21st Century Military Power: Changing the Hard and Soft Power Calculus


2018-01-12 By Robbin Laird

The US military has been focused along with core allies in fighting counter-terrorism land wars for more than a decade, which represents a defining generation of combat experience for the joint, and coalition force.

There has been significant combat learning in shaping new approaches to counter-terrorism and land engagements.

But the strategic shift in the global situation, the rise of peer competitors in conventional forces and the return of the salience of nuclear weapons via second nuclear age powers, concepts of operations and technology developed for the land wars are challenged by the emergence of the next phase of warfare, one might characterize as a multi-domain spectrum of conflict.

There are several elements of the new situation which are recasting the spectrum of conflict within which high intensity warfare capabilities are being interwoven into political military realities facing the US and allies when dealing with peer competitors.

The Nuclear Dimension

Both Russia and China are nuclear powers, and certainly in the Russian case modernization of their nuclear arsenal is providing new capabilities within their operational force which could allow for earlier use.

And the North Korean nuclear efforts along with anticipated other second nuclear powers, perhaps Iran, have posed fundamental considerations about where exactly to find the nuclear threshold in potential global conflict.

Put in other terms, engagements with second nuclear age powers or with peer competitors will always have a nuclear dimension, either in terms of deterrence or engagement.

The return of Herman Kahn and thinking the unthinkable is upon us, whether we want it or not.

As Danny Lam has put it:

A nuclear device need not necessarily be a WMD with a more up to date definition used by the CCA that do not define nuclear as WMD by default.

Prevention of mass destruction & casualties may require the nuclear threshold to be crossed in a judicious and tightly controlled manner when there is no other feasible method.

It does not follow that crossing the nuclear threshold in such a manner will automatically lead to wholesale nuclear war.

There is no reason why an escalatory latter have to exist for a given adversary or for it to be operative.

On the contrary, nuclear explosives may be the only practical way to prevent war caused by indiscriminate use of nuclear weapons in dangerous hands like North Korea.

Technology and doctrine have evolved since nuclear weapons were used last in 1945 and WMD taboos became institutionalized in international law.

The laws are now obsolete.

The nuclear threshold as it was formulated in the 20th century may be no less an obsolete concept than the Pope Innocent III’s prohibition on the use of crossbows on Christians.

Peer Competitors and High End Conventional Capabilities in the Service of Global Engagement

A second key element is the changing nature of the threat posed by peer competitors, which has been characterized by some as anti-access area denial capabilities.

What this entails is shaping missile enabled air, ground and naval forces which can leverage both defensive systems such as the S-400 and strike missiles, for now cruise but with perhaps hypersonic systems in the mid term future.

The US and the allies engaging peer competitors with evolving capabilities is requiring nothing less than changing our own template of operations and introducing new capabilities, fifth generation aircraft, new C2 systems, laying down the foundation for distributed operations, developing enhanced multi-domain operational capabilities.

There is a major shift in operational foci for both peer competitors and the US and its allies, which is being empowered by new systems, new training, new concepts of operations, and new areas of conflict, such as in the cyber domain.

And this in turn in resetting the spectrum of conflict within which engagements are occurring and will occur.

Projected S-400 range from Kaliningrad.


As Admiral Wang put it with regard to how he saw the challenge to Denmark and to Northern Europe posed by the Russians and their advanced systems:

Wang clearly argued that the Russian challenge has little to do with the Cold War Soviet-Warsaw Pact threat to the Nordics. The Soviet-Warsaw threat was one of invasion and occupation, and then using Nordic territory to fight U.S. and allied forces in the North Atlantic. In many ways, this would have been a repeat of how the Nazis seized Norway during a combined arms amphibious operation combined with a land force walk into Denmark.

In that scenario, the Danes and their allies were focused on sea denial through use of mines, with fast patrol boats providing protection for the minelayers.

Aircraft and submarines were part of a defense in depth strategy to deny the ability of the Soviets to occupy the region in time of a general war.

He contrasted this with the current situation in which the Russians are less focused on a general war, and more on building capabilities for a more limited objective, controlling the Baltic States. He highlighted the arms modernization of the Russian military focused on ground-based missile defense and land- and sea-based attack missiles, along with airpower, as the main means to shape a denial-in-depth strategy which would allow the Russians significant freedom of maneuver to achieve their objectives within their zone of strategic maneuver.

A core Russian asset is the Kalibr cruise missile, which can operate off of a variety of platforms. With a dense missile wolf pack, so to speak, the Russians provide a cover for their maneuver forces. They are focused on using land-based mobile missiles in the region as their key strike and defense asset. “The Russian defense plan in the Baltic is all about telling NATO, we can go into the Baltic countries if we decided to do so. And you will not be able to get in and get us out. That is basically the whole idea,” the admiral said.

Wang argued for a reverse engineering approach to the Russian threat. He saw this as combining several key elements: a combined anti-submarine (ASW), F-35 fleet, frigate- and land-based strike capabilities, including from Poland.

The Russian takeover of the Crimea was the first step in the reshaping of the spectrum. Here the Russians introduced a multi-domain approach to victory, backed by having a significant combat force, which could deter NATO from doing much about it.

And as Russia looks to the Baltics or the Chinese look to expand their control over the South China Sea, tactics and strategy are relying on their new power projection tools in support of a proactive engagement to reshape the strategic situation to their advantage.

Put in other words, military means associated with high intensity warfare capabilities, combat ships, combat aircraft and a strong missile force are being combined with a proactive strategy of engagement and expansion.

Dealing with the Threat

The nature of the threat facing the liberal democracies was well put by a senior Finnish official in a recent briefing: The timeline for early warning is shorter; the threshold for the use of force is lower.

What is unfolding is that capabilities traditionally associated with high end warfare are being drawn upon for lower threshold conflicts, designed to achieve political effect without firing a shot.

Higher end capabilities being developed by China are Russia are becoming tools to achieve political-military objectives throughout the diplomatic engagement spectrum.

This means that not only do the liberal democracies need to shape more effective higher end capabilities but they need to learn how to use force packages which are making up a higher end, higher tempo or higher intensity capability as part of a range of both military operations but proactive engagement to shape peer adversary behavior.

For example, one is buying fifth generation aircraft not simply to prepare for an all out war to defend the democracies, but to provide tools for governments to defend their interests throughout the spectrum of warfare and co-associated diplomatic activity as well.

For example, as the Russians were consolidating gains from the Crimean seizure, we noted ways moving forward one might deal with this kind of behavior, which although not at the high end was, informed an enabled by the presence of higher end warfare capabilities, both conventional and nuclear.

An Air Force B-2 bomber along with other aircrafts from the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fly over the Kitty Hawk, Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike groups during the photo portion of Exercise Valiant Shield 2006. Valiant Shield focuses on integrated joint training among U.S. military forces, enabling real-world proficiency in sustaining joint forces and in detecting, locating, tracking and engaging units at sea, in the air, on land and cyberspace in response to a range of mission areas. Credit: Headquarters USMC, 6/18/06

We wrote in 2014 about ways to leverage higher end capabilities into the spectrum of warfare introduced by the Russians into Ukraine in a way that would matter in perhaps both shaping more favorable political outcomes and laying a foundation for more robust ways ahead if needed.

Simply asking Putin to man up and take responsibility is not going to get the job done.  The United States needs to shape its own capabilities for 21st century warfare.

We could start by trying to actually engage in the information war which the Russians are conducting.  Clearly, leveraging intelligence assets and putting the story into the Western press in DETAIL is crucial to position oneself for an effective information war engagement.

This is not about feeling good; it is about defeating the Russian information war gambit, which is holding the West responsible to trying to take advantage of the crisis for political advantage.  We may feel privately that his position is less than credible; but it can be clearly believed worldwide.

But we need a hard power response to go with the diplomatic kabuki dance in which we are not engaged.  And one clearly is at hand.

We argued in our book with Richard Weitz on Pacific strategy, that U.S. military power needed to be rebuilt around a modular, scalable force that could be effectively inserted in crisis.  We also argued for the economy of force, that is one wants to design force packages appropriate the political objective.

If this was the pre-Osprey era, an insertion might be more difficult, but with the tiltrotar assault force called the USMC a force can be put in place rapidly to cordon off the area, and to be able to shape a credible global response to the disinformation campaign of Russia and its state-sponsored separatists.   Working with the Ukrainians, an air cap would be established over the area of interest, and airpower coupled with the Marines on the ground, and forces loyal to Kiev could stop Putin in his tracks.

In other words, countering Russian 21st century warfare creativity is crucial for the United States to do right now with some creativity of our own.

Again it is about using military force in ways appropriate to the political mission.

The approach described here only gets better with the coming of the F-35 to US and allied forces. 

The multi-mission capabilities of the aircraft means that a small footprint can bring diversified lethality to the fight. 

THAAD can play a role in the defense of Taiwan. The US Army deployed on Taiwan working with the ROC can provide a credible DEFENSIVE deterrence capability. Credit Photo: US Army

An F-35 squadron can carry inherent within it an electronic attack force, a missile defense tracking capability, a mapping capability for the ground forces, ISR and C2 capabilities for the deployed force and do so in a compact deployment package.

In addition, an F-35 fleet can empower Air Defense Artillery (ADA), whether Aegis afloat or Patriots and THAAD Batteries, the concept of establishing air dominance is moving in a synergistic direction. 

An F-35 EW capability along with it’s AA and AG capability will introduce innovate tactics in the SEAD mission.

Concurrently, the F-35 will empower U.S. and Allied ADA situational awareness.  The current engagement of the IDF employment of their Irion Dome in conjunction with aviation attacks is a demonstration of  this type of emerging partnership being forged in battle.

To get a similar capability today into the Area of Interest would require a diversified and complex aerial fleet, whose very size would create a political statement, which one might really not want to make.

With an F-35 enabled ground insertion force, a smaller force with significant lethality and flexibility could be deployed until it is no longer needed for it is about air-enabled ground forces.  A tiltrotar enabled assault force with top cover from a 360 degree operational F-35 fleet, whether USMC, USN, USAF or allied can allow for the kind of flexibility necessary for 21st century warfare and operational realities.

Reinforcing Ukrainian defense might be assisted by defensive weapons of the sort being considered but deployable allied offensive defensive force packages which could decisively stop Russian forces and lay down a foundation for expanded operations if the Russians did not desist.

F-35s, F-22s supported by integrated by a strong missile capability, both to defend and to attack, but integrated by a viable distributed C2 system is both part of high end warfare but what is needed to deal with lower ends of conflict as well as the power competitors shift the spectrum of conflict where mix and match of higher end, lower end and capabilities in between are conjoined into a force package to support political objectives.

The US and allied militaries face challenges to get to the point where they have operational multi-mission, multi-domain distributed C2 force packages fully available to decision makers.

But the acquisition of new systems, new training approaches, redesign of C2 systems, focusing upon abilities to the various services to operate more effectively in an integrated battlespace are underway.


The Missing Factor: Are Civilian Strategists and Politicians Up to the Challenge in the Liberal Democracies?

What is more problematical is whether the strategic elites in the liberal democracies and notably their political masters are ready for the shift in the global game away from diplomacy as an hermetically sealed art craft.

The non-liberal powers are clearly leveraging new military capabilities to support their global diplomacy to try to get outcomes and advantages that enhance their position and interests.

The systems there are building and deploying are clearly recognized by the Western militaries as requiring a response; less recognized is how the spectrum of conflict is shifting in terms of using higher end capabilities for normal diplomatic gains.

The decade ahead is bound to be interesting.

To be blunt, the distinction which Joe Nye suggested between hard and soft power is being changed by the military revolution.

21st Century military systems are really about hard power redesigned to be more useful in supporting political objectives, which if one wants to call that soft power then I am not sure the distinction has meaning.

If you wish to comment on this article. see the following:

The Shift from the Land Wars to a 21st Century Spectrum of Conflict: It is About Hard Power Used for Diplomatic and Political Purposes