Reflections on the 2020 Defense Science Board Summer Study


This is a rare opportunity.  This study was commissioned more than three years ago, yet here we are with a publication just issued by DoD in May 2023.  How did the Defense Science Board (DSB) do in projecting the future state of the world?  DSB Studies and the many studies produced both inside and outside the DoD that attempt to describe a future strategic landscape are read, discussed and then put away.  Rarely do they see the light of day outside of academia, think tanks, and strategists interested in seeing how badly we missed the mark. 

The Executive Summary patches over the “gap” between 2020 and May 2023 with a review of the major changes in the security environment since the DSB wrapped up in 2020.  Of the nine major events having an impact on US strategy, we can see that at least three can be labeled as strategic surprises.  Notably, most of the events cited in the executive summary are either directly or indirectly related to the war in Ukraine.  For example, the “Comprehensive Strategic Agreement” between China and Saudi Arabia was likely a Chinese strategic aim before war broke out in Ukraine, but it seems highly probable that Saudi Arabia was taking advantage of a seam in its relationship with Western democracies to create ties with a country passively encouraging Russian actions in Ukraine.

So despite Ukraine and its consequences, what does this DSB study offer those seeking guidance to develop capabilities and to develop strategy adapted to the current (and expected) strategic situation?  Unfortunately, the report includes a great deal of discussion of “gray zone” operations which may have had currency in 2020 but was declining even then as an apt descriptor of what we now know as shaping operations.  What the DSB may have considered to be gray zone operations aimed at the West and in Ukraine in particular were, in hindsight, exactly the sort of shaping operations one would expect of a nation on the cusp of a major strategic move.  It seems now highly probable that Putin considered the invasion of eastern Ukraine to be a matter of “when” and not “if.”

The DSB does touch on the information component of national power and its exercise by China and Russia by describing it as a “new dimension of conflict;” even in 2020, that seems to be backward- and not forward-looking.  Other authors the DSB study may have considered such as Matt Armstrong have been highlighting the importance of this “new” paradigm for many years. A broader view of the strategic landscape suggested (even in 2020) that there is nothing “new” about the concept of leveraging information and influence to set the stage for strategic surprise and success.

The study also recounts a commonly-held opinion that the US has difficulty countering such shaping operations to influence attitudes and beliefs.  The study cites “American values and norms” as an impediment to countering such influence activities.  This seems like more excuse-making than a description of why the US lags in its information efforts.  The US has used its ability to disseminate truthful information to foreign audiences in many forms and over varied channels in the past, and we sit atop a globally dominant information dissemination industry centered in Silicon Valley.  Yes, we still fail to understand that the good work done by America throughout the world does not ‘speak for itself’ and it never has.  These good works need an accompanying communication plan that speaks to people around the world in a local context describing the purpose and intent of American generosity.  Our public diplomacy apparatus may be dormant, but there is no reason it cannot be reawakened to build upon our native expertise; only will and a small amount of resources are required.

What the Summer Study describes as “gray zone operations” certainly does fall within the national security realm, and there are many tools we can use in our information toolbox that are owned and employed by DoD.  The US government and DoD need to stop describing strategic shaping operations as gray zone operations and think of them as indicators of strategic intent and shaping operations with military objectives.  This would plant the necessary strategic thinking firmly within the national security apparatus where it can be understood for what it is; from there, plans can be developed to counter such activities in pursuit of our own strategic aims.

The Summer Study does highlight technical advancements by China (mostly) in the areas of Identity Exploitation and Control (IEC) and their pursuit of control of portions of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII).  The impact of these activities and others do need further study as they are capabilities that can be turned into an advantage at the operational and tactical levels of war.  The collection of data and making it useful to decision-makers is again, an industry the US dominates yet we are only scratching the surface in the integration of these tools into military decision-making.  This goes unmentioned in the study.

The study’s authors say “China and Russia are united in the goal of thwarting U.S. interests.”  Certainly, there is much evidence to support this statement.  What the authors miss is that this may also be their greatest weakness.  The majority of Western nations remain firmly rooted in the concept of classical liberal democracy.  The Chinese are doing nothing surprising in their aggressive patronization of the Global South via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which includes aggressive 100% financing of infrastructure.  These actions are completely transparent as part of their pursuit of influence.  The US and western partners have the ability to do far more good than the Chinese seek to do with the BRI by using the economic clout we already have; again, only the will to do so is missing.  Favorable trade terms with foreign partners is not politically popular at the moment but it would do far more to influence countries in the Global South than port visits.

The horrific disaster in Ukraine did rejuvenate the NATO alliance which was struggling before Russia chose to take action that created near-unity among European allies.  Prior to the unifying effect of the war in Ukraine, I watched as NATO credibility continued to decline.  The war in Ukraine continues to strengthen NATO foundations among European allies but my faith in NATO as a long-term unifying institution remains in question.  We should closely watch public opinion within our western allies for clues to the durability of this institution.  I do believe NATO unity might actually create a deterrent for future Russian aggression, and we should use our economic and informational power to continue cementing the relationship with current and potential NATO partners while also recognizing the need for those same powers to contribute a greater share towards their own defense.

The focus is now certainly on the Russian military after a long period of intelligence community assessments of its capability (which were over-stated).  No one that worked with the Russian military in the past (many of us worked face-to-face with the Russians in the Balkans and elsewhere) should have been surprised by their weak leadership and military culture.  We don’t need an army of “Kremlinologists” which are cited in this DSB study as a strength in or ability to decipher USSR intent and motives  An expansion of the intel community in its traditional form is certainly not what we need to better understand the information environment of the 21st century.  Instead, we need to leverage the billions of people with smartphones that broadcast to the world the nature and effect of Chinese, Russian and other adversary activities.  An Intelligence Community (IC) that looks more like Bellingcat might be a strategic suggestion for improving our understanding of Russian and Chinese intent; at the very least, we need to elevate the role and position of open source intelligence with US leadership using the rapidly expanding capabilities in data analytics.  We have the tools to avoid being surprised.  The US IC did accurately predict a Russian invasion when the evidence became overwhelming, although the Russians had been broadcasting their intent for years prior.

The Summer Study is correct in urging the need to employ “All Elements of National Power.”  It is also appropriate for the study to note the “preeminence of the cognitive over the physical is fundamental to deterrence.”  We gained over 40 years of practice between 1945 and 1989.  We can re-discover and update our Cold War experiences for the 21st century information environment.  What we don’t need is another study citing the need for a “whole-of-government” effort or capabilities.  This recommendation has appeared with depressing regularity, yet it results in little effort to achieve such an effort to direct operations in the information environment from a unified USG-perspective.  This requirement (for another organization) is often cited (for at least the past 25 years) as a gaping hole in our national strategy and it is quite clear our government has no interest in tackling that issue.  There will not be a Department of Diplomacy/Information (and likely should not be), but we should examine how department-level equities can be subordinated to the need to transmit American values and intent to audiences around the world and allow the President to direct such activities when and were needed, and expect an integrated effort leveraging expertise from every department.  We should focus on choosing leaders of those tools of government that understand that department-level equities are of little utility on the global playing field.

The Executive Study is well worth a read if for no other reason than to understand why we have very smart, reasonable people that remain intellectually ‘fenced in’ by the structure and traditions of how things have been.  We still need a study that instead thinks of the way things should be.  The study does highlight the necessity of considering the cognitive environment which would mean better understanding the decision-making processes of our competitors on the global stage.  A study that delves into how that might be considered and countered would be an exciting read.



Michael Williams is a veteran of the US Army and a current IO consultant.  He was previously the Executive Director of the Information Professionals Association and has served as an IO advisor for the OSD.


2020 DSB Summer Study on New Dimensions of Conflict: Executive Summary.