top of page
  • Writer's pictureT. Kearny Vertner, III

The Future of Great Power Competition

The next generation of high-end warfare looks both familiar and different.

Many well-meaning military strategists and planners are continually lamenting our ability to fight a potential high-end fight against potential adversaries like China or Russia - commonly known as Great Power Competition (GPC). They explain that we must keep surging ahead with costly next-generation fighters, aircraft carriers, bombers, destroyers, and tanks, while we continuously shed relatively inexpensive assets meant to win today's fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some would say this is a reprioritization based on the 2017 National Security Strategy; however, you'll notice that for many of the services, this only signaled an explicit refocus on funding expensive high-end programs that began well in advance of that NSS (and in some cases, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan are only a sample of the low-intensity conflicts (or LICs) that have simmered worldwide since the end of World War II. A LIC is an asymmetrical conflict that falls short of total war, and aptly describes just about every military conflict of the twentieth century. Our application of high-end warfighting in that period has mostly been consolidated to the World Wars, the Korean War, the initial thrust of Desert Storm in Iraq, and (arguably) Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia.  Every other conflict, including many elements of the Cold War, was settled through LICs. Given that the vast majority of the fighting done across the spectrum of warfare is within LIC's sphere, how come we invest so much money, manpower, and training into a fight that never comes? Furthermore, given the nature of today's GPC, can it come at all?

F-22 Raptor, USAF
F-22 Raptor, USAF

The Rise of Hybrid Warfare

The advent of nuclear weapons and the threat of complete annihilation have all but eliminated traditional high-end warfare between nuclear-capable Great Powers (arguably, a tautology). In fact, this was supposed to be the promise of nuclear weapons: we would no longer need any other high-end warfare tools; none would ever dare challenge us head-on. At the height of the military nuclear-weapons-will-solve-everything era, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay famously remarked, "Flying fighters is fun [but] Flying bombers is important." As a concept, war between Great Powers has ended, so what happened during the Cold War and since?

First of all, it's essential to emphasize that war is an international relations tool for open conflict between two states that largely cast aside since the Korean War. Legally speaking, no conflict since then has been a declared war. Instead, military planners and politicians prefer to use terms like police actionactive armed conflict, military operation other than war (MOOTW), and others. MOOTW always gives me a chuckle, both when I hear folks say it out loud and when I imagine what kind of person would enlist if a recruiter talked about getting a chance to fight in "an operation other than war." It just doesn't have quite the same ring.

In all cases, these terms acknowledge that conflict takes place on a spectrum. On one end, you've got peace (where conflict is relegated to the diplomats), while on the other hand, you have traditional high-end (or conventional) war. Nuclear annihilation is now the penultimate resolution of any conventional war. What lies in the middle has been called grey zone conflict, but I prefer the term hybrid warfare. Hybrid warfare blends elements of conventional warfare with unconventional, irregular, and cyber warfare. It may use elements of the military or intelligence services to conduct direct activities that either fall just short of war or indirect actions in the form of proxy war. Despite the focus on purchasing heavy bombers, advanced fighters, and massive naval fleets as a deterrent (because nuclear weapons weren't enough), much of the Cold War (including the Vietnam conflict) falls into this range. 

The (Re)Rise of the Human Domain

The Cold War's numerous conflicts showed us glimpses of how powerful hybrid warfare could be, but we refused to commit to it. As soon as the Gulf War (Operations DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM) kicked off against Iraq in 1990, we excitedly employed the powerful capabilities we built up to deter Russia and handily pulverized the Hussein regime in under 100 days... or did we? We spent the next thirty years at some level of conflict in Iraq, enjoying an occasional break but always returning to it. Threats are increasingly transnational in nature, making the legal idea of war increasingly obsolete. As cyber and space rise as domains that can impact capabilities across air, land, and sea domains, we're left re-evaluating the one thing that ties them all together: the human.

John Boyd, Col (ret), USAF
John Boyd, Col (ret), USAF

Many pithy truisms describe the importance of the human domain without explicitly stating so. United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) lives by the mantra, "Humans are more important than hardware." Col (ret) John Boyd said, "Machines don't fight wars. Terrain doesn't fight wars. Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans; that's where the battles are won." Sun Tzu simply said, "Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting." Each of these speak to how much more important the humans are than their mere tools.

The secondary goal of the human domain is empowering the will of your military to fight and your citizens to support them, but the primary goal of the human domain is to manipulate, disrupt, and degrade the will of your competitor to fight and their citizens to support it. The human domain ascends to the height of importance within hybrid warfare, where the military stakeholders hiding inside of their comfortable tactical stovepipes and behind their preferred multi-million-dollar acquisition programs must be pushed aside in favor of a fighting force that can effectively operate within and against the human domain. The most powerful assets the Department of Defense has working in the human domain are those in the cyber, space, intelligence, and special operations realms. 

Cyber and space are critical because they can defensively protect the free flow of favorable information while offensively degrading, disrupting, and discrediting unfavorable information. Intelligence capabilities are vital to understanding the environment and helping us orient ourselves appropriately to it to properly focus all other capabilities. Special operations bring a unique cultural problem-solving approach and incredible skills that enable both kinetic and non-kinetic options in the physical domain while providing essential soft power tools vis-a-vis its foreign internal defense, security force assistance, and civil affairs missions. This works all the better when those cyber, space, and intelligence capabilities are unified under the special operations umbrella to reinforce the unique cultural problem-solving approach necessary for success in hybrid warfare. This refocus of special operations missions is important, even if it's at the expense of the highly-kinetic counter-terrorist forces that have defined the previous twenty years, a point that was recently emphasized by USSOCOM's commander, General Richard Clarke. Furthermore, for this to work, we need to further empower the primary levers of soft power, such as the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

B-52 Stratofortress, USAF
B-52 Stratofortress, USAF

Coming back to LICs, they continue to occur at a rate (thankfully) unparalleled by any sort of high-end fight. The critical thing to recognize is that they all take place primarily in the human domain. We often hear the truism, "you can't bomb away an idea," but you absolutely can degrade, disrupt, and discredit it through effective operations using the forces defined above. Among folks who have spent their careers fighting LICs, I've heard a lot of questions along the lines of, "How do we show our relevance to a possible GPC fight?" To this, I say, "You're already there. It's the fighters, bombers, destroyers, carriers, and tanks that are playing catch-up."


I don't imagine a world where the technology and extraordinary capabilities of fighters, bombers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons suddenly vanish. The chilling deterrent effect of their mere existence is enough to keep them gathering dust and off the battlefield. The argument then comes: how many do we develop and purchase to maintain that strategic deterrence? While there is a great deal of popular talk on how to counter great power competitors, it's increasingly used as a thinly-cloaked excuse to refocus energy and money on high-end technological capabilities. Given the limited resources at our disposal, we need to decide: do we need more expensive capabilities, or do we want to compete effectively?

The next step is defining how to arrange the rest of the portfolio, which should make up a far more substantial bulk than it does now. We've observed many powerful potential lessons on the importance of non-conforming creative thought, aggressive innovation, and the powerful influence people's will have on a state's success or failure. A re-emphasis on and growth of cyber, space, intelligence, and special operations forces along with a growing partnership with the Department of State and USAID is critical to success in hybrid wars happening across the human domain.

Below is not a good example of hybrid war. Thanks for reading; I look forward to your critical feedback! - Kearny


bottom of page