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The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect any official capacity or position.
Frankly, I am troubled when I observe aparently competent officers who apply the tools of our trade inappropriately in operational situations, or who fail to scrutinize rather basic but critical assumptions underlying our plans, or who substitute program guidance in situations which clearly demand military judgment.
General Edward C. Meyer, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army (1979-1983)[i]
The topic of identifying strategic thinkers in the ranks has been a topic of no small interest as the United States emerges from its longest period of combat operations in over a century. One catalyst for the inquiries on strategic thinkers and how to make them has been hindsight from errors of strategy and campaigning in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another has been the difficulties that military leaders experienced attempting to reconcile strategy with the policy goals set out for the military instrument of national power. One observation that emerged from those conflicts is that a singular focus on tactics is simply not enough to achieve more than localized success in engagements and battles. Conflict termination, on the other hand, highlighted the broader role of the military instrument of national power at the strategic level, where success in combat operations is only a transition to establishing a more stable set of conditions after combat nominally ends.
Strategists who are trained, educated, and experienced in the competencies of thinking, visualizing, and acting at the strategic level are an important part of the conduct of military strategy in both operational and institutional settings. Those military strategists provide a capability for their organizations and nations that officers trained in tactical methods alone cannot provide. The U.S. Army has formally designated officers by career field for such duties, but those officers do not command organizations as a matter of institutional policy.[ii] Thus, its future commanders will also need development as strategists, even if not to the same degree as their staff officer counterparts. This article offers a framework for preparing commanders and staff officers over a career for duties roles in military strategy and its related disciplines and tasks, using the U.S. Army’s experience as a case study.
Why Military Strategists?
The efforts to create military strategists have included empowering generalists to conduct strategy duties, and creating a body of general staff officers dedicated to the conduct of strategy and its related disciplines. The literature that has guided those efforts has been largely constant since the mid-1990s.
Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. Army has had an additional skill identifier (coded “6Z” in its personnel system) to recognize military officers of any basic branch or specialty who were “qualified for high-level staff positions requiring an understanding of the international environment and the ability to analyze strategic problems.”[iii] Several programs conferred that identifier, but the pressures of maintaining proficiency in traditional military skills in a limited career timeline eroded the expertise that it connoted—making the credential effectively unequal to the task. One of the attempts to address the capability shortfalls of military strategists in public debate remains relevant today.
That attempt appeared in the pages of Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, as General John Galvin’s article “What’s the Matter with Being a Strategist?” Galvin, an infantryman whose experience spanned airborne, air assault, and mechanized units, also served in a number of positions at service staff, joint, and allied organizations, culminating in duty as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. European Command from 1987 to 1992. Originally published in 1989, the article was reprinted in 1995 and 2010. Galvin’s description of what a military strategist remains a concise articulation of what such an officer should be:
A military strategist is an individual uniquely qualified by aptitude, experience, and education in the formulation and articulation of military strategy (making strategy and articulating strategy are equally important). He understands our national strategy and the international environment, and he appreciates the constraints on the use of force and the limits on national resources committed to defense. He also knows the processes by which the United States and its allies and potential adversaries formulate their strategies.[iv]
In spite of fundamental changes in the security environment from 1989 to the present day, Galvin’s description of a military strategist remains as equally true now as it was then.
The next element of the body of work on the essence of what a military strategist must do appeared in 1995, when Major General Richard Chilcoat, the commandant of the U.S. Army War College, penned “Strategic Art: The New Discipline for 21st Century Leaders.” Informed by the theoretical work on operational art at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in the 1980s and the development of joint doctrine in the early 1990s, Chilcoat sought to define a comprehensive approach to “a distinct discipline that every strategic leader must master,” and defined it as “the skillful formulation, coordination, and application of ends (objectives), ways (courses of action), and means (supporting resources) to promote and defend the national interests.”[v]
Chilcoat envisioned three roles for those responsible for strategic art: strategic leader, strategic practitioner, and strategic theorist. While those three roles overlap each other, they are all skills that require long study and development over a career. More troublingly, he also observed that the U.S. Army’s officers were reluctant to look outside of their tactical comfort zones, compounded by a lack of understanding of the other instruments of national power, reinforced even further by a career path that overwhelmingly weighted tactical experience above all others up to that point.[vi] Chilcoat’s observations of those officers’ shortfalls in strategic art were undoubtedly a function of his own observations of students at the U.S. Army War College, but also during his previous assignments at Headquarters, Department of the Army and at the Joint Staff.
In 1998, the U.S. Army, recognizing the limitations of the additional skill identifier 6Z officers in the force, introduced a new functional area called Strategy and Force Development as part of Officer Professional Management System XXI, the redesign of its personnel system. By 2000, that functional area had been split into two parts, the second of which was designated as Functional Area 59, or Strategic Plans and Policy, its first cohorts arriving in 2001. That career field effectively became a body of general staff officers who were specially trained in the conduct of strategic art.[vii] Those officers would in turn serve as trusted advisors and practitioners for those commanders who may not have had the same kind of formal training, but were responsible for leading units through situations where tactics alone were not enough.
Lessons of combat operations
U.S. military combat operations since 2001 offer examples of shortfalls in policy, strategy, and operational art, one of the most disastrous was related to the establishment of Combined/Joint Task Force-7, near the outset of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. The joint task force was formed around V Corps, a unit that had been organized and trained primarily for large unit tactical operations. When its higher headquarters at the Combined Forces Land Component Command was broken up at the nominal end of major combat operations in May 2003, V Corps was left as the nucleus of Combined Joint Task Force-7. In the absence of any other headquarters short of U.S. Central Command, the joint task force’s responsibilities spanned theater strategy, operational art, and tactics. Instead of the bevy of talent that had been provided for its previous higher headquarters, the joint task force headquarters was heavily under-resourced with structure and personnel, to include its commander Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the most junior officer of that grade in the U.S. Army at the time, who had served predominantly in tactical assignments.
To make matters worse, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) or its successor in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) were unable to exercise any effective civilian governance, while military forces initially defaulted to heavy-handed cordon and search operations that may have been tactically sound, but actually fanned the flames of what became a full-blown insurgency. The failure to manage actions on the ground, combined with the dearth of effective policy direction during that time, almost resulted in catastrophic failure of the campaign.[viii]
One of the first documents to highlight those shortcomings was Decade of War, Volume I, produced by the Joint and Combined Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff J-7 Directorate. Among its observations was one on the strategic failures of conventional combat operations early on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need for a broader response than what the military was prepared to provide. A related, but more pointed observation cited that “failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission. While military forces were well-prepared for combat operations, they were not well-prepared to integrate non-military instruments of national power.[ix] While some of these failures stemmed from drastic failures of policy, a cultural bias on tactical operations within the U.S. military delayed the adaptation to the circumstances that occurred in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
A subsequent RAND Corporation study, led by Linda Robinson, further identified a number of lessons that explicitly highlighted some general shortcomings in strategic art – not the least of which was that the failures of understanding and applying strategic art occurred across the entire U.S. government. Ends, ways, and means did not align, and in the study’s words, “the strategies typically failed to envision a war-ending approach and did not achieve declared objectives in a definitive or lasting manner.” Another one of its observations was that there was no established civilian-military process that would rigorously identify assumptions, risks, possible outcomes, and second order effects—in essence, a rigorous method for strategic planning. Another one of their observations specifically highlighted a failure to think in terms of the political aspects of a conflict, and desired outcomes of a conflict that are inherently political in nature. One of the symptoms of that failure was a reluctance to address the political aspects of war, and a tendency to focus on tactical issues rather than strategic factors.[x]
Joseph Collins, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense now at the National Defense University, noted after the end of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM that military participation in national decision making is necessary but inherently problematic. However, no party could be held blameless. Civilian national security decision-makers had limited understanding of the complexity of military strategy, let alone operational art, and were generally unable to provide useful planning guidance. Concurrently, the military had grown an organizational blind spot to anything that was not conventional warfare, especially after Vietnam. The predilection of the former for an iterative approach to policy and strategy did not mesh well with the latter’s desire for a more linear process more suitable for campaign planning.[xi]
Lessons of institutional strategy
Errors of strategy are not limited solely to operational settings. The inappropriate application of tactics to strategic problems also occurred within institutional settings, as the epigraph notes. While the first part of General Edward C. Meyer’s ire was directed to the failures of officers to frame operations in their proper strategic context, the second part was directed inwards to the institutional Army. As the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans and later as the Army Chief of Staff, Meyer had been witness to officers who had responsibilities to the Defense Acquisition System and the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System. He had seen those officers make budgetary or programmatic decisions uninformed by any appreciation by strategy and based primarily on short-term, tactically parochial, or solely fiscal considerations.[xii]
One of the most striking examples came from the time when Meyer was a captain. While the U.S. Army was involved in internecine fights over its budget and future force structure in the 1950s, it had failed to produce a coherent strategic concept for its role within the U.S. defense establishment. Instead, it had chased acquisitions programs based on doctrinal and technological fads, such as continental air defense and abortive weapons such as the Davy Crockett nuclear mortar. As a result, the U.S. Army revolved through a series of force structures and delayed critical acquisitions such as the M113 armored personnel carrier, eroding the institution’s combat effectiveness.[xiii]
These historical anecdotes are but samples for a general observation that a singular focus on tactics and military operations alone does not enable attainment of the strategic ends that are inherently the servant of policy. Instead, a broader set of education, training, and experience is needed to develop the skills necessary to bridge military strategy upwards to policy and downward to operational art.
General Competencies of the Military Strategist
A military strategist has obligations reaching both higher and lower, neither of which can be performed in isolation from each other. First, a military strategist must be able to interpret policy into strategy – the domain of strategic art, which imparts rigor to policy.[xiv] Tacticians can artificially separate themselves from policy considerations; military strategists cannot. Second, a military strategist must turn that strategy into purposeful action—the domain of operational art, which bridges strategy and tactics. Those who only deal with policy do not directly face that challenge; military strategists ignore that challenge at their peril. Expressed another way, the conduct of competent operational art requires understanding strategy for its rationale. The informed conduct of strategic art requires knowing the tactical implications of that strategy to properly balance ends, ways, means, and risk. That relationship can be described as three general competencies of a military strategist:
- Provide military advice to policymakers to inform their understanding of the military instrument of national power and its relationship to policy goals and other instruments of national power.[xv]
- Formulate strategy, through the practice of strategic art, informed by policy guidance and a net assessment of strategic ends and means.[xvi]
- Implement strategy through the practice of operational art (to include campaign planning), whether institutional or operational, to guide tactical action in the pursuit of strategic ends.[xvii]
By design, these general competencies are not intended to be the same as the core competencies of a Functional Area 59 Strategic Plans and Policy officer. While that career field exists specifically to address those general competencies, the role of a military strategist is not necessarily limited to general staff officers. Indeed, given that future commanders will be drawn from what the U.S. Army calls basic branches (or regiments in Commonwealth militaries), the general competencies of a military strategist span any officer career field. Given the increasing civilianization of defense establishments, it is also possible that some of these functions may also be performed by career civil servants, such as the U.S. Army’s Career Program 60, many of which are former strategic plans and policy officers.
It is critically important to distinguish between training and education, a distinction that certainly receives too little attention in the U.S. military. Training emphasizes the employment of established procedures and skills that are applied against circumstances that are usually known. Not surprisingly, training is seen to have immediate utility, and is easy to justify, especially when resources are constrained. In contrast, education emphasizes the application of intellectual and cognitive skills to address circumstances that training cannot. In contrast to training, education often appears to have little direct relevance to immediate demands, and is sometimes seen as an ornament. In general, the demands of tactical operations heavily emphasize training to address the known, while the demands of strategy heavily emphasize education to address the unknown.
The development of a military strategist normally rests upon three foundations: civilian education, professional military education, and relevant experience. The three complement each other in providing the intellectual and experiential basis for greater facility with military strategy. Civilian education is foundational knowledge for a military strategist. It provides the intellectual basis to address the unknowns that training, doctrine, or experience cannot answer. Professional military education contextualizes civilian education in a common framework for application. Finally, relevant experience is the crucible for a military strategist’s application of civilian education and professional military education. It is where the theory and practice come together in the application of military strategy. Without the foundations provided in civilian education and professional military education, relevant experience is brittle, with little utility outside its immediate circumstances. It is for that reason that experience exclusively at the tactical level is not always relevant, and may even be counterproductive in the conduct of policy, strategy, or operational art.
Developmental Milestones for Military Strategists
The development of military strategists, like any other discipline, must occur over time. It is unrealistic, if not dangerous, to think that a military strategist will emerge from a lifetime of service spent overwhelmingly at the tactical level, then become a competent strategist solely through reasoning by analogy. Similarly, it is equally unrealistic that a competent military strategist can be developed overnight from civilian and military education alone. Rather, characterizing the professional development of a military strategist can be done through four developmental milestones: untrained, apprentice, journeyman, and master. These milestones are not tied to a given rank, but to the capabilities that he or she brings and provide an indicator of relative capability among military strategists.
While such a statement may be considered heretical, it is entirely possible that a commander, who will have had to alternate tactical command and staff assignments with those developing strategic art, may be a less experienced strategist than some of his staff. It is in that capacity that strategic plans and policy officers become critically important general staff officer advisors to their commander.
The untrained military strategist is typically in their first assignment in a strategic art capacity. While he or she may be a graduate of a program that teaches strategic art, such as a senior service college, the U.S. Army’s Basic Strategic Art Program or the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, it is more likely that the untrained strategist will have only instruction focused on operational art, such as the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies or the U.S. Marine Corps’ School of Advanced Warfighting. In some cases, those officers may only have the benefit of elective coursework offered at the staff college level such as that required for the 6Z additional skill identifier.[xviii] At this point, the untrained military strategist lacks the relevant experience to properly contextualize what basis may have been received through professional military education.
He or she may be cognizant of the relationship between strategy and policy, but may not recognize the implications between the two. The untrained military strategist should be proficient with the conduct of deliberate planning processes at tactical level such as the U.S. Army’s Military Decision Making Process, but will not likely be familiar with planning methodologies as they apply to joint forces. He or she may be aware of the linkage of strategic ends to operational planning, but cannot yet articulate the linkage between the two. The untrained strategist can participate as a member of a strategy working group or operational plans team but does not have the capability or skills to lead it effectively.
Written and oral communication skills are commensurate with the staff college level, but the untrained strategist will require substantial guidance to distill strategic concepts into short papers. One hazard for the untrained strategist is the trap of trying to reason through strategic issues by tactical analogy without considering the factors that affect strategy. The hazard exists because he or she will not have had the experience to inform judgment at that level.
The apprentice military strategist will have served one or more assignments in one of the general competencies (policy, strategy, or plans) in either an institutional or operational setting. He or she will have completed a formal training/professional military education program in strategic art and may hold an advanced degree in a strategy-related field.
The apprentice can clearly draw the relationship between strategy and policy or operational art and strategy. The apprentice should be proficient with both service and joint planning methodologies and capable of leading small groups to address strategy or campaign planning problems. They will have conversancy in one of the general competencies of a military strategist, and are aware of the others.
The apprentice must be a strong writer, capable of writing commensurate to the senior service college level, and should be able to deliver briefings to general officers at the joint task force level. He or she still requires additional guidance to consider the full scope of a problem, whether related to policy, strategy, or operational art.
The journeyman military strategist will have served in sufficient assignments to gain fluency in two or more military strategist general competencies. He or she will have completed multiple training programs in strategic art and holds an advanced degree in a strategy-related field.
The journeyman may be a subject matter expert in one or more of the general competencies (possibly at the expense of others) but is now capable of leading strategy development or campaign planning efforts. He or she will clearly be able to identify strategic implications across the general competencies ranging from policy to operational art. The journeyman must be familiar with joint, interagency, and multinational structures, and will often have had a developmental assignment in one of those organizations. They will be familiar with the entire joint force and its capabilities but may not be able to articulate the reasons why certain services or organizations approach strategic issues the way they do.
He or she has strong oral and written communication skills, and is fully capable of distilling staff products for general/flag officer consumption, as well as advising untrained or apprentice military strategists. The journeyman is capable of limited predictive analysis spanning multiple general competencies.
The master military strategist will have been educated in multiple academic disciplines, giving a wide range of intellectual methodologies. He or she will have experience in all three general competencies, in both operational and institutional settings, and can oversee multiple groups in the conduct of campaign planning or strategic art, or inform policy formulation at the national level. They will have a solid basis in the theory, doctrine, and practice of policy formulation, strategy development, and operational art, and can clearly articulate the implications across all the general competencies. He or she is fully familiar with not only with operational planning methods such as the U.S. military’s Adaptive Planning and Execution system (formerly the Joint Operations Planning and Execution System), but also strategic planning frameworks like its Joint Strategic Planning System and the Defense Acquisition System. The master strategist clearly understands and can predict the effects that operational and institutional strategy and campaigning will have on each other. Commensurate to their abilities and background, he or she will routinely write and speak for 4-star general/flag officers serving as service chiefs, unified combatant commanders, or national-level joint task force commanders, or their civilian equivalents.
In spite of the changes in the security environment and the adversaries that the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War, the role of the military strategist has not changed. In the U.S. Army, that role is not limited solely to career Strategic Plans and Policy officers who are specially trained and educated in strategic art, but must also include future general officers who will become the ones charged with making decisions that reach into future decades.
The identification of military strategists by milestone offers two benefits, one inward, one outward. Internally, this framework can guide the individual career development of those officers who will be responsible for the planning and conduct of policy formulation, strategy development, or campaign planning, whether they occur in an institutional or operational setting. Looking outwardly, that framework can provide a resource to enable the employment of the military instrument of national power in a manner that is strategically effective.
Ultimately, building true military strategists cannot occur overnight, and certainly not through the hasty application of tactical reasoning by analogy. In light of Chilcoat’s roles for military strategists, namely the strategic leader, strategic practitioner, and strategic theorist, master strategists must be capable of all three, and inappropriate employment of tactical thinking against strategic problems is a recipe for failure if not disaster. While the skillful practice of policy guidance, strategic art, and operational art is no guarantee of strategic success, the absence of such competent practice virtually guarantees that the military instrument of national power will not best serve its nation’s interests. Military strategists, properly developed, are a hedge against that outcome.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect any official capacity or position.
[i] Gen. Edward C. Meyer, untitled memorandum, June 4, 1980, Drafts and Correspondence Concerning FM 100-1, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Harry G. Summers Jr. Papers. Meyer felt strongly enough to include this text in his foreword to the 1981 edition of Field Manual 100-1, The Army.
[ii] Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3, Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 3 December 2014), 284-286.
[iii] U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Course Catalog 1978-1979 (Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, 1978), IV-2.
[iv] Gen. John Galvin, “What’s the Matter with Being a Strategist?” Parameters 19 (March 1989): 2.
[v] Maj. Gen. Richard A. Chilcoat, Strategic Art: The New Discipline for 21st Century Leaders (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1995), 3.
[vi] Ibid, 7–8, 14–15.
[vii] Issue Paper, “Establish the Institutional Support Career Field (IS CF), CSA Decision 8.1 and 8.2,” in Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, “Implementation of the Officer Personnel Management System (OPMS) XXI, memorandum, 30 January 1998, Combined Arms Research Library, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., CAFLA Archives, OPMS XXI files ; Francis J.H. Park, ”The Strategic Plans and Policy Officer in the Modular Division,” Military Review LXXXVII, No. 6, 82-86. Although Functional Area 59 was renamed as “Strategist” in 2010, this article will refer to that career field by its previous name to avoid confusion with the more general description of a military strategist.
[viii] Donald P. Wright, Col. Timothy Reese, with the Contemporary Operations Study Team, On Point II: Transition to the New Campaign: The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, May 2003-January 2005 (Fort Leavenworth, Kan.: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2008), 147-161; Michael R. Gordon, “After the War: The Military; To Mollify Iraqis, U.S. Plans to Ease Scope of Its Raids,” New York Times, 7 August 2003, A10; Thomas E. Ricks, “It Looked Weird and Felt Wrong,” Washington Post, 24 July 2006, A01.
[ix] Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis Division, Decade of War, Volume I (Washington, D.C.: Joint Staff J-7 Directorate, 2012), 9, 15-17
[x] Linda Robinson et al., Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2014), xii-xiv.
[xi] Joseph J. Collins, “The Long War: Four Views,” Small Wars Journal, 5 January 2015, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-long-war-four-views, accessed on 5 September 2015.
[xii] Gen. Edward C. Meyer, “Untitled memorandum,” June 4, 1980, Drafts and Correspondence Concerning FM 100-1, U.S. Army Military History Institute, Harry G. Summers Jr. Papers.
[xiii] Lt. Col. Andrew J. Bacevich, The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army Between Korea and Vietnam (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986), 100, 142-149.
[xiv] Lt. Gen. Richard A. Chilcoat, Strategic Art: The New Discipline for 21st Century Leaders (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1995), 1-6.
[xv] Galvin’s description: “The strategist in uniform provides advice to political authorities in the development of national policy (what is to be achieved) and national strategy (how to achieve it). He has a role in forming national strategy and policy by explaining military capabilities, the limits of armed force, and how military power can be used as an element of national power. He conveys to his political leaders his sensing of what is achievable and what is not achievable by military means.” Galvin: 4.
[xvi] “He also translates political policy into military plans and actions. Developing an effective military strategy requires thoughtful analysis, creative ideas, and a sense of perspective.” Galvin: ibid.,
[xvii] The use of ends, ways, and means is consistent with Arthur Lykke’s model of strategy, which has been in use in the U.S. military since the early 1980s. For an overview of the terms, see Harry R. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: the Little Book on Big Strategy (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), 69-70.
[xviii] While not well standardized, the current paths for additional skill identifier 6Z (“Strategic Studies”) include an elective track at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, or a correspondence course offered from the U.S. Army War College. Other methods of far greater rigor include the Army’s Strategic Education and Development Program, formerly called the Harvard Strategist program.