Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 3  /  

Limited means strategy: What to do when the cupboard is bare

Limited means strategy:  What to do when the cupboard is bare Limited means strategy:  What to do when the cupboard is bare
To cite this article: Hammes, T.X., “Limited means strategy: What to do when the cupboard is bare”, Infinity Journal, Issue No. 3, Summer 2011, pages 8-10.

Professor Eliot Cohen has suggested that a strategy should include assumptions, ends, ways, means, priorities, sequencing and a theory of victory. This approach significantly expands on the normal “ends, ways, and means” formulation. Yet each element listed by Cohen is essential. In my last commentary, I highlighted why defining assumptions correctly is the first step in developing an effective strategy. (Infinity Journal Issue 1) While getting the assumptions right and regularly reevaluating them is absolutely critical, it is only the first step. As many modern authors have noted, the real trick in strategy is achieving coherence among the ends, ways and means. Further, since one will never have sufficient resources to accomplish everything at once, the strategist must assign priorities so that operators can appropriately sequence the use of available assets. And of course, the strategy must answer the question of how these actions lead to success.

This short piece will examine only the need to consider situations where the nation has limited means relative to the task at hand. This discussion is not about fighting limited wars, since almost all wars are limited. Rather it is about fighting any war where, for whatever reason, resource limitation will constrain how the tasks are achieved. Such limitations exist across the spectrum from small wars to World War II. Even in that massive effort, the United States was forced to modify its strategic approach due to limitations on some resources.

Unfortunately, recent U.S. strategic documents have failed to even discuss the means needed for a specific effort. Instead, the tendency has been to state the desired goals, outline a potential way to achieve them and then fail to identify the means needed. This is most obvious in official U.S. strategy documents such as the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy. Mandated by Congress and unclassified, each has been reduced to a bureaucratic exercise that lists a set of goals but never defines the ways or means of achieving them.

This is a useful exercise, as these documents are utilized to explain U.S. aspirations in an unclassified but official forum. However, this practice is highly problematic when used in documents which are supposed to express an actual strategy for a conflict. It is widely accepted that the United States invaded Iraq with too few troops to achieve its stated goals. While Iraq was clearly a case of under-resourcing, it seemed to be based on unrealistic assumptions about the political situation in a post-Saddam Iraq. The United States does not appear to have calculated what resources might be required in different possible outcomes of the invasion. Then, the Administration was slow to understand the shortage of resources and take corrective action. Indeed, it did not attempt to bring coherence to the ends, ways and means until the 2007 surge.

Despite what should have been a learning moment, the United States continues to use strategies that specifically fail to balance the ends-ways-means triad. Nowhere is this more evident than in Afghanistan. Prior to 2009, Iraq was the main effort; and therefore Afghanistan was treated as an economy-of-force theater. Admiral Michael Mullen acknowledged this to the House Armed Services Committee after his December 2007 visit to Afghanistan. He noted “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must. ”[i] Clearly, at that time, the United States had no articulated strategy for a victory in Afghanistan but was simply fighting a holding action with whatever resources could be spared from the fight in Iraq. In short, the strategic goals were adjusted downward in recognition of the limited means available. During some periods, the military effort was focused almost exclusively on hunting Al Qaeda elements with only marginal efforts to develop Afghan government or military capabilities.

However, eighteen months later the Obama Administration appointed General Stanley McChrystal as Commander, International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan, and tasked him with developing a winning strategy. The redacted version of McChrystal’s August 2009 assessment and Bob Woodward’s Obama’s War account of the discussions surrounding the December 2009 review of Afghan policy suggest that the United States again failed to achieve coherence among the ends, ways and means selected.

The stated goal was “to reduce the will and capability of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable security that is observable to the population.”[ii] In short, the goals/ends were maximalist. The way or method which McChyrstal selected was population-centric counterinsurgency. This method makes protection of the population and development of an effective government the primary effort. It is both manpower and expertise intensive.

However, in keeping with guidance from the White House, he provided no estimate of the troop requirement in his estimate. While McChyrstal gave no official estimate, the FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency ratio of 1 security officer per 50 inhabitants suggested it would take over 600,000 security personnel to pacify Afghanistan. This number is an average used against a range of insurgency efforts from incipient to intense. The field manual makes no comments on the level of training or effectiveness necessary for the troops. Most analysts accept that Afghanistan’s political, economic and social conditions combined with its extremely difficult terrain and the Pakistani sanctuaries mean that the Afghan insurgency is clearly one of the more difficult insurgencies on record. Under these conditions it is highly likely that even 600,000 personnel will be grossly insufficient. One might note that during the period 1971-72, the US/South Vietnamese governments reached a ratio of 1 security officer per 15 people. To achieve the same ration, Afghanistan would need about 2 million men. Yet in December, President Obama authorized only 30,000 additional U.S. troops for an extended surge of 18 to 24 months.[iii]

The plan called for ISAF to grow to 150,000 troops, with the surge tentatively scheduled to end in July of 2011. At the same time, the Afghan security forces maximum planned strength was set at 400,000, which could not be achieved until 2014 at the earliest. Even if the highest numbers are achieved, the combined Afghan/ISAF force will remain below the FM 3-24 estimated requirements. Further, the ISAF forces are tentatively scheduled to withdraw during the same period the Afghan forces are growing. In effect, the administration has stated that it will not provide the security forces required by its own plan. Of even more concern, the administration provided no figures publically for the resources needed to establish “governance and socio-economic development” – the other pillars of its population-centric COIN approach. These functions require high levels of skills not usually found in armed forces. The shortage of civilian experts means this has been the weakest part of the ISAF effort since its inception. The governance and development efforts remain badly under-resourced today.

Despite this acknowledgement that it would provide insufficient means to execute the chosen strategy, the Administration has not adjusted its ends or ways. It has extended the potential timeline to 2014 which, based on optimistic projections, could result in an ANSF of 400,000 with an ISAF advisory force of 40,000 post-2014. Unfortunately, this remains well short of the FM 3-24 projections. In short, the Administration has failed in the essential task of developing coherence among the ends, ways and means.

This consistent failure to match means to selected ends and ways is a trend in U.S. strategic thinking. From the Iraq invasion to the Afghan reviews and in various national security documents, the United States has consistently published “strategies” without articulating what the strategy requires in terms of means to attain it. As a result, one is left perplexed as to the nature of American strategy and how the government thinks it can achieve goals without specifying necessary resources.

We’re broke, it’s time to think

Given the looming debt crisis and inevitable cuts in the Department of Defense, U.S. strategic planners should assume they will be conducting means limited operations against all but truly existential threats. Further, it is unlikely that the government of the day will clearly define the resources needed for any military operation. Thus, one of the key assumptions that must be made in the development of any strategy is the level and types of resources available. When it becomes apparent that the level of resources will limit the goals that can be achieved, the planning team must work to bring coherence to the ends-ways-means.

Initially, they should still focus on achieving the goals stated by the national command authority. If the means are limited, then alternative ways must be examined. Often, these alternatives will have a higher level of risk than a fully resourced plan. For instance, the priority of resources to Europe in World War II meant that the Marine invasion of Guadalcanal was conducted by a single division with inadequate naval and air support. The invasion was a strategic necessity, but the risk was higher because it was done with minimal resources. Part of the ends, ways and means balancing must include examination of the degree of risk involved in various potential approaches; as well as the differing impacts of both success and failure in each approach. These alternatives and the possibility that the goals cannot be achieved with limited means must be part of an ongoing dialogue between the strategic planners and the national command authority. This dialogue must be continuous, since policy decisions are also based on assumptions. As either policy or strategy assumptions are updated due to changing conditions, those changes may require adjustment of either the policy, the strategy, or both. Only through continuous feedback can policy and strategy maintain coherence.

For instance, in light of the limited means available in Afghanistan, there are alternatives to the current approach of having ISAF conduct clear, hold and build prior to the turnover to Afghan forces. Some writers have suggested that ISAF adjust the way it is attempting to succeed. Rather than employing the resource intensive population-centric counterinsurgency method, they might look to an approach based on counter-terrorism operations designed to disrupt Taliban operations while limited ISAF conventional assets focus on training and deploying Afghan Security Forces. ISAF special operations forces would concentrate on raids to disrupt Taliban operations while the reduced conventional forces focus on mentoring the Afghans. The Afghans will replace the ISAF forces currently conducting the clear, hold and build phases of counterinsurgency. More radical suggestions include ISAF simply conducting counter-terror operations only against Al Qaeda leadership while providing logistics support and training to various Afghan warlords who will “govern” their respective territories. The bulk of ISAF conventional forces would be sent home. These reduced options do not attempt to achieve all of the current strategic goals but would be targeted at the most important ones.

These alternatives illustrate that lack of resources to achieve goals via a specific way does not mean one automatically gives up all strategic goals. When the means are insufficient, the first step is to evaluate alternative ways. The different approaches for Afghanistan outlined above have different probabilities of success and entail different risks. Just as important, they have different strategic outcomes — both if they succeed and if they fail.

In some cases, changing ways will not be sufficient. In those cases, limited means will force a downward adjustment of even the most important strategic goals. In those cases, planners must examine potential alternatives and, if none has a significant probability of success, they must go back to the policy makers and inform them of that fact. It is then up to the policy makers to decide if they wish to reduce the goals or increase the resources. The key is a continuing dialogue between policy and strategy. Given the nature of interactively complex (wicked) problems, planners must accept that it will be an iterative process to adjust the ends, ways and means in pursuit of a workable strategy. Nor will this process cease when a strategy is executed. In fact, the actions taken will fundamentally alter the situation. The interactive nature of conflict requires constant reevaluation not just of the progress of the plan, but also of the nature of the problem. The enemy’s response almost certainly will change the situation enough to require a strategic reevaluation and an adjustment of resources.

Resources will increasingly drive strategy

Even during World War II, strategic choices were driven by resources. The Allies concluded they did not have sufficient resources to simultaneously defeat both Germany and Japan and thus decided to deal with the greater danger first – Germany. They focused resources on Germany with the full knowledge it would extend the war against Japan. In fact when Germany surrendered, Allied planners were anticipating a year or even two of continued very bloody fighting.

No matter what the reason, resource limitations require balancing the ends-ways-means formula. If adjusting the ways does not overcome the deficiencies, then the goals must be adjusted. This may require adjusting the strategy as well. Failure to adapt to realities imposed by limited resources assures failure. Unfortunately, the pattern of recent U.S. strategies has been to ignore the impact insufficient resources have on stated strategic goals. The combined failures to examine assumptions and bring coherence to the end, ways and means triad have resulted in long and, to date, inconclusive wars.

These failures highlight the need to resurrect the concept of a strategy based on limited means. Rather than ignoring the means deficit or hoping to find the necessary resources after the strategy is initiated, this approach accepts that for whatever reason, national decision makers will not provide the resources necessary to achieve maximum goals. They may decide the goals are not worth the investment of limited strategic resources (Afghanistan today) or there may be higher priorities for those resources (Afghanistan from 2002 to 2008), or the nation may simply not have the resources due to external constraints (what the US may face due to rising national debt). The continuing economic crisis and looming debt levels virtually assures future interventions will lack resources. Thus, it is essential that strategic planners recognize the requirement for coherent ends, ways and means; and be prepared to develop means limited strategies.


[i] Julian Barnes, “U.S. calls Iraq the priority,” Los Angeles Times, 12 Dec 2007,
[ii] Stanley McChyrstal, COMISAF Initial Assessment, Kabul, Afghanistan, 30 Aug 2009.
[iii] Bob Woodward, Obama’s War, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010), page. 387.