If one were to ask ten service members, “what is competition?” they would be fortunate to receive around twelve different answers.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the title character famously asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Juliet’s theory of dialectic transposition works well with tangible objects like flowers, potatoes and potahtoes, or caffeinated sugary drinks but fails when applied to abstract concepts. The inability to assign a collective understanding to an intangible can be frustrating, troublesome, and confusing. When an ill-defined term becomes the foundation of foreign policy and security strategy it can lead to divergent efforts and misappropriation of finite resources by agencies executing their own understanding of the concept. The most recent manifestation of this lexiconic vulnerability is the lack of a shared definition of competition and an understanding what it entails across the U.S. military and the greater United States Government (USG). If the United States military is going to posture itself to respond to the mechanism through which revisionist powers degrade U.S. influence and challenge the current status quo it must develop a common definition of competition and more importantly what the military’s role within it is.
If one were to ask ten service members, “what is competition?” they would be fortunate to receive around twelve different answers. Expanding the query to the interagency would probably yield an exponentially larger number of definitions, explanations, and concepts. Despite the 2017 National Security Strategy’s prolific declaration that, “great power competition has returned” and the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’s introduction of “strategic competition” the Joint Force struggles with not only defining competition but operationalizing the concept to address the deliberate efforts to degrade global U.S. influence by revisionist and rogue states. The inability to collectively define competition leads to detrimental outcomes for the United States as LTG (R) Dubik recently pointed out in the ARMY Magazine “the U.S. has already failed at [deterring our adversaries from achieving their strategic goals below the threshold of conventional war.]”
There are two primary causes for the Joint Force’s inability to develop a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes competition in 2022. The first is the emphasis that Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) places on Napoleonic era theorists, an argument I made here in the War Room in 2021. The strategic focus on a war-peace binary built around decisive military victories leading to tangible and enduring political outcomes accurately describes nineteenth century Europe but is far from how the world of 2022 functions. An idea that is clearly understood by America’s principal geopolitical rivals, Russia and China, whose recent joint statement on international relations outlines their perception of a multipolar and interdependent world undergoing a radical redistribution of power. Despite this combined declaration the two nations cannot be viewed as a monolithic entity as is evident by Russia’s ongoing attempt to revert Ukraine into a suzerain state primarily through the use of military power to prevent NATO/EU expansion and reestablish their expanded sphere of influence. The second cause, and the focus of this brief paper, is the failure of the DoD to adopt a doctrinal definition of competition and establish a common understanding of its role within competition through common language.
Divided by a Common Language
Civilians often accuse the military of communicating in a unique language laden with acronyms, technical jargon, and operationally focused verbs aptly named MILSPEAK. The authoritative source for all things MILSPEAK is the 360-page DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. The 2021 version of the dictionary provides definitions to DoD terms ranging from “acceptability” to “zone of fire,” but surprisingly omits a definition of competition. When one widens the aperture beyond the dictionary and includes both joint and service specific doctrine, concepts, and policy, two distinct interoperations of competition begin to take form. The first, which I call the systemic approach, envisions competition as the inherent relationship between states within the international system and encompasses all activities from cooperation to large-scale combat operations. The second, I describe as the finite approach, views competition as a distinct activity occurring outside of crisis and conflict. Both concepts of competition have their benefits and detractions but present two different and divergent manifestations of the central concept of current U.S. security strategy.
The doctrinal foundation of the systemic approach is Joint Doctrine Note 1-19 (The Competition Continuum), which refined a non-linear / non-binary framework first introduced in 2017’s Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning (JCIC). JDN 1-19 describes competition as the manifestation of how states and non-states seek advantage to protect and advance national interests. It describes a world of, “enduring competition conducted through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict.” The JDN goes on to provide examples of state-based competition ranging from medal counts during the Olympics to nuclear war. One important aspect of the systemic approach is competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive conditions and the JDN offers concrete examples of states both cooperating and competing simultaneously.
The systemic approach is the most common approach across the DoD as the USAF and USMC have adopted variations of the competition continuum’s systemic view of the concept. This evident by the charge laid out to Marines in MCDP 1-4 Competing, “The most important task for Marines and the Marine Corps is to recognize that we are always competing.” The Army, who operates a finite approach, acknowledges existence of continuum but provides an alternative.
The Army’s concept of “strategic environments” highlights the finite approach to defining and understanding competition. The Army’s Multi-Domain Operations Concept identifies three distinct strategic operating environments: Competition, Crisis, and Conflict. The Army’s finite approach delineates specific activities, conditions, and actions for each environment diverging from the all-encompassing competition continuum. For example, the Army describes its role in competition as setting conditions to improve the ability to use or threaten the use military power against state actors to deter, compel, or coerce. The Chief of Staff of the Army outlines the services’ competition objectives in a 2021 white paper on MDO Transformation, “In competition, the Army provides the Department of Defense (DoD) with foundational capabilities and capacity to shape the environment. Army forces pursue relative positional and capability advantage to support Joint and political objectives.” A few months later The Chief of Staff of the Army published a white paper specifically on competition outlining the need for competition to be “broken into manageable subordinate parts,” or more specifically direct, indirect, and narrative competition. The Army’s service specific approach creates potential divergence with the remaining two-thirds of the members of the armed services whose systemic definition and operationalization of competition is not completely fungible with the Army’s finite framing. This divergence has the potential to obfuscate shared understanding at the strategic level of war and impede planning Joint operations but is not a new issue nor is it monopolized by the military.
While it remains far too early to declare the overall GWOT a success or failure both of the major large-scale military actions from that 20-year period ended on terms unfavorable to the United States.
History Repeats Itself
The 2017 return to great power competition concurrently marked the conclusion of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), ending nearly twenty years of U.S. security strategy focused on non-state actors. The GWOT suffered from a similar lexiconic challenge to the one the United States faces today. Terrorism, the very concept that the United States declared war on and spent over $9,000,000,000,000 to defeat remained ill-defined throughout the entire GWOT era. In “Inside Terrorism,” Bruce Hoffman shows how three of the principle government agencies used to prosecute the GWOT, the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the FBI, all used unique definitions of terrorism.
While it remains far too early to declare the overall GWOT a success or failure both of the major large-scale military actions from that 20-year period ended on terms unfavorable to the United States. The official Army history of the Iraq War declared “Iran was the only victor of the eight-year campaign” and the Taliban retook Afghanistan in a matter of weeks leading to the largest Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) in U.S. history. It would be foolish to point to a single factor for the aforementioned outcomes but Joint Doctrine Note 2-19 (Strategy) states “a strategy mismatched to the environment or the role of the organization it serves will likely fail.” While the inability to achieve a consensus of what our government was seeking to rid the world of during the GWOT illustrates both a lack environmental and organizational understanding it could provide valuable insight as the USG transitions to competition or now the emerging concept of campaigning.
As the United States faces direct and pressing challenges to its global influence, security interests, and the existing world order it helped shape; policy makers must take active steps to formulate a comprehensive strategic response. If competition is in fact the name given to our strategic answer to malign efforts by revisionist powers in the twenty-first century, then the United States Government and its subordinate agencies must define and operationalize the term just as NSC-68 attempted to do with containment during the last major period of geopolitical rivalry the United States faced. The introduction of campaigning as one of the three tenets of the recently released 2022 National Defense Strategy (NDS)’s appears to offer the DoD a viable mechanism to create common cross-service consensus around the operationalization of competition that is currently lacking.
In recent remarks to Congress Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outlined campaigning, as,
“The conduct and sequencing of coordinated military initiatives aimed at advancing well-defined, strategic priorities over time. The United States will operate forces, synchronize broader Departmental efforts, and align our activities with other instruments of national power to counter our competitors’ coercion, complicate their military preparations, and develop our own warfighting capabilities, along with those of our allies and partners.”
The concept takes steps to operationalize and define the military instrument power’s role in activities short of conflict and emphasizes whole of government efforts. The question now becomes, will the services, geographic combatant commands, and other semiautonomous extensions of the DoD quickly adopt and integrate similar constructs outlining and operationalizing their specific role in greater U.S. efforts in strategic competition or will they interpret the concept in a way that supports organizational preferences and biases.
It took the USMC and United States Army over three years to publish service specific guidance following the introduction of competition in 2017. Now much like Shakespeare’s Henry the V the services and combatant commands find themselves “once more unto the breach” in terms of understanding, defining, and operationalizing their role in military actives below levels of armed conflict. Time is of the essence to establish a consensus view of the concept of competition and extension campaigning and the role the military instruments of power have within it.
James P. Micciche is a Major and a Strategist in the U.S. Army. He is the G5 at the Security Forces Assistance Command (SFAC). He holds degrees from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Troy University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Detail from the Shakespeare Memorial in Southwark Cathedral of a recumbent alabaster figure of Shakespeare, carved by Henry McCarthy in 1912.