The People’s Republic of China (PRC) presents the United States with its most comprehensive economic and security rival since Great Britain during the nineteenth century. Starting in 2018, US defense strategies have highlighted the threat that the PRC poses to US allies, and successive presidential administrations and Congresses responded by increasing defense budgets to expand US military capability and capacity. Despite these efforts, numerous assessments now show that modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has eroded—and in some missions overcome—US military superiority.
Absent large and politically fraught increases in defense spending, continued expansion and improvement of today’s US force are unlikely to regain broad overmatch against the PLA in the Western Pacific. Instead, the United States will need new strategies and operational concepts to deter PRC aggression. Recognizing this imperative, the 2022 US National Defense Strategy (NDS) attempted to move in a different direction from its predecessors through two new lines of effort called “campaigning” and “integrated deterrence.” However, in unclassified documents and speeches by defense officials, both the essence of integrated deterrence and the mechanism of campaigning remain unclear. 1
Emerging technologies offer the US military a way to put these new concepts into action, sustaining its ability to prevent conflict and gaining an upper hand in the strategic competition with China despite the PLA’s “home team” advantages. The United States remains the world leader in operational and technological innovation, as evidenced by decades of advancements in networking and computing—marked recently by the rapid commercialization of artificial intelligence (AI). Building on the 2022 NDS, this report proposes a strategy for campaigning that would exploit information technologies to dissuade China from pursuing acts of aggression against allies such as Taiwan. The primary objective of the proposed campaigning model is to shape PRC government decision-making, especially that of the PRC military, in ways that are conducive to long-term regional stability and prosperity.
A whole-of-government effort like that implied by the 2022 NDS would be the most effective form of campaigning because it could exploit the PRC government’s numerous vulnerabilities, from its appalling record on human rights to its loss of economic momentum and its growing demographic challenges. However, this report focuses on actions the US military can take by itself or with allied militaries to dissuade future PRC aggression. In the proposed approach, campaigning is an ongoing sequence of probing, signaling, adapting, and acting by the US military and intelligence community, coupled with and informed by instrumentation of the information environment. In addition to demonstrating US resolve, campaigning should enable the US to estimate competitor habits, preferences, and fears. These estimates would guide future campaigning activities and inform US force planners regarding a competitor’s uncertainty and areas of concern. Armed with increasing insight about adversary beliefs, campaigning actions would aim to shape an opponent’s preferences and priorities away from violent paths to their goals and toward scenarios that are more aligned with US interests.
In offering an approach to dissuasion, this report diverges from the strategy of deterring war primarily through threats of denial or punishment. This construct has dominated US defense strategy since the Soviet Union collapsed because conventional dominance enabled the US military to credibly stop or reverse an act of aggression and nuclear weapons provided the capability to impose existential punishment. Today, the PRC’s status as a peer competitor makes denial and punishment less credible. The US government will instead need to prevent conflict before it becomes imminent.
A Changing Strategic Environment
To develop its approach to campaigning, this report explores changes in the geopolitical, strategic, and technological environment during the decades since the Cold War that undermine US deterrence and reveal new opportunities for dissuasion. These trends include the persistence of conflict, the erosion of US military overmatch, the increasing centrality of information, the rise of perception or cognitive warfare as a complement to physical warfare, and the ability of technology to guide strategy, operations, and perception management.
1. Persistence of Conflict
Clashes between competing factions have been a feature of civilization through most of recorded history. However, while conflict has been persistent, the frequency and intensity of smallscale confrontations have increased since the Cold War due to a combination of weapons proliferation, information technology, and economic interdependency that empowers small actors and discourages large, disruptive conflicts. US force planning constructs that assume a clear transition from peace to war are a poor fit for this environment. The DoD cannot afford to plan its forces only for the time when a sharp war is triggered, so the Pentagon needs to actively confront the PRC to discourage aggression and shape PRC leaders’ priorities and preferences.
2. End of US Dominance
The dynamics of US-China defense scenarios are such that there is no realistic quantity of forces with which the US military can achieve assured overmatch against the PLA in the Western Pacific. The PRC’s industrial prowess, proximity to likely areas of conflict, and ability to focus on a narrow set of opponents allow it to generate more forces faster than the US military and to target anticipated US vulnerabilities. Moreover, the DoD has global responsibilities that preclude it from concentrating forces around China, whereas the PRC can devote most of its defense capacity in the Indo-Pacific region. The US military needs to continue improving its ability to defend Taiwan, but any strategy that seeks to do so solely by growing today’s munition stocks and force structure is doomed to fail at establishing US military superiority in regions such as the East and South China Seas.
3. Centrality of Information
The strategy of denying aggression reflected in DoD plans and budgets neglects opportunities in the information-centric character of competition and conflict. If war is politics by other means, the modern information environment is generating new battlefields for continuous—albeit nonviolent—confrontation that would continue even during combat as governments and other actors exchange signals. Signals may or may not be intentional, could aim to serve a variety of goals, and may or may not be received as intended because they are mediated through the information environment. Although the thought processes of foreign actors may be unknowable, signals such as the behaviors of their militaries are largely observable and can offer important clues about perception, belief state, and escalation disposition. As with other complex information systems, the DoD can use interactions between governments—or military enterprises, in the context of this report—to steer actors toward a state of dynamic stability.
4. Perception Shaping as a Military Operation
The war in Ukraine has highlighted how influencing allied and enemy perceptions is nearly as important as making progress on the ground. Viewed through this lens, the DoD is not considering the right audience in assessing its deterrence efforts. In theory, deterrence requires convincing an opponent that the costs of aggression are not worth the benefits. In practice, the DoD has implemented its strategy by pursuing a force that convinces US defense leaders a PLA invasion of Taiwan is infeasible. By not focusing on what PRC leaders believe, the US strategy of denial fails to exploit opportunities that could deter PRC leaders without having to reestablish US overmatch.
The DoD should view campaigning for dissuasion as a set of actions led by the US defense and intelligence enterprises to systematically establish a baseline understanding of PRC leaders’ perceptions, measure how they change, and eventually influence them in directions that are more conducive to US interests. Measurement is the most important aspect of this effort. Without it, campaigning devolves into mere demonstrations and showmanship and may be more successful at shaping the perceptions and beliefs of US commanders than those of competitors. The symmetrical and predictable fires-centric US force of today lacks the optionality, agility, or resilience to surprise PRC leaders in ways that could reveal their beliefs or shape their perceptions. The DoD should therefore pursue a strategy and force design that allow the US military to prod, coerce, pose dilemmas, protract, counter, and escalate in new ways.
5. Technology for Decision-Making
There is a new and powerful opportunity for technology to support campaigning. The classic conceptualization of technology for national security focuses on developing superior or asymmetric weapons, or perhaps on creating technology with a secondary benefit in promoting economic advantage. However, as highlighted by the rapid expansion of AI in business, academia, and the media, the US military could employ technology to develop operational concepts or tactics, orchestrate them over time, better understand an opponent’s beliefs, and subsequently shape them in ways that support US interests.
Campaigning to Dissuade
Building on these five ideas, this report proposes a strategy to implement campaigning built around the specific use case of China’s ambitions for Taiwan. This plan does not propose replacing today’s force; for some US adversaries and scenarios, denial and punishment are the appropriate tools for deterrence. Instead, the strategy would use emerging technologies to evolve the design and employment of today’s US military in ways that enable it to better, and more proactively, dissuade PRC aggression. The recommended DoD spending and activities are consistent with the NDS’s stated objectives and priorities and are achievable within the envelope of current or future budgets.
The proposed approach is structured around three lines of effort. The DoD would design the first two to create and message credible threats to PRC plans that are resilient to a broad set of possible PRC courses of action. The third line of effort would operationalize campaigning, supporting the first two lines of effort by engaging in probing and adaptation to assess the level of uncertainty or confidence among PRC leaders regarding various scenarios. Then, using those assessments, it would guide future campaigning actions that lower PRC leaders’ preference for destructive plans as well as inform the DoD’s own planning.
The first line of effort would undermine PRC leaders’ confidence in destructive scenarios by prioritizing military capabilities that counter the PLA’s strategy over those that attack its forces. For example, under the concept of systems destruction warfare, the PLA seeks to target key elements of US battle networks, such as space-based sensing and communications, maritime logistics, and forward operating bases. Rather than narrowly focusing on sinking PLA amphibious ships, the DoD should equip US forces to attack the approach of systems destruction warfare itself by complicating and degrading PLA sensemaking through electromagnetic and cyber warfare, targeted attacks, and unexpected US force compositions or tactics. The DoD should also enhance the ability of US forces to operate without the long-haul communications and sustainment that have typified US operations since the Cold War. By attacking the PLA strategy more than its forces, this line of effort would enable more cost-effective US intervention and provide a better toolbox for persistent and sustained campaigning activities compared to today’s US military force design.
The second line of effort would prepare for protracted conflict to reassure PRC and allied leaders regarding US commitments and the US military’s ability to prevent a PLA fait accompli. Actions under this line of effort would include leveraging allied geography for new sensing and communications networks; establishing allied information-sharing across multiple classification levels; mobilizing allied and commercial industrial bases to build relevant capabilities; and engaging new allied and commercial sources of logistics support. Additionally, to slow an enemy’s advance and allow time for additional US and allied intervention options, the DoD would both invest in its own and support allied acquisition of materiel and systems designed to add friction to any assault. These ongoing activities would enable the US military to persistently engage with friends and rivals in the region to shape the information environment in US and allied favor.
The third line of effort would use technology in assessment and force design to support campaigning by understanding and shaping PRC leaders’ scenario preferences and risk perceptions. Effective probe-and-response will depend on operationalized intelligence to better familiarize US military commanders with PLA patterns of life, provide automated cues regarding behavioral anomalies, and assess what the PLA’s behavior suggests about PRC leaders’ priorities and preferences. Emerging computational statistics and machine learning algorithms, similar to those used to target online advertising or detect anomalies in system behaviors, could dramatically improve the speed and efficacy of operationalized intelligence compared to its use during the Cold War, and improve our understanding of both the signals the US sends and the reactions of the PRC.
New technology could also provide commanders the military forces and command-and-control (C2) capabilities needed to conduct probes by introducing unexpected and novel signals. New force design elements, such as diverse uncrewed systems managed using machine-assisted C2, would support the first two lines of effort by allowing US campaigns to micro-target and shape PRC leaders’ beliefs regarding the expected outcomes of PLA operations. Technologies for virtual and constructive concept development and training can help expand the options available to US commanders and the resulting uncertainty imposed on the PLA. An expanded portfolio of uncrewed systems and new ways of integrating and employing the force could provide a nearly infinite magazine of effective probes.
The Imperative for Change
The US unipolar moment is over. The 2022 NDS suggests that the DoD acknowledges the emergence of a more multipolar security environment and directs a whole-of-government approach to campaign and deter aggression. However, the DoD’s budget requests and defense officials’ rhetoric continue to suggest that US and allied forces will deny the PRC its aims as if the US military were still dominant.
Now is the time to recognize that the United States can no longer dictate terms to peer opponents and needs a more resilient approach to prevent conflict. Dissuasion would raise the costs and uncertainty of aggression while steering the PRC toward less violent paths to its goals. A proactive strategy of campaigning could reduce the comprehensive national power of the PRC and shape PRC decision-making by putting CCP leaders on their back foot and offering a peaceful vision for the future. This effort is complex and requires strategic thinking but is essential if the United States is to realize the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.