Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 1  /  

Do Something: A model for the development of 21st Century Strategy

Do Something: A model for the development of 21st Century Strategy Do Something: A model for the development of 21st Century Strategy
To cite this article: Benson, Kevin C.M., “Do Something: A model for the development of 21st Century Strategy,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1, summer 2014, pages 14-16.

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. The strategist’s obligation is providing the framework through which tactical success is firmly linked to achieving policy and strategic objectives. Strategy must articulate the way in which we use engagements to the end of attaining the object of the war or use of force. As Clausewitz wrote, “The whole of military activity must therefore relate directly or indirectly to the engagement…the whole object…is simply that he (the Soldier) should fight at the right place and the right time.”[i] What good does it do the commander and her Soldiers to arrive at the right place at the right time if the purpose of the action is not linked to the attainment of strategic and policy objectives? Concepts of how to use the force of the future and even future focused war games also require knowledge of strategy and policy. Policy without strategy squanders military, economic, informational and human efforts. Clausewitz proposes a two step test to guide strategists in both interaction with policy makers and developing strategy. The first step reminds the strategist war is never autonomous but always an instrument of policy. The second step reminds us given step one war will vary given changing motives and situations. This argument precedes the famous quotation, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”[ii] This essay proposes a model for strategists to use in the development of 21st century strategy. For the purpose of this essay the situation in Nigeria is most useful for application of this model and development of a proposed strategy.

Recent articles offering to “ctrl-alt-delete” our forces and “start from a blank slate” support a need for strategists and strategy.[iii] In January 2014 Hew Strachan stated, “President Obama is “chronically incapable” of military strategy…”[iv] The question which follows is why should the president formulate military strategy? One could conclude from Strachan’s argument there are no strategists merely people involved in the process of divining policy and strategy. To suggest war is the mere extension of a policy is a serious error in thinking. War remains a continuation and instrument of policy and strategists must produce military objectives from statements of policy. There is a vital need for strategists just as there is a need for policy makers. More to the point there is a vital need for critical thinking and discourse in the development of both policy and strategy.

While the nature of war has not changed – greed, passion, fear, and honor – clearly the conditions of war do change. Strategists must recognize this fact. Strategists must also give the enemy/opponent/adversary his due, keeping in mind the enemy too develops policy and strategy. Given these conditions how do we develop the strategies we need to confront 21st century enemies and conditions? The tried and true model of ends-ways-means alone no longer provides the answers required for 21st century strategy. There is any number of replacement models for consideration. A model first voiced by Eliot Cohen best fits the need for a 21st century model.[v]

While Cohen proposed a consideration of assumptions, ends-ways-means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory, I propose instead substituting risks for priorities as a change to the Cohen model. Risk is ordinarily considered as risk to personnel and risk to mission. Strategic risk must also consider risk to the nation, its standing in the world, and perception of its ability to act in a determined and useful manner. Consideration of assumptions is the first step.

Assumptions are used in place of facts to continue planning. In developing strategy assumptions serve as forcing functions in interaction with policy makers. This drives home the point war is an instrument and continuation of policy not merely an extension of policy. In the 21st century policy makers often turn to the use of force in response to the pressure of “DO SOMETHING.” Even under conditions of restrained budgets the military will retain units and weapons optimized for “doing something” and doing it “now.” The use of assumptions as forcing functions gives the strategist a tool to use in the dialogue and thinking which must precede action.

Our policy vis-à-vis Nigeria could be best stated as #BringOurGirlsHome. The passionate responses to perceived and real Nigerian government inaction in the face of this Boko Haram outrage fuels the impetus to “Do Something.” Recent testimony before congressional committees also highlights the legal requirements restraining action.[vi] Thus a necessary strategic assumption is no US ground forces, conventional or special, will be committed to direct action in support of the Nigerian government. A second assumption, only specific intelligence related to finding the kidnapped girls will be shared with the Nigerian government. These two assumptions highlight the utility of the first step of the model. The second step is the consideration of ends-ways-means.

The tried and true ends-ways-means remain useful as a part of the model. The strategist must demonstrate how forces (means) conduct operations/campaigns (ways) to achieve the ends of policy. Following the development of our assumptions related to Nigeria our means consist of intelligence and surveillance forces along with the sustainment forces required for endurance and a headquarters for mission command as well as coordination with the embassy and liaison with Nigerian Armed Forces. The ways to achieve the ends are the conduct of intelligence and surveillance operations in direct support of Nigerian efforts to find, rescue and return their children, the ends of policy. A further end should be a stronger, more stable Nigerian government and state as a result of US assistance. A consideration of broad strategic risk naturally follows step two.[vii]

Strategic risk ranges from risk of mission failure to national standing and prestige. Risk consideration includes friendly and enemy actions in the cyber and information domain. Thinking about how the portrayal of our actions would assist or hinder operations is well spent effort, as is thinking about the converse.

Returning to our hypothetical case the risks involved in operations in support of Nigerian efforts range from the loss of a US surveillance aircraft, manned or unmanned, to a failed rescue attempt, based on US intelligence which results in a “dry hole” or the deaths of kidnapped children. The positive perception of US capability and ability is at risk. Another risk is the potential of destabilizing the Nigerian government as a result of our supporting it. Step four, sequencing, must include consideration of risk mitigation actions.

The conduct of globally integrated operations considers the sequencing of the range of operations necessary for successful execution of strategy. Strategic sequencing includes deciding on the construct of the theater of war or operations. This decision cues diplomatic, information, military and possibly economic efforts which assume continued access to territories in the theater, over-flight permissions, and air and sea port of debarkation and resupply access. Strategists consider the sequencing of action in the cyber and information domains. Strategists consider how to exploit enemy weaknesses in theses domains, the broad conduct of actions over time and so on.

Sequencing strategic actions in Nigeria clearly included presidential announcements of our intent to help. Sequencing our actions also takes into account consideration of the correct problem. How and why Boko Haram came into being must be addressed. It is the result of ethnic, religious and cultural dysfunction thus our use of force must bear in mind the problem we are assisting in solving as opposed to areas outside the correct problem. The decision to begin surveillance operations, when to deploy aviation units and where they operate, are strategic actions. Given recent announcements the operating area of our forces in support of Nigerian actions includes Chad. The final step is the development and constant refinement of the theory of victory.

In a personal e-mail Cohen wrote the theory of victory could be simply stated as “why do we think this (the strategy) will work.”[viii] “If the US commits force in accord with the strategy developed then we will be victorious because,” demands constant strategic level work and interaction with policy and decision makers. Cohen allows us to infer victory does not happen it is the result of hard work linking tactical success and effect to attaining strategic and policy objectives. Attaining policy objectives is victory in this century.

What might be our theory of victory in Nigeria and why do we think what we are doing will work? Applying the modified Cohen model I suggest our theory of victory is we will provide intelligence and surveillance products along with advice on how to use these products at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels thus resulting in stronger ties with Nigeria which favor US interests in sub-Saharan Africa. A part of our strategic success is in our standing with Nigeria and countries in the region. We demonstrate we are reliable partners who will invest our resources and capabilities in support of right efforts. Clearly the hope is the return of all kidnapped children. Equally clear is this hope might not be attainable no matter the depth of the commitment. This statement is very cold-blooded but practical. Our strategy should not be an endorsement of humanitarian intervention but a reasoned effort to build better relations between our country and Nigeria. This is not the use of force in the abstract. Clausewitz reminded us war and the use of force is not waged against an abstract enemy. Boko Haram is certainly not abstract. We wage war and execute strategy against real enemies, a fact which must always be kept in mind.[ix]

Strategists think about the application of military power in support of attaining policy goals. Use of the modified Cohen model assists in thinking through the challenge of developing strategy. The strategist must also consider the question what is military power? BG (ret) Huba Wass de Czege, founder of the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies, tells us wise strategists think of power, irrespective of its purpose, in relative as opposed to absolute terms. He notes, “All the sides in a conflict try to cause the humans on the other side to react as they intend. The outcome of the conflict is determined by a relative superiority of potential specific to the case at the essential points of confrontation.” The strategist then does not merely compare the relative military power of the two opposing sides in a conflict. Clearly the amount and quality of military capabilities available to each side are important, to say the least. Wass de Czege tells us “relative power is determined in the main by how these capabilities and resources affect the humans on each side of the conflict when they are brought to bear.” The strategist, along with the policy maker, determines when and how military power is brought to bear.

Strategy is executed in war and war is conducted in the realm of chance, fog and friction. Again Wass de Czege offers this wisdom for the strategist:

Even when subject to overwhelming military force, humans do not always react as intended. This is so because force is not power, and because force potential is transformed by a logic specific to an intended purpose within a unique situation. And that logic needs to be based on a sound theory of the situation and how to apply force, or the threat of it, achieve desired reactions. Only then does applied force become power.[x]

The modified Cohen model offers the best method for developing strategy in the 21st century and for guiding the principled application of military force to become military power. Application of the model offers tools for disciplined, focused discourse with policy makers and staff. The model provides a framework flexible enough to develop strategies for action across the range of military operations in the increasingly complex 21st century.


[i] On War, pages 88 and 95. Parenthetical inserted by the author.
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 88. Hereafter cited as On War.
[iii] Paul Scharre and Shawn Brimley, Ctrl + Alt + Delete Resetting America’s Military, in Foreign Policy, found at
[iv] Nico Hines, The Daily Beast, Senior UK Defense Advisor: Obama Is Clueless About ‘What He Wants To Do In The World,’ 15 JAN 2014, found at
[v] Personal e-mail from Prof. Cohen to the author, 14JAN2012.
[vi] Anne Gearan and Greg Miller, Washington Post, U.S. eager to help Nigerian search for girls but cautious in sharing intelligence, Published: May 15 2014, found at There are many photos of prominent people holding signs with #BringOurGirlsHome, including the First Lady.
[vii] On 22MAY14 Stephen Losey of Defense News reported 80 troops deployed to Chad to assist in the search for the missing girls. Forty will fly and maintain drones and forty are security troops.
[viii] Cohen e-mail, 14JAN2012, parenthetical added. Cohen wrote, “My definition of a theory of victory is really simple -- “why do we think this will work?” I wouldn’t make it any more complicated than that, since nothing ever really takes into account everything the other side is likely to do.”
[ix] On War, page 161.
[x] These two paragraphs were developed from a Plans List e-mail note written by BG (ret) Huba Wass de Czege, Sent: Saturday, April 26, 2014 12:35 PM, Subject: Re: The 11 Most Powerful Militaries In The World/ What is Military Power?