecture challenges, you might want to read this book. Not to be confused with The Phoenix Program.

Red Famine by Anne Applebaum 

Recommended to me by a geopolitical analyst as “the best book for understanding Russia’s history of punishing Ukraine, and why Ukraine is fighting so hard to push them back.” An Economist best book of the year.

Walker Mills
Sea Control Co-Host
CIMSEC Senior Editor

Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific by Robert Kaplan

After starting with Kaplan’s book Monsoon about the Indian Ocean before a trip to Sri Lanka, I have become a huge fan of Kaplan’s style and read several more of his books. Kaplan’s blend of travel writing and geopolitical analysis make his work easy reading but leave the reader with lasting impressions of foreign lands. Asia’s Cauldron (2014) is just old enough to be prescient and a great place to start for anyone interested in learning more about the complex South China Sea region.

The End of the World Is Just Beginning by Peter Zeihan

Zeihan is a self-professed geopolitical strategist and bestselling author. He writes in an easy-to-read bordering on flippant style that mask a barrage of data that will challenge your preconceptions on economics, geography, security and great power competition. While I didn’t love the style or agree with all of Zeihan’s conclusions, I have spent more time thinking about this book than any other I have read in the past year.

Oil and War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat by Robert Goralski and Russell W. Freeburg

After having reread this book for a class at the Naval Postgraduate School, I am again recommending it to everyone I can. Originally written in the 1980s, it is not ground breaking historical research (Adam Tooze’s magisterial Wages of Destruction would be a better bet for that), but it makes abundantly clear the importance of energy, particularly oil, to military operations. Russian logistical incompetence during the initial stage of their invasion of Ukraine make clear how relevant Oil & War remains, and a reprint from Marine Corps University means you can download it for free.

Magdalena: River of Dreams, a Story of Colombia by Wade Davis

After spending the last three years living and working in Colombia, this is one of the best books about the country that I have read. It comes from an unusual source, Wade Davis is a Canadian who fell in love with the country as a student, but sometimes it takes an outside to truly understand and convey the essence of a place. The book is really an explanation of modern Colombia with the narrative following the Magdalena River from its source in Central Colombia to the Caribbean – passing not only through the stunning landscape of Colombia and it’s rich history, but also all of the strife, conflict, and tragedy that have shaped the country over the last 500 years.

To Be Read:

Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age by Robert Kaplan

Adriatic is Kaplan’s most recent book (2022) and it is part travelogue and part memoir, with a healthy dose of Kaplan’s reminisces about the region. After enjoying several of his other books like Balkan Ghosts, Asia’s Cauldron, and Monsoon, I can’t wait to tear into his newest work and I’m stoked that it’s centered around a body of water.

Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II by Paul Kennedy

Victory at Sea is one of those books that I’ve heard so much about but have not been able to read yet. I just picked up a copy and I’ve already take some time to look at the beautiful illustrations by Ian Marshall. If you want a teaser or a recap, we did a great episode with Dr. Kennedy about his book for Sea Control 378.

Jared Samuelson
Sea Control Executive Producer

Adrift: The Curious Tale of LEGO Lost at Sea by Tracey Williams

My wife started laughing the instant I took this book out of its packaging: “This is literally all of your interests in a single book.” She was correct and you can listen to the podcast we did with Tracey, Sea Control 340, is great. It’s as much a scrapbook as it is a book, including beautiful maritime art, pictures of Tracey’s own finds, and poetry. There are also informative sections on the long-term impact of plastic on our oceans. 

On Wide Seas by Claude Berube

Dr. Berube is one of the most vocal CIMSEC supporters and a phenomenal Sea Control guest, but that’s not why his book is here. He’s used the book to produce a study of the U.S. Navy in the 1830s, a period overshadowed by the War of 1812 and American Civil War. There’s a particular focus on Andrew Jackson’s relationship with the Navy, technical developments and the intellectual growth of the Navy’s officer corps.

Underwriters of the United States: How Insurance Shaped the American Founding by Hannah Farber

“I went looking for adventure, and instead I found insurance,” was how Dr. Hannah Farber explained her research for this book when she joined us on Sea Control 380. The extent to which marine insurance impacts international trade and economic relationships has become more obvious as a result of the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent negotiations over Black Sea grain, but before that it played a critical role in the birth of the United States.

Cats in the Navy by Scot Christenson

You’re going to approach this book expecting a lot of pictures of cats on ships, and you won’t be disappointed. But amongst all the stills of cats lounging in adorable hammocks, there’s a lot of information packed in: the reason cats started going to sea, cats as a recruiting tool, superstitions, and more. Coming to a Sea Control episode near you!

Working Boats – An Inside Look at Ten Amazing Watercraft by Tom Crestodina

A spectacular addition to any children’s book collection. Incredible detailed artwork by the author and great explanations for all sorts of shipboard gear. If you’ve ever struggled to explain to a younger relative what it’s like to go to sea, this book will help start a conversation with some immersive visual aids. 

To Be Read:

Forging Wargamers: A Framework for Professional Military Education Edited by Sebastian Bae

Sebastian is going to read this and shoot me a note written with the tone a disappointed grandfather would use when addressing his grandson who broke a garage window. I will get to it and it looks excellent! One other great benefit to this book: because it’s published by Marine Corps University Press, it’s free! Click that hyperlink. The whole thing is there! Sebastian has been a repeat guest on the Sea Control podcast.

Marie Williams
Sea Control Associate Producer

The Constitution of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch

This book is about the epistemic crisis in our public life. “How we know what we know.” How our shared social knowledge matters. And how our institutions matter. Writing in clear, easy prose, Rauch makes a strong case for both defending democracy and not losing touch with reality (it never works out well, he writes). I came away feeling armed, at least in my mind, for modern information warfare. 

Dmitry Filipoff
Director of Online Content

Dying to Learn: Wartime Lessons from the Western Front by Michael Hunzeker

Wartime learning and adaptation is a convoluted but necessary business. Militaries need to do their absolute best to properly understand and adapt to future war in peacetime, but many concepts and capabilities will break in the naturally unforeseen chaos of conflict. Institutions must be well-designed to translate combat lessons into rapid military reform in the midst of pressing combat operations. Michael Hunzeker’s Dying to Learn is a gripping analysis of wartime learning in WWI and lays out how the various powers on the Western Front adapted their doctrine and their institutions during the course of great power war. Hunzeker assesses the fundamental building blocks of effective force development, including centralized training, decentralized experimentation, and how leaders properly manage these functions. All modern militaries can benefit greatly from these insights and mitigate the extent to which their warfighting methods will collapse in future combat crucibles. Read CIMSEC’s interview with Hunzeker on Dying to Learn here.

The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War by Mara Karlin

There are plenty of books on the Global War on Terror, yet few if any have systematically attempted to capture the comprehensive impact these conflicts have had on the U.S. military. After having served in civilian national security roles for five different Secretaries of Defense, Mara Karlin is well-positioned to understand how the military has been deeply affected by the Global War on Terror. Karlin interviewed more than 100 individuals for this book, most of whom served as senior general and flag officers during the Global War on Terror. They offered their candid and deeply personal perspectives on the legacies of this conflict. But The Inheritance reveals much more than the personal psychological scars of these wars, which have considerable policy implications. It highlights the fault lines that have emerged between American society and its military, and the military and its civilian masters, which may pose significant consequences for how America will go to war in the future.

Collin Fox
CIMSEC Senior Editor

Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II by Paul Kennedy

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost by Cathal J. Nolan 

Victory at Sea is a brilliant and beautifully illustrated capstone on Kennedy’s classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It traces the rise of the U.S. Navy through the Second World War to unrivaled dominance in the post-war era. The Allure of Battle is a millennium-spanning survey of mostly land wars. Despite their differing scope and focus, both books converge toward a similar compelling thesis: The outcome of war is usually decided by the latent strength and endurance of the belligerents. Novel technologies, innovative tactics, brilliant commanders, and pitched battles are interesting and often exciting, but both books argue persuasively that these factors rarely decide the final outcome of a war. Factors of national power and geography are presented as far more predictive of victory and defeat. Also be sure to check out Sea Control 378 with Dr. Kennedy.

The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace

Oscar Jonsson, The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace, Georgetown University Press, 2019, $32.95/paperback.

By McLean Panter

Russia, and before it the Soviet Union, has vexed Western strategists and military leaders for decades, in large part due to a lack of understanding of Russian military thought. Oscar Jonsson seeks to change that with his book The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines between War and Peace. Using primary Russian national strategy documents and excerpts from senior Russian military leaders’ speeches and writings, Jonsson dives into how Soviet and Russian military thinkers evolved their understanding of the nature of war from Soviet-era foundations to the present day, giving Western readers an insight into the Russian perspective on war and conflict.

Jonsson begins with two background chapters that give an overview of Soviet and post-Cold War Russian perspectives of war and military conflict. When describing Soviet military science, he notes that the Soviet understanding of war is based almost entirely on Lenin’s own perspectives and his view that all conflict should be viewed as an economic struggle between social classes. A knowledge of dialectic materialism will serve the reader well here, as Jonsson’s descriptions sometimes veer into the arcane, perhaps saying more about Soviet military views vis-à-vis economic and social conflict than about Jonsson’s research approach. The Soviets in many ways viewed war as inevitable and critical to furthering the global reach of communism, with peace simply an interlude between armed conflicts. Interestingly, however, Soviet military science was unique in its holistic focus, treating economic, political, and social, as well as military factors, as equal contributors to and tools in support of armed conflict.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union left the new Russian Federation in disarray, and that was reflected in Russian military thought in the 1990s and early 2000s. While many Russian theorists continued to view war primarily through an economic lens, the wars of the 1990s made many question their assumptions on military strategy. The Gulf War, in particular, shocked many Russian military officers and theorists, as a smaller but technologically superior American force quickly and easily defeated the larger Iraqi army. The shock and confusion were exacerbated by the advent of the information age, after which the Russian military increasingly saw the use of information as a weapon. This shaped the emerging view that conflict is continuous and ongoing, and that the only change is between violent and non-violent means of waging war.

Jonsson then examines modern Russian perspectives of conflict, specifically touching on the blurred lines between peace and war when considering information operations as non-kinetic military operations. He notes that the current struggle between Russia and the West is principally in the information domain, emphasizing that Russia’s approach is two-pronged: the “information-technical,” primarily concerned with information systems, architecture, and means of transmission (i.e. physical infrastructure and spectrum access); and the “information-psychological,” primarily concerned with influencing opinions of adversary populations via traditional and social media, including disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

The Russian military views U.S. success in the Gulf War in large part due to their specific targeting of Iraqi command and control infrastructure, showing the importance of the “information-technical” aspect of information warfare. Their view of the “information-psychological” aspect comes from their own experiences in the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. During the First Chechen War, the Chechen separatists used traditional media to shape public opinion of the war both in Russia and internationally, whereas Russian forces essentially declined to use the media in any capacity, finally realizing their mistake too late to change public opinion. Russia was caught flat-footed again in the Second Chechen War, during which Chechen forces took advantage of greater public access to the Internet to broadcast their narrative around the world and rally support to their cause.  

Perhaps Jonsson’s most interesting insight is in the final chapter of the book, in which he examines the Russian view of so-called color revolutions (e.g. the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2011 Arab Spring). Whereas in the West such events are seen as admirable expressions of popular desires for democratic governments, in Russia they are viewed as U.S.-backed influence operations designed to sow domestic dissent and effect regime change. Western media, in simply reporting such events in conjunction with praise by Western leaders, creates an appearance of Western information operations in the Russian military view.

This highlights one of Jonsson’s primary insights in the book, which is that the Russian political-military apparatus views its own domestic public support as a critical weakness and color revolutions as Western (i.e. U.S.) attempts to destabilize Russia domestically and possibly prompt regime change. Senior Russian military officers and political leaders view color revolutions as a form of information warfare against Russia, and they conduct information operations in kind against the perceived perpetrators in the West.

The Russian Understanding of War is an excellent work for anyone looking to understand Russian perspectives on the nature of conflict. Although at times it can be esoteric for the lay reader, anyone with a basic background in Russian military thought will appreciate the insight Jonsson provides. Historically, the United States has struggled to understand both Soviet and Russian geopolitical maneuvers. Jonsson’s work will help change that, giving an inside view of current debates within Russian military circles via Russian strategic documents and the writings and speeches of Russian military leaders. It provides valuable context on Russian strategic messaging and decision-making, and anyone working on European or Russian affairs would do well to pick it up.

McLean Panter is a U.S. Navy Foreign Area Officer currently serving in the Security Cooperation Office at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff Course at the Colombian Joint War College, and he previously served in the Theater Security Cooperation Officer at the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.

Featured Image: Russian Army Tanks (Photo via Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict

By CDR Robert “Jake” Bebber, USN

Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (Elbridge A. Colby, Yale University Press, 2021)

An emerging consensus has developed in both foreign policy/national security circles and among the American public that Communist China represents a clear threat not only to U.S. security, but also to a liberal rule-based order that has existed since the end of the Cold War. This is a rather remarkable turn from just a few short years ago. Today, one would have little problem finding books, podcasts, think tank reports, and other media that highlight the threat China poses.

No doubt the few professionals who sought to raise awareness to what China was doing and were subsequently derided as “alarmist” prior to 2015 – Michael Pillsbury, Gordon Chang, Anders Corr, and David Shambaugh, among others, come to mind – perhaps feel a sense of vindication. However, much time has been lost for U.S. policy makers to shift our strategic resources in a meaningful way, time that cannot be regained.

Despite this emerging consensus, few have put forward meaningful strategies to secure American interests while realistically meeting the challenge China poses head on. Fortunately, Dr. Elbridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, has risen to the challenge, putting forward a provocative and perhaps controversial recommendation: a strategy of denial

The logic of Dr. Colby’s strategy can be summarized thus: To ensure America’s freedom, security and prosperity, the United States must maintain a favorable military-economic balance of power with respect to key regions of the world. Asia’s demographic and economic weight clearly place that region as the most important to American interests, and therefore the cornerstone of American policy must ensure that Asia is not subjected to regional hegemony. To maintain a favorable balance of power, the U.S., along with allies, friends, and partners (the anti-hegemonic coalition), must be capable of prevailing in a regional war initiated by an aspiring hegemon. 

China’s own pronouncements and aggressive behavior clearly point to its desire to dominate Asia first, likely followed by the rest of the world. Naturally, China’s desire for regional hegemony will create a backlash, and states with common interests may band together. This anti-hegemonic coalition would effectively be defensive in nature. It would not seek regime change in China, but merely to prevent it from becoming dominant.

As the most important external balancer in an anti-hegemonic coalition, it is critical that the United States preserve its differentiated credibility related to denying China regional hegemony.1 Doing so requires U.S. policy makers to structure its military forces in such a way that preserves and ideally enhances its differentiated credibility. This demands that force structure and capabilities be prioritized around identifying and defeating China’s best strategy to achieve regional hegemony.

Colby walks through the strategies China might pursue before identifying what he evaluates as its best strategy to assume regional hegemony: utilize a focused and sequential strategy to effectively isolate and pick off members of the anti-hegemonic coalition, creating a fait accompli of regional dominance. For both ideological and military reasons, Taiwan is the prime target of China’s focused and sequential strategy, followed by the Philippines, then Vietnam. China’s conditions of victory are met when it seizes and holds territory, while the best strategy for the anti-hegemonic coalition to pursue is a denial strategy, where the core strategic purpose is met by keeping Taiwan on the side of the coalition.

An effective denial strategy is one which prevents China from seizing territory in Taiwan, or if that cannot be prevented, then from holding on to such territory. This requires that the coalition, led by the United States, be prepared to fight a longer, broader but still limited war and be able to end that war on favorable terms. Keeping a limited war limited will be paramount, as the risk of horizontal and vertical escalation will be great. Therefore the coalition should layer cost imposition on top of effective denial to persuade China to accept the defenders’ preferred rule sets for limited war as well as inducing China to agree to terminate the war on favorable terms. 

The challenge of doing so cannot be overstated. China can bring immense military and economic power to bear, and it will be an exceptionally determined foe. The resolve of the American people and the people of allied nations and coalition partners will be sorely tested to bear the costs of adapting and optimizing military forces for effective denial defense and prosecute a potential long, limited war. There is a good probability that denial defenses might fail in part or completely, requiring the coalition to adapt and seek to recapture Taiwan or the other allied and partner nations.

Therefore, considerations must be given on how to influence and shape the resolve of the people and bind them to the outcome of the war. A component of strategy must be to force China to fight in ways that change or reinforce the coalition’s threat perception. China will be made to reveal its aggressiveness, ambition, cruelty, unreliability, power, and disrespect for the honor of other states, which in turn strengthens the resolve of coalition members. The premise of the binding strategy is that military and other material power is employed to create “political, perceptual effects that matter in war.” Thus, military planning must sometimes serve political purposes that shape the war to unfold in such a way that key decision makers and populations “increase their valuation of the stakes at hand.”

The implications of this strategy are clear and come with hard choices and trade-offs. Preventing China’s regional hegemony in Asia must receive top priority in U.S. defense planning and resources. Denial defense must become the preferred standard. In concrete terms, the U.S. and partners must focus first on the effective defense of Taiwan, followed next by the Philippines. The coalition must be prepared to integrate the binding strategy described above with denial defense so that if the war broadens or intensifies, it does so in ways that catalyze popular resolve. These strategies form the “bounding constraints” which inform military-operational planning and budgeting, technological policy, and diplomatic efforts. 

As expected, Dr. Colby’s denial strategy has stirred both discussion and controversy. David P. Goldman, economist and former advisor to the Reagan Administration (as well as the Asia Times columnist formerly writing under the pseudonym “Spengler”) finds the strategy not only a “disappointment” but “a dangerous amalgam of dodges that points down the slippery slope towards war.” Any attempt by the United States and the anti-hegemonic coalition to adopt a strategy that openly postures forces to defend Taiwan is akin to setting in motion the events that led to World War I. Taiwan is “an existential issue” for the Chinese Communist Party, and the eventual integration of Taiwan into CCP control is simply a forgone conclusion he asserts.

For Goldman, any military conflict with China – especially close to its shores – would result in defeat anyway. The American military (and its allies in the coalition one presumes) are so hopelessly outmatched after two decades of “colonial wars,” and China can bring immense destructive power to bear on the American homeland without even having to escalate to nuclear weapons, that defeat is all but certain. Besides, Taiwan “has no intention of offering serious resistance” anyway, so why should American fighting forces die for them? (Or Japanese or Australian or anyone else one assumes.) Given that it would take “a trillion dollars of high-tech R&D funding and several years to counter China’s missile, cyberwar, and other offensive capabilities,” along with strong leaders – a President “with an evangelical fervor for national renewal” – it is best not to provoke a powerful adversary like China, at least not until you are prepared. (And with a maximalist approach such as Goldman’s, one doubts we are ever truly prepared.)

On the other hand, Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute, writes in the Wall Street Journal that Dr. Colby’s “book presents a needed path forward.” He is “forcing readers to think concretely about the unthinkable” as he argues that it is indeed possible for the U.S. and coalition members to keep the war limited in scope so long as the burden of escalation remains on China. A denial strategy will “define the basis for future debate about U.S. defense strategy in Asia,” and would serve as the organizing principle around which all elements of national power need to be employed. And yet Blumenthal takes issue with Colby’s core assumptions of the strategy, which he believes are based on mere “political realism.”

Indeed, CCP behavior toward Taiwan remains a “legacy of the Chinese civil war” and is not merely a geopolitical steppingstone toward regional hegemony but is “an imperial idea” and a matter of national honor. The existence of a democratic Taiwan is an existential threat to the CCP in their eyes, and the CCP is currently “intoxicated by notions of reuniting a dismembered Volk,” perhaps prepared to start a world war to settle the matter. This follows the contours of part of Goldman’s critique but does not share his pessimism in the ability of the U.S. and coalition to marshal the forces and resolve.

But this does call into question the efficacy of relying solely on a strategy of denial to counter China’s best strategy, a focused and sequential strategy, to become the regional hegemon in Asia. It requires that the leadership of the CCP – principally one man, Xi Jinping – reach the conclusion that Taiwan cannot be taken, and hence the entire project of reunification, and perhaps global supremacy, must be abandoned. The strategic end state for the anti-hegemonic coalition becomes “winning by not losing,” but it is effectively asking that the American public (as well as the publics of our partners) indefinitely fund and politically support a military force posture designed around defense and maintenance of the status quo.

At some point, political leadership will be asked the same question President Reagan was at the 1988 Moscow summit, what is the strategy for ending the Cold War? Reagan famously stated, “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: we win, they lose.” He did not hold to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union maintaining its grip on power forever, and upon taking office embarked on a strategy to defeat them. Playing on the defensive is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve victory.

If China invades Taiwan, and the coalition can beat it back in a war limited in scope and aims as described by Dr. Colby, well then what? An immense amount of blood and treasure will have been spilt, and Taiwan will almost certainly have suffered significant damage. Even though they are a rich country, rebuilding will be expensive, and they will need substantial help. Potentially thousands of American lives will have been lost, perhaps more. Will the American people be willing to accept the status quo ante as the outcome, akin to the end of the Korean War in 1953? Or will the people demand more, such as reparations or perhaps even a change in leadership of China? Can a President and Congress who ask the American people to support the defense of Taiwan easily and readily explain to those people at the end of the war that the Communist regime that started the war needs to remain in place? Or, as Dr. Colby alludes to, what if the failure of China to take Taiwan results in a collapse of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power, something which I address here. Have we considered what an alternative political structure in China might be, and how might the U.S. shape that outcome?

Strategy of Denial is a well-structured, logically coherent argument for a particular strategic approach, one based largely on conventional forces. Dr. Colby explains as much when in his preface he states his intent is not to articulate a larger grand strategy but rather to “lay out a single, coherent framework that provides clear guidance on what the nation’s defense strategy should be …” It rests on the assumptions that the “unipolar moment” is over, and that primacy is not possible for the U.S. maintain (and was probably illusory to begin with). He articulates how Communist China represents the gravest threat to American security, and why reducing the confidence of China’s leadership in the success of a focused and sequential strategy to achieve regional hegemony decreases the probability of an attempt by China to use military force. At its heart, he is arguing that conventional forces should be organized and employed to conduct denial defense to achieve deterrence.

An alternative, perhaps complimentary, strategic approach toward U.S. security is employing cyber-enabled and other information-based capabilities to alter China’s trajectory altogether. A geoinformational approach that leverages American and allied comparative advantages across all spectrums of power could better shape the Chinese Communist Party leadership’s understanding of its own comparative national power, forcing it into harder resource allocation dilemmas and perhaps even challenge its monopoly on power. Long before the point of a potential invasion of Taiwan or the Philippines, the conflict can be transformed. It opens the door to alternative victory conditions for the U.S. in protecting its security as well as a larger liberal world order.

Dr. Colby concludes his book by acknowledging that at best, deterrence by denial might create “a decent peace” – an uneasy Cold War-like environment. However, Dr. Colby, more than most, was in a position to see how geoinformational approaches could create more than just peace, but victory. That approach deserved more attention. Even so, Dr. Colby has done an immense service by moving the strategic debate beyond platitudes and forcing hard conversations about the resource decisions which must be made. Policy makers must reckon with his analysis and prescriptions, and we are better off because of it.

CDR Robert “Jake” Bebber is the Executive Officer of Information Warfare Training Command Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida. He is a frequent contributor to CIMSEC and his writing has appeared in Orbis, Proceedings, Parameters, the Journal of Comparative Strategy, the Journal of Political Risk, the Journal of Information Warfare, and elsewhere. He welcomes your comments at


1 Colby defines “differentiated credibility” as how allies, friends, and partners will view U.S. commitment guarantees that are similar in nature to their own. “They will look at how [the U.S.] has treated that particular commitment or those similarly situated in the past.” If America has risked and sacrificed much to uphold similar commitments in the past, then it likely views “this kind of commitment” as worth a great deal to its security. Therefore, as the U.S. begins to deprioritize commitments in regions outside of Asia, it is not necessarily true that allies in Asia will question U.S. commitment in Asia, so long as America is following through on those commitments. (p. 60-62).

Featured Image: BAY OF BENGAL (Oct. 17, 2021) – An F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, flies over the Bay of Bengal as part of Maritime Partnership Exercise (MPX) 2021, Oct. 17, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N. Smith)