Crisis Capabilities and Escalation Management


By Robbin Laird

Our focus over the past few years has been upon the shift from the Middle Eastern Land Wars to the refocus on peer competitors. The preparation for the high-end fight is a key part of this refocus, but not as the sole focus of attention; rather it is upon an ability to shape effective crisis management capabilities to be able to deliver escalation control.

The peers we are talking about are nuclear powers. Any high-end fight will be shaped by the presence of nuclear weapons in such an engagement.

Clearly, there is a desire on the United States to protect its interests short of nuclear engagement, but the United States is not the only player in such calculations.

This means that building out conventional warfighting capabilities entails thinking through from the outset how packages of conventional forces can be clustered for crisis management events in ways that provide for effective escalation management.

This requires civilians to prepare for escalation management, rather than when facing an event which can spin out of control, either ignoring or capitulating to the peer competitor. It is about doing more than verbal admonishment, or being reduced to invoking economic sanctions, or otherwise limited use tasks, which often have little real effect on deterring an authoritarian peer competitor.

The mindset of the peer competitor is a key part of preparing for crisis management as well. This means understanding what might allow for successful crisis management when dealing with such different cultural manifestations of global authoritarians such as Russia or China. This has a clear effect on the forces which might be tasked to perform crisis management tasks.

A key example is how the Russians deal with the evolving threat of Nordic integration to the classic intimidation strategies they follow in Europe. During my travels to the region, there is a clear concern on how Nordic integration can be strengthened and in so doing finding ways to shape more effective collaboration for crisis management.

How to avoid the seams that the Russians exploit in normal times, and will accentuate through various means of coercion in a crisis?

In our discussions with both Second Fleet, and with Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk, it is clear Vice Admiral Lewis and his team have focused from the outset of the 2018 standup of the new C2F upon how to shape a fleet which is optimized for crisis management and to operate in such a way that the Russians can exploit the operational seams in the North Atlantic.

The emphasis of the Nordics on a significant strengthening of their collaborative capabilities and the NATO reset in the region have provided a key context within which the U.S. and allied fleets are working new ways to distribute the force to the point of effect but to do so in a way that the force is integratable across the region.

What this means is the key role of the “relevant nations” in North Atlantic defense need to understand events in their region from the standpoint of crisis management.

And to be able to correlate that understanding with clear and decisive military and whole of government actions to convey to the Russian leadership what deterrence means in that specific case.

Deterrence is not universal state; it is delivered in times of key events shaping pre-crisis or crisis challenges.

The flexibility which VADM Lewis’s commands are demonstrating in exercises and operations is an element of providing the infrastructure for effective crisis management. The USAF and its engagement earlier this year with the exercising of bombers with Nordic fighter and ground force support is another.

But a key part of this effort is what the Marines can bring to the crisis management engagement. The Marines have provided a rotational force to Norway which has been a key element for providing initial crisis management support and doing so will remain crucial in the years ahead, and in the next piece in this series, I will make the case that indeed expanding this role might be one way to shape a more effective crisis management force.

A key objective of the North Carolina based Marines is the reinforcement of the Nordic area and operating with all four Nordic states — the Marines are a unique air land sea or already multi domain force and that is where they are best.

As the head of DIA recently warned that the Russians pose a significant direct military threat to the United States and he was not talking about hybrid war. From a US national security perspective that means the Kola Peninsula and Russia’s lateral moves to try to avoid being choked by a significant allied and Nordic defense effort is the core focus of direct defense in Europe.

As he put it in his April 29, 2021 statement:

“The Russian military is an existential threat to the United States and a potent tool designed to maintain influence over the states along its periphery, compete with U.S. global primacy, and compel adversaries who challenge Russia’s vital national interests.

“Moscow continues to invest in its strategic nuclear forces, in new capabilities to enhance its strategic deterrent and that place the U.S. homeland at risk, and in capabilities that improve its conventional warfighting.

“The Kremlin’s military strength is built on its survivable strategic nuclear forces and a conventional force largely postured for defensive and regional operations.

“Russia has a growing ability to project power with long-range precision cruise missiles and limited expeditionary capabilities.

“Military leaders are incorporating lessons from Russia’s involvement in Syria into their training and exercises as they seek to develop a better-coordinated, joint force.

As we wrote in our European book there are three very different European defense problems today but this is the on which most significantly affects directly the United States and that is why Lewis’s focus on HOW to reshape these capabilities makes his efforts so important.

The renewed focus on USMC-U.S .Navy integration embraces the important role which Marines play both in terms of re-imaging the role of the amphibious force in North Atlantic defense (e.g. the engagement of the USS Wasp in the Black Widow Exercise last year) or in terms of refocusing its capabilities to reinforce Nordic integration, of the sort that the Russians have to take seriously in terms of the ultimate choke point – namely, operations out of the Kola Peninsula.

Indeed, the Russians are expanding their Arctic reach in part to try to outflank such a challenge.

In short, to deal with the challenge of peer competitor nuclear powers and their global engagement, full spectrum crisis management capabilities are crucial up to and inclusive of the high-end fight.

But this means having insertion force packages at the point of critical impact in events which can grow up the escalation ladder.

As Paul Bracken put it in a 2018 piece:  “The key point for today is that there are many levels of intensity above counterinsurgency and counter terrorism, yet well short of total war. In terms of escalation intensity, this is about one-third up the escalation ladder.

“Here, there are issues of war termination, disengagement, maneuvering for advantage, signaling, — and yes, further escalation — in a war that is quite limited compared to World War II, but far above the intensity of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan…..

“A particular area of focus should be exemplary attacks. Examples include select attack of U.S. ships, Chinese or Russian bases, and command and control.

“These are above crisis management as it is usually conceived in the West. But they are well below total war. Each side had better think through the dynamics of scenarios in this space.

Deep strike for exemplary attacks, precise targeting, option packages for limited war, and command and control in a degraded environment need to be thought through beforehand.

“The Russians have done this, with their escalate to deescalate strategy. I recently played a war game where Russian exemplary attacks were a turning point, and they were used quite effectively to terminate a conflict on favorable terms. In East Asia, exemplary attacks are also important as the ability to track US ships increases.

“Great power rivalry has returned. A wider range of possibilities has opened up. But binary thinking — that strategy is either low intensity or all-out war – has not.”

One-Third Up the Escalation Ladder

Or see the 2018 report on Nordic defense and the strategic shift:

And see the recent report on Second Fleet and Allied Joint Force Command Norfolk:

2nd Fleet and Joint Force Command Norfolk: A May 2021 Update

For the first two articles in the series, see the following:

Warning Time, Events and Crisis Management