Strategic Competition and Resistance in the 21st Century: Irregular, Catastrophic, Traditional, and Hybrid Challenges in Context
Authored by Mr. Nathan P. Freier.
The 2005 National Defense Strategy introduced the now prolific concept of the four challenges--traditional, irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive. Reference to the challenges is now an essential feature of defense deliberations. Yet in spite of the concept’s central place in the defense debates in and out of government, there have been persistent gaps in how the individual challenges are defined and how they should be applied in defense and security policymaking. Written by one of two working-level strategists responsible for the 2005 defense strategy’s conceptual development, this monograph addresses that deficit. It provides the reader with the foundational substance underwriting the three most active challenges--irregular, catastrophic, and traditional--while introducing the concept of the “hybrid norm.”
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), the war against Afghanistan’s Taliban “government,” and the fall of Baghdad, the Secretary of Defense chartered a comprehensive review of the “transformational” defense strategy outlined in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR 01). The review resulted in the 2005 National Defense Strategy (NDS 05). QDR 01’s defense strategy was, in a number of respects, overcome by strategic circumstances. Thus, NDS 05 was a necessary and timely adjustment to changes in the strategic environment’s foundational conditions.
NDS 05’s development process gave birth to a novel description of the strategic environment—a view that is only imperfectly reflected in the Pentagon’s now ubiquitous “quad chart” and its abridged description of the traditional, irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges. The “quad” challenges and NDS 05’s quite general description of the defense-specific response to them had a pronounced effect on the prevailing defense outlook and culture. This is particularly true with respect to the aperture used to examine the strategic environment and the lexicon employed to describe it.
Those who framed NDS 05 saw competition with and resistance to the United States as endemic, persistent, and increasingly irregular-cum-catastrophic or hybrid in character. They believed that widespread, defenserelevant resistance to the United States was a natural by-product of American primacy as well as a palpable devolution of the reach and effectiveness of some sovereign governments. In short, some discrete strategic challenges would arise from purposeful resistance— predictable systemic antibodies to singular American superpower. Others would originate in environmental discontinuities triggered by globalization and the attendant dissolution of key aspects of effective sovereign control. Regardless of origin or purpose, however, most would be decidedly less traditional in their prevailing character, and all were certain to test American primacy in unique ways.
Particularly germane to NDS 05’s working-level strategists was the rising likelihood and strategic impact of irregular-cum-catastrophic and hybrid challenges. In their view, these would threaten American interests more consequentially than any combination of likely traditional challenges. This view held that some opponents acted with others against the United States. Others acted alone according to their interests. Some shared the common goal of limiting American influence. Few, however, enjoyed a common vision for strategic outcomes.
Though uncoordinated and at times competing, all of these competitors and competitive forces would combine in their strategic effect. In still other instances, the environment itself—un- and under-governance, weak or failing political order, and, at times, even natural or human disaster, would inhibit successful pursuit of American objectives. Considering the range of prospective security challenges on the strategic horizon, it was clear that most would exhibit defenserelevant characteristics or have defense-relevant effects. However, few would be vulnerable to defense-specific solutions alone.
Contending with all of these forces required DoD to orient on fundamentally different strategic priorities than those dominating the first decade and a half of post-Cold War experience. Those developing NDS 05 believed that strategic costs and setbacks would accumulate in real and profound ways if the United States failed to adjust. In short, failure to meaningfully account for changes in the environment would ultimately limit American freedom of action and fundamentally jeopardize American great power.
From the perspective of those developing NDS 05, it was increasingly clear that the United States was more likely to “die by a thousand cuts” than it was to succumb to a peer opponent in a sudden traditional military reversal. In this environment, DoD could no longer afford to limit its utility to military competition and conflict with traditional state rivals.
Instead, NDS 05’s framers believed that the United States should be prepared to secure American position and interests in an environment marked by persistent irregular, catastrophic, and hybrid resistance and friction. Mounting evidence suggested that traditional American military superiority (transformed or not) was necessary but not sufficient for success in an environment rife with defense-relevant but not always defense-specific challenges.
NDS 05’s working-level strategists believed that the United States was increasingly assuming strategic risk in areas where history had proven it most vulnerable. The United States was now operating inside a band of constant, unrelenting resistance and friction where a range of discrete competitors tried to limit U.S. influence through a variety of cost-imposing strategies. The United States had consistently demonstrated its enormous capacity to dispatch with military competitors on traditional battlefields. It had not, however, done so in the face of determined irregular resistance. Further still, if the United States was only just now at the front end of an extended period of active resistance and conflict, it was difficult to predict how it would fare materially, politically, and psychologically over time. It was increasingly likely that the United States and its armed forces would confront an array of capable nonstate and state competitors under conditions of considerable strategic and operational ambiguity where success and failure are often very difficult to define.
In reality, the environment would never universally conform to the pre-conflict, war, and post-conflict model DoD had long pegged its relevance against. In DoD’s prevailing, traditional worldview, it ramps up military capabilities, fights high-intensity combat engagements, and then cedes primary responsibility for final conflict resolution to other U.S. Government (USG) agencies. Now, however, DoD has become elemental to a constant whole-of-government effort to manage consequential competition and resistance perpetually. The important and timely articulation and socialization of the four challenges was meant to accommodate DoD’s deliberate adjustment to this new reality.
Articulation of these challenges also was intended to change the decision space for senior defense policymakers and to force DoD as a whole to more thoughtfully consider its role in a world populated by unrelenting, disaggregated, defenserelevant challenges to American influence. Perpetual competition and friction in this world are often, at their core, nonmilitary in origin and character. While any single manifestation within it has defense-relevant components, very few are either exclusively or even primarily solvable through defense-specific means. This is particularly true to the extent that resistance and friction are more irregular, catastrophic, or hybrid in character.
This more complex challenge environment demands that American strategists nimbly apply the nation’s diverse instruments of power in those combinations likeliest to render decisive, enduring outcomes. Clearly, this requires more than the DoD and its resources alone. Nonetheless, DoD was the first to recognize the increased scope and complexity of the environment’s constituent hazards. Thus, it bears significant responsibility for translating the key implications of these hazards into concepts suitable for wider USG consumption. Likewise, DoD must itself adjust to the environment’s unique demands and simultaneously lead more comprehensive government-wide change in this regard. It will be some time before the interagency adjusts to the new (or better understood) strategic reality. In the mean time, DoD must compensate for the wider American government’s halting recognition of the environment’s fundamental transformation and, at a minimum, help it correctly frame the most important security- and defense-relevant choices.
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