The United States has clearly transitioned militarily several times throughout its history, from the Cold War preparing to fight the Soviet Union using massive maneuver warfare to using the military that existed at the end of the Cold War to decimate the Iraqi army in the 1990’s, to shifting to a “small wars” force fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for 20 years.
As the “War on Terror” began to fade, America’s need to pivot again to large scale conflict with peer or near-peer competitors was driven by the reemergence of Russia as a global power and the rise of China upon the global stage. In many ways the last 20 years of “small wars” was a failed attempt to encircle and contain these two competitors.
What emerged from the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) was the concept of “multi-domain operations.” Laid out in a seminal 2018 paper titled, “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028,” US military planners would articulate the perceived threat:
In a new era of great power competition, our nation’s adversaries seek to achieve their strategic aims, short of conflict, by the use of layered stand-off in the political, military and economic realms to separate the U.S. from our partners. Should conflict come, they will employ multiple layers of stand-off in all domains–land, sea, air, space and cyberspace–to separate U.S. forces and our allies in time, space, and function in order to defeat us.
To meet this threat, US military planners claim:
The central idea in solving this problem is the rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail as we compete short of armed conflict. If deterrence fails, Army formations, operating as part of the Joint Force, penetrate and dis-integrate enemy anti-access and area denial systems; exploit the resulting freedom of maneuver to defeat enemy systems, formations and objectives and to achieve our own strategic objectives; and consolidate gains to force a return to competition on terms more favorable to the US, our allies and partners.
To achieve this, the US military is standing up what it calls “Multi-Domain Task Forces.” The 2018 paper would explain:
In 2017, the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA) directed the design and testing of Multi-Domain Task Forces (MDTFs) as forward stationed formations able to execute aspects of MDO. Designed to deliver long-range precision joint strike as well as integrate air and missile defense, electronic warfare, space, cyber, and information operations, the MDTF operates across all domains, the EMS, and the information environment in both competition and conflict to provide the Joint Force and coalition with new capabilities to enable the defeat adversaries’ anti-access and area denial strategies. Given its capability to compete and provide an initial penetration, the MDTF, as a forerunner to other multi-domain formations now in development, is the essential first step to realizing an MDO capable Army by 2028.
MDTFs are slated to be positioned in Asia vis-a-vis China as well as in Europe vis-a-vis Russia.
Multi-Domain Operations Extends Far Beyond the US Military
The US essentially seeks global primacy by pursuing regional primacy within various US military commands. Unlike other nations who divide their own sovereign territory into multiple areas of responsibility, the US divides the entire planet into “commands” including Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Africa Command (AFRICOM), European Command (EUCOM) which includes all of Russia, Central Command (CENCOM) which covers the Middle East and Central Asia, and Pacific Command (PACOM) which encompasses all of Asia including China as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Pursuing global primacy is done through what is essentially a constant state of war. War is defined by Merriam-Webster as both, “a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations,” and, “a struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end.” While these represent two definitions of a single word, they also represent the two possible states in which the US pursuit of global primacy exists.
The US Army’s TRADOC refers to this as “competition” and “conflict.” During both states of operation the US military along with the US government and adjacent organizations are active and it is merely what activity is taking place that defines which state the US is currently in.
This is not a new idea. It was Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz in his work, “On War,” who stated, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”
While the US military through multi-domain operations seeks to operate during “competition” and “conflict” across multiple domains (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace), the US as a nation does this on a much larger scale, and in addition to the US military, through a large number of other organizations, agencies, departments, and even proxies and does so across a much larger number of domains – essentially across all domains.
During the “competition” phase the US seeks to “expand the competitive space.” Not only does the military play a role in doing this through its own multi-domain operations, other agencies, organizations, and institutions do as well. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) for example, funds the creation and expansion of political forces within a targeted nation to coerce or overthrow a government to reduce “stand-off” obstacles – “stand-off” meaning anything inhibiting the US from moving anywhere on Earth or doing anything it wants while it does so.
These activities take place across a variety of domains, both physical (air, land, sea, and space) and intangible (economics, politics, information space, and cyberspace). Just as Clausewitz pointed out, the transition from “competition” to “conflict” and the means used during both is driven by a constant political end. For example, the US sought regime change in Iraq for years prior to its invasion in 2003. It used a variety of methods prior to all-out war in an attempt to accomplish this including the arming and backing of armed proxies and economic sanctions before resorting to direct military invasion itself.
Thus the US is at constant war – whether that is an actual “state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict” with another state as was the case with Iraq from 2003 onward, or “a struggle or competition” between itself and others including its declared adversaries of Russia and China.
The latter – war as a struggle or competition – often includes hostilities conducted through proxies. The US is currently waging a proxy war against Russia in both Ukraine and Syria. While the US proxy war in Syria is primarily targeting the Syrian government for removal, it is because Syria in turn is a crucial ally of Russia.
The US is also waging hostilities against China through a number of proxies.
For years the US has backed armed separatists in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. These militants in turn have waged a campaign of armed violence against not only Pakistani security forces but also Chinese engineers and other representatives working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which in turn is part of Beijing’s much larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
In direct war, the US would use its warplanes to bomb Chinese infrastructure across Pakistan. In this state of indirect war, the US instead uses Baluchistan-based militants to do so. While the means differ, the end is the same.
Likewise in Myanmar the US is using the so-called “National Unity Government” (NUG) and its “People’s Defense Force” (PDF) to not only wage a war of regime change against the government of Myanmar, but also to attack Chinese investments including BRI infrastructure running through Myanmar’s territory.
Were the US waging war directly against Myanmar, it would use its warplanes to strike at critical infrastructure like cellular phone towers. Instead, US-backed “PDF” fighters are targeting these towers with both explosions – as reported by Reuters in late 2021- and by simply dismantling them and carrying away the equipment. In both instances the US wants to degrade Myanmar’s infrastructure as a means of ultimately defeating the current sitting government, and in turn further isolating China, and is doing so through proxies.
Off the coast of the Chinese mainland the US is using the breakaway province of Taiwan as a staging ground for US weapons ahead of what looks like what will be another Ukraine-style proxy war.
What will eventually spur the US to shift from war in terms of indirect hostilities and other forms of competition to actual and direct armed hostilities is whether or not the US is able to achieve its end through more indirect means before resorting to more direct, but riskier and more costly means.
The implications of this reality, all but openly stated and expressed by the US through its adoption of multi-domain operations, on the national security planning of nations around the globe is profound.
National security policy cannot simply revolve around soldiers, tanks, planes, and ships. It must address all of the means the US uses to execute war be it in a state of “competition” or a state of “conflict.” The US Army’s 2018 TRADOC paper mentions multiple domains including “social media,” a seemingly benign domain that escapes the scope of most national security policy papers or even the responsibility of a nation’s national security agencies entirely. Yet it is a crucial domain through which the US wages both states of “war” it perpetually finds itself in. This is only one example of many domains that escape the attention required by national security planners.
Understanding the full-spectrum nature of the threat the US poses to the world will spur discussion and action toward a full-spectrum defense. Not only will nations then be able to keep the US perpetually in a state of “competition” disallowing it to resort to “conflict” because of sufficient credible deterrents, nations will be able to maintain favorable leverage against the United States and other nations during that state of “competition.”
Until then, nations leave themselves at great risk in an increasingly dangerous global security environment where the United States is all but openly preparing full-scale war with its peer and near-peer competitors through increasingly disruptive indirect means of warfare. Only time will tell whether nations take this threat seriously and uphold their respective responsibilities to defend against it.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.