Publications RSS

Five Conundrums: The United States and the Conflict in Syria
By Michael A. Ratney | July 31, 2019


Download PDF

Executive Summary

Five Conundrums: The United States and the
Conflict in Syria
Five Conundrums: The United States and the Conflict in Syria
Five Conundrums: The United States and the Conflict in Syria
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 190731-D-BD104-001

For the past 8 years, two U.S. administrations, the United Nations (UN), and numerous foreign governments have sought to end the catastrophic war in Syria and reach a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. Their efforts have repeatedly been complicated, even thwarted, by the highly contested and violent politics underlying the conflict, the sheer number of conflict actors inside and outside of Syria, and those actors’ diverse and often irreconcilable objectives.

Many of the complications for U.S. policy have stemmed from the need for policymakers to focus on three separate but intertwined dimensions of the Syrian conflict, even while policy options to deal with one dimension of the conflict had significant but often unpredictable effects on the others. The first dimension has been the campaign to deal an enduring territorial defeat upon the so-called Islamic State (IS), an element of U.S. policy that enjoyed near unanimous international consensus and adequate means to accomplish the task. The second is the central conflict between the Bashar al-Asad regime and its opponents, an existential power struggle that drew in multiple foreign powers and yielded nearly unimaginable destruction of Syrian property, infrastructure, and lives. And the third is the strategic challenge of Iran and its drive to eliminate U.S. influence in the Middle East.

As the United States and other parties sought to navigate these three dimensions of the conflict, a set of paradoxical challenges—conundrums—emerged and, in some cases, made the situation in Syria even more intractable and a solution on terms favorable to U.S. national security even more elusive.

This paper discusses five such conundrums. The first is that military, political, and economic pressure on the Asad regime, a principal feature of U.S. and Western policy, in many ways exacerbated problems for Syrian civilians, the Syrian opposition, and Syria’s neighbors without yielding political concessions or reforms to the nature of Syrian governance. The second involves the Syrian opposition—though highly fragmented save for most extremist elements and thus an ineffective force for driving political change in Syria, the United States nonetheless continued to accord it considerable international support and legitimacy. The third conundrum deals with the challenges of balancing the U.S. relationship with Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, while simultaneously working with a Kurdish-led militia viewed by Turkey as a national security threat. The fourth centers on Russia’s involvement in Syria and, specifically, the contradictory need for the United States and Russia to work together in Syria even while the two countries hold opposing views on a continued role for Bashar al-Asad in Syria’s governance. And the fifth conundrum is that foreign interventions in the Syrian conflict, including those designed to counter the Asad regime’s brutality and hasten a resolution of the conflict, may actually have made the war longer and bloodier, particularly for civilians. This is consistent with the historical experience with foreign intervention in civil wars elsewhere.

This discussion of these five conundrums is neither an appeal for greater U.S. involvement nor a recommendation to stand aside in the face of threats to our allies, partners, and national interests. The conundrums do, however, carry a number of implications as policymakers contemplate the U.S. approach in Syria and beyond, including:

  • Pressure on Asad to change his regime’s behavior carries unwelcome ramifications for the United States and its allies—particularly greater regime dependence on Iran—and negative consequences borne disproportionately by Syrian civilians and Syria’s neighbors.
  • The anti-Asad cause may be incapable of coalescing around an effective, cohesive, and truly moderate entity that could carry the weight that the United States and others in the international community had put on its shoulders.
  • Partnering with nonstate actors, particularly those with political objectives that go beyond those of the United States, carries hazards and raises sometime unfulfillable expectations. The United States has rarely made a long-term commitment to nonstate partners, suggesting that the limits of what is essentially a transactional relationship should be made clear at the outset.
  • U.S. involvement in Syria is difficult without some measure of cooperation or coordination with Russia. But potential common ground is extremely limited, particularly while the Russians perceive that the United States effectively seeks a Syria without Asad. The prospect of reconstruction assistance for a post-Asad Syria or sanctions on the regime are unlikely to induce Russian cooperation on U.S. aims.

At the end of the day, foreign involvement in such a complex and volatile situation as Syria yields, almost inevitably, unpredictable consequences. But many of the negative consequences of the Syrian conflict were actually predictable, particularly Asad’s brutal reaction to the uprising, his refusal to yield to pressure, Iran and Russia’s support for the regime, and the potential for foreign intervention to exacerbate the situation for Syrian civilians. Taken together, the consequences—both predictable and unpredictable—may ultimately prove to outweigh the benefits of getting involved in the first place.

Read More

Joint Force Quarterly 94 (3rd Quarter, July 2019)
By NDU Press | July 29, 2019

Joint Force Quarterly 94
Joint Force Quarterly 94
Joint Force Quarterly 94
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 190729-D-BD104-001

What have you learned from the past? What future do you see? Why not write about it and share it with us? 

Our Forum section in this issue opens with an interview of General Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, USAF, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. With arguably some of the most important responsibilities in the joint force, he discusses how his commands work to protect the homeland, defend the airspace above the United States and Canada, and how the joint force is working to achieve the Chairman’s Globally Integrated Operations challenge. Next, with the rise of social media’s use as a weapon, Glenda Jakubowski describes how these modern means of communication can be adapted to information operations as a force multiplier. Continuing one of our most important discussion threads issue to issue, James Kwoun discusses an interesting way to reimagine all-source intelligence analysis.

In JPME Today, we present two important articles that primarily speak to the professionals engaged in teaching in our staff and war colleges. As an early look at a chapter from an edited volume on professional ethics (NDU Press, forthcoming), Thomas Statler tells us how professional military education can renew its focus on the profession of arms and virtue ethics. Recommending the use of historical case studies in our teaching, Gregory Miller then offers us the keys to teaching our future senior leaders about an important but underappreciated civil-military relations moment in the immediate post–Vietnam War period, the Mayaguez Incident.

This issue’s Commentary offers two articles that also continue discussions we have had—and I expect will continue to have in future issues. After spending a considerable time in his day job and as a student at the Eisenhower School last year, Scott Hubinger provides the case for how the F-35 program will not meet the same end as the F-22. In one way it already has, with more than double the number of aircraft produced to date, but the debate continues as to its value. On the other end of the combat spectrum, Steve Hendrickson and Riley Post have developed a simple answer on how best to apply operations analysis to special operations.

Our Features section has a wide range of ideas that emphasize our shift in national security focus to the Indo-Pacific region. Dion Moten, Bryan Teff, Michael Pyle, Gerald Delk, and Randel Clark help us understand the problems surrounding combat casualty care if we were to go to war at sea in the Pacific and how to jointly solve them. Taking joint integration in a different direction, George Dougherty has an interesting view of how land forces can achieve overmatch through control of the “atmospheric littoral.” As nuclear issues and the renewal of our triad of nuclear systems come to the front of the national security debates, Ryan Kort, Carlos Bersabe, Dalton Clarke, and Derek Di Bello help us work through the results of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. With a refocusing on great power competition, Mark Miles and Charles Miller discuss the risks and opportunities the United States faces around the world.

In Recall, we present a fascinating look back at the American Civil War brought to us by two young officers and historians, John DiEugenio and Aubry Eaton, who offer a 155-year-old leadership lesson from the Petersburg Campaign of 1864. We also present two excellent articles in Joint Doctrine focusing on joint functions. Focusing on a growing area of interest to joint planners and operators, Kyle Ernest Goodridge, Kane Janek Kukowski, and Matthew Eric McCay recommend some answers on how best to integrate nonlethal and lethal effects across the joint functions. In an important review and critique, Thomas Crosbie sees the joint functions as needing adjustments to properly work to the joint force’s advantage. We also offer three valuable book reviews and the Joint Doctrine update to round out this issue.

Click here to read the latest issue →

NDU Press produces Joint Force Quarterly in concert with ongoing education and research at National Defense University in support of the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. JFQ is the Chairman's joint military and security studies journal designed to inform and educate national security professionals on joint and integrated operations; whole of government contributions to national security policy and strategy; homeland security; and developments in training and joint military education to better equip America's military and security apparatus to meet tomorrow's challenges while protecting freedom today.



Can the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Avoid the Fate of the F-22 Raptor?
By Scott Hubinger | July 25, 2019

Download PDF

Dr. Scott Hubinger is a senior chemist and team leader for chemical controls in the Bureau of Industry and Security at the Department of Commerce.

The United States has developed and procured two fifth-generation fighters incorporating stealth or low radar–observable attributes, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. These two aircraft demonstrate the inherent tradeoffs between single purpose nonjoint aircraft (F-22) and multipurpose joint aircraft intended for multiple U.S. and allied military services (F-35). A review of the F-22 program generates questions and suggests pitfalls that might be common to both programs. For example, why was the F-22 program canceled after only a quarter of the intended number of aircraft had been procured, and does the F-22’s fate provide any lessons for the F-35 or identify any risks for program success? Additionally, has the United States made the right choices in our defense industrial base for advanced combat aircraft? Finally, new weapons systems such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are highly disruptive in that they represent a new way of waging war and were developed and manufactured by a new market entrant. Such disruptive technologies, along with continued technical advances and market changes in semiconductors and robotics, make decades-long design, development, and procurement cycles untenable. The purpose of this article is to highlight and contrast the F-22 and F-35 programs and make recommendations for adapting to rapid technological and market changes. To that end, the article is divided into four sections: the F-22 Raptor; the F-35 Lightning II and joint multinational (F-35) versus single-Service (F-22) acquisition models; semiconductors; and conclusions and recommendations to respond to the issues and concerns raised in sections one, two, and three.

F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during live-fire test over range in Gulf of Mexico, June 12, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Michael Jackson)
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during live-fire test over range in Gulf of Mexico, June 12, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Michael Jackson)
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during live-fire test over range in Gulf of Mexico, June 12, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Michael Jackson)
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during live-fire test over range in Gulf of Mexico, June 12, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Michael Jackson)
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during live-fire test over range in Gulf of Mexico, June 12, 2018 (U.S. Air Force/Michael Jackson)
Photo By: Master Sgt. Michael Jackson
VIRIN: 180612-F-MT955-918

F-22 Raptor Program

The determination of a requirement for an Advanced Tactical Fighter to replace the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle was made by Air Force officials in 1981, and seven aircraft manufacturers were awarded initial concept definition contracts. The seven competitors were reduced to a Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Boeing team and a Northrop and McDonnell Douglas team. The two competing designs emphasized maneuverability (Lockheed’s YF-22) and stealth and speed (Northrop’s YF-23), respectively, and in 1991, after a competitive fly-off, the Lockheed-led team won the design competition. Creation of formal teams in the design competition allowed the suppliers to share the risk of developing prototype aircraft and specialize in particular aspects of advanced fighter aircraft while also reducing competition. The final design incorporated elements from both design prototypes, with an emphasis on leading-edge stealth, integrated avionics, supercruise (that is, the ability to exceed the speed of sound without using afterburner), and vectored engine thrust (providing improved maneuverability) technologies.1

The manufacture of advanced fighter aircraft requires engineering and production expertise and processes not found in civilian aviation with material, avionics, engines, and systems integration technologies that are at the limit of, or beyond, current state of the art. Furthermore, development and acquisition of advanced fighter aircraft are sensitive to changes in technology. In the 1960s, McDonnell Douglas established leadership with its expertise in avionics and guided missiles (for example, the F-4 Phantom II and F-15 Eagle). Similarly, development of innovative stealth technology, first used in the F-117 Nighthawk by Lockheed Martin in the 1980s, shifted leadership to that firm and contributed to its role as prime contractor in both the F-22 and F-35 acquisition programs.2

The Air Force planned to procure 790 F-22s. Early post–Cold War cuts reduced this to 648, and by 1997 the Department of Defense (DOD) budget had declined by 38 percent compared to its 1985 budget and procurement had been reduced by two-thirds. This budget tightening put pressure on the F-22 program, but even as late as 2008, the Air Force Chief of Staff publicly stated that at least 381 F-22s were needed to meet operational requirements. Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced in 2009 that F-22 production would end at 187.3 How and why did this happen?

The DOD 1993 Bottom-Up Review (BUR) reduced the Air Force’s total fighter strength to 20 fighter wing equivalents and the F-22’s production total to just 442 aircraft. The major criticism of the F-22 was that the post–Cold War threat environment did not justify its cost, and the BUR specified DOD’s major responsibilities as deterring major regional conflicts, maintaining an overseas presence, conducting small-scale interventions, and preventing attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. None of these major responsibilities included a need to battle superior numbers of advanced Soviet fighters and attack aircraft.4

Continuing perturbations caused by technical challenges and funding instability forced the Air Force to restructure the F-22 program in 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1997, and rising costs resulted in the creation of a joint estimating team (JET) in 1996 to estimate the program’s future costs and determine ways to control the growth of such costs. The 1998 National Defense Authorization Act used the JET estimate and imposed a $43.4 billion limit on production costs, lowered by Congress in 2009 to $37.6 billion to account for lower than expected inflation. Thus, a requirements-driven procurement process became a budget-driven process and, under this “buy-to-budget” strategy, decreased production numbers would have to fund any additional production costs (that is, in order to stay under the cap).5 Such a buy-to-budget strategy is colloquially referred to as a “death spiral” in procurement parlance as decreasing unit production numbers lead to increasing per unit production costs, which in turn lead to further cuts in unit production numbers and so on and so forth.

Compounding the budget problems, the F-22 faced political pressures. In 2001, Donald Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense with a mandate to reform DOD. During Congressional testimony he used the word “transformation” in describing his efforts to prepare the department for the new and different threats of the post–Cold War world and emphasized the need to recapitalize important weapons systems such as the Tomahawk cruise missile, the F-15, the F-18, and the F-16, developed in the 1970s. The Secretary’s testimony did not include the Air Force’s highest acquisition priority (the F-22). More cost overruns, along with an embarrassing tanker acquisition scandal involving a senior Air Force civilian leader and the Boeing Corporation (Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing team partner on the F-22 program), led to Presidential Budget Directive 753, which removed production funding after fiscal year 2008, ending production at 183 units (the Air Force spent the next 5 years trying to overturn this decision but only got 4 additional F-22s).6

F-35 Lightning II Program

The F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), is the result of the merger of programs started in the 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, a plethora of programs tried to develop new tactical aircraft for the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Royal Navy. Starting in 1983, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began looking for available technologies for a follow-on supersonic replacement for the Marine AV-8 Harrier advanced short takeoff/vertical landing (ASTOVL) aircraft. This program would eventually become a joint U.S.-UK collaboration. Next, in the late 1980s, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works became involved in a classified “black” program with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), looking into the technical feasibility of a stealthy supersonic fighter (SSF) with short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) capability utilizing the Skunk Work’s expertise in stealth and NASA facilities and capabilities, including wind tunnels, skilled personnel, and supercomputers. This highly classified program showed that supersonic stealth was possible. The DARPA ASTOVL and NASA/Skunk Works SSF design concepts were originally intended as replacements for the U.S. Marine AV-8B fighter and the UK Harrier II jump-jet. However, when multiple variants capable of meeting other service needs (that is, joint) were suggested in 1993, the two programs were consolidated as the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) program and managed by DARPA due to the experimental nature of the concepts. The goal of the CALF program was to develop the technologies and concepts needed to manufacture ASTOVL aircraft for the U.S. Marines and the Royal Navy and at the same time use those technologies and concepts to develop and manufacture a highly common conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant for the U.S. Air Force.7

The U.S. Navy began its Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) program in 1983 to develop a long-range, very-low-observable, high-payload attack aircraft to replace its carrier-based Grumman A-6 Intruder. Dubbed the A-12 Avenger II, this flying wing design was intended as a long-range subsonic aircraft with a large internal weapons load including air-to-surface and air-to-air weapons, but after major cost and schedule overruns and technical problems, the program was canceled in early 1991. During this same time period, the Navy also agreed, after Congressional intervention, to evaluate a version of the Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (now the F-22) under the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF) program as a possible replacement for the Navy F-14 Tomcat in return for the Air Force’s evaluation of a derivative of the Navy’s ATA as a replacement for the Air Force F-111 Aardvark. However, in early 1991, the Navy realized that a series of upgrades to its F-14s could meet air superiority needs through 2015, and consideration of the NATF was dropped. Similarly, in the early 1990s, the Air Force initiated a Multi-Role Fighter program to develop a low-cost replacement for the F-16 Fighting Falcon, with a per unit flyaway cost (that is, including only the cost of production and production tools essential for building a single unit) from $35 million to $50 million. However, the end of the Cold War made the service life situation for the F-16 much less critical, and the program was put on hold in August 1992 and then canceled after the 1993 BUR.8

After cancellation of both the ATA and the NATF programs, the Navy Secretary ordered commencement of a new A-6 replacement program. This program, dubbed the A-X program, was designed to develop an advanced, “high-end,” carrier-based multimission aircraft with day/night, all-weather capability, low observables, long range, two engines, two crew, and advanced integrated avionics and countermeasures. With the Air Force’s participation (it was still seeking a replacement for the F-111), the program became known as the A/F-X program, but it too was canceled by the 1993 BUR, and the A/F-X efforts were directed toward transitioning applicable experience and results to the upcoming Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program.9 The goal of the JAST program, which became the JSF program with the merger of the CALF and JAST programs, was to create a common technology platform that would, in theory, gain economies of scale and require simpler logistics due to interchangeable spare parts that could be used to replace three distinctly different aircraft: the F-16 as a multirole light fighter; the F-18 carrier-based, multirole fighter; and the Harrier as a STOVL, with a high degree of commonality among the three different versions. This merging of aircraft types was made possible (rationalized) by the consolidation of the U.S. defense industry after the end of the Cold War; this created larger, more capable companies, but also further limited competition in a market not particularly susceptible to competitive market forces.10

Setting Requirements. The F-35 Lightning II is intended (designed) to be a relatively affordable fifth-generation (stealth) strike fighter that can be manufactured in three different versions for the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy, respectively, with a high degree of commonality (70–90 percent) in their airframes, weapons systems, avionics, powerplants, and software to avoid, in theory, the greater expense of developing, procuring, and operating and sustaining three completely different aircraft designed to meet each Service’s similar but different operational requirements. Thus, in November 1996, DOD selected Lockheed Martin and Boeing to compete in the JAST Concept Demonstration phase and issued contracts so each company could independently build and test-fly two aircraft to validate their competing concepts for all three planned variants. Separately, the department also contracted with Pratt and Whitney to provide propulsion hardware and engineering support. In October 2001, DOD selected Lockheed’s design as the competition winner, and the Joint Strike Fighter program entered the System Development and Demonstration phase, with contracts to Lockheed Martin for the aircraft and Pratt and Whitney for the powerplant.11

The F-35A, developed for the U.S. Air Force, is a CTOL aircraft. As the least technically challenging of the three variants, it is also the least expensive. The F-35As are intended to replace F-16 Fighting Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, and perhaps some of the older F-15 Eagles. The F-35A is reported not to be as stealthy or as capable in air-to-air combat as the F-22, but better at air-to-ground combat than the F-22 and stealthier than the F-16. The F-35A is intended as a more affordable complement to the F-22 Raptor, but such affordability will depend on how many units are eventually procured. The F-35B, developed for the U.S. Marines, is a STOVL aircraft and is the most expensive and most technically challenging of the three variants. F-35Bs are intended to replace the AV-8B Harrier STOVL aircraft, the F/A-18A/B/C/D CTOL strike fighters, and the UK Royal Navy Harrier II aircraft. The F-35B’s more sophisticated sensor suite and very-low-observable qualities are wanted by the Marines in order to enhance support for U.S. forces. The F-35C, developed for the U.S. Navy, is a carrier-based CTOL aircraft and is midway in cost and technical complexity between the A and B versions. The Navy believes that commonality designed into the F-35 will minimize development, procurement, and operating costs and enhance interoperability both with the U.S. Air Force and with allied partner nations. Finally, the F-35’s integrated avionics software is intended and designed to automatically combine information from on-board sensors with information from Aegis and other air defense systems (for example, from other combat aircraft) to enhance combat capability and disruptively change the way U.S. combat aircraft work with each other and with allied aircraft.12

Joint Multinational vs. Single-Service Acquisition Models. The F-22 Raptor was designed, developed, manufactured, and procured as a single-Service, single-role fighter. The F-35 Lightning II was designed and developed and is being manufactured and procured as a joint (multi-Service), multirole, multinational combat aircraft. However, this does not alter or eliminate the fundamental challenges, as described earlier, that contributed to the F-22 program’s failure to procure the planned quantity of aircraft and, in some respects, makes them worse. One of the reasons for this is that potential savings13 in overall life cycle costs for a joint acquisition program versus a set of single-Service programs—achieved by cutting out duplicative research, development, test, and evaluation costs and gaining greater economies of scale in manufacturing and sustainment efforts—may be reduced by the need for greater design, manufacturing, and sustainment complexity to accommodate multiple Service requirements in a single “common” design. For example, the original design goal for the F-35 was to achieve a commonality of 80 percent, but at milestone B, the three variants varied from 45 percent to 70 percent commonality by airframe weight; by July 2008, airframe commonality ranged from 27 percent to 43 percent.14 Furthermore, the number of combat aircraft prime contractors in the United States has decreased from eight in the 1980s to only three today (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing), and currently only Lockheed Martin is a prime contractor for the manufacture of an advanced fifth-generation manned combat aircraft. This reduction in the number of prime contractors has reduced competition, may discourage innovation, and makes it more difficult for the U.S. Government to control costs.15

Another challenge faced by the F-35 program is the need for the same manufacturer to produce the three different variants. Production of an inhomogeneous product can complicate the acquisition of learning by manufacturing plant workers and managers and speed the depreciation of any learning acquired due to the need to halt production of one product in order to produce a different product. This learning process is particularly important in the manufacture of combat aircraft where highly skilled labor accounts for a large percentage of total costs and accumulated manufacturing experience yields progressively greater reductions in manufacturing costs as experience increases productivity and reduces per unit costs. If the differences among the three different variants were slight, as was originally planned, negative effects on learning might be minor. However, with significant differences, a slower learning process and accelerated depreciation of accumulated production experience significantly adds to program costs and, therefore, program risk.16

Finally, an important and significant difference between the F-22 program and the F-35 program is the internationalization of both the F-35’s development and its procurement. Currently, the F-35 program has three levels of international partnership. The United Kingdom is the only level 1 international partner, contributing approximately $2 billion toward development costs. Italy and the Netherlands are the only level 2 international partners, contributing approximately $1 billion and $800 million, respectively, toward development costs. Level 3 international partners include Turkey, Canada, Australia, Norway, and Denmark, contributing, among them, approximately $725 million toward development costs.17 Anticipated purchases of F-35s by U.S. military Services and by our international partners and allies include 1,763 F-35As by the U.S. Air Force; 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs by the U.S. Marines; 260 F-35Cs by the U.S. Navy; 138 F-35As by the United Kingdom; 100 F-35As by Turkey; 60 F-35As and 30 F-35Bs by Italy; 72 F-35As by Australia; 52 F-35As by Norway; 50 F-35As by Israel; 42 F-35As by Japan; 40 F-35As by the Republic of Korea; 37 F-35As by the Netherlands; 34 F-35As by Belgium; and 27 F-35As by Denmark.18 However, the cost of all F-35s produced by Lockheed Martin, both for domestic use by U.S. military Services and for use by foreign governments, is negotiated between the U.S. Government and Lockheed Martin, while the price each foreign government pays is negotiated between the U.S. Government and each respective foreign government. The “export” version of the F-35 may also not include all the features of the “domestic” version, thus creating even more variants and further complicating the manufacturing learning process.

Offsets are also negotiated separately between Lockheed Martin and each respective foreign government. While perhaps unprecedented in global scale in the case of the F-35 program, offsets in both defense and nondefense industries are fairly common. An offset is an agreement wherein the buyer includes within the contract the condition that the seller has to perform certain activities that benefit the buyer. The agreement can take the form of coproduction, subcontracting, licensed production, technology transfer, and other forms of industrial cooperation such as training.19 In the case of the F-35, Lockheed Martin is incentivized to offer offsets in return for increased orders from each foreign government and also by the possibility of cheaper production, assembly, or other costs outside the United States. Foreign buyers are incentivized by the possibility of technology transfer to and/or increased jobs for their domestic industries. This complex multiparty matrix of negotiated prices between the U.S. Government and Lockheed Martin, negotiated prices between the U.S. Government and each foreign government, and negotiated offsets between Lockheed Martin and each foreign government makes managing costs even more difficult and may benefit foreign buyers at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer.

Program Turbulence. The JSF program has been restructured three times so far: in December 2003, March 2007, and March 2012. The last restructuring became necessary when, in early 2010, unit cost estimates exceeded critical thresholds set by statute—an event known as a Nunn-McCurdy breach. Pursuant to that statute and to avoid termination of the program, the Secretary of Defense certified to Congress in June 2010 that the program was essential to national security.20 As required by statute, DOD then revoked the prior milestone approval, established a new acquisition baseline, and began restructuring the program to extend testing and delay delivery schedules, and reduced near-term aircraft procurement quantities by deferring the procurement of aircraft into the future (for example, through 2044), but did not decrease total aircraft procurement numbers. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) April 2015 report on the JSF program, the F-35’s significant cost, schedule, and performance problems are due, in the GAO’s judgment, to decisions made at key program milestones without sufficient product knowledge. Specifically, Lockheed Martin’s design was selected in October 2001 before the aircraft’s design and critical technologies had been sufficiently developed. In addition, initial program scheduling called for a concurrent acquisition strategy with a high degree of overlap between development, testing, and manufacture, and, although the degree of concurrency has been reduced, it has not been eliminated.21

Furthermore, sustainment costs for the three U.S. military Services over the 60-year life cycle for each aircraft are estimated at $1.12 trillion. Thus, DOD is working to implement an affordable sustainment strategy that can meet the needs of U.S. military Services and of our international partners and allies, and that can sustain more than 3,100 F-35 aircraft over the F-35’s 100-year development, production, and service life cycle. However, this strategy faces challenges, including reliance on prime contractor Lockheed Martin for sustainment support in addition to product integration and dependence of all F-35 customers, domestic and foreign, on a shared global pool of assets managed by Lockheed Martin that are unique to the F-35 program.22 Reducing sustainment cost is crucial to avoiding downward pressure on production numbers to pay for increased or unfunded sustainment costs. There are also asymmetries between the different U.S. military Services and our international partners and allies regarding the number of aircraft to be purchased and sustained, which will result in asymmetric dependencies on the success of the F-35 program. Both of these factors could result in significantly fewer aircraft being purchased than currently anticipated and lead to significant unit cost increases as production volumes decrease, as happened with the F-22 Raptor program.

Finally, the F-35’s integration of sensors and weapons, both internally and with other aircraft, is believed to be its most important capability, and this enhanced capability to integrate sensors and weapons is achieved, primarily, via complex software.23 Functionality provided by software has grown significantly since the 1960s. Starting at less than 10 percent with the introduction of the F-4 Phantom II in 1960, this functionality grew to 10 percent with the introduction of the A-7 Corsair II in 1964, to 20 percent with the introduction of the F-111 Aardvark in 1970, to 35 percent with the introduction of the F-15 Eagle in 1975, to 45 percent with the introduction of the F-16 Fighting Falcon in 1982, to 65 percent with the introduction of the B-2 Spirit in 1990, and to 80 percent with the introduction of the F-22 Raptor in 2000.24 According to an April 2014 review by the Congressional Research Service, writing, validating, debugging, and upgrading the F-35’s software (that is, from the Block 1 version providing the aircraft’s basic flying capabilities installed in early F-35 deliveries all the way through to Block 3F, which is intended to provide the full suite of warfighting capabilities) will be among the JSF program’s greatest and most expensive challenges.25 In its April 2017 review of the program, the GAO also stressed the importance of software and raised concerns about testing delays and increased costs for the complete development of the F-35’s software.26

Current Program Status. The F-35 program has made progress. As of September 28, 2018, more than 320 aircraft were operating from 15 bases globally, approximately 680 pilots and 6,100 maintainers had been trained, and the fleet had more than 155,000 cumulative flight hours.27 Initial operational capability was declared by the U.S. Marines for the F-35B in July 2015 and by the U.S. Air Force for the F-35A in August 2016.28 Additionally, prime contractor Lockheed Martin has improved manufacturing efficiency and demonstrated learning as it continues producing aircraft. Average labor hours per aircraft delivered have decreased significantly from 2012 to 2017. Total hours for scrap, rework, and repair per aircraft delivered have also decreased. Likewise, Pratt and Whitney has demonstrated improvements in manufacturing efficiency and decreased labor hours. The F-35 program office is also investing in projects to lower production and sustainment costs and is pursuing economic order quantity purchases of components that will be used across multiple procurement lots of aircraft.29 Thus, for low rate initial production (LRIP) Lot 11, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2019, the F-35A unit price including aircraft, engine, and fee, will be $89.2 million, a 5.4 percent reduction from the $94.3 million for LRIP Lot 10. The F-35B unit cost will be $115.5 million, a 5.7 percent reduction from the $122.4 million for LRIP Lot 10. The F-35C unit cost will be $107.7 million, an 11.1 percent reduction from the $121.2 million for LRIP Lot 10.30 Finally, a statistical analysis by the RAND Corporation for Project Air Force has shown that significant cost savings are achievable by making investments in design and manufacturing improvements to reduce the per unit cost and by purchasing F-35 aircraft in multiple lots, to name just two examples.31


As stated in the introduction, technical advances and market changes in semiconductors and robotics make decades-long design, development, and procurement cycles for advanced weapons systems like the F-35 Lightning II untenable and will require shorter production cycles with or without cost savings. Today, the cost to build a manufacturing facility or fabrication plant (otherwise known as a fab) with leading-edge technology for the manufacture of semiconductors is $10 billion and rising. Because of these costs, companies that cannot produce at scale or afford to operate a fab themselves take advantage of the fabless model, where production is shifted to a global ecosystem of companies creating microchip designs, microchip design tools, components and materials, and operating fabs dedicated to the manufacture of other company designs. Consequently, the global semiconductor manufacturing sector at the leading technology edge has consolidated dramatically, and only four firms globally manufacture at 14 nanometer (nm) or have the potential to go to the 10 and 7 nm nodes: Intel in the United States; Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company in Taiwan; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates–owned Global Foundries in New York state; and Samsung Electronics in South Korea. Because of this consolidation and the fact that over 98 percent of demand for semiconductors comes from the private and commercial sectors, not the U.S. Government or Defense industry, access to genuine noncounterfeit military computer chips and assured access to manufacturing capabilities for advanced weapons systems is increasingly at risk. Therefore, as noted in a Spring 2016 electronics industry study report published by National Defense University’s Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, major U.S. weapons systems are exposed to obsolescence in their semiconductor-based electronic and software subsystems.32

Furthermore, guaranteed access to leading-edge silicon foundry processes is critical to the Nation’s ability to maintain the technological edge and dominance enjoyed by U.S. Armed Forces on the modern battlefield. These processes make possible the development of new capabilities in navigation, sensing, and electronic warfare, just to name a few. In 2014, trusted access to both leading-edge silicon technology and legacy silicon technologies under DOD’s Trusted Foundry Program was limited to only a single company, IBM. After 2014, the sale of IBM’s semiconductor facilities to Abu Dhabi–owned Global Foundries could have dealt a critical blow to DOD’s ability to access technologies at 65 nm and below. The agreement between the Trusted Foundry Program and Global Foundries to form Global Foundries 2 appears to provide current and near-term access down to the 14 nm node. However, the long-term economic viability of this arrangement is questionable in the face of pressures to achieve commercial profitability within the former IBM facilities.33

These changes in the semiconductor industry and market are also affecting DOD’s F-35 modernization program, termed Block 4, as officials openly state that the F-35’s current data processor is operating at maximum capacity and will need to be replaced with an updated processor with increased capacity in order for the first increment of Block 4 to function as intended.34 Given its low market share (2 percent or less), DOD is entirely dependent on Global Foundries 2 and small volume producers of legacy computer chips for its data processor and other semiconductor needs.

In addition to being at risk of obsolescence in their semiconductor-based electronic and software subsystems, current manned combat aircraft, including the F-35, are also at risk of obsolescence in their technological edge and dominance on the battlefield due to these same trends in semiconductors and the electronic devices that incorporate them. For example, the development and deployment of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper would not have been possible without the greatly increased performance and decreased weight of today’s semiconductor-based devices. Unmanned military aircraft such as the Predator and Reaper are also highly disruptive in that they represent a new way of waging war and were developed and manufactured by a new, non–Lockheed Martin market entrant. Further disruptions can be easily anticipated and predicted. For example, a decade ago the idea that drones could act as stationary “air mines” or even act collectively as self-guiding swarms would have seemed as ridiculous and as tactically useless as the barrage balloons and wind-blown fire balloons of the previous century. However, algorithms already exist today for programming drones to “see and avoid,” and an ability to see and avoid can just as easily be turned into a see-and-not-avoid ability. Moreover, drone swarming was demonstrated by the Naval Postgraduate School in August 2015, when 50 drones were manually controlled with a single controller. Subsequently, in November 2016, the Intel Corporation created a holiday light show for Disney Springs, Florida, with 300 drones moving in complex choreographed three-dimensional formations, also with just a single controller. Complex choreographed three-dimensional drone formations were also demonstrated at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show that starred Lady Gaga. Furthermore, any collision between an aircraft and a drone will be much more destructive than a comparable collision with a bird due to the material composition of the drone. In collisions with aircraft, birds behave more like fluids upon impact, such that the disintegration of the bird absorbs much of the impact energy. In contrast, drones are made from metal, plastic, and other relatively nondeformable materials, so any aircraft struck by a drone will be exposed to a much greater impact energy.35 Lastly, it has been suggested that a tactically autonomous, machine-piloted combat aircraft could bring new and unmatched lethality to air-to-air combat, and by continuously sending telemetry to a ground or airborne control station, the putative autonomous combat aircraft could learn from its own death and in near real time provide adaptations to other autonomous combat aircraft in the fight.36

F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons anti-gravity suit in preparation for first combat sortie in U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 26, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Jocelyn A. Ford)
F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons anti-gravity suit in preparation for first combat sortie in U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 26, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Jocelyn A. Ford)
F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons anti-gravity suit in preparation for first combat sortie in U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 26, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Jocelyn A. Ford)
F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons anti-gravity suit in preparation for first combat sortie in U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 26, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Jocelyn A. Ford)
F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron dons anti-gravity suit in preparation for first combat sortie in U.S. Air Forces Central Command area of responsibility, Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, April 26, 2019 (U.S. Air Force/Jocelyn A. Ford)
Photo By: Tech. Sgt. Jocelyn A. Ford
VIRIN: 190426-F-QS178-1001

Conclusions and Recommendations

With a total planned procurement of all F-35 variants on the order of 3,000 units, short-term, small-volume procurements are not advisable once full rate production begins as it disincentivizes Lockheed Martin and its suppliers from making long-term investments in equipment and worker learning that could lead to lower per unit costs. The Defense Department should, therefore, work with the White House and Congress to authorize, but not require, longer term multiyear procurements for major weapons systems like the F-35. The F-35 program office should also continue to expand upon projects aimed at lowering production and sustainment costs and economic order quantity purchases of components that will be used across multiple aircraft types and multiple procurement lots.

In addition, DOD’s development and acquisition efforts in the area of combat aircraft are too slow in the face of rapid changes in combat aircraft capabilities, driven largely by advances in semiconductors and the electronic devices and software that utilize them. Therefore, DOD should shift its acquisition focus for combat aircraft to the following:

  • sixth-generation weapons systems, assemblies, sub-assemblies, and software for current fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 aircraft using U.S. Government–owned intellectual property and related design authority rights for these aircraft
  • drones, which can be used in defensive and/or offensive antiaircraft capacities
  • autonomous combat aircraft capable of remotely targeting and destroying enemy aircraft.

The purpose of these three suggested initiatives is to expedite the development and procurement of new innovative weapons and tactics and to provide opportunities for new defense market entrants.

Finally, many reports in the literature, including most recently a comprehensive analysis by the RAND Corporation under Project Air Force, have indicated that savings from joint acquisition of major weapons systems such as the F-35 are at best an open question and are extremely difficult to achieve given the need to meet divergent Service and country requirements within the same design. Instead, the focus should be on common weapons systems, assemblies, subassemblies, and software that can be shared by different platforms and on the very real nonfinancial benefits of joint acquisitions to include greater tactical and operational interoperability between military Services and greater military-industrial cooperation between the United States and its allies. JFQ

The author would like to express his appreciation and thanks to the faculty and staff of the National Defense University’s Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy for their help and support.


1 David R. King and John D. Driessnack, “Analysis of Competition in the Defense Industrial Base: An F-22 Case Study,” Contemporary Economic Policy 55 (January 2006), 57–66.

2 Ibid.

3 Christopher J. Niemi, “The F-22 Acquisition Program: Consequences for the U.S. Air Force’s Fighter Fleet,” Air & Space Power Journal (November–December 2012), 53–82, available at <>.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 See “History,” F-35 Lightning II Program Web site, available at <>.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Danny Lam and Brian Paul Cozzarin, “The Joint Strike Fighter/F-35 Program: A Canadian Technology Policy Perspective,” Air & Space Power Journal (March–April 2014), 45–76.

11 Jeremiah Gertler, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, RL30563 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, April 29, 2014), available at <>.

12 Robbin F. Laird and Edward Timperlake, “The F-35 and the Future of Power Projection,” Joint Force Quarterly 66 (3rd Quarter 2012), 85–93.

13 Mark A. Lorell, “Commonality: Where It Works and Fails,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 177 (March 2015).

14 Mark A. Lorell et al., Do Joint Fighter Programs Save Money? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2013).

15 Trevor Taylor, “Competition in Defence Practice: Theory and Reality,” in Emerging Strategies in Defense Acquisitions and Military Procurement, ed. Kevin Burgess and Peter Antill (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016), 22–38.

16 Aneli Bongers, “Learning and Forgetting in the Jet Fighter Aircraft Industry,” PLOS ONE 12 (September 2017), 1–19.

17 See “Program: International Participation,” F-35 Lightning II Program Web site, available at <>.

18 Tom Kaminski, “F-35 Lightning II: Country by Country Analysis,” Aviation News, December 2018, 32–38.

19 Anna Margaretha Malm, Anna Fredriksson, and Kerstin Johansen, “Bridging Capability Gaps in Technology Transfers Within Related Offsets,” Journal of Manufacturing Management 27 (2016), 640–661.

20 Moshe Schwartz, The Nunn-McCurdy Act: Background, Analysis, and Issues for Congress, R41293 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, March 3, 2015), available at <>.

21 Government Accountability Office (GAO), F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Assessment Needed to Address Affordability Challenges, GAO-15-364 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2015).

22 GAO, F-35 Aircraft Sustainment: DOD Needs to Address Challenges Affecting Readiness and Cost Transparency, GAO-18-75 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2017).

23 Gertler, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program.

24 Lam and Cozzarin, “The Joint Strike Fighter/F-35 Program,” 45–76.

25 Gertler, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program.

26 GAO, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: DOD Needs to Complete Developmental Testing before Making Significant New Investments, GAO-17-351 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2017).

27 “Pentagon and Lockheed Martin Agree to Reduced F-35 Price in New Production Contract,” press release, F-35 Lightning II Program Web site, September 28, 2018, available at <>.

28 Kaminski, “F-35 Lightning II.”

29 GAO, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Development Is Nearly Complete, but Deficiencies Found in Testing Need to Be Resolved, GAO-18-321 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2018).

30 “Pentagon and Lockheed Martin Agree to Reduced F-35 Price in New Production Contract.”

31 James D. Powers et al., F-35 Block Buy: An Assessment of Potential Savings, RR-2063-AF (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, July 18, 2018), available at <>.

32 B.G. Hussein Bani-Yassein et al., Electronics Industry Study Report (Washington, DC: Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy, Spring 2016), available at <>.

33 Ibid.

34 GAO, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: DOD’s Proposed Follow-on Modernization Acquisition Strategy Reflects an Incremental Approach Although Plans Are Not Yet Finalized, GAO-17-690R (Washington, DC: GAO, 2017).

35 Leslie F. Hauck III and John P. Geis II, “Air Mines: Countering the Drone Threat to Aircraft,” Air & Space Power Journal (Spring 2017), 26–40.

36 Michael W. Byrnes, “Nightfall: Machine Autonomy in Air-to-Air Combat,” Air & Space Power Journal (May–June 2014), 48–75.

Getting the Joint Functions Right
By Thomas Crosbie | July 25, 2019

Download PDF

Dr. Thomas Crosbie is an Assistant Professor in the Centre of Joint Operations, Institute of Military Operations, at the Royal Danish Defence College.

In July 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced a special out-of-cycle revision to joint doctrine, adding information to the joint functions. The significance of this policy change was highlighted by the Secretary of Defense in a September 2017 endorsement, where he stressed that inclusion in the joint functions signaled an “elevation” of information throughout Department of Defense (DOD) thinking and practice.1 A 2018 article by Alexus G. Grynkewich in this journal elaborated on why this matters to the national security community.2 Nevertheless, despite these clear signals that DOD takes the joint functions seriously, and despite their centrality in military doctrine, the joint functions remain little understood by those who have not served in an operational staff role.

This article provides the first organizational history of the joint functions in order to better understand why differences persist in how this concept is implemented in the United States versus its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners. Doing so allows us to better understand enduring challenges in interoperability and persistent cultural clashes within the Alliance. The history reveals that today’s joint functions are built around a core of four kinetic principles (leadership or command and control [C2], maneuver, firepower, and protection), to which subsequent revisions have attempted to add a range of “softer” military fields (intelligence, information, sustainment, and civil-military cooperation), sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

The history of the joint functions is a history of overcoming the resistance in U.S. military thought to placing soft and hard elements of the contemporary battlefield on an equal footing. Viewed from this perspective, another set of questions is raised concerning the persistence of U.S. vulnerabilities to foreign military powers focused on exploiting the gray zone between hard and soft power.

2K12 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system fires during multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, in Shabla, Bulgaria, June 12, 2019 (U.S. Army/Thomas Mort)
2K12 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system fires during multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, in Shabla, Bulgaria, June 12, 2019 (U.S. Army/Thomas Mort)
2K12 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system fires during multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, in Shabla, Bulgaria, June 12, 2019 (U.S. Army/Thomas Mort)
2K12 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system fires during multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, in Shabla, Bulgaria, June 12, 2019 (U.S. Army/Thomas Mort)
2K12 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system fires during multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, in Shabla, Bulgaria, June 12, 2019 (U.S. Army/Thomas Mort)
Photo By: Sgt. Thomas Mort
VIRIN: 190612-A-YQ762-0049

Combining Arms and Domains

Jointness is not easy, but it is good—that has been the clear consensus from scholars and practitioners for decades, amply demonstrated in the pages of this journal.3 What makes it difficult is the clash of cultures, command structures, and egos that inevitably occurs when two or more distinct organizations are tasked with working hand-in-glove.4 In this sense, the challenges of jointness are not unique to the military and are faced by any complex organization that needs levels of coordination. The benefits are, however, unique, as Robert Leonhard and others have argued.5 All else being equal, we expect a force that is better at combining arms and crossing domains will win out over its competitors because jointness enables commanders to compensate for the weaknesses in one weapons system with the strengths of another and to exploit a wider array of vulnerabilities in one’s opponent while minimizing one’s own exposure to risk. Axiomatically, then, jointness provides benefits in efficiency, freedom of action, and flexibility.6

The spirit of combining instruments of power informs policy development at virtually every level and is shared by most, if not all, of America’s allied militaries. By contrast, the failure to combine is routinely disparaged as evidence of Service parochialism or even corruption. While critics can be found, the weight of historical evidence and of informed opinion is clearly on the side of jointness.

What does this mean in practice? Most important during times of conflict, instruments of power are combined and integrated through the joint force commander and his or her staff. Officially, a joint force is joint when it includes elements from more than one Service. However, it only does jointness when it actively combines instruments of power in some productive way. The term joint functions has emerged in doctrine as a shorthand way of expressing those dimensions of conflict where combining instruments of power is particularly useful. They are in this sense a sort of checklist to ensure that the latent potential of jointness is in fact being realized.

In U.S. doctrine there are today seven joint functions: intelligence, movement and maneuver, fires, information, protection, sustainment, and C2. For the rest of the NATO community, there are eight, since NATO doctrine also includes civil-military cooperation (CIMIC). Despite their importance doctrinally and organizationally, the joint functions are little known and rarely discussed in the national security community and are often poorly understood by officers entering joint staffs. This is not entirely surprising. The joint functions are a paradox of stability and change. On one hand, they are the pillars of operational doctrine, establishing a coherent framework for what a joint staff can and should do at the operational level of war. On the other hand, the list has undergone significant revision over the years, reflecting deep disagreements on which concepts merit inclusion—and even what each concept means. And while the term itself is fairly new, having only entered common usage with its inclusion in Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, in 2006 (and adopted into NATO doctrine in 2011), it reflects ideas that have appeared off and on in U.S. Army doctrine for well over a hundred years.

The challenge facing doctrine writers is how to realize the latent benefits of jointness given real-world limitations in time, attention, and resources. That is where the joint functions come in. By focusing on a delimited set of prioritized areas where joint effects can be achieved, a joint staff can give structure to the enormous complexity of contemporary military operations.

Table. The Joint Staff Directorates and Joint Functions
Table. The Joint Staff Directorates and Joint Functions
Table. The Joint Staff Directorates and Joint Functions
Table. The Joint Staff Directorates and Joint Functions
Table. The Joint Staff Directorates and Joint Functions
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 190725-D-BD104-004

While a joint staff is designed to organize its work around the joint functions, the joint functions should not be confused with the Joint Staff Directorates (J1–J8), which they superficially resemble (see table). The relationship is clearly accounted for in doctrine. The purpose behind the staff directorates is to ensure that a joint staff has the right mix of expertise across key areas. The doctrine makes clear that an actual staff needs to break up the silos that can be created by the directorates, and instead the experts should mix together in a number of subgroups (listed in the doctrine as “centers, groups, bureaus, cells, offices, elements, working groups, and planning teams”7). Once reassigned to their subgroup, staffers need to achieve certain types of effects. The most important effects are sorted into six categories and are the joint functions mentioned above: C2, intelligence, fires, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. More recently, as described below, U.S. and NATO doctrine have both changed to include information to this list, while NATO doctrine also includes CIMIC. Thus, while staffs are commonly divided into eight directorates and are expected to achieve effects through seven or eight functions, the two things are ultimately quite different.

The joint functions, then, were never intended to be another level of organization. Rather, they are a heuristic model for understanding descriptively the way power can be directed to achieve ends on the battlefield.

Joint Functions in Army Doctrine, 1905–1954

But why these particular functions, and what does it mean for the integrity of the list that this has changed and remains contested? To answer these questions, it is necessary to briefly look back over the history of the doctrine. The starting point is 1905 with the publication of the U.S. Army’s first combined arms manual, Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Field Service Regulations.8 Surprisingly, the first extended discussion of what combining arms actually entails would not arrive until the fourth edition (1914), where combined arms are described as the effective balancing of the Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, Special Troops (mostly Engineers), and Heavy Field Artillery.9

In these early days, manual writers focused on what made up the combined arms. The 1923 edition adds the Signal Corps and Air Service and renames “Special Troops” as “Engineers.” It also states clearly the value of combining arms: “No one arm wins battles. The combined employment of all arms is equal to success.”10 Five more editions followed (in 1939, 1941, 1944, 1949, and 1954), with each adding elements to the list. By 1954, the list had grown to include 10 components: Infantry, Armor, Artillery, the Corps of Engineers, Signal Corps, Chemical Corps, Army Medical Corps, Quartermaster Corps, Transportation Corps, and Military Police Corps. So unwieldy was this list that the 1962 edition cut back to the original 1923 list: Infantry, Engineers, Artillery, and Armor. Notably, information and intelligence elements are entirely absent throughout, since these were viewed as separate from the combined arms.

What we can conclude is that Army doctrine writers have long been committed to the idea that the combining of land power elements enables gains on the battlefield. This belief has tended toward a kitchen-sink effect, with more and more elements highlighted as standing to benefit from combination until order is restored by a return to first principles—clearly visible in figure 1. Prodigality balances against parsimony.

Figure 1. Elements of Combined Arms in FM 100-5 (1914–1962)
Figure 1. Elements of Combined Arms in FM 100-5 (1914–1962)
Figure 1. Elements of Combined Arms in FM 100-5 (1914–1962)
Figure 1. Elements of Combined Arms in FM 100-5 (1914–1962)
Figure 1. Elements of Combined Arms in FM 100-5 (1914–1962)
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 190725-D-BD104-002

Figure 2. Joint Functions in FM 100-5 (1968–1993), FM 3-0 (2001–2017),
AJP 3 (2002–2019) and JP 3-0 (2006–2018)
Figure 2. Joint Functions in FM 100-5 (1968–1993), FM 3-0 (2001–2017), AJP 3 (2002–2019) and JP 3-0 (2006–2018)
Figure 2. Joint Functions in FM 100-5 (1968–1993), FM 3-0 (2001–2017),
AJP 3 (2002–2019) and JP 3-0 (2006–2018)
Figure 2. Joint Functions in FM 100-5 (1968–1993), FM 3-0 (2001–2017), AJP 3 (2002–2019) and JP 3-0 (2006–2018)
Figure 2. Joint Functions in FM 100-5 (1968–1993), FM 3-0 (2001–2017), AJP 3 (2002–2019) and JP 3-0 (2006–2018)
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 190725-D-BD104-003

A quirk of the doctrine up to this point is that the writers never quite got around to explaining how a commander should manage all of this complexity. The doctrine exhorted combined effects and described the elements that needed to be combined, but it failed to specify how the elements should be balanced. In hindsight, then, FM 100-5 from 1905 through 1954 had fairly modest aims, ensuring only that future leaders, when called on to lead a campaign, would at least know what arrows were in their quiver.

Joint Functions in Army, Joint, and Alliance Doctrine, 1968–2019

The major intellectual breakthrough came with the doctrine revisions of the 1960s, when the doctrine writers finally began to nail down the specific ways combining arms can lead to better outcomes (see figure 2). In the 1968 revision of FM 100-5, the writers switched from presenting a laundry list of functional elements that can be combined to identifying the types of needs that these elements can address. The doctrine now described the need for “multicapable forces” that combine their elements to achieve better outcomes in five fields: intelligence, mobility, firepower, combat service support, and C3 (command, control, and computers).11

For a time, this insight was forgotten. When General William E. DePuy drafted the famous “Active Defense” edition of FM 100-5 (1976), he dispensed with much of the verbiage and most of the concepts of earlier manuals, preferring a livelier style, with vivid examples drawn from recent experience. Dissatisfaction with DePuy’s manual led General Donn A. Starry to oversee the publication of the equally renowned “AirLand Battle” edition (1982).12 Here, DePuy’s ideas about active defense were blended with Starry’s ideas about AirLand Battle and with the 1968 manual’s ideas of multicapable forces. In the 1982, 1986, and 1993 editions, this intuition was refined through discussion of the so-called elements of combat power, now listed as maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership, which replaced C3. This tighter focus—dropping intelligence and combat service support from the discussion—perfectly reflects what has been described as the Army’s cultural shift toward preparing for high-tempo, conventional force engagements.13

Despite the prominent place given to these “elements of combat power” in the Army manuals of 1982, 1986 and 1993, the first joint publication on the topic, Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, 1993, makes no mention of these principles. Nor do they appear in the 1995 or 2001 editions. Nevertheless, Army doctrine writers were still very much committed to these concepts, and in the 2001 edition of Army operational doctrine (redesignated from FM 100-5 to FM 3-0), a new element of combat power was added to the list: information. This was not to last. Interestingly, the next edition, released in 2008, drops information and brings back intelligence, which had been missing since the 1968 edition, and defines these elements of combat power as “warfighting functions.” This remains, as of 2018, the current state of Army thought, which builds its description of the Army’s capabilities around six warfighting functions: mission command (the new name for C2), movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, and protection.

Looking at the joint and Alliance levels, the idiosyncrasies of Army thought come into focus. In 2002, NATO published its first joint operations doctrine, Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3, Allied Joint Operations.14 The imprint of U.S. Army doctrine is plain to see in this document, with the elements of combat power now renamed “Joint Capabilities,” which included most of the persistent elements of the Army manuals (C2, maneuver, fires, intelligence, and sustainment, renamed logistics), dropped protection, and added a number of unfamiliar items: planning, targeting, and CIMIC. Also included were two information functions: information operations and public information. Where Army doctrine downgraded the role of information in this period, NATO emphasized it.

Meanwhile, American joint doctrine was revised in 2006 to finally incorporate the Army’s elements of combat power, now named for the first time as joint functions. Where NATO doctrine split information between information operations and public information, U.S. joint doctrine included it in the vague category “Other Activities and Capabilities,” a seventh joint function encompassing psychological operations and deception. The 2011 and 2017 versions of JP 3-0 dispensed with information entirely but brought it back as a fully fledged joint function with much fanfare in 2018.15

NATO and U.S. joint doctrine were finally coordinated with the revision of NATO AJP-3, Allied Joint Doctrine for the Conduct of Operations, in 2011.16 NATO’s joint capabilities became joint functions. Public information was folded into information operations, and the outlier concepts planning and targeting were dropped entirely. In 2019, the doctrine underwent one last revision, with information operations renamed simply information to align it with the 2017–2018 U.S. doctrine. The current state of NATO doctrine thus defines eight joint functions: command and control, maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, information, protection, and CIMIC. The current state of U.S. joint doctrine is identical, except it excludes CIMIC.

Joint Functions Doctrine: Lessons Learned

At the center of military innovation since World War II has been the promise of realizing tactical, operational, and strategic gains through combining arms and crossing domains. Combining, integrating, and making joint: these are the explicit goals of the joint force, DOD, and the unified combatant commands, and they are now routinely celebrated by the separate Services as well. The joint functions are the doctrinal culmination of taking jointness seriously, and the shifts we have traced in what constitutes the joint functions can be taken as a broader history of joint thought at the operational level of war.

What, then, should we make of this storied history? The most important lesson concerns the nature of doctrine itself. Although the joint functions may seem evolutionary, their history is filled with starts and stops, with detours and roadblocks, each signaling a shift in how the doctrine writers understood the nature of war. The impermanence and inconsistencies of the doctrine studied here can serve as a reminder that no doctrine is ever final, nor will it ever replace informed judgment.

Similarly, there is a lesson here in the false appearance of uniformity. As the doctrine has developed, the writers seek agreement in language and expression, but this may mask deeper disagreements in the actual meanings of words. NATO joint functions are not exactly DOD joint functions—nor are they Army warfighting functions.

Finally, this brief history raises another set of questions that demand reflection. If the joint functions express the military’s collective wisdom on how to best combine arms and cross domains—how to do jointness—then what should we conclude from the reluctance of the doctrine to put soft power concepts (information, most notably, but also intelligence and CIMIC) on equal footing as hard power concepts (fires, maneuver, protection)? Does the adoption of information as a joint function in 2017 resolve this problem, or do these same vulnerabilities persist? These and other questions about how to develop the right doctrine at the right time remain to be answered.

This historical understanding of the joint functions is intended to overcome the longstanding reluctance to place soft power elements of the modern battlefield on the same footing as hard power elements. Given that competitors are increasingly oriented toward exploiting our political vulnerabilities, getting the joint functions right—striking the right balance between hard and soft power—is more important than ever. JFQ


1 James N. Mattis, memorandum, “Information as a Joint Function,” September 15, 2017, available at <>.

2 Alexus G. Grynkewich, “Introducing Information as a Joint Function,” Joint Force Quarterly 89 (2nd Quarter 2018), 6–7.

3 See, for example, John Gordon IV, “Joint Power Projection: Operation Torch,” Joint Force Quarterly 3 (2nd Quarter 1994), 60–69; Williamson Murray, “The Evolution of Joint Warfare,” Joint Force Quarterly 31 (3rd Quarter 2002), 30–37; and William O. Odom and Christopher D. Hayes, “Cross-Domain Synergy: Advancing Jointness,” Joint Force Quarterly 73 (2nd Quarter 2014), 123–128.

4 Jan Angstrom and J.J. Widen, Contemporary Military Theory: The Dynamics of War (London: Routledge, 2015), 93–109.

5 Robert Leonhart, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 93–94. See also Angstrom and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 95.

6 Angstrom and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory, 95.

7 Joint Publication (JP) 3-33, Joint Task Force Headquarters (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, 2007).

8 Clinton J. Ancker III, “The Evolution of Mission Command in U.S. Army Doctrine, 1905 to the Present,” Military Review (March–April 2013), 42–52. For a fuller history of U.S. Army doctrine, see Walter E. Kretchick, U.S. Army Doctrine: From the American Revolution to the War on Terror (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011).

9 Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Field Service Regulations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1914), 74–76.

10 FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1923), 11.

11 FM 100-5, Operations of the Army Forces in the Field (Washington, DC: Headquarters Department of the Army, 1968), 1–5.

12 The story of the 1976 and 1982 versions of FM 100-5 is recounted in Romie L. Brownlee and William J. Mullen III, Changing an Army: An Oral History of General William E. DePuy, USA Retired (Washington, DC: U.S. Military History Institute and U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1986); and John L. Romjue, From Active Defense to AirLand Battle: The Development of Army Doctrine, 1973–1982 (Fort Monroe, VA: Historical Office, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 1984).

13 Michael R. Melillo, “Outfitting a Big-War Military with Small-War Capabilities,” Parameters (Autumn 2006), 22–35.

14 Allied Joint Publication (AJP) 3, Allied Joint Operations (Brussels: North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], September 1, 2002).

15 Grynkewich, “Introducing Information as a Joint Function.”

16 AJP-3(B), Allied Joint Doctrine for the Conduct of Operations (Brussels: NATO, March 16, 2011).

Global Risks and Opportunities: The Great Power Competition Paradigm
By Mark D. Miles and Charles R. Miller | July 25, 2019

Download PDF

Mark D. Miles is a Strategic Analyst, U.S. Central Command, J5, Strategy, Plans, and Policy Directorate. Brigadier General Charles R. Miller, USA, Ph.D., is Deputy Director of U.S. Central Command, J5, Strategy, Plans, and Policy.

Fire controlman (left) and gunner’s mate maintain Mark 38 25mm machine gun aboard USS Porter in Atlantic Ocean, March 5, 2019 (U.S. Navy/James R. Turner)
Fire controlman (left) and gunner’s mate maintain Mark 38 25mm machine gun aboard USS Porter in Atlantic Ocean, March 5, 2019 (U.S. Navy/James R. Turner)
Fire controlman (left) and gunner’s mate maintain Mark 38 25mm machine gun aboard USS Porter in Atlantic Ocean, March 5, 2019 (U.S. Navy/James R. Turner)
Fire controlman (left) and gunner’s mate maintain Mark 38 25mm machine gun aboard USS Porter in Atlantic Ocean, March 5, 2019 (U.S. Navy/James R. Turner)
Fire controlman (left) and gunner’s mate maintain Mark 38 25mm machine gun aboard USS Porter in Atlantic Ocean, March 5, 2019 (U.S. Navy/James R. Turner)
Photo By: MC2 James Turner
VIRIN: 190305-N-KA046-0226

When studying today’s emerging great power competition paradigm, it is edifying to recall the most recent historical antecedents: the zenith of Europe’s imperial period and the Cold War. From 1815 to 1914, it was rare for competition between the great powers of Europe to manifest militarily (the Crimean War being the notable exception), limited at least in part by Great Britain’s global reach and near-hegemonic power. Instead, Europe’s great powers sought other domains of national power and geographic locations outside of the European core in which to compete—for example, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in the Balkans or the British, Belgian, French, and later German empires in Africa. In some geographies, the competition narrowed to a bipolar contest, as in the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia. In that contest, information operations, economic diplomacy, and espionage were the primary weapons of statecraft, as was typical for a century when military force was rarely a first resort in inter-state competition and was never employed without accompanying diplomatic and economic levers of power.

Another historical era to which some compare the present great power competition paradigm is the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The coldest part of the Cold War was felt in Europe and northeast Asia where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, along with U.S. security guarantees, shared ideological perspectives, and relatively stable political arenas left little room for direct competition. But elsewhere—in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa—the struggle between the West and the Soviet bloc was anything but “cold,” as the two superpowers, their allies, and proxies competed across all elements of national power to gain sway with emerging or transitioning countries amid the unwinding of colonialist systems. Nowhere was the superpower competition more dynamic or more pivotal to the Cold War’s final outcome than in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Great Power Competition Today

The shift in emphasis in the National Defense Strategy and other guiding documents toward a transregional and inter-state competition conceptual framework reflects the reality of China’s rapid rise to the first rank of economic and military powers, Russia’s reassertion—by word and deed—that it deserves great power status after the perceived humiliations of the 1990s, and an openness to alternative economic and political models within the regions hosting the competition. This openness is both a result of internal trends emboldening national leaders to seek opportunities to protect their interests, and a perception that the United States—and the West in general—is retrenching, introspective, and capricious.

Amid these real and perceived changes, the United States is actively shifting its resources—military and otherwise—toward Europe and East Asia to ensure that we are poised to protect ourselves and our allies from our rivals’ revisionism. However, a look back to the 19th century or the more recent Cold War reveals that, as the frontiers nearest our competitors harden, inter-state competition will displace to those geographies that offer space and provide broader economic opportunities. Following this model, we should expect that great power competition in the 21st century will encompass not only the Middle East and Central Asia, but also Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) regions and Africa.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritizes competition with China and Russia and seeks to expand the competitive space while strengthening alliances and partnerships.1 Formulating an effective response to China and Russia’s global activism will be challenging. To accomplish this in terms of great power competition, we must ensure a clear understanding of both powers’ strategic concept for these regions. Next, we must examine the available political, economic, information, and security “space” in which competition could occur and allocate resources against them according to national priorities. Finally, we must work with our strategic allies to promote efficiency of our combined efforts and find areas of mutual interest to build bridges with our rivals, ultimately reinforcing global institutions and avoiding the escalation of tensions into open hostilities.

China. Chinese President Xi Jinping amplified existing trends when he came to power in 2012 and adopted policies to accelerate the growth of China’s comprehensive national power in support of the country’s “great rejuvenation” by 2049 through the assertive use of all instruments of national power, including economic and military.2 The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which joins a continental economic belt and a maritime road to promote cooperation and interconnectivity from Eurasia to Africa and into Latin America, is the central foreign policy tenet in support of this goal and aims to ensure China’s continued economic growth and connectivity to needed resources and global markets.3 Across Central Asia, China has invested in energy and transit infrastructure under the BRI umbrella to create the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which includes the creation of economic zones and investment in Gwadar port and is the “flagship” component of BRI. The Middle East is important to BRI as well, as the region is one of China’s more important sources of crude oil and has attracted billions in Chinese investment, including the Persian Gulf and Iran. Likewise, China has become a pivotal economic partner for Latin American countries through access to natural resources, foreign markets, and the diversification of Chinese firms, and it is fostering additional ties via a regular China–Latin America forum that includes 33 countries. China has invested billions in the LAC and sub-Saharan African countries, making Africa the second largest source of crude imports for China after the Middle East.4

Also associated with the BRI are China’s investments into regional commercial port infrastructure. This includes a joint venture with Egypt to develop the China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the Shanghai International Port Group’s development of a commercial port in Khalifa (Abu Dhabi), potential future investment in Omani ports, the port development project turned military base in Djibouti, and economic support to the Panama Canal.5 Many observers believe the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) support base in Djibouti is a model for China to establish additional support bases and military facilities in its “string of pearls” strategy intended to underpin the security of Chinese economic interests and citizens. The location of China’s first overseas base and the other ports with concerted Chinese investment provides significant advantages that will affect the decision calculus and potentially the access of all actors in the region to key thoroughfares and infrastructure.6

As China rises as a global military power, its economic and domestic security interests have begun to require Beijing to adopt a limited security role outside of its traditionally claimed sphere of influence in the South China Sea. The base in Djibouti supports China’s long-standing counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden.7 In Central Asia, China created the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in 2016 as a counterterrorism effort that includes joint patrols of the Afghanistan-China-Tajikistan border region and a military facility with People’s Liberation Army presence in Tajikistan.8 China’s comprehensive policy toward the LAC has included important elements of military and security cooperation to include bilateral and multilateral military-to-military engagements and exercises, trainings, forums, and humanitarian missions.9 In the private sector, China has leveraged private security companies to protect some of its BRI-related projects in unstable areas and its commercial fleet to support the PLAN for use as an asset to support military operations abroad.10

China has adopted several key messaging themes in an effort to enhance its influence within the regions. Beijing’s narratives are designed to portray China as a nonthreatening, reliable economic partner that can provide countries in the region with the capital, technology, infrastructure, and equipment needed for greater prosperity and stability. Conversely, Chinese narratives cast the United States as a destabilizing and predatory influence.11 Despite promises for win-win development, China’s predatory economic practices, tensions emanating from its preferential use of Chinese materials and labor, and infringements on host nation sovereignty often undermine these narratives and may impede implementation of key Chinese projects.

Ultimately, the lack of an overt political or ideological agenda, the availability of capital, and Beijing’s willingness to invest in riskier projects with fewer restrictions make China particularly attractive to regional governments. Beijing largely employs a noninterference policy diplomatically and is nonconfrontational in international forums on topics regarding the Middle East.

Russia. The election of Vladimir Putin in 2012 and his return to the Russian presidency marked the beginning of a significant expansion in Russia’s global reach. To enable this expansion, Moscow has relied on a wide array of diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic tools to include cyber, trade, energy, and finances to influence decisionmakers, political systems, and public attitudes in the Middle East, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The Middle East reemerged as a priority for Russia in 2012 due to the region’s economic potential to prop up Russia’s lagging economy, domestic security concerns (especially terrorism) related to the region’s geographical proximity, and the Kremlin’s political objectives to create leverage to affect Western behavior, change the international order to avoid isolation, and shape domestic public opinion.12 Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 and subsequent perceived successes in this theater have motivated a more proactive and assertive Russian approach to the Middle East, exemplified by the Kremlin’s attempts to affect the domestic political dynamics of the region as in Syria and Libya, defense of Iran in international forums, and offers to mediate talks for various regional conflicts and tensions. Thus far, the Kremlin has reestablished itself as a regional power broker and cultivated relations with regional rivals with minimal backlash. As Moscow takes on a greater role in the region’s internal dynamics, it is unclear if Russia will be able to maintain this diversity or support all of its efforts unilaterally.

Sailors man rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt as ship pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Pearl Harbor, April 2, 2019 (U.S. Navy/
Holly L. Herline)
Sailors man rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt as ship pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Pearl Harbor, April 2, 2019 (U.S. Navy/ Holly L. Herline)
Sailors man rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt as ship pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Pearl Harbor, April 2, 2019 (U.S. Navy/
Holly L. Herline)
Sailors man rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt as ship pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Pearl Harbor, April 2, 2019 (U.S. Navy/ Holly L. Herline)
Sailors man rails aboard guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt as ship pulls into Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Pearl Harbor, April 2, 2019 (U.S. Navy/ Holly L. Herline)
Photo By: MC1 Holly L. Herline
VIRIN: 190402-N-KR702-1044

Economically, the Middle East and Central Asia regions are critical for Moscow’s interests due to the importance of hydrocarbons to the Russian economy and opportunities to circumvent or ease the impact of Western sanctions.13 Russia is building relations with its potential rivals in the energy sphere, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, and is competing for influence over resources that are also critically important to China in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America.14 These economically important regions in the Middle East and North Africa are also essential to Russia’s security calculus. The extended lease of Tartus Naval Base in Syria and investment in the Suez Canal area provide Russia with access to critical lanes of maritime communication leading to the Atlantic and Indian oceans and a platform to project naval power and monitor the flow of Middle Eastern oil and gas to Europe and the Far East. From this position, Russia can restrict Western flexibility in the region.

Russia’s intervention in Syria and posturing with respect to Afghanistan highlight another security concern motivating its reemergence as a player: the threat to Russia and its claimed sphere of influence by the presence and participation of Russian-speaking and former Soviet state citizens in violent extremist organizations in these regions. Prior to Syria and the rise of the so-called Islamic state, jihadists from former Soviet states were more scattered, had more narrow objectives, and did not have the size and diversity currently represented. Syria provided the ground for networking among these entities and enhanced ties with international terrorist organizations.15 Moscow’s concern for this threat is long term, although it is an area where Russia seems to be reluctant to directly intervene at this time. Instead, Russia is capitalizing on the counterterrorism activities of the United States and its allies, while focusing its resources to achieve short-term goals to include securing a Moscow-friendly regime in Syria and reinforcing its hard power in Central Asia.

Politically, since 2015, Russian actions in the Middle East have demonstrated to regional regimes that Russia is a reliable, decisive partner devoid of the West’s ideological restrictions and a diplomatic and military force to be reckoned with. This is especially true for Iran. Russia positioned itself as a key mediator in the Iranian nuclear issue and as a viable alternative to the West’s perceived capriciousness with the Kremlin’s backing of Iran through the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. The Kremlin responded quickly to partner requests for military equipment in the face of internal unrest and used its position in international forums to defend its partners. While Moscow has not sought to directly compete with the United States economically or politically in the region, the Kremlin is poised to capitalize on geopolitical space created by either U.S. policies or changes within the domestic spheres of partner countries. In this way, Putin casts doubt on the existing international order and casts himself as the defender of sovereignty and “traditional” values.

Although Russia has largely not sought to directly challenge the United States, Moscow uses the information space to reinforce regional narratives, cast Russia as a responsible actor, question the reliability of the West, and promote falsities that undermine the United States, such as emphasizing U.S. responsibility for regional instability and supporting terrorist organizations. Russia’s information operations in the Middle East and Latin America utilize the state media RT, Sputnik Arabic, and Sputnik Mundo services, which maintain an online presence, utilize social media as a force multiplier and engagement mechanism, and encourage local authors with the requisite language and cultural familiarity to appeal to a wide audience.16 The Kremlin’s narratives are generally most effective in uncontrolled media environments and among populations favorable to Russia, to a Russian ally, or to groups in search of alternative explanations. In the Middle East, the largely state-controlled media restrict the effectiveness of Russian information operations, and the Kremlin’s narratives are best received in populations with preexisting positive sentiment toward Russia, including Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. In Latin America, RT and Sputnik Mundo programming is readily available and often cited as main sources by official media. Moscow’s propaganda outlets work to stoke anti-U.S. sentiment and support populist figures in Latin American elections.17

What’s Next for Great Power Competition in the Regions?

The expanding need driven by the global reach of China’s diplomatic, information, military, and economic initiatives, as well as Russia’s objective to weaken or subvert Western security structures in the Middle East, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa will challenge U.S. prosperity, security, and critical relationships in the respective regions. Deterring or defeating great power aggression is a fundamentally different challenge than the regional conflicts that have plagued these areas and formed the basis of U.S. planning constructs over the past quarter-century.

In an era of constrained resources and in the context of an evolving global dynamism, the United States is facing a multitude of questions, not least of which are: How do China and Russia’s actions affect U.S. interests and foreign policy goals? What are the costs and benefits to the United States, and what role does it want to play? What roles in great power competition for Russia and China are acceptable to the United States? Finally, how can the United States compete against Russia and China in these key regions, and what are we willing to sacrifice, especially when the demands of buttressing our positions in Europe and East Asia compel a reallocation of forces away from some great competition areas?

While not exhaustive, some combination of the following lines of effort may help posture the United States to counter adverse Chinese and Russian activity and present opportunities to U.S. security interests and alliances relative to great power competition.

Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter assigned to 2-6 Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, sits on flightline under night sky on FARP 17,
Pohakuloa Training Area, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, April 13, 2019 (U.S. Army/Keith Kraker)
Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter assigned to 2-6 Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, sits on flightline under night sky on FARP 17, Pohakuloa Training Area, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, April 13, 2019 (U.S. Army/Keith Kraker)
Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter assigned to 2-6 Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, sits on flightline under night sky on FARP 17,
Pohakuloa Training Area, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, April 13, 2019 (U.S. Army/Keith Kraker)
Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter assigned to 2-6 Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, sits on flightline under night sky on FARP 17, Pohakuloa Training Area, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, April 13, 2019 (U.S. Army/Keith Kraker)
Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter assigned to 2-6 Cavalry Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, sits on flightline under night sky on FARP 17, Pohakuloa Training Area, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii, April 13, 2019 (U.S. Army/Keith Kraker)
Photo By: 1st Lt. Ryan DeBooy
VIRIN: 190413-A-NH731-663

Reassure Partners of our Commitment. Through our continued military presence, even amid a reallocation of resources that reduces our footprint, we demonstrate to our allies and partners our commitment to regional security and stability. Task-specific combined joint task forces, continual senior defense official–defense attaché engagement, international military education and training exchanges, and coordinated high-level visits all contribute to military presence. Continued long-standing military exercises signal our commitment and increase our readiness and capacity to cooperate with partners. In demonstrating our commitment, we must also be honest and forthright about our limitations and priorities within these relationships and understand that security, economic, diplomatic, and information space unclaimed by the West is a potential opportunity for a competitor. Simultaneously, U.S. and host nation resources are not infinite, and competitor engagement in some sectors may be beneficial to U.S. goals.

Encourage Regional Integration and Military Interoperability. We should continue our diplomatic efforts to buttress existing regional coordination mechanisms, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and to advance deeper formal military and economic regional coordination, as with the Middle East Strategic Alliance, especially in light of China’s whole-of-government approach. Regional integration will help our partners resist hostile powers’ efforts to subvert their sovereignty.

Reinforce Regional Understanding of the Dangers of Chinese or Russian Practices. We must engage both diplomatic and informational means to spotlight the dangers of Chinese and Russian practices to partner governments and publics. To that end, there are multiple instances of the Chinese debt trap and data theft, and the loss of sovereignty and freedom they bring. Likewise, we should increase awareness of how Russia uses disinformation to sow political discord and instability and should inoculate the public and governments against this threat. We should also ensure that Chinese and Russian human rights violations as well as repressive domestic policies toward Muslim populations (such as Chechens and Uighurs) are well understood by regional governments and publics.

Expose Areas Where Chinese and Russian Interests Diverge. Chinese and Russian goals for the region are largely aligned only in the short term and, in some areas (such as arms sales), they are already competing. We should remain alert to examples of divergence between Beijing and Moscow and seek opportunities to capitalize on these using diplomatic or informational levers. In areas where U.S. interests converge with those of China or Russia, but not both, we should strive to cooperate within existing U.S. law and international institutions, promoting the mechanism and the bilateral relationship.

Seek Areas of Mutual Interest or Deconfliction with China and Russia. Despite an overarching goal of deterring expanded Chinese or Russian influence damaging to U.S. interests, we must seek opportunities to capitalize on areas of mutual interest where we can and deconflict where we must. We share a goal with China and Russia to ensure the free flow of commerce and to deter piracy, so the potential remains for supporting efforts in these areas. With both countries, we also share a goal of defeating terrorism, although we must tread carefully given different views of both the targets and means for counterterrorism efforts. In Afghanistan, one could imagine China and/or Russia playing a positive role in the medium to long term.

The great power competition paradigm outlined in the National Defense Strategy provides a way to think strategically about inter-state competition in a multipolar world. Both history and a survey of current events demonstrate that the Middle East, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa will be pivotal spaces for great power competition between the United States, China, and Russia. Military power will reassure our partners and allies, and military cooperation can catalyze greater regional integration. In a contest where diplomatic, informational, and economic power will be the decisive means, we must ensure our military power is fully postured to support our whole-of-government efforts. JFQ


1 National Defense Strategy (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018).

2 Aaron L. Friedberg, “Competing with China,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 60, no. 3 (June 2018), 7–64.

3 Paul Stronski and Nicole Ng, Cooperation and Competition: Russia and China in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018); Eleanor Albert, “China in Africa,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, July 12, 2017, available at <>; and Niall Walsh, “China’s Strategic Influence Is Growing in the Americas,” Global Risk Insights, April 2018, available at <>.

4 Albert, “China in Africa”; and Walsh, “China’s Strategic Influence Is Growing in the Americas.”

5 Alice Vanni, “China’s Global Ambitions and the MENA Region: A Focus on the Energy Sector,” Instituto Affari Internazionali 18, no. 54 (September 2018), 1–5; Jeffrey Becker and Erica Downs, China’s Presence in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean: Beyond Belt and Road (Arlington, VA: CNA Analysis and Solutions, 2018); and Ted Piccone, The Geopolitics of China’s Rise in Latin America (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2016).

6 Becker and Downs, China’s Presence in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean.

7 Jerome Henry, “China’s Military Deployments in the Gulf of Aden: Anti-piracy and Beyond,” Asie. Visions, no. 89 (November 2016).

8 Stronski and Ng, Cooperation and Competition.

9 Piccone, The Geopolitics of China’s Rise in Latin America.

10 Alessandro Arduino, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative Security Needs: The Evolution of Chinese Private Security Companies,” Rajaratnam School of International Studies Working Paper no. 306, August 2017; and Becker and Downs, China’s Presence in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean.

11 Becker and Downs, China’s Presence in the Middle East and Western Indian Ocean.

12 Nikolay Kozhanov, Russian Policy Across the Middle East: Motivations and Methods (London: Chatham House, February 2018); and Andrew Radin and Clint Reach, Russian Views of the International Order (Washington, DC: RAND Corporation, May 2018).

13 Kozhanov, Russian Policy Across the Middle East.

14 Paul Stronski and Richard Sokolsky, The Return of Global Russia: An Analytical Framework (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017).

15 Kozhanov, Russian Policy Across the Middle East.

16 Donald N. Jensen, “Russia in the Middle East: A New Front in the Information War?” Jamestown Foundation, December 2017; and Jamie Gurganus, Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018).

17 Gurganus, Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America.