The nation’s military establishment seems to be innovating more rapidly these days. Perhaps the Pentagon is getting better at reacting quickly to the changes in the nature of international conflict, or maybe it’s just more noticeable because of our easy access to  information. Whatever the reason, the ideas are coming quickly.

The latest “thought piece” from the Joint Staff hit the internet Monday. Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, “Competition Continuum,” describes how the military needs to think about campaigning over time rather than engaging in specific, set campaigns. It cautions that applying operational frameworks of shaping, supporting, and decisive operations to long-term competitive environments—such as the Cold War—is the wrong approach. The terms are inadequate.

It is not doctrine, which describes how we fight today with the capabilities we already have, and it is not a concept, which describes how we need to fight in the future. It is, rather, a way to begin addressing the gaps between the two.

Strategy Flowing Down to Doctrine

The publication is the next step in implementing a workable doctrine that supports the National Security and National Military Strategies. It will help guide the development of capabilities that will enable the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations concept to mature into doctrine.

We have previously thought of the military’s role as occurring along a “spectrum of conflict.” More recently, we were planning for “Full Spectrum Operations” ranging from stability and civil support operations at one end, to major combat operations at the other.

Those paradigms are no longer adequate. Our major adversaries, as the publication notes, “employ a mixture of instruments of national power to achieve significant strategic advantages in a manner calculated not to trigger our legal or institutional thresholds for armed conflict.” The Russian actions to influence the 2016 presidential election are a prime example. As I have written before, Russia’s actions were malevolent, but they were calculated not to be acts of war.

For that reason, the military needs to stop looking at the line between war and peace as an on/off switch. War may be the continuation of policy with other means, but the nation does not employ the military, as one of the four instruments of national power, only after the bullets start flying any more than it makes its diplomat take a seat when they do.

Why a continuum?

The publication describes three states: cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict. But it recognizes that no armed force, indeed no nation, will be operating solely in one of those states at any given time, but across all of them simultaneously. We compete even with our allies, and we can be in competition with an adversary while still cooperating in other areas when it’s mutually beneficial. There are infinite possibilities for overlap along the continuum.

The authors use the Second World War as one example, where the U.S. cooperated with the Soviet Union in the war against Germany while still competing for future post-war influence. Later, in the Cold War, we competed against one another, “fought through and with proxies as an indirect means to gain advantage,” and yet still found ways to cooperate through international organizations.

Policymakers determine where the joint force operates within that continuum at any given time. “The competition continuum facilitates dialogue between civilian policymakers and military leaders by providing means to more precisely convey degrees of strategic initiative or restraint,” the document states.

The idea of integrated campaigning describes how the joint force operates across the entire continuum in concert with the diplomatic, information, and economic instruments of national power. Today, security cooperation operations, joint training exercises, and freedom of navigation operations are as important to the nation’s strategic interests as is the direct application of military force.

We’re still quite a way from being able to field a force capable of “multi-domain dominance.” The Army doesn’t plan to get there until 2034. But the adoption of concepts like the competition continuum get us closer.

Now if we could just avoid being distracted by the next shiny object and see the concepts through to fruition.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin