Asymmetric Competition in the Arctic: Implications for North American Defense and Security

  • Published
  • By Dr. Lillian “Doc” Alessa; CDR James Valentine, USCG, Ret.; CDR Sean Moon, USCG, Ret.; & Dr. Andrew Kliskey
Asymmetric Competition in the Arctic
Implications for North American Defense and Security
Dr. LiLLian “Doc” aLessa
cDr James VaLentine, UscG, ret.
cDr sean moon, UscG, ret.
Dr. anDrew KLisKey
e current Arctic security environment is poorly characterized. In the past few
years, it has been termed a return to great- power competition and now is oscil-
lating around discussions of hybrid threats or gray- zone warfare. Whatever the
term, these are methods and means designed to avoid notice, obscure intent and
origin, and exploit the seams in the targets’ awareness and response capabilities.
In this article we use the term asymmetric competition (AC) to describe such ac-
tivities, which exist as a continuum of conict below open warfare, rather than
tting neatly into the binary notion of war and peace. While many national se-
curity scholars and practitioners are aware of and concerned about the use of AC
by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the ability of the United States and its
allies to detect and protect against such behavior is limited. At the same time, the
PRC has demonstrated a growing interest in the Arctic due to the regions geo-
strategic importance and has taken an unusually aggressive posture toward as-
serting and securing Beijing’s interests there. We conducted an initial assessment
to detect the extent, types, and tempo of AC using the Strategic Intelligence
Framework (SIF)—a systems science methodology—to identify PRC asymmet-
ric competition activities in the North American Arctic. Our results suggest an
ongoing and pervasive AC campaign. We oer that integrative frameworks like
the SIF can assist the United States, its allies, and its partners in detecting and
characterizing AC with the accuracy and precision required for the development
of strategy, policies, and response.
Great- Power Competition, Gray- Zone Warfare, and Hybrid
Threats: Everything Old Is New Again
e PRC and the Russian Federation (Russia) are challenging the economic,
military, and cultural dominance of the United States in the post–Cold War era.
A range of literature exists in the political science and international policy realms
Alessa, Valentine, Moon, & Kliskey
rich with references to great- power competition (GPC), gray- zone warfare, and
hybrid threats, which can be summarized as follows:
1. e United States remains the most powerful conventional warfare force on
the planet, with the greatest global reach;
2. Opposing the United States using direct military force in a geostrategic
context is a dangerous and costly approach, with little chance of success,
until hard- power parity is achieved; and
3. ose seeking increased national and global power at the expense of the
United States will pursue indirect strategies (e.g., gray- zone warfare) and low-
signature tactics (hybrid threats) designed to avoid detection, provide plausible
deniability, and fall below thresholds that would trigger security/defense and
protective responses.
However, this GPC is only new in the sense that it represents a change from
the immediate past. e unquestioned dominance of the United States from the
fall of the Soviet Union until today, or even the bi- polarity of the Cold War, and
the clear emphasis on both the use and avoidance of conventional military en-
gagement are the historical anomalies. Most human conict has been something
much less than all- out war, instead waged using many other methods.1 is is
something US policy makers previously recognized. One architect of post–World
War II security, George Kennan, described it as political warfare, which he dened
as “the employment of all the means at a nations command short of [hot] war, to
achieve its national objectives.”2 In this article, to avoid the morass of terms and
their previous or competing denitions, we refer to all these linked concepts col-
lectively as asymmetric competition (AC), since the underlying principle is to avoid
head- to- head competition using matching hard- power elements. We further de-
ne threat as some activity or action that gives the actor advantage, preferably at
the expense of the target.
Asymmetric Competition as Geostrategic Environment Shaping
Since the end of World War II global norms have been rooted in what are usu-
ally termed liberal, internationalist ideas. is includes the concepts of universal
human rights, freedom of the press, equality before the law, a representative form
of government, and various civic freedoms. ese ideas are liberal in the sense that
they emphasize that individuals have certain intrinsic rights that cannot be morally
or ethically violated by others—including the state. ese ideas are internationalist
because these asserted rights attach to the person, rather than ruled territory, and
nations are expected to uphold them. For example, the United Nations’ Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states that all people, everywhere, are entitled to a
Asymmetric Competition in the Arctic
social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this
Declaration can be fully realized.”3 Similarly the North Atlantic Treaty Organiza-
tion (NATO) embraces these standards in its opening articles, and the Interna-
tional Criminal Court was explicitly founded to try cases where a country fails to
act on its own, or is “in reality . . . unwilling or unable” to do so.4 While the actual
exercise of such ideals is never perfect, these basic principles form the foundation
of existing global norms and standards for state behaviors.
Challenging these norms can—and often does—create internal and international
backlash and consequences, even if they are applied unevenly. ese range from in-
ternal protests (e.g., Hong Kong 2019–2020), to coercion through sanctions or
military force up to and including full- scale invasions. In many ways this runs coun-
ter to a strict Westphalian construction, which emphasizes the absolute right of
each state to be the “sole author of laws within its jurisdiction . . . hold a monopoly
on the organized use of force,” and regards inuence or interference in the domestic
aairs of a state as a violation of sovereignty so severe it may prompt open war.5
e PRC and Russia are primarily authoritarian in their rule, and thus poten-
tially subject to various negative consequences should their actions violate these
standards. Both countries would naturally prefer a more permissive environment,
where, for example, the PRC’s Uighur genocide, or its handling of Hong Kong,
were not grounds for repercussions.6 As neither Russia nor the PRC can yet rea-
sonably challenge the hard power of the United States, Moscow and Beijing seek
to revise the existing rules in ways that favor their national and global objectives
while simultaneously undermining current norms, institutions, and those that
support them using “all the means at a nations command.”7 Some authors have
attempted to reframe the PRC’s actions as more complex than revisionism, but
none of the presented arguments adequately explain things like the prohibition
on researching Western constitutional democracy, universal values of human
rights, Western- inspired notions of media and civil society independence . . . neo-
liberalism, and ‘nihilistic critiques of the state,”8 the PRC’s pursuit of dissidents
abroad, or its use of “sharp power to erode trust in government and societies
through censorship, dis- and misinformation, and interference in sociopolitical
relationships and institutions that involve academia, culture, media, and econo-
mies (ACME). e latter has grown so strong so that even non- Chinese academ-
ics report self- censorship to avoid PRC entanglements.
Asymmetric Competition as National Strategy
e examples above demonstrate the PRC’s strategy for reshaping the political
and security environment. In 1999 two senior PRC military ocers wrote Unre-
stricted Warfare, explaining how the PRC could defeat the militarily superior
Alessa, Valentine, Moon, & Kliskey
United States by using other elements of national power and avoiding direct en-
gagements.9 e ree Warfares” outlined in the book—psychological warfare,
public opinion warfare, and legal warfare—have since been elevated to ocial
PRC doctrine. Salient examples include: the use of business, technology and
science, education, culture and tourism,” as ocial state tools to achieve national
objectives; laws that assert extraterritorial jurisdiction over PRC critics, including
noncitizens; cyberattacks; coercive “debt diplomacy”; exportation of surveillance
and social credit technology to other nations; use of China’s shing eet as a naval
militia; and sharp power aimed at CAMP targets. Despite their security implica-
tions, few of these events trigger security responses under most national or inter-
national rule sets. ese events exist in a “gray zone” of conict—neither open war
nor innocent coincidence—where the right response is unclear and the line be-
tween “regular and threatening acts is blurred. us, AC is designed to take ad-
vantage of the seams in institutional awareness and response thresholds. e
practical eect is that disaggregation of the “threat signal,” from the surrounding
normal is a herculean task using existing methods—if they work at all.
Asymmetric Competition as Action
In direct implementation, AC consists of what are sometimes called hybrid
threats. ese threats combine multiple aspects of state power, and act below de-
tection and response thresholds to achieve objectives. Recognition of such dangers
as serious threats demanding national and mutual security options led to the es-
tablishment of the NATO European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hy-
brid reats (Hybrid CoE) in 2017. e Hybrid CoE provides a clear and concise
denition of hybrid threats:
e term hybrid threat refers to an action conducted by state or non- state actors,
whose goal is to undermine or harm the target by inuencing its decision- making
at the local, regional, state, or institutional level.
Such actions are coordinated and synchronized and deliberately target demo-
cratic states’ and institutions’ vulnerabilities.
Activities can take place, for example, in the political, economic, military, civil or
information domains. ey are conducted using a range of means and designed
to remain below the threshold of detection and attribution.10
As a structural feature of liberalism—and by adversarial intent—this is an un-
comfortable space for liberal states and institutions, which through their adher-
ence to rule of law use legality as a proxy for what is threatening and what is not.
e implication is that legal acts are not harmful, or at least not detrimental
Asymmetric Competition in the Arctic
enough to justify state intervention.11 e Hybrid CoE notes that an intensify-
ing conict of values” between liberal and authoritarian states, “an increasingly
complex information environment,” and vulnerabilities inherent in open societies
create a ripe strategic operating environment for hybrid actors, if left unchecked.12
Detection and Analysis of Asymmetric Competition is Lacking
AC below the nation- state level is dicult to detect, since these events have
low- signature and are aimed at the seams identied above.13 Apart from the myr-
iad information- sharing problems routinely lamented, or the treatment of analysis
problems as though they are information- collection problems, there is the concern
of analytic bias, in this case, what the US Intelligence Community (IC) calls mir-
ror imaging.” Mirror imaging is when analysts or organizations “project [their]
thought process or value system onto someone else,” leading to mischaracterization
and errors in estimative assessments. While the IC ocially trains analysts to avoid
mirror imaging, the practice remains pervasive throughout the community.14
is is a question of cognitive frameworks: information and data are evaluated
through the lens of what is important, relevant, and sensible to the analyst/United
States, rather than the analysis target. e result is a set of conclusions that are
logical and internally consistent but may have no bearing on reality; “just because
something seems logical to an analyst does not mean that the subject being ana-
lyzed will see it that way—especially when dierences in thought processes and
beliefs are factored into the equation.”15 Given that AC is explicitly employed to
avoid expected confrontation points, it is easy to see how our intelligence enter-
prise has more often missed than detected it.
Methodology: Using the Integrative Frameworks of System Science to
Detect and Characterize the AC Threat
To address these profound shortcomings in our broad intelligence processes,
we used a systems science framework, in collaboration with diverse defense, secu-
rity, and intelligence practitioners. e resultant Strategic Intelligence Framework
(SIF) is an updated method for approaching intelligence problems using rule
managers, diverse data ecosystems, data processing (analytics), and pattern devel-
opment and relationships, here termed pattern conuence (e.g., analysis and con-
clusions), to detect AC. Developed in collaboration with agencies and personnel
across the US and Canadian security and defense enterprises, the SIF is like an
amplier and noise reduction circuit in an electronic device. It boosts the targeted
threat signals, while ltering out information that masks the target. Drawing
from complex systems, mathematics, social science, and geographic information
Alessa, Valentine, Moon, & Kliskey
science, the target signals are not analyzed in isolation but in relation to both their
geographic context and each other. e result is a qualitatively and quantitatively
accurate representation of the threat estimate. is provides clear, actionable, and
precise strategic intelligence to consumers—something that remains sorely lack-
ing for the Arctic.16
Figure 1. Strategic Intelligence Framework (SIF). FSLTTP refers to federal, state, local,
territorial, tribal, and private partners. This graphic was developed with a large enterprise
of connected organizations in mind. Data collection, algorithmic steps, analytics, and visu-
alizations were executed manually in this research. (Alessa et al. 2021).
Challenge Question: Is the PRC Engaged in Asymmetric
Competition in the North American Arctic?
Arctic Security Requires Integrated Analysis
As the Arctic changes and becomes more accessible, it has gained increased de-
fense and security attention. e US Department of Defense (DOD), for instance,
published its Arctic strategy as a report to Congress in 2019, and academic literature
on Arctic security has exploded over the past 10 years, with the number of annual
articles approximately doubling between 2012 and 2020 (g. 3).17 is is capped by
a nearly 25-percent increase from 2019 to 2020. Examination of article subjects and
publishing journals shows a body of work from the “usual suspects” in security and
defense matters: topics such as geopolitics, international relations and law, sociology,
and political science contained in regional political, policy, and military/defense
journals. Environmental science occasionally appears but usually within the context
Asymmetric Competition in the Arctic
of human or social security in a warming Arctic. Broadly, there is great conceptual
depth, topical analysis, and interdisciplinary research, well- supported within the
analysis and theory of the humanities and their careful evidentiary standards. e
Arctic is an interstitial region as dened by Dylan Craig, to which the Arctic na-
tions are institutionally committed but within which their conventional tools of
warcraft and statecraft are excluded by both practical and legal considerations.”18
e highly variable climate, low population density, and lack of infrastructure mean
that law enforcement, military forces, regulatory organizations, and emergency ser-
vices are sparse. is is compounded by a complex legal and sociocultral terrain in
which Arctic nations make competing claims, and the rights and historical practices
of indigenous populations overlap and sometimes conict with the desires or even
borders of sovereign states.
Figure 2. Arctic security. Peer-reviewed literature analysis for Arctic Security as the
number of results per year.
ese publication types and trends also mean that examinations of Arctic secu-
rity are being made using methods that are qualitative, leading to highly general-
ized conclusions. ree main themes dominate existing Arctic threat narratives:
Alessa, Valentine, Moon, & Kliskey
An equipment and infrastructure arms race” occurring between the United
States and its allies, Russia, and the PRC;
Concerns about militarization (e.g., Russian build up, etc.) or forms of cash
diplomacy to gain access to the region (e.g., the Arctic Silk Road); and
Prognostication of geopolitical dynamics and international aairs, based on
any number of theories, and/or schools of thought.
If these are conducted by think tanks or contracted to the private sector, they
often bear a substantial price tag to the US taxpayer. Realistically, none of these
provide the degree of precision necessary to guide policy, workforce develop-
ment, and resource acquisition such as targeted investment in technologies,
education, or training, beyond “the Arctic has arrived as a policy problem and
will require some kind of investment in these categories.” is is not a criticism
of the humanities, think tanks, policy engines, or their adjacent elds. It is,
rather, a recognition that data and information are not being leveraged for
quantitative analyses to create better descriptive, explanatory, and predictive
methods that serve operational needs and often by those far removed from not
only the Arctic but also lacking the necessary expertise and skill sets. With that
in mind, we apply the SIF here as just such an integrative method to analyze
North American Arctic threats in the context of AC.
Rule Management, Scenario Creation
rough a meta- analysis of 12 workshops on Arctic security between 2017
and 2020, we established that many US and Canadian academic and practicing
security experts are worried less about the hard militarization and nancial foot-
holds in the Arctic than apparent attempts by adversaries like Russia and the
PRC to gain information, create local contacts and networks, buy inuence and
access, conduct tests of security measures, and other such activities. In practitio-
ners’ views, such attempts are aimed at undermining local and national security.
Often, practitioners expressed that what they were concerned about was perfectly
legal, rendering law enforcement or criminal investigation moot. eir perspec-
tives on this issue were often rooted in practical Arctic experience. For all the
changes rendering the Arctic more accessible, it remains a remote region with
signicant barriers to military and other operations and logistics. So, while mili-
tarization was certainly a concern, they deemed the clearly described AC threats
as being of greater immediate, strategic importance.