Operational Ambiguity Is Important
First published in US Naval Institute Proceedings in August 2017, this article was written to make the point that the press cannot demand precision from national leaders on specifics that should be hidden from our adversaries. Last month I highlighted the importance of strategic ambiguity. There is a parallel at the operational level. Imagine the following scenario: The United States declares that, until further notice, 300 missiles will be positioned within 20 minutes flying time from time of launch to time of impact on any potential target in country A. The United States does not declare how those missiles are deployed. “But putting aside the question of whether we should engage in deceptive actions vis-à-vis our enemies, let’s agree that the absence of visible forces does not indict the credibility of a statement that we have forces present and capable of inflicting damage.” Will they be launched from aircraft carriers? From surface combatants? From submarines? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter whether the country in question can detect surface ships offshore, because submarines constitute a credible threat as well. (And, in fact, only a few of our potential adversaries could detect the presence of surface ships off their coasts, unless the United States decides to tell them). Are the forces really even there, or is this a modern version of General George Patton’s deception at Calais in 1944? That doesn’t matter either, because most U.S. adversaries have no ability to validate the claim. Not knowing, they must assume the capability is real. This proposal will evoke a reaction from purists: “You can’t lie to the American people!” Really? Besides the obvious need for operational deception, the information target isn’t Americans. It’s our enemies. Can anyone seriously claim that lying to an enemy in an attempt to prevent war or conflict or to gain the upper hand to minimize the loss of American lives is immoral? But putting aside the question of whether we should engage in deceptive actions vis-à-vis our enemies, let’s agree that the absence of visible forces does not indict the credibility of a statement that we have forces present and capable of inflicting damage. The only thing that matters with such a declaration is how the statement would affect the behavior of people who know they are potential targets. The reaction is this: Bad guys in those target countries will have to hunker down, with the understanding that they are never more than 20 minutes away from a zero-warning strike. In "Full Spectrum ASW,” I pointed out that submarines are perfectly suited to engendering operational ambiguity and suggested a few ways where doing so might be particularly constructive. But the larger point is that creating doubt as to when and where U.S. naval forces exist is, in and of itself, a force multiplier. You can deploy a great deal of combat power on Okinawa. But unfortunately, the island doesn’t move very fast. Strategic ambiguity is the withholding of information and/or clarity with respect to national courses of action. Will we or will we not take military action in the face of a given threat? Will we or will we not align with other specific nations on a given issue? Strategic deception has the ability to influence long- to mid-term calculus of evolving landscapes. Operational ambiguity has the ability to affect behaviors in a given situation today. Our willingness and ability to use both strategic and operational ambiguity have degraded over the past decade. Both strengthen the portfolio of options available to us in a very unstable world. Let’s pray that our national leadership will understand this and turn the ship around (without signaling where it’s headed).