Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 4  /  

Antecedents to Strategy: The Use of Force

Antecedents to Strategy: The Use of Force Antecedents to Strategy: The Use of Force
To cite this article: Rubel, Robert, “Antecedents to Strategy: The Use of Force”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, summer 2019, pages 34-38.

ID 35318946 © Andrei Moldovan |

The title of this article might seem, to those conversant in the subject at hand, to be inverted. That is, strategies make use of force and so their conception and formation must occur before it is decided how force is to be used to accomplish them. This view fits nicely into the traditional ends/ways/means syllogism that has been the foundation of strategy courses for generations; the possibility of a chicken-or-egg problem being potentially disruptive in any number of ways. However, the author, having had to formulate war plans (if only notional and local) meant to produce political effects, has found that in practice there is a rather chaotic search process that occurs at the outset of strategy generation, one that can, and frequently has, over the course of history, produced counterproductive strategies when effective ones were possible, judging by the ends desired and means at hand. How to reduce the chaos? On the one hand, Clausewitz asserts that it is the innate aptitude (genius) of the decision maker that sees the glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and…the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.”[i] This view is generally supported by Colin Gray, who concludes that the complexity of the environment in which strategy is made makes any attempt to teach it futile.[ii] With due respect to both writers, it is only responsible to try and find some way to assist those who must produce strategic plans. If we grant that yes, strategy is beset by “intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships”[iii], we still must try and find a way to increase the odds that someone will detect the glimmerings and be able to follow them.

In an epistemological sense, one way to get a grip on some complex problem is to find its practical boundaries, and within those boundaries define the range of alternative ways of dealing with it. In military planning terms the ideal, when doing a commander’s estimate of the situation, is to develop mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive lists of both enemy and friendly options. What this means is that each and every possible course of action has been identified. As a practical matter this is of course virtually impossible, but the closer one can come to the ideal, within the constraints of available time and effort, the more confidence one can have in the decision emanating from the estimate. Of course, the military estimate process is normally employed by commanders at the tactical and operational levels, the complications at the strategic level obviating its routine use there. That being said, it appears to this author that the basic logic of the estimate can be used to ease the intellectual complexity and disorder encountered when making strategy.

Let’s start with Infinity Journal’s own definition of strategy: “Military strategy is the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics.”[iv] The key words are “the use of force and the threat of force.” Can one delimit the number of ways force can be used? If so, there would at least be some kind of menu a strategist could employ to organize his or her thinking. In the view of this author there is such a delimitation possible. The possible ways force can be used devolves into four categories: definitive, coercive, catalytic and expressive. This taxonomy is a modification of that coined by James Cable in his book Gunboat Diplomacy.[v] Cable is focused on the limited use of naval force short of war, but the author found that Cable’s logic could be extended throughout the spectrum of conflict, and was of direct utility in being able to see the forest for the trees in a war planning problem with which he was confronted. Let’s first establish the taxonomy and then see where it led the author.

Definitive Force

A tactical commander who is ordered to take a hill occupied by enemy forces, and does so by assault, is using force in a definitive manner. It would be nice if, after the preparatory artillery bombardment, white flags appeared, but the orders contemplated the need for a ground assault that either drove the enemy out or killed and captured the defenders. The end result is that the attacking forces wind up in possession of the hill, with no cooperation from enemy forces needed. Definitive use of force is that application of force that directly solves the dispute, without requiring cooperation from the enemy. The nice thing about the definitive use of force is that its effects are predictable, and if the plan succeeds, are highly reliable. Of all the possible ways force can be used, this way provides the best opportunity for creating a straight line between cause and effect.

At the tactical level the opportunities for the definitive use of force are common. In fact, tactics are largely designed to destroy forces in order to physically remove or prevent resistance to whatever goal is assigned. However, in the higher strata of war, opportunities for the definitive use of force are less available. At the operational level, the goal may be the occupation or defense of certain territorial positions. This was Saddam’s intent when he seized Kuwait; clearly a definitive goal.

Strategic calculations involved with the definitive use of force tend to be straightforward, and military officers tend to be most comfortable with them. The basic question is feasibility; can the strategy be carried out in the face of enemy opposition? If the Attacker can overcome enemy resistance, the desired effects are sure to follow. Thus, it was that when Allied forces rolled into Berlin in 1945, the war in Europe was truly over, and there was no need for a complex and tortured bargaining process like there was at Versailles twenty seven years prior. The Third Reich's expansionist policies, which were the original source of the dispute, ceased to be an issue because the Third Reich had been eradicated. Similarly, when British forces entered Stanley in the Falklands, the issue was settled because Argentina had no further capacity to contest the situation.

Strategic calculations that involve definitive use of force can go wrong if the enemy's ability to resist is underestimated or if the existence of a potential rescuer nation is not recognized. This is the error Hitler made when he invaded Poland. There was little question of the Wehrmacht's ability to subdue that country, but the international reaction it provoked was ultimately fatal to the Third Reich. Although German strategic thinking associated with the invasion of the Soviet Union was fuzzy, Wehrmacht planners seemed to have definitive force in mind as they contemplated the destruction of the Red Army and the occupation of most of European Russia. In their peculiar strategy development process, the Germans failed to discern the massive and resilient reconstitution capability of the Soviet Union and were physically prevented from achieving their strategic goals.

A danger exists that military planners will attempt to define military problems in definitive terms when it is not appropriate. Conducting war is a stressful process, full of uncertainty and pressure. High level commanders and their staffs will naturally seek a comfort zone in their approach to strategy and planning. Most of these officers' outlooks were formed in a tactical environment where there existed a firm connection between military action and the anticipated results. They will look for ways to find such a connection at the higher levels and ascribe definitive qualities to projected operations even though other mechanisms are at work.

The inaccurate attribution of definitive quality to a proposed use of force leads to a disconnect between military action and the strategic goals it is supposed to achieve. Admiral Doenitz' and his staff advertised that their submarine operations would "bring England to its knees". Presumably this meant that unrestricted submarine warfare would take away Great Britain's ability to continue in the war. It was probably more realistic to think of the operation in terms of coercing the British into a negotiated peace, because in lieu of an invasion to achieve overrun, the British government would be capable of continuing the war so long as it had its fleet. The relevant (and painful) question for German planners was how susceptible to coercion the British (more specifically, Churchill) in fact were.

Coercive Force

The North Koreans were brought to the bargaining table in Panmunjom by the threat of nuclear weapons. Despite several years of unsuccessful offensives that chewed up their manpower and drained resources, North Korea stubbornly continued to fight. From the United States' perspective, definitive force had not worked; China, North Korea's rescuer, had closed off the opportunity for the forced reunification of the Peninsula and the extinguishing of the communist regime. President Eisenhower was therefore forced to consider other avenues for obtaining an acceptable peace. In lieu of any other suitable alternatives, he turned to the threat of nuclear bombardment. This prospect was apparently of sufficient threat to the North Koreans that they decided to accept the status quo at the 38th parallel. They were, in other words, coerced into ending hostilities on what, to them, were relatively unfavorable terms.

The coercive use of force is a common feature of strategic military plans and doctrine because it presents the possibility of victory short of a total effort to overrun the enemy. Moreover, an enemy decision to acquiesce in the strategic situation tends to legitimize the gains. The aggressive rhetoric of offensive military doctrine has repeatedly extolled the virtue and necessity of making the enemy see the error of their ways, and extracting acknowledgement of one's own position of unchallengeable strategic superiority. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of strategic bombing theory is that bombardment from the air can take away the enemy's will to continue the war.[vi] In other words, the progressive destruction of his forces and economy will coerce the enemy leadership to sue for peace.

If a strategy of this kind is pursued, some important questions emerge. The foremost is the degree to which the enemy government is susceptible to coercion. This can be a difficult question to answer objectively in an environment of strong animosity, where planners may attribute various racial or character weaknesses to the enemy. A desire to find a solution to a complex and pressing problem can also color planners' perceptions. They may attribute far more coercive value to various kinds of military actions than these actions actually possess in the eyes of the enemy. Hitler's "terror bombing" of London, for instance, had the opposite effect he intended. What's more, this attempt at coercion drained resources away from his definitive effort, to neutralize the RAF, which was on the road to success.

Strategists who contemplate coercive use of force must consider the position of the enemy decision-makers. It is quite possible that the enemy leadership will regard a negotiated settlement on unfavorable terms as political and even physical suicide. This will be a function of how secure the enemy government's hold on power is, and nature of its relationship to the war. A relatively weak leader who has identified his legitimacy with success in the war is likely to be virtually immune to coercion. The particular personality of the leader or the dynamics of a corporate leadership will also have a significant effect. Apart from any other circumstances, Winston Churchill was not someone who could be easily coerced, as Hitler found to his deep frustration.

It is possible that some methods of applying military force will have greater coercive power than others in a particular situation. The threat of massive invasion did not bring the Japanese to the peace table, nor did a seaborne economic blockade or ruthless strategic bombing. Only the threat of continued nuclear bombardment provided the impetus to surrender on Allied terms. Attempts at coercion can backfire dramatically if military methods are not chosen with care. Being the victim of strategic air attack, seaborne blockade or other assault may actually strengthen the enemy leadership's political hand domestically and internationally. To an extent, Saddam's defiance of the U.S. economic blockade enhanced his image among certain elements of the Islamic world.

The uncertainties surrounding the use of coercion being what they are, strategists who contemplate using force in this way should make a special effort to look beyond anticipated operations to envision what may happen if their strategy doesn’t work. Coercion is usually associated with an attempt to checkmate the enemy. What is required is that the enemy is made to feel pain and to perceive that more and greater pain will inevitably follow if he does not accede to our demands. If plan execution arrives at the point where the enemy was expected to yield, and the fight still rages, more pain than expected or a different kind of pain must be applied, or a different kind of defeat mechanism sought. The coercer is now forced to consider whether he has the political leeway to impose more pain and whether the object of the war is worth the increased effort and risk.

Catalytic Force

During the First Gulf War President Bush made several public statements that indicated he would be pleased if elements of the regular Iraqi Army overthrew Saddam Hussein. If one could have been a fly on the wall of U.S. targeting headquarters just before and during the war, it is possible that the conversations overheard could have included the discussion of what amount of damage to the Iraqi Republican Guard would be required to embolden regular officers to attempt a coup. Or perhaps a broader pattern of target selection had an auxiliary motive of causing popular unrest against a regime that had brought this kind of destruction to their homeland. Planners who contemplate using force in this way are hoping for specific second order effects to arise from the military actions they envision. They are planning for the catalytic use of force.

The catalytic use of force can be a dazzling opportunity to reap huge military or political effects from a relatively limited amount of force. The current buzzword "leverage" is often associated with obtaining catalytic effects, ranging from tactical advantage to strategic superiority. A famous example of catalytic effects at the operational level is MacArthur's landing at Inchon during the Korean War. By establishing a beachhead on the West Coast of Korea with a relatively small force he stimulated the wholesale retreat of the North Korean Army because he threatened its main supply route. Catalytic use of force could be classified in this case, as maneuver warfare, or as the indirect approach espoused by Sun Tzu, B. H. Liddell-Hart, et al.

At the lower levels of war catalytic effects may be relatively easy to calculate. At the upper operational level and the strategic level, however, issues can be so complex that it may be difficult or impossible to calculate the linkages between a military cause and a hoped-for second order effect. Saddam tried his hand at this by launching SCUDs at Israel during Desert Storm, hoping to precipitate an Israeli entry into the war. This, he calculated would force the Arab countries arrayed against him to drop out of the U.S. led alliance, thereby causing it to come unraveled. In the event, Israel refrained from responding and his stratagem failed.

The moral is that dazzling visions of achieving strategic leverage through the catalytic use of force is a dangerous undertaking unless the potential cause-effect linkages are known and understood. If a strategy is based on catalytic effects, the nation may quickly find itself with a bankrupt strategy, and facing a drawn out war of attrition. Catalytic strategies can backfire and have virtually the opposite effect than was originally envisioned. Schemes for applying precision munitions to achieve strategic aims quickly and cheaply often depend on catalytic effects, whether they clearly state this or not. There is no evident and necessary linkage between destruction and political control, and a failed catalytic scheme may end up causing substantial political damage to its perpetrator.

Expressive Force

In the aftermath of the failed 1983 air strike on the Shiite artillery positions outside of Beirut, Lebanon, there was considerable controversy and finger pointing concerning the raid's timing and execution. Somewhat lost in the discussion was any meaningful questioning of the raid's objectives. If the strike had been executed with precision and without losses, what were the intended effects? President Reagan's policy was a "prompt and vigorous response" to further ground fire directed at American reconnaissance aircraft. Perhaps the thought was that bombing of Shiite artillery positions would deter future incidents. If so, this could have been classified as a coercive use of force. The fallacy of this theory is that the ground fire could have emanated from a number of different factions, and it is highly unlikely that taking out a couple of emplacements would have induced a cessation of such activity. It is doubtful that the strike planners or strategists thought of this as a realistic outcome. Definitive force can be ruled out because there was no way to actually destroy a significant portion of the guns with any realistic level of effort.

This strike was meant to send a message. The message was that the United States would not countenance continued aggression against its forces. The strike was a signal that the United States was no longer willing to absorb blows and was not afraid to use force. The exact decisions we desired of potential adversaries were not spelled out; the threat was supposed to be the more ominous by its vagueness. The exact recipient of the message was not explicit either. There were many players in the messy game of Lebanon, most of whom were hostile to U.S. interests. So this particular strike does not fit cleanly into any of the categories discussed so far. It was, in fact, an expression of outrage and frustration by the United States, an expression that had no specific, immediate military or political goal. As such it will be considered an expressive use of force.

The defining characteristic of the expressive use of force is the lack of a clear military objective. Even some terrorist acts have specific political or military goals, and can be otherwise categorized. Expressive force is used to vent anger, present a non-specific threat or to merely harm the enemy. Reprisals fit into this category many times, if their use is reflexive and not clearly directed. Often, war crimes may be forms of the expressive use of force – the manifestation of pure hatred. This is not to say that the expressive use of force is always wrong; it may end up having salutary effects. It is, however, frequently the refuge of those who have no other means or ideas, and are hoping for the best. The danger in this is that the expressive use of force can generate reactions all out of proportion to its original strength and intent. Those who advocate "sending messages" lack of true understanding of the use of force. The simple old axiom used by many gun owners seems appropriate here: don't point your gun at someone unless you intend to use it. "Using it" in the strategic sense means having a plan and capability to use force in a definitive, coercive, deterrent or catalytic manner.

Using the Categories as Antecedents

The author’s carrier battle group was tasked, as an exercise, to plan a bombing campaign to convince a certain dictator to cease and desist from sponsoring terrorism. In one sense, the task defined the overall strategy in the sense that the means and ends were pre-selected. Political leadership were assumed to have determined the end, and delimited the options by prescribing the general means: bombing, as opposed to invasion and occupation. On the other hand, the ways were left to the imagination of the battle group planners. At this point, strategy could have been devolved into pure targeteering, and that was what initially happened in the staff spaces of the aircraft carrier where the author was serving. Determinations of what could be bombed were accompanied by seat-of-the-pants extrapolation of their effects (being reduced upon clinical examination to some form of “this will fix ‘em). The author, having been put in charge of the planning, and by default the strategizing process, and having already been educated by reading James Cable (and actually thinking through what he said), thrashed about for some more definite link between cause – bombing – and effect; the cessation of terrorism sponsorship.

The initial skull sessions after receipt of the tasking message were indeed chaotic, with a dozen senior officers each floating an immediate solution of the “this will fix ‘em” variety. The discussion revolved around the feasibility of means; what targets could be bombed with the aircraft and ordnance at hand. Desired effects were assumed to flow from what we knew how to do. A priori assumptions were made about time available based on the recent history of such operations as Eldorado Canyon. Jockeying for influence became a subtheme as differences of opinion based on aircraft community became evident. Hours of arguing ensued, with agendas hidden and overt coloring the proposals and counterproposals. This occurred among what, to an outsider, would seem a highly homogenous group that ought to have a common set of values and background. One can easily see how the intellectual churn would be magnified among groups such as the U.S. National Security Council. Having been put in charge of producing a campaign plan for the tasking authority to review and judge, the author retreated to his stateroom and tried to think the problem through using the uses of force taxonomy as a life preserver.

A definitive solution would involve killing the head of state who was the source of the nation’s policy on sponsoring terrorism. The problems with that involved defying US policy that proscribed assassination, the difficulty in targeting an individual and the political blowback likely to occur if the strategy was successful. Still, if it could be done, the desired end would be, by definition, achieved.

The coercive solution presented many imponderables. What pattern and degree of destruction would prove coercive to this particular individual? The available intelligence provided no help; the leader’s legitimacy was heavily connected to jihad and support of pan-Arab causes, so any appearance of caving to American military coercion could amount to political or even physical suicide. Thus, it was possible to envision that the necessary degree of destruction of military and economic targets might exceed what was politically and even militarily feasible given the anticipated resources, especially in terms of time. An extended bombing campaign would likely create political difficulties for U.S. leadership. Moreover, an open-ended campaign would increase the potential for unanticipated factors to undermine and deflect U.S. policy.

Sending a message – the expressive use of force – seemed at best a long shot. In lieu of an overtly coercive effort, the scattering around of a few tons of bombs to demonstrate displeasure did not seem to have anything to recommend it other than its ease of implementation. Given the analysis of the target leader’s political position, a simple message was unlikely to move him. And here, the old saying that hope is not a strategy applied.

A catalytic solution appeared to be possible. Intelligence indicated that there were elements in the country’s air force that were potentially hostile to the leader. What if they could be stimulated to conduct a coup? One way to do that would be to suppress surface-to-air defenses, fly fighters over the country, basically daring the air force to come up and fight while bombing the army guard units that formed the leader’s personal protection. This would be accompanied by political pronouncements from the US that operations would cease and assistance deals struck if the leader were deposed. The air force officers, understanding that taking off would amount to suicide, and perhaps ordered to do so by their political leader, might then revolt. This, of course, was a thin cause-and-effect reed to cling to, but it involved less destruction and less political risk than either the definitive and coercive solutions and a better, if only marginally so, prospect of working than the expressive option. It at least imposed some rationality on the problem.

Over the objections of some officers who were uncomfortable with a clinical analysis of the problem, we adopted the catalytic solution and proceeded to devise a campaign plan that incorporated the necessary logistic and communications elements and sent it up the line where it was received with surprised approval. Apparently previous groups had submitted rather confused essays on strategy instead of a definite plan. We were subsequently ordered to video tape a briefing on the plan and how we arrived at it, presumably to educate future deploying staffs.


This discussion is, of course, a gross simplification of a massively complex subject, but the central idea could not be simpler and more straightforward; strategy must be done, and one has to find a constructive way for approaching it. The use of strategic doctrine or principles as a substitute for thinking creatively about the problem at hand represents a surrender to chaos. Having a framework to organize thinking without prejudging a solution is a survival skill. It is instructive to note that the U.S. Army found it necessary to assist unit commanders operating independently in Iraq and routinely encountering situations not foreseen by either orders or doctrine by issuing a pamphlet that described how to define the problem.[vii] They were essentially faced with devising strategy in the sense of the IJ definition and simple application of the commander’s estimate process was insufficient; there had to be antecedent reasoning to sort out the problem before strategy could be concocted.

The author’s experience was only a drill and very narrow, but it conformed to the IJ definition of strategy and at least as a microcosm seems to have illustrative value. Strategy making is a group activity and as such is subject to the “forming, norming, storming and performing” dynamic so many have described in the sociology literature. That process can easily be distorted by agendas extraneous to the problem at hand; one can only imagine what went on within the White House and Pentagon as the decision to invade Iraq was made. At some point, someone must see the glimmer and be persuasive enough to get the group to follow. Almost by definition a strategy problem is complex to the point of being indecipherable, but people nonetheless must sort it out and act. The school of hard knocks is one way for strategists to gain competency in their craft, but that is an expensive and uncertain means of getting the right people into position to make strategy. As Colin Gray points out, probably correctly, sending people to school to learn strategy may be a fool’s errand, the complexity, specificity and uniqueness of each successive strategic problem obviating any doctrine or principles that necessarily form the basis for teaching. However, a set of antecedent heuristics – a comprehensively exhaustive, mutually exclusive and simple set of categories that describe how force can be used to get one’s way in the face of opposition – can at least be a way to get purchase on one’s own inner genius.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p.102
[ii] Colin Gray, “Can Strategy be Taught?,” Infinity Journal, Article 1, Vol 6, Issue 3,
[iii] Clausewitz, p. 178.
[iv] Infinity Journal, “What is Strategy,” Infinity Journal, 04/03/2013.
[v] James Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979, Second Edition, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981), Chapter 2, pp. 41-86.
[vi] Although not as strident as in previous generations, current Air Force doctrine still maintains echoes of the idea that it can independently affect the will of an enemy to fight. U.S. Air Force, Basic Doctrine, Volume 1, pp. 29.
[vii] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design, TRADOC Pamphlet 525-5-500, Version 1.0, 28 January 2008.