Friday, May 9, 2014

Strategy and the Operational Art, a question for the readership.

This month's issue of The Journal of Military Operations has an article by Aaron Jackson of the Australian Defence Force discussing his assessment of one of the things that our contributor seydlitz often mentions; that many Western nations (and the United States in particular) seems to have a) lost the abolity to think and plan "strategically" and b) substituted, at best, the operational level of military planning for the classical concept of strategy.

Jackson is responding to an earlier article covering the subject, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, by Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan in the September, 2009 issue of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.

The two articles are essentially making the same argument, that "(t)he subsequent expansion of the newly delineated operational level within the doctrine of English-speaking militaries led to it encompassing campaign planning. This led in turn to it ‘reducing the political leadership to the role of ‘strategic sponsors’, [which] quite specifically widened the gap between politics and warfare’ (Kelly & Brennan, 2009)."

Jackson (2014) says that:
"The core of Kelly’s and Brennan’s argument is that this expanded role for the operational level of war and operational art has not only dislocated military operations from strategy, but also from the original context in which Soviet theorists were writing about operational art. ‘The result’, they argue, ‘has been a well-demonstrated ability to win battles that have not always contributed to strategic success’. To remedy this, they suggest returning to the conceptual roots of operational art as limited to the sequencing of tactical actions. Campaign planning should be returned to the remit of strategic leadership and involve input from political as well as military strategic leaders."
Jackson's contribution to this debate is to claim that Kelly & Brennan (2009) has it backwards. The military leadership didn't expand operational planning to swallow traditional "strategy"; it was the political elites of the Western nations that wanted to separate politics and warmaking.

"...the prevailing Western cultural norm of civil-military relations, in which the separation of politics from military conduct is seen as both normal and desirable. According to this norm, civilian political leaders should stay away from the military aspects of campaign planning, and military leaders should steer clear of political issues, including those that relate directly to the establishment of national strategy. It is this norm, not the development of an operational ‘level of war’, that has driven a wedge between strategy and tactics. Something more than tactics is certainly required of military officers, but in the current system discussing the most fundamental elements of national strategy remains all but off limits." (Jackson, 2014)

Jackson (2014) then goes on to expand on this...a little. He says:
"This reason is the prevailing cultural norm of civil-military relations in Western democracies. The nature of this norm was famously laid out by Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State; however the more recent writing of Eliot Cohen offers a better summary. Describing ‘a simplified secondhand version’ of Huntington’s model as ‘the ‘normal’ theory of civil-military relations’, Cohen determined that this model calls for a sharp distinction between statesmen and military professionals. In line with this distinction, the former ought to be responsible for political matters, including the setting of the desired strategic end state, while the latter ought to be responsible for the execution of all military activities necessary to achieve this end state. Although Cohen offers an excellent critique of the normal theory, ultimately proving both that it does not function in practice and that it is undesirable that it should, he also concludes that it remains the system of civil-military relations that many Western political and military leaders strive towards achieving."
I would tend to agree with the statement that there seems to be a significant, and to a large degree dysfunctional, disconnect between the political processes in Western nations and the military adventures that proceed from them.

But that, in turn, leads me only to a blank wall, and a question.

Which is, simply, why would any political leader(s) want that?

Since presumably military force is still intended to "solve" political issues confronting political leadership (and I will add here that this presumption is not neccessarily a physical fact but, rather, the intellectual conceit of the leader(s) that some issues are both amenable to and require the use of force) then the natural corrolary would be that these leaders wish that force to be effective and economical; Sun Tzu's warning about prolonged war is no less valid now than when he (or someone, anyway) wrote it.

I can understand a polity dominated by the military to produce politicians wary of a "man on horseback"...but it has been generations since such a possibility presented itself to the Western polities.

So...regardless of how the Western way of war became, in effect, a glorified exercise in tactics...why wouldn't a perceptive leader or leaders recognize the futility of this and strive to re-integrate the military and political aspects of geopolitics and national strategy?

I know seydlitz has some theories on this, but anyone else willing to venture an idea or three?


  1. What evidence do we have that the military has provided good guidance on foreign policy issues? Did the 'military' want to get out of Vietnam early? Did they want to get involved covertly in Afghanistan or Central America? Lebanon? Grenada? Panama? Gulf I, Kosovo, Gulf II? Afghanistan? Iraq? Surges?

    We heard all sorts of stories of brave men in the Pentagon wanting to hurl themselves onto swords under Clinton (getting OBL) and Obama (Libya, Syria), but not a peep about Iraq other than Shinseki.

    I just don't see how they're relevant. They really don't care about whether it's a good idea or not unless it's a democrat in office.

  2. FDChief, I think you probably have a pretty good answer already in mind. The present system, as actualized, seems to be self-satisfying.

  3. Systems respond to their incentive structures. Inside the military we incentivize tactical excellence and operational acumen. We disincentivize concern about strategy because it is too unpredictable and no one is rewarded for coming up with strategy (Petraeus and McChrystal got a negative comeuppance). I had a revealing conversation with an officer in Charge of the Air Sea Battle office that I offer by way of illustration.

    Air Sea Battle is described by its own proponents as an operational concept rather than as a strategy. Unfortunately, for better or worse, it contains sufficient complexity to satisfy both tests of "is it a strategy?" First, it does indeed contain elements of ends, ways, and means; assessed from a different perspective, it can make a complete case for being Suitable, Feasible, Reasonable, Distinct and Complete. The problem comes to head when the national command authority creates a strategic vacuum and the ASB concept has enough attractors between its own composition and the shape of the strategic void that it migrates into the position of strategy. The ASB officer recused his entire office of being complicit with making ASB a strategy, but that is a self-referential assertion that doesn't recognize that the higher-up have indeed accepted the elevation of this ersatz strategy because it bears the right pedigree. To wit, that it appears to offer some capabilities currently lacking, bears no tainted political fingerprints, looks like genuflection to military expertise, and satiates industries desire for (politically lucrative) profit by selling us the instruments of ASB's success.

    Therefore the military is getting a concept as a strategy. The nation is getting a shopping list as a strategy. Our partners are getting a fantasy as a strategy, and our adversaries are getting a willing shadow boxer. But, its perfect for its own self-satisfaction. The military cannot be held to it, because we warned that it was not a strategy. The politicians cannot be held to it because it appeared to be a strategy and was based upon best military advice. This is a no-lose proposition for perpetuating a totally self-referential power structure.

    It is operational art for the sake of operational art, with no accountability to strategic impact. If you'll humor a stroke of the dramatic, this trend is the ring if Gyges for bearers of power. It allows operative power without accountability.

    BTW, for all MilPub'ers, good to be back. I've just landed another year back in the sandbox so I'll have more time to engage rather than just lurk.

  4. It's in fashion to decry a lack of strategy or strategic thinking.

    I don't think we're lacking in quantity. It's just that too many morons 'contribute' to strategy 'discussions' and most resulting 'strategies' are crap.
    The situation is the exact same in the corporate business world. Lots of "strategies", lots of crap.

    The obvious mistake of strategy development is that it's done by imperfect humans, and specifically by humans who made a career towards the strategic level of decision-making by excelling in lots of other things, but not in strategy.

  5. Good post, as usual Chief,

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. The US military tries to stay away from politics. Since strategy is inseparable from politics, the military can't really do the kind of strategy that would, for instance, provide us with a coherent strategy on Syria. The best they can do (and this is what I've seen over the last two decades), is to provide military options.

    2. Meanwhile, our political goals seem to be dominated by what Zenpundit calls "tactical geopolitics" - short term, short sighted, expedient solutions. Because the military is a globally-capable force with a high state of readiness, the military is the "go to" tool to implement policy.

    3. With the Soviet threat gone, there is nothing uniting the country in terms of foreign policy. Most people don't care that much or simply support the status quo. This leaves the elites to run things and the current crop is a mess. The Boomer cohort produced very little in terms of real political leaders (Clinton being the possible exception) - instead we get ideologues who seem to be on "missions" to correct wrongs in the world. The influential boomer foreign policy elites all seem to be neocons or the R2P crowd. There are very few realists or others with any realistic long-term vision for America's place in the world. (We're #1!)

    So I think it's a combination of things.

  6. Just thinking out loud here, but I wonder if our now-nearly-permanent electoral cycle plays into this?

    I mean, when you talk about "short-term, short-sighted" as Zenpundit describes them, I wonder to what extent that is a function of the fact that for most U.S. politicians "long-term" is - can't be - any longer than the next election?

    I do get that the Western militaries have been trained to "stay out of politics", but it would seem self-defeating for Western politicians - who are largely if not entirely ignorant of the extents and limits of military force, and are poor students (if at all) of military and geopolitical history - to encourage their soldiers to avoid thinking about geopolitics and strategy, if for no other reason than to have a subject-matter expert at hand...

    And whilst I get Jeremy's point that "This is a no-lose proposition for perpetuating a totally self-referential power structure." it would seem to hold ONLY if the actual conduct and consequences of military/geopolitical strategy were inconsequential - that is, that the "enemy" is always going to be an Al Qaeda - some minor force that will never be able to present an actual existential threat.

    To me that would be like a pro sports team practicing by playing a bunch of kids in a vacant lot. You'd tend to "win" a lot, but if you ever had to play another bunch of pros you'd end up getting handed your ass...

  7. Anon: "What evidence do we have that the military has provided good guidance on foreign policy issues?"

    Well, we don't, actually. I can think of one particular case - the Cuban Missile Crisis - where the Joint Chiefs' advice, has Kennedy followed it, would have had a damn good chance of setting off WW3.

    But the thing is geopolitics is - at least supposed to be - a continuum from normal peaceable interaction to total war. And the military is supposed to be the "experts" on how armed force works into "strategy"; how can - or can't - force be applied to a particular problem.

    Part of that expertise should be (one would think if that expertise is to be of any real value...) to advise the politicians when their plan to use military force is not feasible, or, at least, not within the constraints of the political environment.

    But I think what has happened is that the soldiers have adopted a very "operational" attitude; "President X or Premier Y want this to happen, and here's our best solution..." regardless of whether that "best" solution is really any good or not.

    But I guess I'm unsure as whether this has happened because the politicians WANT that (grossly shortsighted on their part, IMO) or whether the soldiers have decided that it's what the politicians want...

    I'm not trying to say that soldiers make better strategists. But I AM saying that "strategy", as I see it, needs to incorporate all levels of geopolitical thinking, including that level that looks at a "problem" and concludes "Yes, this would be nice to do but, no, armed force can't do it/can't do it within the fiscal/logistical/political constraints"

    And for some reason that level of analysis seems to have gone a-glimmering. The senior levels of the militaries seem to have simply become the G-3 for their political leadership.

    Kelly and Brennan claim that this is because the militaries wanted that. Jackson says that it's because the politicians wanted that. Jeremy's comment suggests that it's both.

    But my thoughts keep circling back to...why? Why would either side WANT that? Sure, it's fine so long as the actual geopolitical stakes are penny-ante. But if not...

  8. Andy of MilPub wrote: " Because the military is a globally-capable force with a high state of readiness, the military is the "go to" tool to implement policy."

    Andy of Bacevich said: "Americans believe that war works."

    The latter provides an insight as to why the "military is the go to tool". It's a simpler concept than trying to determine long term geopolitical objectives.

    As Sven notes, businesses suffer from similar short term focus. While they may speak of "Strategic Plans" the focus is on monthly and quarterly operating reports. I remember being a member of a consulting team while in grad school. The client was a rapidly growing high tech (for the day) manufacturing firm. The "life cycle" of orders (receipt of an order to shipping the finished product) had gone from about 6 weeks to about 26 weeks due to amazing increase in demand for their products, yet they were trying to make key decisions based on monthly accounting and production data. As one of the profs in the team said, they were on a collision course with running out of cash and insolvency, as payables were about to outstrip receivables. But the monthly figures looked good.

    In Afghanistan, for example, the politicians have been assigning the military battalion level tasks at best. Just because several brigades or divisions are there doing Bn level stuff, there still isn't a theater level strategic political objective. When the services are bogged down in small unit tactics, it's not easy for the leadership to shift gears and think "strategically", especially when the civilian policy wonks aren't asking them to do so.

    As to your "why", Chief, I would suggest that the military has lost the knack for providing strategic advice to their civilian leaders. Rather, they simply give the traditional, "Can Do!', salute and carry on. Just as your thoughts "keep circling back", our civilian/military leadership is in a sort of self reinforcing degenerative cyclical logic. Kind of a regenerative feedback loop.

  9. Al,
    Look at Shinseki and his realistic advice to the NCA.It ended his game,and then we got stuck with him at the DVA.
    He talks a good game at the VA but that doesn't change our reality,BUT that's not the topic of discussion.
    Do any of us think that people like W/cheney/addington/libby/wolfowitz/rummy etc...etc...would listen to anyone once they had made up their minds?
    Isn't that called pissing up a rope,when you even try?
    You also have to look at the JCS and what we call leaders and what do you have.The best i could call them are politically conservative, and god fearing christians.This made(makes) it easy to launch a modern crusade that went straight to hell.It'll happen again,and soon,and this i'll bet a beer on.
    The problem is that we think that we are legitimate brokers when we are the joker in the deck.If we were honest we'd admit that our first gulf war was every bit as corrupt and unnecessary as was the pwot.
    In short we assume that our actions are legit, and this is quite a stretch.So , if you accept this premise then why even ask about strategy? If every thing is based on facts beyond military control and competence,then why even ask the question? As an example-did anyone in the JCS know squat about the history of Kuwait/Iraq/Iran SA,Jordan,Egypt,and the internecine nature of the region? Or the dupicity of US policy in the region?
    I don't know much about strategy, but i do know bullshit when i see it,and that's the only way to sum up our wars that aren't wars.
    And the band plays on.
    jim hruska

  10. jim-

    Yes, it's a mess. It boils down to the very principle that we are sworn to obey the lawful orders of those appointed over us. Nothing in the law requires such lawful orders to be enlightened nor optimal. Faced with a dumb order (or culture of dumb orders), which is a moral/professional issue, we have three legal choices: 1) Remain silent, 2) Respectfully speak up, 3) Resign/retire and move on.

    Since it has been culturally common for troops to often view the military's state as SNAFU (and the "Normal" in that is telling), dumb is too routinely painted as "normal". Thus, a significant undertone of dumb having to be accepted. Sadly, senior leaders who refuse to consider new or opposing views contribute to this perception. And, the fate of senior leaders who speak truth to power (e.g. Shinseki) teaches an abject lesson.

    Remember the "Old Days" when we were told, "Feel free to bring your complaints to the IG, but if you are wrong, be prepared for the consequences"? Similar guidance was given about challenging orders we might perceive to be unlawful. In short, one objects to questionable acts at one's own risk. Unfortunately, order in the ranks requires such an approach, but the professional integrity of it all is dependent on our breeding a force of honorable people. It only takes a couple of rotten apples in the leadership to taint the whole barrel. Think of the religious excesses at USAFA.

    Thing is, the US military has never been truly accountable for our moral integrity. I had a long conversation with a retired jurist about this in the 1960s. FDR had approached him to be a war crimes trial judge. He said he would be a defense counsel only, as he said, "War crimes charges are generally one last shot by the victor over the vanquished to seal the moral image of the victory." He pointed out that there were many documented instances of crimes by Allied Forces in WWII and later in Korea that either went unpunished (at least to the standards applied to the Germans and Japanese) or limited to low ranking scapegoats, when public pressure was applied. His description was spot on for My Lai and Abu Ghraib, which, if prosecuted in the manner of a vanquished nation would have sought to elevate liability to the highest levels possible. However, the US remained the sovereign in these cases, and sovereigns do not self-indict themselves to the level a sovereign would indict a defeated nation over whom the victor gains sovereignty.

    To apply a training maxim we used, "When a standard is not enforced, a new standard is created by default". In terms of strategic thinking, who is holding, or can hold, the US to any sort of standard? We have had the ability to make it up as we go along for a long time, and have become very good at it.

  11. Al,
    To stay focused on strategic thoughts i have but 1 point.
    How could anyone short of an insane asylum think that invading AFGH or Iraq would work out for any strategic good at end game?
    Who could possibly be that deluded?
    Even Saint Shinseki didn't oppose the invasion, he just protested the forces required.
    Only 1 crummy LT Watada questioned the legality.
    One Em E4 Tillman called the war fucking illegal and he died in a friendly fire incident.
    If the enterprise is immoral or illegal all the chaplains in the world can't put humpty dumpty back together,and saluting smartly will never change that fact.
    Thanks for your reply, it's classic and needs to be understood by all taxpaying citizens.

  12. jim-

    Afghanistan and Iraq offer a good example of how we "make it up as we go along". Right headed or wrong headed, the "world community" effectively supported taking some form of action against Afghanistan. Thus, one could posit that we were within "international standards". Whether it was a wise strategic decision, our if our conduct of the operation was consistent with a strategic objective is another issue. At least we were within a "standard".

    No such support arose for Iraq. The so called "diplomacy" in the run up to the war was more to sway world opinion and draw more countries into the fray than to get Saddam to do anything. The US objective was not to get Saddam to become an "acceptable neighbor". Friends at the Pentagon had told me as early as July 2002 that the invasion was a done deal. Saddam had to go. He was not allowed to have his "born again" experience via diplomacy.

    When the bulk of the world chose not to back or join in the invasion of Iraq, GWB & Co. invented the "Coalition of the Willing", effectively painting opponents as unwilling cowards. Thus, international standards were cast aside to be replaced by the "brave vs the cowards". And, of course, brave people are just plain good people. At least in the eyes of GWB supporters.

    I think time will show that there was no one coherent strategic objective for Iraq. Rather, there were enough separate, non-strategic desires of key players in the Bush Administration to cause a decision to invade. Thus the operational confusion in the execution. Since Rummy was obsessed with proving he could "do more with less", Iraq was the perfect practical exercise to prove he knew more than the generals. The sad thing was that Rummy was thinking at the tactical/operational level. Thus, when Shinseki's operational/strategic answer conflicted with Rummy's objective, Shinseki was marginalized.

    I am reminded of a comment then Gov Clinton made about the dismal state of affairs in Arkansas schools. Since school districts set their own standards to get desired graduation rates, the yard sticks being used were effectively made out of elastic. Problem was that a diploma did not state how far that elastic had been stretched to award the diploma. Thus, a significant number of diploma-ed Arkansans were effectively illiterate and could not do basic math, simply based on the yardstick applied to them in their local school. Consequently, a diploma indicated nothing in terms of meeting an objective state wide standard.

    Americans do not like standards, especially external standards. It flies in the face of our weird notions of libertarian principles. We each seem to be more interested in picking and choosing what standards we wish to follow, which is basically following no standards at all.

  13. "...why wouldn't a perceptive leader or leaders recognize the futility of this and strive to re-integrate the military and political aspects of geopolitics and national strategy?"

    Jeremy R and Plato had it right with the invisibility provided by the Gygean Ring or in modern terms 'a lack of political fingerprints on any failed strategy'.

  14. Jeremy "It is operational art for the sake of operational art"

    or restated:

    It's a hammer with an endless supply of nails.

    Don't need any idea of what needs to be build. Just pound away?

  15. Al,
    In the infy we were taught -if u kill a fly,use a hammer.

  16. Chief-

    Back to the original question. I have reflected on my military training and experience, a very limited sample of one. At CGSC we trained in the Operational, up to Corps, and simply touched on "Strategy".

    At the Naval War College, we seriously addressed strategic thinking, however, we only looked at political strategy from a historical perspective. Military strategy was always in the context of whether or not it did, or even could, support the express political strategic objectives. The mindset was that it is not the military's job to set the political objectives, but to be able to either state what was needed to achieve said political objectives or to state that military force was not suitable to achieve it. The reason for analyzing past failed political strategy was for us to be able to see why a given military adventure failed.

    One thing that did interest me about NWC was that their Command & Staff College had a major course package in "Policy and Strategy that was far more extensive than Leavenworth. However, my time at CGSC was pre Goldwater-Nichols, which might have mandated more of this than when I was a student.

    My only "strategic level" assignment was 3rd Army (Theater Aviation Brigade), and included Desert Storm. I can tell you that Schwartzkopf and Yeosock (#3 CG) both knew that the political objective of DS was the liberation of Kuwait and diminution of Iraqi forces and nothing more. The "March to Baghdad" came up on occasion from some staff weenies and subordinate Cdrs in the preps and during the actual operation, and both men clearly stated that such was not the strategic political objective. Our job was to craft the military strategy to achieve the stated political objective, not to debate whether it was optimal or not. Of course we had to be prepared for a change of objectives, but the task at hand was what we were to focus on and let the paygrades above CENTCOM determine the political objectives. Schwartzkopf did, on one occasion, state that he thought that carrying the "Liberation" over to a "Conquest" could easily alienate our Middle Eastern Allies in the operation, many of whom we didn't expect to support the Liberation of Kuwait on pure "Arab vs Western" grounds.