U.S. Should Invest in Truly Unconventional Forms of Warfare

By Russell Aldrich
Cyber-attacks are now recognized as the newest form of nontraditional warfare that U.S. enemies can employ effectively.

But other varieties of non-military warfare are being waged against the United States, and have been given less attention. China, for instance, owns nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. treasuries. It is the largest foreign owner of U.S. debt. China could use this liability as a weapon. If China decided to sell these bonds and invest elsewhere, it could have potentially devastating effects for the U.S. economy.

This is just one example of how non-military warfare can inflict as much harm upon an enemy as conventional combat. In the 21st century, this kind of warfare will become increasingly common, and indeed it may one day render conventional conflicts obsolete. The United States must therefore expand its own non-military offensive capabilities.

There are three reasons why the nation must develop its own non-military warfare capabilities if it is to maintain its advantage over adversaries.

First, the scope of warfare is expanding beyond conventional conflicts, and a failure to adapt will leave the United States incapable of responding. Costly improvements in capabilities such as the F-22 Raptor serve little purpose. They are unnecessary to deter attacks because the United States already possesses an indomitable conventional military advantage and an enormous nuclear stockpile. They are also unlikely to be used offensively, as a conventional attack on a powerful adversary risks igniting a full-fledged war. In contrast, non-military strategies can be used incrementally and surreptitiously, thus lessening the likeliness of escalation into a conventional conflict.  

Second, U.S. defense spending is unsustainable. It currently exceeds the rest of the world’s defense budget combined. As a result, severe budget cuts in the near future are inevitable. History illuminates the dangers of rapid reductions in military spending. After World War II, the Truman administration drastically reduced spending on conventional military forces, confident that nuclear weapons would be sufficient to deter adversaries from attacking. This strategy produced a military incapable of waging the low-intensity proxy conflicts that were the hallmark of the Cold War, a deficiency that would not be remedied until the Kennedy administration recognized the problem more than a decade later and placed an emphasis on special operations capabilities. The addition of new non-military warfare options would allow the United States to sustain its military readiness for a fraction of the cost of maintaining the present conventional force.

Lastly, the addition of non-military capabilities to the existing military arsenal will allow for increased flexibility. The first half of the 20th century saw three major wars centered on conventional warfare. This strategy was not suited to Vietnam and later Iraq and Afghanistan. Future conflicts will focus less on conventional and unconventional military strategies than they will on non-military strategies.

The ability of the United States to develop these new methods of waging war is circumscribed only by its own morality. For example, it should refrain from engaging in acts of state-sponsored terrorism, such as the North Korean bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 or the Libyan bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, because they are anathema to our values and way of life. Narco-warfare — the infusion of affordable, addictive, and destructive drugs into the society of an enemy state — is also contradictory to our ideals. The most prominent example of narco-warfare is when the British Empire forced China to import its opium, which had devastating effects on the Chinese population. In addition to being morally reprehensible, the use of these strategies is sure to draw widespread condemnation from the international community.

But the moral lines regarding other forms of non-military warfare are not so clear. Cyberwarfare cannot be waged effectively if it does not target civilian infrastructure along with purely government and military targets. This is because government and military portals make up but a small percentage of the virtual battlefield, and thus to limit offensive operations to the public sector may diminish their effectiveness. Government and military portals are often “hard targets” in that they are protected by additional security measures. The most effective cyberwarfare strategy is therefore indiscriminate. Businesses, banks, utilities, and schools would be targeted along with the more traditional government and military targets.

Similarly, purely economic warfare is necessarily waged upon the entirety of an enemy population. Old strategies such as blockades and embargos restrict the flow of supplies to an enemy population, eroding their quality of life and willingness to wage war. Kinetic attacks on factories and infrastructure also sought to reduce the economic output of enemies. Modern economic warfare strategies are more sophisticated. They rely on economists and other academics to identify areas of an adversary’s economy that are vulnerable to attack. Once identified, these experts can then undermine financial markets, manipulate currency exchange rates and target information systems where critical data is stored.

While many consider the targeting of civilians to be morally unacceptable, consider that while traditional kinetic military operations target enemy forces there is frequently considerable collateral damage to civilian populations. A stray bomb, for example, could kill hundreds of innocent civilians. By contrast, there is little risk that the use of a non-military attack targeting civilians directly would result in physical harm. Rather, it might be said that non-military strategies damage a nation’s quality of life, not life itself. Inasmuch as non-military strategies do not risk physical harm to civilians, it is arguable that it is more morally acceptable than traditional military operations.

Ethical issues aside, the reputational and legal implications of engaging in non-military warfare must also be considered. Warfare of any kind is likely to draw the ire of the international community, but non-military warfare is especially susceptible to criticism because it targets civilians.

Non-military warfare also raises issues under international law, which does not yet clearly define the legal parameters under which non-military wars can be fought. It is ironic that the battle to shape how international law treats non-military warfare is itself a form of non-military warfare, as states raise armies of lawyers and diplomats to shape the currently undefined international legal framework to their advantage.

Developing non-military capabilities will not be easy for a number of reasons. First, they will be controversial both at home and abroad as people question their efficacy, morality and legality. Politicians, military officials, and bureaucrats alike may therefore be reluctant to endorse non-military strategies. Second, the effort will require the recruitment of highly educated civilians, many of whom may be reluctant to participate in the messy business of war. Third, because non-military warfare is in its infancy, the development of these new capabilities will necessarily involve considerable trial, error, time and resources to perfect.

Spending enormous resources to increase the already insurmountable conventional military advantage cannot compensate for a disadvantage in non-military warfare capabilities. The face of warfare is changing rapidly, and the United States must adapt or risk falling behind in the new arms race of the 21st century.

Russell Aldrich is a military intelligence officer in the Army Reserve. He has published articles on international law and is a practicing attorney in San Antonio.

Topics: Defense Department, War Planning

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