.
F

or the last 20 years, the United States military has predominantly focused on the Global War on Terrorism. At the same time, China has steadily increased its military capabilities and expanded its sphere of influence both regionally and globally. As the War on Terror draws to a close, or at least reduces in prominence, the Pentagon is rightly continuing its pivot toward the next, and some would argue, already present, threat—Beijing. Yet, much of the discussion in Washington and further afield on China’s rise have fixated on either-or propositions—China is a threat or it is not. China will act out militarily, or it will not. Accommodation with China is possible, or it is not. 

The Strategy of Denial | Elbridge Colby | Yale University Press | September 2021.

This binary discussion is, however, insufficient to base a defense strategy upon. Indeed, military planners must prepare for threats, which are often defined as capabilities plus intent. To do so effectively, they need a framework within which they can craft doctrine, acquire systems and capabilities, and train forces (both theirs and foreign partners). Here, Elbridge Colby, the principal and co-founder of the Marathon Initiative and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, offers an exceptionally well-thought out and well-presented case for a new approach to the China challenge in his forthcoming book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Era of Great Power Conflict”, a copy of which the author kindly provided for review. 

At the outset, it is worth stating that this is a book exclusively about defense strategy with a sub-focus on military strategy. This is neither a grand strategy that aims to marshal all of the nation’s power toward a defined end, nor does it present the likely necessary trade-offs in an era of limited national resources and capital. This not about morals in foreign policy or human rights, or anything other than the raw calculus of the military arts. That focus is above all a strength; it does not get bogged down in debates that, while important, often detract from other wider-ranging books. Its focus allows Colby to deeply explore critical topics that are often unaddressed and overlooked in the national dialogue—what are our interests in Asia and Europe? What does limited war look like? How should we prepare for potential conflict with China? It is not a book about navel gazing as to whether something would happen, but rather about the necessity to prepare for the possibility that something could happen. 

Colby’s aim then is not to define the kit and tactics necessary to defeat China’s hegemonic ambitions, but to create a framework for thinking about confronting Beijing, denying its hegemonic ambitions, and building a coalition of anti-hegemonic states in Asia and to a lesser degree further afield. In this, Colby is supremely successful. He presents a well-argued, well-thought out case for why the United States should care about Beijing’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, why the United States needs to be the external cornerstone of the anti-hegemonic alliance, and how a limited war with China could play out in the event China’s ambitions go kinetic e.g. seizing Taiwan or the Philippines. “The Strategy of Denial” is a return to real raw power calculus and that too is refreshing, and one suspects that this will be as welcome in Taipei, Tokyo, or Canberra. 

In Colby’s view, China seeks to become the hegemonic power in Asia, a development that would be destabilizing to both the region and the world. To counter this, an anti-hegemonic alliance is necessary, but the countries in the region have insufficient power to withstand China’s weight alone. This then demands an external cornerstone force that is invested in the region and its stability, but not interested in dominating—this is the United States. Washington must play the lead role, maintain its credibility, and assemble and lead the coalition. 

The alliance—however informal—must weigh the addition of individual members to ensure that they are defensible and add value to the alliance, thus maintaining a sufficiently strong defense perimeter: extending it too far or to indefensible positions risks America’s credibility. The anti-hegemonic alliance must then prepare to counter China’s best strategy. In Colby’s view, this is a limited war in which Beijing seeks to secure a fait accompli conquest of Taiwan or perhaps Luzon in the Philippines. In preparing to defend against this—the strategy of denial—the alliance will be well placed to counter other contingencies that could arise. It is worth noting that this strategy is fundamentally defensive in nature—it seeks neither to permanently seize Chinese territory nor unseat the Chinese Communist Party in Colby’s telling. 

There is an underlying simplicity to Colby’s arguments aided by how well they are presented. One imagines that this book, properly distilled, could be turned into a straight-forward (if much maligned) PowerPoint presentation or in the hands of the Marine Corps’ Krulak Center, a comic book that lays out the argument. Yet, as Clausewitz wrote, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.” That distillation may in fact be welcome for those outside of the Beltway and the think tank communities of London, Brussels, and Berlin. “The Strategy of Denial” is at times weightier than perhaps necessary, but those willing to take the time to engage with Colby’s arguments will be well informed and thoroughly persuaded, even if its density may dissuade the casual reader. 

His thoroughness is, nonetheless, to be commended. At many points in reading “The Strategy of Denial” I metaphorically, if not actually, raised my hand and thought “aha, but what about X” only to find that Colby addressed X in the next section. Colby’s approach to defense strategy is almost lawyerly in nature. He is methodical, patient, and does not make undue assumptions about the reader. It is a well-paced, meticulously argued approach to defense strategy. You will not find “gee whiz” technological admiration in “The Strategy of Denial”, but you will find an almost Moltke the Elder-like exploration of the military arts. 

Yet, while it is exceedingly thorough, I would argue that there are two key components missing from Colby’s work: China itself and human agency. In the case of the former, Colby presents a logical argument, but it is logical to our eyes and thinking. One wonders how it would be seen from Beijing or even Taipei. True, Colby does present the “best strategy” for Beijing in seeking to secure a fait accompli in its conquest of Taiwan, should it choose to do so, but it risks mirror-imaging—we think this is the best strategy, but is it the best strategy from Beijing’s view point? That is unclear and perhaps unknowable. Here, Colby’s book is best paired with Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game” which explores China’s grand strategy and dives into the execution of this strategy in the military, political, and economic spheres. 

The second, human agency, is perhaps less surprising as how does one capture this in a strategic framework? Colby’s arguments are largely presented in a sterile fashion—Y follows X and leads to Z based on a sensible strategic logic. Yet, war is by definition a very human, and often illogical, enterprise from the leadership in both Washington and Beijing and the grunt on-the-ground from the Marines and Army, and the People’s Liberation Army and Navy. 

We can assume that Beijing will avoid horizontal or vertical escalation because of the reasons Colby outlines, but it is by no means guaranteed that with honor, prestige, or national interest on the line that General Secretary Xi Jinping will act in a logical way, or for that matter will President Joseph Biden. Does the administration have the fortitude (or the right team in place) necessary to assemble and guide a coalition in the event that China does indeed invade Taiwan? Will General Secretary Xi see counter-invasion denial operations on mainland China as an existential threat? Will President Biden be able to convince the American people of the importance of intervening in Asia in a post-Afghanistan world? These answers require deep insights into ever-changing human psychology during a crisis. Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman capture this critically important human dimension brilliantly in their fictional account of a war between the United States and Beijing in “2034”. 

Here, then, taken together the risk of miscalculation in any war with China, limited or otherwise, is significant. In a briefing on China’s space doctrine, a noted expert recalled how in a Track II discussion, the Chinese representative remarked how the PLA may consider a blinding attack against an early warning satellite as a warning signal to the United States. The American representative said that would not be seen as a warning, but an act of war as that satellite network is for nuclear command, control, and early warning. Clearly a miscommunication that could lead to significant escalation and defining the parameters of any engagement is of the utmost importance, something Colby does explore. 

In an era where snark and pith reigns supreme, too often defense issues are watered down to “bomb them to the stone age” or “when I was in the [insert service]…” or some other simplistic nonsense. Colby and “The Strategy of Denial” are the antithesis of this trend and that is most welcome. Defense policy and military strategy are the highest and most consequential of the policy arts—it is literally life and death. To reduce them down to 240 characters, or to present it in meme format (amusing though those can be) is a disservice to the gravity of the subject at hand and those who serve in uniform. 

In the end, Colby’s book is exceedingly refreshing and has an almost literary high-brow approach to defense policy and strategy. It is exceedingly well argued, well thought out, and structured in such a way that its arguments are both self-evident and well explained at the same time. Unexpectedly for a weighty defense tome, it is thoroughly enjoyable to read with interesting historical anecdotes and asides. Colby is a serious, considered, and thoughtful writer, and that is something that is needed now more than ever. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict

Photo by Adobe Stock.

September 14, 2021

Binary either-or strategy considerations about whether China is a threat or not don't go far enough and reflect a lack of doctrinal framework. Elbridge Colby's new book, "The Strategy of Denial," offers a compelling case for a new approach, writes Joshua Huminski.

F

or the last 20 years, the United States military has predominantly focused on the Global War on Terrorism. At the same time, China has steadily increased its military capabilities and expanded its sphere of influence both regionally and globally. As the War on Terror draws to a close, or at least reduces in prominence, the Pentagon is rightly continuing its pivot toward the next, and some would argue, already present, threat—Beijing. Yet, much of the discussion in Washington and further afield on China’s rise have fixated on either-or propositions—China is a threat or it is not. China will act out militarily, or it will not. Accommodation with China is possible, or it is not. 

The Strategy of Denial | Elbridge Colby | Yale University Press | September 2021.

This binary discussion is, however, insufficient to base a defense strategy upon. Indeed, military planners must prepare for threats, which are often defined as capabilities plus intent. To do so effectively, they need a framework within which they can craft doctrine, acquire systems and capabilities, and train forces (both theirs and foreign partners). Here, Elbridge Colby, the principal and co-founder of the Marathon Initiative and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, offers an exceptionally well-thought out and well-presented case for a new approach to the China challenge in his forthcoming book “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Era of Great Power Conflict”, a copy of which the author kindly provided for review. 

At the outset, it is worth stating that this is a book exclusively about defense strategy with a sub-focus on military strategy. This is neither a grand strategy that aims to marshal all of the nation’s power toward a defined end, nor does it present the likely necessary trade-offs in an era of limited national resources and capital. This not about morals in foreign policy or human rights, or anything other than the raw calculus of the military arts. That focus is above all a strength; it does not get bogged down in debates that, while important, often detract from other wider-ranging books. Its focus allows Colby to deeply explore critical topics that are often unaddressed and overlooked in the national dialogue—what are our interests in Asia and Europe? What does limited war look like? How should we prepare for potential conflict with China? It is not a book about navel gazing as to whether something would happen, but rather about the necessity to prepare for the possibility that something could happen. 

Colby’s aim then is not to define the kit and tactics necessary to defeat China’s hegemonic ambitions, but to create a framework for thinking about confronting Beijing, denying its hegemonic ambitions, and building a coalition of anti-hegemonic states in Asia and to a lesser degree further afield. In this, Colby is supremely successful. He presents a well-argued, well-thought out case for why the United States should care about Beijing’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region, why the United States needs to be the external cornerstone of the anti-hegemonic alliance, and how a limited war with China could play out in the event China’s ambitions go kinetic e.g. seizing Taiwan or the Philippines. “The Strategy of Denial” is a return to real raw power calculus and that too is refreshing, and one suspects that this will be as welcome in Taipei, Tokyo, or Canberra. 

In Colby’s view, China seeks to become the hegemonic power in Asia, a development that would be destabilizing to both the region and the world. To counter this, an anti-hegemonic alliance is necessary, but the countries in the region have insufficient power to withstand China’s weight alone. This then demands an external cornerstone force that is invested in the region and its stability, but not interested in dominating—this is the United States. Washington must play the lead role, maintain its credibility, and assemble and lead the coalition. 

The alliance—however informal—must weigh the addition of individual members to ensure that they are defensible and add value to the alliance, thus maintaining a sufficiently strong defense perimeter: extending it too far or to indefensible positions risks America’s credibility. The anti-hegemonic alliance must then prepare to counter China’s best strategy. In Colby’s view, this is a limited war in which Beijing seeks to secure a fait accompli conquest of Taiwan or perhaps Luzon in the Philippines. In preparing to defend against this—the strategy of denial—the alliance will be well placed to counter other contingencies that could arise. It is worth noting that this strategy is fundamentally defensive in nature—it seeks neither to permanently seize Chinese territory nor unseat the Chinese Communist Party in Colby’s telling. 

There is an underlying simplicity to Colby’s arguments aided by how well they are presented. One imagines that this book, properly distilled, could be turned into a straight-forward (if much maligned) PowerPoint presentation or in the hands of the Marine Corps’ Krulak Center, a comic book that lays out the argument. Yet, as Clausewitz wrote, “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.” That distillation may in fact be welcome for those outside of the Beltway and the think tank communities of London, Brussels, and Berlin. “The Strategy of Denial” is at times weightier than perhaps necessary, but those willing to take the time to engage with Colby’s arguments will be well informed and thoroughly persuaded, even if its density may dissuade the casual reader. 

His thoroughness is, nonetheless, to be commended. At many points in reading “The Strategy of Denial” I metaphorically, if not actually, raised my hand and thought “aha, but what about X” only to find that Colby addressed X in the next section. Colby’s approach to defense strategy is almost lawyerly in nature. He is methodical, patient, and does not make undue assumptions about the reader. It is a well-paced, meticulously argued approach to defense strategy. You will not find “gee whiz” technological admiration in “The Strategy of Denial”, but you will find an almost Moltke the Elder-like exploration of the military arts. 

Yet, while it is exceedingly thorough, I would argue that there are two key components missing from Colby’s work: China itself and human agency. In the case of the former, Colby presents a logical argument, but it is logical to our eyes and thinking. One wonders how it would be seen from Beijing or even Taipei. True, Colby does present the “best strategy” for Beijing in seeking to secure a fait accompli in its conquest of Taiwan, should it choose to do so, but it risks mirror-imaging—we think this is the best strategy, but is it the best strategy from Beijing’s view point? That is unclear and perhaps unknowable. Here, Colby’s book is best paired with Rush Doshi’s “The Long Game” which explores China’s grand strategy and dives into the execution of this strategy in the military, political, and economic spheres. 

The second, human agency, is perhaps less surprising as how does one capture this in a strategic framework? Colby’s arguments are largely presented in a sterile fashion—Y follows X and leads to Z based on a sensible strategic logic. Yet, war is by definition a very human, and often illogical, enterprise from the leadership in both Washington and Beijing and the grunt on-the-ground from the Marines and Army, and the People’s Liberation Army and Navy. 

We can assume that Beijing will avoid horizontal or vertical escalation because of the reasons Colby outlines, but it is by no means guaranteed that with honor, prestige, or national interest on the line that General Secretary Xi Jinping will act in a logical way, or for that matter will President Joseph Biden. Does the administration have the fortitude (or the right team in place) necessary to assemble and guide a coalition in the event that China does indeed invade Taiwan? Will General Secretary Xi see counter-invasion denial operations on mainland China as an existential threat? Will President Biden be able to convince the American people of the importance of intervening in Asia in a post-Afghanistan world? These answers require deep insights into ever-changing human psychology during a crisis. Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman capture this critically important human dimension brilliantly in their fictional account of a war between the United States and Beijing in “2034”. 

Here, then, taken together the risk of miscalculation in any war with China, limited or otherwise, is significant. In a briefing on China’s space doctrine, a noted expert recalled how in a Track II discussion, the Chinese representative remarked how the PLA may consider a blinding attack against an early warning satellite as a warning signal to the United States. The American representative said that would not be seen as a warning, but an act of war as that satellite network is for nuclear command, control, and early warning. Clearly a miscommunication that could lead to significant escalation and defining the parameters of any engagement is of the utmost importance, something Colby does explore. 

In an era where snark and pith reigns supreme, too often defense issues are watered down to “bomb them to the stone age” or “when I was in the [insert service]…” or some other simplistic nonsense. Colby and “The Strategy of Denial” are the antithesis of this trend and that is most welcome. Defense policy and military strategy are the highest and most consequential of the policy arts—it is literally life and death. To reduce them down to 240 characters, or to present it in meme format (amusing though those can be) is a disservice to the gravity of the subject at hand and those who serve in uniform. 

In the end, Colby’s book is exceedingly refreshing and has an almost literary high-brow approach to defense policy and strategy. It is exceedingly well argued, well thought out, and structured in such a way that its arguments are both self-evident and well explained at the same time. Unexpectedly for a weighty defense tome, it is thoroughly enjoyable to read with interesting historical anecdotes and asides. Colby is a serious, considered, and thoughtful writer, and that is something that is needed now more than ever. 

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.