Interview with Elbridge Colby, Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017 to 2018, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the DOD’s principal representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS).
Let’s unpack the notion of principled realism at the core of both the NDS and the NSS. How is the world perceived through the lens of principled realism? What type of international order is envisaged?
Principled realism focuses through a realist lens on building a free, open, and dignified political order within the international system. The logic is that America needs to play power politics so that we don’t live in a power politics world. Principled realism accepts that power and especially the agglomeration of power determines international outcomes. But it seeks to adapt that reality in the service of positive ends. Principled realism diverges from other contending conceptual camps – progressive transnationalism, security communities, or the so-called rules-based order approach – in recognising that the state as a political unit and military power and wealth as the currency of international politics remain fundamental. These other camps believe that, if one could properly construct security communities or cultural compatibility, one could escape interstate competition.
These approaches, then, tend to see the melting away of the state as inevitable, and the state and its military and economic power as less and less important. Idealism about transcending war and the state reflects the progressive views of world politics. But principled realism reminds us that the state will remain the primary player in the international arena. In this sense, the 2018 National Defense Strategy is really more an empirical assessment of the primacy of the state. But it is not a Machtpolitik strategy; it does not seek power maximization for its own sake or to dominate others. Rather, it seeks an enlightened sense of national sovereignty to promote a free
and open order in which countries can determine their own fate, consistent with America’s interests in independence, sovereignty, and non-domination of countries in the key regions, particularly Asia and Europe. The NDS is clear-eyed in recognising that interstate competition is the key dynamic driving today’s strategic environment, and that preventing the rise of a regional hegemon that can project power against us or exclude us from fair terms of trade is our highest national imperative.
To what extent is the worldview embedded in the NDS and NSS building on the previous conceptualisations, such as the rules- based order? In the end, the post WW2 liberal international order was based on both power and rules, power legitimised through rules.
What’s wrong with the ‘international rules-based order’ language is that rules per se do not define international order.
‘Rules-based order’ sounds like conceiving of or attempting to turn the international environment into a domestic environment. But a domestic environment requires the preponderance of power by a sovereign, which is incompatible with the preservation of meaningful state sovereignty. The other problem with the ‘rules- based order’ phrase is that it tends to focus people on violations of the ‘rules’ rather than the real issue, which is power. My favorite example is the South China Sea. If the Chinese could create artificial features, militarise them, and achieve military dominance in the South China Sea – and do this all legally – we would still have a problem with it. The issue is the attempt to dominate the South China Sea and beyond that South East Asia, not the rules per se. Just like the American Constitution, it is the checks and balances system that matters more than the particular rules, which are subject to change. That is why I prefer the term ‘a free and open order’.
There is another aspect here: Americans are jealous of our sovereignty. We don’t want to dissolve our sovereignty in transnational organisations; we want to retain flexibility.
Elbridge Colby Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.
The NDS and the NSS reflect a different vision from the Obama administration – maybe not a 180 degree shift, but a fundamental distinction in that the Obama administration aspired ultimately toward a pooling of national sovereignty toward trans-nationalism. President Obama was instrumentally inclined toward some element of realism, i.e., prudence, but his administration’s basic approach was not principled realism. It was a progressive administration that was in some respects instrumentally prudential.
You said recently that “from a strategic perspective, in many respects we face a situation not unlike the one in the late 1970s when there was a real perception of the decline of the Western deterrent.” That context was the one conducive to the developing of what has been called the Second Offset Strategy, and to a bolstering of the conventional deterrence posture in Europe (through forward presence, reinforcement, rapid reaction forces and pre- positioned equipment). The second part is what we’ve seen in Europe after 2014 through the European Defense Initiative and the other steps taken by NATO. To what extent would you expect the 3rd offset strategy initiated by the previous Administration to continue? Where are we in the development of the Third Offset Strategy, as well as in addressing the problem sets that were at the core of its development? In the end, its emphasis on new comparative advantages and edge is everywhere in the NDS.
Certainly, the Third Offset is very much alive, and I would say that the whole effort has been expanded. In some sense, the problem statement that the Third Offset focused
on, which is the decline of the American conventional deterrent vis-à-vis China and Russia, has become the problem statement for the whole Department now. The popular perception is that the Third Offset was very much focused on leap-ahead technology. The NDS, while still very concerned about technology, is a little more agnostic about the balance in importance between operational concepts and force employment on the one hand, and technology on the other. But the bottom line remains: the Third Offset is being carried on and matured.
The late 1970s is the right analogy because you had the decline in the superiority of the Western nuclear deterrent, the erosion of American conventional forces in Europe because of Vietnam, and in particular the growth of the Soviet strategic arsenal and the capability of their conventional forces. This together led to the decline in the viability of NATO’s heavy reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a Warsaw Pact assault. In this context, the Second Offset was the answer. It exploited the West’s, particularly America’s, major economic and technological edge for conventional forces as well as the recapitalisation of the nuclear deterrent, a
pillar often forgotten in the offset discussion. This period is comparable now because our massive conventional advantages have eroded, in part because of China and Russia’s focus on undermining our advantages, and also our unwillingness to adapt, instead placing our attention elsewhere (particularly in the Middle East and South Asia). What’s different this time, particularly vis-à-vis China, is that we face a competitor that, unlike the Soviet Union, is not binding itself to a foolish and a self-defeating economic system and that possesses an economy that rivals ours in size.
As in the 1970s and ’80s, the United States extends deterrence to allies and partners in the highly exposed front-yard of a great power competitor with both robust conventional forces and survivable second-strike forces capable of waging a limited nuclear war. Our response has to be an integrated conventional- nuclear strategy and posture. And I think we struggle with that. This is the context in which I make the argument that we have to face the problem of limited war, including limited nuclear war. We must adapt our strategy to face an opponent prepared to escalate with nuclear weapons. If we don’t have an option below the level of strategic nuclear war and the Russians can effectively escalate with limited nuclear use, we will be at a potentially decisive disadvantage. In the 1980s we were good enough along the conventional- nuclear spectrum: the REFORGER exercises, the AirLand Battle operational concept, the Army’s Big Five modernisation program, Pershing II IRBMs and GLCMs, etc.. Back then, the United States invested in both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and contemplated strategies for limited nuclear use, but it also developed conventional capabilities designed to offset the Warsaw Pact’s much larger conventional advantages. Ultimately the idea was also to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence and defense, though they always played a crucial role.
The difference between then and now was that nuclear weapons were so proliferated in Europe that any large conflagration would have almost invariably led to a strategic exchange. Today, however, nuclear weapons have been largely marginalized. Most people probably could imagine a purely conventional war with Russia or China. In fact, most of them would probably assume that it would stay conventional and largely limited to a relatively confined theater–so we need to deal with this reality.
There is this emphasis on eroding the military competitive edge that affects the ability to wage the American Way of War. What core dimensions of the Desert Storm model are in jeopardy? What are the implications for providing regional reassurance and a deterrence umbrella for US allies?
Our interests are in favourable regional balances of power and alliances are designed to sustain these favourable regional balances of power.
Both the Russians and the Chinese saw that the Americans had a very effective way of war – the Desert Storm model. So, when the Iraqis attacked Kuwait and stopped there, we deployed light formations and took six months to build a coalition to assemble the iron mountain of capability. Once the whole operational architecture was ready, the U.S. launched an aerospace campaign to shut down Iraqi defense systems, establish full spectrum dominance over Iraq, and then launch the 100-hour ground invasion to achieve our focused objectives and terminate the conflict on our terms.
Over the last twenty to twenty-five years the Chinese and the Russians have taken note and invested in new capabilities, as well as concepts of operations that challenge the Desert Storm model. Now we are facing potential adversaries that can contest our ability to defend our forward allies. What has changed today is the development of Russian and Chinese conventional forces, which allows them to potentially execute a fait accompli strategy. Basically, the main problem that we face is that the rational strategy for an aspiring hegemon like China, and to some extent Russia, is to try to fight small wars on the periphery of the potential coalition against it to split off those territories and eventually turn the balance of power in its favour. Essentially, it is about waging small, limited wars to shift the preponderance of power. Historically this is how Bismarck built the German empire. First, he fought the Danes, then the Austrians, and then the French – and before anyone knew it, the Germans were the potential hegemon in Europe.
Generally, the NDS emphasises that we need to have a theory of victory that is able to beat their theory of victory. Their theory of victory is the rapid seizure of allied territory that presents the perception, through nuclear or conventional coercion, that the costs and risks of ejecting them from their seizure would be too great and too daunting to be contemplated, because such action could split the alliance or at the minimum tame our response sufficiently to negate its effectiveness.
This is largely about deterrence, not assurance. The point is to develop combat-credible forward forces (whether American or allied) that can blunt the adversary’s aggression so that they cannot consummate the fait accompli, so that they cannot seize territory or hold on to it. Ideally the alliance will deny the adversary their attempt at localised aggression so the adversary cannot achieve the fait accompli. Then, the adversary will face the terrible choice between accepting failure (a blunted and denied local aggression)
or continuing the conflict, but in ways that are so manifestly aggressive, unreasonable and brazen that these actions will catalyse our and our allies’ resolve to fight harder and enlist support, direct or indirect, from fence-sitters.
In a (maybe) forgotten book, Maritime Strategy or Coalition Defense (1984), Robert Komer (who ended up as an instrumental policy maker during the Second Offset Strategy era) made the case for a sound/ credible coalition defense focused on a “balanced land/air/sea strategy and posture aimed at helping our allies hold on to such areas of vital interest as Northeast Asia, the Persian Gulf and Western Europe.” Is this also the optimal overseas posture in the current operational environment – a sound integrated network of allies with the right capabilities in the A2/AD age? More broadly, what is the role of the allies and alliances from the NDS perspective?
Komer was basically right. He had a very acute sensibility for how the military balance and our political interests are properly related. He well understood that the purpose of the U.S. military posture vis-à-vis Europe was to fortify the European defense and fight the conflict on the terms that were most advantageous to the political solidarity of the Alliance and to the deterrent effectiveness of the Alliance. In that sense he supported more the defense in the Central Front in Germany against the Maritime Strategy. He argued against strategies of horizontal escalation that would have lost the main battle (although the Maritime Strategy was not actually one of true horizontal escalation).
This point is very relevant for the NDS, which is oriented on defending alliances and particularly defending the vulnerable allies in a way that is politically sustainable and credible, in the sense that it would be a plausible way for the U.S. and its allies to fight and, within reasonable limits, prevail. This involves limiting the conflict in ways that are advantageous to us, and if the adversary seeks to expand or vertically escalate the war – well, that would be their initiative and would demonstrate their broader aggressiveness and unreasonableness, which would improve our position.
From a principled realist perspective, alliances are not an end in themselves. Both the NSS and NDS articulate that our interests are in favourable regional balances of power, and that alliances are designed to sustain these favourable regional balances of power. Doing so will sustain free and uncoerced regional orders and tend towards the promotion of dignified, open systems of government, an ecosystem beneficial to our way of life but also to our allies. It’s an enlightened sense of self- interest. The NDS enables us to most effectively and credibly defend that alliance architecture, in a way that elicits more effort by our allies, and that is more equitable and puts less strain on our economy and society. If we can have stable regional balances of power in a way that frustrates aspirations for regional hegemony by the Chinas and the Russias of the world, then the ultimate attraction of free forms of government will likely prevail.
In the second half of the 1970s, Robert Komer concluded that “there is really no such thing as a NATO defense posture, only a collection of heterogeneous national postures which differ in their equipment, organisation and procedures.” Is enabling a common, more networked defense posture between allies the way to achieve a stable and credible balance of power in Europe?
That should be our strategic objective. There’s a broader point here. In the near term, due to the inadequacies of European defense, the United States needs to augment its posture in and investments for Europe in a combat-credible way. Over time, however, there should be no reason why the Europeans cannot essentially defend themselves, with the Americans providing the most advanced capabilities and monitoring the situation. The United States must be a crucial player in the European security balance because we have an enduring interest in preventing Europe from falling under a potentially hostile hegemon or a large European war, but that doesn’t mean a large standing military presence in Europe. The Russian threat is severe, but focused and limited. Europe could readily handle most of it. Germany for instance should play a much larger role in collective defense. It is a very serious failure in their obligations that they are not bearing the burden in providing for the collective defense of the Eastern states. They have made progress, and deserve credit for that, but they could do much more.
A more balanced relationship in which the Europeans take primary responsibility for defending themselves is a more natural and sustainable equilibrium. This was ultimately Eisenhower’s objective: America has an interest in a Europe of sovereign states that are able to collaborate and defend themselves, backed by America’s commitment. There is no reason that they should rely on the United States to provide the bulk of their defense.
Poland is pushing for a Fort Trump on its territory. Others in the East want a Fort NATO that covers the whole Eastern Flank. In a way this is a consequence of the original sin of the post-Cold War enlargement, when the alliance preserved its in-depth posture while leaving its eastern flank exposed. In today’s security environment the situation is no longer sustainable, as it could encourage a fait accompli strategy. Should the concept of presence be rethought in an A2/AD- centric world?
Central Europeans need to understand that the 1990s and 2000s model of presence as an intrinsic virtue and military forces as symbols of reassurance is over. We can’t afford it; it is expensive; it doesn’t work. I am sympathetic to a more combat-credible presence in the East because the security environment has changed. The NDS is very clear that the purpose of the Joint Force is to deter by ensuring that the Russian and Chinese do not see a plausible theory of victory. In particular, that means denying a fait accompli and blunting the adversary’s aggression, so that they cannot lock in their gains and escalate to de-escalate.
Central Europeans need to under- stand that the 1990s and 2000s model of presence as an intrinsic virtue and military forces as sym- bols of reassurance is over.
We can’t afford it; it is expensive; it doesn’t work.
So forward presence makes a lot of sense, but it should be a combat-credible forward presence that is consistent with very significant demands across the globe, particularly in the three major theaters – Asia, Europe, and the Persian Gulf. The United States’ presence in Europe should be focused, lethal, and adapted to the Russia threat rather than an anachronistic reflection of the pre-1989 geopolitical situation. We don’t have enough forces to be everywhere all the time. Romania, Poland and the Baltic states should be much more focused on exercises, on making sure that U.S. forces can arrive and fight effectively, stationing of equipment, ensuring that roads, bridges, railways are ready. We should see future versions of the REFORGER exercises, not a static Maginot-line type of posture, designed to show that reinforcing American forces can arrive very quickly, join allied and U.S. forces already there, and blunt Russian aggression in a very short amount of time. Rotational or stationed forces may make sense but they should be examined from a military perspective. That is: is this going to contribute to our ability to delay or deny a Russian offensive?
For years Russia has been investing in niche military competitive advantages. One example is building its A2/AD complexes along NATO’s eastern flank (especially in Kaliningrad and Crimea). To what extent can these bubbles be used to intimidate and coerce the frontline allies?
People tend to bifurcate political influence and military force. Of course, the real objective of having a military advantage is to develop political influence without having to use military force, or using it in a very efficient way. Influence comes from the understanding that if you challenge the other side you will lose. If the states of the East are under the shadow of Russian power, including their A2/AD capability, and they perceive that the U.S. and the rest of the Alliance don’t have a credible and plausible way of defending them, then they will face strong pressure to defer to or even bandwagon with the Russians. The NDS is a big step in the right direction by saying that we are not going to abandon you, that the Russians are not going to be able to use that military power effectively to coerce you. But this requires a great deal from the Europeans as well.
How should the US approach the idea of developing an antidote to a competitor’s A2/AD-centric posture?
We are facing potential adversaries that have the real ability to contest our ability to defend our forward allies and partners. Our objective remains essentially defensive. If you have established A2/AD battle networks, then you are probably going to have an operationally defensive-dominant situation. We need to shift our power projection focus from one in which the military assumes that we will achieve full-spectrum dominance to one where we are focused on lethality and resilience from the outset, without full- spectrum dominance, while having the ability to frustrate, degrade, and ultimately block Russian and Chinese attempts to seize allied territory. It is essential that our conventional forces have the capacity to contest and deny Russian ability to secure the fait accompli. But we must figure out how to blunt and reverse Chinese or Russian gains without the kind of dominance the United States used to have.
What do the Russian and Chinese Ways of War (how they are structured, and ultimately the strategies they are deploying) tell us about the (changing) character of war in today’s environment?
I am interested in the political aspects of the changing character of war, which I think is becoming operationally defense-dominant as the advanced states are able to obtain and deploy the necessary technology. You can be strategically offensive in an operationally defense-dominant world, though, as Germany demonstrated in World War One. In an operationally defense-dominant situation, the fait accompli is a viable strategy. In an offense-dominant situation, a fait accompli is less effective because the aggressor is highly vulnerable. This is how I think we are going to think about that.
The interview was conducted by Octavian Manea and first published in Small Wars Journal, 19 January 2019.