Dynamics of the Strategic Environment in an Era of Persistent Conflict

By Zahner, Richard P. | Army, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Dynamics of the Strategic Environment in an Era of Persistent Conflict


Zahner, Richard P., Army


As we move into our 10th year of sustained combat, there is little evidence in the dynamics of the strategic environment to suggest that we are moving beyond an era of persistent conflict. Land forces, particularly the U.S. Army, face a broad array of challenges - achieving successful cloSLire in today's armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, responding to the growth of the al Qaeda franchise organizations demonstrating strategic reach from ungoverned or undergoverned areas, and containing emergent regional security threats seeking nuclear status. Much has been written on the potential for the reemergence of near-peer competitors, but that discussion obscures a much more pressing (and arguably more vexing) challenge from a class of regional threats best termed as hybrid. In trying to characterize potential adversaries, we have evolved a construct that identifies three threat frameworks: conventional, irregular and hybrid. The first two are easily recognized and defined in our doctrine, but the last has lacked a strategic context.

Conventional forces are clearly built around a hierarchical command /decision framework required to synchronize large formations raised by nation-states. The most capable of these forces are largely found within the NATO alliance; out of the top 12, only Russia and China stand apart, and even in these instances, circumstances that could lead to land force campaigns seem highly implausible. Experience since the Korean War Armistice suggests that near-peer adversaries seek to avoid the costs and risks of direct land force confrontations, largely through the use of surrogates and alliance structures. The exercise of land force power by an emergent near-peer competitor this decade will likely follow this time-honored framework, given the adverse economic costs and political uncertainties of a more direct confrontation. Irregular adversaries, both insurgent and terrorist, dominated our military planning, intelligence efforts and operational missions over the last nine years. Each adversary leveraged an asymmetric set of capabilities and a networked - as opposed to hierarchical - leadership and operating structure to sustain resilient campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, the Horn of Africa/Yemen, the Trans-Sahel and Southeast Asia. Extended counterinsurgency and counterterrorist programs have achieved notable successes, but the adaptive operations and decision-making frameworks characteristic of networked adversaries enabled sustained execution of high-profile attacks against national-level targets by both insurgents and al Qaeda franchise organizations. The threat posed by these groups will remain potent throughout the remainder of this decade, particularly through exploitation of ungoverned or undergoverned regions across South Asia, Africa and potentially Latin America. A full spectrum Army requires retention of the capabilities, training and force structure essential to defeat these exceptionally resilient threats across a range of highly challenging environments.

The concept of a hybrid threat reflects an adaptive strategy by selected regional powers and a handful of irregular adversaries to an overwhelming or existential military threat. The most frequently cited case is that of Hezbollah's confrontation with Israel in 2006, in which a combination of unanticipated tactics, nation-state weapons and a resilient organizational structure denied the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) its preferred form of warfare and ultimately its war aims. Some envision this hybrid construct as largely the exploitation of unconventional alliances and nation-state class weapons by nonstate actors; by this measure, any insurgent force armed with selected advanced weapons could evolve into a hybrid threat. This perspective essentially confuses an externally supported insurgency (such as that in Afghanistan during the late 1980s when large-scale Western and Arab military aid became available) seeking political power with a deliberate strategy undertaken by a nation-state - or a group exercising nation-state-like capabilities - to offset a major conventional capability deficit by imposing a prohibitive cost for victory. …

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