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Political Warfare: SIS Prof. on Rethinking Military Strategy

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American soldiers underneath two helicopters, looking at mountains in the distance.
In his writings, Benjamin Jensen draws on both his research and his own military experience.

You’ve probably heard the jaw-dropping budget figures. According to a May report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the United States spends more on national defense than the next seven countries combined. But despite that commitment, policymakers of all ideological stripes have noted the limits of US power—from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria.

Benjamin Jensen, a scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service, says the problem isn’t necessarily one of resources or capabilities. In a recent book, Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition, Jensen and his coauthors propose US military strategies more appropriate for population-centric conflicts. And as part of the solution, he suggests that what we conventionally think of as “the military” should be more expansive.

“We need to think more broadly about strategy, and start to prioritize other instruments of power,” Jensen says.

In an interview, Jensen expanded on these ideas and discussed findings from another book he recently coauthored, Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion.

 

Before Precision Strikes

 

Jensen draws on both his research and real-world observations. He’s been in the army since 2002, switching to the reserves while earning his PhD at AU. He cowrote Military Strategy in the 21st Century with other current and retired military officials. Jensen jokingly calls it the “therapy book,” as they shared frustration over US counterterrorism efforts while envisioning new approaches.

“We keep doing these very sophisticated—and required—missions to hunt down malign actors who would threaten civilian populations, or US interests directly. We’re conducting a series of high-profile raids,” Jensen says in the interview. “But our concern is that we aren’t investing enough time and energy in a broader strategy for unconventional warfare, which could make us not have to rely upon the raids. How do we understand people, so that we can shape those networks enough that we prevent conflict before we do precision strikes?”

That’s a key point Jensen drives home. How much can you learn about a local population before conventional warfare is necessary? Through the years, this was sometimes called a battle for “hearts and minds,” the title of a celebrated Vietnam War documentary. But Jensen says efforts need to go beyond “bumper sticker” slogans.

“If it’s just where I walk up and interview you through sunglasses, holding my rifle and telling you, ‘I’m trying to win your hearts and minds,’ you’re going to answer every question how I want to hear it,” he says. “It’s really getting to know local actors, their interests, thinking about that as a form of intelligence, and actually using data resources to understand people.”

Jensen gives this example: Buying a single F-35 costs roughly $80-$95 million, depending on the variant. That’s a plane that won’t operate alone—so the airpower costs will be significantly higher—and that type of conventional campaign may be ineffectual, he says.

“Why wouldn’t I take that cost alone and think about more tailored social media campaigns to try to limit people’s interest in a particular malign actor? Or some series of development assistance to increase broadband productivity, so that those [digital] campaigns would be more effective,” he notes. “It just requires a much more creative approach to strategy.”

 

Cybersecurity and the Russia Model

 

In Cyber Strategy, they studied how major states, such as United States, Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, India, and Pakistan, are utilizing their cyber capabilities. By constructing a database of publicly attributed cyber operations from 2000-2014, they discount the notion that this is “fundamentally changing” the nature of war.

In fact, Jensen explains, it’s much more like traditional political warfare. Russia’s work to influence the 2016 presidential election tells us a lot about contemporary cyber operations, he says.

“The things that the Russians did were actually crude. Nothing was that complex. It was a spearfishing attack. As if I changed an email of someone you recognized by a few characters and sent you a link to get you to click,” he says. “The sophistication came in the people they were targeting, and how they then leveraged that with botnets and paid for social media campaigns to reach millions of people.”

Russia wanted to discredit American democracy, he opines, to impede a potential domestic uprising against the Russian oligarchy. He also delineates how other kinds of warfare can be much worse. “I would rather Russia attack the integrity of the US electoral system than shoot down US airliners,” he says. “So, it doesn’t mean that it’s not scary, but let’s look at the range of possibilities in great power conflicts. Election hacking compared to nuclear detonation is much more manageable.”

In a democratic country like the US, this type of battle requires an informed citizenry, he says. Yet that’s difficult to attain, because traditional gatekeepers—like, say, evening news anchors—are being replaced by unfiltered information that can lead to conspiracy theories.

 

Influence and Information

 

Despite these risks, Jensen believes US foreign policy officials should embrace overt influence campaigns. This can be achieved not just through tailored social media, but by shifting funding to programs like Voice of America.

“It doesn’t even have to be some type of complex, subversive campaign,” he says. “Just by being more aggressive in that space—that’s not hurting anyone. You’re telling your story, and you tell it consistently.”

Political warfare isn’t new. In the Military Strategy in the 21st Century introduction, they highlight the 216 BC Battle of Cannae. Carthaginian general Hannibal used knowledge of Roman political and economic networks to undermine internal support for Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, and Fabius was later stripped of his supreme command.

World War II was filled with unconventional campaigns, and the US deployed political warfare throughout the Cold War years. “It worked in the Cold War because we did it. I think we somehow became enamored with our own military and economic power, and we stopped being creative.”