The United States military recently began transitioning its training and operational practices away from the past two decades worth of anti-terror and counter-insurgency warfare, placing a larger emphasis on the resurgence of near-peer level threats posed by the likes of Russia and China. This sort of power competition is something the United States may be a bit rusty at, but it’s certainly not unfamiliar territory. The buildup of arms and military capabilities coupled with stern diplomacy and a side-eye toward national opponents is all part of the Cold War’s nuclear deterrent song and dance. If warfare between developed nations were still as simple as it was back during the hey-day of the Soviet Union, chances are that the U.S. would find itself back atop the heap through sheer power of budget… but modern warfare isn’t quite what it used to be, and that poses a problem for America’s longstanding warfare doctrines.

“In a western military campaign, we tend to shape the environment in Phase Zero, we deter in Phase 1, we seize the initiative in Phase 2, we dominate in Phase 3 combat operations, we stabilize in Phase 4, and we transition to civil authority in Phase 5,” Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, explained to a crowd gathered at the Mitchell Institute in Arlington, Virginia, last week.

“The US is really, really good in the deter and win categories. But competition below the threshold of major combat ops is primarily where our strategic peer adversaries are executing their national and military strategies.”

Competition below that threshold of major combat operations has rapidly become the modus operandi of Russia and China, who both have leveraged their military strength in different regions of the world just enough to achieve their strategic goals without allowing their localized conflicts to spill over into actual warfare. Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, as well as current tensions on the Russia/Ukraine border are an example of such an approach — as is China’s aggressive expansion throughout the South China Sea and even the joint strikes carried out by U.S., U.K., and French forces against sites in Syria tied to Bashar al Assad’s regime’s use of chemical weapons.