Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 3  /  

Beyond Future Threats: A Business Alternative to Threat-based Strategic Planning

Beyond Future Threats: A Business Alternative to Threat-based Strategic Planning Beyond Future Threats: A Business Alternative to Threat-based Strategic Planning
To cite this article: Mihara, Robert, “Beyond Future Threats: A Business Alternative to Threat-based Strategic Planning,” Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2012, pages 25-29.

This article explores the validity of the U.S. Army’s approach to its future as the principal landpower proponent for American defense. As NATO’s presence in Afghanistan contracts, the discussion about the Army’s future has largely revolved around the risk of pursuing alternatives in doctrine and force structure. The debate has produced three competing formulas. Some have argued that the U.S. should focus its landpower initiatives on those threats, which pose the gravest danger to the nation. These so-called “traditionalists” assert that inter-state conflicts should be the principal focus of the Army. Others have argued that the probability of conflict between major powers is so exceedingly remote that scarce defense funds should build a force optimized for the kind of conflicts the U.S. currently finds itself embroiled in. These “counterinsurgents” have also asserted that the diffusion of destructive means has so empowered non-state actors that they credibly constitute the principal threat to U.S. interests both now and into the future. A third school of thought argues that the U.S. cannot afford to weight its preparation towards either state-based or non-state threats. They argue that American landpower must balance its capabilities to deal with the full range of potential threats. Frank Hoffman and others in the “utility infielder” school argue that hybrid threats will predominate in the coming decades and that American ground forces must be capable of responding to threats that operate in different modes of warfare concurrently.[i]

The debate between each of these schools of thought has been heated, but they all focus on the threat as the principal issue to be resolved. Traditionalists, counterinsurgents, and utility infielders begin with the consequence and probability of threats in proposing ways forward for the Army institution. The threat-based approach makes eminent sense in prioritizing initiatives for developing operational doctrine or in campaign planning, but it makes far less sense when promulgating a strategic plan for an Army institution that is posturing itself for the long term. Yet, it is from a belief in the hybrid threat construct that senior Army leaders have begun to map out the future of American landpower. This article argues that the Army’s threat-based strategic institutional planning is an errant approach because accurately predicting which threats the nation will ultimately contend with is problematic and because threat-based planning focuses analyses on threats and means that can be identified today and not necessarily those that will ultimately be most consequential to national interests.[ii]

Business theorists have articulated two complementary theoretical concepts suitable for dealing deliberately with the dynamism of the operating environment: value and the value proposition. Value as a strategic concept is powerful for the Army institution because it enables planners to deliberately link grand strategic aims and enduring national interests to the dynamic realm of ways and means. For example, Ford Motor Company is mission-focused on “achieving automotive leadership” and “accelerating development of new vehicles that customers want.”[iii] In terms of value, however, Ford provides personalized transportation. Thus abstracted, value allows Ford to more radically redefine itself while remaining anchored on its essential service to society. Where many businesses go astray is in failing to establish the necessary linkages between lofty articulations of value and mission execution.

The value concept drives at the nature of needs. It is then value propositions that articulate what the customer needs in terms of what a given organization does as well or better than rival organizations. What organizations do is captured in terms of distinct functions, i.e. manufacturing tanks, repairing trucks, etc. Functions are aggregations of operational processes and are therefore quantifiable. Value propositions thus take enduring needs and operationalize them through these functions. However, the derivation of a viable value proposition is far from a simple task. It requires that an organization first understands the customer’s business as well or better than the customer; develops a mature understanding of the customer’s unique requirements; and, from a sufficient understanding of one’s own capabilities, then appropriately links one’s functions to the needs of the customer. Correctly created value propositions are not made out of context. In order to be valid, they must account for the highest good.[iv]

The three essential steps to a valid value proposition run against the historical grain of Army institutional planning. More often, Army leaders have imposed their view of the world on future national strategic policy and demanded that Congress authorize the force structure the Army has deemed necessary to face that world. Rather than reflect on the enduring and essential interests of the nation, the senior civilians and officers within the Army have focused on the threats which they can see and understand. Frequently, the threats that are ultimately confronted are not what the Army had prepared for. In its ongoing assessments, the Army appears to have accepted its failure to predict future threats in planning for the coming decades, but it has embraced an equally dangerous presumption that it must prepare for all threats. As a national institution, the Army must consider the nation’s enduring national interests as a necessary point of departure before engaging in any discussion of future threats, force structure, materiel acquisitions, and so forth. Yet, there has been scant precedent for such an approach to institutional strategic planning.[v]

Since its infancy as a professional entity, the Army has guided its institutional policy by adopting a threat-based approach to planning, and this typically suited the strategic situation of the U.S. throughout the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The relatively limited ambitions of the U.S. through the early-1900s encouraged Army officers to define American security needs, and the Army’s role in meeting those needs, according to the greatest material threat at hand. Tepid support from Congress also imposed real constraints on Army policy. Through 1940, the Army reached only modest levels of manpower and equipping during peacetime. Army officers could only dream of substantiating their vision of the Army’s public persona with a national institution capable of determining its future. As a consequence, the strategic perspective of the Army changed very little from the founding of the republic, even as the U.S. grew in importance on the world stage. The isolationist posture of the U.S. prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor obviated the need for the Army to reassess its purpose in the minds of most Army officers. This is not to say that officers did not worry over the state of the Army. Many of them warned of the nation’s dangerous unpreparedness for a war they felt certain was approaching, but those warnings were only fixed on the pending crisis. The discourse amongst its officers did not move the Army towards taking a comprehensive view of the nation’s needs as its leaders weighed their own importance. It was very much an operationally-minded debate over the ways and means of warfare and not a strategic evaluation of national interests.[vi]

The Army was then all the more unprepared for the shock of atomic warfare in 1945 and, as a consequence, struggled to articulate its purpose and functions in the immediate postwar years. The Korean War revitalized all of the military services by convincing American leaders that the U.S. required a substantial defense capability to resist Communist expansion. The advent of a peacetime military establishment in the 1950s that was ten times larger than it was before the Korean War did not lead to a corresponding change in the process of strategic planning by either the Army or the other services. Instead, both in 1945 and subsequently, the Army continued to plan for the future by focusing first on presumed threats and then on the means to defeat them. Even the consensus within today’s Army that the next few decades will be characterized by unprecedented unknowns and complexities has not shaken this threat-means approach to institutional planning. The unknowable future has merely led the Army to advocate a hybrid force that can succeed in any type of operation. Despite rhetorical calls for bold new visions, the Army’s strategic response has returned to the familiar path of responding to the threat template with familiar means and organizational constructs.

In a sense, the Army has yet to reconcile its institutional purpose with post-Cold War America’s role as a global hegemon. With rare exceptions, there has been little encouragement by senior leadership for Army officers to collectively reconsider the Army’s role and functions in the context of its responsibilities as a standing institution. The Army has remained bound to following its mantra of winning the nation’s wars without evaluating the proper extent of that commitment, and to applying the tried solutions of the post-Vietnam era without reassessing the feasibility of those formulas. Several scholars have articulated compelling arguments which suggest that the Army’s ways and means of the past four decades will not serve the nation well in the future.[vii]

Army leaders have bemoaned the national penchant for significantly reducing support to the Army after each war, but they have never fully invested themselves in the task of maturing the Army bureaucracy into a responsible professional institution. Responsible bureaucracies prioritize the organization’s raison d’être ahead of its people and processes. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the agencies and offices across the Department of the Army do not fully meet this criterion. Instead of subjecting its ways to the imperative of national interests, military and otherwise, the Army has uncritically accepted its views of war and demanded greater resources from the nation to optimize organizations and processes it had already established or was in the process of developing. It has consistently presumed that its basic functions are sound, continuing to serve the common good, and thus to be preserved – the principled response of a bureaucratic mind.[viii]

Army leaders have for generations accused the nation of naively seizing too great a peace dividend after each conflict and thus setting the stage for future military debacles, such as the defeat of Task Force Smith in the Korean War. In July 1950, roughly 540 soldiers under Lt. Col. Charles B. Smith were sent as part of the Army’s 34th Division to slow down the North Korean advance north of the city of Osan, but it was poorly trained and equipped as a consequence of draconian cuts made in Army manpower and funding after 1945. Shortly after initial contact, the battalion task force was quickly thrown into confusion and routed. The ignominious defeat of Smith’s command has been a rallying cry for Army proponents ever since. Despite its compelling aspects, the plea for “no more Task Force Smiths” ignores the presence of other national interests which are not inherently military, and it denies the prerogative of political leaders to determine the time and manner of wars that the nation will engage in. Forever preventing future repetitions of the fate which befell Smith’s command could only be achieved by privileging the military interest as always being equal or superior to others. This mentality is emblematic of a bureaucratic perspective where the societal good offered by the organization is a fixed quantity, which is presumed rather than constantly evaluated. Is the maximum safety of our nation’s soldiers always more important than any other national interest? The unabashed Army bureaucrat would answer in the affirmative. Most Army leaders would not make so chauvinistic a response when asked directly, but the logic of Army policies and the rhetoric of “no more Task Force Smiths” carry within it that tacit reasoning. The fact that this kind of logic is so consistent and unquestioned within the Army leadership further confirms the bureaucratic nature of the institution and the compelling need for senior leaders in the Army to confront this logic as they consider the institution’s future. An obstacle to Army leaders objectively dealing with their logic is the way in which they have internalized the concept of mission.[ix]

The institutional Army prides itself on being a mission-focused culture. Army professionals identify themselves with the imperative of purpose over every other consideration no matter how compelling, including one’s own life. However, the concept of mission is inadequate for the purpose of an institution that claims to have an enduring raison d’être. In Army operations orders, mission statements provide a focus for organizations addressing quantified problems with means that are on hand, but they are wholly unsuited for guiding institutions over generations through an unknowable future. As business theorists have long understood, the fount of strategic success is not in the latest great invention in development. Sustained strategic success comes from understanding what benefit the “customer” requires better than the customer does. To differentiate between the widget that provides the benefit and the benefit itself, business theorists have developed the concept of value and articulated the complementary concept of the value proposition to fulfill the function of the mission statement that is so necessary to deliberate operations in business and in war.

Army mission statements are inadequate for institutional strategic planning because they are by definition focused on knowable points in time and space. They demand a quantified understanding of the means and ways to be applied in pursuit of one’s ends. Such guiding declarations inevitably get the end state wrong because the contributing causal factors are so complex and unknowable that quantifying what the end state will be is highly problematic. Most planners and decision-makers intuitively understand the relative futility of trying to prognosticate. The more common fallacy is to abandon the exercise of strategic initiative and instead adopt sweeping operational goals that rely upon extant or accessible solutions. The problem with these goals and solutions is that they tend to defend existing core equities within the organization. They thus reinforce incumbent boundaries, affirming parochialism rather than challenging it.

Because the Army tends to think in terms of operational mission statements, its self-proclaimed “transformation” efforts have tended to fall far short of substantive transformation. In business theory, transformation describes a redefining of bureaucratic boundaries around a changed purpose. The concept thus principally addresses the nature of the organization and not the organizational units or technical means. Army transformation has frequently devolved very rapidly into an exercise of “moving the ravioli around” where major realignments of existing organizations and modifications of processes pass for radical change. The conservative nature of institutional change stems significantly from the Army’s fixation on its understanding of the operating environment without having reconciled that understanding to the overriding influence of comprehensive national interest.

In imposing its worldview, the Army has implicitly refused to accept the inherent dynamics of the nation’s political system and that of the international community. At its most vitriolic, the Army discourse has attacked the moral fiber of civil society and its leadership. Praetorian sentiments have arisen at moments of institutional crisis and remain simmering in the background of the current debate over the future of the Army. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s summary dismissal of civilian prerogatives in the conduct of war is but one notable example.[x] A significance of this challenge in civil-military relations is that senior military leaders are encouraged to diminish or ignore non-military constituencies. Since the Korean War, Army leaders have repeatedly prescribed force structures and equipping strategies that ignored the toll they imposed, in terms of future opportunities, on those national interests not inherently military. The fate of Smith’s hapless battalion has resonated among Army leaders who refuse to accept that other vital interests of the nation might be advanced only at their expense. Unless the Army properly measures the relative worth of its value against other interests, it is not in a position to develop an appropriate value proposition.[xi]

As a consequence of its narrow view of mission, the Army has not monitored itself with the clarity necessary to truly understand what it has and what it is capable of doing. The institutional side of the Army has grown into a byzantine empire of parochial bureaucracies that have determined for themselves what constitutes the larger national interest and used that interpretation to support their functional identity. The conflicting paradigms are often arrived at by default and not contrived out of self-interest. In fairness to the Army, the nation has typically lacked a formal articulation of prioritized strategic interests that national institutions, such as the Army, could use to derive their own policy proposals. Regardless of how they are arrived at, these parochial platforms are deeply rooted, and the Army remains unequipped to corral its competing constituencies because the Army has not determined what it provides to the nation in balanced terms and how it proposes to pursue that end. In the midst of the Cold War, Richard Barnet, founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, warned of superficial links between the burgeoning military bureaucracy and the national interest. He perceived that “the war economy [had provided] comfortable niches for tens of thousands of bureaucrats in and out of military uniform…millions of workers whose jobs depend on the system;…scientists and engineers hired to look for that final ‘technological breakthrough’ that can provide total security; contractors unwilling to give up easy profits; [and] warrior intellectuals who sell threats and bless wars.”[xii] It is not enough to know the number of helicopters that the industrial base can build or what number of brigades the U.S. can deploy overseas. The Army must have a concept for articulating how its potential can provide for the vital interests of the nation.

The value proposition provides just such a concept for the Army. By establishing a necessary linkage between national interests and institutional purpose, value propositions provide a reliable basis for continuous strategic planning rather than the episodic reviews that typify the Army’s over-the-horizon thinking. The only way by which the Army can overcome the challenges of planning for the dynamic future is to focus foremost on the most immutable side of the equation. The vital and highly important interests of the nation capture the national identity. They point to the locus of political will and change very little from generation to generation. The concepts of value and the value proposition provide the kind of construct which can rescue strategic decision-makers and planners from fatalistically accepting the futility of predicting the future and thereby empowering them to deliberately accept risk where national interests will permit. Through such an approach to planning, the Army would no longer feel as compelled to retain an expansive range of capabilities because the focus will then be on protecting what is most important and not on chasing transitory threats.[xiii]

An articulation of what the Army’s value proposition to the American republic should be exceeds the scope of this article, but one can begin to examine it in broad terms. The development of a proper value proposition for the Army would begin with an understanding of the historically consistent core interests of the United States. Here is where the 2012 U.S. defense strategic guidance falls short of providing sure anchorage for institutional strategic planning by renewing the American proclivity to focus on threats ahead of enduring interests. The adoption of an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, a renewal of countering weapons of mass destruction proliferation, and a focus on enhancing partnerships are really nothing more than priorities for near-and mid-term resourcing. The guidance required for a value proposition as the articulation of strategic intent requires a more enduring and less contingent set of guiding concerns. Such a set of guiding points might include: defend the homeland, prevent great-power conflict on Eurasia, preserve access to strategically important materials, preserve an open international economic order, foster the establishment of viable state structures as responsible members of the international community, and a prosperous civil society. From these interests, or something akin to them, the Army can develop a value proposition that defines the proper role of American military power for the U.S. and her allies.[xiv]

At its essence, the Army’s value proposition is self-evident: the Army provides security. The real challenge is in maturing such a statement of strategic intent into something that captures the Army’s unique and necessary contribution to national interests. The Army’s strategic planners must not only capture the unique contribution of the Army vis-à-vis its sister services, but the planners must also evaluate the Army’s contribution to the national interest against those of civilian governmental and non-governmental organizations. It is here that the articulation of the Army’s relative value brings its leaders back to properly consider the opportunity costs their nation ought to pay in exchange for the kind of security uniquely obtained through Army landpower. When rightly considered, the Army’s strategic intent ought to inform national leaders as to what price they ought to pay for the Army’s contribution to security and whether what they are paying for falls short or exceeds the imperatives of national interest. For example, one can imagine the Army’s pursuit of materiel superiority morphing into a virtual race for strategic primacy when strategic partnership is more appropriate to the interests of the nation. One might argue that the approach described in this article is detached from the realities of politics and a dynamic operating environment, but it should be noted that the moral obligation of professional government institutions is to serve the greater interest of their nation. Presidential administrations and congresses will inevitably misuse the Army from time to time, but it is not the prerogative of the military services to insulate themselves from the vicissitudes of political reality. It is quite simply to serve the commonweal with integrity and competence. A strategic intent anchored in a sober assessment of national interests would be a secure first step on that path.[xv]


[i] F. Hoffman, “Future Threats and Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal 4 (Fall 2011): 17-21.
[ii] G. Craig and F. Gilbert, “Reflections on Strategy in the Present and Future,” in P. Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 867-69 – Craig and Gilbert argue that modern strategy must go beyond “the art of preparing for the armed conflicts in which a nation may become involved.” For them, strategy in today’s world should hark back to the eighteenth century raison d’état and serve as the “rational determination of a nation’s vital interests, the things that are essential to its security, its fundamental purposes in its relations to other nations, and its priorities with respect to goals.”
[iii] Ford Motor Company, 2010 Annual Report, [accessed 5 December 2011].
[iv] C. Anderson, et al., “Customer Value Propositions in Business Markets,” Harvard Business Review (March 2006): 4-6 [reprint R0603F].
[v] Gen. Robert Cone, remarks, “Laying the Groundwork for the Army of 2020,” AUSA Combined Arms Maneuver Symposium and Exposition, Kansas City, Miss., 26 July 2011, [accessed 14 December 2011].
[vi] B. Linn, The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 2, 7-9, 11-19 24-26, 30-31, 50, 54-55, 87, 93-97, 107-8, and Guardians of Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 253-54; R. Weigley, History of the United States Army (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 423-36.
[vii] Linn, Echo of Battle, 224-25; Z. Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: American and the Crisis of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 123-24, 162, 189-92; A. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), 126-28, 167-68.
[viii] M. Weber, “Bureaucracy” in H. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, trans. and eds., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 214-16, 228-29, 298-99; E. Coffman, The Old Army (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 286 – Coffman quotes an unnamed scholar who offered an assessment fitting of this kind of mindset: “The culture of professionalism tended to cultivate an atmosphere of constant crisis – emergency – in which practitioners both created work for themselves and reinforced their authority by intimidating clients;” Linn, Echo of Battle, 152, 157, 163, 174, 190-91, 210-18, and 242-43.
[ix] T. Hanson, Combat Ready?: The Eighth U.S. Army on the Eve of the Korean War (College Station, Tex.: Texas A&M University Press, 2010), Kindle edition, Chapter 1 [locations 108 and 168]; T. R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1994), 69-71; D. Halberstam, The Coldest Winter (New York: Hyperion, 2007), 146-47.
[x] Bacevich, “Elusive Bargain: The Pattern of U.S. Civil-Military Relations Since World War Two,” in Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War Two (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 208, 217-20, 223-24, 227, 234, 238, 240-42, 248, 254.; Linn, Echo of Battle, 110-12, 189, 193-95, 201-2, 236; M. Thomas Owens, U.S. Civil-Military Relations: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (New York: Continuum, 2011), 1-5, 62; B. Fleming, “Military Self-Definition as Strategy,” Infinity Journal 2 (Spring 2012): 31-32; Weigley, History of the United States Army, xii-xiii.
[xi] Linn, Echo of Battle, 49-51, 163, 195; Weigley, History of the U.S. Army, 276-77, 279-81; Some military leaders have publicly committed themselves to measuring the narrower concerns of the military establishment against a proper evaluation of U.S. national interests. However, the process for articulating the way ahead for the Army and Department of Defense remain rooted in assessments of threat and loosely grounded by discussions of broader national priorities.
[xii] R. Barnett, Real Security: Restoring American Power in a Dangerous Decade (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 97, as quoted in P. Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, 864.
[xiii] D. Cox, et al., “Why Hybrid Warfare is Tactics Not Strategy,” Infinity Journal 2 (Spring 2012): 30; G. Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, “Strategic Intent,” Harvard Business Review (May-June 1989): 2-5 [reprint R0507N].
[xiv] U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (January 2012), 2-3; J. Locher, et al., Project on National Security Reform: Turning Ideas into Action (September 2009): ii-iii, 37, [accessed 21 March 2012].
[xv] Locher, et al., Project on National Security Reform, 22.