By Paul Lyons and Jon Solomon
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) heralded the end of the Department of Defense’s quarter century of emphasis on countering transnational violent extremist organizations and rogue regional powers. Although those threats hardly evaporated, they pale in comparison to the threats posed by China and Russia that have emerged over the past decade. As DoD’s NDS public summary observed, Chinese efforts to seek “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future” combined with Russian efforts to “shatter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor” fundamentally endanger U.S. security, prosperity, and influence.1
The 2018 NDS explains how DoD and the Joint Force will reorient for the new era of strategic competition with adversarial great powers. It recognizes that China and Russia institutionally perceive themselves as being in conflict with the U.S. and its allies, albeit below the level of open and violent clashes of arms. It likewise prioritizes the use of U.S. military power to deter Chinese and Russian leaders from forcible aggression while also shaping the strategic environment in priority theaters such that if deterrence fails, the U.S. and its allies can defend from the strongest political-military situation attainable.
The 2018 NDS designates the Indo-Pacific theater as the highest priority for day-to-day allocation of Joint Forces, and Chinese military power as the pacing threat for much of the Joint Force’s capability development efforts. It also recognizes the need to support competition and deterrence of aggression in Europe and the Middle East while simultaneously defending the American homeland. The 2018 NDS calls its approach for doing so the Global Operating Model (GOM). In our opinion, the GOM is the most important yet perhaps one of the least widely understood elements of the strategy.
This two-part series will illuminate the importance of the GOM, especially its Contact and Blunt layers. It will outline the GOM’s continuity with the successful U.S. strategic approaches to competition and deterrence during the Cold War, explain how this lineage informs the functions performed by the Contact and Blunt layers, and illustrate how naval forces uniquely contribute to and bridge between those two layers’ functions. In particular, it will show how the Contact layer is designed to reinforce deterrence through day-to-day shaping of how China and Russia perceive regional as well as global trends and balances involving all forms of national power, as well as by complicating their abilities to achieve strategic objectives below the level of armed conflict. Lastly, it will outline the attributes required of naval forces to support the Contact and Blunt layers, as well as the GOM’s overarching implications for future naval strategy and force employment.
One of us (Lyons) had the honor of serving as the Navy’s lead strategist on the 2018 NDS Core Team and was a member of the small group that developed and defined the GOM concept. Even though the GOM is applicable to all the services, the Contact and Blunt layers have unique—and intentionally designed—implications for the Navy-Marine Corps team. And even though the Biden Administration’s Office of the Secretary of Defense will soon debut a new NDS, which could result in the GOM’s elimination as an official construct, the Contact and Blunt layers’ logic will live on as long as their NDS continues to embody a forward strategy for competition, deterrence, and defense. We will outline why we believe this is so and what it means for America’s naval services.
The GOM’s Principles
On first glance the GOM’s four layers—Contact, Blunt, Surge, and Homeland—may seem to be entirely geographical. In actuality, they are primarily functional—they describe the roles the Joint Force is to perform, whether shaping or contesting below the level of armed conflict in support of competition and deterrence, or during the initial stages of an armed conflict to seize the initiative and enable a broader defense against aggression. The roles of each GOM layer translate into a logic for how Joint Forces are to be positioned, postured, and employed across the conflict spectrum, and are a major source of demand signals for Joint Force capability development.
The layers’ official public descriptions are sparse:
- Contact layer forces “work by, with, and through allies and partners to compete and defend U.S. interests below armed conflict.” Should an armed conflict erupt, Contact forces “enable Blunt and Surge forces.”
- Blunt layer forces “comprise combat-credible forward deterrent forces capable of contesting aggression by delaying, degrading, or denying enemy forces from quickly seizing their objectives.”
- Surge layer forces “provide agile, war-winning capabilities and capacity to reinforce the Contact and Blunt layers.”
- Homeland layer forces “persistently defend the American people and its territory from foreign attack.”2
Further details emerged from the Senate testimony of former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Strategy and Force Development) and 2018 NDS Core Team leader Elbridge Colby:
- Contact layer forces “orient activities in the ‘gray zone,’ especially in concert with allies, to prevent Russia or China from dominating the crucial perceptual landscape or surprising the United States and its allies by augmenting allied defenses, collecting intelligence, and challenging salami-slicing activities.”
- Blunt layer forces “focus U.S. and allied force development, employment, and posture on the crucial role of ‘blunting’: delaying, degrading, and ideally denying the enemy’s attempt to lock in its gains before the United States can effectively respond. Crucially, blunting is a function – not an attribute – of the force. The central idea is to prevent China or Russia from achieving a fait accompli – it does not require a fixed force. Indeed, blunting is likely to be done best by a combination of munitions launched from afar as well as forces deployed and fighting forward.” (Emphasis from the original.)
- Surge layer forces “provide the decisive force that can arrive later, exploiting the operational and political leverage created by the ‘Blunt’ Layer to defeat China or Russia’s invasion and induce them to end the conflict on terms we prefer.”
- Homeland layer forces “deter and defeat attacks on the homeland in ways that are consistent with the Joint Force’s ability to win the forward fight and favorably manage escalation.”3
Hence, the layer a unit is operating in is defined by the functions it performs based on its assigned roles, and not necessarily by where it is located.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, with the exception of forces employed in intervention operations or the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, forward deployed U.S. forces were primarily used day-to-day to tangibly demonstrate commitments to allies and partners worldwide, symbolically underscore regions’ importance to U.S. national interests, and underwrite peace and security within those regions. These forward forces did contribute to theater deterrence, but it was not their most highly prioritized function. The bulk of the post-Cold War U.S. deterrence approach rested on threatening regional “rogue” states with decisive defeats at the hands of forces surged into theater. If these countries embarked upon aggression, U.S. forward-deployed forces were not configured to deny them quick, cheap attainment of objectives since it was assumed that indications and warning would provide sufficient time for the Joint Force to amass an “iron mountain” in theater. Nor could these countries wield credible threats of escalation to outcompete U.S. power.4 U.S. forward-deployed forces’ task was to provide options for unleashing prompt and limited—albeit in some cases debilitating—conventional punishments in response to aggression.
The U.S. deterrence approach faced stresses during 2003-2011 due to the high demands of the Afghan and Iraq wars. The Navy’s ability to sustainably deploy combat-credible forces in theaters other than the Middle East was especially challenged by the steady decline in fleet size during this period.5 The approach was ultimately rendered ineffective, however, by the rapid growth in Chinese military power in eastern Asia and the parallel rise of aggressive Chinese regional revisionism following the 2008 global economic crisis, as exemplified by their 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, their efforts to militarize contested islands and shoals in the South China Sea, and their probes against the Japanese Senkaku Islands. Russia’s military modernization following the 2008 Russo-Georgia War, its annexation of Ukrainian Crimea and proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, and its subsequent stream of provocations along NATO’s territorial frontiers and maritime periphery further compounded the problem. U.S. forces in the Western Pacific and Europe were neither deployed in sufficient steady-state numbers, nor employed optimally in combination with the non-military elements of national power to dissuade China and Russia from limited acts of aggression below the level of armed conflict.
The 2018 NDS Core Team recognized the inadequacies of the post-Cold War force allocation models, especially in the face of enduring and perpetually evolving Chinese and Russian provocations or aggression below the level of armed conflict, reinforced by latent threats of conventional escalation (e.g. so-called “grey zone” or “sub-conventional” actions). The NDS Core Team also recognized that the solution required creation of a strategic construct that would require Joint Forces to be persistently present at or near points of friction in priority theaters to demonstrate American resolve and uphold international law, normative behavior, and diplomatic resolutions of bilateral and multilateral challenges while deterring escalation. And so the NDS Core Team tasked a small group of its members to develop the GOM.
The GOM development group recognized that the construct they devised levies a demand on the Joint Force and—to the seminal point of this article—especially on Navy forces to contribute to the Contact and Blunt layer functions through sustainable balancing of permanent forward basing, rotational deployments from U.S. homeports, and complementary unpredictable Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) actions. They also recognized that the construct they created was actually a 21st Century evolution of the successful model the U.S. used throughout the Cold War.
We’ve Done this Before
From the late 1940s through 1991, and excluding U.S. forces directly engaged in combat actions during the Vietnam War, the U.S. deployed Contact and Blunt layer-analogous forces in Western Europe and East Asia to deter and dissuade Soviet (and to a lesser extent, Chinese and North Korean) leaders from aggression, in part by shaping these leaders’ perceptions of costs and risks. U.S. forces did this by positioning and posturing combat-credible forces such that an adversary bent on territorial aggression against a U.S. ally would not be able to avoid clashing with U.S. forward forces—whether in central Europe, the Taiwan Strait, or South Korea—thereby creating a risk of potential nuclear escalation that adversary leaders deemed intolerable. In recognition of the fact that Soviet and North Korean conventional forces possessed quantitative advantages over combined U.S. and allied forces in central Europe and South Korea, the U.S. allocated additional Surge layer-analogous conventional forces for prompt movement forward in the event of crises or armed conflicts.
The combination of persistently forward U.S. forces and the demonstrated U.S. ability to surge massed conventional forces reinforced allied and partner military—and therefore political—confidence in America. This in turn supported U.S. employment of its diplomatic, economic, and informational elements of national power to contain and counter adversaries’ influence. All the while, the U.S. employed a subset of forces for the direct defense of the American homeland. U.S. defense strategy during the Cold War did not need to explicitly define the existence of Contact, Blunt, Surge, and Homeland layer functions—each was self-evident.
The Cold War analogy also shows how the Blunt, Surge, and Homeland functions are latent—they only become active in the event of adversary attack. The Blunt layer’s functions are most important for shaping competitor perceptions of the military balances in priority theaters, both day-to-day and as augmented by bomber strikes, airborne force insertions, and other Blunt-layer type capabilities that can be promptly brought to bear from afar. The Soviets used the term “correlation of forces” to define how they calculated theater as well as strategic military balances in reference to their wartime prospects; the contemporary Russian General Staff uses an expanded framework that includes estimates of the “military-political situation” and perhaps additional metrics for much the same purpose.6 It is unclear whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army employs frameworks analogous to the correlation of forces or the military-political situation, but elements of both may be present within the Chinese concept of measuring “comprehensive national power” (CNP), and force balances likely factor significantly within PLA operations research activities.7
In contrast, Contact layer functions are active every day. Much of the Contact function occurs at the “front” in priority theaters. For the Navy-Marine Corps team, this includes theater exercises that demonstrate blunting prowess, allied/partner solidarity, or force capabilities.18 It includes naval forces’ collection of information that can be publicly disseminated to shine a spotlight on adversaries’ malign activities and undermine their propaganda efforts.9 It includes routinized Navy freedom of navigation operations that challenge adversaries’ illegal claims over territories and water or airspace.10 It includes naval support to U.S. diplomatic operations, for example port calls in select, prioritized locations in theater that provide opportunities to demonstrate U.S. naval capabilities—and professionalism—to allied and partner leaders, both national and local, in government and in civil society.11 Contact functions include naval operations designed to frustrate adversaries’ efforts at sub-conventional employment of military or paramilitary forces to achieve objectives through ‘salami slicing.’12 Additionally, forward naval forces can seamlessly transition from active execution of Contact layer functions to latent execution of Blunt layer functions—or the inverse.
Further underscoring the point that the Contact function is not anchored to location, note the historical examples provided by the Navy’s attack submarines during the Cold War when they routinely trailed Soviet submarines in the open ocean.13 Soviet political and military leaders’ comprehension of their submarines’ acoustic inferiority likely contributed to diminished confidence in Soviet prospects in a war with the West. It also drove them to invest in significant undersea warfare capabilities the Soviet economy could not sustainably afford.14 Most significantly, if a war had erupted, U.S. attack submarines performing Contact layer functions in the open ocean could have promptly shifted to perform Blunt (or Homeland) layer functions by neutralizing the Soviet submarines they trailed or other targets, if so ordered.
A unit or force grouping’s ability to rapidly transition between functions illustrates how the GOM enables U.S. forces, and especially naval forces, to support deterrence and strategic competition simultaneously. This is especially the case for forward forces. A particular forward naval unit might take minutes, hours, or days to alter its posture or positioning such that it is optimized for performing Contact or Blunt layer functions. But even while it is emphasizing one layer’s functions over the other, it is still able to contribute to both. For instance, even a solitary small surface combatant conducting Contact layer functions in the South China Sea—such as placing itself in the vicinity of Chinese maritime forces harassing allied or partner maritime forces operating within international waters, filming and uploading video of the incident to the global internet, and perhaps even interposing itself—supports deterrence if it is supported by Blunt layer forces. This lone ship could be latently supported by other naval and Joint Forces, some deliberately detectable and others not readily detectable, so that Chinese leaders would know attacking the ship would ignite a process of escalation whose costs and risks would be assuredly higher for Beijing than any benefits an attack might provide. This is but one example of how conventional deterrence, intelligently applied and structured, can support efforts to counter sub-conventional coercion.
With intelligent allocation of U.S. forward forces in a theater between Contact and Blunt functions, using a diversity of unit stationing and postures informed by extant circumstances and assessments of adversary leaders’ mindsets, Geographic Combatant Commanders and their Joint component commanders can use Blunt layer forces to cover Contact layer forces and bolster deterrence. The inverse is also true: commanders can use Contact layer operations to incrementally set and shape the theater to increase prospects for wartime Blunt and Surge layer operational success if deterrence were ever to fail.
In Part 2, we will outline the strategic importance of forward “competition operations” to deterrence. We will also identify the necessary attributes for naval forces operating in the Contact and Blunt layers, as well as factors that strategists should consider when thinking about such operations. We will conclude with some thoughts regarding the GOM’s overarching implications for future naval strategy and force employment.
Paul Lyons is a Principal Policy Analyst at Systems Planning and Analysis (SPA), Inc. and a former Surface Warfare Officer with four command-at-sea tours in the Pacific. He previously served as Branch Head for Global Policy and Posture within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations and as the Navy’s lead maritime strategist within the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s 2018 NDS Core Team.
Jon Solomon is a Principal Policy Analyst at SPA, Inc. and a former Surface Warfare Officer.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the authors and are presented in a personal capacity. These views do not reflect the official positions of SPA, Inc., and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.
1. “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, January 2018; Pg1-2.
2. “Defense Budget Overview: United States Department of Defense FY2019 Budget Request.” Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) Chief Financial Officer, 13 February 2018; Ch2 Pg6. This source, on the same cited page, also refers to an additional “foundational layer” that provides the “nuclear; cyber; space; command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and strategic mobility capabilities” that underwrite the other four layers. The “foundational layer” is clearly functional.
3. Elbridge Colby. “Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Implementation of the National Defense Strategy.” 29 January 2019; Pg6.
4. Jim Mitre. “A Eulogy for the Two War Construct.” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 41 No. 4 (Winter 2019), Pg13-15.
5. The decline in fleet size is documented at “U.S. Ship Force Levels: 2000-Present.” Navy History and Heritage Command, https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/us-ship-force-levels.html#2000. For examples of how the decline in fleet size and unrelenting Geographic Combatant Commander demand for ships affected Navy operational tempo and readiness during this period, see 1. Andrew Scutro. “Staying At Sea: 2 Strike Groups Extended; More Long Deployments May Follow.” Navy Times, 28 September 2009; 2. Chris Cavas. “Frequent Deployments Take Toll: Quick-response policy fatiguing Navy’s fleet.” Navy Times, 04 October 2010; 3. Sam Fellman. “CNO: High Op Tempo Straining Fleet, Crises keep carriers, other ships at sea.” Navy Times, 08 October 2012.
6. See Clint Reach, Vikram Kilambi, and Mark Cozad. “Russian Assessments and Applications of the Correlation of Forces and Means.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020; Pg. 10-11, 24-25, 104.
7. See 1. Eric Heginbotham. “China Maritime Report No. 14: Chinese Views of the Military Balance in the Western Pacific.” U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, June 2021, https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1013&context=cmsi-maritime-reports, Pg3-5; 2. Timothy Thomas. “The Chinese Way of War: How Has it Changed?” Mitre Corporation, June 2020, Pg71-73.
8. For authoritative examinations of historical examples of contact layer functions in practice, see the U.S. Navy’s side in John Lehman. Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018; and the Soviet side in Maksim Tokarev. “Kamikazes: The Soviet Legacy.” U.S. Naval War College Review, Vol. 61 No. 1 (Winter 2014), https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol67/iss1/7/.
9. For examples, see the articles and imbedded videos at 1. Brad Lendon, Ivan Watson, and Ben Westcott. “‘Leave immediately’: US Navy plane warned over South China Sea.” CNN, 23 August 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/10/politics/south-china-sea-flyover-intl/index.html; and 2. Luis Martinez. “Chinese warship came within 45 yards of USS Decatur in South China Sea: US.” ABC News, 01 October 2018, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/chinese-warship-45-yards-uss-decatur-south-china/story?id=58210760. Selective embedding of independent media aboard U.S. ships and aircraft during such operations can dramatically illustrate Chinese and Russian malign maritime actions to American and international audiences, as well as highlight U.S. professionalism and resolve in protecting American vital interests—including allied and partner security. Moreover, they can demonstrate U.S. capability and resolve to compete in the “information environment.”
10. For examples, see 1. “7th Fleet conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation.” Office of the Chief of Naval Information, 12 July 2021, https://www.navy.mil/Press-Office/News-Stories/Article/2690226/7th-fleet-conducts-freedom-of-navigation-operation/; 2. Diana Stancy Correll. “Destroyer McCain conducts FONOP in Sea of Japan; Russia claims it led to a tussle with one of its destroyers.” Navy Times, 24 November 2020, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2020/11/24/destroyer-mccain-conducts-fonop-in-sea-of-japan-russia-claims-it-led-to-a-tussle-with-one-of-its-destroyers/
11. Authors’ personal experiences on many occasions while forward deployed during their active duty services.
12. For example, see Ben Werner. “Maritime Standoff Between China And Malaysia Winding Down.” U.S. Naval Institute News, 13 May 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/05/13/maritime-standoff-between-china-and-malaysia-winding-down. The “salami-slicing” metaphor was popularized by Thomas Schelling in his book Arms and Influence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966, Pg66–69, 77–78.
13. For example, see “Cold War Cat and Mouse, Part II.” Submarine Force and Library and Museum Association, 13 May 2014, https://ussnautilus.org/cold-war-cat-and-mouse-part-ii/
14. This conclusion derives from evidence such as authoritative Soviet acknowledgements of U.S. undersea advantage and its strategic implications in “Soviet Perceptions of U.S. Naval Strategy.” Central Intelligence Agency Office of Soviet Analysis, July 1986, Pg8-13; and from a quote attributed to former Soviet General Vladimir Dvorkin that in 1986 Soviet Northern Fleet leadership informed CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that the Soviet Northwestern Theater of Operations could not be successfully defended against the U.S. Navy in the event of war. See Lehman, Pg200-201.
Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA Sept. 25, 2020) USS Shiloh (CG 67), front, USS America (LHA 6), USS Antietam (CG 54), USS Germantown (LSD 42) and USNS Sacagawea (T-AKE 2), steam in formation with the Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), in support of Valiant Shield 2020. (U.S. Navy video by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Erica Bechard)