Defense Influence and Perception Management in Long-Term Competition

Zachery Tyson Brown
13 min readSep 26, 2023

All views expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Summary

The orchestration of Department of Defense influence activities is an essential element of any strategy that aims to effectively manage long-term competition with great power adversaries. Influence activities are those operations, activities, and investments executed or undertaken by defense components that deliver signals to foreign decision-makers, regardless of whether we intend them to do so or not, and regardless of the means of delivery. This is admittedly a much broader conception than that of existing defense doctrine, which construes influence as an aspect (or outcome) of “operations in the information environment.” However, I believe it is a necessary recognition if we hope to succeed at renewed strategic rivalry in a competitive environment that is as flat, transparent, and globally integrated as today.

Regardless, if the signals Department of Defense actions send are unaligned, detrimental, or contradictory, they can weaken adversary and ally confidence in American capability, credibility, and resolve, undermining both deterrence and assurance. Worse, such uncoordinated signals might unintentionally encourage adversaries to accelerate the development of threatening weapons or countermeasures, or even inadvertently trigger the sort of miscalculation that prompts opportunistic aggression or otherwise results in deterrence failure. If, however, the signals the Department of Defense sends are aligned, integrated, and mutually reinforcing, they can serve to bolster deterrence, reassure allies and partners, and ultimately grow America’s global influence. By making explicit the results the Secretary of Defense seeks to achieve and which messages he or she intends foreign audiences to receive, Department of Defense components would be better able to exploit the competitive environment to gain relative advantage over adversaries and to further U.S. national interests over the mid-to-long term. In short: the potential strategic advantages to be gained from the successful alignment of these activities are significant, and the potential costs of not doing so are enormous.

Strategic Context

The United States is engaged in long-term, strategic competition with a revanchist Russia and an ambitious China in an era characterized by rapid and profound technological, economic, and social change. This competition is a persistent, dynamic, and open-ended contest for global influence that takes place primarily in the liminal space between peace and war, and spans the breadth of the elements of national power For better or worse, it is a struggle that seems likely to endure well into the future, and its course will determine whether the 21st century remains relatively peaceful and prosperous or is marred by the advance of aggressive states whose authoritarian and anti-democratic values are inimical to American interests and the larger global security order Americans have sacrificed so much to build and maintain for the better part of a century.

Now, and for the first time, the United States is challenged by a true peer rival in Xi Jinping’s China. Additionally, we face an acute and persistent threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has been weakened but hardly chastened as it doggedly prosecutes a failing but increasingly brutal war in Ukraine. Naked threats to force reunification with Taiwan from one rival and the intermittent rattling of nuclear sabers by the other are just two of the serious challenges to peace and prosperity the Department of Defense must help the nation address in an era of persistent technological, economic, political, and military rivalry. Indeed, it is due to these adversaries’ growing conventional and strategic military capabilities that efforts to shape their behavior below the threshold of armed conflict are crucial.

Deterrence is necessary, but deterrence in practice is merely the preservation of the status quo. Winning, over the longer term, requires the Department of Defense to make better use of every tool at its disposal, in concert with other federal Departments and agencies, to encourage adversary decisions that are beneficial to the long-term security interests of the United States. To do so, the Department must take a more active hand in shaping the contours of competition.

Discussion

Influence, in general terms, is one actor’s ability to affect the behavior of another. For our purposes, influence should be understood as the Department of Defense’s ability to purposefully modify adversary behavior. By ‘behavior,’ I mean adversary decision-makers’ choices, investments, and actions, as informed by their perceptions. Perceptions, in this sense, are shared images or understandings that shape the positions states take on issues concerning their own national security.

Historically, or at least since the end of the Cold War, anyway, the Department of Defense has not optimally managed this critical aspect of competition. Defense components, when they have thought of it at all, have construed ‘influence’ under what has recently been renamed “operations in the information environment.” This conventional and largely tactical approach to information operations was reinforced in the decade after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when oversight of information operations was given to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. Accordingly, the myriad tools and tactics developed over the years to dubiously shape the behavior of al Qaeda sympathizers during the Global War on Terrorism were expressed as discrete military operations with specific targets, in specific places, at specific times. While this conception is valid and useful for combatant commanders, whose primary concern is shaping their particular battlespace to achieve advantages in conflict, it is at best incomplete because it does not address the wide swath of competitive activities that occur at the national level and prior to and beyond conflict. Favoring tactical operations to achieve specific, localized effects, the conventional view ignores arenas of military competition foundational to long-term competition: force design, research and development, defense infrastructure, and the strategic investment of resources. Simply put, the various tools, tactics, and oversight processes used to shape terrorist activity simply do not scale to the level of adversarial great power bureaucracies, and do not rise to the challenge of what international relations scholar Hal Brands calls “the graduate level of strategy.”

The Department of Defense possesses enormous resources, all of which can be turned to the purposes of defense influence if we choose to do so. The Department additionally has been granted broad authority to conduct various operations and activities globally, each with its own degree of oversight based on the perceived level of risk. These operations and activities span a broad spectrum from overt to clandestine and each is governed by different elements within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who ensure they are conducted in accordance with applicable law and policy. These operations and activities are conducted through various means — through deliberate information operations, of course, but additionally through the presence (or absence) of forward-deployed military forces, through participation in a broad network of multilateral alliances, security agreements, and international fora, through the words and deeds of the Department’s senior leaders both in public and in private, through the public release of information regarding developmental capabilities, and through many other potential levers of influence.

For example:

o Public Affairs officers communicate truthful information to inform global publics on behalf of the Secretary of Defense, the Military Departments, and the Combatant Commands.

o Military Information Support Operations are employed by Combatant Commanders to communicate messages to foreign audiences that support the achievement of military objectives in a given theatre.

o Military deception activities are planned and executed to mislead adversaries about a commander’s operational and tactical intentions during wartime or to protect critical information from hostile intelligence services at all times.

o Regional Combatant Commands conduct large-scale training exercises with select allies and partners to demonstrate their deterrent capabilities under a variety of possible wartime conditions.

o The Secretary of Defense gives remarks at an international security conference, emphasizing the United States’ solid commitment to regional allies and partners.

o The new Office of Strategic Capital invests substantial funding into an unknown startup, signaling confidence in a nascent but promising technology.

o A Military Department — let’s say the Department of the Air Force — conducts a test of a developmental weapon system, in such a manner that foreign adversaries will take note of its result, whether it is a success or failure.

The challenge we face is not primarily one of authorities or resources, but rather one of effective mobilization and employment, which requires top-down direction, centralized coordination, and formal deconfliction prior to execution. While individual operations and activities are generally conducted responsibly and appropriately, such efforts can nevertheless fail without adequate coordination. Individual operations carefully tailored to achieve a result in a particular region or against a particular target audience can have dramatic unintended effects elsewhere in a strategic environment that is truly seamless for the first time in history. Contradictory signals from an unrelated activity across the globe can unintentionally undermine an entire campaign. In the worst case, such a contradictory or undesirable signal might prompt global adversaries to engage in opportunistic aggression or even result in deterrence failure.

Additionally, in what is an increasingly transparent, increasingly interconnected, and increasingly complex competitive space, Department of Defense leaders must recognize that our actions influence just as strongly as our words, and that even small actions may send large signals to particularly sensitive adversaries. Actions include not just public-facing decisions, but a much broader set of behaviors, deeds, and undertakings by members and representatives of the Department of Defense, including tests or demonstrations of defense capabilities, service and joint exercises, as well as any deployment, employment, or other usages of military forces. In short, every action the Department of Defense takes sends a message, whether we intend it to or not — we do not get to choose which of these our adversaries are influenced by.

Towards Defense Influence

What makes the use of defense influence strategic is its deliberate, comprehensive coordination to further the achievement of stated, long-term Department of Defense objectives. This is worth reiterating: there can be no strategic use of defense influence without clearly stating the long-term objectives for which it is intended, and what adversary perceptions that use of influence is being used to instill, reinforce — or, importantly, to avoid. Clear, consistent influence objectives must flow from National and Department of Defense policy goals, and it must be made explicit how a certain set of influence activities support a given objective.

The vision is one of clearly stated National long-term influence objectives, which contain nested, subordinate long-term defense influence objectives supported by desired adversary perceptions. Clear statements of long-term influence objectives make it easier to array a suite of tools against the objective concerned. In this vision, defense agencies, military departments, and individual commanders would not speak with one voice like automatons, but each with their own, tailored operations, activities, and investments, all aligned to a common purpose because they each understand how their own efforts can support explicit, long-term influence objectives.

The concept of defense influence does not compete with our longstanding concept of information operations as executed by military formations. It is instead complimentary; providing a broader and more comprehensive approach that looks beyond the discrete and tactical level of traditional information activities. The object is also not to impose additional oversight mechanisms on component executors who are already burdened by processes that are sometimes onerous — it is simply to align disparate activities that are already underway toward the reinforcement of common themes. Just as important, it is to provide authoritative guidance to avoid the reinforcement of undesirable perceptions that might lead our adversaries down paths the United States can ill afford.

Defense Influence in Long-Term Competition

The uses of strategic influence are manifold. Aligning the various activities already underway is simply the foundational baseline. For now, the Department of Defense’s goal must be to deter conflict if possible, or at least to delay its onset — and, if conflict is inevitable, to advantageously position the United States to ensure any potential conflict’s swift and favorable termination at the lowest possible to cost to the United States, its allies, and its partners.

Over the longer term, however, and beyond the immediate objective of deterrence, the tailored application of defense influence activities, in orchestration with other elements of national power, could be used to actively manipulate adversary behavior in ways beneficial to the United States. This should be a persistent and enduring goal throughout the duration of the competition, and it is something the Department of Defense will only improve at by dedicating resources to its accomplishment.

The coordination of influence activities likely to be underway globally at any given time across an enterprise as vast as the Department of Defense is, suffice it to say, a nontrivial problem. Nonetheless, alignment, integration, and deconfliction are central to effective campaigning and critical to strategic competition.

Perception Management as a Tool of Defense Influence

Perception management is a loaded term, but for me, it is just one of a variety of means to apply defense influence. Perception management is about being more selective about which facets of defense capabilities, if any, the Department discloses to rivals — both to shape their understanding of a given capability itself and to shape their understanding of how that capability fits into the larger strategic environment — all to influence their calculation of the relative costs and benefits of aggression. Perception management is used to influence an adversary’s understanding of a given capability by controlling the amount of information available to it. It is, to quote Thomas Schelling, “…not concerned with the efficient application of force, but with the exploitation of potential force.”

At the most basic level, perception management can be used to bolster deterrence by undermining an adversary’s confidence in its ability to achieve its operational aims through war. A more deliberate and longer-term perception management campaign, however, might be used to influence the investments, force design, and posture choices an adversary makes — thus making it strategic.

American defense planners have used perception management competently in the past. The best example, perhaps, is the development of the B-1 Lancer, which was designed as a nuclear bomber able to penetrate Soviet air defense systems by flying at low altitudes. Playing on ingrained Russian fears of American airpower, the B-1 program contributed to the economic strangulation of the Soviet Union by driving additional investment in adversary interceptors and surface-to-air missiles.

A coordinated application of perception management activities might, for example, take extra care to conceal a given system or platform’s vulnerabilities until it is too late for an adversary to take advantage of them. Alternately, the Department of Defense may selectively disclose a particularly disruptive facet of an individual capability at the most opportune time to instill doubt or to frustrate an adversary’s development of effective countermeasures. A capability might be concealed to increase an adversary’s uncertainty, or it might be revealed to increase their certainty that a given mission can be accomplished in a contested environment.

China and Russia are authoritarian states, but they are not monoliths; the choices these states make are informed by individuals, each of whom has their own preexisting perceptions of the United States, the Department of Defense, and the broader competitive environment with all its accompanying risks and opportunities. Some of these individuals have greater sway over the decision-making of their states than others, of course, and it is their perceptions the Department of Defense should seek to affect the most. These individuals’ perceptions, in most cases, have been reinforced over decades of lived experience and through study and observation, and they all are affected by some level of ingrained bias. Their perceptions are susceptible to change, but only slowly and through the deliberate and consistent application of many discrete tools of influence working in unison.

Today, defense components execute perception management activities in an ad-hoc and piecemeal fashion which are not well coordinated across the military services or the Combatant Commands. Communities of excellence exist in every military department and at each of the regional and functional commands, but what each of these can achieve in a distributed bureaucracy as large as the Department of Defense is limited for a variety of reasons. To achieve strategic effects in long-term competition, defense perception management activities must be aligned to stated Department-level objectives and desired perceptions established by the Secretary of Defense — and these, of course, should be aligned to relevant strategies published by national authorities.

Conclusion

The United States finds itself in a global contest for influence with peer adversaries in a competitive space that is far more dispersed than it was in the past. The competition takes place physically and temporally across every domain and it incorporates every element of national power. To win in this competition, savvy competitors must be able to effectively coordinate activities that are vastly distributed in time and space, at several overlapping scales of interaction, and for which the achievement of objectives may lie years, or even decades in the future.

If the Department of Defense continues to inadequately integrate its distributed efforts that influence key adversaries, or worse, fails to even acknowledge these efforts, the United States will be likelier to pay a dear price if deterrence fails. If every defense component continues to have complete latitude without regard to stated objectives or desired themes and perceptions, then many of our tools of influence have the potential to become proverbial loose cannons, ceding advantage to our advanced and persistent hostile powers who are using every tool at their disposal to shape a future that is more amenable to their revanchist aims, and continuing the undue imposition of influence fratricide.

Alternately, if the Department of Defense invests a relatively small amount of time and resources to better align and coordinate these actions and activities, it will be likelier to produce adversary decisions that are consistent with Secretary of Defense objectives, and thus better postured to defend the nation and advance national priorities. Continuing to consider the broad sweep of defense influence as simply a sub-set within the narrowly construed military concept of ‘operations in the information environment’ will result in failure as it tries to adapt a tactical solution to a problem of strategy.

For the Department of Defense, the use of defense influence should be practically synonymous with long-term competition. Influence is a resource to be cultivated and a currency to be spent. It can be invested smartly or wasted profligately. Its application is always instrumental and entails synchronizing our activities across time, space, and every element of the defense enterprise. Using our influence to ensure warfighting advantage is necessary, but any such advantages are fleeting and insufficient by themselves. To win in the long term the Department’s leaders must strive to create asymmetric advantages in the structure of competition itself — while imposing asymmetric costs on America’s opponents.

In an era of emerging and intersecting novel technologies that promise to change the character of warfare and threaten the risk of unintended escalation, it is imperative that the Department deliberately, systematically, and comprehensively manage the signals it is sending to its rivals — both to bolster deterrence and to avoid unintentional miscommunication. Leaders, planners, and operators at every level should consider the communicative impact of everything they do on behalf of the Department and the nation. Senior leaders must seek to better understand adversary perception and reasoning and deliberately seek ways to affect their decision-making to cause them to behave in ways more favorable to the United States.

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