Two broad themes emerge when viewing 20th century national security history through a military capability lens: (1) Deterrence works and (2) Competitors adapt. This second phenomenon requires that the US and its allies adapt as well.
The cycle of deterrence and adaptation is particularly clear in the evolution of US-Russia military competition. During the Cold War, the US and fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) built up a nuclear arsenal that deterred the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from taking nuclear action. The USSR is no more, but the US and NATO still maintain both a credible nuclear deterrent and a conventional deterrent as a check against large-scale Russian adventurism. In response to this successful deterrence, Russia has—depending on the preferred heuristic—adapted to wage “Irregular Warfare,” “Asymmetric Warfare,” or to operate in the “Gray Zone.” While useful, those terms demonstrate the limitations of a military-centric discussion and fail to capture activities beyond the military context or risk misinterpreting them.
A more nuanced understanding is needed if the US is going to address these activities, which are far from limited only to Russia. Competitors might be better understood to be engaging in “Below Established Threshold Activities” (BETA) as an adaptive response to US nuclear and conventional deterrence.
BETA are conducted to change the behavior of others, to gain an advantage, or maintain an existing state of affairs using methodologies that aim to stay below the thresholds established by international order. Examples of calculated below threshold efforts emerge in numerous contexts. Russia conducted BETA in Crimea with a desire to stay below the NATO Article 5 threshold. China’s activities in the South China Sea, while aggressive, still fall below the threshold of a strong response by interested parties. There China operates under the shadow of both military competition and political resolve, as some ask "Who wants to die fighting over rocks?" North Korea's hack of Sony did not meet the threshold to be considered an act of war nor could the equipment destroyed in this incident be described as critical infrastructure.
Beyond those publicly or formally established thresholds, there are thresholds privately held by political leaders. While President Obama publicly established a threshold whereby the US would intervene in Syria if the Assad regime used chemical weapons, it appears as though President Assad viewed the actual threshold as somewhat different and decided to act accordingly.
Pushing competitions to below threshold activities is a mark of successful deterrence, and the BETA examples above are certainly preferable to nuclear war or large-scale conventional war. However, there is still a significant need to respond to BETA, and in order to do so effectively the US needs to adapt in the areas of mindset, law, monitoring, and knowledge management.
The first adaptation is mindset. Academic, think tank, and practitioner communities must accept that activities to address BETA will not fit neatly into the authorities established in Title 10, Title 22, Title 50 of US Code or elsewhere. Instead, addressing BETA requires a near-simultaneous use of all three authorities all the time, which can be a source of discomfort. There has been some evolution towards this mindset adaptation in the context of counterterrorism, but a larger sea change is needed to fully respond to BETA. Once implemented, the first adaptation will enable interested parties to begin thinking beyond defending their own equities and instead on how to address BETA.
The mindset adaptation drives the second required adaptation: changes to existing law. BETA legislation would enable the appointment of Interagency Mission Managers empowered to work across government with enhanced ability to transfer funds between Executive Branch departments and agencies based on mission requirements. Congressional committees will likely need to be realigned to focus on BETA instead of the three existing specialty areas of armed services, foreign relations/foreign affairs, and intelligence. From a Congressional oversight point of view, a BETA committee would oversee portions of all three specialty areas nearly simultaneously. When implemented, the second adaptation will unify efforts across the government in strategy, planning, execution, and oversight, thus increasing the efficiency of activities conducted to address BETA.
The third adaptation entails the US Intelligence Community (IC) and other departments and agencies within the Executive Branch reassessing how they monitor events overseas. The Director of National Intelligence should look at the National Intelligence Priority Framework and determine how it might be used to detect discreet indications and warnings of BETA. If that framework is not suited to the purpose, then another vehicle may need to be established for IC use. Executive Branch departments and agencies will need to ensure they capture BETA concerns and proclamations when interacting with their foreign counterparts as these could warn of impending events. Once successful, this third adaptation will enable the US to better monitor BETA and determine if multiple BETA are, over time, leading to an event that could be characterized as strategic surprise.
The fourth and final adaptation will be the establishment of an organization to manage BETA knowledge, study it, record best practices and lessons learned, and promulgate them across the US government. This organization would be staffed with representatives from the Executive Branch, academia, and think tanks. This fourth adaptation will ensure the US understands BETA and doesn’t forget about it. Such forgetfulness can lead to loss of knowledge and opportunistic rebranding of historical activities, neither of which are helpful to the national security community.
Notwithstanding the above, it must not be forgotten that competitors conduct BETA to avoid US superiority in both the nuclear and conventional realm. As such, if the US nuclear or conventional deterrents lapse, BETA will be less likely and large-scale conflict will increase in probability. Based upon this, the US must first and foremost ensure that its credible nuclear and conventional deterrence continues so that it can enjoy the comparative luxury of struggling to address threats posed by BETA. Today’s fiscally austere environment will require Executive Branch departments and agencies to determine if they should expand to address BETA or assume risk within their current resources to do so.
It bears noting that the US struggles with effectively addressing BETA for reasons that are psychological as well as organizational. Generally speaking, humans as a species prefer certainty, and this manifests itself with the US national security community being comfortable with peace or war, as compared to the uncertainty and uncomfortableness inherent in BETA. Also, the US in particular valorizes decisive conflict—our national anthem is about a battle, not grand strategy or about avoiding conflict. The US has four Rambo films, but none about the containment strategy that won the Cold War. The US is, in essence, simultaneously struggling with both BETA, and its own collective national security identity. If the US fails to address BETA as effectively as it has mastered nuclear and conventional deterrence this will result in competitors prevailing in numerous small ways. Over time those small wins may add up to large victories.