Defense One

The Pentagon Must ‘Campaign’ Against China, Not Hope for a Goal-Line Stand

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
A Marine simulates providing security for an amphibious landing in Appari, Philippines, March 28, 2022, during Balikatan, a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Philippines. (Photo by United States Marine Corps)
A Marine simulates providing security for an amphibious landing in Appari, Philippines, March 28, 2022, during Balikatan, a bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Philippines. (Photo by United States Marine Corps)

During the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration released an unprecedented amount of classified intelligence regarding Russian plans, even revealing insider knowledge of Vladimir Putin’s intentions. This attempt at deterrence by detection failed; Putin invaded anyway. But the quality of allied intelligence-gathering and the new National Defense Strategy point toward a potentially better way to dissuade adversaries, through what the Pentagon calls “campaigning.”

Most discussion of the new NDS centers on its approach of Integrated Deterrence, in which all instruments of national power are orchestrated to prevent aggression. But the mixed results, at best, from the West’s combination of sanctions, intelligence revelations, and diplomacy suggests that capable, nuclear-armed adversaries like Russia and, more importantly, China may not be stopped by Integrated Deterrence’s threats of last-minute denial or punishment.

The new defense strategy’s inclusion of campaigning as one of its three main lines of effort provides a way for the Pentagon to break from simply trying to deny or punish aggression. Drawn from Marine Corps doctrine, campaigning refers to the orchestration of military activities alongside economic, diplomatic, and information actions to achieve specific goals. Through campaigning, U.S. forces would attempt to undermine adversary attempts at coercion, complicate enemy planning, and develop U.S. warfighting capabilities.

Campaigning may seem like another word for what the U.S. military does every day but is intended to convey a deliberate and methodical approach to cause specific results in a particular context, rather than generally support U.S. allies or deter opponents.

Russia demonstrated a form of campaigning during the lead-up to its invasion of Ukraine and in the months thereafter. In combination with building up foreign exchange reserves to insulate the country from sanctions, Russian leaders threatened cyber attacks, energy warfare, and nuclear escalation to suppress Western retaliation. Partly in response, U.S. leaders foreswore putting boots in the ground or conducting large cyber operations to protect Ukraine.

Another relevant example is the Cold War, when strategists devised a plan to undermine Soviet leaders’ confidence in their plans and capabilities. Rather than relying solely on forces in the Fulda Gap to stop a Warsaw Pact invasion, U.S. and allied militaries developed new capabilities like the Tomahawk missile to threaten the Soviet periphery, sent submarines to the Barents Sea to hold Soviet nuclear missile subs at risk, pursued “Star Wars” missile defenses, and fielded stealth fighters and precision-guided weapons to imperil Soviet reinforcements.

Many of these new technologies did not reach the field before the Cold War ended, and some—like Star Wars—never achieved their ambitions. But the combination of concepts and capability development with persistent U.S. and allied forward operations arguably kept leaders in Moscow off-balance and less likely to initiate aggression.

China is in most ways a more formidable opponent than the Cold War Soviet Union or today’s Russia. If threats of denial or punishment did not stop Putin from invading Ukraine, they are even less likely to deter leaders in Beijing from attacking Taiwan. Instead, the United States and its allies will need to pursue a long-term effort at dissuasion, or an effort to reduce the likelihood of an adversary taking an undesirable action.

Campaigning could operationalize dissuasion by creating a feedback loop between U.S. or allied actions and Chinese decision-making. U.S. military posture changes, experiments or demonstrations, exercises, and new tactics and concepts should sway Chinese leaders’ assessments of how easily the People’s Liberation Army could defeat China’s neighbors and at what cost. A well-orchestrated series of U.S. and allied actions could convince officials in Beijing to defer hostilities until they are more confident of success on acceptable terms.

If the U.S. intelligence community’s insight into China’s internal decision-making is on par with what it demonstrated with Russia, Pentagon planners could use Chinese assessments of U.S. actions to develop and refine a dissuasion campaign over months or years. And if U.S. intelligence lacks the level of penetration it has in Russia, leaders could still rely on observable responses to build a model of Chinese decision-making that would help shape the campaign.

However, analysis is only half the battle. Whether it depends on direct intelligence, models, or both, campaigning requires sustained action to generate surprise and create measurable responses. Persistent engagement has paid off in cyberspace for U.S. Cyber Command and in the media for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The Pentagon could apply persistent engagement across other domains in a campaign against China if U.S. leaders are willing to accept a modest risk of escalation.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command leaders are concerned China could attempt to forcibly reunite with Taiwan during this decade. Moreover, the failure of deterrence against Russia shows threats of denial or punishment may not be credible against peer militaries fighting in their own back yards. The U.S. military should quickly launch a new approach toward preventing hostilities against allies and partners. With its emphasis on campaigning, the new defense strategy offers a path to dissuading China rather than waiting to mount a goal-line stand that is unlikely to succeed.

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