Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Winning the Phase 0 war

Warning — this contains spoilers for the new novel, Ghost Fleet.



By Lt. Robert “Jake” Bebber USN
Best Defense guest columnist

Warning — this contains spoilers for the new novel, Ghost Fleet.


By Lt. Robert “Jake” Bebber USN
Best Defense guest columnist

Warning — this contains spoilers for the new novel, Ghost Fleet.

U.S. military planners traditionally divide operational planning into distinct phases such as “Shape,” “Deter,” etc. However, this type of framework may no longer have the utility it once enjoyed. This has less to do with technology changing the nature of war and more to do with how we differ with our adversaries in our understanding of war. How we and our adversaries position ourselves and attempt to position the other becomes that much more critical. In their novel “Ghost Fleet” set in the not-too-distant future, Peter Singer and August Cole construct a realistic scenario of how the U.S. can quickly find itself on the losing end of a war because of its failure to understand the fight it was in until it was too late. Their book raises important considerations on the use and reliance of technology, our assumptions of the strategic behavior of allies, and whether the U.S. is truly prepared to fight in an “informationalized” conflict.

U.S. adversaries understand the state of the world to be one of conflict and competition and look to strategy to impose order through hierarchy. Our perspective is one that “peace is the norm and war is an aberration,” hence why the emphasis of military planning is to return, as quickly as possible and with a minimal loss of life and property, to the “steady state” of the “Shape” phase. We do not see Phase 0 as primarily a state of conflict between the United States and other powers. Yet it is here, in our “Phase 0,” that our adversaries are conducting military operations designed to deter and ultimately defeat the United States.

How we and our adversaries position ourselves and attempt to position the other becomes that much more critical. This is not simply the movement or addition of forces and logistics into a theater of operations, though that is important. Rather, it is about the ability to build and stockpile all elements of power and be capable and willing to use them.

Therefore, we need to rethink both our planning emphasis and how we approach Phase 0. Phase 0 becomes the most important, and we have to begin to think in terms of “winning” in Phase 0 and construct concomitant theories of victory here, because that is where the war is being waged.

In Ghost Fleet, a new China governed by a military-corporate alliance known as “The Directorate” teams up with its junior partner Russia to quickly seize the Western Pacific, including Hawaii. While many readers will be quick to recognize the technological vulnerabilities that China and Russia are able to exploit, from the insecurity of American command and control networks to the use of foreign-manufactured computer chips in key platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, those vulnerabilities alone are not sufficient to win. The authors make a point of explaining how, over a period of years (i.e., in Phase 0), The Directorate has quietly positioned China economically, diplomatically and socially to supplant the U.S. as the dominant, if not sole, super power. The Directorate realizes that the initiation of hostilities is the culmination of long-running conflict between the U.S. and China, akin to the final stages of a chess match. The problem for the U.S. is that it never realized it was in a conflict to begin with, until it was too late.

Winning the Phase 0 War

So how can we avoid the “Ghost Fleet” scenario? While I would not pretend to have all the answers, I can suggest a few themes. Winning the Phase 0 War is ultimately an intellectual task. It requires us to reconceptualize how we strategize about future conflict, or better yet, come to an understanding that we are in a conflict right now, but might not even know it. Imagine the consequences of losing a war we are not even aware we are in!

This task must begin not with an emphasis on new technologies – those are important and will surely come – but with what Barry Watts suggests as “developing the comprehensive, analytic framework to analyze, assess and master the impact of information on operations.” Bruce Berkowitz argued in “The New Face of War” that to win the Phase 0 War, a nation needs to win the “information war.” That leads to a series of questions, such as:

— How do we know we are prepared for Phase 0?

— How do we measure our capabilities?

— How do we compare those to our adversaries?

— How do we develop a strategy to get into a better position?

The United States tends to take a very tactical, “bottom up” view of new technologies and information, creating “stovepipes of excellence” — a not so complimentary euphemism – in which we separate all forms of “informationalized warfare” into categories like “EW,” “signals intelligence,” “cyberspace operations,” “C4ISR;” or by agency like “DoD,” and “NSA;” or by legal authority, such as “Title 10” and “Title 50.” This is a very Western way of looking at the world, and perhaps it may be too much to ask for us to fundamentally alter our cultural biases, however at the very least we should acknowledge them and their limitations. For example, we are unlikely to be able to anticipate or deter the use of force by our adversaries if we cannot even see it coming, if only because our understanding of “force” and our adversaries’ is so different, yet the outcome is the same. (Consider the Russian seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, for example.) It becomes imperative for combatant commands, the Joint Staff and even the National Security Council to begin to reassess Phase 0, and especially conflict in Phase 0 under “informationalized” conditions, and how we must posture ourselves and all elements of national power for the best position, lest we find ourselves about to be checkmated without even realizing we were playing chess to begin with.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber USN is an Information Warfare officer assigned to U.S. Cyber Command. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy from the University of Central Florida. His writings have appeared in Orbis, Proceedings, Parameters, CIMSEC NextWar Blog, the Small Wars Journal and elsewhere. He lives in Millersville, MD, with his wife, Dana and their son, Vincent. He welcomes your comments at The views expressed here do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or U.S. Cyber Command.

Photo credit: glenji/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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