The Global Operating Model’s Contact and Blunt Layers: Cornerstones for U.S Naval Strategy, Pt. 2

Read Part One here.

By Paul Lyons and Jon Solomon

In Part 1, we summarized the principles and functions underpinning the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s (NDS) Global Operating Model (GOM). We outlined the factors that motivated GOM development, and showed how the GOM’s historical lineage informs its contemporary utility. In today’s second and final installment in this series, we will outline the strategic importance of forward “competition operations” to deterrence. We will then 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.

The Strategic Importance of “Competition Operations” to Deterrence

Contact layer support to deterrence goes beyond provision of support to the Blunt layer. To understand the connections between day-to-day competition operations in the Contact layer and deterrence against more acute aggression, one must first understand how the Chinese and Russians think about deterrence.

The (since superseded) 2013 edition of the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science’s authoritative textbook Science of Military Strategy notes that deterrence strength derives in part from the “global strategic balance,” which itself is informed by assessments of “comprehensive national power” (CNP). CNP, which “takes economy and science and technology as the core” and includes political, military, and diplomatic power, significantly shapes Chinese perceptions of opportunities, threats, and risks. The Science of Military Strategy’s writers assert that all the elements of national power combine to “create optimum conditions for achieving the deterrence goal,” with the non-military elements serving as means that support the military element.1

Russian military theorists similarly define strategic deterrence as:

“…a package of coordinated political, diplomatic, economic, ideological, moral, spiritual, informational, scientific, technological, military, and other actions taken by a country to demonstrate the decisiveness of the political leadership to tap all instruments of state power consecutively or simultaneously—to stabilize the military, political, and strategic environment, to anticipate aggression, and to deescalate military conflict.”2

Russian strategic deterrence assessments are likely informed by estimates of the “military-political situation” at the global, regional, and local levels as well as estimates of how political, military, economic, and perhaps also technological power holistically blend into “state power.”3

We see, then, that both China and Russia link theater deterrence with strategic deterrence, and perceive strategic deterrence as encompassing more than solely military factors. It follows that Contact layer operations that affect Chinese and Russian perceptions of American political, diplomatic, informational, and economic influence within the Indo-Pacific and Europe therefore likely have deterrent effects beyond mere correlations of forces. The same is likely true for Contact layer operations that support the perceived bolstering of American economic strength by supporting relations and favorable market access to trading partners, diplomatic and informational strength by reinforcing relations with longstanding allies and partners while cultivating new ones, and technological strength by demonstrating impressive new capabilities or fielding them quickly. And of course, Contact layer operations that shape perceptions of American political strength by demonstrating U.S. leaders’ resolve likely have a disproportionate effect on deterring Chinese and Russian leaders from engaging in aggression they deem to carry uncomfortable risk, and correspondingly for assuring allies and partners.

None of this is different from how U.S. forces, and especially naval forces, were employed forward in day-to-day operations during the Cold War in support of strategic competition—and in turn deterrence.4 Naval forces are unique within the Joint Force in that they are not garrison forces: they regularly deploy from homeports and bases into prioritized regions, and spend most of their deployed time in their intended operating environments at sea or ashore. Their operational tempo during day-to-day strategic competition must be carefully balanced against the time and resources needed to restore and preserve elements of their combat and material readiness. However, just as excessive operational tempos negatively affect naval force readiness, naval forces also lose elements of their competitiveness, deterrent, and combat effectiveness when they are reduced to a “fleet in being” kept pierside or in home waters.

Indeed, failures to confront adversary efforts to erode norms or employ calibrated sub-conventional aggression at forward friction points, especially within prioritized theaters, risks sending adversary leaders dangerous signals. As we have noted, authoritative Chinese and Russian literature strongly imply that military balances are just one of the metrics their leaders take into account within their decision calculus. U.S. efforts at maintaining deterrence stability benefit from convincing Chinese and Russian leaders that holistic strategic and theater trends remain unfavorable for them to chance major aggression.

This is not just an East Asia or Eastern Europe consideration given how Chinese and Russian estimates of U.S. strategic power are measured regionally as well as worldwide. The 2018 NDS prioritized the Indo-Pacific and Europe for day-to-day allocation of the most combat-capable and campaign-critical forces. That does not mean that U.S. forces should not be used economically to support strategic competition with China and Russia at carefully selected friction points elsewhere. Indeed, Contact layer operations at friction points in secondary theaters can sometimes offer low-cost opportunities for shaping Chinese and Russian global power estimates and complicating their abilities to score grand strategic gains they value highly, which in turn may indirectly reinforce deterrence against aggression in the priority theaters. Naval forces provide scalable, tailorable, and highly mobile options for performing these kinds of operations, including from within international waters with no dependence on a host nation. The 2018 NDS’ Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) concept, which emphasizes proactive and operationally unpredictable force movements and actions, provides an additional framework for tailoring Contact layer naval operations at select friction points in support of deterrence and strategic competition.

Deterrence stability also benefits from not pressing adversaries in places and ways that excessively exacerbate their fears based on their perceptions of extant circumstances, regardless of whether the U.S. instrument of competition is military, non-military, or both in tandem. Conventional deterrence works best if adversary leaders are primarily motivated by opportunism; it does not work as well if adversary leaders are primarily motivated by desperation and fear.5 An approach that carefully balances deterrence and competition with reassurance and restraint is necessary. It is essential that authoritative intelligence estimates of adversary mindsets, calculus, and objectives under extant circumstances dynamically inform Contact layer operations and Blunt layer configuration and posture.

Ultimately, decisions regarding which friction points U.S. naval forces should contest and in which theaters, and the timing and means for doing so, are reserved for U.S. political leadership. The naval services’ responsibility is to possess the requisite concepts, capabilities, and readiness to provide U.S. political leaders a range of flexible options for Contact layer actions, and a range of credible and effective options for Blunt layer design.

Attributes of and Considerations for Naval Forces in the Contact and Blunt Layers

A force’s required attributes—the functional characteristics it needs in order to support strategic objectives—can be derived from strategy to inform force design and development. The Contact and Blunt layers create demands for specific attributes from naval forces.

Responsive. Naval forces need to be positioned and postured such that they can respond on timelines necessary to generate circumstantial competitive or deterrent effects at forward friction points. This generally means Contact and Blunt layer naval forces must be forward deployed, whether permanently, rotationally, or situationally (e.g. DFE)—and whether at the front in a theater or further afield.

Credible. Adversary leaders must perceive forward naval forces’ capabilities, quantities, positioning, and posture as sufficient to make aggression unattractively costly and risky. It does not matter whether U.S. leaders perceive forward naval forces as sufficient or not; adversary perceptions are what matter for deterrent and competitive effect.

Persistent. Forward naval forces may need to remain in a given area during day-to-day or crisis operations for long periods. They require the ability to sustain themselves through economical consumption of fuel and materiel and by leveraging theater logistics networks.

Tailorable. Forward naval forces may be required to generate a wide variety of deterrent or competitive effects based on U.S. objectives and extant circumstances. This primarily translates into requirements for flexibility, selective visibility, and scalability:

  • Flexible. Forward naval forces possessing multi-mission capabilities and training, adjustable payloads (whether equipment, munitions, or personnel), and design features that enable operations in a wide variety of climates provide U.S. leaders with a range of tailorable options for deterrence and competition. By virtue of being forward, naval forces can also provide flexibility through their abilities to swing between Contact and Blunt layer tasks.
  • Selective Visibility. Clearly visible naval forces provide signaling options in support of deterrence and allied/partner assurance. Naval forces that are less visible if not virtually undetectable also support deterrence since they are difficult for an adversary to preemptively neutralize and can pose substantial latent threats to an adversary’s plans. Many naval forces can tailor their relative visibility by changing their operating postures. For example, normally highly visible surface combatants and Marine forces can reduce their emitted signatures to complicate adversaries’ abilities to detect, localize, and classify them. Conversely, normally undetectable submarines can conduct actions such as port calls to indicate their forward presence. A tailored balance across the spectrum of naval visibility, based on circumstances and adversary mindsets, can amplify deterrence credibility while generating competitive effects.
  • Scalable. Some deterrent or competitive effects benefit from the employment of a Carrier Strike Group or Marine Expeditionary Unit. Many others, however, only require a single ship (not even necessarily a major combatant) or a Marine rifle company. The ability to use aggregation or disaggregation to scale the naval forces allocated to a particular Contact or Blunt layer task based on mission needs and circumstances further expands U.S. leaders’ tailorable options. Furthermore, the ability to be highly economical in scaling naval force allocations for Contact layer tasks provides opportunities to generate competitive effects without detracting from the naval forces needed for Blunt layer credibility and responsiveness in priority theaters.

However, strategists must be aware of considerations that bound naval forces’ effective use in support of the Contact and Blunt layers.

Sustainability. As a Western Hemisphere nation with Eastern Hemisphere vital interests, U.S. naval force employment must balance between the forward presence required for Contact and Blunt layer tasks and the preservation of Surge layer material readiness. Continued elevated use of Carrier Strike Groups for Blunt layer tasks in the Middle East in recent years has complicated the fleet’s ability to maintain a stable balance between deployments and shipyard maintenance.6 This imbalance detracts from the time the fleet needs to restore readiness and availability for rotational deployments from the United States to the prioritized Indo-Pacific and European theaters—and for emergent Surge layer tasks. It also consumes ships’ operational service lives on a pace faster than was anticipated in their designs.7 In the absence of the larger fleet the nation needs, strategists are left with two options: marginal increases in the numbers of naval forces forward deployed in priority theaters (whether permanently at existing bases, or on extended deployments operating from transient “places” while using “multi-crewing” concepts), or marginal restraint regarding where, how often, and how many naval forces are rotationally deployed. The Department of the Navy can only provide recommendations regarding these options; decisions are reserved for the Secretary of Defense or the President, and successive Presidential administrations have been unwilling to substantially reduce naval presence in or refrain from responsively surging naval forces to the Middle East.8

Survivability. Blunt layer design in particular needs to balance naval forces’ visibility with preservation of their survivability. Adversaries need to perceive that a war-opening first salvo attack would fail to prevent forward U.S. naval forces from promptly reconstituting the critical mass needed to bog down the adversary’s thrusts against allied/partner forces or territories and bleed the adversary’s spearhead forces.9 A tailored mix of naval forces and postures, ranging from highly visible to nearly invisible, creates a mutually reinforcing maritime deterrent system. The integration of this maritime system within a broader Joint and Coalition theater deterrent further balances between the visibility and survivability attributes.

PEARL HARBOR (July 28, 2021) Sailors assigned to the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Chicago (SSN 721), along with civilian contractors with BAE Systems, load a UGM-84 anti-ship harpoon missile onto the submarine in preparation of Large-Scale Exercise (LSE) 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro)

Predictability. Some operational predictability can erode deterrence, as an adversary can note and potentially exploit the precise timing and timelines for when naval forces regularly rotate into and out of a theater. Likewise, if the flexible deterrent option selected to push back on an adversary’s provocations tends to be the same every time, that option’s effectiveness may decline. However, operational unpredictability can also erode deterrence, as an adversary can take note of and exploit transient naval presence near a friction point if it believes it can score a desired gain before the U.S. can dynamically reposition naval forces for Contact or Blunting purposes. Operational unpredictability can be especially destabilizing if adversary leaders misperceive U.S. intent behind a maritime DFE operation, resulting in inadvertent provocation. Authoritative, intelligence-informed operational planning is essential for mitigating risks stemming from a contemplated operation’s predictability or unpredictability.

Naval Forces and the New Era of Enduring Strategic Competition

The post-Cold War era was born with the Soviet collapse. It arguably ended with the rise of Chinese and Russian revisionist ambitions, and their development of significant military capabilities aimed at supporting those ambitions. We therefore find ourselves at the dawn of a new era—a “return to history.” The circumstances of the Cold War and the present are hardly identical, but they are similar enough to make it worthwhile for us to look back into our strategic past to understand what old concepts might offer value as adapted to present and future challenges.

The U.S. military’s ability to hold the line during what will likely be a multi-decade strategic competition with China and Russia, and especially the prevention of ruinous major war, requires the intelligent and balanced use of forces in prioritized regions and globally. The GOM represents a 21st century update of America’s Cold War-era strategic approach for doing so. Just as was the case during that twilight struggle, naval forces provide unique attributes for supporting deterrence and strategic competition at forward friction points. Disciplined implementation of the GOM enables use of naval forces for strategic competition without undermining deterrence, and vice versa.

There is no analytic evidence the United States needs a fundamentally different naval force architecture (which includes but is not necessarily limited to fleet composition, organization, command and control philosophy, and operating concepts) to support strategic competition from the one it needs to support deterrence. From the birth of our democratic republic onward, we designed the bulk of our naval forces for utility in armed conflict, which gave them the versatility they needed for steady state competition operations and the combat credibility they needed for deterrence. Rigorous quantitative analysis may find naval force architecture should change on the margins in order to provide better balances between the needs of deterrence and strategic competition, but as we have shown the two do not distinctly trade against each other when intelligently applied within a strategic design like the GOM.

The United States does need a larger Navy-Marine Corps team in order to increase its sustainable ability to support the deterrence and geopolitical competition requirements flowing from national strategy, or rather to reduce strain on and risks to naval force material readiness. To do this, the naval services will need to explain to the American people in more concrete terms how investments in larger naval forces will augment our nation’s ability to protect our security, prosperity, and influence. The GOM offers the foundation—and the American historical continuity—for explaining the naval services’ strategic contributions.

Even with larger naval forces, however, strategists will still need to prioritize where, when, and how naval forces are allocated to Contact and Blunt layer tasks. Chinese military capabilities and capacity are likely to grow on a scale that threatens U.S. vital interests in ways not seen since the Cold War, if ever. Russian military capabilities and capacity likely will not grow on anything close to a similar scale, but will retain the ability to pose threats to U.S. vital interests. The Navy-Marine Corps team will not be able to use force growth alone to solve their naval strategic challenges. Integrated solutions with the other services, the interagency, and allies and partners will be necessary for deterrence and strategic competitive effectiveness. The Contact and Blunt layers provide the functional logic along which all these players can combine their respective efforts with naval forces to greatest effect.

Specifically, the United States should look to allies and partners to shoulder significant roles within the Contact and Blunt layers. Allies and partners should specifically carry solitary responsibility for direct defense of their maritime territories and commercial interests from sub-conventional “salami slicing” aggression, if only because this often constitutes enforcement of their national laws and sovereignty. U.S. naval forces can and should operate in ways that counter Chinese and Russian threats of using conventional escalation to undermine allied and partner constabulary operations. U.S. naval forces can also provide allied and partner constabularies with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support. U.S. naval forces should not, however, actually perform domestic maritime policing actions for allies and partners. Nor should U.S. naval forces spend scarce resources developing duplicative Blunt layer capabilities in which allies or partners arguably possess competitive advantage, such as flotillas of fast coastal missile boats.

Absent the GOM, U.S. leaders would face reduced strategic influence in critical regions, with associated decrements to the American people’s security and prosperity, as the non-military forms of U.S. national power would lose the forward military power bulwark they rest upon. U.S. leaders would correspondingly also lose options for proactive, credible conventional deterrence by denial against aggression. The majority of options would likely become reactive, and in fact compel near-total reliance on conventional deterrence by punishment with all its shortcomings, if not nuclear deterrence and its credibility issues relative to deterrence of sub-conventional or limited conventional aggression.10 The practical consequence would likely be the United States retreating to its pre-1945 de facto strategic emphasis on compellence by rollback, which lacks credibility against nuclear-armed great powers.

Current U.S. leaders show zero signs of wanting to live in such a world.11 And so the GOM will likely survive in the 2022 NDS to the benefit of U.S. naval forces, perhaps not in name, but almost certainly in functions.

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. “Science of Military Strategy (2013).” Translated by Air University China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2021; Pg.84, 86, 94, 102, 104, 130, 136, 139, 152, 168-169, 178, 188-189, 306.

2. “Russia Military Power.” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017; Pg23.

3. “Russian Assessments and Applications of the Correlation of Forces and Means;” Pg22-25, 104, 112, 127-128.

4. The 1980s Navy’s Maritime Strategy described these functions in detail. See John D. Hattendorf and Peter Swartz, eds. “U.S. Naval Strategy in the 1980s: Selected Documents. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2008; Pg48-52, 154-162, 213-214, 282-287, 306-308.

5. See Janice Gross Stein, “Deterrence and Reassurance,” in Behavior, Society, and Nuclear War, Vol. 2, eds. Philip E. Tetlock et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), Pg16; and Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), Pg137, 139–40.

6. Megan Eckstein. “No Margin Left: Overworked Carrier Force Struggles to Maintain Deployments After Decades of Overuse.” U.S. Naval Institute News, 12 November 2020,

7. CDR Isaac Harris, USN. “Change the Surface Navy’s Maintenance Philosophy.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 147 No.8 (August 2021),

8. Bryan McGrath. “The Problems of Politics and Posture are Baked into the System.” War on the Rocks, 05 January 2022,

9. Jon Solomon. “Parrying the 21st Century First Salvo.” Center for International Maritime Security, 07 July 2016,

10. Jonathan F. Solomon. “Demystifying Conventional Deterrence.” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 07 No. 4 (Winter 2013), Pg120, 135.

11. The Biden Administration’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states that “At its root, ensuring our national security requires us to… Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions…” (Pg9). It also states that “Elsewhere, as we position ourselves to deter our adversaries and defend our interests, working alongside our partners, our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.” (Pg15). Had the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s 2021 Global Posture Review opted in favor of reduced force allocations to the Indo-Pacific and Europe, in favor of increased reliance on achieving deterrence through DFE or responsive force surges forward, it would have suggested a 2022 NDS shift away from deterrence by denial and towards deterrence—or compellence—by punishment, possibly paired with rollback campaigns.

Featured Image: SOUTH CHINA SEA (Oct. 30, 2021) U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67), U.S. Navy Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG 57), U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Milius (DDG 69), Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Murasame-class destroyer JS Murasame (DD 101), and JMSDF Izumo-class helicopter destroyer JS Kaga (DDH 184) transit together in the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Haydn N. Smith)

One thought on “The Global Operating Model’s Contact and Blunt Layers: Cornerstones for U.S Naval Strategy, Pt. 2”

  1. The problem that remains however is that you need a big enough fleet (size wise) to do all of this and the USN surface ship count has shrunk to a point where it can no longer follow this model.

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