Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 1  /  

Land Power: More than Simply the Element of Decision

Land Power: More than Simply the Element of Decision Land Power: More than Simply the Element of Decision
To cite this article: Finney, Nathan K., “Land Power: More than Simply the Element of Decision,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1, fall 2015, pages 30-32.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



Every war, and every belligerent in every war, manifests a distinctive pattern of strategic behaviour among an expanding list of geographical environments. It is true that modern strategy and war registers trends towards ever greater complexity, ever greater ‘jointness’ to offset and exploit that complexity, and in the maturing potency of new modes of combat…It is no less true, however, that land, even ground, warfare has yet to be demoted to an adjunct, auxiliary, or administrative, role vis-à-vis superficially more modern modes and foci of fighting.[i]

In a discussion over the modes of power that are employed to achieve political purpose, the above quote would likely halt all communication before it even started. Some would even immediately engage their cognitive biases and fill their slings with the tried-and-true military service-focused and parochial rhetorical ammunition. Contemporary narratives from the various services can certainly be seen to support such an assertion.

However, while the above quote captures repeated insistence on the importance of land power, Professor Gray also indicates that while land power is vital, it is not sufficient, for “In practice, thus far, no single geographical domain suffices as provider of all strategic effect that belligerent states need.”[ii]

So, when a political decision requires a definitive, more enduring answer, land power will likely be the main element of national power employed — there’s a reason Clausewitz, the key theorist of war and land power, focused on destroying an adversary’s armed forces, occupying his country, and breaking that nation’s will as his three main objectives in war.[iii] Such use of large amounts of men and women in campaigns of physical control are not the only use for land power, however. While it is the only element of national power that can compel through physical dominance (or as those that might quote Wylie, through a sequential strategy), land power can also accomplish tasks through three other approaches to the use of force — assurance, deterrence and coercion — to create strategic effect. [iv]

Beyond Physical Control

To Gray, “strategic effect is the [cumulative and sequential] impact of strategic performance on the course of events.”[v] It is the expression of how well a force translates tactical action into political gain; or said another way, how well the effects of military action maintain alliances and/or force an adversary (or adversaries) to change their behavior to match our desires. Given the fact that land power will likely be the element of national power least used to create strategic effect in today’s environment given its high political cost at home and abroad, how does an army, as the principle manifestation of land power, provide options to assure, deter, and coerce?[vi]

Deterrence and assurance require both credibility and capability. Credibility is created through the perception that force will be used to achieve stated interests. However, without an acknowledged force required to achieve said interests, i.e. the capability, then the threat of its use to deter undesired behavior or assure anxious allies is empty. In the end, an adversary cannot be deterred or an ally assured unless they believe the offending party can be compelled to appropriately change their behavior. While other elements of national power are important to either deterrence or assurance, both require credible and capable land power, the only element of national power that can compel behavior through physical control. The size, capability, proficiency, and posturing of land forces is what provides a credible deterrent and assures allies. As has been shown in recent events in Eastern Europe and in Iraq/Syria, the lack of a credible and capable force for deterrence can lead to political adventurism by adversarial entities and a failure to assure allies in a region.

Coercion is used to impel adversary behavior by shaping choices, either by punishment or denial; both utilize physical and psychological factors. Coercion by punishment is accomplished by damaging or destroying adversary capabilities required to achieve their interests, such as destroying naval assets that are being used in a blockade. A recent example of this approach is the air campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Syria by U.S. air power. Aside from “strategic raiding” by special operations forces, land power is rarely used in contemporary warfare to coerce through punishment. Coercion by denial, on the other hand, is using force to prevent the adversary from accessing the resources or territory required to accomplish their goals. Land power largely utilizes coercion by denial, such as placing American troops in a threatened country to significantly raise the costs of any action by an adversary. This also provides a degree of assurance for that partner nation. A recent example is the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The use of these three approaches to force — deterrence, assurance, and coercion — can be seen as largely an attempt to control the choices of an adversary through the threat of force or limited use of violence. In Wylie-speak, since he appears in vogue these days, the threat of force or limited use of violence by land forces in this manner reduces the adversary’s choices through a sequential strategy, ideally creating “implications of certainty of the end” through “its persistent exercise…typically steadily reduce the number of viable options open to the enemy.”[vii]

The Praxis of Deterrence, Assurance, and Coercion by Land Forces

One common thread seen above in the discussion in the use of land forces to deter, assure, and coerce is the physical placement of forces. While not required in all instances, the presence of land forces increases the effectiveness of their use for these three purposes (and is required to control territory and people, thereby compelling adversaries to our political desires). As discussed above, to deter an adversary, credibility and capability is required. While neither aspect indicates a need for physical presence in an area where deterrence is desired, at the very least credibility is increased – to assure allies, as well as deter adversaries – when land forces are in physical proximity to the adversary to be deterred. Political will has been placed on display, increasing credibility by showing the willingness to act on behalf of allies and our national interests. The same aspect of presence can be seen in coercion through the use of land forces. To deny an adversary the physical space and resources required to achieve their aims through the use of land forces (or to conduct an action aimed at punishing an adversary), they must be present. These dynamics, and the mechanics of land forces to deter, assure, and coerce contemporary adversaries of the United States, can be seen in a few quick examples.

The Baltic States and Eastern Europe

With the annexation of Crimea by Russia and its continuing fomentation of violence in Eastern Ukraine (as well as the Republic of Georgia from 2008 to the present), the United States and European allies struggled to determine a way to reduce military adventurism in the region. Outright conflict using military force to compel Russia to halt the interference in the internal politics of its neighboring nations was an unsatisfactory solution. Coercion through punishment, destroying Russian military capability to attack their neighbors would likely result in escalation to war. This largely left the tools of deterrence, assurance, and coercion by denial to the U.S. and its allies – and one of the main levers to accomplish this was the employment of land forces. Those U.S. forces in Europe were sent to NATO allies along the Baltic Sea, as well as those bordering the affected areas in the Ukraine.

While miniscule in size compared to the Russian forces just over the border, the employment of land forces – as well as the creation of joint and combined exercises with NATO allies – provided the presence and credibility required to assure allies and a first step in denying free access to Russian forces in those states. The U.S. has continued this approach, slowly sending more forces to Europe, increasing the integration with NATO allies through increased exercises and the creation of a larger reaction force through the Readiness Action Plan,[viii] and sending trainers to Ukraine to increase their capability to combat Russian-backed forces in the east of their country. Altogether, this can be seen as a long-term, deliberate, sequential approach to reducing the number of viable options open to Russia.

Iraq and Syria

Far less clear is the U.S. approach to addressing the instability in Iraq and Syria. With a political environment preventing the use of wide-scale land forces to compel adversaries, the tools of assurance, deterrence, and coercion can again be employed, as seen in the Baltics above. However, there are significantly more factors at play. One such factor is the plethora of actors in the conflict, including: the Syrian government apparatus under Assad; his allies Hezbollah, Iran, and now Russia; U.S.-backed anti-Assad forces; “extremist” anti-Assad forces shunned by the U.S.; the so-called Islamic State (IS); Kurdish forces (in both Turkey and Iraq); and Iraqi governmental forces. The sheer complexity of attempting to deter, assure, and coerce so many actors makes the approach significantly more difficult.

The U.S. appears to have focused on three aspects of the use of force, all largely devoid of land force presence. First, assurance of its ally in Iraq and supporting their forces to take back parts of their country occupied by IS forces through coercion by denial from the air. What few land forces the U.S. have provided are being used to help manage the intelligence, command and control, and training aspects of the campaign. Second, the U.S. has attempted to assure other allies in the region – namely Jordan, Turkey, Kurdish forces, and U.S.-supported “moderate” forces in Syria – through various training and weapons procurement programs. The effectiveness of these approaches are in doubt and are currently being reassessed by the U.S. Department of Defense.[ix] Finally, the U.S. is attempting to coerce both the Assad government and IS through an air campaign designed to punish both to capitulation. While this punishment has allowed for Iraqi forces to regain some territory from IS within their borders, it has not reduced the capacity or the capability of either IS or the Assad government from continuing to achieve their objectives.

Each of these aspects appears to form a sequential strategy focused on minimal support to allies in the region. The minimal use or both air and land power to assure and coerce various allies and adversaries in the region, however, is unlikely to create the desired political results. Unlike in Eastern Europe, the large number of actors and minimal U.S. political will in Iraq and Syria has reduced the tools available to assure allies and coerce, let alone deter, adversaries.


In discussions of military power today there is much elaboration upon of the loss of “overmatch capability”. This term is largely meant in terms of the decreasing technological gap between the U.S. and its likely adversaries, from non-state actors with anti-access/area-denial capabilities to near-peer states with air and sea platforms that look suspiciously like our own technology still in production. Another aspect of overmatch is how presciently forces are postured and organized to prevent conflict – or its employment to address current conflict – through the assurance of allies or the deterrence or coercion of adversaries, or to be used to compel an enemy, if necessary. A decrease in overmatch from this aspect of presence creates risk that our military will not be able to achieve the missions the U.S. requires of it. This can be seen in the two examples of recent U.S. actions in Europe and the Middle East; the use and presence of land forces can be used for far more than simply forcing a decision on an adversary or compelling them through “decisive” military combat. Land forces can be critical for deterrence, assurance, and coercion.

While we must mitigate risk across all domains, risk to the land domain is the most strategically costly. For, “Military success in land warfare can have a decisiveness unmatchable by success in the other geographies. If a state loses on land, it loses the war.”[x] We would be wise to keep that in mind as we support our allies in Europe and the Middle East, as well as we posture our own land forces for the future.


The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[i] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 165.
[ii] Colin S Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2007), 316.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (New York: Alfrec A. Knopf, 1993), 102.
[iv] For example, see Rich Ganske’s use of Wylie as quoted by Lukas Milevski: “[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect” found in Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229,, accessed on 12 Oct 2015.
[v] Gray, Modern Strategy, 19. The “cumulative and sequential” was added to the definition in Gray, Strategy Bridge, 18.
[vi] Elements of this strategic environment are not unique, of course, nor are its impact on the use of land power. For example, Clausewitz acknowledged the facts of limited war in his 10 July 1827 note and Corbett recognized land power was often ill-suited for limited warfare because of its inherent threat to the territorial imperative in his Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.
[vii] Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35:2, 2012, 233.
[viii] NATO Factsheet, NATO Readiness Action Plan,, accessed on 12 Oct 2015.
[ix] Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS”, New York Times, 9 Oct 2015,, accessed on 12 Oct 2015.
[x] Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 313.