April 14, 2024
With William “Trey” Braun, Albert Lord, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel Michael Hatfield, Lieutenant Colonel James Hayes, and Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Ulmer.

A real erosion and profound vulnerability of U.S. position and influence are inescapable conclusions of three successive U.S. Army War College studies.

Hypercompetition and Reluctant American Great Power

In July 2017, the United States Army War College initiated the third in a series of year-long studies on key contemporary defense-relevant challenges. Each study benefits from some Department of Defense (DoD) sponsorship, as well as close working relationships with relevant defense and military stakeholders.

The most recent study examines the concept of contemporary military advantage and the emergence of hypercompetition across and within heavily contested warfighting domains in the Pacific Command (PACOM) area of responsibility (AoR). The study first targets the pacing and priority multi-domain threats emerging from China and North Korea. The work draws inspiration and understanding from two previous U.S. Army War College studies on gray zone threats and the adequacy of enterprise-level DoD risk assessment.

After two and a half years of work, troubling insights have emerged. Overall, the United States appears to be a reluctant great power persistently outmaneuvered and outplayed by its pacing and priority competitors. In addition to Chinese gray zone aggression and North Korean nuclear agitation, Russia is also engaging in a persistent counter-U.S. campaign.

All three have constrained U.S. freedom of action. Indeed, receding American influence and power are a direct result of the United States failing to adapt to a persistently transforming competitive landscape. Somewhere along the way through post-Cold War hyperpower, the United States lost its unassailable position. Since, it clumsily stumbled unprepared into a relentless and alien multi-domain struggle for exploitable but transient strategic advantage. And now, buffeted by disruptive events at home and abroad, the United States struggles to regain its balance and recoup positional and conceptual advantage vis-à-vis its two most consequential competitors — China and Russia.

Given the right combination of purpose, methods, capabilities, partners, and will, the United States can regain the strategic initiative. However, merely to stop backsliding, it first needs to decisively opt into the fight and commit itself to working harder and smarter than it has since the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States has boundless potential. Yet, potential, by itself, is inadequate.

Thankfully, the recently released National Defense Strategy (NDS) commits to deliberate competition with China and Russia. A recent Army War College study informs Department of Defense efforts to implement that strategy. Each insight bears on how American strategists should see contemporary strategic conditions and adapt to them to effectively compete.

1. Incontestable U.S. advantage is an artifact of the immediate post-Cold War period

In terms of raw potential, the United States remains the world’s leading military power. Militarily, it can physically reach further, deeper, and more comprehensively than any other state or combination of states. Potential, however, is an inadequate measure of contemporary military advantage. A real erosion and profound vulnerability of U.S. position and influence are inescapable conclusions of three successive U.S. Army War College studies of gray zone challenges (Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone), enterprise-level defense risk (At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World), and now the PACOM study on multi-domain military advantage and competition (publication pending in June/July 2018). This erosion of U.S. position is now an operating assumption of the Department of Defense (DoD). According to the recent NDS, “[The United States] is emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.”

“Emerging from” might be generous at present. However, recognition is the first step toward any recovery. Unassailable U.S. military advantage is no longer the dominant strategic reality for the Pentagon in virtually every region or functional domain. United States’ distraction, inaction, risk-confusion and risk-aversion, and a dated perspective on military competition have combined consistently surrendered the strategic initiative to consequential state-based challengers. The 2018 NDS acknowledges as much:

Challenges to U.S. military advantage represent another shift in the global security environment. For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority…We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted…where we wanted…how we wanted. Today every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. [emphasis original]

Loss of strategic initiative has allowed China and Russia to outmaneuver the United States in high-stakes international competition consistently. Their most active or aggressive counter-U.S. resistance occurs through asymmetric, hybrid, or gray zone methods short of war. Absent bold, deliberate United States’ counteraction, their politico-military gains at U.S. expense may become irreversible.

2. Hypercompetition defines contemporary counter-U.S. rivalry

Between the end of the Cold War and the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military grew comfortable with the unfettered freedom of action that accompanies twentieth-century conceptions of primacy. The Army War College’s 2017 risk work concluded that the operative reality today is much different. At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World labeled the current U.S. defense and military status quo as one of “post-primacy.”

Post-Primacy was never intended to indicate irredeemable loss. Instead, like the current National Defense Strategy, it was a call to arms. Post-primacy was an acknowledgment that the United States needs to work much harder and smarter across heavily contested competitive domains to gain, regain, exploit, and defend, a functional military advantage over capable rivals.

Since publication of At Our Own Peril, Army War College researchers increasingly use hypercompetition instead of post-primacy to characterize the strategic circumstances confronted by U.S. military forces. Coined by Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business Bakala Professor of Strategy Richard D’Aveni, hypercompetition is a path-breaking business concept that aptly captures the dilemmas of contemporary American insecurity. Translated to military rivalry, hypercompetition implies that the U.S. must rely on serial success in a persistent struggle for transient advantage to restore and maintain freedom of action. Altogether, winning in an era of hypercompetition is less about decisive and definitive victory. Instead it is characterized by the hard-earned, albeit somewhat unsatisfactory, privilege of enduring and persisting through high-level competition. It is about the constant and relentless pursuit of the next new exploitable window of fleeting strategic opportunity.

U.S. defense and military strategists must embrace an uncomfortable point of departure. They can no longer automatically assume local or functional overmatch. In the end, the Army War College researchers believe success in contemporary cross-domain military rivalry will emerge from imagination, creativity, and resourcefulness — combined with real capability — under progressively more intense hypercompetitive conditions.

It is apparent that advantage in the Indo-Pacific belongs to the bold.

3. Hybrid and gray zone competition are not “strategies of the weak”

The United States can no longer argue that Chinese and Russian hybrid or gray zone competition are signs of weakness in the face of overwhelming or dominant U.S. military power. Their gray zone methods are working. Thus, they are far more aptly described as strategies of the clever, persistent, and determined than they are of the weak or disadvantaged.

To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate a period of self-congratulation that no longer reflects reality. Expect Chinese and Russian approaches will be mimicked. Moreover, they will continue to succeed if U.S. and partner strategists cling to outdated conceptions of military competition and advantage. These sophisticated gray zone practices include the broad weaponization of all instruments of national power — including persistent, active, and innovative manipulation of the boundless and ever more vulnerable influence space. Though focused on avoiding the overt use of military force, purposeful Chinese and Russian gray zone campaigning against vulnerable U.S. and partner interests are effectively backed by latent, over-the-horizon threats of consequential military violence.

This combination of gray zone or asymmetric maneuver and real military hazard paralyze more aggressive U.S. counteraction in both the Indo-Pacific and European context by driving conservative U.S. risk calculations to prohibitive levels. According to one expert encountered during 2016-2017 War College risk research, China and Russia deter the United States with one set of methods and capabilities while actively operating against it with another.

4. U.S. strategic vulnerability is acute in the PACOM AoR

American interests are fundamentally vulnerable in and from the Indo-Pacific region. The region’s “pacing” threat — China — has enjoyed a near two-decade strategic holiday from U.S. military pressure. China used that time to its decisive advantage. Simultaneously, the region’s near-term “priority” threat — North Korea —altered its competitive position and leverage with advances in nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, paired with unpredictable and dangerous bellicosity.

China should pace DoD’s strategic regional outlook. However, the Chinese and North Korean challenges are also somewhat indivisible. Actions to counter one can impact the dynamics of the other. Recently, a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment to South Korea in response to the North Korean ballistic missile threat was met by Chinese economic coercion and diplomatic pressure targeting Seoul. China’s coercive actions elicited significant concessions from South Korea and tore at the symmetry of U.S. and South Korean interests. This dynamic will continue across the region to the extent the United States fails to reinforce its partnerships with meaningful action across a wide range of competitive spaces.

In the face of the Indo-Pacific’s pacing and priority challenges and in spite of a 2012 rebalance to the region, the United States is on the strategic defensive there. While the regional challenges are somewhat indivisible, the United States is particularly off-balance vis-a-vis China. The United States lost focus during the War on Terror. America’s diversion toward counterterrorism and counterinsurgency left frontline allied states like Japan and Korea uncertain about the commitment of the once regionally activist United States.

Likewise, the China threat is rapidly transcending the thorny military science problem of anti-access/area denial. With the principal goal of dislodging the United States as the Indo-Pacific’s most influential great power, China presents U.S. military forces in particular with complex, comprehensive cross-domain challenges at three distinct levels of escalation.

First, China currently dominates the gray zone, consistently combining military, paramilitary, and non-military instruments in nimble combinations of “influence, intimidation, coercion, and aggression to incrementally crowd out effective resistance, establish local or regional advantage, and manipulate risk perceptions in their favor.” Second, China’s substantial ballistic and cruise missile capability, increased investment in power projection air and naval forces, and substantial and demonstrable cyber, space, and EMS capabilities enable it to rapidly transition to a more coercive military posture.

China’s coercive capability is intended to nullify countervailing U.S. responses by paralyzing hyper-risk conscious U.S. decision-makers into fits of inaction. Finally, while a fully committed United States in concert with allies may prevail in open hostilities against China, the consequences associated with war on China’s home field leave the United States pondering significant and increasing risks of failure and excessive cost. To date, this extreme risk picture has led to harmful U.S. hesitation.

In addition to China, the near-term North Korean threat is heightening U.S. risk perceptions with wholesale nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. By doing so, it has substantially altered the character of theater competition. Escalation on either side now potentially threatens catastrophic impacts on South Korea, Japan, and U.S. Pacific territories. These circumstances exacerbate the US approach to China. In short, as the United States obsesses over the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear challenge, China escapes a watchful U.S. eye and, retains freedom of action throughout the Indo-Pacific.

5. United States’ immediate “re-entry” into the Indo-Pacific’s competitive environment

The current Army War College study recognizes the United States requires a bold, creative re-imagining of U.S. competitive strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. China is in the midst of a persistent, active, and effective gray zone campaign. To date, the United States has not yet come up with a suitable counter to real Chinese advances.

A suitable counter requires a more sophisticated understanding of contemporary advantage. To start, strategic advantage is transient, multi-domain, and often as much in the hands of the adversary as it is in those of the United States and its partners. Additionally, ownership of advantage is temporary, in persistent dispute, and not a permanent or inalterable state of being.

To thrive in PACOM’s hypercompetitive environment, the United States must first actively campaign alongside allies against China’s aggressive gray zone methods across and within all competitive domains. As time passes, it is apparent that advantage in the Indo-Pacific belongs to the bold. The new NDS indicates a shift in recent U.S. reluctance to act accordingly. And, to secure core regional interests, the U.S. and its allies must assume additional risk while actively transferring more of it to both China and North Korea.

In the end, a combination of U.S. and partner competitive potential can persistently generate and exploit new windows of politico-military advantage. Realizing this potential is a priority. However, currently, U.S. priorities are dominated by the urgent and less by the important. Increasingly, active Indo-Pacific hypercompetition falls decidedly into both categories.

The Competition is Inescapable

The United States has choices. It can re-enter active great power military competition as the National Defense Strategy suggests or it can continue taking counsel of its worst fears. Options on the table for China, Russia, and North Korea are not without risk. However, of late, paralyzing U.S. risk-confusion of the kind outlined in 2016’s Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone has only left important American interests and partners increasingly exposed.

When it rejoins the fight, the United States must be up for a relentless — often unconventional or asymmetric — struggle to gain and regain the upper hand. Winning is persisting. Winning is enduring. Winning is thriving in the face of constant discomfort. It’s time to punch in.

Mr. Nathan Freier is a Professor at the the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Mr. William “Trey” Braun is a Professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute.

Mr. Albert F. Lord, Jr. is a Professor at the U.S. Army War College, and a retired U.S. Navy Captain.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael S. Hatfield is a U.S. Army Air Defense officer and a member of the 2018 resident class of the U.S. Army War College class.

Lieutenant Colonel James A. Hayes is a U.S. Army Armor officer and a member of the 2018 resident class of the U.S. Army War College.

Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Ulmer is a U.S. Army Reserve Military Intelligence officer and a member of the 2018 resident class of the U.S. Army War College. 

Photo: An amphibious tank of Chinese People’s Liberation Army lands a beach during the third phase of the Sino-Russian ‘Peace Mission 2005’ joint military exercise on August 24, 2005 near Shandong Peninsula, China.

Photo Credit: China Photos/Getty Images


  1. According to the Business Insider, the U.S. ranks 36th in Mathematics, 28th in Science, and 25th in Reading. China ranks an impressive 1st in all three categories. We all either remember hearing or remember reading about the “space race” after Russia launched Sputnik and the U.S. scrambled to launch an aggressive and competitive space program with a parallel effort in science and math at schools across the nation.

    U.S. News and World Reports ranks the U.S. 8th in the composite categories of Adventure, Citizenship, Cultural Influence, Entrepreneurship, Heritage, Movers, Open for Business, Power, and Quality of Life. We could look up to Switzerland, Canada, and Germany (the top three), or we could “look down” on China (#20) and Russia (#26). Clearly we should not be surprised that our hyperpower is no longer substantiating our post-Cold War view of ourselves as the Sole Superpower.

    The Foreign Policy Association identified the waning of Pax American as one of eight “great decision” topics for 2018. The CIA ranks the U.S. 43rd in life expectancy and 170th in infant mortality (worse than 55 countries). In terms of the U.S. as the “world’s leading military power,” with cyber warfare, counterinsurgency operations, battles for diminishing natural resources such as water, and energy challenges, power projection and power assessments may be slightly obsolete focal points.

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