U.S. Influence and Levers of Power in Morocco

By Major Eric S. Hovey, U.S. Marine Corps

Editor's Note:  Major Hovey's thesis won the FAO Assn writing award at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.  This essay is adapted from his work on a larger research report, “U.S. Influence and Levers of Power in AFRICOM Countries,” written by faculty and students within the Department of National Security Affairs. The Journal is pleased to bring you this outstanding scholarship.


The 2018 National Defense Strategy’s (NDS) characterization of a global environment dominated by great power competition raises a host of questions about the state of U.S. influence in countries around the world.  These questions are especially relevant to African countries, as China, Russia, and other international actors are attempting to increase their influence.  Given this competitive environment, the U.S. government needs to understand how and to what extent the U.S. influences partner countries in Africa.  What activities and programs benefit U.S. influence; who are the key domestic actors that should be targeted for support?  

This paper is an initial attempt to address this knowledge gap for U.S. stakeholders.  It first introduces the key findings and recommendations from larger research conducted by the students and faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) regarding U.S. influence within Africa Command (AFRICOM) countries.  Faculty and students in the Department of National Security Affairs at NPS executed this research from January through August 2019, using a wide variety of academic, government, and non-government sources.  The general recommendations overview is subsequently followed by a detailed case-study of the Kingdom of Morocco, focusing on how the U.S. can maintain its status as a preferred security partner in Morocco.  The desired endstate is to empower U.S. stakeholders with the best information possible to maintain the United States’ status as a preferred security partner within key AFRICOM countries.   

Key Findings

There are four main takeaways regarding strengthening and sustaining U.S. influence in Africa.  First, influence is an inherently complex phenomenon that is difficult to quantify.  It may be tempting to look at simple financial metrics of assistance provided by one country to another to gauge influence, but this approach is problematic.  Higher amounts of aid could simply indicate that one country needs to pay more to advance its goals than another.  Moreover, the retraction of aid as a negotiating tactic could backfire and reduce a donor’s influence, especially if another foreign party stepped in to provide similar benefits.  As such, this paper does not assume that an augmentation of resources expended in or on a partner country will increase influence.

Second, U.S. influence varies considerably from country to country in terms of both its strength and substance.  This means that country-specific strategies for gaining and maintaining influence should be pursued to the maximum extent possible.  A blanket-approach towards African outreach is less desirable, since the types of programs and activities that work in one country might be less effective in another. 

U.S. influence also varies within countries.  Individuals or groups with closer economic, political or social links to the United States (such as civic organization); or those who possess shared values based on democracy, human rights and individual economic freedoms are likely to be more receptive to U.S. influence.  For example, the collapse of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia following the 2011 Arab Spring brought about new opportunities for the U.S. to form partnerships with pro-democratic actors.  The U.S. should identify and strengthen partnerships with these types of actors.

Finally, this paper underscores the primacy of sovereignty for African partners.  Many African countries, including the Kingdom of Morocco, are highly aware of, and sensitive to, potential intrusions on their sovereignty.  A common refrain during discussions with numerous U.S. Embassy personnel throughout various embassies was that host nation personnel would not do anything they did not want to do.  Given the frequency and intensity of observed sovereignty concerns, traditional “carrots” (rewards) and “sticks” (coercion) may be less effective tools of influence than efforts to cultivate longer-term shared interests and reinforce shared values.  Additionally, U.S. efforts to disrupt competitor activity could backfire if they are perceived by partner countries as impinging on their autonomy and sovereignty.

General Recommendations

This paper outlines four key recommendations about the types of activities that can most likely protect and strengthen U.S. influence.  These recommendations focus on activities and

strategies to build medium- and longer-term influence within AFRICOM countries. Given the limited scope of this paper, however, they do not consider how U.S. activities affect competitor behavior.

1. Focus programs and activities on actors and institutions who share U.S. values and can benefit from U.S. programs. Amidst increasinglydiverse political landscapes, it is critical to identify and support domestic actors thatshare U.S. interests.

2. Continue and/or expand U.S. military and education programs that cultivate meaningful relationships. U.S. training and education programs are generally held in high regard; those who complete courses in the U.S. are especially likely to be promoted and may go on to hold powerful positions.

3. Focus on aid and assistance programs that visibly benefit the population, particularly in democratic contexts. Cultivating popular support can promote governments’ anticipatory compliance with U.S. requests, since government authorities generally seek to prevent popular mobilization around losses of livelihood or freedom.  Increase public relations efforts surrounding U.S. and affiliated programs.

4.  Continue to support and protect democratic gains from the last two decades.  Popular support for democracy in Africa is high and public protestscan check politicians’ willingness to cede sovereignty toforeign actors.  Democracy assistance can therefore reinforce shared values, support the population’sability to act as a constraint on leaders’ decisions, and provide a clear alternative to themore authoritarian systems of government embraced by Russia and China.

5. Tailor aid and assistance programs to advance the government’s economic vision. Supporting long-term economic goals can cultivate shared interests, move away from transactional relationships, and make the U.S.a more attractive partner.



The U.S. has strong influence within Morocco, owing to its longstanding security partnerships, military training exercises, and economic ties from both Millennium Challenge Corporation Compacts and free-trade agreements.  The modern-day special relationship between the U.S. and Morocco was birthed out of symbiotic security concerns during the Cold War, but shifted after 9/11 to focus more on shared concerns regarding counterterrorism.  The most important aspect of the U.S./Morocco relationship is that, while U.S. interests shift with every administration, the Western Sahara remains an enduring geopolitical issue for the Kingdom of Morocco.  The political leadership within Morocco view the Western Sahara as an enduring, existential issue and the predominant lens to view all U.S. security cooperation.

Conversely, U.S. interests in Morocco have changed over time to reflect larger strategic priorities.  The Cold War focus on Soviet containment subsequently shifted to building an anti-Saddam coalition and renewing Arab-Israeli peace talks during the 1990s, followed by counterterrorism post 9/11, and transitioning now to great power competition.  Even as U.S. strategic priorities shift, however, the historical and political question of Western Sahara remains the central issue undergirding Morocco’s cooperation with the U.S.

Morocco was and is seen as a reliable counterterrorism partner and, after the Arab Spring. the U.S. government has been quick to support King Mohammed VI’s efforts to establish political and economic reforms and greater protection of human rights.  Though there are still protest movements within Morocco that suggest the government’s 2011 reforms have not gone far enough, Morocco is still widely perceived as a liberalizing country on a positive economic trajectory and touted as the “Face of Modern Africa.”

Security Objectives and Shared Interests

U.S. and Moroccan security objectives are built on military expediency: the U.S. wants a reliable partner for its shifting North Africa priorities, while the Moroccan government wants support from the U.S. for its interests in Western Sahara and to maintain the Alawite dynasty.

Morocco was a staunch U.S. supporter of anti-communism during the Cold War, acting as a surrogate regional power and part of the Reagan Administration’s “strategic consensus” of the U.S. and its allies against Soviet communism and left-wing insurgencies.  The Moroccan government contributed troops and political legitimacy by supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War, even as massive protests wracked Rabat for supporting the coalition.  In recognition of Morocco’s enduring significance as a pro-U.S. partner, the Clinton administration sponsored a UN Security Council resolution on Western Sahara that would have favored the Moroccan government, but withdrew under pressure from Algeria and South Africa.  Regardless, the fundamental nature of the security relationship stayed constant: the U.S. did not contest Morocco’s positions on Western Sahara, and in turn, the Moroccans supported U.S. military actions like the invasion of Iraq.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 only strengthened the security ties between the U.S. and Morocco because of shared concerns about terrorism causing regional instability.  As the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, a massive 2003 Casablanca terrorist attack reinforced the mutual interests that the Moroccan and U.S. governments’ had in combating radical Islamic terrorism.  The Moroccan government launched a sophisticated, 3-pronged strategy to combat domestic terrorism that included a law enforcement-centric focus leveraging partnerships with the U.S. Department of Justice, a “soft power” employment of U.S. development assistance in rural and disadvantaged regions of the country, and the countering of radical jihadi teaching with indigenous, moderate teachings of Maliki Islamic law.  Critically, the Moroccan position on supporting larger U.S. counterterrorism operations always referred back to their larger domestic concerns regarding interests in the Western Sahara.  The Moroccan position was that an independent Western Sahara could become a potential safe haven for terrorist actors, so counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. in the security sector amounted to tacit endorsement of the Moroccan position on Western Sahara.

The U.S. and Moroccan militaries maintain close ties, with the only noteworthy potential source of friction being sensitivity towards the sovereignty of Western Sahara.  U.S. military planners engaging with their Moroccan counterparts should be aware of the sensitivity of this topic and avoid intentional or unintentional reference to Western Sahara.

Security Sector Influence Activities

The Moroccan government place a high value on its historically strong relationship with the U.S. government.   The Royal Armed Forces’ (FAR) noteworthy logistical and maintenance capabilities of its major U.S.-procured foreign military sales (FMS) equipment (aircraft, wheeled and tracked vehicles) speaks volumes to the strength of this bond and their judiciousness in effectively using U.S. aid.  The bulk of tangible U.S. security sector influence activities in Morocco can be outlined in terms of FMS coordination with the Royal Moroccan Air Force (RMAF), the Royal Moroccan Navy (RMN), and the Royal Moroccan Land Forces.

Morocco seeks to upgrade its RMAF combat air forces, which currently include aging F-5 fighters and French Mirage F1s.  Given the RAF’s stated modernization goals, the desire to be interoperable with the U.S./allies, and the fact that their rival Algerians have pursued procurement of advanced SU-30 MKA fighters from Russia, upgrading the aviation fleet is unsurprising.  Modernizing the RMAF with U.S. equipment, including 24 F-16s purchased from the United States for $2.4 billion, both strengthens the U.S.-Moroccan military cooperation and serves as a counterweight to a key regional rival (Algeria).

The Royal Moroccan Land Forces have also made extensive use of U.S. military equipment to upgrade their forces.  The Moroccans requested and received 222 M1A1 Abrams tanks through the DoD’s Excess Defense Articles program in 2018 and are in contract development to procure an additional 162 M1A1s.  The U.S. State Department also approved the sale of TOW 2A anti-tank missile systems in 2016.  Advanced U.S. military equipment is thus a critical part of the Moroccan military’s air and ground forces.  

Effectiveness and Moroccan Response

The U.S. government frames security sector influence activities with Morocco in terms of cooperation towards mutual interests of combating terrorism.  From the Moroccan standpoint, however, U.S. military FMS are more likely seen as a counterweight to regional competition with Algeria, vis-à-vis the disputed Western Sahara region.  In the post 9/11 era, Morocco’s significance as a counterterrorism ally seems to have overcome any previous reservations about selling them U.S. military equipment.  Morocco moved quickly to increase its counterterrorism capabilities and was designated as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States on June 3, 2004, reflecting their status as an effective and reliable partner in larger U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

The strongest and most enduring relationships between the U.S. and Morocco are in the military/security realm, with economic ties being a close second. Not only is Morocco and active participant in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, but they have military forces deployed to UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.  Morocco has the positive distinction of being the only country in North Africa not to have suffered from a major terrorist attack since 2012, a testament both to U.S. support and the Moroccan government’s holistic counterterrorism strategy.

The strong ties between the U.S. and Morocco in the security realm do not preclude the influence of other countries, or indigenous Moroccan promotion of military capabilities. The French government not only coordinates upgrades to the Moroccan fleet of F1 Mirage fighters and French-manufactured Mohammed VI frigate, but facilitates bilateral exchanges between Moroccan and French military academies.  The Moroccans also have historically close ties working with the British government on matters of military training and modernization.   While the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army – Navy has conducted port-call visits in Morocco, they do not have as robust a military relationship as the U.S. or European allies.

Influence Outside Of The Security Sector

The U.S. has predominantly carrot options for achieving influence in the political and economic spheres.  Historically, the top three U.S. policy goals for Morocco have been stability, prosperity, and democracy.  The U.S. approach to achieving influence in these domains has encompassed six major program areas: “trade and investment; social and economic development; democracy and human rights; professional and educational exchanges; foreign policy coordination; and military cooperation.”  The following portions outline U.S. approaches to influence beyond the military domain.

Social and Economic Development.  

U.S. policy towards Morocco has long stressed the need for economic and social reforms, but the 2011 Arab Spring was a catalyst for expedited change.  While the U.S. government has some carrot-incentivization programs in place to help influence positive economic and social change, the persistence of issues like youth unemployment speak to the limits of U.S. influence.  Programs like the USAID’s Career Center are targeted towards youth employment in Marrakesh,

Casablanca, and Tangier, but it is unlikely that U.S. efforts can have large-scale, transformative change to address Morocco’s unemployment issues.  Even as Morocco continues to demonstrate strong economic growth relative to the rest of North Africa, its overall unemployment rate remains troublingly high around 10%.

Democracy and Human Rights

Morocco’s government continues to pursue incremental reforms to address agitation for democratic and human rights reforms, but overall progress is slow.  The U.S. remains normatively committed to the spread of democracy and improved human rights in Morocco, but U.S. influence is limited mainly to carrot-incentivization with the support of the kingdom.

USAID has three major programs that support democratization in Morocco.  The Civil Society Strengthening Program is a five-year effort (2015-2019) designed to facilitate greater engagement between civil society organizations and the Moroccan government, while the Favorable Opportunities to Reinforce Self-Advancement for Today’s Youth (FORSATY) has targeted northern Morocco with programs that provide non-formal education and vocational training to discourage disenfranchised young people from being recruited into terrorism. The third program, Community Oriented Policing Activity, is a grass-roots effort to improve relations between communities, at-risk youth, police, and government leaders. While there is no clear line to demarcate how much of an influence these USAID programs have on supporting democratization within Morocco, the fact that Morocco successfully held unprecedented, simultaneous local and regional elections in 2015 demonstrates that tangible progress is being made in this space.

Foreign Policy

The subject of influence regarding the U.S. and Morocco’s foreign policy is complex. From a U.S. standpoint, the two countries are largely in alignment: successive U.S. administrations have viewed Morocco as a reliable partner in regional security, trade, and development.  The U.S. government supports Morocco with numerous carrot-incentivization programs, such as a U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation compact and a 2017 bilateral “Initiative to Address Homegrown Violent Extremists” agreement that was signed as part of the larger multilateral Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF).  On the surface, there seems to be little potential for friction as concerns diplomatic, military, and economic issues between the U.S. and Morocco. From the Moroccan standpoint, however, the foreign policy issue of Western Sahara is salient and is a major locus of their U.S. influence efforts.

Western Sahara

`The significance of Western Sahara as a foreign policy issue deserves special consideration when discussing influence, because it is a red line for the Moroccan government.  Words and actions that support the Moroccan government’s claim to the Western Sahara will increase influence with the Moroccan government, while any perceived criticism of the Moroccan government’s claim to sovereignty will result in immediate, negative action.  Case in point, the Moroccan government cancelled AFRICAN LION in April 2013 as punishment for the U.S. State Department’s questioning of human rights monitoring in the Western Sahara.  The closeness between the Moroccan and U.S. governments stems from tacit U.S. support of Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara; Morocco gains military, diplomatic, and economic backing from the U.S. and in turn acts as a surrogate for U.S. interests in the MENA. 

Given Western Sahara’s significance, the biggest carrot possible to increase influence between the U.S. and Morocco government would be outright recognition of Morocco’s claims to Western Sahara (vice the currently ambiguous support to Western Sahara’s autonomy within Morocco).  However, such a pronouncement would have numerous, negative ramifications (not the least of which, alienating U.S.-Algerian relations), so maintaining the status quo seems the least bad option to maintain influence with Morocco.

Morocco has invested heavily to try to shift western policymakers’ positions on the Western Sahara.  In 2013, Morocco spent the sixth largest amount of lobbying money of any foreign country to influence U.S. policymakers.  The Moroccan government dwarfs the lobbying spending of every other North African country by a significant margin; in 2018 the Moroccans spent $1,475,458 of government spending and $977,484 non-government spending to influence the U.S., the next closest spender was Algeria with $390,000 government spending and $59,930 non-government spending.  Morocco’s lobbying efforts extend past the U.S. to include leaders within the European Union.  The Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, not only relaunched a series of free trade talks with the EU, but was able to issue a joint communiqué with his EU counterpart that lauded “the serious and credible efforts” of Morocco to obtain a peace settlement in the Western Sahara.

Western policymakers should be aware that, from the standpoint of foreign policy influence, the Moroccan media closely scrutinizes the return on investment for its lobbying.  Frequently, lobbying efforts are portrayed in the context of competition with Algeria. When the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a draft funding bill that separated aid for Morocco from Western Sahara in January 2019, this event was considered a setback for Morocco and a “win” for Algeria as result of their more effective lobbying.  Happily for the Moroccan government, their perceived influence with France and Spain in the EU is considered stronger than the support  that the Polisario receives from its main EU ally, Sweden.

Domestic Levers of Power Introduction

The phrase lever of power for this paper denotes an actor, group, or institution that can influence government decisions.  There are three broad categories of levers:  horizontal (governmental levers which can include legislatures, key military personnel, etc.), vertical (the Moroccan citizenry), and diagonal levers (organized groups lacking formal state power, including civil society organizations, religious leaders, etc.).  Morocco’s status as a constitutional monarchy means that, as with many African nations, power is predominantly concentrated with the chief executive.  

The Moroccan king is the most important horizontal lever of power within the country but U.S. stakeholders to consider other domestic actors to cultivate shared U.S.-Moroccan values and building long-term influence.  This section focuses predominantly on King Mohammed VI, given his outsized influence in government decision-making, but it also addresses trends in civil society groups given post-Arab Spring reforms and the significance of the ongoing Western Sahara dispute.  Understanding these different levers is essential to ensure the continuation of activities that best protect and strengthen U.S. influence.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is the central figure of national decision making since assuming the throne in 1999.  He is the central authority figure within a “complex political system” that includes a parliament and local-level representatives with real but limited decision-making authorities.  Demands for change to this centralized power structure reached a high point during the 2011 Arab Spring, when 98 percent of voters supported the king’s constitutional reforms amidst a 73 percent turnout of registered voters.  Even with the reforms, however, Morocco’s government sits stubbornly at a “partly free” ranking, with only minor improvements since 2001.  The slow progress towards democratization is frustrating for some Moroccans, but the openings towards greater free speech and improvements on human rights reflect King

Mohammed VI’s desire to improve the nation while not destabilizing the kingdom.  Additionally, in more recent years, officials have struggled to respond to resurgent protests and other forms of activism that “apparently reflect ongoing grievances over economic challenges, corruption, and police brutality.”

Aside from the monarchy, most important political party is the Party for Justice and Democracy (PJD).  The PJD is an Islamist party that leads an “often fractious multiparty government coalition.” The PJD’s agenda has focused on reforming pensions and subsidy programs, and has “weighed in on cultural, media, justice sector, and educational policies, sometimes with the apparent aim of introducing greater religiosity into the public sphere, although the party's leadership defines its stance as one of moderation.”  The PJD walks a difficult balancing act:  its well-organized grassroots support with a Moroccan voting public that increasingly wants democratic and economic reforms must also not advocate any too dramatic reforms that could cause it to lose the support of the palace. 

Even with King Mohammed VI’s reforms, Morocco is still beset by economic and social cleavages along generational lines. While older generations of Moroccans typically express confidence in the country’s institutions, younger generations are increasingly frustrated by the limited economic and political opportunities.  The economic resentment of many Moroccan youth is unsurprising, given that the youth unemployment rate has averaged 19 percent from 1999 to 2019, spiking to 29.3 percent at one point in 2017.  As such, Arab Barometer polling indicates that seven-in-ten Moroccan youth between the ages of 18 and 29 are considering emigrating. Though public trust in the army, police, and judiciary remains high, a large majority of Moroccans believe that state institutions have corruption; support for political Islam is rapidly declining, especially among the youth.

While the effects of the Arab Spring were not as severe as in Syria or Libya, Moroccan protestors nonetheless agitated for a more participative government and more accountable public services.  King Mohammed VI moved quickly to address the demands of the populace with a series of economic, political, and social reform projects.  Sater notes how the king created both an unprecedented Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address past issues of state-sponsored human rights abuses and constitutional reforms to support a “Moroccan-style” form of democracy.  The king’s willingness to acknowledge and acquiesce some of the protestor’s demands played a large part in maintaining Morocco’s stability during the Arab Spring, even as other countries were plunged into civil war.

Such moves are indicative of a strengthened civil society and there are some indications that mobilization may continue even after reforms.  As Sean Yom notes however, some aspects of these movements are not necessarily pro-democratic:  

Movement without transition does not imply the impossibility of change. Regime change can still occur in Morocco...But if and when it happens, it will be a matter of revolutionary explosions from below, not incremental transitions guided from above. Large youth populations and widespread economic deprivation make for a volatile mix, as the Arab Spring showed...[Youth politics goes on via] informal networks that operate underground and traffic in radical ideas about jailing the political class for corruption; providing millions of unemployed with jobs; and above all replacing the monarchy, but not necessarily with Western-style democracy.

Finally, the Western Sahara question merits attention as a non-traditional lever of power as well.  Western Sahara is a phosphate-rich region, southwest of Morocco and bordering Mauritania, that King Mohammed V formally claimed in 1958 (Moroccan kings had formally controlled the area prior to French/Spanish colonization).  The Moroccan claim was contested by Spain, but after King Hassan II organized the Green March of roughly 350,000 Moroccans into the disputed territory in 1975 (and the U.S. pressured Spain) the Madrid Accords were signed, ceding control of Western Sahara from Spain to Morocco.  Algeria opposed Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara out of Cold War and regional power-balancing concerns, and supports the main separatist group, the Polisario, to this day.

Western Sahara has economic significance beyond its symbolic value to the Moroccan regime. A key component of synthetic fertilizers, phosphate, can be found in both Morocco and Western Sahara, and control of both regions gives the Moroccan government a dominant 72% of world’s phosphate-rock reserves.  Additionally, one of the most productive fisheries in the world, the Canary Current Large Marine Ecosystem, is found in the Western Sahara, a source of revenue in terms of both exports and fishing licenses.  The economic and geopolitical significance of Western Sahara helps explain why the Moroccan government remains adamant about its claims to the region.

Overall, King Mohammed VI is the most important actor for U.S. stakeholders to consider when considering U.S. influence in Morocco, but there are other critical levers that merit analysis.  Beyond the growth of civil society organizations and the dominance of the PJD political party, the Western Sahara deserves special consideration.  While not a traditional lever per se, the economic and geopolitical significance of the region to the Moroccan government means that it has outsized influence on policymaking.  

Conclusion and Recommendations

Morocco and the U.S. have a long history of partnership and a mutual interest in countering violent extremism.  U.S. support in both the military and economic spheres have helped to cement this relationship.  The willingness of the U.S. to stay out of affairs related to Western Sahara is also crucial for understanding the strength of the partnership.  Any changes on that particular issue, to include a strengthened partnership with Algeria, could jeopardize U.S. influence in Morocco.  The principal recommendation from this paper then is to maintain the status quo.  

Any changes in policy toward Western Sahara and/or scaling back of support or cooperation with Morocco should be analyzed carefully for potential fallout in this important relationship.  Part of U.S. strength in Morocco is derived from Morocco’s strong relationships with U.S. allies such as Spain, France, and Saudi Arabia.  Major decisions regarding the U.S. Morocco relationship should keep these multi-lateral dynamics in mind.  Even as the U.S. military seeks to reorient and posture itself to contend with China and Russia as NDS pacing threats, continued maintenance of the status quo with Morocco will likely ensure that the U.S. remains a preferred security partner.

The King remains the dominant figure in Morocco but, since the Arab Spring 2011, citizen pressures to reform have continued to some extent and may lie dormant.  The U.S. should plan for possible large-scale protests of the kind that are currently happening in Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere.  A regime change would represent a major threat to the current partnership, particularly if more conservative Islamist groups seize power.  Continuation of U.S. economic programs are particularly important in this regard because no matter what happens politically, Moroccan leaders will be likely to see an important benefit from such programs.

About the Author

Major Hovey is a U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer and recent graduate “with distinction” of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Regional Security Studies (Sub-Saharan Africa) master’s program.  He has deployed to both PACOM and EUCOM for fleet tours with the air and ground combat element.  He will report to the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, Morocco for FAO in-region training for his next assignment.’

Deterring and Defending Against Russian New Generation Warfare

By Colonel James Heath Harrower, U.S. Army

Editor's Note:  Colonel Harrower's thesis won the FAO Association writing award at the U.S. Army War College.  In the interest of space we publish here without research notes. To view the thesis with all research materials, go to www.faoa.org.  The Journal is pleased to bring you this outstanding Scholarship.

The Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 raised concerns of Russia’s expansionist ambition as it relates to former Soviet territory. Security officials have since labeled the actions taken to achieve the annexation of Crimea as Russian New Generation Warfare (RNGW). Russian New Generation Warfare capitalizes on latent grievances and susceptible populations and applies a mix of actions designed to threaten national security while remaining below the threshold of a collective defense response within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Article 5. 

Most states are vulnerable to some degree to RNGW though former Soviet States, to include the NATO members of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, are particularly vulnerable to RNGW because they lack a security framework specifically tailored to deterring and defending against Russian destabilizing activity. Current NATO defense efforts focus on conventional wartime preparation though effective deterrence and defense against RNGW largely depends on the ability to compete below the threshold of war. Concepts and solutions need to focus on denying the Kremlin confidence in the ability to keep the conflict limited below a NATO or United Nations self or collective defense response. This ability is dependent on examining vulnerabilities specific to RNGW and devising solutions that increase the complexity of the Kremlin’s decision-making process to include informing and invoking a NATO Article 4 based security response and bolstering Article 3 resiliency requirements. 

Within this study, I use the Baltic States as the optic for examination because of their proximity to Russia, their status as former Soviet Republics, the presence of an ethnic Russian population, and the potential for these states to lead the transformation of NATO deterrence efforts vis-à-vis Russian destabilizing and subversive activity because of their unique geography, history, and understanding. However, the recommendations should inform the broader Alliance while not dismissing either the specific legal frameworks (and challenges) within each state that prove critical to enabling deterrence or the response frameworks already in place, some of which remain state secrets. I first define RNGW and provide an example of its application using a Ukrainian focused vignette and examine why NATO needs to modify its deterrence and defense approach as it pertains to Russia. I then propose restructuring NATO and Baltic institutions to enable a three-part strategy to enhance the ability to deter and defend against RNGW on NATO’s eastern flank. The first part of this strategy is enabling early response to derail the progressive application of RNGW. The second part entails innovating conventional military capability to counter a limited application of Russian conventional capability. The final part of this strategy is transforming Baltic focused military security cooperation toward defending against RNGW.

Understanding Russian New Generation Warfare

For the purpose of this examination we will use Kuhn’s description of RNGW as a “distinct and genuinely indigenous Russian innovation aimed at winning the conflict by coercing the alliance-largely through all measures short of open warfare-into giving up on the post-Soviet space and, finally forswearing further enlargement.” These subversive measures include disregarding select national boundaries, international behavioral norms, and national and international laws to achieve limited strategic goals. Characteristics also include limited military engagements between fielded military forces on a non-linear battlefield though in the absence of a declaration of war in order to lessen the chance of a conflict with NATO. 

Though labeled “New Generation,” this type of conflict is not new. Nations have often sought to use measures short of war to broaden control, reduce influence of competing states, and accomplish limited objectives without crossing into major military confrontations. As an example, totalitarian states sought to promulgate power within the Cold War environment in a similar manner. George Kennan described their actions in the late 1940s as subversion through psychological operations, assassination, economic pressure, blackmail, and any other means available to assist in meeting their objectives. 

However, the character of RNGW is unique to the Russian Federation because of its linkage to Russian history, culture, worldview and a decision calculus markedly different from that of the US and many of its Allies and partners. RNGW characteristics include activities oriented towards: 1) sowing disruption and confusion to undermine the credibility of otherwise secure countries (those with stable institutions and without a sympathetic Russian population) and 2) targeting vulnerable diasporas and institutions within adjacent countries to expand influence. Central to RNGW and the Kremlin’s application of this subversive activity is the claim by Russia of their right to protect ethnic Russians living in former Soviet territory. Former Russian President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proclaimed, “Our unquestionable priority is to protect the life and dignity of our citizens, wherever they are. We will also proceed from this in pursuing our foreign policy.” Russian General of the Army Valery Gerasimov describes accomplishing this through a reliance on non-military actions and domains (political, humanitarian, informational, and economic) that are supplemented by military means of a concealed character, including carrying out of actions of informational conflict and the actions of special operations forces. The open use of forces-often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation-is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the final success in the conflict.

He describes the character of this type of warfare as a blurring of the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. He further amplifies the character as a blurring of defensive and offensive operations as long-distance “contactless” actions become the primary means of achieving objectives, one being spreading Russian influence. 

Russian leaders adroitly capitalize on a number of different actions and mechanisms to spread regional influence and bolster the connection with ethnic Russians living abroad. A range of examples include leveraging the Russian Orthodox Church for the purpose of advocacy, establishing Russian affiliated professional sports teams in former Soviet states, and perpetuating a reliance on Russian energy to strengthen the Kremlin’s economic and political coercive ability. Not so obvious is the Kremlin’s use of surrogate personnel and venues to create an environment conducive to Russian interests and objectives. Gerasimov proffers that “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy.” 

Not surprisingly then, the Kremlin uses surrogate information venues to protest perceived and actual human rights violations and discrimination against Russian diasporas and compliments this by granting Russian citizenship and issuing passports to ethnic Russians living abroad (with an eye toward separatists) to further strengthen Russian identity and allegiance. The Kremlin also provides Special Operation Force (SOF) and Intelligence advisory support to various criminal and paramilitary elements to sow societal and political chaos and to conduct intelligence collection and operations aimed at further subverting legitimate governance. We should note that few Russian persons within these former Soviet states have been noticeably disloyal to their country of residence and few have elected to move to the Russian Federation; however, the Kremlin is still successful in setting their hooks within various separatist elements to husband local ownership of insurrection and to conduct increasingly damaging subversive activities. 

External to the target country, the Kremlin employs sophisticated cyber attacks and synchronizes these with internal subversion activity to amplify confusion and further damage institutions and officials. The Kremlin often combines this with other elements of national power such as exploiting dependency on Russian energy and trade partnerships. Militarily, the Russians leverage exercises to reinforce Russian military superiority and to intimidate neighbors. Finally, the Russians may conduct limited military operations under the guise of providing humanitarian assistance to oppressed Russian populations though that actually serves to destroy remaining enemy formations and resistance. The Kremlin’s sponsorship of propaganda and information operations, proxy forces and covert action, and the conduct of limited overt military operations stand to erode and eventually change borders, resource access, and population status quos in Russia’s favor without risking NATO intervention. To date the countries of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have been unable to prevent Russian destabilizing activities within their borders.

Ukraine: A Case Study in Russian New Generation Warfare

The Kremlin’s use of RNGW against Ukraine in 2014 provides an excellent vignette of RNGW application. First and as it relates to the annexation of Crimea, this region contained an ethnic Russian majority and existed as a separate political entity within Ukraine though in close proximity to Russia. Russia also maintained legitimate military and transit agreements with Ukraine that extended Russian military reach and enabled covert operations. Finally, Russia disputed the internal transfer of Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR) to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic that occurred in 1954 and claimed the transfer violated both the Russian SFSR and the Soviet constitutions. These unique circumstances made Crimea a likely target of Kremlin destabilization efforts. Significantly, at the geo-political level, these efforts also stood to deny Ukraine’s entry into the European Union (EU) and NATO because territorial disputes serve as a disqualifying factor for membership.

Kremlin subversion efforts within Crimea amounted to covert operations that reinforced civil conflict that subsequently enabled a conventional invasion. The Kremlin began by shaping public opinion in advance of military operations through state media outlets. The Kremlin reinforced the messaging by coercing Ukrainian business elites with Crimea interests to defect to the Russian system to bolster the connection to and perception of the Russian heritage and lifestyle. Undeclared SOF infiltrated into Crimea to build support networks to collect intelligence, co-opt local officials, spread disinformation and sow confusion, and provide the perception of credible resistance against Ukrainian oppression. Russian SOF also leveraged and advised separatist rebels (many of whom came from Russia) that quickly secured vital infrastructure such as airports, police headquarters, military installations, and other government buildings. Additionally, the Kremlin conducted limited supporting military operations that destroyed select Ukrainian military outposts and implemented population control measures within Ukraine in support of the Russian nationalists. With key infrastructure and institutions in hand, to include the Supreme Council (Crimea parliament), the Kremlin installed a pro-Russian government that then held a referendum to separate from Ukraine and request inclusion within the Russian Federation. Kremlin support and direction of Crimea separatist efforts also fermented unrest in other parts of Ukraine.

The Kremlin also supported separatist efforts within the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. These political protests transitioned into a violent insurgency that subsequently allowed the Kremlin to use humanitarian relief as a cover for action for Russian forces to cross the border and provide support to the pro-Russian elements. The Kremlin increased support-to include lethal aid and combat advisory assistance-to these separatist elements, several being led by Russian “volunteers.” As the insurgency worsened, Russia evoked the need to protect the Russian population and directly engaged Ukrainian military units. While the two campaigns are different and the linkage is less clear than it might appear, the subversive character of both are consistent within RNGW. Ukraine proved susceptible to this subversive character because they failed to establish effective deterrence and defense below the threshold of war to dissuade Russian actions and derail the progressive application of RNGW.

Why a Change of Approach is Needed

North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, especially those that previously fell behind the Iron Curtain previously, are also susceptible to Russian destabilizing efforts. The Kremlin continues a policy of re-exerting Moscow’s influence over former Soviet territory and previously demonstrated few scruples in destabilizing Ukraine and Georgia for its own security and foreign policy advantages. Specifically, the Baltic States and Poland offer Russia many additional strategic security and foreign policy advantages. First, their geography provided Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union strategic depth as it related to Western European countries and NATO military forces and could offer the same for the Russian Federation. These former “buffer states” are now NATO and EU members. Second, these states contain ice free ports within the Baltic Sea of both military and commercial value. Third, the Russian province of Kaliningrad is of critical importance to Russian military power projection and Kremlin coercive abilities. It is geographically isolated between Lithuania and Poland and provides Russia its only ice free port access to the Baltic Sea and Europe, serves as the home of part of the Russian Baltic Fleet, and houses numerous ballistic missile complexes. Additionally, portions of eastern Estonia (Ida-Viru) contain large oil deposits that are in very close proximity to the Russian border. Collectively and to avoid the fate of other former Soviet Republics that stand in the shadow of the Russian Bear, the Baltic States, in partnership with NATO, need concepts, capability, and a response framework specific to deterring and defending against RNGW.

The purpose of deterrence is to prevent an adversary from initiating harmful actions. The United States Army Special Operations Command offers an applicable definition of comprehensive deterrence as “The prevention of adversary action through the existence or proactive use of credible physical, cognitive, and moral capabilities that raise an adversary’s perceived cost to an unacceptable level of risk relative to the perceived benefit.” As it pertains to NATO’s eastern flank, a large part of deterrence rests with NATO and its obligation to defend member states within Article 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all). As it pertains to recent deterrence efforts, NATO provides threat analysis and policy recommendations through its various centers of excellence and is shoring up its cyber defense capabilities. NATO also increased its deterrence and defense posture through the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) framework that included the establishment of four battle groups in the Baltic States and Poland. Each battle group contains a mechanized or armored battalion and consists of a multi-national force of approximately 1,000 soldiers. NATO uses the eFP to signal to the Kremlin its increased support to members bordering Russia in the wake of Kremlin destabilizing efforts and to reinforce the premise that an attack on one member is an attack on the Alliance. 

Problematic to this NATO response is that it focuses deterrence within traditional conventional wartime preparedness efforts and providing for the collective defense of a member above the threshold of armed conflict. Conversely, the Kremlin attempts to obfuscate Russian involvement and support wherever possible. The Kremlin does this by building and leveraging proxy and surrogate forces already within the target countries-to include disguising Russian forces as locals-while only using Russian forces in an overt manner to provide nominal protection to ethnic Russians within a framework of contrived grievances. These actions diminish the value of deterrence through conventional wartime preparedness. Failure to recognize and deter these actions offers the greatest provocation for Russia to increase these actions. 

Conversely, preventing application of RNGW rests on the premise that the reward will not be worth the cost. Accordingly, because Russia seeks to employ measures intended to remain below the NATO threshold for invoking Article 5, NATO and its members need to build credible deterrence below the Article 5 threshold. This deterrence needs to focus heavily on leveraging the application of Article 4 that allows any member to consult NATO and request assistance when it feels its security or independence is threatened. It also needs to inform resiliency requirements within Article 3 to bolster each country’s ability to resist and recover from an attack. 

Specifically, targeted states need to focus their deterrence efforts through an understanding of Russian thinking and then build measures to prevent Russia from acting. This deterrence must address the asymmetries in action between those that trigger a NATO Article 5 response, those that warrant a NATO Article 4 consultation, and those that do not. This understanding should subsequently drive changes in doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) processes predicated on increasing NATO Article 3 resiliency requirements to resist coercion and subversion. These changes should also complicate the employment of the lower level use of force consistent with RNGW. However, NATO and the respective countries must first deliberately structure their military institutions to enable innovation congruent with RNWG application. 

Restructuring Baltic and NATO Institutions 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in partnership with member states, first needs to build the appropriate framework to enable innovation. This includes establishing entities within each country to identify innovation requirements and linking those entities to NATO. This will provide the ability for each country to examine and devise solutions specific to their vulnerabilities while enabling NATO to serve as a subject matter expert to the broader alliance by instituting lessons learned, appropriate doctrine, and shaping plans, response options, and security cooperation events. The examination of a contemporary vignette demonstrates an applicable framework that enabled rapid military innovation in the face of complex challenges. 

The US Army successfully innovated across the DOTMLPF spectrum to prevail against the irregular warfare tactics encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US Army Chief of Staff established the Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG) to assist units in countering asymmetric operations within Iraq and Afghanistan. The AWG independently examined doctrine and equipment that resulted in the institutionalization of numerous tactics, techniques, and procedures to frustrate enemy asymmetric efforts. This in turn led to the development and fielding of related equipment such as the man portable line charge used to clear improvised explosive device lanes. The Army subsequently placed AWG as a direct reporting unit to the Commander of the US Army Training and Doctrine and Command. Within this architecture, AWG routinely collaborated with the Army Centers of Excellence to develop relevant training and doctrine focused on countering enemy asymmetric capability, worked with the Training Centers for evaluation of concepts, and partnered with industry to field material solutions rapidly. Much like the US Army rapidly innovated to defeat myriad asymmetric threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, a similar construct within NATO could enable the rapid innovation of capabilities and concepts relevant to RNGW. 

As it relates specifically to the Baltic States, no institution currently exists focused solely on innovation specific to RNWG. Instead, SOF is the de-facto military instrument for conceiving applicable counter-RNGW methods and equipment, though they relate primarily to SOF missions. The institution charged with identifying change requirements within the various Baltic States vis-à-vis RNGW will need to propose scenarios to drive discussion of potential threats and reactions to assist in identifying asymmetric vulnerabilities, specifically within the realm of subversion and coercion (and likely in partnership with police or internal security forces). The scenarios and exercises should include responses to Kremlin shaping operations, invasion and protracted struggle, and should examine conventional operations, special operations, and nonmilitary operations. The results should first inform country specific solutions aimed at increasing their individual resiliency to resist and recover from an attack, a principle anchored in NATO Article 3. These solutions should then inform curricula within the Baltic States Defense College that provides operational and strategic level education to Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian civilian and military leaders. By inculcating these solutions into the professional military education of the Baltic States these same leaders can then shape and inform broader NATO mil-mil engagements, national level exercises, and national defense plans.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization can accelerate this understanding and institutionalization through creation of a NATO Center of Excellence (CoE) focused on countering RNGW methods. Similar to the US Army CoEs that AWG collaborated with to enable innovation, NATO CoEs can also enable broad innovation. Specifically, NATO CoEs are international military organisations that train and educate leaders and specialists from NATO member and partner countries. They assist in doctrine development, identify lessons learned, improve interoperability and capabilities, and test and validate concepts through experimentation. They offer recognised expertise and experience that is of benefit to the Alliance, and support the transformation of NATO, while avoiding the duplication of assets, resources and capabilities already present within the Alliance. 

These centers specialize in a single functional area to serve as the subject matter expert to the broader alliance. There are currently twenty-four NATO accredited CoEs that range in expertise from Joint Airpower to Mountain Warfare. Some NATO CoEs are relevant to RNGW such as Cooperative Cyber Defense and Counter Intelligence and the Latvian based Strategic Communications CoE, but none is dedicated directly to serving as the subject matter expert specific to RNGW. While there is a Finland based European Hybrid CoE that examines a broad spectrum of hybrid threats, its focus is broader than NATO. However, a European Hybrid CoE and NATO CoE partnership stands to bolster a stronger and broader security framework by linking non-NATO member countries to NATO through the European CoE. It also serves as an opportunity to expand a coalition of expertise provided the NATO and European CoEs work to compliment and not duplicate efforts. Additionally, connecting individual NATO member innovation entities to a NATO RNGW CoE (and by extension, the European CoE) could serve as a powerful framework to enable innovation through implementation of lessons learned, experimentation of potential solutions and concepts, codifying into doctrine and recommending material solutions, and informing and shaping NATO security cooperation events and exercises aimed at countering Russian aggression. 

Finally and given their proximity to Russia and their nuanced understanding of the threat, the Baltic States could likely serve as the “pathfinders” for NATO as it relates to informing and transforming broader NATO deterrence efforts that reside below a collective defense response. Within a framework that links individual NATO members to a NATO RNGW focused CoE, the following are proposed emphasis areas for innovating deterrence and defense: 1) enabling early response, 2) innovating conventional military capability to counter limited application of Russian conventional capability, and 3) transforming NATO and US military security cooperation events. 

Enabling Early Response

The basis of building credible deterrence rests on a state’s ability to identify the application of RNGW through specific indicators that enable early responses to derail the progressive application of RNGW. Early identification of these indicators will allow NATO members to describe Russian actions to NATO quickly and accurately with intent of convening an Article 4 meeting to explore NATO security options. Within this, NATO should consider a spectrum of collective security responses to enable deterrence below an Article 5 collective defense response. Involving NATO early is important to eroding the Kremlin’s confidence in their ability to limit the scope of the conflict through largely non-attributable subversive activity. 

A logical start point for examination is Kremlin attempts to influence opinion and perception in its favor. Example indicators include: 1) increased messaging and actions aimed at increasing Russian affinity within susceptible populations (primarily ethnic Russians or Russian speaking populations), 2) employment of narratives focused on cultivating and separating susceptible populations (real, perceived, or imagined grievances), 3) propaganda efforts to delegitimize the existing government, 4) exacerbating existing tensions to set conditions or to manufacture a pretext for future Russian intervention. 

Related, NATO members should pay particular attention to humanitarian vectors the Kremlin can use to coalesce and organize resistance groups. Example indicators include increased Russian interest in human rights, voter rights, discrimination, and passport programs. The NATO members also need to develop indicators pertaining to the exploitation of the cyber domain to reinforce messages and actions that further damage, subvert, confuse, and coerce institutions and officials within the target state. 

Additionally, the NATO members need to establish indicators of Russian attempts to establish physical and human infrastructure for the conduct of more mature destabilizing operations. Examples include insertion of Russian SOF and Intelligence cadre to recruit influence agents and establish information mechanisms and venues camouflaged from Russian sponsorship. These networks can subsequently amplify Russian sponsored messages to reinforce the perception of a large resistance element within the target state (i.e., the use of surrogates to reinforce media messages with physical observables that include graffiti, vandalism, and any other physical actions). 

Also included is Kremlin assistance to extremist paramilitary groups, terrorist organizations, and criminal organizations. These groups provide potential avenues for Russia to conduct blackmail, bribery, sabotage, assassinations, and insurrection operations to build further influence. As operations mature from influencing to direct action, these groups can morph into purported “local defense groups” operating under the pretense of protecting the vulnerable Russian population. In reality, the Kremlin could obscure its actions by leveraging these groups to seize key institutions and infrastructure (airports, government buildings, financial institutions) within the target country. 

The NATO members also need to develop conventional military indicators. They need to pay particular attention to the Kremlin’s use of conventional military capability as a psychological tool to reinforce Russian dominance or a particular narrative. A near border exercise can serve to undermine target country morale by highlighting the futility of resistance. They can also serve as covers for action from which to conduct covert operations and to stage pre-invasion forces with indirect fire, aerial reconnaissance, engineering (including assault bridging), and anti-access/area denial platforms being critical components of initial Russian conventional operations. 

As member states develop these destabilizing indicators, they can then explore non-standard deterrent options to counter these asymmetric vulnerabilities with a likely focus on societal resilience. While it is outside of the scope of this paper to determine potential solutions per NATO member, the solutions will likely result in new defense concepts and models that increase the risk of expanding the conflict and assist in fulfilling their NATO Article 3 requirement to develop capacity to resist and recover from an attack. As an example, Lithuania established a Strategic Communication Office charged with tracking and providing a common operating picture of Russian propaganda. The government then enacted a propaganda law that provides the state the ability to close certain outlets or programs based on content. This is a noteworthy effort to counter RNGW and is the start point to providing a common operating picture of broader Kremlin subversive efforts. 

As these concepts evolve, countries may find that making concerted efforts to engage and involve Russian populations will lessen their vulnerability to Kremlin influence. Additionally, they may find that introducing a layered territorial defense is a natural next step to current efforts aimed at educating the populace on resistance (e.g., Lithuania published a civil disobedience manual titled “Guide to Active Resistance” for distribution in school and libraries). The use of a combination of civilian resistance networks working in tandem with police and security forces to defend the population against Russian subversion agents may pose a more complex problem to Russia than the introduction of additional NATO or host nation conventional capability. As another example, findings may conclude that a nationally dispersed and networked auxiliary force with ready access to a large inventory of man portable anti-tank weapons through a decentralized armory system complicates Russian decision making more than increasing conventional capability. Once accepted, this defense model will then necessarily drive a new DOTMLPF process that ensures the appropriate training, organization, and material procurement relevant to the threat of RNGW. 

Innovating Conventional Military Capability

Increasing the complexity of Russian decision making and denying the Kremlin the confidence it can limit the scope of the conflict also requires states to identify appropriate defenses against the conventional military capabilities that the Kremlin employs as a supporting effort within RNGW. The application of conventional military capability within RNGW is dependent on target acquisition capabilities to quickly find and destroy targets and degrade the communication infrastructure to deny effective response. Accordingly, NATO members need to focus on anti-target acquisition capabilities and hardening command and control (C2) infrastructure. This includes such measures as reducing force signatures, dispersing formations, and employing multi-spectrum camouflage, infra-red and radio frequency obscurants, counter-lasers, decoys (visual, radio frequency, acoustic, infra-red, and computer network), and communication and acoustic jammers. 

Specifically, Russian unmanned aerial systems (UAS) combined with Russian Spetsnaz and SOF teams provide a layered sensor network to feed targeting information to indirect fire systems. Also inherent to this layered acquisition system is the mass employment of snipers. These sniper formations canalize opposing forces for targeting by indirect fire systems consistent with Russian doctrine that continues to employ artillery as the primary battle operating system. While some munitions are global positioning system (GPS) or laser guidance capable, the Russians continue to rely on a high volume of indirect fire. Thus, reducing force signatures while increasing employment of counter-UAS capabilities, decoys, radio frequency obscurants, and multi-spectrum camouflage across dispersed formations will serve to frustrate Russian target acquisition capabilities. This will lessen the likelihood of limited Russian conventional capability quickly defeating opposing formations and will put at risk the Kremlin’s desire to limit the scope of the conflict by resulting in a greater likelihood of a NATO response.

Respective NATO defense and security forces also need to harden their command and control infrastructure against Russian electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. Russian EW capabilities provide the ability to jam a spectrum of signals to prevent opposing forces from communicating or navigating through GPS means with a corollary effect of directly increasing the effectiveness of the Russian target acquisition process. Conversely, the Russians can transmit false data to opposing forces to cause them to make faulty plans and movements. Finally, the Russians also incorporate EW capabilities into their target acquisition process to locate (through electromagnetic direction finding) and bring indirect fire to bear on opposing command and control locations. These counter target acquisition and communication hardening solutions will also drive the DOTMLPF process to enhance broader deterrent capabilities and will also inform and guide broader military partnerships with both NATO and the US.

Transforming Security Cooperation Events

Implementation of these solutions into doctrine and training will drive future NATO and US military security cooperation exercises and engagements. The NATO and US cooperation with the Baltic States is imperative to ensure proper integration of new acquisitions and concepts into the broader NATO structure within a security paradigm that focuses on denying destabilizing activity on the NATO eastern flank. The internalization of these new deterrence concepts will also drive acquisition demand. At the NATO level, security cooperation and defense initiatives that account for social networking to better connect with Russian diasporas, incorporating auxiliary and reserve elements into non-traditional roles such as cyber defense, and incorporating a decentralized armory system in support of territorial defense will almost assuredly prove more effective against RNGW than traditional exchanges and partnerships that focus primarily on tactical level military capabilities and conventional preparedness. This proposed change will also directly support United States European Command’s desire to “build the capacity of allies and partners to contribute their own deterrence and defense.” The combination of creating institutions and processes focused on innovation to build capability relevant to deterring RNGW can serve to inform and transform NATO’s capacity and capability to do the same.


Deterring and defending against RNGW is dependent on building a tailored security framework. Specifically, because the application of the majority of RNGW methods operate in the realm of actions other than war and deliberately obfuscates the Kremlin’s support to avoid a NATO collective defense response, defense efforts need to focus at the same level without abandoning traditional strengths. This is a departure from the traditional focus of deterring through wartime preparedness. A potential institutional framework is creating a NATO RNGW CoE to partner with individual defense ministries and the Baltic Defense College to promote broad understanding while tailoring capabilities, responses, plans, and exercises. Additionally, NATO members need to build a framework of indicators to recognize application of RNGW that enable early response. Early NATO involvement, potentially through an Article 4 collective security response, is critical to derailing the progressive application of RNGW. Additionally, NATO members need to identify defense measures against Russian conventional military capabilities likely to provide limited support within RNGW operations, specifically Russian target acquisition capabilities. Doing so will again increase the complexity of Kremlin decision-making and deny them confidence that they can limit the conflict through quick and efficient use of conventional military capability. Finally, these solutions need to inform NATO and US military security cooperation events to ensure proper integration of planning, training, and acquisitions into the broader NATO structure within the proposed security paradigm that focuses on denying subversive activity. 

About the Author

Colonel Heath Harrower is a Special Forces officer currently serving in the United States Army Special Operations Command.  COL Harrower served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Horn of Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United Arab Emirates.  He holds a BS from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and masters degrees from the Air Command and Staff College, the Army War College, and Norwich University.

EVENT: Ambassadors, Warriors and Attachés: The Role of the Military in Diplomacy

Wednesday, 20 October 2021 - U.S. Naval Academy

This conference will gather government, military, academic and industry leaders to discuss the role of the military in diplomacy throughout history and how diplomacy contributes to rule of law and the U.S. international image. Speakers will discuss the historical perspective of the military and diplomacy, the roles of the military and State Department in diplomacy, and the military’s role in rule of law, humanitarian assistance, disaster response and peacetime presence.



8:55 - 9:00am | Welcome Remarks 

  • VADM Pete Daly, USN (Ret.), CEO and Publisher, U.S. Naval Institute 

  • VADM Sean Buck, USN, Superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy 

9:05 - 9:45am | Keynote - The Intersection of the Military and Diplomacy Since WWII: A Historical Perspective 

  • Dr. Nicholas Cull, University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, Faculty Fellow; Professor & Founding Director, Master of Public Diplomacy Program, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (Confirmed) 

10:00 - 11:30am | Panel Discussion – The Military and State Department’s Role in Diplomacy: Historical and Practical Impact 


Dr. Seth G. Jones, Senior Vice President; Harold Brown Chair; and Director, International Security Program (Confirmed) 

  • ADM James Foggo, USN (Ret.), Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Europe/Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Africa/Commander, Allied Joint Force Command, Naples (Confirmed) 

  • Ambassador David Hale, Distinguished Diplomatic Fellow, The Wilson Center; former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs; former Ambassador to Pakistan (2015-18); former Ambassador to Lebanon (2013-15) (Invited) 

  • ADM Harry B. Harris Jr., USN (Ret.), former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea (2018–2021); former Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (2016–2018) (Confirmed) 

  • LtGen Charles Hooper, USA (Ret.), Senior Counselor, Cohen Group; former Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) (2017-2020) (Confirmed)

12:00 - 1:00pm | Keynote

  • The Honorable Robert M. Gates, Former Secretary of Defense (2006-2011) (Invited) 

1:30 - 3:00 pm | Panel Discussion – U.S. Military’s Role in Rule of Law, Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Response, and Peacetime Presence: From the Trenches 

Moderator: Dr. Doyle Hodges, Chief Publishing Officer, War on the Rocks; Executive Editor, Texas National Security Review (Confirmed)

  • RDML Thomas Henderschedt, USN, Defense Attaché, Beijing, China (Confirmed) 

  • Mr. Aiaz Khan, former Cultural Support Specialist and Member of Provincial Reconstruction Team (Confirmed)

  • RADM John Kirby, USN (Ret.), Pentagon Press Secretary and Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs; former military and diplomatic analyst (CNN); former U.S. Department of State spokesperson (2015–2017); former U.S. Navy Chief of Information (Confirmed)  

  • 1SG Tiffany Myrick, USA, Cultural Support Team Specialist (2011 - 2012), USSOCOM (Confirmed)

"News from the Field" Hurricane Maria: A FAO's Mission to Puerto Rico

By Major Jason Morales, U.S. Army

Wednesday, September 20, 2017, will be a day Puerto Ricans will remember for many years to come. Hurricane Maria arrived at 6:15 AM and cut straight through the heart of the island, from Yabucoa in the southeast to Quebradillas in the northwest. The damages caused were unfathomable, with the entire island – 3.2 million residents – losing power, water and communications. Not since Hurricane San Ciprian struck Puerto Rico in 1932 had the island seen the magnitude of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.  

Opportunity to Serve 

Before Hurricane Irma lightly hit Puerto Rico, I had contacted the Army North (ARNORTH) Security Cooperation Division (SCD) Chief, Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) John Suggs, to let him know I was willing to support ARNORTH hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Fortunately, Hurricane Irma did not cause devastating destruction on the island, so I was not needed at that time. However, only ten days later, Hurricane Maria forced Puerto Rico into complete darkness and ARNORTH began deploying its forces. Several days after that, LTC Suggs asked if I was still available to support hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico. ARNORTH was looking for an active duty Army officer who spoke the local language, knew the island, understood the political environment and sensitivities, and was tactically and strategically astute enough to be effective in this challenging environment. ARNORTH leadership agreed that a FAO with my background should be the one to support ARNORTH hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.        

Initial Shock and Forward Progress

On September 27, I began air movement from my posting in Mexico City to support hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Since no commercial traffic was flowing in or out of Puerto Rico, my arrival was delayed by two days until I arrived by C-17 at 1:00 AM at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Indicative of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) robust collaboration with other agencies, I arrived with twenty civilian truck drivers, one U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) officer, multiple large generators, and one Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Ford F-350. 

Puerto Rico seemed empty and eerily quiet; the highway from the airport to the U.S. Army base, Fort Buchanan, was devoid of people and cars as the government had implemented a daily curfew at 10:00 PM. Having vacationed in Puerto Rico on leave just a month prior, the contrast was striking. At that moment, Puerto Rico seemed more like the ominous nighttime streets of Baghdad that I grew used to in 2006: bare, debris everywhere, dark, and overcome with silence. 

That same morning I was transported to the Puerto Rico Emergency Operations Center at the San Juan Convention Center, where I linked up with LTG Jeffrey S. Buchanan, ARNORTH Commander and his staff.  Upon LTG Buchanan’s arrival in Puerto Rico, he was appointed to lead the military response effort by General Lori Robinson, Commander, U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).  This shift occurred because of the determination that FEMA and the Puerto Rican Government’s greatest need was land-based support for this assistance effort. For the next 48 hours, I traveled with the ARNORTH team to meet with FEMA, Joint Task Force-Puerto Rico (JTF-PR), Regional Staging Area (RSA), USACE, and Mission Support Command (Reserves) leaders to understand the state of relief operations.

One of the principal tasks for JTF-PR, and a priority for LTG Buchanan – the Joint Land Force Component Commander (JLFCC) – was support of FEMA’s efforts to establish and operate ten RSAs. The RSAs were established throughout the island.  Supervised by JTF-PR and manned by the Puerto Rico Militia -- a paramilitary organization different from the Puerto Rico Army and Air National Guard (PRANG), the RSAs served as the primary food and water distribution centers for the residents of all 78 island municipalities. To expedite the delivery of commodities, the National Guard, Reserves, and Active Components began delivering food and water from the RSAs directly to the municipal internal distribution centers.   

During my six weeks helping ARNORTH’s relief support to FEMA, requirements placed on the RSAs continually shifted. The first week began with the local government’s urgent request for water, food, and fuel. Based on the enormity of these requirements, residents waited more than six hours to obtain these commodities from the private sector. But, by week two, wait times were reduced in half. As if following Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the delivery of basics such as food and water addressed in the first two weeks, and with municipalities receiving commodities on a daily basis, generators became the next main focus for local leaders so that they could power their water pump stations. By week five, continued rains exponentially increased the demand for blue tarps, and government leaders began requesting increased private sector contributions. 

Regrettably, supermarkets were struggling to receive port access in order to restock their shelves with supplies. The reopening of ports was a priority for the Puerto Rican Government, FEMA, and the DoD. The JFLCC, USACE, and the Joint Force Maritime Component Commander (JFMCC) concentrated their efforts on establishing three Sea Ports of Debarkation (SPOD) in order to facilitate the flow of commodities needed to support hurricane relief efforts. By my sixth and final week on the island, 72% of Puerto Ricans had running water, 25% of infrastructure had electricity, 75% of hospitals were operational. Two Combat Support Hospitals (CSH) were established -- Humacao and Aguadilla -- and the hospital ship USNS Comfort was in operation.  A majority of gas stations and supermarkets were open. The establishment of the two CSHs allowed several municipalities to shift focus from supporting municipal hospitals to rebuilding or repairing facilities that were damaged by Hurricane Maria. These CSHs provided medical services to thousands of Puerto Ricans for over four weeks.    

FAO Fundamentals: Speak the Language, Build Relationships, and Help Leaders Know Their Audience 

Throughout my six weeks in Puerto Rico, FAO tasks required of me broadened exponentially, but in the beginning, core FAO fundamentals were key. In an environment and culture distinctly different from what non-Western Hemisphere FAOs and most non-Hispanics are familiar with, I was called upon to serve as the JFLCC cultural advisor and interpreter, and provided coordination in support of visits by Congressional Delegation (CODEL), the U.S. Vice President (VPOTUS), and the President of the U.S. (POTUS).  

Translating for LTG Buchanan (author second from left)

As an interpreter, I provided the JFLCC translation support with mayors, media, locals, private sector leadership, and others. During my time with the JFLCC, he met with over 30 mayors or municipal leaders, and although some were bilingual, they were often either more comfortable speaking in Spanish, or felt more respected when the JFLCC went out of his way to ensure that he was prepared to communicate with them in whichever way they preferred. Making an effort to communicate with people in their native tongue remains a mark of respect that can shape and strengthen the relationships we build.

Beyond providing language capability, the relationships built throughout the JFLCC’s time on the island helped facilitate and shape the rapport between Puerto Rican leaders, FEMA, and DoD.  Early on, the Commander understood that it would be difficult to visit all 78 municipalities, and in order for him to understand the individual municipality needs first hand, he requested a meeting with the two main political party mayors, from Arecibo and Cayey Municipality, at the Puerto Rico Emergency Center. The coordination between the two main political parties, the New Progressive Party (NPP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), incorporated each party’s president, Carlos Molina (President of Puerto Rico Mayors Federation (PNP)) and Rolando Ortiz Velazquez (President of the Association of Mayors of Puerto Rico (PPD)) in talks with FEMA and DoD leadership. This meeting gave each president the information they needed to convey FEMA and DoD emergency and recovery efforts directly to the other leaders in their parties. FEMA considered this meeting to be extremely beneficial and, less than a week later, began inviting ten different mayors to the weekly meetings.

Facilitating these high-level visits and interagency coordination required me to rely on fundamental knowledge of how the DoD is organized (e.g. with Title 10 (active duty and reserves) and Title 32 (National Guard) authorities), and how we work with interagency partners and local officials and law enforcement. Failure to understand these fundamentals would have hampered my ability to effectively coordinate on behalf of the JFLCC for meetings with the RSAs, FEMA, and Puerto Rican leaders.  

On a tactical level, landing zone (LZ) confirmations with the JFLCC’s Executive Officer and the aircrews assigned for the Commander’s air movements was a daily task. Additionally, secondary pick-up zones (PZ) were established and used on several different occasions. Secondary PZs were used when municipality leadership escorted the Commander to mountainous areas that were over an hour away from the municipality center or when weather conditions changed during his visits. One of my primary functions was to establish LZs/PZs to help expedite the Commander’s air movements throughout the Commonwealth.  Furthermore, as a native of Puerto Rico, I was able to lead all ground movements,  easily identify routes and LZs/PZs, and provide accurate times for each movement and visit.   

Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló and MAJ Morales visiting the island of Culebra 

To better prepare the JFLCC for his daily movements, he was given daily local news summaries and information papers on each municipality and individuals he was visiting. After each visit, a trip report was produced for the JFLCC’s Situational Report (SITREP), which he emailed daily to the NORTHCOM Commander and Department of the Army Headquarters (HQDA). Lastly, the JFLCC and DoD Public Affairs recommended that this “local boy” participate in a Spanish interview with local press to explain DoD hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico and highlight the importance of having a FAO directly supporting the JFLCC and his staff.          

Experiences and Contributions

As a FAO, the experiences I gained were extraordinary, working directly for the JFLCC and participating directly in a joint and interagency (Commonwealth, FEMA, and DoD) disaster response effort to improve emergency conditions on the island. When LTG Buchanan arrived in PR, the land component became the supported component, allowing the JFLCC to unify DoD hurricane relief efforts on the island.  The Joint Forces Land Component is normally designated “when forces of significant size and capability of more than one Service component participate in a land operation and the Joint Force Commander (JFC) determines that doing this will achieve unity of command and effort among land forces” (Command and Control for Joint Land Operations, 2014, II-1). The importance of having a FAO advise senior leaders, like the JFLCC, cannot be overstated and highlights the critical value of our skill set. 

As a result of the deteriorating conditions on the island, municipal/local and state political leaders at times worked at cross purposes based on political parties. I was able to advise the JFLCC on the local political interests and avoid the possibility of the Commander being used for political gain against another politician or party. Additionally, I provided the Commander and his staff cultural advice on Puerto Rican values and beliefs, which helped the Commander establish instant credibility as a competent authority that understood their systems when he visited 30 municipalities. For example, understanding the importance of religious organizations on the island helped the JFLCC comprehend why churches were heavily involved with commodity distribution and municipality leadership. These contributions allowed the JFLCC to concentrate on other areas, such as interviews, POTUS, VPOTUS and congressional visits, which ultimately supported the overall recovery efforts and success of his mission in Puerto Rico. This once in a lifetime experience highlights the contributions FAOs offer to commanders’ decision-making processes, whether on CONUS emergency response efforts or in OCONUS missions helping our partners during times of need. 

About the Author

Major Jason Morales is a U.S. Army Special Forces Officer and Latin American FAO. He is assigned to NORTHCOM’s Office of Defense Coordination – Mexico, as the Assistant Army Section Chief. Jason holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Business from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical 


Comprehensive Security Engagement: A Framework to Compete with the Kremlin

By Colonel Jason P. Gresh, U.S. Army

Editor's Note:  Colonel Gresh's thesis won the FAO Association writing award at the U.S. Army War College. The Journal is pleased to bring you this outstanding scholarship.



As the nature of conflict changes, governments can either change their approach to meet these challenges or simply muddle through, causing confusion in the process.  The U.S. National Defense Strategy pegs itself to a concept of competition with Russia and China, without pinpointing the focus of the competition itself.  In addition to helping inform the national discussion to answer this question, DoD must fulfill changes at the operational level to support the “continuum of competition.”  This work will examine our efforts vis-à-vis Russia and how U.S. European Command can structure itself better to increase U.S. influence abroad, strengthen international partnerships, and contribute to regional security by informing and shaping activities which deter Russian coercive and harmful activity.  It will put forward a concept of comprehensive security engagement, which incorporates existing efforts such as security sector assistance and other interagency activities, and why it must prevail to counter the threats we face and advance our interests and values.  The revised structure aptly addresses contemporary threats, since it offers revised structure and processes to deliver more applicable and informed costs to our adversary that may dampen the risk of pure military escalation.  Comprehensive security engagement requires three components to be successful – genuine interagency dialogue, security cooperation, and a multinational approach.  It concludes by suggesting how these changes can inform our broader strategic culture.    

Any struggle for one’s interests can only become sufficiently conscious and consistent when its goals have been clarified.

--Aleksandr A. Svechin

The U.S. Department of Defense, now on the brink of shedding its overwhelming focus on counter-terrorism efforts for the past two decades, faces an existential crisis.  The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) outlined an ambitious vision of ‘great power competition,’ but it dedicates more attention to the activity rather than the purpose of this activity.  The NDS notes that it disapproves of Russia’s desire to “shatter NATO and change European and Middle East security and economic structures to its favor,” but it fails to define what is in the U.S.’ favor.  The National Security Strategy (NSS) similarly defines what we don’t want:  a weakening of U.S. influence and Russia’s intent to “divide us from our allies and partners.”  

The newfound focus on competition should be a competition for influence, and a chance for the U.S. to propagate our values and defend our interests abroad.  If we wish to exert our influence with our allies and partners, we should rely on the values that make our influence compelling in the first place:  democratic and representational governments; supported by a series of freedoms and safeguarded through an interdependent and multinational security ‘blanket.’  Such a philosophy depends on our ability to play to our strengths, such as the application and concentration of military force; but also acknowledge our shortfalls, like those options short of conflict to retain and increase our influence.  Our competition should also transparently acknowledge a desire to advance our economic interests, rooted in international norms that acknowledge a global interdependency. Since contemporary competition increasingly involves non-military methods, our nation must embrace a wider set of options to preserve our alliances and defend our interests.  

This work suggests one framework to help us compete.  DoD’s dominant role in the application of our foreign policy paradoxically makes it an ideal spot to inculcate a new strategic culture that acknowledges that contemporary warfare is based on many more non-military inputs and factors.  Our geographic combatant commands (GCC) could act as a central repository to leverage interagency strength, acting as the security lifeline for embassies at the ‘front,’ and greatly influencing the trajectory of our military actions abroad.   

Such adjustments in our engagement abroad might offer de-escalatory pathways to reduce the risk of conflict in Eastern Europe.  It could potentially highlight other means to rebalance our foreign policy away from strict military methods.  Allied and Partner expertise and experience, coupled with broader U.S. tools and resources aimed to strengthen the Transatlantic bond, can work in concert to strengthen democracy, curb authoritarianism, and increase prosperity.  In short, implementing a comprehensive and inter-agency-staffed entity at the geographical combatant command level can contribute to preventing conflict and strengthening societies to meet a host of ‘gray zone’ threats that would undermine our interests.   

Why Change?

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) has already laid the groundwork to help focus our efforts towards great power competition.  The 2018 NDS has brought renewed vigor towards readiness and modernization of a force prepared for great power competition with Russia and China, while acknowledging the importance of strategic partnerships to support this goal.  While the NDS rightfully reorients the force on existential questions, focusing on the concept of ‘competition’ deserves more attention.  Competition requires a broader focus than through a strictly military lens, and must include the other elements of national power that our adversaries seem all too willing to exploit.  DoD must weave economic, trade, informational, and diplomatic factors together to inform security strategy.  Since adversaries increasingly manipulate these factors for a coercive effect, DoD must learn to start thinking about warfare as an interdisciplinary endeavor.  DoD can implement a structural change, invigorating a strategic culture that could elevate non-military means to advance U.S. interests and values abroad.  Such a rebalance will help us more effectively meet the threat from Russia.

U.S. security abroad is strengthened by many instruments, not just military ones.  While this work will not address the challenges presented by a potential imbalance of U.S. security policy that has been decades in the making, it is worth noting that the DoD budget has enjoyed a consistently high percentage of national discretionary spending since the late 80s.  This and other factors point to a growing tendency in our government to look to DoD to solve our foreign challenges.  In Fiscal Year 2020, the DoD budget was $738 billion, representing a 4.9% increase over the previous year.  The DoD Comptroller justified this growth by pointing to the global power aspirations of both Russia and China, citing their desire for “military parity with the U.S. in a potential future, high-end conflict.”  By citing competition as an imperative for defense purposes, the U.S. focuses on the resources and capabilities needed to not only militarily compete - in terms of readiness and technology - but win in large scale combat operations.

This work does not argue against the need for prudent military preparation to meet military threats from both Russia and China.  Recent defense initiatives specifically aimed at demonstrating U.S. resolve in the European theater, are needed.  Other military actions, operations, and investments to improve our posture in Europe and plan for possible contingencies must also continue.  But to compete more comprehensively, and to deny Russia the space to exert its influence, DoD could implement changes that could encourage a broader definition of competition that finds the right ‘space’ to deny.  This is a change that will help the U.S. deter Russia by adjusting our command structure to “pull together the different strands of activity so that they [reinforce] rather than [contradict] each other.”  Often, the space that requires more energy and resources to properly deter cannot be addressed through military means alone.  This is especially so with Russia.  

As other scholars have noted, deterrence ‘by denial’ is not just about the relative military balance.  It must incorporate non-military voices and tools that help us compete, even at the operational level.  Although real military threats remain, the U.S. has faced more acute challenges to its attraction and power economically, diplomatically, and most importantly, in the cognitive-information domain.  Integrating the GCC structure to incorporate interagency expertise will help us harden that space, increase the costs to Russia, and divert attention away from strict military operations – the domain with which Russia is historically familiar and at times comfortable.  In Eastern Europe, Russia arguably poses an equal if not more acute threat via more opaque statecraft and military maneuvers, by exerting political coercion, leveraging economic advantages, and waging information warfare.  They often use sophisticated cyber tools to do so.  These are the methods and ‘spaces’ that merit our current focus.  

The reason to orient on other non-military - arguably ‘soft power’ - tools is because this is a more appropriate means to mitigate the threat.  Russia’s core interest in Eastern Europe is not necessarily military dominance, but political hegemony over their near abroad - one that approximates their imperialistic history and influence.  Moreover, Russia fears that western democratic institutions in its self-professed ‘near abroad’ would threaten its own regime stability as if by osmosis.  This is why the Ukrainian crisis in 2013-14 proved to be such a tipping point.  The Ukrainian ‘Maidan’ revolution – a grassroots uprising angry at the direction that the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine was taking - frightened Russia so much that it deployed its arsenal of hybrid tools – little green men, information warfare, and overwhelming economic coercion – before ratcheting up the pressure via proxy forces in the Donbass.  This approach reflected both their desire for change in Ukraine and betrayed their limitations in attaining this change.  Russia was hoping that these actions would produce a counter-revolution to oust the ‘illegitimate coup,’ and restore a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. From Tsarist times through the Soviet Union to present day, the overwhelming concern for the Kremlin has been regime stability and preservation. Although he was describing the Soviet State, George Kennan’s description of the “instinctive sense of insecurity” still resonates today.  A more balanced security policy that acknowledges this fact is more appropriate if we seek to stabilize this bilateral relationship.  The policy should impose costs commensurate with the particular dangers, invest in activities which improve the resilience of the nations at threat, and simultaneously increase the interests-based influence of the U.S.  In this way, we compete in that region in a more comprehensive manner, and not purely in a military framework that Russia understands very well.

Underpinnings of Comprehensive Security Engagement

If the United States wishes to compete with states such as Russia, the U.S. must do so comprehensively, focused on its core interests, and aligned according to its values, ultimately seeking to increase its influence with Allies and partners.  This competition with Russia must demonstrate that the U.S. is interested in contributing to security, investing in economic prosperity, and dedicated to democratic values which strengthens societies and peoples’ freedom.  The U.S. must not simply mirror adversary capabilities but compete proactively.  In Europe, like other parts of the world, the competition for influence is happening now.  Europe is a prominent source of much of our heritage and together, “it is the largest and wealthiest market in the world, accounting for one-third of world GDP in terms of purchasing power and half of total global personal consumption.”  U.S. security is strengthened when its European partners are resilient, prosperous, and sovereign.  Their inherent strength preempts the need for constant and direct U.S. military intervention.  U.S. military posture can reinforce and may deter Russian coercive activity, though it is just one tool among many that the U.S. can bring to bear.  Furthermore, outright military activity is risky, since it must be applied in a sophisticated manner to neither unintentionally escalate with our adversary nor constrain our foreign policy options.

To compete comprehensively, the U.S. must bring experts from across the interagency together to form a common operating picture of the threat that we face and introduce steps to change our strategic planning culture.  The comprehensive nature of this approach also naturally lends itself to a longer-term view of our strategic interests, which helps reinforce our ability to view competition as a continuum.  Comprehensive solutions take years and decades of iterative processes to develop, refine, and adjust.  More and more, we face threats that lie just below the surface – threats that don’t manifest themselves with armed incursions or little green men.  These threats include political and economic coercion, information warfare, cyber and space threats, as well as disguised forces.  To confront these threats and impose commensurate costs which resonate with our adversary without unintentionally feeding the cycle of potential military escalation, an interagency cell – situated at the operational level – could synthesize the interwoven indications and warnings into a picture that would lead to more sophisticated responses from the Europe-focused GCC, European Command (EUCOM).  

Some naturally point to the National Security Council staff to be the proper repository of interagency expertise.  The NSC staff, created as a result of the 1947 National Security Act, was the first significant step to help the U.S. government make more holistic, interagency recommendations to confront issues of national security.  A number of reforms and adjustments have been implemented by various Presidents over the years.  President Obama greatly expanded the NSC, to a point where many lamented the sclerotic nature of national security decision-making.  President Trump has taken a different tactic, greatly reducing the size of the staff and number of functional bodies within the staff.  While it is certainly the prerogative of Presidents to adjust the NSC to their political philosophies, the result is that the NSC has increasingly been seen as political and, to a degree, dysfunctional.  Creating an entity at the operational level, sheltered from political winds and staffed with expertise from across the interagency, could synthesize indications and warnings, as well as inform and recommend appropriate security sector assistance.  

CSE also requires genuine engagement with allies and partners.  This elevates the traditional activity bundled under ‘theater security cooperation (TSC)’ and raises it to a more profound and meaningful level.  Although TSC is a worthy effort in principle, in practice, its impact has been diluted by the wide range of activities that it encompasses.  While TSC does encompass worthy security assistance efforts that often builds genuine military capabilities in geostrategic locations, too often than not, it becomes subsumed by other priorities and lacks an imperative that links it to operational goals.  Simply changing a name will not change the usage, and this will require our military establishment to understand the contemporary nature of conflict and how security sector assistance can meaningfully contribute to U.S. security objectives.  The new approach will require increased genuine engagement and cooperation with allies and partners in the region that can help meet collective security goals.  With the competition imperative in the NDS, it is an opportune moment for DoD to introduce these concepts into our military lexicon and strategic culture.  Senior leaders across the DoD enterprise consistently point to the importance of ‘security cooperation’ to both reach our objectives and reduce the need to directly employ U.S. forces to achieve these ends.

This work will argue along three lines.  First, for CSE to be effective, there must be more interagency representation and leadership at the GCC level - applying varied threat perspectives, synthesizing information, building a running estimate of the threats in various regions - which then inform recommendations on the scale and scope of security sector assistance to bolster our allies and partners.  This will not supplant the work of frontline embassies, but bolster their daily efforts, as well as create better connectivity between the application of military instruments and traditional statecraft.  There will be situations where the maxim of ‘best military advice’ dictates a non-military approach.  Second, existing security cooperation efforts should be subsumed into this new inter-agency framework.  By doing so, EUCOM can elevate its critical ‘partnering’ function to a separate directorate and impart it with the importance that it merits, while placing it into a cross-functional entity that more appropriately understands the full spectrum of partnership.  Finally, DoD should synchronize these efforts with allies and partners for it to be effective.  Comprehensive Security Engagement requires commitment from the nations in which this activity takes place.  Synthesizing these components can better inform the established DoD Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation process to candidly address host nation commitment to our efforts.  During this process, it might inform alternate options to mitigate the threat.  Our allies and partners often understand the threat with more nuance than we do and must mitigate it daily.  

Building an Interagency Operational Team

Our national security apparatus has bespoke entities to handle regional threats and advance U.S. interests.  For DoD, these are the Geographic Combatant Commands.  GCCs are typically in charge of integrating air, land, maritime, and amphibious military forces under their command in the pursuit of U.S. national security objectives.  However, over the years, security cooperation has played an increasingly vital role for our national security.  Notably after 2001, EUCOM focused on garnering support among European allies for missions associated with the global war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in other locations.  The focus then was to leverage security cooperation activities and resources to enable our allies and partners to share the burden of this mission.  Since the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the meaning of ‘European security’ has undergone a paradigm shift.  EUCOM has focused on the correct posture and planning needed to deter Russian military advances in eastern Europe and support NATO while performing enduring missions such as support to Israel, ongoing support to other global operations, and strengthening relationships with Allies and Partners.

The introduction of ‘great power competition’ opens a unique window to leverage security cooperation and introduce modest structural changes to pursue operational goals.  The concept of ‘competition’ was mentioned in the 2018 NDS to serve as a focal point for future investment, without specifying the type of investment.  For strategic competition to be effective, it should harness those existing COCOM activities, operations, and investments that use U.S. resources to cooperate with and strengthen our allies and partners.  This includes a range of activities from small scale familiarization events that bring together military officers to share best practices to concentrated efforts such as train and equip programs, section ‘333’ building partner capacity programs, and overseas military construction to improve U.S. posture.  By hardening our allies and partners, we deter Russia by denying them the opportunities to exert malign activity in vulnerable sectors.  

DoD should adapt its operational-regional architecture to incorporate diverse viewpoints from across the interagency to better populate running estimates and inform decision-making.  Since the COCOMs are the repository for most operational plans, a natural place to station more diverse expertise to inform the scope and scale of our competition with Russia is EUCOM.  Focusing the interagency efforts at EUCOM would take advantage of an existing structure – the J9 ‘interagency’ directorate – while avoiding the unnecessary creation of a separate ‘operational NSC-like’ structure, whose roles and responsibilities risk conflation with the existing U.S. policy apparatus.  

Placing more interagency expertise inside the COCOM is not an attempt to supersede the NSC staff, nor should it warrant new resources or authorities.  More importantly, DoD should focus on reforming its own internal decision-making process and command relationships.  Here, the glass must be broken to innovative, empowering a cross-functional team to formulate EUCOM ‘competitive’ measures.  As mentioned before, the NSC’s shape and scope will always reflect an administration’s priorities and outlook, so implementing structural changes within DoD’s capacity is a prudent measure to adapt its own institutions in the interim.  It is a necessary adaptation reflecting the nature of contemporary conflict, and an attempt to bridge some of the past divides between interagency institutional planning timelines, outlooks, and capabilities.  The U.S. should not and cannot replicate powers like Russia and China in their ability to bring about security decisions in a swift and uniform manner – to do so would run afoul of our democratic structure.  However, by placing more interagency expertise at the COCOM level, we introduce one way of changing the strategic culture of our military institution by introducing more varied options and tools to achieve our objectives.  

The existing structure of the EUCOM J9 directorate has some interagency representation already, but these representatives awkwardly sit in an organization known as the Joint Interagency Counter-Trafficking Center, or JICTC, which reports to  the J9 director.  The JICTC was originally designed in 2011 to counter trafficking in illicit goods in the EUCOM area of responsibility.  The remainder of the J9 is functionally organized to look at ‘transnational’ threats such as illicit financing, terrorism, and opportunities for civ-mil engagement.  A more unified approach is needed.  By restructuring the J9 along regional and applicable functional lines, while empowering these interagency representatives to speak for their agencies, DoD has an opportunity to form a structure designed to inform how we can compete with Russia more comprehensively.  The J9 already has Treasury, Justice, Coast Guard, and State Department reps.  These should be sustained and directed towards applicable functional efforts – counter-illicit finance and border security, for example.  The State Department should reconfigure its existing representation at the GCC to include Political-Military bureau reps, who oversee Title 22 security assistance, and the Global Engagement Center, which helps analyze and track worldwide informational trends.  Finally, a Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) representative would be helpful to navigate and improve our defense industrial relationship in the European theater, and expertise from the Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) would help better inform and improve technology release processes with a sophisticated customer base in Europe.  

Case study – Improving Eastern Europe Border Security

Border security provides a useful case study for the difficult landscape that the U.S. now encounters abroad.  Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been pursuing an increased role in Eastern Europe by advocating for increased data sharing with U.S. Allies, while helping nations like Latvia shore up border security to prevent ‘hybrid threats’ from further materializing into more acute political and security threats. The challenge of enacting strong border security in these nations is one that transcends traditional Ministry lines.  Traditional border security involves law enforcement bodies in each of these countries to enforce EU and national immigrationand cross-border traffic.  Yet large swathes of the border are vulnerable to more nefarious infiltration, which raises the specter of hybrid activity which could be used to set conditions for hostile activity - much akin to how Russians and Russian-affiliated groups infiltrated the Ukraine-Russian border in the eastern regions of Ukraine to stir up activity in 2014.  Hence this is a problem that requires both hardened law enforcement practices and military preparations for other contingencies.  Both capabilities contribute to security in Eastern Europe and the U.S.  Previously, DHS would convene working groups in these countries to discuss these threats at irregular intervals.  However, U.S. ability to coherently advocate for these strengthened measures is greatly limited amidst short DC attention spans and a strictly military view of security from EUCOM.  Fusing this challenge with appropriate experts at the J9, looking holistically and regionally to achieve desired effects, would bring greater coherence to this effort.  We must adapt our own organization to be more agile in assessing these threats and recommending a wide array of options to mitigate them.  Russia has no problem exploiting gaps in border security, as long as they won’t face credible resistance and obstacles in their way.

Elevating Security Cooperation

An improved structure to leverage interagency expertise at the GCC is one part of Comprehensive Security Engagement; empowering it with the range of tools resident in security cooperation authorities is the other.  Senior OSD officials have recently called for a “coordinated strategy for Allies and Partners.”  The perfect vehicle for this is via the range of activities offered by security cooperation, or more broadly, security sector assistance.  This range of tools incorporates all Title 10 (DoD) and Title 22 (State) authorities, as well as all interactions between DoD officials and foreign defense establishments.  All security cooperation activities, to one degree or another, require the consent, sustainment, and support of the host nations in which they are executed.  To achieve realistic and sustainable security objectives in any part of the world, the U.S. must embrace this fact.  Orienting a newly empowered entity inside EUCOM outwards towards partnering and engagement with allies and partners will add an operational imperative to security cooperation.  Doing so would remove the ‘partnering’ function away from the J5 – the plans and policy directorate- and consolidate these activities inside the J9, where they would merge with an interagency outlook.  

Freeing the J5 of this function will both broaden EUCOM’s outlook on security cooperation and greatly broaden the scope of the activities it encompasses, so that it doesn’t strictly focus on military shortfalls.  Currently, security cooperation is seen as a tool to mitigate the gaps in U.S. military capabilities.  EUCOM has greatly refined and focused the trajectory of title 10 security assistance by aiming for convergence with NATO capability targets and using operational plans to inform capability gaps in its theater.  This is a constructive approach, but it risks a security cooperation perspective focused only on conventional military shortfalls.  For example, the focus on maritime domain awareness and integrated air and missile defense requires leadership and advocacy from across the DoD enterprise, but also commitment from the nations where these capabilities would be resident, which has implications beyond strict military measures.  Concentration on military capabilities risks overlooking other critical shortfalls, such as improved cyber security, transparency to combat illicit financing, and the information and communication needed to complement the fielding of these requirements.  While sometimes categorized as ‘enabling’ functions, they all are required to support the employment of weapon systems and they all require expertise outside of normal military channels. 

Furthermore, consolidating security cooperation activities in the J9 mirrors our framework already taken at all of our embassies, and adds clarity to an endeavor for which our partners and allies are the focal point.  Our relationship with our allies and partners is already executed at an interagency level, shepherded by the State Department, and working as a cross functional team, digesting inputs and applying daily doses of diplomatic tools based on the exigencies of the moment.  Consolidating the range of security activities that underpins this relationship under a higher operational body adds a ‘security lifeline’ to our Embassies in theater, who are nobly executing this work daily but might not be aware of the regional picture.  Consolidating this expertise in the J9 more ably helps EUCOM and the embassies reinforce each other.  

Furthermore, the J5 is already task-burdened in its current structure and requires focus to digest national planning documents and integrate planning not only with the service components, but with certain allies and partners interwoven with NATO realities.  The J5 is currently responsible for integrating certain global DoD plans, formulating regional ones (in concert with NATO), addressing transnational threats such as WMD, recommending correct DoD posture in Europe, and digesting national and DoD policy to guide EUCOM senior leader interactions with foreign officials.  Security cooperation is too important to be yet another task for the J5.  

Moving security cooperation activities into the J9 is the fuel needed to produce a framework for comprehensive security engagement.  Correctly structured, it could create a GCC ‘cross functional team (CFT)’ that serves as the repository of inter-agency strength, albeit focused on the European AOR.  Staffed with appropriate expertise, this CFT could synthesize capability shortfalls from Allies and Partners and prioritize the most effective to meet EUCOM lines of effort, grounded in an existing assessment, monitoring, and evaluation (AM&E) process.  More assigned expertise from not only inside DoD, but across the inter-agency, is needed to help refine specific security requirements for the region.  More diverse U.S. experts (Missile Defense Agency, State, FAA, etc.) are needed to help drive missile defense capabilities generation for the Baltics, maritime domain awareness experts (Coast Guard, DHS, NGIA, etc.) for the Black Sea, and logisticians (State, TRANSCOM, etc.) to help refine dual-use infrastructure projects across Europe.  And this doesn’t even factor in the valuable input from European bodies and governments.  

Once this unity of effort is established, it will likely bear out needed execution improvements, resulting in activities that are both more effective, feasible, and sustainable.  For example, services have created bespoke ‘Building Partner Capacity’ (BPC) units. Consolidating security cooperation missions in these units creates efficiencies, which should eliminate extraneous military-to-military familiarization and training activities which put a burden on other assigned forces in the service components and potentially detract from unit readiness.  The Army continues to develop and man Security Force Assistance brigades (SFAB), one of which will likely focus on the EUCOM area of responsibility.  The Air Force has similarly invested in the development of the Contingency Response Support Squadron, which notes includes a “newly dedicated building partnership capacity function of trained and certified Air Advisors [providing] the group with the capability to perform theater security cooperation events...”  Elevating security cooperation also elevates the AM&E process and help bring about potential refinement.  The CFTs in the J9 could direct requirements via the J2 to aid DoD understanding of the effectiveness of these security cooperation programs, hopefully reorienting Defense Attaché Offices towards COCOM lines of effort.  

Empowering a Multinational Approach

Improving our structure is only one half of the coin to bring about more effective deterrence vis-à-vis Russia.  Listening to our allies and partners and incorporating their constraints and capability assessments are equally important.  Security cooperation programs are only as effective as is the recipient nations’ ability to support and sustain them over a prolonged period.  While much has been centered on the burden sharing discussion to increase European investment in NATO capabilities, it is also equally telling that Allies have chosen to invest moderate amounts heretofore, which – right or wrong – might reflect a different threat assessment.  Europeans must prioritize security as an imperative more than the United States for our collective efforts to be successful.  By elevating the partnering function to its own operational directorate, DoD can invigorate emphasis on a new framework from which to assess the relative value of various security cooperation efforts with allies and partners.  As such, it would support a comprehensive strategy for our Allies and partners that some would argue is currently missing.  

We already have entities in most countries that facilitate U.S. efforts to listen to local concerns, understand their threat estimates, and liaise to create desirable effects for U.S. security.  These ‘military diplomatic’ efforts are exerted by Defense Attaché Offices and Security Cooperation Offices (SCO) throughout Europe and other areas of the world.  However, DoD should devote more work to convene and synchronize its (at times disparate) efforts abroad.  Since the SCO answers to the GCC, that command could do more to embrace the military diplomatic power of this entity.  Too often, SCOs take policy direction and guidance from the DSCA at the detriment of operational and strategic guidance that only the GCC can adequately distill.  In practice, SCOs must answer to both, but too often SCOs are left to their own devices to digest GCC priorities.  This situation often creates an imbalanced incentive structure whereby countries with the largest number of foreign military sales inevitably get the most attention.  DoD recognizes this dilemma and the challenges it presents to presenting a unified front abroad, but more could be done.  DoD must empower all of its military representation abroad to advocate for acquisition, operational, and strategic policy – these offices cannot afford to be firewalled from each other.  Synchronizing SCOs with the DAOs will also help the host country understand primacy for certain policy matters and aid the bilateral relationship.  Our defense officials at embassies abroad should be the primary conduit for U.S. defense matters for that nation.  When foreign militaries place liaison officers at the COCOM headquarters, it undermines the message and power of our DAOs and SCOs.  Obvious but difficult solutions must also be addressed to aid the power of these offices, such as providing all SCOs reliable and constant access to Combatant Command secure networks.

Recognizing the inherent advantage of our transatlantic bond to elevate collective security is imperative.  Not only does the U.S. and much of Europe share interests in developing common defense solutions, but it is because of these shared interests that security cooperation efforts can be so consequential.  Existing research has produced helpful guides to conceptually understand a framework for conditionality and help predict why some security cooperation efforts are more effective than others. When the U.S. undertakes security cooperation with partners and allies that possess a similar culture, democratic institutions, and political outlook, our efforts have more of an impact.   NATO and many European nations represent some of the strongest Allies in the world.  These alliances are the result of deep relationships based on shared heritage and centuries of shared experiences, from which institutions rooted in aligned values were formed.  It would be wise to double down on security cooperation in Europe – in the long run, it will bring about the biggest return on investment since these efforts are more likely to be sustained by countries that share our interests and values.  Furthermore, these shared values produce sophisticated partnerships, resulting in information sharing, research and development collaboration, and interoperability.  

Case Study:  Embracing Allied-driven responses to deterrence:  MND-N

An example of a case where Allies have put forward and committed to a capability gap that merits support is the nascent command structure known as Multinational Division-North, or MND-N. The initiative, led by Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia, envisions a Division level headquarters based in the Baltics to execute operational planning and exercise command and control over selected assigned forces from those same nations.  The Division level headquarters, now based in Riga, Latvia, resulted after several years of advocacy and is codified in a letter of intent signed by the three nations, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania.  The formation of MND-N represents the natural evolution of NATO Force Structure and is the ideological evolution of the original NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs).  The new structure represents an entirely bottom-up initiative, emblematic of regional collaboration, to help bolster defense and resilience for the region.  Properly manned, it would be a working structure to allow these nations to candidly assess defense gaps, and consequently plan to make up these shortfalls either nationally, regionally, or when appropriate, from outside the region.  Being fully invested in the defense of the eastern flank of NATO is nowhere more important than in that eastern flank itself.  Supporting MND-N with appropriate staff officers and advisors will rightly focus the onus of defense matters on the nations being defended.  This forces the participating nations to look at themselves first for solutions.  When they cannot be found or reasonably generated, it informs the scale and orientation of any potential assistance efforts, grounded by local expertise and guided by the principle that the assistance must lead to indigenous solutions.  Simply put, MND-N could not only be a multinational headquarters to inform defense planning for the region, but a vehicle through which to discuss and propose solutions for joint capability development. These homegrown, multinational solutions, cannot help but inform our efforts to compete in that same region.

Moreover, we already possess the expertise needed to understand the symbiotic nature of contemporary competition.  Defense Attaché Offices and SCOs are increasingly manned with Foreign Area Officers (FAO) - officers who are regionally oriented and professionally trained to understand cultural, economic, and political sensitivities of the host nation.  FAOs are positioned forward to advocate for interoperability, implement security cooperation programs in support of COCOM lines of effort, and synchronize security sector assistance between the Departments of Defense and State.  These officers come from assignments that puts them in more routine contact with other members of the interagency and are a natural DoD linkage to understanding competition abroad.  In many cases, FAOs are quite literally embedded with host nation military institutions, which affords them a unique vantage point to articulate U.S. objectives and listen to host nation constraints and concerns every day. 


In order to compete with Russia, we first must ask ourselves what we are competing for.  Today, this question has not been sufficiently explored.  While more rigor is required to face down this existential dilemma, our competitive means must be broadened for the range of eventualities across the security spectrum.  This work offers a modest proposal to help guide our strategic approach via the empowerment of a single regionally-focused headquarters, EUCOM, incorporating structural adjustments that may also have wider peer command application.  

The U.S. should be competing for influence abroad, because its strength also depends on the depth and breadth of our overseas relationships.  Both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy affirm this.  U.S. influence should overtly advance our economic prosperity, promote democratic ideals, and deter our adversaries from actions that threaten stability, prosperity, and democracy.  Our actions must confidently project these values and not shy away from them.  Adversaries have pursued their interests by relentlessly expanding their influence with information warfare as well as via economic and political coercion.  The U.S. should not merely react to these developments, but project its own values and interests, and not be afraid to do so.  

The U.S. must approach its way to compete for influence not simply by comparing ourselves with the adversary, but by doubling down on the powerful, diverse, and value-based expertise at our fingertips.  It must not merely approximate its adversaries’ methods in form but remember what makes us strong. Implementing a diverse interagency approach at the operational level makes use of our inherent national strengths, our diverse civilian and military expertise, and informs the shape and trajectory of what could ultimately be a new grand strategy.  Comprehensive Security Engagement implements a structure to intellectually reflect the ‘hybrid’ nature of war and imports a change into the military’s strategic culture.  It conceptually connects our means (security cooperation) to our desired ends (strengthened strategic relationships), while admitting that we don’t have all the answers, and must rely on interagency expertise and our Allies and partners to fill the gaps.  To compete effectively, DoD can lead structural change to mitigate threats and advance our interests, but it requires a humility to admit that it is impossible to do so on its own. 

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