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The Financial Foundations of U.S. Hegemony: Rethinking Modern Monetary Theory, Part 2

By Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani

Part One introduced readers to an idea, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which challenges many of the shibboleths of public finance, most notably the desirability of balanced budgets. In The Deficit Myth, author Stephanie Kelton described her conversion to MMT as a Copernican moment in which the scales suddenly fell from her eyes. She now understood that currency “issuers” have utterly different problems than currency “users.”

To illustrate this point, Kelton described a thought experiment she conducted while working in the U.S. Senate. She asked her fellow staffers on the Budget Committee if they would abolish the U.S. national debt and nearly all agreed. She then asked if they would rid the world of Treasury bills. The very same people now hesitated, realizing instinctively that Treasury bills and the national debt are identical – the two sides of the government ledger that must balance.

Subconsciously, far too many public officials and national security professionals remain in thrall to a Gold Standard mentality about finance – specifically the notion that a paper currency must be “backed up” by something precious to have any value. During the heyday of the Gold Standard before 1914, a nation’s money supply was tied to the quantity of gold it possessed, but the last remnants of that system vanished in 1971, when President Richard Nixon refused to convert U.S. dollars for gold.

As Kelton realized, the end of the Gold Standard did not mean an end to Gold Standard thinking. Even those well-versed in financial matters could not grasp that the supply of money was not tied to the supply of some metal stored in a vault.

The Peril and Power of MMT

The pandemic has shown MMT’s power, although proponents have not really claimed it as their vindication. Instead, the pandemic has become, like the 2008 Financial Crisis, another demonstration of John Maynard Keynes’ continuing relevance. This is a welcome development, but Keynes is perhaps not as useful for dealing with the challenges we face moving forward. If Copernicus removed Earth from the center of the solar system, MMT essentially removes money from the center of economics and replaces it with politics – who gets what, when, and how in Harold Lasswell’s immortal turn of phrase.

Without resorting to scaremongering about “hyperinflation,” there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of MMT. Kelton unfortunately relied on bad history in the service of good politics. For instance, she claimed that “Deficits did not stop Franklin Roosevelt from implementing the New Deal,” which echoes right-wing condemnations of FDR more than the judgments of sober historians. She also asserted that there is a causal relationship rather than just a correlation between periods of deficit reduction and financial crises. Boiling down a number of 19th century panics or the collapse of the international financial system after 1929 to American presidents’ debt reduction is a form of historical reductionism that obscures the complex sources of global financial crises. It is no different than claiming that the 2008 crisis was the fault of minority U.S. homeowners defaulting on their mortgages.

At this point, supporters of MMT might accuse this article of historical nitpicking. The authors would counter that any political program is stronger if rests upon a solid historical foundation.

There are also numerous reasons to be skeptical of MMT from the perspective of political economy (the interrelationship of political and economic affairs). Supposedly, monetary sovereigns have no deficit constraints if they control their own monetary supply and borrow in their own currency. This is true but only up to a point.

First of all, conflating monetary sovereignty with being a currency issuer seems a rather narrow definition of sovereignty. According to the Mundell-Fleming Trilemma, if a government chooses to embrace monetary sovereignty (narrowly defined as an independent monetary and fiscal policy), it must choose between stable exchange rates and capital mobility. During the Bretton Woods era, the nations of the developed world chose the former, and afterward, the latter. There were many reasons they went in these directions, but they had to make a choice. Once a country has committed itself to capital mobility and independent monetary/fiscal policy, it must accept the risks posed by fluctuating interest rates.

Additionally, although its supporters never acknowledge it, MMT poses risks for countries that must purchase large quantities of goods in foreign currencies even if they are monetary sovereigns. Consider the example of Britain, which is dependent on imports of any number of goods as well as capital for its financial services sector. One term that never appears in The Deficit Myth is the “twin-deficits hypothesis” – the idea that government deficits might worsen a nation’s trade balance by encouraging domestic consumption, which can raise domestic prices if the economy is at or near capacity or encourage imports. Unless earnings by foreigners are converted into bonds to cover government deficits, the importing nation will suffer currency depreciation.

This is a real danger for all countries that must purchase goods in foreign currencies. While Britain has monetary sovereignty, what would happen to its exchange rate if its budget deficit causes its current-account deficit to balloon? Either its exchange rates will deteriorate, which will happen for a country dependent on imports, or it must impose capital controls. Keynes was not afraid of capital controls and had a clear preference for limited external trade but adopting his mindset would entail a radical transformation of British society.

Furthermore, what about all the countries that do not have to worry about the deficit constraint but are not monetary sovereigns? The German government, for example, can borrow in its own currency, but it is not a currency issuer – rather, it is the European Central Bank. Nevertheless, the nominal interest rate on German debt has been 1% or less since 2012. Not every member of the Eurozone enjoys such a luxury – why? Is it because Germany is such a valued customer or because it generates massive current-account surpluses? Despite this uncertainty, Germany enjoys considerable fiscal flexibility even though, according to MMT, it should not.

The reality is that MMT, while a compelling theory for understanding how states can use their control of money to achieve specific political ends, has little to say about the structure of economies or how best to allocate resources. As our colleague Mark Blyth put it in his inimitable fashion, MMT assumes: “Get the money right and everything else follows.”

The example of Germany shows that MMT has it entirely backward – states must get the economy “right” before they can take advantage of the monetary/fiscal opportunities of MMT. Specifically, the Germans can afford to ignore deficits today because they spent decades building an industrial Exportweltmeister that is the envy of the world. It is the sacrifices of ordinary Germans that makes their nation such an appealing counterparty rather than the worries of German elites about hyperinflation and rejection of budget deficits.  

The Ironies of MMT

For an idea associated with the social-democratic left, MMT shares neoliberalism’s dim view of democratic oversight. Kelton is critical of the Federal Reserve’s technocratic management, with its inflation phobia and search for the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” (NAIRU). Granted, Uncle Sam’s track record at managing tax policy to compensate for inflation hardly inspires confidence, either – as evidenced during the 1960s, when taxes could not reduce consumption fast enough during the boom in spending resulting from the Vietnam War and the Great Society. Therefore, Kelton wants to substitute rule by central bankers with automatic legislative stabilizers that modify government spending to account for inflation or unemployment. In other words, she is substituting one form of technocratic governance by financiers for another led by MMT economists.

Implementing such a system depends less on economic persuasion than political power. Such power is essential for stabilizing this arrangement at home and abroad. We have already seen, however, that some nations can only do the former but not latter. In fact, the only true monetary sovereign capable of fulfilling the promise of MMT is also the closest thing the world has to a hegemon – the United States.

The United States is a monetary hegemon because the world is denominated in dollars, not renminbi, sterling, euros, or yen. Despite the rise of China, the U.S. dollar still accounts for over 60% of central bank reserves and over 40% of all cross-border loans, international debt securities, global trade invoicing, and payments through the SWIFT system (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, which governs how banks communicate financial transactions across international borders). This hegemony is not without its costs – a higher dollar makes U.S. exports less competitive – but it allows the United States to exert a degree of influence over world affairs beyond what its other instruments of national power could deliver by themselves.

The Risk of Ignoring the Power Pyramid

Given the extent of this power, it is remarkable that the United States has done so much to undermine Susan Strange’s pyramid of national power, described in Part One: military force, productive capacity, financial strength, knowledge production, and maintenance. Whether by restricting immigration, cutting the funding for research and development, or imposing sanctions with an unprecedented alacrity against its allies as well as its rivals, administrations of both parties have displayed little awareness of the factors that made the United States a great power.

As a result, they have presided over the gradual evaporation of the United States’ technological edge. For example, the United States, once the source of the world’s most powerful computer chip designs, is no longer the world’s leader in this vital technology. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the most advanced fabrication plant in the world capable of rendering the 5 nm chips that lie at the heart of Apple’s future laptops and phones.

People – and not just Americans – pay for these chips and the products housing them in dollars, but how much longer will that be the case in a world where the “most important” real estate for the world economy is in Taiwan rather the United States? Fortunately, Taiwan remains a de facto U.S. ally, but what happens if China achieves its goal of chip independence –a quest fueled, in part, by the Trump and Biden administrations’ restrictive trade policies?

This transition of technological power away from the United States is evident in the most ordinary of circumstances. Consider one of the most-popular apps on the phones of America’s youth: TikTok. Despite the fact that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, is not part of an industry that benefited from Chinese government patronage, the AI in TikTok is apparently beyond the skills of U.S. programmers, which explains the U.S. government’s wariness toward TikTok’s Chinese origins. U.S. government efforts to engineer that company’s sale to an American firm appear to have stalled, but Washington has nonetheless set a dangerous precedent – the United States relied on political coercion to stem the dissemination of a superior Chinese product irrespective of consumer preferences.

It might seem ridiculous to national security professionals to think that China’s development of an app to share user-generated videos presages a geopolitical revolution, but consider the following point. Despite crushing Nazi Germany and sending the first man into space, the Soviet Union never produced something that an American firm could not match or better, much less a consumer good that captured the United States’ youth demographic.

Perhaps worse, the country is discouraging the best means of redressing the qualitative difference between Chinese and U.S. firms: immigration. These immigrants play a vital role in the worldwide knowledge economy – the vaccines Americans are counting on to deliver them from the pandemic are the result of small firms populated by immigrants either in the United States or, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, in Germany. In the alternative universe where Donald Trump won a second term in 2020, U.S. research productivity would further suffer due to the restrictions on visas for graduate students and postdocs in the physical and biomedical sciences. U.S. universities have already taken a financial hit since foreign students often pay the retail tuition price, especially students from China.

MMT: An Incomplete Solution

If MMT is the answer to some of the most challenging threats confronting the United States – notably the transition to a green economy – Americans cannot afford to forsake the preservation of U.S. monetary hegemony. U.S. hegemony does not rely on the crude metrics of earlier generations – numbers of soldiers and weapons, or steel, coal, and oil production – but rather on something both more ephemeral and durable: the confidence of the rest of the world that it can benefit from U.S. hegemony.

If debt is not really the constraint but rather inflation, as MMT advocates contend, the next question Americans must answer is how the government should mobilize its seemingly unlimited fiscal resources. Military strength is a vital component of Strange’s pyramid, but it seems the United States has reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. New weapons take too long to develop and cost too much to mass produce. Despite record budgets, U.S. military aircraft and ship readiness rates are deficient, which has problematic implications for the readiness of the rest of the military, and the Pentagon has been of modest help during the pandemic.

Rather than continuing to pour money down the defense sinkhole to purchase new weapons when it cannot maintain the ones the country already has, the United States should be using government spending to “build back” the U.S. entrepreneurial state to confront the challenges posed by climate change, recover from the pandemic, and repair the nation’s physical and human infrastructure. A national government that is free from the sorts of constraints that limit private firms can and should spearhead this effort.

There are still some who would argue that the United States should rely on the “invisible hand” to allocate capital. It is an alluring theory, but U.S. historical experience has thoroughly undercut it. After World War II, it was the entrepreneurial state rather than “heroic capitalists” that bore the risks to invest in new knowledge, and which continues to pay dividends today. Private firms that are beholden to shareholders demanding immediate returns on their investment simply cannot undertake the kinds of long-term, speculative investment in pure (as opposed to practical) R&D required to generate genuine novelty.

Just as the U.S. government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and printing money, so too does it have a near-monopoly on the ability to take risks over long-time horizons. Recall that it was U.S. Army ordnance in the 19th century that perfected the development of standardized parts over a 40-year-plus period in its arsenals. In the 20thcentury, the U.S. government provided invaluable support to several industries, including aviation, nuclear power, computing, and space. This should not imply that governments are wiser than private investors, only that the former can afford to place large bets that they might lose; after all, they are gambling with the house’s money.

These sorts of investments rarely seem justified under normal circumstances, but they can generate enormous windfalls. One of the many legacies of government sponsorship of R&D in the United States was a biomedical research system that allowed for the rapid development of the mRNA vaccines that are taming COVID-19. Whether it was supporting research on DNA and RNA that venture capitalists ignored or the vast array of technologies now embedded in smartphones, the U.S. government was essential in “bringing good things to life.” That the latter was an advertising slogan from General Electric from 1980 to 2003 only reinforces a collective historical amnesia, just as Americans forget how money actually works.

Not All Spending is Equal

Critics of MMT are right about one thing – not all spending is equal and running up deficits over the long run without enhancing the nation’s productive capacity and its economic attractiveness will undermine U.S. monetary hegemony. The goal of an expansive fiscal policy should be the creation of an economy in which people from all over the world wish to continue participating, which in turn will preserve the dollar as the preferred instrument for both debt and credit.

There are steps that the U.S. government can take that would generate dividends for the United States’ economic and national security. The government could, for example, revisit the 1958 National Defense Education Act that resulted from the fear following Sputnik’slaunch that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union. A new education act would enable training up the workforce that contemporary industries demand. It should fund industrial apprenticeships in both civilian and defense industries, as well as the vocational training that the United States has allowed to wither. The country might also turn the surfeit of advanced degree graduates into managers of government investments in fields vital to its national health instead of stranding them as poorly paid adjuncts in the U.S. educational gulag.

Perhaps the great irony of contemporary American political economy is that many of the proponents of MMT are also the biggest critics of the other aspects of U.S. power that make MMT possible. The United States can afford the Green New Deal as well as providing universal health care and other necessities – but only as part of a wider process of “keeping America great.”

Politics truly makes for strange bedfellows.

Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani are professors of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College and visiting professors at Brown University. They wish to acknowledge their profound debt to their colleague, Brown University professor Mark Blyth, whose insights inspired this piece.

The views expressed here are Dennis and Toprani’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: U.S. Capitol Building is superimposed over scaffolding and currency imagery. (Credit: Christina Animashaun)

Storm Warning: Chinese Gray Zone Futures Inbound

By Peter Layton

As competition with China deepens, the nation’s use of gray zone techniques is becoming of increasing importance and interest. China has been using this approach for many years in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the India/China border, to name some prominent examples. Understanding the history behind these is important, but equally so is where China’s gray zone stratagems may be heading. In this, we live in the future, not the past. Understanding the direction towards which Chinese gray zone activities may evolve could give early warning about China’s likely next steps. Suitable responses could then be considered and implemented in a measured manner, without the time pressures induced by a sudden, unexpected crisis.

This article discusses three forward-leaning aspects: long-term trends, wild cards, and the shape of China’s future gray zone actions. Considered together, these outline future Chinese gray zone possibilities at the strategic and tactical levels, helping avoid potentially nasty surprises. Gray zone as used here builds on Michael Mazarr’s seminal work. Crucially, gray zone techniques are distinct from hybrid warfare. Gray zone techniques do not involve deliberate armed violence; hybrid warfare does, as defined in Frank Hoffman’s influential examinations. In recent years, China has doubled down on gray zone activities while Russia remains attracted to hybrid warfare. Neither the activities nor the countries should be conflated.

This article further focusses on China’s periphery, not globally. Using cyber, China can extend its gray zone activities worldwide, but looking in peripheral areas allows a broader, all-domain discussion. A deeper examination of China’s gray zone activities in the periphery is given in my China’s Enduring Grey Zone Challenge recently published by the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air and Space Power Centre.

Potential Evolutionary Paths

China has been using gray zone techniques for more than a decade, allowing some high-level trends to be discerned. The first trend is that the more China uses such techniques, the more others become involved in one way or another. China prefers to have bi-lateral relationships with other countries rather than work through multi-lateral channels, but gray zone activities tend to work against this. Others notice China’s assertiveness, worry about being picked off individually, and if not join in, at least passively support the country being targeted by China.

The South China Sea dispute has been running the longest and is now noticeably dragging in more countries. Originally, China sought to negotiate bi-laterally and then only grudgingly agreed to accept multilateral discussions under the ASEAN institutional framework. This has further evolved with many countries now issuing diplomatic Notes Verbales so as to involve the United Nations. Moreover, the dispute has been part of the rationale for the formation of the Quad, comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. The Quad is steadily becoming a more cohesive, pseudo-alliance grouping, as India’s border troubles with China worsen, and China steps up pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. More third parties are piling in with the European Union’s (EU) views of China as a “systemic rival.” The United Kingdom, France, and Germany are now sending naval patrols to the South China Sea.

A second trend is that China is making increasing use of non-military means of coercion, particularly coercive diplomacy and cyber. A recent study found that over the past 10 years, there were 152 cases of such coercion affecting 27 countries and the EU, with a very sharp exponential increase in such tactics since 2018. In terms of cyber, China has long been noted for its cyber intrusions to steal intellectual property and industrial secrets. A recent shift though is towards using cyber means to inflict damage on others as part of a gray zone operation. In a notable recent example, China mounted a broad cyber-campaign against India’s electrical power grid that coincided with the 2020 military border clash. Both coercive diplomacy and cyber have major advantages in terms of giving a global reach. China’s gray zone activities can now impact very distant nations, not just those on its borders.

A third trend is a perceptible movement towards more violent actions, even if these do not involve armed attacks. In June 2020, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers killed twenty Indian soldiers in a border clash. Previously, China’s gray zone actions did not intentionally aim to kill others. The year also saw a PLA Navy warship aim its gun control director at the Philippine Navy’s anti-submarine corvette BRP Conrado Yap in the Spratly Islands. In the naval domain, this can be considered as a hostile act and seems the first time that a Chinese warship has directly threatened a Philippine government vessel in the South China Sea. A second incident involving a PLA Navy warship pointing a laser at a US Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft drew criticism from the U.S. Navy as being “unsafe and unprofessional.” This was a new step as such actions, while increasing in the last couple of years, have previously emanated from Chinese fishing vessels, not PLA Navy warships.

Wild Cards

Trends can only tell us so much. There is always a chance of a sharp deviation in the future onto a very different path. Four wild card possibilities are worth discussing.

Embracing Hybrid War. While China is destabilizing the existing international order through its gray zone activities, so also is Russia through hybrid warfare. China may be tempted at some stage to shift up the conflict continuum a notch, move beyond gray zone activities, and embrace Russia’s hybrid model.

Chinese gray zone activities aim to gain lasting strategic advantage over another (Chapter One, pp. 11-25). In contrast, the Russian armed forces define hybrid war as a war in which the means used, including military operations, support an information campaign. The aim of this campaign is to gain “control over the fundamental worldview and orientation of a state,” shift its geostrategic alignment, and shape its governance. China’s gray zone activities may irritate another, but the Russian hybrid warfare model tries for regime change.

Proxy Wars. China might not move as far as hybrid wars; however, its gray zone activities could be extended to include supporting proxy wars. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States fought each other vicariously through their various client states. Wars in countries as varied as Ethiopia, Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan all engaged the superpowers of the day in providing overt and covert support for their chosen sides. If the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates into approximating a new Cold War, proxy wars may make a comeback.

Playing the Russia Card. There is a possibility that Russia and China may choose to actively work together. In this, there are uncertainties over the synergies their combined actions might generate, in particular how Russia might amplify Chinese gray zone efforts. Today, China is mainly leveraging its Russian relationship to fill gaps in its military capabilities and to accelerate its technological innovation.

In terms of gray zone activities, a new development has been the undertaking of joint China-Russian air patrols in the East China Sea. The first in July 2019 was heralded as taking the two nation’s military-to-military cooperation to a new level appropriate to ‘the new era,’ but finished with South Korean fighters firing warning shots when one of the Russian aircraft intruded into Korean territorial airspace.

Given this fiasco, a second try was not attempted until late December 2020. On the Russian side at least, this was somewhat larger in involving four PLA Air Force (PLAAF) H-6 bomber and 15 Russian aircraft, including two Tu-95 bombers, an A-50U airborne early warning and control aircraft, and 12 Su-35S fighters, presumably to warn off any pesky South Korean fighters. Communist Party media outlet, Global Times, optimistically forecast that “China-Russia joint aerial strategic patrol will become routine in the future,” while avoiding dwelling on the first patrol’s problems.

Nevertheless, such patrols hint at the possibilities of Russia and China at least coordinating actions in their border zones. For example, Russia might conduct hybrid warfare operations in Europe while China ramps up concurrent gray zone activities in the South and East China Seas. Such an approach of working together but separately could tax any Western responses.

Mirror Image. If China is pleased with its gray zone activities, there is a possibility that others might not just take up the technique but use them against China. China has more borders than any other country, leaving considerable space for nefarious actions. Moreover, the Party faces many domestic problems and continually worries about internal stability. A gray zone activity over an extended period, using diverse means, that was ambiguous, stayed within red lines, and exploited the Party weaknesses could be a definite annoyance, shifting the strategic advantage away from China to others. China’s gray zone sword might become two-edged, able to inflict damage on its originator.

The Shape of China’s Future Gray Zone Activities

In general, gray zone activities involve purposefully pursuing political objectives through carefully designed operations; moving cautiously towards goals rather than seeking decisive results quickly; remaining below key escalatory thresholds so as to avoid war; and using all instruments of national power including non-military and non-kinetic tools. These characteristics suggest that in terms of its application in a specific circumstance, gray zone activities have two important variables. These are whether violent or non-violent actions are undertaken and whether non-military or military instruments are used.

The drivers created by these variables implies four possible alternatives as illustrated in the Figure below. These are the manner in which future Chinese gray zone activities might be undertaken. None of these four alternatives are considered more probable than the others, but that which actually occurs is hopefully captured within the wide span of possibilities encompassed.

Figure 1. Possible Chinese Gray Zone Alternative Futures. Click to expand.

The ‘playing by the rules China’ is an optimistic future where a responsible stakeholder China abides by the rules to which it has agreed with others. The ‘whatever it takes China’ is a minor deterioration from now and is perhaps a near-term prospect. The ‘pushing the envelope China’ is an evolved future where much greater use is made of the PLA but in a non-violent way. The ‘do as you are told China’ is a near worse-case possibility that is arguably on the limits of gray zone activities; there would be a high risk of peace breaking down and serious armed conflict starting. An indicator and warning of this might be the shoot down of an uncrewed air vehicle, such as a Triton maritime surveillance drone.

Long-term trends, wild cards, and the shape of China’s future actions combine to give an overview of the strategic- and tactical-level gray zone possibilities, but the future should not necessarily be thought of as simply getting worse. As gray zone activities are undertaken at the direction of the highest levels of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, they could just as easily be wound back towards something approximating the positive ‘playing by the rules China’ future. However, the killing of the twenty Indian soldiers on the border with China is a most worrying development. Prudence would suggest paying close attention to China’s near-to-medium term gray zone activities. This appears a “Danger, Will Robinson” moment where the omens look distinctly gloomy.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow, Royal United Service Institute (London). A retired RAAF Group Captain, Peter has a doctorate in grand strategy and taught national security strategy at the U.S. National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy. His papers, articles, and posts may be accessed here.

Featured Image: A Google Maps Street view of the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.

A New Maritime Strategy, Part 2 — A Theory Of Victory?

Read Part One here.

By Robert C. Rubel

In her recent CIMSEC post Congresswoman Elaine Luria called for the development of a new maritime strategy. Among its purposes would be the rationalization of Navy shipbuilding plans; linking force structure to the provisions of a strategy in a way similar to the relationship between the 1980s Maritime Strategy and its attendant 600 ship Navy. This is almost self-evidently a good idea, but there are difficult aspects to any such project, a key one being the role of a theory of victory in shaping it. Luria posits, quite reasonably, that what constitutes winning should be successful deterrence based on a clear capability to deny a fait accompli to any aggression by China, Russia, or other power. She uses a 2017 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) force structure study as an example of a fleet architecture that might fill the bill with some modifications.

That might prove sufficient, but there is the nagging problem of how the US might end a war if deterrence fails. In one sense that question is beyond the bounds of a peacetime strategy since the exact reasons for and particular circumstances of a war breaking out cannot be known in advance, and of course what happens in a war can have a huge effect on how it ends. That said, if deterrence is based on the assumption of a quick, decisive victory, it is precarious, especially if the government we seek to deter perceives that we are limited by that assumption. A useful theory of victory must thus extend beyond the repulse of an enemy’s initial thrust. 

A Royal Navy officer once asserted to this writer that the RN’s greatest strategic asset was its reputation for reckless persistence. Whether one buys this or not, the sentiment— that perceived irrationality has a deterrent effect—is worth considering.. Put another way, the perceived willingness of a country to continue fighting beyond the point at which a rational calculation suggests that it should yield might confound the potential attacker’s estimates of what it would take to win.

Theory describes capability and will as the constituent elements of deterrence, but will to enter into a fight is not the same thing as the will to see it to the bitter end, and historical opponents from Great Britain, to the Confederacy, to Japan, to bin Laden have underestimated America’s will in this regard, leading to ill-advised attacks. The will to persist must be an element of any deterrent strategy, and it must be supported by the unambiguous capability to do so. In general, American doctrine focuses on ending combat as quickly as possible, despite the  grinding, long term conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Deliberately trying to protract a conflict seems counter to US values, and yet the willingness to do so is precisely what “deep deterrence” requires and thus is a needed element of any theory of victory for a new maritime strategy.

It is one thing to assume the necessary political support for protracting a conflict would materialize – after all the American public has repeatedly supported long wars, from the Revolution to Afghanistan – but quite another to understand how conflict protraction fits into developing a strategy. For that we need to engage in some parsing of defeat mechanisms and the ways force might be used to achieve them. In military planning, developing lists of enemy options and own courses of action that are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive, when possible, help to bound the problem, and we will try to do that with defeat mechanisms and uses of force.

There are essentially four ways an enemy can be brought to defeat. Their capital can be overrun and the country occupied, such as what happened in Germany in 1945 and Iraq in 2003. This is a maximal solution, and even then, as in the Iraq case, a lengthy insurgency followed. Perhaps a more desirable defeat mechanism is when the enemy government suffers internal collapse, as did the Italian Fascists in World War II. This greatly helps the victors establish a friendly government and legitimize and defend the victory.

A third mechanism is what we will call “checkmate”; the enemy, although still capable of resistance, decides that it no longer has a viable military strategy available and calls for terms. This is the ideal end state of maneuver warfare, including such transformation era concepts as shock and awe and rapid, decisive operations (RDO), not to mention network-centric warfare. The key characteristic of this defeat mechanism is that cooperative decision making by the enemy is required, but cannot be controlled. If the enemy is unaccountably stubborn – recklessly persistent – then the whole strategic edifice of maneuver warfare falls apart. The last defeat mechanism is exhaustion; the enemy’s force and/or political will has run out over the course of an attrition campaign of some sort. The US has suffered losses of this sort in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

When contemplating a war with China, we might hope for a checkmate based on the destruction of much of the PLAN, which might, in the ideal case, lead to the collapse of communist rule or at least the displacement of its war faction. Overrun is off the table, so the other mechanism available is exhaustion, which means that the US, in order to achieve deep deterrence, must contemplate engaging in a protracted war of attrition. While a checkmate is clearly the preferable path, any American strategy must entertain the potential need to exhaust the Chinese. This may be feasible even given China’s advantages in manpower and industrial capacity – the new strategy must explicitly deal with it.

Force must be used in one way or another to bring about one of the defeat mechanisms. In today’s world of weaponized information, force could take any number of forms, but regardless, can only be used in one of four ways. The first is definitive; that is, the use of force directly solves the problem without any need for the enemy to make a decision. Overrunning the enemy is one example. But defeat of the enemy fleet might be another. Taking away the enemy’s ability to move his army by sea or otherwise use the sea to his advantage might produce a checkmate. It did at Salamis and Lepanto and again in the English Channel in 1588. Modern examples in which a naval defeat ended a war are hard to come by, especially due to air power and missiles, but it at least removes a key strategic option for the enemy.

The capability to inflict a definitive naval defeat is central to the notion of deterrence by denial. That said, in the event of war, even after a defeat, the enemy might have options for some type of naval guerrilla warfare such as the German U-boat campaigns in both world wars. Usually any such effort requires some sort of sanctuary for a base as well as tactically. For the German U-boats, bomb proof submarine pens were the base sanctuary and the stealth of the U-boats constituted the tactical sanctuary. Mobile land-based anti-ship missile launchers and underground submarine bases might fill the bill for the Chinese. Moreover, if national policy forbids attacks on the Chinese mainland to avert escalation, PLAN ports might continue to support small craft or other types of attritional operations, forcing the USN to engage in some version of a protracted sea denial campaign.

The second way to use force is coercively. This is where deterrence by punishment comes in. There are problems with this use of force. What degree of destruction or threat would be sufficient to bring the enemy to terms? This use of force requires cooperative decision-making by the enemy; that is, the enemy has to decide to quit. The coercer is not in charge. Calculating in advance of a war what level of pain or threat would be sufficient to induce the enemy government to call for terms – something that could very well be politically or even physically fatal to its members – is an imponderable. Even the enemy would not know what would induce them to make terms. A strategy based on this use of force is inherently open-ended and could easily require the application of force in degree, kind, and duration beyond what the coercer is willing to or can generate. Thus coercion is a dangerous basis for deterrence.

The third use of force is catalytic. When Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel during Operation Desert Storm, there were no specific targets for them. Rather, he hoped to spur Israel into joining the war against him, which, he further calculated, would fracture the coalition. He was looking for second and third order effects. This way of using force is seductive; it promises effects out of proportion to the amount of force used. This was the tacit basis for the effects-based operations (EBO) doctrine of the 1990s and early 2000s. The problem is trying to calculate effects. In Saddam’s case it did not work and this is frequently the case. The 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and the 1940 Royal Air Force strike on Berlin each ended up having important catalytic effects in that they dislocated enemy strategy, but those effects were not the objectives of the raids; they were serendipitous. Rather, those raids reflected the fourth way to use force – expressively. 

The expressive use of force is not oriented on a particular military objective; it is simply meant to harm. Reprisals are a form of this use of force, as are operations whose objective is oriented on the domestic audience. The Doolittle Raid was of this sort, meant to increase American public morale. The fact that it ended up having beneficial catalytic effects – strengthening Yamamoto’s resolve to conduct the Midway operation – was unintended. Given the imponderables attending the calculation of coercion, deterrence by the threat of punishment is based on an expressive use of force and is thus of suspect effectiveness. It is simply an easy way out of a strategic planning conundrum. It is all too easy to fall into the “this will fix ‘em” trap in which expressive force is ascribed to have coercive effects. The author has seen this in actual operational planning.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the only rationally defensible basis for conventional deterrence in the Far East is an unambiguous ability to use definitive force; that is, sinking or damaging enough of a Chinese invasion fleet that its operation to seize Taiwan or close off the South China Sea is disrupted or defeated. But this is not enough. The US must also possess an unambiguous capability to fight a protracted struggle in the Chinese littoral. The end state of such a war cannot be predicted and thus cannot be part of the deterrence calculus; but a reputation for “reckless persistence” would make it harder for Chinese strategists to predict an end state, and it is more critical for the attacker to envision an end state than it is for the defender. An authoritarian regime is inherently insecure, which is why such regimes employ repression, so any military setback could end up having catalytic effects, optimally regime collapse. It is likely that at least some Chinese Communist Party leaders understand this (a PLA colonel once told the author that if the Party could not recover Taiwan, China would “fall apart”) and would hopefully inject caution into any strategic calculations.

We can now better illuminate Congresswoman Luria’s discussion of “what constitutes winning” as a component of a new strategy. While not fighting China would, in retrospect, constitute a win, that cannot be the basis for deterrence; if the Chinese perceived avoiding war at all costs to be America’s strategic goal it would be an incentive, not a deterrent. Rather, a clear ability and dogged intent to defend Taiwan and a free and open South China Sea must be the basis for a new strategy. This is rather simple, but as Clausewitz said, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Much has been written about the balance of forces in the East Asian littoral and that will not be rehashed here. But Congresswoman Luria’s call for a new strategy is a result of wanting the Navy to link its budget requests to strategy, so some additional consideration of the link between strategy and force structure is appropriate.

In a very real sense strategy is nothing more than problem solving, and for that to be successful one must accurately articulate the problem to be solved. In the present case, the problem is not how to deter China, it is how to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and deal with any follow-on moves by China; their “plan B or C.” This is a hard and threatening problem, but it is the one that must be solved. But it is not the whole problem. As discussed in part one of this series, the US must continue to exercise its command of the sea globally because there are threats to the world order in other regions and the US strategy is to defend the world order.

The Navy budget deals with its overall ability to support US grand strategy and so any new maritime strategy must be global. A key – perhaps the only – strategic principle is that the US must not risk its overall command of the sea during instances of its exercise, so whatever solution is adopted for the East Asian littoral must not violate that principle. This author and others have long advocated the use of smaller, cheaper missile firing vessels to solve the problem of disrupting Chinese naval aggression, and the Navy is moving that way, albeit too slowly and hesitantly. Congresswoman Luria’s advocacy of the CSBA force structure is a step in the right direction.

It is one thing to develop a contingent strategy to solve a particular warfare problem when it arises, and quite another to craft a systemic strategy meant to deal with a range of possibilities over the long term. The overall US maritime strategy of ringing Eurasia with sea power to defend the international order is an example of a systemic strategy, as was the 2007 Cooperative Strategy. The 1980s Maritime Strategy was contingent at heart – steps to counter a Soviet invasion of NATO – but it had systemic effects as the USN exercised portions of its planned execution and thereby intimidated the Soviets. It was the contingent aspects of the Maritime Strategy that linked well with Navy budget requests of the era. Similarly, a new strategy must have clear and practical contingent elements to it, but in this case there is a time element that must be dealt with. In the case of the 1980s Maritime Strategy, most of the 600 ship Navy already existed, and it took only a few years for the Navy to flesh out its desired fleet architecture. Today, especially if a new fleet architecture is needed, much more time would be required to achieve it. This is clearly reflected in the various future fleet proposals that forecast one or more decades to achieve the projected architecture and size. But geopolitical conditions are evolving much faster than that – Admiral Davidson, in his departing remarks as Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command asserted that China may invade Taiwan as early as 2027 – so a new strategy must have a phase that deals with the near term and another for the longer term because Navy budgets will have to include both near term fixes and funding for long lead time items.

Following the logic contained in the present discussion, a new strategy must first deal with how to defeat a Chinese attack in the short term and then how to deal with a protracted war in the long term, all the while maintaining and exercising global command of the sea. In a very real sense, part of “what constitutes winning” is the ability of the strategy to galvanize Congressional and public support for the kind of budgets needed to ensure its successful execution. This is what former Secretary of the Navy Lehman used the Maritime Strategy for. But there is another aspect just as critical: eliciting international support. This was the real success of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy, and the 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy document repeatedly calls for greater international naval cooperation. The development process and wording of CS21 was calculated to elicit such support in the arena of maritime security, and it is worth considering a similar approach to a new strategy – making its development a widely collaborative project vice a small cadre of officers in a cipher-locked Pentagon office.

In the end “what constitutes winning” is a multi-faceted construct, parts of which are internal to the strategy – its content – and other parts external to it – the medium. In order to be successful, Navy strategists must take heed of the concept forwarded by the 60s communications guru Marshall McLuhan: the medium is the message. It will be perhaps the most complex strategy project the Navy has ever undertaken and simply relying on clever wording will be dangerously insufficient. Its development must be supported by wargaming (as both the Maritime Strategy and CS21 were) and extensive consultation, analysis and collaboration, both within DoD and externally with Congress, other Cabinet departments and perhaps internationally. In this writer’s opinion it can be done, but it will require intellectual and bureaucratic flexibility on the part of the Navy and a commitment on the part of the current and future Administrations to prioritize the rebuilding of the fleet.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.

Featured Image: Tokyo, September 2, 1945 — Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz signs the Instrument of Surrender as United States Representative, on board USS Missouri (BB-63). (U.S. Navy photo)

General Anthony Zinni (ret.) on Wargaming Iraq, Millennium Challenge, and Competition

By Mie Augier and Major Sean F. X. Barrett

This is the second part of our conversation series with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret.) on leadership, strategy, learning, and the art and science of warfighting. Read Part One here. In this installment, General Zinni shares his experiences with wargames, Desert Crossing and Millennium Challenge 2002 in particular, and discusses how the differing objectives of service chiefs and combatant commanders manifest in wargames. Gen Zinni then touches on the U.S. military’s overreliance on technology and draws parallels from the business world to inform approaches to great power competition.

What are some of the challenges to organizing effective wargames?

Zinni: When I was at Quantico, we started going through a phase where everybody was into board games and tactical decision games, and that sort of thing became really popular—parallel to maneuver warfare development. I came away with several impressions. I think gaming was more valuable at the lower levels, at the tactical level, maybe lower operational level. I think there you can construct the game in a way at the division level or below where nobody is promoting anything, and you can design games to learn specific things and bring out specific points. As you go higher up, I found there was too much in the way of service politics and other things that were injected into the games.

There are a lot of assumptions about capabilities that belie reality or truths and other factors. For example, I found that when playing with the Army after they first introduced the Apache helicopter, you couldn’t shoot down an Apache helicopter. No matter what you did, that was impossible. They were defending the program, and they wanted to build it up.

When I was a two-star, I was in charge of the Marine Corps side in a game we used to do with the Navy every year. The game was more designed to showcase what capabilities we wanted and really focus on things where Navy-Marine Corps cooperation was needed to gain the capabilities, either because of the way they had to be employed or because of the way budgets work. It usually ended up being kind of a swap meet. We had to find compromises because the budget wouldn’t support everybody’s wish list. When we went through the massive Millennium Challenge games with Joint Forces Command, I watched how the games became more designed as proofs of capabilities—preordained proofs of capabilities—rather than—as much as they advertised it—open testing, having a real willingness to fail, and all that.

If somebody talks about a game, I am usually highly suspicious about what the purpose is, who is designing it, and who is sponsoring it. To me, that is critical. The other thing I found in gaming is the intelligence guys always present you with the indestructible, undefeatable enemy. They love to do that. You must overcome that to an extent.

What are some of your experiences that showed the value of wargaming?

Zinni: When I was Commander-in-Chief at U.S. Central Command, we were on-and-off bombing Iraq when Saddam did not cooperate with the UN inspectors. At that time, if Saddam didn’t cooperate, President Clinton immediately wanted to pull the UN inspector out and hit Saddam. It always worked. Saddam brought the inspectors back in, so President Clinton gave us the okay on anything we wanted to target, basically, you know, make it painful. Since we knew these opportunities arose, we didn’t just want it to be haphazard targeting. We deliberately targeted air defense systems. Although we couldn’t plan on when he didn’t want to let inspectors in or when he’d give them a hard time, we had a systematic way of taking down his air defense systems when these events occurred, and we were very successful. President Clinton OK’d us bombing downtown Baghdad and taking down his intelligence headquarters and a couple of other things. It was called Operation Desert Fox.

Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Dec. 21, 1998, on his assessment of Operation Desert Fox, a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq. (DoD photo by R. D. Ward)

Saddam knew when the inspectors left, he was going to get hit. In the past, we always had to bring a few things in before we could launch strikes. One particular time, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs GEN Shelton asked me, “Could you do something so that virtually, as soon as Richard Butler (who was the head of the UN inspection team) is out, you go?” And we did. The battle damage assessment was phenomenal. Four days of strikes. The targets were really large ones. We usually used either the Swiss or the Polish embassy in Baghdad to give us feedback. Well, suddenly—and I’ll get to the gaming piece of this—they started saying, “You guys have to know what you are doing here because this last set of strikes really shook the Iraqi government. The normal hostile rhetoric afterward was gone. They were shocked by the targets you hit, and there are all kinds of rumblings on the street.” We were even getting some feedback that there were some Iraqi generals talking about taking out Saddam if those kinds of strikes continued, and giving feelers to our allies, too.

The next thing that happened, I got calls from both Jordan and Kuwait saying they were getting this feedback, too. Their worry was that if we struck the government to the point that it was overthrown, or hit a target that shut down communications or whatever, they could see major uprisings and then massive amounts of refugees streaming across their borders. I got asked by the national leadership of both countries: What’s your plan if this happened? What’s your plan for massive refugee outflows? What’s your plan for a government that totally collapses, which it could from your airstrikes, and the country becomes a mess? I realized that our war plans were only designed to take out the Republican Guard and take down the military structure. There was nothing in our war plans, or in what we were directed to do, that talked about the post-kinetic period. I thought I could do my job—take out the military—in less than three weeks. But who would be in charge of rebuilding Iraq or creating a new government?

I sent a request up through the chain to the Department of Defense and Department of State asking who had the aftermath plan. I had a feeling it was going to be a total mess. We needed a post-kinetic plan that meshed with our military plan. Well, the answer we got is no one was thinking about this. I asked if we could do a study on what Iraq would look like if the government collapsed, or if we had to go in and take out the military. What kind of Iraq would we find? The State Department, CIA, and all the intelligence organizations agreed to be involved, and my chief of staff said, “Let’s contract a study.” We went to Booz Allen (BA), and the BA people recommended we do a wargame instead of a study because as we discovered things, what we were really after was: what are our options, what should we do? You should put yourself in a position where you have to make those decisions, so you know what kinds of decisions are necessary. Only a game can generate that.

I committed to a couple of weeks up in Washington so we could go through this. We did it, and it is now declassified. It was called Desert Crossing. We went through the game, and I was frankly shocked at what everybody’s consensus was—that when we went into Iraq to take down the Republican Guard, that wouldn’t be very difficult at all. The problem we would have, even with the forces we had in our war plans, which was overwhelming force and which Rumsfeld threw away, was what happened after that. My intention was to get control of everything right away. The one thing I learned in places like Somalia and elsewhere is if you lose momentum, it is hard to get it back.

Unfortunately, the results of the wargame were that this place was going to come apart like a cheap suitcase. I went back to the State Department and DoD and said, “Okay, we looked at this, and this is what we see happening.” And by the way, everything out of that wargame is exactly what happened when we did go in later. This wargame was in 1999, my last year at CENTCOM, and no one was willing to stand up and plan. The State Department wasn’t going to own up to it. They did not want to get involved in the planning. Nobody else at DoD or anybody else wanted to take this on. I told my people that if this were to happen, either because there was an intentional decision to go into Iraq, or because of our airstrikes and everything we were doing, and the country internally imploded, we would be forced to go in, so let’s plan for it.

My chief of staff said, “You know, a lot of this stuff we are looking at is not us. We don’t rebuild governments, and we don’t know how to build economic systems and all that.” I said I didn’t care. We were going to plan and assume we’d have to take it on. I said, if nothing else, we might not be able to understand what had to be done, but we could at least help identify the problems and what we expected might happen. At least we could have an outline of the things we needed to consider because we might be putting together a pickup team to get them done. We began the Desert Crossing planning based on this even though we weren’t tasked with it.

When the decision was made to go into Iraq, this surprised the hell out of me because there was no need to go into Iraq. Saddam was no threat to anybody, nobody was afraid of him, and we had bigger fish to fry in Afghanistan. Then I saw Rumsfeld throw away the war plan. He thought he could do it on the cheap, which really told me that the new plan was going to exacerbate the problem tremendously because you were not going to have control of the people, you were not going to have control of key facilities, you were not going to have control of the borders, and all of this was going to come back to haunt you.

I called down to CENTCOM. I was retired, but I talked to the deputy commander. I told him, “You guys are crazy.” First of all, the war plan that Rumsfeld was talking about involved far too few troops, meaning we’d get overwhelmed, and that place was going to erupt in many different ways, and we’d be unable to control it. And I said, one thing we needed to look at was Desert Crossing because that would give us an idea of what to expect. He said he’d never heard of Desert Crossing. We had worked on that plan up until I retired in October 2000. Whatever was done on that plan at CENTCOM afterward was completely blown off by the leadership there.

You know, when you are retired, you don’t like to go back and poke around your last command. I mean, it is just not done. However, a number of the staff that were still there contacted me and told me about the plans they were being forced to put together, the troop cuts, the assumptions being made—it was just going to be a disaster. And of course, it was.

My point in all of this is that in that Desert Crossing game, we had a specific objective in mind—to learn what was going to happen. Let’s put together the best minds, the best intelligence organizations, and we had every one of them there. They very accurately gave us a picture that we had not put together before that. Unfortunately, it got lost in translation and transition and amidst arrogant people that came into leadership at DoD and elsewhere. Colin Powell understood it, but that’s not who President Bush listened to on this. We ignored everything we learned from that game.

The COCOMs have very specific requirements they are looking at, as opposed to the services that are looking more broadly at future capabilities. How does this impact the effectiveness of the wargames and exercises they both conduct?

Zinni: The gaming with the COCOMs is very different from service-level gaming, which is trying to validate or prove capabilities that the services want and need to get the budget for. At the COCOMs, you are gaming war plans. That is basically what you do. In exercises and in gaming, you usually have specific things you either want to test or learn, and they tend to be things you are testing or want to learn that affect a war plan or a contingency plan, or something along those lines. And of course, having been a former COCOM commander, I’m going to tell you that ours were honest, and the services’ were not.

However, sometimes when you bring allies in, you have to be a bit careful because, first of all, intelligence sharing becomes a problem in some of these things, but you also don’t want to embarrass allies. For us, to play a game and get defeated, we can take it as the result of wanting to learn or test something. For some allies, that is politically unacceptable. They were more into looking good coming out of the game, and that overrides learning. As CENTCOM commander, in exercises and gaming, I worked very hard at trying to get our key allies to embrace more free play. I found that the key was you have to get the top guys onboard with that, because below that, they aren’t going to accept it unless they know they can make mistakes and that will be okay. They may look bad and fail at something, but it is supposed to be a learning event—rather than one where your main concern is about looking bad in front of your boss. So, I think there is maybe more honesty in the gaming with combatant commanders. That is sort of driven by how you are exercising real-world war plans and operations. You can’t polish over or become pollyannish about something that isn’t real, but there are times when you must be careful with that, like I said, with allies and when you have a concern with intelligence sharing.

The other thing is you don’t want to take too much on in a game. I always felt you got more out of the game or exercise if you had a specific handful of things you wanted to learn and focus on, as opposed to trying to eat the big enchilada and do the whole war plan. That gets too unmanageable, and it gets too diffused and diluted. If you look at specific parts of, say, a plan or whatever you are trying to do, and pick five or six things you really want to focus on, the game is much more meaningful.

How were you involved with the Millennium Challenge wargame?

Zinni: I was a senior mentor. Back in those days, Joint Forces Command wrote joint doctrine and conducted joint training and joint wargaming. They brought in retired generals to be senior mentors and to play the red team, as Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (ret.) classically did with Millennium Challenge, when he exposed all the things we mentioned earlier—trying to be too scripted or prove capabilities, rather than being true and honest with open testing and free play.

They advertised Millennium Challenge as this super, all-time greatest military exercise game. It was going to involve forces from all over the military. This was going to be a proof of concept of the U.S. military writ large. They had a scenario, and they placed this big emphasis on if we failed, that was fine. It was going to be completely free play, and we’d go wherever it took us. Supposedly. Well, when I got there, I asked who was leading the red team. They said Paul Van Riper, and I said, “You guys better have your stuff together because you are going to die.” They kind of blew me off, like this was going to be a piece of cake.

They started the game, and there was a lot of media attention. After the first two or three moves, Van Riper had sunk half of Fifth Fleet and destroyed a corps. They stopped the game because it was now turning into a disaster. They brought everybody in and said they were going to restart the game because some things didn’t go right or whatever. Van Riper didn’t do what they thought or assumed he would do. They thought they had him figured out, had the “enemy” figured out.

They started the game again—same result. Van Riper kicked their butts, and now they stopped again. People were coming down from the Pentagon, and this was becoming a problem. They then said they were going to start for a third time, but this time they told Van Riper what he had to do. He said if they wanted him to go by a script, they had to advertise that it was not free play—that it was scripted. You can’t advertise something as free play when it is really being scripted—that is dishonest. They told him they were not going to do that, but that Van Riper was going to be scripted in many of the things that he could do.

The next thing that happened was a bunch of the majors that were down there revolted and went to the media, and of course Van Riper then became a superstar for every young officer in the military. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote about it. This went all the way up to the Joint Chiefs, and the Joint Chiefs dissed Van Riper and didn’t defend him. Van Riper became the hero for everybody involved in Millennium Challenge below the rank of one-star.

Are we overreliant on technology for solutions? What are some potential pitfalls of this approach?

Zinni: Yes, it is in our nature to become overreliant on technology because we created this dependency on it, and in addition to that, in some ways, we don’t leverage it enough. Every time I get into a discussion with someone about facing a peer-level military threat, it always comes down to the same thing: Well, they’ve got missiles that are going to crush us. The answer is always that we must go after those missiles, we must find them, and shoot them down. What everybody is losing sight of is one of the first things I ask: How does the missile know where you are? Then there’s a fall back: Tell me how they target you. The missile is back there, and you are out here, and they can’t see you. Something is targeting you. Is it a satellite? Is it a recon unit? Instead of wasting all this effort and resources on new technology to kill the missiles, could we blind their missiles? Could we deceive the missile in some way? Maybe the focus of our technology should be on defeating targeting, and maybe the ways we defeat it is to give it a false image, to blind it, to deceive it. To address the threat through better tactics, using what we already have. No one ever talks about that. Everybody just pushes the technology to kill the missile. My point is that it is not just overrelying on technology. Sometimes it is not knowing how to use technology through tactics to build an advantage.

In Millennium Challenge, the blue force was totally dependent on monitoring the red team’s communications, so Van Riper did not use any digital technology. He used motorcycle couriers and all kinds of alternative, simple sources of communication. He did nothing that could be captured or intercepted, so they were totally blind. They put all their eggs—that they would have superior technology to intercept his communications—in one basket. They assumed he would never initiate the fight—that this enemy would be so overwhelmed he would not attack during the build-up phase. Of course, Van Riper immediately attacked. It was a beautiful thing to watch! When we make too many assumptions, it becomes a vulnerability.

The Commandant of the Marine Corps recently published a new doctrinal publication on competition. From your business experience, what are some lessons learned that might be applicable to this new mindset that the service and DoD writ large are adopting? What does it mean to compete with a peer threat below the level of an actual conflict?

Zinni: In the business world, when you look at competition, you look at three things. When you go after a contract or something, you bid on it and put a proposal out there. Your reputation begins with that proposal. For the customers you are dealing with—let’s take the defense industry, and you are dealing with the Defense Department and services you are going to provide—you are going to be known by the quality of those proposals. If you have a series of proposals that have flaws in them, you are going to get a bad reputation and soon become uncompetitive. That’s how you first establish your reputation in a competitive sense.

Let me draw parallels with the military. Basically, what you are doing is you are putting out proposals to allies and potential enemies. In other words, you are framing yourself. This is going to be your reputation because if you can’t live up to it or have a reputation of claiming things that don’t work or whatever, then you begin to lose credibility, and you begin to tempt the enemy to test you.

You also need to realize you can’t compete across the entire spectrum. You need to identify the signature capabilities that really make up the heart and soul of your company and build your reputation around them. In a military sense, these are the things you must be the top in—let’s say missile defense, or nukes, or whatever. There are certain things that are so critical to your essence and what you are doing that you need to focus more on them.

The third thing, which is critically important in the business industry, is you need your best people where you touch your customer or your client. In the business world, I want to make sure I have people out there who have customer intimacy, familiarity, and trust. They are my selling point. People want to come back to your company because of these people. Relating this to the military: Who are your combatant commanders? Who are your senior generals? Who do you put out there as military attachés, or the military people who are negotiating or interacting with allies? If the enemy is in the Middle East, he is looking at the CENTCOM commander, and your customers and allies are looking at that commander, too.

One of the problems the military has is that capabilities are not centrally determined. Every service, every service secretary, and every service chief fights for something, and we don’t have a good way of looking at tradeoffs and risks. What happens is when there’s a budget cut and you need to take risks, it is sort of salami-sliced across the DoD, and no one, particularly at the top, has enough power to say we are going to do this, but not that. This was Eisenhower’s complaint when he talked about the military industrial complex—the military wants everything. They didn’t come to him saying we are going to take risks here, and this is how we see the budget. He just had four services wanting everything. That becomes part of the problem, particularly if you relate that to “signature capabilities.” You must pick which ones are your signature capabilities and are most important for you not to take risks in—and even more importantly, where you are willing to take risks, and what the tradeoffs are.

In business, you measure yourself against what I call a competitive set. For example, say I am on the board of a real estate investment trust that owns 12 hotels. We are basically a small hotel company—a real estate investment trust. We have about a dozen competitors in our peer competition set. You watch that set very carefully. Investors who are going to invest at that level will look at you compared to the others. If you apply that to the military, peer competitor means “the big guys” (Russia and China), but there are capabilities within our military that are not necessarily designed to be about the big fight.

We don’t do so well in the “least likely” conflicts, like when we get caught up in the Iraqs, Afghanistans, Somalias, and Vietnams. We don’t do well in that competitive set. I always say you never fight the war you prepare for. Logically, you should prepare for the war you don’t want to fight, but that means for all the others, you don’t have the perfect capability to engage in them. Some of that is not military related; it is political will, which erodes over time if you are not showing success. I think you saw that in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

General Anthony Zinni served 39 years as a U.S. Marine and retired as CommanderinChief, U.S. Central Command, a position he held from August 1997 to September 2000. After retiring, General Zinni served as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (2001-2003) and U.S. special envoy to Qatar (2017-2019). General Zinni has held numerous academic positions, including the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, the Sanford Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at Duke University, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. General Zinni is the author of several books, including Before the First Shots Are Fired, Leading the Charge, The Battle for Peace, and Battle Ready. He has also had a distinguished business career, serving as Chairman of the Board at BAE Systems Inc., a member of the board and later executive vice president at DynCorp International, and President of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc.

Dr. Mie Augier is Professor in the Graduate School of Defense Management, and Defense Analysis Department, at NPS. She is a founding member of NWSI and is interested in strategy, organizations, leadership, innovation, and how to educate strategic thinkers and learning leaders.

Major Sean F. X. Barrett, PhD is a Marine intelligence officer currently serving as the Operations Officer for 1st Radio Battalion.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines assess a terrain map during a simulated amphibious assault of exercise Talisman Sabre 19 in Bowen, Australia, July 22, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Tanner D. Lambert)