News | March 17, 2023

The U.S. Joint Chiefs New Strategy Paper on Joint Concept for Competing

By Anthony Cordesman

The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have issued a major new paper on U.S. strategy entitled Joint Concept for Competing. It is an in-depth analysis of the changes needed in U.S. strategy that is some 70 pages in length, rather than a short and often vacuous analysis like the U.S. national strategy papers. It is also a major departure from the past U.S. focus on warfighting and reappraisal of both the need for a global approach to competition and of the threats posed by potentially hostile major powers like Russia and China, and smaller powers like Iran and North Korea.

Focusing on Long-Term Competition Rather Than Deterrence Alone

The new paper focuses on the most critical strategic challenges the United States faces. It creates an approach to national strategy that can limit and defeat outside threats while minimizing the risk of escalating to a level of combat that is potentially uncontrollable and does devastating damage to both sides, and that can meet the ongoing global challenges from states like China and the regional challenges from states like Iran.

The introduction by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley makes it clear that U.S. strategy cannot focus on winning in a warfighting sense. It quotes Henry Kissinger in stating that “the objective is to increase one's options and reduce those of the adversary. The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.”

General Milley then goes on to state the following (p. i):

Our adversaries have studied our military strengths and way of war. They have implemented approaches that pursue their strategic objectives while avoiding the deterrent tripwires upon which our national security posture is based. Simply put, U.S. adversaries intend to "win without fighting." In this context, U.S. challengers intend to pursue their objectives while avoiding armed conflict-rendering traditional Joint Force deterrence less effective. Facing this dilemma, more of the same is not enough. By ignoring the threat of strategic competition, the United States risks ceding strategic influence, advantage, and leverage while preparing for a war that never occurs. The United States must remain fully prepared and poised for war, but this alone will be insufficient to secure its strategic objectives and protect its freedoms. If the United States does not compete effectively against adversaries, it could "lose without fighting."

For the United States, competition does not always mean hostility and does not preclude cooperation. Nor does the United States view strategic competition as an inevitable march to armed conflict. Done properly, there is much to gain from strategic competition, something U.S. adversaries have already realized. To succeed, the Joint Force will expand its mindset to understand the nature of the strategic competition it is engaged in, to focus on advancing our national interests and strategic objectives rather than just denying those of its adversaries, and to coordinate the military element with the other instruments of national power.

Defining Long-Term Strategic Competition

The analysis addresses long-term strategic competition as “a persistent and long-term struggle that occurs between two or more adversaries seeking to pursue incompatible interests without necessarily engaging in armed conflict with each other.” It defines the global strategic environment—and challenges from hostile states—as follows (p. iii):

Recognizing the overwhelming conventional military capability demonstrated during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991 and Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in 2003, U.S. adversaries responded by seeking to circumvent U.S. deterrent posture through competitive activity below the threshold of armed conflict with the United States.

Adversaries are employing cohesive combinations of military and civil power to expand the competitive space. Adversaries aim to achieve their strategic objectives through a myriad of ways and means, including statecraft and economic power as well as subversion, coercion, disinformation, and deception.

They are investing in key technologies designed to offset U.S. strategic and conventional military capabilities (e.g., nuclear weapons, anti-access and area denial systems, offensive cyberspace, artificial intelligence, hypersonic delivery systems, electromagnetic spectrum). Simply put, our adversaries intend to “win without fighting,” but they are also building military forces that strengthen their ability to “fight and win” an armed conflict against the United States. Facing this dilemma, more of the same is not enough.

By ignoring the threat of strategic competition, and failing to compete deliberately and proactively, the United States risks ceding strategic influence, advantage, and leverage while preparing for a war that may never occur. The United States must remain fully prepared and poised for war, but this alone is insufficient to secure U.S. strategic interests. If the Joint Force does not change its approach to strategic competition, there is a significant risk that the United States will “lose without fighting.”

This text makes it clear that Joint Concept for Competing calls for a far more balanced and realistic approach to strategy than a narrow focus that defines integrated deterrence in terms of the ability to defeat a rival in open combat and one that is based on the illusion that the United States can create—or maintain—its vision of a rules-based order.

Concentrating on the Joint Force

The full text of Joint Concept for Competing makes it clear that its definition of strategic competition requires an integrated civil-military approach to U.S. strategy and force planning, but the analysis focuses on redesigning the Joint Force and implementing a new approach to strategy within the Department of Defense.

The executive summary introduction states (p. iii):

Analyzing any adversary’s way of war is instructive. As former CJCS General Joseph F. Dunford recognized, “We think of being at peace or war…our adversaries don’t think that way.” They believe they are in a long-term “conflict without combat” to alter the current international system, advance their national interests, gain strategic advantage and influence, and limit U.S. and allied options. The JCC postulates that the Joint Force should also view the spectrum of conflict as an enduring struggle between international actors with incompatible strategic interests and objectives, but who also cooperate when their interests coincide.

The JCC postulates that the Joint Force should also view the spectrum of conflict as an enduring struggle between international actors with incompatible strategic interests and objectives, but who also cooperate when their interests coincide.

Strategic competition is thus an enduring condition to be managed, not a problem to be solved.

The Military Challenge

How should the Joint Force, in conjunction with interorganizational partners, compete in support of U.S. Government (USG) efforts to protect and advance U.S. national interests, while simultaneously deterring aggression, countering adversary competitive strategies, and preparing for armed conflict should deterrence and competition fail to protect vital U.S. national interests?

The Central Idea

This central idea of the JCC requires that the Joint Force expand its competitive mindset and its competitive approaches. A Joint Force with a competitive mindset will view strategic competition as a complex set of interactions in which the Joint Force contributes to broader USG efforts to gain influence, advantage, and leverage over other actors and ultimately to achieve favorable strategic outcomes.

In conjunction with its interorganizational partners, 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 to conceal U.S. intentions until it is too late to respond to them effectively; shift the competition to sub-areas in which the United States can exploit its advantages, leverage, and initiative; and attempt to divert adversaries’ attention and resources to sub-areas of secondary or tertiary importance to the United States.

Integrated Campaigning: Preserving Deterrence, but Emphasizing Partners, Civil Competition, and Coordination with Other Elements of the U.S. Government

This broader approach to U.S. strategy does not mean that preserving an effective level of deterrence is not critical. The analysis makes it clear that the United States must create and maintain an effective level of deterrence and that it must prepare for armed conflict if deterrence fails.

It also, however, stresses what it calls “integrated campaigning:” the need to counter both the military and civil competitive strategies that challenge vital U.S. interests, and the critical role the United States must play in supporting—and working with—its partners. It also recognizes that U.S. partners will have somewhat different interests and priorities—and the need to deal with complexity and uncertainty on a global level—a reality that U.S. national strategy documents have largely failed to highlight (p. v):

Recognizing the inherently multi-dimensional nature of strategic competition, the Joint Force will routinely play a mutually supporting role with other USG departments and agencies, allies and partners, and other interorganizational partners. 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. However, the Joint Force is an active participant in the interagency process. It can foster the creation of interagency integration mechanisms to perform these functions, and it will participate in such mechanisms when established. The JCC seeks to open the aperture in terms of what is achievable by applying the central and supporting ideas to offer different approaches to force employment in integrated campaigning.

Two sections of the introduction highlight key aspects of these needs:

Countering Adversaries’ Competitive Strategies A deterrence and war preparation strategy is a necessary but insufficient requirement against adversaries that intend to defeat the United States and its allies without engaging them in armed conflict. The United States must also counter adversaries’ competitive strategies to deny their strategic objectives indefinitely. Countering an adversary’s competitive strategies is not as simple or straightforward as just blocking or challenging the adversary wherever it seeks to act. At best, such an approach risks ceding the initiative to the adversary; at worst, it may prove totally counter-productive and drive neutral or third-party actors towards the adversary. The intent must always be to pursue, promote, and protect U.S. national interests and, when and where necessary, challenge the activities of adversaries that threaten those interests. Deterrent and subversive activity will play their part in such an approach, but so too will subtler and more proactive approaches focused on attraction or persuasion. The most effective counter to an adversary competitive strategy is a fully integrated U.S. competitive strategy that brings together UNCLASSIFIED vii UNCLASSIFIED the components of national power in a cohesive and comprehensive manner to deliver effects across the strategic competitive space.

Supporting the Efforts of Interorganizational Partners Recognizing the inherently strategic nature of competition, the Joint Force will routinely play a supporting role to other USG departments and agencies, allies and partners, and other interorganizational partners. Integrated competitive strategies and campaigns require interdependence and mutual support. The Joint Force supports national competitive strategies by conducting tasks, activities, or operations in conjunction with, and in support of, interorganizational partners. The Joint Force and its partners leverage each other’s authorities and capabilities to optimize their mutual benefit and mitigate their strategic and operational risk. Supporting the efforts of interorganizational partners is fundamental to succeeding in strategic competition. The Joint Force cannot, and must not, attempt to do this alone.

Addressing Global Needs and Risks

The full report goes on to provide a far more nuanced analysis of these issues, and its treatment of issues like the “rules of the game” is far more realistic than the idea that the United States—or any combination of powers—can impose a rules-based order on today’s complex and unstable world. Unlike recent U.S. national strategy papers, it also recognizes the need to engage the world by region and that working with different allies and partners on different terms will be vital to U.S. success and security (p. 12):

It is necessary to break down the competitive space into manageable sub-areas that are more tractable for analysis and planning, and that enable the focusing of efforts towards areas of strategic competition that accord with U.S. priorities. Choosing sub-areas based on an estimate of the competitive environment’s impact on U.S. national interests will allow the deconfliction, synchronization, and integration of joint operations, activities, and investments within and across sub-areas.

The focus on sub-areas is particularly important because the recent versions of the U.S. National Security Strategy document issued by the White House have been so narrowly focused that they have been a self-inflicted wound that has undermined U.S. credibility in many parts of the world.

They have focused far too narrowly on China in a world where the United States has been regularly engaged in unpredicted local and regional conflicts ever since 1945. They have done so in a world where the United States is now immersed in meeting the challenge of Russia’s attack on Ukraine while a little more than a year earlier it seemed the United States focused on Taiwan and Asia.

The end result has convinced many allies in the Middle East and the developing world that the United States is backing away from its strategic engagement in other regions. This loss of credibility has had the ironic impact of opening up the world to Chinese and Russian intervention and casting doubt on U.S. strategic support and assistance.

Looking Beyond Deterrence and Warfare

Joint Concept for Competing still highlights competition with China and Russia but does so in far broader and more realistic terms. Its summary of the broader threat from Russia focuses as much on the political and economic dimensions as the military ones (pp. 14–15). Rather than focusing on an imminent military threat from China in 2027, it looks more broadly at China and summarizes that aspect of U.S. strategic competition as an enduring global competition through 2049 (p. 16).

It also states that:

The JCC moves beyond the alignment of military and non-military activities envisioned in the 2018 Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning. Adversaries employ their comprehensive national power (CNP) against the United States in integrated campaigns that threaten U.S. national interests without engaging in armed conflict. A Joint Force that can deconflict, synchronize, and, ideally, integrate with broader USG efforts is necessary to support a comprehensive USG approach to counter such threats. (p. 3)

The JCC is adversary agnostic. Adversaries need not be great powers to compete against the United States. In addition to China and Russia, the United States has other adversaries (e.g., Iran, North Korea, and transregional violent extremist organizations) that operate in the competitive space and pursue strategic interests that threaten U.S. national interests. Complementary classified concepts will address Joint Force strategic competition against specific adversaries. (p. 3)

The analysis highlights the dangers in focusing on deterrence alone. It warns that:

Instead of viewing the strategic environment through the overly simplistic dichotomy of either warfighting during armed conflict or deterrence during peace, the Joint Force must actively identify sub-areas and domains where its activities can achieve strategic effects in support of national competitive strategies. The U.S. focus upon the military element of strategic competition places our nation in a challenging position where the United States risks being outsmarted, out-thought, out-innovated, and out-competed to the associated detriment of our strategic objectives. To continue the analogy, the Joint Force is not just in the “warfighting business”; it is in the “national security business.” The Joint Force may lack concepts and capabilities critical to succeeding strategically in the current competitive environment. The Joint Force must ask itself whether it is appropriately and adequately prepared and postured to help defend the United States from threats that do not require the Joint Force to engage in warfighting. (p. 18)

This central idea of the JCC 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 or undermine an adversary's interests, while setting conditions for designated USG lead agencies to effectively prosecute U.S. strategic objectives. Shifting the focus will align U.S. strengths against adversaries’ vulnerabilities, identify vulnerabilities in our own competitive capabilities, and facilitate systematic, long-range, strategic competition planning, making the U.S. approach to strategic competition more efficient and effective. It will explicitly acknowledge and address the open-ended nature of strategic competition by extending planning horizons and taking actions to better enable the Joint Force to engage in strategic competition on an enduring basis.

Succeeding in strategic competition requires the Joint Force to expand its competitive mindset and its competitive approaches. A Joint Force with a competitive mindset will view strategic competition as a complex set of interactions in which the Joint Force contributes to broader USG efforts to gain influence, advantage, and leverage over other actors and ultimately to achieve favorable strategic outcomes. In conjunction with its interorganizational partners, 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 to conceal U.S. intentions until it is too late to respond to them effectively; shift the competition to sub-areas in which the United States can exploit its advantages, leverage, and initiative; and attempt to divert adversaries’ attention and resources to sub-areas of secondary or tertiary importance to the United States. (p. 19)

A New Emphasis on Whole of Government Operations and a Realistic approach to Partners and Allies

Joint Concept for Competing also calls for another a critical change in U.S. strategy: it calls for a whole of government strategy that it is coupled to an emphasis on “diplomatic, economic, financial, information, legal, and intelligence” competition, and the need to deal with a full range of other considerations—including “socio-cultural, commercial industrial, technological, ideological-theological, and public health.” (p. 14)

The analysis briefly highlights the need for a new approach to integrating the operations of a redesigned Joint Force with the operations of civil agencies like State:

The Joint Force frequently equates interdependence with interagency support of military requirements, but interdependence and mutual support also include Joint Force support to interorganizational partners. For example, most USG departments and agencies do not have the resources of the Joint Force or the ability to operate effectively in remote, austere, and contested environments.

This places the Joint Force in a position where it must enable other organizations to achieve shared or complementary objectives. When directed, the Joint Force will provide interorganizational partners the area security, logistics, communications, engineering, and other support they traditionally require to operate effectively in such environments, reducing the need for the Joint Force to perform functions better accomplished by non-DoD organizations. As integrated campaigning matures in practice, the Joint Force may identify new ways for military forces and capabilities to support mission partners to make them more effective in the competitive space.

And, the sections on Operationalizing the Concept highlight the past failures in U.S. government efforts to integrate civil and military decisionmaking (p.35), the need for joint force interdependence with allied partners (p.36), and the reality that actually implementing the recommended strategy means that its required capabilities must guide joint force development and design (p. 36).

Moreover, the Concept analysis emphasizes the need to deal with allies and partners on realistic level, rather than either a rigidly self-seeking approach to strategy or some idealized picture of what other states should be: 

The United States may also support allies and partners facing a military strategic risk even when the United States has only a peripheral interest at stake. Such supporting activities may be necessary to reaffirm the U.S. security commitment, avoid the supported actor seeking a new security arrangement with an adversary, secure U.S. access rights, and assure the supported actor's future contributions to multinational coalitions. (p, 29)

Getting the Theory Right without Really Addressing the Practice

At the same time, there are serious weaknesses in the document. One lies in the fact that it does not stress the need for a far more sophisticated approach to creating an integrated civil-military strategy than the United States now possesses.

Most U.S. planning still sharply separates State Department and Department of Defense activity. Recent wars like the conflict in Afghanistan have exposed the lack of an effective structure for integrating wartime planning and operations within the U.S. government, and the lack of a U.S. national security strategy that combines the efforts of the Department of Defense with the State Department and other elements of U.S. government. As the FY 2024 budget requests show, the two departments do not have anything approaching an integrated approach to developing a national security budget, security assistance efforts, or tying security assistance to the civil aspects of global competition.

Major problems also exist in coordinating the various elements of the Department of Defense and in its ability to effectively implement any form of a coherent strategy. Its programming, planning, and budget system has degenerated into a series of shopping lists for each military service and major defense agency. Its budget requests, at best, pay lip service to strategy, and its service-driven shopping lists have failed to create effective paths modernization, integrated joint operations, and effective planning for joint operations will partners in most areas of the world.

While the Joint Concept for Competing does examine some of the issues in integrating civil-military operations within the U.S government, it tacitly relies on a failed system that urgently needs reform (p. 15):

The President, assisted by the National Security Council (NSC), establishes desired national-level outcomes and objectives and integrates them into national-level competitive strategies. The JCS and CCDRs have the statutory responsibility to provide military advice to influence the identification, nomination, and prioritization of these outcomes and objectives.

The Annexes on Structured Approach for Strategic Competition Fails to Describe a Practical Approach to a Whole-of-Government Implementation

Unfortunately, the document ends by focusing far too much on theory, doctrine, and education—a general problem in almost all recent U.S. approaches to strategy. It does address the needed changes in U.S. force posture, alliances, and partnerships, the tangible aspect of modernization, and the need to reshape the Department’s planning, programming, or budgeting system.

Annex A on a Structured Approach for Strategic Competition (pp. 42–55) is a useful list of issues, but it does not address any practical short-term approach to implementing the new strategy.

Annex B on a Concept Required Capabilities (pp. 56–63) at least mentions the need to create a more effective structure in the Department of Defense to manage strategic competition and the existence of the planning, programming, and budgeting system. It then, however, presents another long list of analytic tasks rather than proposing a functional approach to implementation.

It also indicates that the authors never really studied the challenges in creating an integrated whole-of-government approach (p. 59): 

Interagency integration mechanisms already exist to manage complex problems beyond the scope and reach of any single USG department or agency. A new mechanism for strategic competition, below the policy level of the NSC, should draw on the best practices of these other mechanisms to foster interagency cooperation in the arena of strategic competition.

A Defense Budget Request that Is All Shopping Lists and without any Meaningful Declared Future Defense Program Tied to a Clear Strategy

It is also striking that the Department of Defense’s summaries of the President’s FY 2024 defense budget request—which was issued a few weeks after Joint Concept for Competing—make no mention of the new approach to strategy. (See Press Release – Defense Budget and Budget Briefing at https://comptroller.defense.gov/Budget-Materials/). If anything, the new budget request summaries say even less about strategy than their predecessors.

These summaries also provide the chart shown below on the steady rises in current and planned defense spending between FY 2022 and FY 2024, which warn about the lack of any credible longer-term planning, programming, and budgeting effort. And the rising costs and constant shifts in projected annual spending shown in this graph omit the rises in cost of Veterans spending (one of the high cost entitlement programs), many intelligence costs, and the efforts of the State Department and other civil agencies that need to play a critical role in implementing a Joint Concept for Competing.

In fairness, Deputy Secretary Hicks, Vice Chairman Admiral Grady, Comptroller Michael J. McCord, and Vice Admiral Sara A. Joyner did at least mention strategy briefly in their later briefings on the FY 2024 defense budget request, but only to say that the budget followed the strategies set forth before the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued Joint Concept for Competing. They also focused almost exclusively on the warfighting threat posed by China. Deputy Secretary Hicks described the new budget request as follows:

[. . .] it's also the most strategy-aligned budget in history, consistent with the 2022 National Defense Strategy and the president's National Security Strategy. Nowhere is that alignment more pronounced than in the seriousness with which this budget treats strategic competition with the People's Republic of China. This budget delivers combat-credible joint forces that are the most lethal, resilient, survivable, agile and responsive in the world. It is a force aimed at deterring, and if called upon, defeating threats today and tomorrow, even as the threats themselves advance.

In practice, the “strategic alignment” in the new budget request consisted of a major increase in funding the U.S. warfighting effort against China, avoided dealing with Russia and the Ukraine, did not mention Iran and North Korea, and did not address Joint Concept for Competing in any way.

These are not credible approaches to real-world action on strategy, planning, and any aspect of budgeting.