Damimola Olawuyi has served as a Geopolitical Analyst for SBM Intelligence. He can be found on Twitter @DAOlawuyi. Dr Paul Jemitola is a lecturer at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He can be reached on LinkedIn at Paul Jemitola. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

Title:  Assessing the Role of Armed Forces in Activities Below the Threshold of War

Date Originally Written: September 26, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  December 21, 2020.

Authors and / or Article Point of View:  The return to Great Power competition and the utilization by various rising powers of the current world order of hybrid warfare and destabilizing activities short of war has increased the calls for governments to refocus their priorities to other levers of power. Even as the authors support increased investment in other areas of government to enhance their contributions to national security, it is important to articulate the role that armed forces could play in interactions that would fall short of armed conflict.

Summary:  As the world returns to Great Power competition, militaries will continue to play a role even in activities below the threshold of war. As the Global War on Terror winds down from a period of intensity, policymakers can identify those roles the military must play without needless overlap with the jurisdiction of other government agencies and shape their policy decisions accordingly.

Text:  The rise of new powers willing to upend the current global order has given rise to new flashpoints while rekindling old rivalries[1][2]. While the interconnected nature of the global economy disincentivizes direct conflict between major powers[3][4], the rise of nationalism, especially in the developed world[5], demands that political leaders take strong actions to counter perceived competitors. This demand for action drives countries to find ways to undermine their opponents without engaging in direct conflict[6].

This reality, combined with the mixed records of military interventions in recent times, has caused many to call for governments to shift resources away from the military to fund other means of projecting national power short of sustained armed conflicts[7]. While governments must maintain various options in foreign policy and defence [8][9], the role of the military in maintaining peace, whether against near-peer adversaries or non-state actors, cannot be diminished and will be crucial in the next Cold War as it was in the last[10].

Militaries can continue to serve as instruments of deterrence against hostile activities of competitors[11][12]. The presence of military power and highly visible demonstrations of its capabilities can reinforce messages being passed through diplomatic and political channels. From gunboat diplomacy to freedom of navigation operations, these shows of force are meant to demonstrate the willingness of their governments to challenge actions against their interests while reassuring allies that their interests were also being catered to. A credible deterrence means that adversaries are less likely to engage in costly conventional military actions and will keep their activities confined below war threshold levels[13].

Militaries can provide security for other arms of governments operating in hostile environments[14][15]. Diplomats and politicians visiting or serving in warzones and other adversarial conditions can be protected by military units with experience in Executive Protection. This security support to diplomacy will be keeping in traditions of the United States Marine Corps and especially its Marine Corps Embassy Security Group[16]. In case of emergencies, the military can provide contingency support to reinforcing security or evacuating personnel[17].

Militaries can build relationships with counterparts through exercises, personnel exchange programs, conferences, and intergovernmental military alliance meetings[18]. In many countries, the armed forces continue to serve as independent power bases largely separate from political leaders[19][20]. These military to military engagements require that senior military commanders engage with their opposite numbers and deliver a unified message alongside diplomatic and political overtures. This unified messaging ensures that actions agreed to by political leaders are not disrupted by the militaries of those countries.

Militaries seek to attract the best and brightest of society[21]. Military education programs and professional training also serve as a platform to develop professionals with critical skills needed by other government agencies. Intelligence collectors and analysts, language and cultural experts, and logistics and security specialists are just some of the skills routinely trained and deployed by the military. Government agencies can tap into the existing military structures to train their professionals[22] or hire veterans with training and experience. Militaries can also second their officers to work directly in civil or political organizations as subject matter experts or even leaders/managers[23].

The military may continue to provide relevant military intelligence on the military capabilities of allies, competitors, and adversaries to political leaders to support policy making[24]. By compiling and presenting information on how capable militaries and other state and non-state actors in the area of interest are, the military can help policymakers determine how much to depend on military power and how much to rely on other means of influencing the situation.

The military can provide support to civil government agencies seeking to leverage military capabilities to achieve civilian goals[25][26]. From logistical support in disaster relief, crisis management during unplanned contingencies, cybersecurity, or even the regular movement of daily items for diplomats and civilian government workers deployed abroad, the military can use its already established logistics networks to support the missions of agencies who do not need to establish duplicating functions in their agencies.

The military can also play a niche role in grey-zone or paramilitary operations usually the preserve of intelligence agencies[27]. As the Global War on Terror and the new competition between states continue to evolve, the military may continue to provide the personnel to carry out the planning and execution phase of clandestine operations previously left to the paramilitary forces of intelligence agencies.

The military can play a critical role in the protection of critical infrastructure[28], especially in cyberspace. In the age of information / political warfare[29], cyber-attacks[30], and election interference[31], the ability to identify, classify, and defeat external threats in real-time depends on military forces and intelligence agencies facing outwards as much as security services and law enforcement agencies looking inwards. The ability to deliver a proportionate response beyond the domain attacked adds additional credibility to deterrence [32]. By its nature, warfare in cyberspace will not be limited to a single service or agency but will require the entire society to build resilience and respond appropriately. The military will necessarily be a part of any response to such threats, either to the Defense Industrial Base Sector or to the wider society.

As the dawn of a new era in international relations begins, leaders will need to rely on every available lever of power to achieve favourable outcomes as they compete for a favourable place on the global stage. While many events will occur outside the realm of armed conflict, it will not diminish the role the armed forces plays to ensure successful outcomes. Thus as governments take critical decisions on the means of expressing their nation’s will and safeguarding its interests, they can embrace neither neglecting their militaries nor limit their contribution to simply to the waging of its wars.


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