In the fall of 2016, a remote corner of northwest Syria became a tinderbox. Turkish ground forces rolled in from the north, while Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces advanced from the south. For months, American Green Berets advising counter–Islamic State (ISIS) Syrian fighters were caught in the middle, trying to avoid escalation with three hostile forces and a NATO ally. The following March, the crisis came to a head when Russian airstrikes mistakenly bombed Syrian Kurdish positions less than five miles from their American advisors, whose decision not to shoot down the Russian aircraft averted a crisis between two nuclear-armed nations. This episode shows that American military personnel are often thrust into volatile situations and asked to make quick decisions that could provoke greater conflict. But the U.S. military does not offer warfighters enough guidance for how to navigate escalation risks.
Since the end of the Cold War, the American military has mostly operated against asymmetric foes, from terrorists, to insurgents, to weaker states. With the renewed focus on near-peer competition, experts have called for the military to relearn how to adapt to unfavorable operating conditions. Services have begun rebuilding and fielding new capabilities to operate with contested, changing information and deter adversarial use of new technologies and gray-zone tools. The U.S. military needs to pay as much attention, however, to another underappreciated challenge of future fights: the risk of unintentional escalation.
The Department of Defense (DoD) should institute new education and training policies to empower American military officers to consider the risk of unintentional escalation when making decisions in peacetime, crisis, and across the spectrum of competition. Officers should internalize how their own actions could be misperceived and should empower personnel under their command to succeed in their missions under these escalation risks.
Pay Attention to Unintentional Escalation Risk
Military commanders already think in terms of risk: risk to forces, risk to mission, and risk to strategy. But they should add another crucial one: escalation risk. Escalation risk is the probability and consequence of an enemy responding to one’s actions by using more intense force or expanding the confrontation to new capabilities, new targets, or new domains.
Professional military education should impart knowledge of escalation risk across the officer corps. Required courses should address different forms of escalation—deliberate, unintentional, and accidental—and research on how crisis, conventional, and nuclear escalation can occur so that officers who assume command have the tools needed to navigate escalation in their missions. These frameworks would help commanders understand different pathways to escalation and how their choices could create off-ramps or unintentionally exacerbate an escalatory cycle, especially in response to an adversary’s escalation, whether deliberate or not.
But unintentional escalation does not just ignite from the actions of an adversary or other actors. Warfighters must internalize that the well-intended actions they take may also have escalatory consequences. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, U.S. naval ships manning the blockade dropped practice depth charges to compel a Soviet submarine to surface, a tactical choice that U.S. President John F. Kennedy worried the Soviets would mistake for attacks. As feared, Soviet commanders mistook these charges for explosives and seriously considered using nuclear torpedoes, causing one of the closest calls during the crisis.
Commanders should be challenged to think not only about whether a choice could make a mission effective or efficient, but also whether an enemy might perceive that choice as hostile intent—especially given that research shows that escalation often results from both sides competing with a singular focus on the best way to win. In a seminal article in 1968, Robert Jervis noted the “overall tendency for decisionmakers to see other states as more hostile than they are.” Just because American commanders may intend an action as non-hostile, deterrent, or defensive does not mean that an enemy will interpret it the same way.
Ensure Any Escalation Is Deliberate
The United States may not wish to avoid escalation in every context; civilian leaders and commanders may sometimes decide to escalate or threaten escalation to coerce an enemy or win a conflict. But the U.S. military needs to be intentional about escalation control. Research shows that tactical and operational choices about target, intensity, timing, and use of particular capabilities might be misperceived by an enemy, or might create incentives for an enemy’s leaders to use or lose an escalatory capability.
Understanding that a future conflict might leave military personnel cut off from communications with flag officers, the U.S. military should prepare warfighters across the chain of command to understand when to escalate deliberately and how to minimize unintentional escalation.
The United States may not wish to avoid escalation in every context; civilian leaders and commanders may sometimes decide to escalate or threaten escalation to coerce an enemy or win a conflict. But the U.S. military needs to be intentional about escalation control.
Ahead of any operation, commanders should set precise escalation guidelines in commander’s intent and rules of engagement. These guidelines should delineate when units are expected to escalate or deescalate, the targets and actions they proscribe, and processes for responding to an adversary’s escalatory act (whether deliberate, unintentional, or accidental). Such written guidance would help tactical units adhere to strategy while navigating escalation risk.
Train Warfighters to Succeed Under the Shadow of Escalation
To enable warfighters to act on escalation guidelines from civilian leaders and commanders, the DoD could incorporate scenarios of escalation into current training, letting officers practice setting escalation guidelines, identifying triggers of unintentional escalation, and honing their skills at mitigation.
During training, red team cells could interpret a unit’s or brigade’s actions as hostile and escalate, challenging American commanders to practice methods of responding to enemy choices to escalate while balancing commander priorities and red lines. In other cases, designers can introduce external events into the scenarios to push both American trainees and red cells to practice how to assuage (or at least not exacerbate) a crisis not of their own making. The Air Force has shown itself attuned to the risk of inadvertent escalation in air-to-air combat, and other services may be able to take lessons from its approach to training.
For instance, Robin Sage exercises, the capstone for the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Qualification course that require American special operators to practice advising militia partners before graduating as Green Berets, could incorporate unexpected choices by their partners to attack a competitor force, forcing special operators to practice reacting to crises that become bigger than their partnerships.
Through repeated opportunities to confront escalation risk in training, it will become second nature for officers to ask themselves two key questions before issuing any order: 1) How might my action be perceived by the enemy? 2) Is that perception in line with strategy?
As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has made clear, the U.S. military’s goals are to deter threats and win wars, but also to prevent war—and to do that, it must grapple with how its actions can sometimes make war more dangerous and more likely.
About the Author
Dr. Sara Plana is a postdoctoral fellow at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania and received her PhD from MIT in political science in September 2021. Her expertise specializes in proxy warfare, military organizations, and control over the use of force. Previously, she worked for the U.S. Department of Defense.
A very special thank you to Sean Atkins, Alexandra Evans, Leah Matchett, Stacie Pettyjohn, and Nathaniel Rakich for their invaluable comments. I am grateful to the Center for a New American Security and organizers of the Pitch competition for providing the opportunity and their support throughout the pitch and writing process.