Small Wars Journal

Whistling in the Dark: Why the Pentagon’s Joint Concept for Competing is Not Enough

Thu, 11/09/2023 - 8:01pm

Whistling in the Dark

Why the Pentagon’s Joint Concept

for Competing is Not Enough

by Ryan Shaw

A tree fell in the Pentagon forest and, judging by the response, no one was around to hear it. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs signed the Joint Concept for Competing (JCC) in February and it was published without any formal announcement. Its release was noted in Small Wars Journal; only a few news outlets and analysts offered commentary. The muted response is surprising, because it is a serious and thoughtful document that aims to revolutionize the United States’ approach to employing military power in strategic competition—it is a big tree, indeed.

Given the stakes, which the Chairman identifies as a real risk that the United States will “lose without fighting,” the lack of buzz is more than curious—it’s deeply concerning. The JCC deserves a rigorous and open debate by all those concerned with U.S. national security. Further, it warrants serious investment toward implementation by the Defense Department and, indeed, by the whole of government. Because the most critical thing to know about the JCC is that it stands no chance of succeeding if it does not inspire as much action outside the department as inside. To make a real difference, the Joint Concept for Competing should be accompanied by an interagency National Concept for Competing.


What is the JCC for?

According to the Pentagon, “Joint concepts propose new approaches for addressing compelling challenges… for which existing approaches and capabilities are ineffective, insufficient, or nonexistent, thus requiring reexamination of how we operate and develop the future joint force.” By definition, they start with a problem. The problem the JCC sets out to address was most famously identified by George Kennan as far back as 1948: “We have been handicapped… by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war… and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations—the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.”

Three quarters of a century later, there is little doubt that when it comes to employing the military instrument to advance national interests outside a condition of declared hostilities, the United States’ existing approaches and capabilities are still ineffective, insufficient, or nonexistent. The JCC does not quote Kennan, but it does quote former Chairman General Joseph Dunford, who was surely channeling Kennan when he said, “We think of being at peace or war… our adversaries don’t think that way.” The JCC is noteworthy for recognizing that this misperception introduces a fundamental capability gap which will require for its resolution a paradigm shift for the Joint Force so profound as to be almost self-definitional.


Shifting the Mindset of the Joint Force

Effecting this comprehensive paradigm shift will require three supporting or enabling shifts of mindset, each of which is long overdue. While the JCC does not name them, it does address all three.

The first shift is away from short-termism toward a long view of strategic competition. The JCC defines strategic competition as a persistent and long-term struggle, repeatedly emphasizing that it is “an enduring condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved,” “often played out over decades,” requiring “planning horizons that go well beyond existing… thresholds.” “This indefinite nature of strategic competition,” it claims, “contrasts sharply with the more finite nature of armed conflict.”

This is an obvious nod to the work of philosopher James P. Carse, recently popularized by leadership guru Simon Sinek in his 2019 book The Infinite Game. (Neither is quoted in the JCC, but Carse is listed in the bibliography.) Interpreting Carse, Sinek argues that many leaders fail because they misunderstand the nature of the game they are playing, bringing finite mindsets to infinite games. Whatever their level of understanding, there is little doubt that short election cycles and even shorter command tours incentivize a finite mindset among American policymakers and military leaders, to the detriment of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy—for Exhibit A, see the common critique that in Afghanistan, the United States did not fight a single twenty-year war, but rather, twenty one-year wars. The JCC comes up a little short on identifying means of overcoming these structural incentives, but it will have done a great service if it at least starts to change the conversation and culture.

The second much-needed shift in mindset is from a reactive posture of merely countering adversary activities to proactively pursuing U.S. interests within the competition space. Like the finite mindset problem, this is rooted in that “popular attachment” Kennan diagnosed. Informed by what are truly noble traditions of civil-military relations and a historical antipathy to standing armies, Americans tend to view military activities outside of war as inappropriate, if not immoral. In the world we like to imagine, someone blows a whistle at the start of a war, the military kills people and breaks things until the whistle blows again and the war ends; then the troops, if they don’t lay down their arms and return to farms and factories, at least pack up and go back to cloistered bases where they refit, train, and wait for the next whistle. When adversaries use military force to press their advantages without blowing the whistle—in the grey zone, as it were—we see that as playing dirty, and while we might respond, we do so reluctantly, and only to the extent required to counter their aims.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. Combatant commanders have long conducted shaping operations during the period formerly known as “Phase 0,” the Navy patrols the global commons, and Americans are increasingly used to seeing the military deployed for disaster relief both at home and abroad. But these activities, we tell ourselves, are firmly focused on humanitarian efforts and enforcing the status quo, not proactively advancing our interests.

The JCC insists we must engage with the world we have, not the world we want, and this reactive stance is insufficient for the world we have. It explicitly “recognizes the Joint Force can use military capabilities outside armed conflict to shift the focus of strategic competition into areas that favor U.S. interests…” More specifically:

the Joint Force can create competitive opportunities by using military capabilities to proactively probe adversary systems for vulnerabilities; establish behavioral patterns joint forces can exploit in a crisis… shift the competition to sub-areas in which the United States can exploit its advantages… and attempt to divert adversaries’ attention and resources to sub-areas of secondary or tertiary importance to the United States.

If all of this must happen in that uncomfortable space where there are no whistles, that is something the American people and their leaders will have to get used to: “The central idea of this concept is to shift the Joint Force focus of strategic competition from reactive operational responses into proactive strategic actions that favor U.S. long-term interests.”

The third shift is from a mindset of “either/or” to “both/and” when it comes to irregular warfare versus large scale combat operations. As the United States transitions from the two-decade Global War on Terror and wakes up to the return of great power competition, the loudest voices are calling for rapid investment in the massive numbers of high-tech ships, planes, tanks, missiles, and other munitions required to win a conflict with a near-peer adversary. Retired Air Force Lt Gen David Deptula speaks for this crowd when he calls the last two decades the “era of the Great Distraction... We got too distracted from the real threats posed by China and Russia.” According to the diehards in this camp, the only task that matters now is preparing to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and everything else is a distraction—including supporting Ukraine against Russia, but especially any focus on retaining or improving irregular capabilities, which would just perpetuate the folly that got us here.

Opposing this consensus, a small but passionate chorus warns against spending billions preparing for a war that will never come. The lesson of the Cold War, they say, is that strategic competition will be decided by political warfare and proxies. They point to the persistent American tendency—as old as the U.S. Army itself—to insist that the most recent irregular conflict, whether the 19th century Indian campaigns, the Philippine Insurrection, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, was an aberration, the lessons from which are not worth institutionalizing because now it’s time to get back to the real business of preparing for conventional combat against another great power. The problem is not only that irregular threats have a pesky habit of demanding our attention and defying our vows of “never again,” but also, importantly, that irregular activities will necessarily be a part of any great power conflict before, during, and after conventional combat operations.

The obvious truth here is that both sides are right—and they’re both wrong, too. Whether motivated by crass bureaucratic parochialism or just a well-intended overreaction, both sides vastly oversimplify the current conundrum. Prevailing in strategic competition will require a two-part trick: the United States must maintain its advantage in conventional military capabilities such that adversaries know they cannot achieve their ends by force; simultaneously, it must win the contests that will then play out in the competition space, below the level of outright war. Neither is sufficient on its own; it has to do both. The United States will avoid the unthinkable big war only so long as its capabilities are sufficient to deter it. But even then, it is still possible to see strategic advantage; freedom of action; the ability to promote national interests, advance national values, and maintain a preferred vision for world order all eroded through an accumulation of minor setbacks. As the JCC says, “a competitive mindset begins with accepting that our adversaries have a very different conception of warfare; they intend to defeat the United States strategically without resorting to armed conflict to defeat the United States militarily.”

The zealots on both sides will probably never be satisfied. But for the thoughtful, open minds in the middle, the JCC offers a convincing argument that it is time to transcend dualistic thinking and embrace the inevitable:

The United States cannot forsake the military instrument; the potential for armed conflict remains a reality that the Joint Force cannot ignore. However, nuclear and conventional deterrence is not enough. The United States can and should develop a more holistic approach to strategic competition that recognizes and seizes upon the irregular, non-lethal, and non-military aspects of competing as fundamental to success…


A Civ-Mil Breach or a Cry for Help?

However daunting it might seem to change the culture of the military services in such fundamental ways, when it comes to making the JCC succeed, that’s actually the easy part. The real trick will be bringing the interagency along. A consensus has emerged in recent months about the inherently competitive nature of the international system—that is a good start. But every agency will require its own paradigm shifts akin to those outlined by the JCC. And then there are the structural barriers to integration.

It is worth remembering that the JCC was written by the Joint Staff—the uniformed side of the Pentagon. By calling for a reconsideration of the role of the military in American grand strategy, it might seem to be punching above its weight. To be sure, it does so very delicately, being careful to acknowledge the limits of its purview: “The Joint Force does not, and should not, have the authority or capability to require its interagency partners to coordinate, align, or integrate their competitive activities with those of the Joint Force.” Nevertheless, the requirement for someone to do so is clear. Near the top of the list in the JCC’s section on risk is the possibility that “Relevant interagency and allied partners may be unwilling or unable to align with the Joint Force… Current arrangements and relationships,” it explains, “are not well suited for integrated strategy development or campaigning with interorganizational partners.”

Perhaps this civil-military tension explains why the Chairman chose to release the concept so discreetly. In any case, there is an almost wicked problem at play here: the military cannot work in isolation to fix the fact that the military too often works in isolation. Like its 2018 predecessor, the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, much of the JCC reads like a cry for help:

The Joint Force is an important actor in countering adversary competitive strategies, but cannot do so alone. The most effective counter to an adversary competitive strategy is a fully integrated U.S. competitive strategy that cohesively and comprehensively brings together the components of national power to deliver effects across the strategic competitive space.

Some may say the JCC goes too far on this count, but it doesn’t go far enough to fix the problem—because it can’t. Until that cry for help is answered, no amount of change in the culture or capabilities of the Joint Force will result in the outcomes the JCC aims to achieve, and the risk of “losing without fighting” will remain an existential one.


From Joint to National

The action section of the JCC, called Combat Required Capabilities, offers a set of design aspirations required to implement the concept. These are sensible and mostly achievable if the military decides to commit. But the fundamental limitation of the concept is evident here, too. For instance, the capability for “Continuous, Globally Integrated Competitive Strategy Design and Production” assumes a set of conditions, including: “The Joint Force and its [interagency] partners have the authorities and mechanisms in place to conduct integrated planning for a globally integrated competitive strategy.”

That is the crux of the issue, buried in an assumption. Quite obviously, assuming that will not make it so. Making that assumption a reality will require someone outside the Joint Staff—and the department—to prioritize it and invest in it. Independent initiatives in other departments or agencies would suffer from the same limitations, even if they could muster the resources; it is difficult to transcend bureaucratic silos from within those bureaucratic silos. White House platitudes about “integrated deterrence” do not compel action. Only Congress can mandate integration across the interagency and provide the resources and incentives to get it done.

Calls for a “Goldwater-Nichols for the Interagency” are not new, but current strategic challenges make them more urgent than perhaps at any time since the original Goldwater-Nichols Act imposed a culture of jointness on the services. Legislation of that magnitude may not be presently within reach. But as the JCC demonstrates, these things can start with just a concept.

Congress should commission an interagency National Concept for Competing to accompany the JCC. Such a concept would aim at a uniquely American approach to competitive statecraft—the integration and synchronization of all instruments of national power in deliberate campaigns during both peace and war to secure the nation’s interests by advancing its values.

The U.S. military recognized that its usual approaches are inadequate for present and future challenges, so it developed a new concept to propose new approaches. It is time to do the same at the whole-of-government level, for the same reasons.



About the Author(s)

Ryan Shaw is a professor of practice in history and strategy and senior advisor to the president of Arizona State University. Prior to joining ASU, he served as a cavalry officer and strategist in the U.S. Army, leading strategic planning and assessment efforts and providing strategic advice to leaders at the highest levels of U.S. and multinational military organizations. A graduate of West Point and Yale University, Ryan has published widely in the fields of national security, grand strategy, strategic theory, and United States history.