Options for the U.S. to Deter China in the East & South China Seas

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Curtin is a Field Artillery Officer with over 20 years of experience in the United States Marine Corps, including at the Pacific Division of Plans, Policies, and Operations at Headquarters Marine Corps.  Annie Kowalewski is a Chinese military and defense researcher at Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. 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.

National Security Situation:  Chinese militarization of artificial islands in disputed waters in the East and South China Seas.

Date Originally Written:  March 1, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  March 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The authors are a military member and a defense researcher.  The authors believe that Chinese actions in the East and South China Sea are destabilizing and threaten to shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Background:  China is showing no evidence of slowing down its territorial aspirations within the “nine dash line” and continues to emplace anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems on its man-made islands in the East and South China Seas[1].  China also uses its maritime militia to bully neighboring countries and extend Chinese fishing rights and territorial reach.  The United States has thus far been unsuccessful in responding to or deterring these Chinese challenges to the status quo.

Significance:  Chinese actions represent a “salami-slicing” strategy aimed at slowly changing regional norms and asserting Chinese dominance in the East and South China Seas.  This strategy allows China to exert influence and establish itself as a regional hegemon, thereby threatening the balance of power and U.S. primacy in the region.  Chinese militarization and power projection also threaten the United States’ allies and security partners, some of which the United States is bound by treaty to offer security assistance.

Option #1:  The United States invests in capabilities-based deterrents that can deter specific Chinese actions.

Risk:  China has objected to the capabilities that provide this type of deterrent, such as the new F-35B fighter operating on naval vessels in the pacific[2].  China may use the deployment of these capabilities as an excuse to finally militarize islands such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Gain:  A capabilities-based deterrent will make Chinese islands in the East and South China Seas vulnerable and, ultimately, a military liability rather than an advantage.  New technologies such as the F-35B allow the United States more flexibility when operating in the Pacific, by providing U.S. and allied commanders with a 5th generation aircraft that is normally only employed off traditional U.S. aircraft carriers.  Option #1 would not only help offset the eventual Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA(N)) numerical superiority in the Pacific, but also demonstrate the U.S. commitment to modernizing a capability that has been historically suited for military operations against static, geographically isolated island targets.  This option may help shift China’s risk calculus when deciding how aggressively it hopes to militarize the islands, once it realizes that increased island investment actually increases vulnerability instead of capability.

Option #2:  The United States invests in strategic deterrence by helping boost allies’ and security partners’ amphibious capabilities.

Risk:  Boosting allies’ and security partner amphibious capabilities runs the risk of antagonizing China.  China has already strongly condemned proposed amendments to the Japanese constitution calling for a larger defense budget[3].  China has been known to use economic and political coercion to pressure regional countries to adopt, or abandon, policies.

Gain:  Boosting allies’ and security partner amphibious capabilities will be key to creating a sea force able to challenge an increasingly capable PLA(N).  This option would also allow allies and security partners to better deal with Chinese salami-slicing activities by providing them with the capability to deter or engage the Chinese on their own, rather than rely on U.S. deployments and assistance[4].

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Bader, Jeffrey. (2014). The U.S. and China’s Nine-Dash Line: Ending the Ambiguity. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-u-s-and-chinas-nine-dash-line-ending-the-ambiguity/.

[2] Lockheed Martin. (2018). The F-26B Lightning II. Retrieved from https://www.f35.com/about/variants/f35b.

[3] Huang, Kristin. (2017, October 23). China to keep wary watch on Abe’s push to change pacifist constitution. Retreived from http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2116635/china-keep-wary-watch-abes-push-change-pacifist.

[4] Erickson, Andrew. (2016, September 21). Seapower and Projection Forces in the South China Sea. Retreived from https://armedservices.house.gov/legislation/hearings/seapower-and-projection-forces-south-china-sea.

A2AD (Anti Access and Area Denial) Allies & Partners Annie Kowalewski China (People's Republic of China) Christopher Curtin Maritime Option Papers South China Sea United States

Options for the Strategic Goals of the Royal Canadian Navy

Lieutenant(N) Fred Genest is a Naval Warfare Officer in the Royal Canadian Navy and has deployed operationally in HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS Fredericton.  He is currently completing a Master of Public Administration degree while on staff at the Royal Military College of Canada.  He tweets at @RMCNavyGuy.  This article does not represent the policies or opinions of the Government of Canada or the Royal Canadian Navy.  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.

National Security Situation:  The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) is in the process of recapitalizing its fleet but has not had a significant debate on its strategic goals in decades.

Date Originally Written:  December 19, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 12, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the senior Canadian political and military leadership.

Background:  Successive governments have asserted that Canada must deploy warships overseas to help maintain international security and stability[1].  Despite the RCN’s fleet recapitalization, there has been no debate about the best way to employ its forces.

Current RCN employment is based on history, Cold War thinking, and national myths. Canada sees itself as “punching above its weight” since the Second World War.  In that war, Canada gave control of its forces to the British and American leaders, with disastrous results at home such as the closure of the St. Lawrence seaway.  During the Cold War, Canadian warships deployed with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Standing Naval Forces; this continues in the 21st century.  In its role as a “junior partner” since World War 2, Canada has followed the British and American lead in security and defence, subordinating its national interest to the alliance’s goals.

Significance:  As a sovereign middle power, Canada can set its own strategic priorities[2].  A commitment-capability gap—insufficient units to accomplish designated tasks—has been identified in the RCN since at least the 1964 White Paper on Defence[3].  The Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) saw this as normal at the end of the Cold War[4].  A 2013 report[5] stated that Canada would have difficulty meeting its readiness and force posture requirements until well into the 2020s.  Adjusting the current strategy could help reduce the gap.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo with a medium global force projection navy[6], constant rotations with NATO, and a worldwide presence.

Risk:  With Option #1 the commitment-capability gap could grow.  The Government of Canada (GoC) intends to be prepared to participate in concurrent operations across multiple theatres[7].  However, readiness goals will not be met until the late 2020s[8], perhaps even until the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project is completed in the 2040s.  Manning is, and will remain, a problem in certain areas like anti-submarine warfare and engineering.

By continuing the historical pattern of letting alliance leaders determine its strategy, Canada is abdicating its responsibility to protect its national interests.

Gain:  There is prestige in being one of the few navies that routinely deploys around the world[9], and RCN ships are recognized by its allies as the “go-to” during operations[10].  Option #1 improves Canada’s standing in the world, especially amongst peer allied nations, and allows Canada to exercise some leadership in international affairs.  This increased leadership role allows Canada to further its interests through diplomacy.

Furthermore, there is a morale-boosting effect in having regular overseas deployments; sailors, like soldiers, are keen to acquire “bits of coloured ribbon.”  In the RCN, this is achieved through overseas operations.  Regular overseas deployments or lack thereof may therefore be a factor in recruitment and retention.

There is also an internal political gain: by highlighting successes abroad, the GoC can raise awareness of the RCN and increase popular support for its foreign policy[11].  This is beneficial to the RCN, as popular support can translate into political pressure to obtain the tools required to achieve its institutional goals.

Option #2:  Downgrade the RCN to a medium regional power projection navy.  Cease overseas deployments except for specific, time-limited United Nations or NATO missions critical for peace or security.

Risk:  No longer routinely deploying internationally would be seen as a loss of prestige, and could lead to a loss of informal diplomatic leadership.

Local operations are often unpopular with sailors, and removing the opportunity to go overseas could lead to a loss of morale, with obvious effects on retention.  Also, one of the main ways Canadian sailors are trained for full-spectrum operations is through workups leading to an overseas deployment, and through multinational exercises while deployed.  Removing those training opportunities could reduce personnel readiness.  Option #2 could also harm the justifications for future, or even current, procurement projects.

Gain:  RCN commitments would be more in line with capabilities.  The GoC’s commitments will continue to be difficult for the RCN to meet in the next decade[12]; reducing the level of commitment would allow the RCN and its allies to plan based on actual capabilities.

Carefully selecting operations as part of Option #2 would also let Canada set its own priorities for its warships.  In recent years, Canadian ships have taken part in operations that were only vaguely related to Canadian interests, such as European Union migrant activities.  Not committing to those operations would free up the RCN to take part in more nationally-relevant operations.

With the CSC, Canada will maintain a full-spectrum capability, and being a medium regional power projection navy does not preclude overseas deployments.  Option #2 would bring Canada in line its European NATO peers, who keep their warships near their own waters, to protect their national interests.

Another challenge for the RCN is its maintenance budget, which is insufficient to meet all requirements. One of the effects is that ships have to swap parts to achieve material readiness and some repairs are left undone due to a lack of parts or available personnel.  Deployments, especially repeated overseas deployments by the same units, are hard on equipment. Reducing the number of overseas deployments under Option #2 would reduce premature failures and maintenance costs.

Other Comments:  Option #2 may not be feasible in the current political climate, but this does not preclude vigorous examination.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf 
— Leadmark 2050 is a document produced by the Royal Canadian Navy to set its long-term vision beyond its five-year strategic plan. It is a follow-up to the 2001 publication, Leadmark 2020.

[2] Lindley-French, J. (2017). Brexit and the Shifting Pillars of NATO. Retrieved from http://www.cgai.ca/brexit_and_the_shifting_pillars_of_nato

[3] Department of National Defence. (1964). White Paper on Defence. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D3-6-1964-eng.pdf — While it did not call it as such, the concern was evident.
  In Commonwealth countries, White Papers are used to provide information about government policy to parliamentarians and the public.  In Canada, there have been three White Papers on Defence since World War 2: 1964, 1971, and 1994. Major defence policy documents were also released in 1984, 1992 and 2017.

[4] Department of National Defence. (1987). Challenge and commitment : a defence policy for Canada. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2012/dn-nd/D2-73-1987-eng.pdf

[5] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf 
— This document evaluated the RCN’s performance from 2008 to 2013, particularly the ability to generate and employ naval forces as directed by the GoC.

[6] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[7] Department of National Defence. (2017b). Strong Secure Engaged: Canada’s Defence Policy. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2017/mdn-dnd/D2-386-2017-eng.pdf

[8] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[9] Department of National Defence. (2017a). Leadmark 2050: Canada in a New Maritime World. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://navy-marine.forces.gc.ca/assets/NAVY_Internet/docs/en/analysis/rcn-leadmark-2050_march-2017.pdf

[10] Department of National Defence – Chief Review Services. (2013). Evaluation of Naval Forces. Ottawa. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/mdn-dnd/D58-33-2013-eng.pdf

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

Canada Fred Genest Maritime Option Papers Strategy

China’s Options Towards the (Re)emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue

Adam Ni is a researcher at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.  His areas of interest include China’s foreign and security policy.  He can be found on Twitter @adam_ni.  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.

National Security Situation:  The People’s Republic of China (China) is facing the (re)emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia.  The unstated aim of the Quad is to constrain China’s growing power in Asia through possible military and economic cooperation that would raise the cost if Beijing challenges the status quo.

Date Originally Written:  February 28, 2018.

Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a scholar of China’s foreign and security policy.  The article is written from the point of view of Chinese decision-makers considering policy options in response to the Quad’s challenges.

Background:  The Quad can be traced back to 2007 when diplomatic efforts culminated in a multilateral naval exercise off the Bay of Bengal.  While the countries involved contended that their activities were not aimed at China, it was clear that these activities were largely a response to China’s growing power.  However, the Quad was short-lived with Australia pulling out in February 2008 under Chinese pressure[1].

Recently, the Quad has been revived in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China with expanded geopolitical ambitions.  In November 2017, officials from the Quad nations met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and agreed that a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is in the interest of all countries[2].  This meeting was followed in January by the meeting of the Quad navy chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue in India.  During the meeting, Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, characterized China as a “disruptive, transitional force” in the region, and urged Quad nations to take measures against China’s “unilateral ways to change the use of global commons” and uphold “rule-based freedom of navigation[3].”  This sentiment was echoed by the navy chiefs of the other three Quad nations.

Significance:  While it is still too early to tell what the Quad would entail, in theory, it aims to constrain China’s growing power and to ameliorate China’s behavior by altering Beijing’s strategic calculus.  The military dimension of the Quad could take the form of expanded military cooperation that would raise the cost for China to use or threaten the use of force, including in relation to the East and South China Seas.  The economic dimension could take the form of expanded economic and infrastructure cooperation that would compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a grand plan to reshape the world economy with China at the center.

Option #1:  Reassurance.  China continues to emphasize to the Quad nations its intent to develop peacefully through public statements and diplomatic channels.

Risk:  Without pushing back against the Quad, the Quad nations and others in the region may believe that China is unwilling to impose a cost on them for challenging China’s security and economic interests.  This lack of push back may lead to further coalescence of the Quad and may even draw in other states in the region that have become wary of China’s growing power, including those that have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Gain:  Option #1 may help to undermine the narrative of an ambitious China with a willingness to adopt coercive means to protect and advance its interests.  This option would strengthen the arguments of domestic forces in the Quad nations that advocate a softer approach in responding to Chinese power.

Option #2:  Punishment.  China applies a high degree of economic and diplomatic pressure on Quad nations to demonstrate the cost of challenging China’s interests and thus deter further challenges.  This option could take the form of economic coercion, formal diplomatic protests, and the downgrading of bilateral cooperation in key fields.

Risk:  Option #2 would strengthen the rationale for the Quad and the argument for constraining China’s power in the first place by demonstrating China’s willingness to adopt coercive measures against those that challenge its interests.  This option may further exacerbate the negative perception of China among the Quad nations, especially where there is already a lively debate about China’s influence (such as in Australia and the United States).  In addition, economic coercion may damage the Chinese economy and in the long run make the target economies less dependent on China.

Gain:  China demonstrating strength and resolve early on may lead to the collapse of the Quad if the Quad nations are not willing to pay the high cost of challenging China’s interests.  For example, Australia is highly dependent on China for trade and investment flows.  The Chinese government could put in place measures to reduce Chinese tourists or students from going to Australia and link these restrictions to Australia’s involvement with the Quad.  Such measures may also deter other regional countries from cooperating with the Quad against China’s interests.

Option #3:  Reassurance and caution.  China continues to emphasize its peaceful intent while also signaling its willingness to impose an economic and political cost on the Quad nations should they continue to challenge China’s interests.

Risk:  Option #3 may not be effective due to a lack of concrete cost imposed on the Quad nations, through, for example, coercive economic measures.  At the same time, the cautioning may be interpreted as an aggressive warning of China’s coercive intent, further exacerbating public anxiety in the Quad nations.

Gain:  This approach may be enough to forestall the further development of the Quad through providing reassurance but also signals China’s resolve to protects its interests.  Option #3’s key benefit is that it does not incur large political or economic cost for China immediately, but hinges Chinese retaliation on further Quad activities.

Other Comments:  The revived Quad is still in the early stages of its development, and it is too early to tell what the Quad would entail.  The above options are presented on the basis that the Quad may involve military and economic dimensions that challenge China’s interests, including its territorial claims in the South China Sea as well as its Belt and Road Initiative.  Given the diversity of strategic interests between the Quad nations in relation to China, there is a likelihood that the Quad will not develop beyond a mechanism for dialogue.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Indrani Bagchi, “Australia to pull out of ‘quad’ that excludes China,” Times of India, February 6, 2008. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Australia-to-pull-out-of-quad-that-excludes-China/articleshow/2760109.cms.

[2] “India-Australia-Japan-U.S. Consultations on Indo-Pacific (November 12, 2017),” Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 12, 2017. Available at: http://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29110/IndiaAustraliaJapanUS_Consultations_on_IndoPacific_November_12_2017

[3] “‘China a disruptive power,’ say navy chiefs of Quadrilateral nations,” Times of India, January 19, 2018. Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/china-a-disruptive-power-quad-nations-navy-chiefs/articleshow/62562144.cms.

Adam Ni Australia China (People's Republic of China) India Japan Option Papers United States

Options to Build Local Capabilities to Stabilise the Lake Chad Region

Fulan Nasrullah is a national security policy adviser based in Nigeria.  He currently works for an international research and policy advisory firm.  Fulan tweets at @fulannasrullah and blogs here.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government.

National Security Situation:  Counterinsurgency and stabilisation campaigns in the Lake Chad region.

Date Originally Written:  December 11, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 5, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point Of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a Nigerian National Security Advisor, offering options on the building of key local capabilities in the Lake Chad region to further degrade destabilising non-state armed groups in the region, while fostering stability in the area.

Background:  With the launch of conventional offensives by the Nigerian and Chadian armies in 2015, non-state armed groups in the Lake Chad region and Northeast Nigeria have lost much of the territory which they had earlier captured.  The successes of the regional governments’ conventional offensives have forced the non-state armed groups to return to a heavy emphasis on revolutionary and asymmetric warfare, which the local armies and governments are ill prepared to confront.

The conventional offensive resulted in a situation where local security capabilities, already inadequate, are  increasingly overstretched and worn down, by having to manage multiple security problems over such a wide area.

The Nigerian Army has an estimated 40,000-45,000 combat and support personnel (out of a total 130,000+ personnel) deployed in Northeast Nigeria, in over forty combat battalions.  These include the battalions that make up the in theatre 7 and 8 Divisions, plus those backfilling from 3, 1 and 2 Divisions.  These forces represent the majority of the Nigerian Army’s combat deployable strength, most of whom have been serving a minimum of 2 years of continuous deployment in the Northeast theatre.

However, unlike the much larger Nigerian military, other regional armies involved in this conflict have fewer manpower and material resources to expend.  These less capable forces struggle to combat an insurgency that has proven itself adaptable, and which despite losing conventionally, has sustained itself and progressively gained momentum on the asymmetric front.  The insurgency specifically uses armed groups to offset the disadvantage they suffer in conventional strength, through guerrilla operations, terror, and a heavy focus on information operations and ideological education and propagation targeted at local populations in rural areas.

Weak institutional capabilities, in addition to lack of intelligence and analysis-based understanding of these armed groups, have contributed to multiple conflicting and unrealistic strategies from the regional states, plus enhanced insurgent momentum.

Significance:  United States investment in building local capabilities is a necessity for both the U.S. and Lake Chad regional states, both to degrade active non-state armed groups in the region, and to build, foster, and maintain stability.  Without this investment by the United States, regional states will  be unable to stop the conflict which, though currently at a  strategic stalemate, could turn into a strategic victory for the insurgent groups.

While Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad poses a serious threat to local stability, the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP) is a greater worry for United States’ interests globally and in the long-term.  The power vacuum created by regional states failing to degrade insurgent capabilities[1], thus ceding territory, will create a huge opening for ISWAP and its local affiliates in the Lake Chad, Sahel, and Libyan regions to exploit.  Power vacuums have already been created in the Lake Chad Islands[2], and will be further created as the Nigerian government plans to abandon the rural Borno State[1].

Option #1:  The U.S. invests solely in a kinetic buildup, by establishing a regional infantry and counterinsurgency training centre in Nigeria, in the mold of the Fort Irwin National Training Centre, drawing on lessons the U.S. military learnt in Iraq and Afghanistan, to train local militaries.  A kinetic build up would also involve providing training and funding for more troops and units for the Nigerian and Chadian armies.  These troops would be dedicated to the clearing out of the Lake Chad Islands and areas around the Lake, in addition to training and funding more special operations units with the firepower and mobility necessary to engage in relentless pursuit of insurgents.  Finally, this option would invest in training, funding, and arming already existing local volunteer militia and paramilitary organisations such as the Civilian Joint Task Force in Nigeria, while embedding U.S. advisors with both militia, paramilitary, and regular armed forces units down to the platoon level.

Risk:  Option #1 results in the U.S. de facto owning the war against non-state armed groups in the Lake Chad region.  In the U.S. this owning would lead to deeper engagement in yet another foreign war in an era of President Donald Trump’s “America First,” and increase the risks of more American combat deaths in this region with the accompanying political blowback.  Within the region, Option #1 would increase resistance from local political and military elements who do not want to admit they are incapable of dealing with the crisis themselves, or who may simply be war profiteers not interested in this conflict ending.

Gain:  Option #1 results in the degrading of the military, logistic, and organisational capabilities of ISWAP and Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad and the rolling back of ISWAP’s growing structure in the region.  This degrading and rolling back would place destabilising actors under constant crushing military pressure, increase the tactical performance of local military forces, and use existing volunteer militias to stabilize the government-controlled areas when the conventional military forces depart.  All of the preceding will enable military units to concentrate on offensive operations thus eliminating the ability of global-level actors, e.g. the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, to use bases and ungoverned spaces in the region to attack U.S. interests.

Option #2:  The U.S. invests in a non-kinetic build-up, by helping to establish and expand regional states’ information operations capabilities particularly in electronic warfare, psychological operations, and targeted information dissemination via “Radio-In-A-Box” and other mediums.  Option #2 also includes the U.S. providing training and funding for comprehensive reformations of local intelligence services to create lacking signals intelligence, human intelligence, and intelligence analysis capabilities.  Option #2 will enhance the U.S. Security Governance Initiative programme[3] which seeks to enhance local civil administration capabilities in law enforcement, anti-corruption, and criminal justice, and enhance local capabilities to deliver humanitarian support and government services to communities in the conflict zone.

Risk:  Option #2 reduces emphasis on degrading insurgent capabilities so soft-power efforts are properly funded.  This option would leave the insurgents alone and lead to indirect validation of regional government falsehoods that the insurgents have been defeated and the war is over.  This indirect validation will foster nonchalance and complacency from states of the region, to the strategic advantage of the insurgents. Option #2 will ensure de facto reduction of pressure on the insurgents, which gives room for the insurgents and their external allies to exploit the resultant power vacuum.

Gain:  Option #2 strengthens local governance capabilities, increases civil stability in government controlled areas, and is less expensive, less visible, and shorter term in an era of “America First.”  Option #2 would greatly reduce the risk of American combat deaths.

Other Comments:  None

Recommendations:  None.


[1] Carsteen, Paul and Lanre, Ola. (December 1, 2017) “Nigeria Puts Fortress Towns At Heart Of New Boko Haram Strategy”, Reuters, retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security-borno/nigeria-puts-fortress-towns-at-heart-of-new-boko-haram-strategy-idUSKBN1DV4GU

[2] Taub, Ben (December 4, 2017), “Lake Chad: World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster”, New Yorker Magazine, retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/lake-chad-the-worlds-most-complex-humanitarian-disaster

[3] Chalfin, Julie E. and Thomas-Greenfield, Linda. (May 16, 2017), “The Security Governance Intiative” PRISM Vol 6. No.4, Center For Complex Operations, National Defense University (US) retrieved from: http://cco.ndu.edu/News/Article/1171855/the-security-governance-initiative/

Africa Fulan Nasrullah Insurgency & Counteinsurgency Irregular Forces Lake Chad Option Papers United States

Call for Papers: The Pacific



Divergent Options is a non-politically aligned national security website that, in 1,000 words or less, provides unbiased, dispassionate, candid articles that assess a national security situation, present multiple options to address the situation, and articulate the risk and gain of each option.  Please note that while we assess a national security situation and may provide options, we never recommend a specific option.

Call for Papers:

Divergent Options is calling for papers assessing situations or discussing options related to national security interests with a Pacific Ocean nexus.

Please limit your article to 1,000 words and write using our Options Paper or Assessment Paper templates which are designed for ease of use by both writers and readers alike.

Please send your article to submissions@divergentoptions.org by April 13th, 2018.

If you are not interested in writing on this topic, we always welcome individual articles on virtually any national security situation an author is passionate about.  Please do not let our call for papers cause you to hesitate to send us your idea.  We look forward to hearing from you!

One of our Strategic Advisors, Dr. Kori Schake, offered the following prompts to inspire potential writers:

– Assess the potential second-order effects of a U.S. preventative strike on North Korea.

– Develop options to compensate for the U.S. losing blue water invulnerability and air superiority in potential conflicts with China.

Our Twitter and Facebook followers offered the following prompts to inspire potential writers:

– Assess U.S. national interests regarding North Korea and their associated intensities.

– What options does the U.S. have regarding North Korea?

– Assess the threat of sea-based missile capabilities.

– What options do countries have to defend against sea-based missile capabilities?

– Assess the threat to freedom of navigation posed by Chinese man-made islands in the Pacific.

– What additional options does China have in a military conflict in the Pacific now that they have built and militarized islands?

– What options does the U.S. have towards the tri border region of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines?

– What options does the U.S. have regarding joint military training with China?

– Assess if a U.S. military-to-military relationship with Japan prior to World War 2 would have impacted the likelihood of war.

– Assess the impact narratives about World War 2 have on today’s security environment.

– What options does the U.S. have to balance its priorities and risk as it shifts away from the Middle East and towards the Pacific?  A specific focus on shifting strategic air assets, munitions, and wartime reserve and prepositioned stocks stocks away from two still active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and partner activities in Yemen is welcome.

Call For Papers Option Papers

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?  Options for the U.S. Presence in Syria

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  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.  

National Security Situation:  U.S. Force Posture in Syria following the strategic defeat of the Islamic State (IS).

Date Originally Written:  February 23, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  February 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional analyst focusing on the Middle East.

Background:  The U.S. military battle against IS is nearing completion in both Iraq and Syria.  An intensified U.S. air campaign in support of local ground forces has effectively (and literally) destroyed the physical infrastructure of the so-called IS “caliphate” that at its peak occupied a territorial expanse roughly equivalent to that of Great Britain, extended its brutal authority over 11 million people, and gave it access to annual economic resources estimated at $1 billion[1].  In Iraq, a combination of U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi security forces fighting alongside a variety of Shi’ia militia groups (some backed by Iran) allowed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare victory over IS in early December 2017.  In Syria, Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces enabled by U.S. special operations forces and an aggressive coalition bombing campaign liberated the IS caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital at Raqqa last fall and IS is now largely restricted to the Idlib province.

Significance:  The combined coalition military advances in both Iraq and Syria represent the strategic defeat of IS as a terrorist organization capable of holding territory in the Middle East.  These visible defeats strike at the heart of IS’s claim to leadership of the global jihadist movement.  The destruction of the ‘caliphate’ leaves IS a much diminished and impoverished organization.  Nonetheless, these significant battlefield victories do not entirely eliminate the IS threat as it remains capable of inspiring (if not planning) attacks that threaten regional instability and target Western interests.  In Iraq, a continued U.S. military presence codified through traditional security assistance programs in coordination with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad is virtually a foregone conclusion.  However, Syria presents a different strategic calculus for U.S. policymakers as they weigh options at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be consolidating his control with the active support of his allies in Moscow and Tehran.

Option #1:  Establish a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria.  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in mid-January 2018 that the U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria” for an indefinite period of time[2].  In doing so, Tillerson committed the U.S. to achieving an expansive set of strategic objectives that include: ensuring the defeat of IS and al-Qa’ida; diminishing the influence of Iran; facilitating the return of Syrian refugees; advancing a United Nations (UN)-led political resolution to the crisis; and guaranteeing that Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Risk:  The continued presence of the U.S. military in Syria is opposed to one extent or another by virtually every other important actor in Syria including the internationally recognized government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and even North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey.  The proximate defeat of IS and the failure of the U.S. Congress to explicitly authorize U.S. military operations in Syria seriously erodes the international and domestic legal basis for this presence.  More importantly, the actual risk of direct military conflict between the U.S. and any one of these outside actors or their local proxies is real and growing.  In early February 2018, the U.S. conducted defensive strikes killing hundreds of Syrian troops and dozens of Russian contractors.  Meanwhile, the U.S. announcement that it was creating a Kurdish security border force in northern Syria prompted the ongoing Turkish incursion into Afrin that is now threatening a direct military confrontation between a NATO ally and both the Syrian Army and U.S-backed Kurdish militias.  Lastly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has directly threatened the U.S. with a punitive ‘Ottoman slap’ if the U.S. doesn’t end its support for Kurdish elements or abandon its positions further east in Manbij[3].

Gain:  Russian and Iranian military support to Assad have given him the decisive advantage in the civil war restoring his control over the majority of Syria’s population and key economic centers.  Given this existing reality, an indefinite U.S. military presence in eastern Syria may well be the only concrete leverage that the U.S. has to influence the behavior of the other actors in this crisis.  To accomplish the wide-ranging goals of U.S. strategy as articulated by Tillerson, however, this presence will likely need to maintained or even expanded for the foreseeable future.

Option #2:  Withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria.  The U.S. could use the recent battlefield victories against IS as a justification to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and begin a phased and conditions-based withdrawal of forces from Syria.

Risk:  As Tillerson himself argued, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria could create a security vacuum which IS and other Islamist terrorist groups would exploit to regain a foothold in eastern Syria.  Moreover, with the UN Geneva peace process moribund, the absence of a physical U.S. presence on the ground will leave policymakers with precious little direct leverage to influence the ultimate political or military outcomes in Syria.  This approach also feeds the perception of declining U.S. regional influence and could bolster the reputation of Russia and Iran as reliable partners.

Gain:  U.S. policymakers could use a phased withdrawal as diplomatic leverage to press for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria to include Russia, Iran, and their paramilitary proxies (e.g., Hizbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps).  The scale and timing of the U.S. withdrawal could be explicitly tied to the departure of these other foreign forces, as well as to progress in defeating the remnants of IS.  This would accomplish the two most critical U.S. strategic objectives outlined by Tillerson:  the defeat of IS; and reducing the influence of Iran.  Additionally, such a phased withdrawal would relieve the U.S. of the substantial costs of reconstruction in Syria which is estimated to easily exceed $250 billion[4].  Finally, the prospect of an imminent U.S. military withdrawal would increase pressure on Kurdish elements to come to a workable compromise with both Damascus and Ankara and thereby bolster prospects for a durable political outcome in Syria that enhances regional stability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] John Feffer, “The Fall of the House of ISIS,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2017.  Available at: http://fpif.org/fall-house-isis/.

[2] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria,” Hoover Institute at Stanford University, January 17, 2018.

[3] Bethan McKernan, “Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman Slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey,” The Independent, February 15, 2018.

[4] UN estimate quoted by Somini Sengupta, “Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins?  The Politics of Rebuilding Syria,” The New York Times, December 3, 2017.

Dr. Christopher Bolan Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria U.S. Army War College Violent Extremism

Options for Streamlining U.S. Department of Defense Decision Making

Dr. John T. Kuehn has served at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas since 2000.  He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 with the rank of Commander.  He presently teaches as a Professor of Military History in the Department of Military History, as well as teaching for Norwich University (Vermont), Naval War College (Rhode Island), and Wolverhampton University (UK) as an adjunct professor.  He can be found on Twitter @jkuehn50 and writes at https://networks.h-net.org/node/12840/blog.  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.

Editor’s Note:  This article is an entry into our 70th Anniversary Writing Contest: Options for a New U.S. National Security Act.  The author submitted this article under the contest heading of Most Disruptive.

National Security Situation:  Updating the National Security Act of 1947 (NSA 47) so that Department of Defense (DoD) decision-making is as streamlined as possible.

Date Originally Written:  August 30, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  December 4, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a retired Naval Officer and values a return to a national defense structure that includes a broader range of advice and decentralization of power as represented by cabinet secretaries.

Background:  NSA 47 has outlived its utility in the service of the national security of the United States.  In a post-Cold War world of the 21st Century, the system the United States used prior to 1947 is much more suitable to its traditions, Constitution, and the range of threats posed today.  NSA 47 has gone beyond the utility it provided to the United States after World War II.  NSA 47 once had value, especially in a bi-polar Cold War strategic dynamic informed by the terror of atomic and thermonuclear weapons[1].  However, NSA 47’s utility and value have degraded, especially with the end of the Cold War in 1989-1991.  History moved forward while the United States’ macro-security structure remained static.  Subsequent reforms to the 1947 re-organization, such as that by the Goldwater-Nichols Reform Act of 1987 (GNA), have merely “polished the bowling ball,” not recast it into a new shape[2].

Significance:  The Project for National Security Reform (PNSR) began looking at this issue in 2008 and found that NSA 47 no longer fit the strategic environment we are currently facing or will face in the 21st Century[3].  The 2011 PNSR did a good job of describing the problem and challenges in reforming and reorganizing the system[4].  However, the 2011 PNSR provided little else—no bold recommendations about how to make this happen.  What follows are options I modified from a summation of recommendations the PNSR solicited from me in 2011-12:

Option #1:  Disestablish the position of Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD).  The SecDef / OSD structure has too broad a span of control and this limits the scope of strategic advice Presidents receive.  The SecDef functions would move back under the civilian secretaries of the military departments: Army, Navy and Air Force.

Risk:  Medium.  The risk here was much lower when I first made this recommendation in 2010.  It is higher right now because of the North Korean situation and the need for unity of command of the nuclear arsenal if the worst happens and the U.S. needs to conduct a retaliatory strike should North Korea use nuclear weapons first.  However, the ultimate transfer of that unity of command could go to the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) although the President would have to be a direct participant in any nuclear release, just as he is now.  One need not burn the Pentagon down and start afresh, but certainly who answers to whom is a legitimate topic worthy of serious discussion and, more importantly, serious action—by Congress AND the President.

Gain:  DoD decision-making is decentralized to the Military Departments and thus decisions are made quicker.  OSD manpower is redistributed to the Military Departments and the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thus increasing their respective capability to support the military operations conducted by the Combatant Commands.

Option #2:  Move the civilian Secretaries of Navy, Air Force, and Army back into the cabinet, but retain the SecDef, similar to the way things were organized prior to and during World War II.  The SecDef would still be a part of cabinet, but would be co-equal with the other civilian service secretaries.  Retain the current JCS organization and staff, but enhance the Chairman’s role on the National Security Council (NSC).  As an appointed position, the Chairman can always be relieved in the same manner that President Truman relieved General MacArthur.

Risk:  Low to medium low, for similar reasons listed for Option #1, the security situation is fluid as of this writing with threat of nuclear war.  No other current “crisis,” though, need impede the move to reform.  JCS Chairman role on NSC should include a substantial decrease in the size of the NSC staff, which should leverage more the capabilities of existing organizations like the JCS and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

Gain:  A balance is struck between decentralizing and streamlining decision-making to the Secretaries of the Military Departments while maintaining a SecDef in a coordinating role.  Option #2 is likely more palatable to Congress as current structures are maintained manpower wise yet power is shifted around.

Other Comments:  Congress must be a part of the solution[5].  Policy recommendations need Congressional oversight, responsibility, and accountability so that if a President goes against an NSC-recommended policy or strategy Congress will be in the loop.  One fear has been that this might drive the U.S. toward a “cabinet” system of government and curtail Presidential power.  That fear sounds like a benefit to me.

Additionally, there will be a need for a national debate that includes social media—where politicians quit pre-emptively tweeting and sniping at each other and instead “message” about national security reform—staying on task and staying on message as the public participates in the dialog.  We might turn again to the past, as a generation of millennial Publius’s step forward in a new round of Federalist Paper-type thinking and writing to kick these ideas around and to build real consensus—not just that of Washington insiders[6].  There is no deficit of political and intellectual talent out there-despite what the pundits say and write.  All too often, however, we consult the advice of specially constituted commissions (such as that for 9/11) and then ignore their advice or imperfectly implement only the portions that stop the media howl.

The United States has time.  The current system, as ineffective as it is, is not so broken that we must act quickly and without reflection.  However, I prefer to close with an even more powerful means of highlighting the problem—a story.  Every year, at the end of my World War II series of classes to military officers attending the Army Command and General Staff Office Course, I post the following questions: “The security system that existed prior to and during World War II was so ineffective that it had to be replaced in 1947, right?  This was the same system that the United States used to lose the most desperate and far-ranging war in its history, right?”  Wrong—we won World War II–handily–and we can win again by adopting a system that proved successful in a pre-Cold War world that looks a lot like our world of today.  So-called progress does not always lead to better solutions.  The founders looked backwards to go forward, so can we.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] This is not the first time the author has made this argument, see John T. Kuehn, “Abolish the Office of the Secretary of Defense?” Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 47, 4th Quarter 2007, 114-116.

[2] Recent attempt have been made to have a second round of GNA via the Project for National Security Reform effort, see James Locher et al. “Project for National Security Reform: Preliminary Findings” January 2008 (hereafter PNSR 2008), Washington, D.C.; and more recently the follow-on report from the PNSR from November 2011, “AMERICA’S FIRST QUARTER MILLENNIUM: ENVISIONING A TRANSFORMED NATIONAL SECURITY SYSTEM IN 2026,” see www.pnsr.org (accessed 7/31/2017). Full disclosure, the author was an unpaid consultant for the second report.

[3] PNSR, 2008 and 2011.

[4] PNSR, 2011, p.5.

[5] John T. Kuehn, “I Liked Ike . . . Whence Comes Another? Why PME Needs a Congressional Advocate,” in Joint Force Quarterly 83 (4th Quarter, October 2016): 40-43.

[6] Publius was the pen name for the authors of the Federalist Papers who argued the merits and reasoning behind the Constitution: Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and (especially) James Madison. See, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison, The Federalist Papers (New York: Penguin, 1987), paperback.

Contest Governing Documents John T. Kuehn Option Papers United States