The Missing, Irregular Half of Great Power Competition

Published in: Modern War Institute website (2020)

Posted on RAND.org on April 30, 2021

by Eric Robinson

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The US military has embraced great power competition as its organizing principle, but cannot seem to agree on what the term actually means.

While the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) has driven a monumental shift toward great power competition, the document failed to define the term in any meaningful fashion, nor did it build a common understanding across the US military regarding what it means to actually compete.

Should forces be postured abroad, or trained at home? Should they prepare for high-end conflicts, or gray zone aggression? Should they do all of the above, or nothing at all?

To succeed in the competition it so desperately hopes to undertake, the US military must learn to bridge the gaps between these competing visions, and embrace a new framework for understanding competition through the lens of its current approaches to traditional and irregular warfare. In so doing, the Defense Department can finally move beyond its myopic focus on preparing for great power conflict, and embrace the missing, irregular aspects of great power competition.

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