A lesson about "shaping" the Russian and Ukrainian battlefield.
What we get right and what we fail at miserably.
Here at the end of a news week filled with ups and downs, I found a report from REUTERS News service, that requires some focus. Yes, like so much other news, it’s about Putin’s immoral/ genocidal invasion of Ukraine regarding a critical vulnerability in US national security.
The referenced article and in-depth report from REUTERS, titled, “Shaping the Battlefield,” with a sub-heading of: How weapons from Western allies are strengthening Ukraine’s defence.”
The article itself requires no interpretation, although I will offer a couple of brief comments about it later in today’s post. REUTERS is one of my top-tier, most credible news sources and is famously, as much as humanly possible, non-biased.
The REUTERS piece also talks about the significant advantage gained by Ukraine due to some of NATO’s (US included) advanced weaponry in defeating Russia’s second-rate technology.
While that it’s true that “shaping” in terms of this article is logical and straightforward, when it comes to the same concept in military or national security terms, weapons alone are but a small piece. The most prominent supporting piece is something that the US and our allies have mostly failed at, for at least 3 decades. We will continue failing until leadership stops depending exclusively on brawn and starts reengaging brains.
US DoD, Doctrinal “shaping”
I am the least enamored of military doctrinal language as probably anyone, especially in regard to our obligation to employ ethical influence in support of our national security objectives, as declared in our national security strategy or NSS. DoD operates with their version called the NDS, National Defense Strategy which for the first time in my professional career puts significant emphasis on what can only be achieved by influence.
DoD has just issued their new doctrine for what they now ridiculously call IA or Information Advantage. I won’t bother to explain this as that it has zero relevance to the real world and is as incestuous and insular in its thinking so as to make it laughable at best, catastrophic at worst. This is in the new JOINT PUBLICATION, JP 3-04.
The issue of “information” within DoD has demonstrated nothing but near-total failure for decades. The language is gibberish, and it does absolutely nothing to move this critical vulnerability of our national defense towards effectiveness. Explain more simply, it embraces decades of failure and makes hobbles any real effort to move DoD out of their entrenchment of only paying attention to ships, planes, tanks, missiles etc. For primarily this reason, we’ve won every kinetic (killing people and breaking things) war but lost the peace, since Vietnam. In my old world while in uniform, we have a saying for this: “you can’t have a world view with your head where the sun doesn’t shine.” Yes, I’ve cleaned this saying up a bit for public consumption. Winning and sustaining peace requires primary focus on the non-kinetic, or in lay terms, ethical influence.
There is nothing nefarious about influence as it must be practiced within the US national security community. DoD and the State Department are largely afraid of the word, and like JP 3-04 make up the gibberish language in order to soften it on the ears of those unwilling to address reality. Human beings employ influence in every aspect of their lives in order to achieve their goals. Most operate ethically and then there are the criminal and/ or adversarial users who undermine all that is good. Putin’s hordes meet the criteria for unethical.
It was Putin’s use of what is now called the “Gerasimov Doctrine” a modern term for what the Soviets attacked the West with during the Cold War, a strategy called “Active Measures.” The Soviets and now Russian propaganda are the threats to American citizens, and we are mostly unarmed and unwilling to do anything about it. Let’s recall that Russian, adversarial influence campaigning played a significant role in the 2016 election.
Now that we know a bit of the background, let’s talk briefly about why, weapons shaping is but a piece of an influence campaign.
Here’s the explanation in the most basic possible language. I don’t use basic language because readers don’t understand higher level reading, but because topic is dense, dimensional and often difficult, even for the community charged with executing, true shaping campaigns that support our NSS objectives. To understand shaping you must first understand, influence.
“Influence, done well is achieved by a complex and intricate choreography of sustained actions, words and related activities wrapped around a core narrative that continually modifies behavior in a manner supportive of natsec objectives.”
For those not steeped in military or national defense language, use a political campaign as an analogy. Campaign managers and strategists’ control who, what, when and where of a candidate’s activities while simultaneously influencing against an opponent. Every single thing that is interpreted by voters is a tool of influence. Marketers use similar campaigns to sell you a car, insurance, health plans etc. This is all influence.
Shaping operations, a sub-component of influence operations, come under the direction of DoD commanders and their subordinate units, within DoD. Outside of DoD there really isn’t anyone in charge and worse, no one that can task any entity, agency, or private sector player to do anything. It’s all a game of, “mother-may-I.” An example would be the State Department, the lead on all foreign communications and diplomacy as directed by POTUS, cannot tell DoD to say or do anything. Nor can they direct Commerce, Dept. of Agriculture, the Justice Dept. or anyone else. There is zero “tasking authority.” If a campaign manager had zero tasking authority, campaigns would be far more chaotic than they often appear.
Within DoD, most of the recognized influence tools (insanely called IRCs/ information related capabilities) also cannot be directly tasked by commanders below GCC command. In other words, only a CENTCOM or SOUTHCOM commander can direct some elements of influence, but not all. Below that, even at the elite unit level can only operate with some influence within their command unless allowed by higher commands. This leads to an endless staffing process that produces little and most often, so late that it fails to address any crisis. In short, the ability of the US national security to build, execute and sustain, an effective influence campaign is the rusting, broken down vehicle of American power.
To make matters worse, the new BS language of DoD is “Integrated Deterrence.” This implies and in reality, dictates being reactive only. As a long-time influence operator/ practitioner, I know beyond a shadow of doubt, that reactivity equals losing at NW/ Narrative Warfare (what influence operations actually are). The only way to win at influence is to be proactive or what some may call, playing offense. Defense is important but is ineffective in the absence of offensive actions. For the most part, the entire national security community refuses to understand what influence actually is and that it is a human endeavor, not a digital one. CYBER has some excellent tools but they are tools to support NW, not replace it. Believing otherwise is a waste of time, money and in the case of Ukraine, lives.
Integrated deterrence, like the new JP 3-04 doctrine talks a lot about integration and synchronization but the architecture of the NS Community at large doesn’t provide a mechanism for actually doing a damn thing. To use a sports analogy: what if a football coach had the right to have a lot of players, managers, coaches etc. but not the authority to make a game strategy and dictate plays and players. All they could do is “ask” everyone to do as he says. If you think that all of their games would be lost due to chaos, you’re right. This is DoD and the NS community at large.
When it comes to “shaping” the war in Ukraine, weapons are important but they only shape some of the Russian’s strategy, not their overall strategy. Overall depends on everything that you allow Russia and all other combatants, including Ukrainians to see. True NW, both builds/ sustains resolve in Ukrainian and allied forces while simultaneously degrading Russian support and morale. There are of course other aspects such as deception and diversion tactics, but that discussion will be intentionally left aside here.
What’s more important to shaping Russian strategy and thinking when it comes to sharing high tech weapons to Ukraine is talking about it or not publicly prior to. This allows the information about deploying these weapons to take a toll on Russian leadership, already demoralized in this war. Shaping can also include high profile press conferences announcing an open-ended commitment to help Ukraine beat back Putin’s genocidal invasion. After deploying the weapons and via BDA/ battle damage assessments of their success, again publicizing how they are thrashing the once heralded Russian army who is now defenseless.
One particular bright spot from my professional perspective was that the US, UK and to some extent NATO publicized intelligence about what Putin is really up to, early in the war and afterwards on occasion. This undermined Putin’s dishonest narratives because for once… we were proactive. We cannot afford to rest on these successes but must prosecute influence as a critical aspect of a battlefield, the world and to alliances. Remember that all that occurs on and off the battlefield has the potential to influence one side or the other. Getting to publicly control the majority of the narratives first, is halfway there to winning. Doing it well and in a sustained fashion, means winning altogether. The better an army or armies influence, they increase their overall chances of success significantly. Putin and China know this. They both attack the US, Ukraine and much of the world, ad nauseum. Again, we are only reactive and largely not even on the battlefield of influence, most of the time.
So, where we started was with an article about shaping the Ukrainian battlefield via supplied weaponry. This evolved into a serious discussion that such shaping is really part of an effective influence campaign. This led us to an understanding that while these weapons play an important role on the battlefield, their success could have been maximized if the US national security community had an effective way to compete on the battlefield of influence. We don’t. Thank goodness that Ukraine operates on this battlefield with agility and expertise.
Despite receiving some good support from US and NATO member militaries re: the technology of influence, it is Ukraine that is teaching us what we should have been doing for decades but didn’t. Some of us who’ve ignored US doctrine and operated in influence already know what Ukraine is teaching militaries everywhere, friend and foe. Their success will be adopted by Russia, the Chinese, extremist movements and all other adversaries. At the rate that technology is evolving, the US will be hopelessly behind in this key human endeavor. We already got a glimpse in 2016 at the destructive nature of adversaries wielding influence against us.
We are at a critical juncture in our national security. If we don’t remove our heads from the sand, we will remain vulnerable, critically so. We cannot win on the battlefield of influence if we continue to employ the same expertise and concepts that have consistently proved failures. More importantly, we can’t win if we don’t compete. At the moment, we have neither the skill nor the willingness to learn them. With every new conflict, we are playing Russian roulette. The problem is the US national security community is putting more than one bullet in the gun and those bullets are made up of the same old tired BS that has been failing us for decades. How long until we shoot ourselves? It’s only a matter of time.
All best for your weekend,