Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 2  /  

From Grand Strategy to Operational Design: Getting it Right

From Grand Strategy to Operational Design: Getting it Right From Grand Strategy to Operational Design: Getting it Right
To cite this article: Van Riper, Paul, “From Grand Strategy to Operational Design: Getting it Right,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2, fall 2014, pages 13-18.

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Policy, strategy, and planning are all interrelated, but the relationship among them and the purpose and use of policy, strategy, and planning are often misunderstood and misused in the national security environment.[i]

The method the United States Government currently uses to develop its “grand” or national security strategy is dysfunctional, and the approach its military uses to design campaigns and major operations is seriously flawed. This article describes how we got into this disturbing circumstance and suggests how the nation’s leaders might go about getting things right.

The nation did not arrive at this dismal and confused situation overnight; thus, it will take time to sort out and correct the many interrelated problems that contribute to the present state of affairs. To understand how the policy-strategy-operations continuum got so far off track we need to review what happened over the last three-quarters of a century.

Early in the Second World War the United States established the policy and developed a grand strategy to confront the German-Japanese-Italian alliance. Several documents codified that policy and the grand strategy. Among the most important were the Atlantic Charter signed in August 1941, where the United States and the United Kingdom agreed upon the goals of the war, and the Arcadia Conference in January 1942, where the two nations settled on the “Europe First” policy. To meet evolving conditions during the course of the war the United States modified the policy and the grand strategy delineated in these documents, but for the most part, these documents guided the war effort to a successful conclusion.

Similar operational planning began—especially with regard to Japan—even before the United States entered the war. This planning took on a coalition cast when American, British, and Canadian military staffs met in Washington DC from the last days of January 1941 until late March in a conference known as ABC-1. The creation of the Combined Chiefs of Staff (US Joint Chiefs of Staff and British Chiefs of Staff Committee) in April 1942 made formal a combined planning arrangement. Other Allies, though not members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS), consulted with the CCS throughout the war. The members of the CCS as well as representatives to that body came to decisions and made plans through the practice of frequent discussions.

Looking back it can seem like what transpired during the Second World War was a “textbook” example of how to establish policy, create a grand strategy, and design campaigns to support that strategy. In actuality, the process was far from smooth because there were numerous disagreements, and many of the participants experienced angst over what transpired. Still, in its totality the process serves as a worthy exemplar.

In 1951, a few years after the start of what we came to know as the Cold War, President Truman approved National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68). This 58-page document was a statement of policy as well as an outline of the grand strategy the United States intended to employ as it confronted the Soviet Union and later the Warsaw Pact. The document expressed the basic ideas of George Kennan’s policy of containment outlined in his famous “Long Telegram” of 1947 and ensuing article by Mr. “X” in Foreign Affairs, though with more emphasis on the military element of national power. NSC-68 guided the development of contingency plans that the United States used to contain and deter the Soviets and their allies until the Cold War ended with the disbandment of the Warsaw Pact and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Once more, we have what at first glance appears to be a “textbook” example of how well thought out policy leads to sound strategy and detailed operational plans. Again, however, the creation of the policy and strategy was not without considerable contention among senior officials and there was much apprehension as to its potential effects. Yet, in its entirety, it is another worthy archetype of how to connect policy to actions.

From 1941 through 1945, national leaders gave minimal thought to issues outside of the ongoing conflict and its aftermath. Other foreign policy issues paled in comparison to the global war. Such was not the case in the years of the Cold War. Although the Soviet bloc was the focus of US strategic thinking from 1946 to 1991, other tangentially related issues occasionally required the United States to develop separate policies and supporting strategies, most notably for the Korean War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam War. For these “lesser” cases the US defense establishment had no agreed upon way to create strategies that were in consonance with policies, the latter of which the Executive Branch often failed to articulate clearly.

I first became aware of these failing as a student in the Naval War College’s Command and Staff course in 1977. As a mid-grade Marine Corps major, the tactical realm had been the center of my experience up until that point. The College’s instructors introduced me to the larger world of policy and strategy in a rigorous and well-designed curriculum. Ironically, the title of the course was “Strategy and Policy” taught by the Strategy and Policy Department, putting the proverbial cart (strategy) before the horse (policy). I learned to dissect presidential speeches, especially the annual State of the Union address, various reports to Congress, and other similar documents to distill policy guidance that was to inform strategy. In many ways it seemed akin to “reading tea leaves,” but as I discovered, this was the way the Pentagon carried out business in Washington DC. Fortunately for me, the operational assignments that followed the Command and Staff course did not involve any high-level planning, thus I did not have to practice what I had learned at Newport.

Four years later, I was a student at the Army War College and once more immersed in the study of policy and strategy. My faculty advisor, the highly regarded Colonel Arthur Lykke, Jr., was an officer schooled in the intricacies of developing strategy and he shared both his knowledge and passion for the subject in papers he wrote as well as in interesting and informative lectures. Despite his talents, he could only explain how we were to translate policy into strategy and teach us the mechanics of creating strategies, not solve the inherent lack of policy and strategic direction. We studied the current Defense Guidance, Joint Strategic Planning Document, Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan, and other related documents in an effort to uncover the policy goals needed to guide the development of strategy. It still appeared to me that we were learning to divine policy. Again, I was fortunate in that only one of my three subsequent assignments necessitated using the knowledge gained at Carlisle and this was at the relatively low level of a Marine expeditionary force command element.

In summer 1988, I found myself on the other side of the academic equation. Posted as the Director of Marine Corps Command and Staff College I was responsible for teaching majors and lieutenant commanders the intricacies of the policy-strategy-operational plans linkage. I knew at the outset that my task would be far easier than that of those who had taught me in 1977 and 1981. The reason for my confidence was a product of the Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 as codified in Title 50, US Code 3043 (b), that is, the requirement for an annual National Security Strategy Report. Because the Command and Staff College’s instructors could direct students to the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) published by the White House in January 1988 they no longer had to have students search between the lines of various documents to determine US policy and grand strategy. This was the second NSS and it overcame many shortcomings of the report the Reagan administration issued in 1987, and most importantly, it endeavored to spell out how the US would integrate other elements of national power. We surmised that the five national interests (derived from identified “enduring values”) described in the 1988 NSS reflected presidential policy. Happily, a section early in this NSS specifically spelled out diplomatic, economic, and defense policies. This NSS also sketched out strategies for a number of geographical regions – the first recognition of the need for theater strategies.

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 1991 further aided my successor at Command and Staff College—and others engaged in professional military education—with its requirement that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff submit to the Secretary of Defense a National Military Strategy (NMS). This made the linkage from policy to grand strategy to campaign plans even stronger.

Regrettably, this promising start to national security planning too soon went awry. Fast moving events in Europe and a new administration caused President George H.W. Bush’s White House to miss delivering a report on national security strategy in 1989, and its 1990 report did not have the coherence of President Reagan’s 1988 report. Moreover, with the demise of the Soviet Union the NSS no longer had a threat-based character, which gave it less focus. Over the next decade a series of NSS’s reflected the strain of defining a new foreign policy, identifying national security interests, and establishing priorities. In later years Congressional and Department of Defense (DOD) requirements to produce additional strategic documents at specific times—a national defense strategy, a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s risk assessment, national defense panel reports, and Defense Strategic Guidance—compounded the problem because they precluded coordinating the contents of these many documents.

The following discussion serves to illustrate the predicament the defense community finds itself in today.

Title 50, US Code § 3043 obliges the president to “transmit to Congress each year a comprehensive report on the national security strategy of the United States…on the date on which the President submits to Congress the budget for the next fiscal year.” It requires “a comprehensive description and discussion” in five areas. Among these are interests “vital to the national security,” “foreign policy,” and “all elements of national power.”

Title 10, US Code § 118 mandates that as part of the Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR) the Department of Defense “delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy.” Furthermore, the Department is to submit the National Defense Strategy as part of the QDR to the Armed Services Committees every four years “in the year following the year in which the review is conducted, but not later than the date on which the President submits the budget for the next fiscal year to Congress….”

Title 10, US Code § 153 (b) requires the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “determine each even-numbered year whether to prepare a new National Military Strategy…or to update a strategy previously prepared” and to submit it to the Armed Services Committees by February 15th.

To summarize the problem: Congress requires the president to submit a budget for the next fiscal year “after the first Monday in January but not later than the first Monday in February of each year….” Congress also tells the president to transmit his NSS report at the same time. Logically, subordinate strategies should “nest” with and flow from the NSS. This cannot happen because Congress requires the DOD to develop a National Defense Strategy (NDS) every four years following the QDR and submit it no later than when the president submits his budget request. This means that the DOD must base the NDS on the previous year’s NSS unless the DOD creates its NDS in parallel with the current year NSS. To compound the problem, Congress instructs the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to update or prepare a new NMS by February 15th each year. This means the Chairman will in two years out of four look to a NDS that is older than the NSS as he prepares the NMS. Additionally, in all even-numbered years the Chairman will have to prepare the NMS in parallel with the NSS.

Common sense says there should be sufficient time after the White House issues the NSS for the DOD to develop its NDS. (This assumes there is a real need for the NDS, which I find a hard case to make.) In the same manner, there should be sufficient time after the DOD issues its NDS for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare his NMS. Compelling the president to submit the NSS (the senior strategy) annually and the Chairman an updated or new NMS (the junior strategy) biennially as well as concurrently and the DOD the NDS on a quadrennial basis is illogical. A more reasonable alignment would ensure the NSS was enduring, while those strategies under it would manifest the character of the evolving security environment.

The review above only describes the trouble caused by the current scheduling for the development and issuance of the three strategies. There are other significant problems when it comes to the creation of strategies.

First among these is the general confusion of terms, in particular policy and strategy. Many people in key positions in the US Government and elsewhere conflate and misuse the two words. A noted military academic writes, “Today strategy is too often employed simply as a synonym for policy.”[ii] He provides startling examples reporting a speech President George W. Bush gave in 2003 mentioning a “forward strategy of freedom” and a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office White Paper describing the “UK’s strategy for policy.”[iii] Freedom of course is a condition, not a strategy, and having a strategy for policy is meaningless. A number of authorities have observed also that government and defense officials use strategy so loosely that we have forgotten its original meaning.[iv] The US national security establishment would do well to adopt the definitions provided by Colin Gray, one of today’s premier writers on strategy:

  • Policy: The political objectives that provide the purposes of particular…strategies
  • Grand [national security] strategy: The direction and use made of any or all among the total assets of a security community in support of its policy goals as decided by politics
  • Military strategy: The direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics
  • Operations: Combinations of purposefully linked military engagements, generally though not necessarily on a large scale[v]

Another significant problem arises from our national leaders’ disagreement over what actually constitutes policy objectives. Often leaders see these objectives in terms of national interests – principally those they deem vital.[vi] We have had presidents who thought of themselves as realists and defined such interests “in terms of a state’s tangible power and sphere of influence relative to those of other states.”[vii] We have had other presidents who were idealistic and therefore defined national interests “more broadly to encompass intangible, but nevertheless highly prized, values like human rights, freedom from economic deprivation, and freedom from disease.”[viii] In practice, the many NSS’ have presented national interests in ambiguous or broad terms or as statements of the obvious, making the value of the exercise suspect.[ix] There are respected public officials and scholars who feel strongly that the US must articulate its national interests if we are to successfully chart our future. One such group even developed a hierarchy of interests ranging from “vital interests,” “extremely important interests,” and “important interests,” to “less important or secondary interests.”[x]

I saw this problem first hand as a member of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, established by Congress to assess the 2010 QDR. Early on, panel members discovered they could find no meaningful and authoritative description of the nation’s vital national interests. Members recognized that without such a description the panel could not effectively assess the QDR. To contend with the issue the co-chairmen established a subcommittee, which it was my privilege to chair, to determine “enduring national security interests of the United States and examine how emerging trends may affect those interests over the next 20 years.” This subcommittee concluded that:

At the root of the Department‘s force-planning problem is a failure of our political leadership to explicitly recognize and clearly define these essential strategic interests. To be sure, it would have been easier for the Department had post–Cold War presidents provided more specific guidance on this subject. But what presidents actually do with America‘s military, on a bipartisan basis and over time, indicates what they believe must be done to protect America. It is, therefore, possible to discern the strategic thinking that has guided our country from the strategic practices it has followed.[xi]

A review of the United States’ actual strategic practices over 65 years revealed that “American security rests on four principles:

  • the defense of the American homeland;
  • assured access to the sea, air, space, and cyberspace;
  • the preservation of a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of that region;
  • and provision for the global ‘common good’ through such actions as humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster relief.”[xii]

Adopting these or similar principles as policy goals would provide a sound foundation for a presidential statement enabling the creation of a solid NSS with long-lasting qualities.

Compounding the problems I have discussed to this point is an even more fundamental one: Congress’s demand that the president develop a NSS annually. A grand strategy needs to have enduring qualities. It should certainly be a strategy—barring the rise of a significant new challenge—that remains viable for years if not decades. Ideally, it should survive across administrations as NSC-68 did. I believe this is possible if our leaders—executive and congressional—based the NSS on principles derived from strategic practices such as those I have listed above and then treated the NSS as a “treaty” with ourselves. In other words, the president in consultation with Congress would create a NSS and then ask the Senate for approval through passage of a “sense of the Senate” resolution. Ratification would be undesirable because ratified treaties are of two kinds; “self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable and “non-self-executing,” that is, judicially enforceable if Congress chose to implement it through legislation. No president is likely to want the NSS to be judicially enforceable. Moreover, seeking Senate ratification of a NSS would raise significant Constitutional questions.

To recap, “getting it right” relative to the nation’s grand strategy requires the US Government to:

  • Repeal legislation requiring the president to submit a NSS annually
  • Create a true grand strategy based on long-standing practices that reveal vital national interests
  • Publish a NSS that would survive through multiple administrations by seeking a “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting that NSS
  • Enact legislation that requires the president to revise or develop a new NSS if the Senate revokes its “sense of the Senate” resolution supporting the current NSS
  • Repeal legislation requiring the DOD to submit a NDS. The NDS serves no purpose that the NMS cannot meet
  • Repeal legislation requiring the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to update or develop and submit a new NMS biennially and replace it with legislation requiring each new Chairman to update or develop and submit a new NMS when the president issues or updates a NSS or other circumstances warrant a revised or new NMS

Even if the US gets its grand strategy and military strategy right it is of little use if there are not operational plans that translate that strategy into the mechanics of tactics – the domain of battles and engagements. Our nation has experienced the great difficulties that occur when this “bridge” from strategy to tactics is missing or poorly constructed. No better example comes to mind than the Vietnam War where US forces won every battle—often at great cost—only to see the nation lose the war. In Vietnam, US forces fought at every opportunity because they were without a realistic campaign plan. Knowing when to accept and refuse battle and at what time and place is the crux of operational art. Campaign plans, the fruit of operational art, must support a military strategy that in turn supports a national strategy designed to accomplish war aims. As one knowledgeable historian and retired officer maintains, “the American way of war tends to shy away from thinking about the complicated process of turning military triumphs, whether on the scale of major campaigns or small-unit actions, into strategic successes.”[xiii] He notes we have “an American way of battle,” not “an American way of war.”[xiv]

Although, on a few occasions professionally competent officers—usually self-educated—have enabled US forces to accomplish substantial operational success—Operation Desert Storm being the most notable instance—it has been in spite of the shortcomings of existing planning doctrine.[xv] Contemporary doctrine continues to espouse a procedure for decision-making, which cognitive psychologists have told us for a half-century has limited utility. Each service and the joint community have a slightly different model of this procedure, but all models have as their foundation the rules of systems analysis; identify a problem, determine criteria that relate to the problem, assign weights to those criteria; develop and compare alternative solutions (courses of action) based on those criteria; and decide on the “optimal” solution.

A systems analysis procedure works well when determining how to degrade an integrated air defense or disrupt an electrical power grid or similar man-made systems. It is of no value when it comes to designing the concepts that drive campaign or operational plans. Instructors at the Naval War College’s Command and Staff course and at the Army War College taught me the intricacies of this formula. It proved inadequate on nearly every occasion I tried to use it. Yet, this was the only procedure the US military acknowledged until the late 1980s when officers began to learn of emerging research on decision-making. Literature on this research explained how recognizing patterns of activity enabled people to make decisions intuitively.[xvii] In essence, as people perceive a problem they tell themselves stories of how to respond to those problems and then they “act out” their stories.

Over the past 25 years, the US military has accepted, with reluctance, an intuitive approach to making decisions, principally when in a time-compressed situation. Often, however, officers still make their default mode the standard military decision-making process, which for them is “received wisdom.”[xviii]

In 2004, retired Brigadier General Shimon Naveh of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) offered an extended idea on intuitive decision making to the US Army and US Marine Corps. His approach, which he called systemic operational design, appeared uniquely useful to planning campaigns and major operations.[xix] Based on an understanding of the chaotic nature of war, systemic operational design focuses on discerning the logic that makes a situation a problem. Through discourse a group that has expertise on some aspect of the situation structures or frames the problem, which frequently causes a counter-logic or solution to emerge naturally. In intuitive decision making a person aware of a familiar pattern enables construction of a story that makes sense; in systemic operational design a pattern materializes during discourse and facilitates a sense-making story. Failing to find the logic that makes a situation unacceptable and in need of change means planners are not able to discern a counter-logic, the conceptual element essential to begin planning.

Naveh’s explanation of systemic operational design was for many officers difficult to grasp despite the simplicity of his idea. Much of this difficulty was due to language issues and US officers’ poor understanding of the nonlinear nature of war.[xx] Fortunately, researchers learned of an important paper during the Army-Marine Corps experiments evaluating systemic operational design, which US officers found easier to comprehend.[xxi]

Close study of the systemic approach to operational design, coupled with a series of carefully constructed and capably executed wargames conducted over five years, validated systemic operational design. The final product, though, was a modified version of Naveh’s original structure and form. The US Army, which led the evaluation, provided the results to service and joint doctrine writers with the expectation they would revise planning manuals and incorporate this new approach to operational design. Universally, this failed to happen. In every case, doctrine writers merely affixed the new approach to the front end of the standard analytical military decision making process, which stresses creating and testing multiple courses of action. To illustrate the illogic of this, recall that systemic operational design is to uncover the logic or “pattern” of the situation and offer a story—the counter-logic—that will resolve the problem. In other words, the planners employ the approach to create a story that makes sense. What the standard analytical process demands is the creation of additional stories in the form of other courses of action. Why would any commander or staff want to waste time developing alternative stories when they have one they believe will work?

This is another example of “received wisdom” preventing people from seeing the anomalies fracturing the existing planning and decision-making paradigm. Despite all the credible research providing solid evidence of other ways to decide and plan that are clearly superior, those invested in the old ways hold on to what they know best.

It is time for the US military to scrap all existing planning manuals and to start afresh. Few officers read these voluminous and poorly written documents except to meet academic requirements.[xxii] The new manuals must begin with recognition that there are three approaches to decision-making, not one. These are intuitive, analytical, and systemic. None is better or worse than the others are; officers must know which to use in the situation at hand. The analytical approach cannot remain the default choice.

To conclude, the US national security community must overhaul the way it currently acquires policy, which it needs to develop the nation’s grand strategy and in turn its military strategy. The 1988 NSS did this best. To translate strategy successfully into campaign plans and operational plans the national defense community must adopt a systemic approach to operational design. In doing so, the community will replace analytical checklist-like procedures with discourse. The latter method enables planers to discern what makes an unfavorable situation a problem, thereby uncovering the counter-logic needed to resolve that problem.


[i] Harry R. Yarger, Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2008), p. 8.
[ii] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 11.
[iii] Ibid., p. 26.
[iv] In addition to Strachan’s work see Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), p. x. For the lineage of the word see Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp 3-5.
[v] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 18.
[vi] The Goldwater-Nichols Act requires the president to identify the nation’s vital interests in the NSS report. See Title 50, US Code § 3043 (b).
[vii] James F.Miskel, “National Interests: Grand Purposes or Catchphrases? “ Naval War College Review, Autumn 2002, Vol. LV, No. 4, p. 97.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid., pp. 88-89.
[x] The Commission on America’s National Interests, “America’s National Interests,” July 2000.
[xi] The QDR in Perspective: Meeting America’s National Security Needs In the 21st Century, The Final Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (Washington DC, US Institute of Peace Press, 2010), p. 25
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Antulio J. Echevarria II, Toward an American Way of War (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, March 2004), p. 1.
[xiv] Ibid., p. vi.
[xv] Planning is actually anticipatory decision making; we do not benefit separating one from the other.
[xvi] See in particular information in Gary Klein, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998.
[xvii] Patterns can be visual, auditory, or sequential. To illustrate, think of drivers who to drive safely continually watch the pattern of cars moving around them, listen for horns, sirens, or squealing brakes, and notice when something familiar happens (“A” + “B”) that the next thing in the sequence is liable to be (“C”).
[xviii] Thomas Kuhn in his influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions observed that practitioners were reluctant to abandon the rules of the paradigm that guided their field. They learned these rules, which he called “received wisdom,” in their initial education. This supports John Maynard Keynes’ belief that “The difficulty lies, not in new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones. . . .” This quote comes from the preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money published by Harcourt Brace and Co. in New York in 1935.
[xix] After the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah, several critics blamed use of systemic design for the failings the IDF experienced. I have reviewed these reports and found that the critics misconstrued systemic operational design and effects based operations, seeing them as the same thing. They are polar-opposite ways of making decisions.
[xx] The term nonlinear here does not refer to the geometric connotation inherent in the “nonlinear battlefield,” but to the disproportion between cause and effect often found in open systems.
[xxi] Horst W. J. Rittel, and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Science, 1973, 155-169.
[xxii] I can attest to this having taught or lectured during the past 20 years at Marine Corps University, Joint forces Staff College, Army War College, Naval War College, and National Defense University. In addition, I have discussed this issue with officers who have served on joint and service staffs finding few who saw much value in current planning publications. These manuals include Joint Publication 5-0, Doctrine for Planning Joint Operations; Joint Staff J-7 Planner’s Handbook for Operational Design; Army Doctrinal Publication 5-0, The Operations Process; and Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 5-1, Marine Corps Planning Process.

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