In introducing the concept of soundness, we must first be clear about what we mean when we describe a strategy as ‘sound’, and how soundness differs from efficacy. A strategy’s effectiveness, as Smith notes, “can be evaluated according to one unimpeachable criterion: namely, did you succeed in achieving your objectives?”[iii]. Efficacy can thus only be assessed in retrospect; the strategy must be implemented and the resultant plans carried through to completion (or at least nearly so) before we can determine whether it is effective. Soundness, on the other hand, can be assessed in advance. A sound strategy is one that has the component parts in place such that it stands a chance of proving effective once implemented. A useful analogy is that of a racing yacht – an effective yacht is one that wins, something that can only be judged once the race has finished; a sound yacht is one that has a rudder, a decent sail, and is watertight. We know before the race even starts that the leaky yacht with a torn sail, or the one that has lost its rudder, cannot possibly be effective. The yacht simply isn’t sound and thus stands no realistic prospect of success.
So too with strategy, although we need to work harder to identify the component parts. For that we can turn to Arthur Lykke and his ‘ends, ways and means’ framework. First proposed in 1989[iv], it has since become the dominant formulation for understanding and describing strategy in the American and British armies[v] and, while by no means uncontested, is almost certainly the most widely accepted conceptualization of strategy within the field of strategic studies. Even the great Colin Gray, towards the end of his life, seems to have accepted ends, ways and means (plus assumptions) as the component parts of his famous bridge[vi]. Ends, ways and means therefore provide a useful checklist of components that need to be identifiable in any given strategy for us to establish that it is sound. To wit: does it have clearly defined and plausibly achievable military objectives, or ends; does it have (to use Lykke’s phrasing) military strategic concepts, or ways, that can plausibly achieve those ends; and are there sufficient military resources, or means, to plausibly achieve the objectives using the chosen concepts. We should note that the concepts and resources needn’t guarantee success, not least because, as everyone’s favourite Prussian reminds us, “chance [is] the very last thing war lacks.”[vii] Likewise the objectives need not be definitely achievable – that can only be revealed once the strategy is turned into action. For a strategy to be sound, it is merely enough to identify that all three components could plausibly lead to success.
Several prominent authors have rightly decried the poor use that practitioners have made of the ends, ways and means framework. For example, Antulio Echevarria has lamented its use as a pseudo-scientific formula “as recognisable to modern strategists as…E=MC2 is to physicists”[viii], with strategists acting as if the answer to constructing good strategy lies simply in balancing the equation, and forgetting that the creation of good (or effective) strategy is an art. Similarly, Jeffrey Meiser has bemoaned the Lykke model as “a crutch undermining creative and effective strategic thinking” [ix] because it is being used in the US as “a literal formula”. David Ellery and Lianne Saunders, meanwhile, find ends, ways and means to be a caricatured understanding of a linear approach to strategy and “insufficient as a shorthand for the strategies needed for complex conflicts.”[x] All of these critiques take aim not at Lykke’s original concept but at the way in which it has been interpreted within the armed forces: a ‘thick’ interpretation in which the Strategy=E+W+M construct is seen by military strategists as a comprehensive formula that is not only necessary to ensure success, but sufficient on its own.
It is perhaps not unreasonable for military officers to have interpreted it thus, not least because “S=E+W+M” is literally the cover image on Lykke’s original article. However, Meiser notes that the original utility of the ‘ends, ways and means’ model was simply as a method for avoiding an ends-means mismatch[xi]. Notwithstanding the poor choice of illustrations in his article, Lykke certainly seems to have intended his framework for only this more basic use. He saw the ‘ends, ways and means’ framework as a ‘thin’ concept; for Lykke it is a method to establish whether the three elements are roughly in balance and little more[xii]. The idea of ‘soundness’ reclaims ends, ways and means as merely a simple tool and provides something of a respite from the tyranny of formulaic “S=E+W+M” thinking. Despite the critiques of Echevarria and others, we needn’t throw out ends, ways and means entirely; ensuring that a strategy is sound puts the three parts of Lykke’s framework to good use as a set of criteria that are necessary for success but not, on their own, sufficient. Soundness therefore still leaves plenty of room for military strategy to be, as it always has been, ‘the art of the general’. It is just as important to be clear about what soundness isn’t as much as what it is. Soundness is no more than a checklist to ensure that a strategy has the rudimentary components in place for it to at least plausibly lead to success; it isn’t science, it isn’t comprehensive, and it certainly isn’t a formula for victory.
Unsound strategies in the wild
So far, so intuitive. While this paper has introduced soundness as a novel concept, it should seem to most as little more than applying a new term to simple common sense. “Obviously”, we hear the reader cry, “a strategy needs plausible goals, concepts that can plausibly achieve them, and sufficient resources to plausibly achieve the goals using the chosen concepts. How could a competent strategist possibly propose a course of action that excludes one of those three elements?” And yet the briefest look at the recent historical record shows that one or more of these elements is often absent. Western forces have repeatedly been deployed over the last few decades, in theatres including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya without a well-defined and plausibly achievable goal, with concepts of employment that couldn’t possibly achieve stated objectives, or with force numbers that are obviously grossly inadequate to achieve the mission.
A detailed discussion of why this happened is beyond the scope of this paper. We will have to content ourselves with a brief examination of the symptoms and save identification of the causes for another time. Nevertheless, we should provide a word of warning to any budding strategists: while the strategic errors seem obvious to us now, in the comfort of our academic armchairs, it is highly unlikely that the people involved in planning the campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya believed that they were going to war without a sound strategy in place. The key decision-makers will doubtless have been certain that they were embarking on an excellently planned campaign with a strategy that had clear aims, solid concepts, and adequate means. A combination of political considerations, miscalculations, and cognitive biases led strategists to think their strategies sound when they were anything but. There is no replacement for good judgement when assessing strategy, but human judgement is far from flawless. There is no easy resolution to this problem, so it is likely that well-meaning strategists (including, perhaps, readers of this journal) will make similar errors in the future.
No Ends – Afghanistan
The US’s invasion of Afghanistan provides an excellent (and, given the recent final failure of the campaign in summer 2021, pertinent) example of a deployment that lacked clearly defined ends. It is obvious that the US’s strategy in Afghanistan wasn’t effective: any operation ending in a catastrophic withdrawal and the enemy becoming the government is unlikely to fulfil M.L.R Smith’s ‘unimpeachable criterion’, but the problem is not only that the deployment didn’t achieve its objectives but, worse, at the outset the intervention didn’t even have clear objectives.
Crises are seldom the midwives of clear thinking, and it seems the invasion of Afghanistan in response to 9/11 wasn’t well understood in the US system beyond a loose sense that Al Qaeda needed to be destroyed. Theo Farrell notes a “failure to clarify the war goals”[xiii], with “debate within the administration over the need to overthrow the Taliban”[xiv]. President Bush stated on 7 Oct 2001 that US operations were intended to “disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base…and attack the military capacity of the Taliban.”[xv] This is an unambiguous statement of intent, but attacking the Taliban’s military is an action, not an end, and leaves open the vital questions of the whether the Taliban should be removed and what comes next if they are. This confusion was reflected on the ground; General James Mattis’s autobiography records disagreements between senior generals about what they were trying to achieve in Afghanistan and whether or not it was an invasion.[xvi] Farrell describes the problem succinctly: “In short, America went to war…without a common strategic vision for the military campaign”[xvii]. In other words, the US strategy in Afghanistan lacked the defined and plausible military objectives (ends) that are an essential component of a sound strategy.
It is worth, at this point, drawing a distinction between a deployment with an unsound strategy and a deployment that is astrategic. The two concepts, while superficially similar, are distinct. An astrategic actor is one that has no strategy at all and is simply reacting to situations as they arise with nothing to cohere individual actions into a wider plan. An actor employing an unsound strategy does have a strategy (or at least thinks they do), just one with critical flaws. Truly astrategic military deployments are vanishingly rare – almost all forces are deployed with at least some form of strategy in place even if that strategy is unsound. This is the case with the US in Afghanistan. The American military had a strategy of sorts, which was to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and thus the deployment was not truly astrategic, but the lack of clarity in the US’s objectives ensured that the strategy wasn’t sound.
Inadequate Means – Iraq
If Afghanistan is an example of the US waging war without clear ends, Iraq is a war with insufficient means. While the true underlying motivations of the Iraq war are up for debate, the military end state was clear: remove Saddam Hussein and transition Iraq to democratic governance. The US also seems to have had concepts of employment (ways) for their troops that could plausibly achieve those ends. Where the US erred is in the means they chose to employ. General Eric Shinseki, then head of the US Army and prior commander of the NATO stabilisation force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was asked how many soldiers would be needed to stabilise Iraq post-conflict and arrived at 400,000 based on the size of the NATO force needed in Bosnia, scaled up to match the population in Iraq[xviii]. This assessment was endorsed by the Secretary of the Army[xix], himself a former Brigadier General, and reinforced by a RAND study (among others) that concluded that the correct number was around 526,000[xx]. Even the bullish General Tommy Franks felt that 250,000 would be needed[xxi].
In the event, political considerations ensured that only around 170,000 US and coalition troops were deployed to Iraq[xxii]. Once the invasion was complete and the occupation began, the total numbers deployed quickly fell below 120,000, far short of the scale of deployment identified as necessary by Shinseki and, at 7 deployed soldiers per 1000 inhabitants, only around 1/3 of the force ratio employed in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Malaya[xxiii]. Note that for a strategy to be sound, the means employed need not guarantee success, it merely must be plausible that the resources could lead to success. The scale of the US deployment in Iraq fell short of even this generous criterion; the number of troops employed was too small and US forces were too thinly spread to achieve anything like stability, as was obvious to many analysts in advance of the invasion.
Poor Ways – Libya
Strategies with unsound concepts (or ways) are harder to spot than those lacking ends or means. It is easy to identify deployments without clear objectives, and history is replete with examples of wars where one side employed grossly inadequate means, but it is almost impossible to conceive of a military deployment where there are simply no concepts underpinning the employment of military forces. Save for the largely theoretical situation where forces are committed piecemeal into a fight without thought, we can always divine some kind of method behind the use of military force (even if in pursuit of an ill-defined goal). For a strategy to be sound, the concept must not only exist, but it must plausibly be able to engender success.
The US’s failed 2011 intervention in Libya is an example of a strategy that was unsound because it employed obviously flawed concepts. The well-intentioned, UN sanctioned deployment[xxiv] rested on two assumptions. First, that the massacre of civilian troops by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces could be averted if the Libyan opposition’s fight against the government were supported by western airpower[xxv]. Second that, after defeating the government, the disparate armed groups would come together to create a peaceful legitimate government without western ‘boots on the ground’. The first assumption was plausible; the second was not. In President Barack Obama’s words, “while our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people…The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task. And while the United States will do our part to help, it will be a task for…the Libyan people themselves…With the time and space that we have provided for the Libyan people, they will be able to determine their own destiny.”[xxvi] History bears few examples of multiple armed groups with competing aims simultaneously laying down their arms and moving to a peaceful coexistence without some form of external impetus. It is simply implausible that the US could cease their involvement in Libya following their limited air campaign and watch this process happen.
The idea that the US could get around the problems caused by inadequate troop numbers in Iraq by simply deploying no troops at all to Libya was fantasy, not strategy. According to a post-conflict RAND Study, “Libya’s most serious problem since 2011 has been the lack of security [which]… stems primarily from the failure of the effort to disarm and demobilise rebel militias after the war. Both international advisors and Libya’s political leadership recognized the importance of rebel disarmament from the outset, but neither has been able to implement it. As a result, various types of armed groups control much of the country and the elected government is at their mercy.”[xxvii] It further notes that “The limited number of ground forces…greatly reduced the extent of control…that NATO and its partners could exert after Qaddafi was gone.”[xxviii] This is not just a discovery that the strategy was ineffective with the benefit of hindsight; the flaws in the Libya strategic concept were so significant that there was no plausible prospect of achieving the desired outcome of a stable Libya. The strategy simply wasn’t sound.
This brief paper has introduced the concept of soundness as a basic starting point for assessing a given strategy. Strategy is ultimately about achieving an objective, but a strategy’s effectiveness can only be judged in retrospect once carried through. Soundness, however, can be assessed a priori by examining whether Lykke’s three components of a strategy are in place: does the strategy have clear goals (ends) that are plausibly achievable, does it have concepts (ways) that could plausibly lead to the desired ends, and are there sufficient resources (means) allocated to plausibly achieve the goals using the chosen concepts. This concept is as simple as it first appears and may (perhaps should) seem remarkably like common sense, yet several of the most significant military deployments of the last few decades have been missing one of these critical components. Had those responsible for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya ensured that their strategy was sound, disaster might have been averted. Soundness is therefore a useful, and simple, conceptual tool for strategy makers to use as a basic checklist to ensure the fundamentals are in place. ‘The art of the general’ determines whether a strategy is effective, but even the best general must start by ensuring their strategy is sound.
[i] M.L.R. Smith, “On Efficacy: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Theory,” Military Strategy Magazine, vol 8, Issue 2 (Fall 2022), pp 10-17.
[ii] Ibid, p 10.
[iii] Ibid, p 16.
[iv] Arthur Lykke, “Defining Military Strategy,” Military Review, vol 69, no. 5 (May 1989), pp 2-8
[v] Eg. ML Cavanaugh, “It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means”, Modern War Institute (blog), 24 July 2008. https://mwi.westpoint.edu/time-end-tyranny-ends-ways-means/.
[vi] Colin S. Gray, The Future Of Strategy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), pp 30-31.
[vii] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (London: Everyman’s Library, 1993), p 96
[viii] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Op Ed: Is Strategy Really a Lost Art?”, Strategic Studies Institute, 13 Sept 2013, accessed July 2023. https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/2013/pubs/article/op-ed-is-strategy-really-a-lost-art/.
[ix] Jeffrey W. Meiser, “Ends+Ways+Means=(Bad) Strategy,” vol 46, no. 4 (2016), pp 81-91
[x] David Ellery and Lianne Saunders, “Strategy in the National Securit Context: Time for an Adaptive Approach?”, in Military Strategy in the 21st Century: The Challenge for NATO, eds. Janne Haaland Matlary and Rob Johnson (London: Hurst, 2020), p 86
[xi] Meiser, “Ends+Ways+Means=(Bad) Strategy,” p 82.
[xii] Lykke, “Defining Military Strategy,” p 7
[xiii] Theo Farrell, Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan 2001-2014 (London: The Bodley Head, 2017), p 61
[xiv] Ibid, p 62
[xv] George W. Bush, “Presidential Address to the Nation” (televised speech, Washington D.C., 7 October 2001) https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011007-8.html
[xvi] Jim Mattis and Bing West, Call Sign Chaos (New York, NY: Random House, 2019), p 68
[xvii] Farrell, Unwinnable, p 66
[xviii] Nora Bensahel et al., After Saddam: Prewar Planning and the Occupation of Iraq (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), p 18
[xix] Ben Barry, Blood, Metal and Dust: How Victory Turned into Defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq (Oxford: Osprey, 2020), p 119
[xx] James Dobbins et al., America’s Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2003
[xxi] Bensahel, After Saddam, p 43
[xxii] Find this
[xxiii] Roughly 20 per inhabitant, see Bensahel, After Saddam, p18 and James T. Quinlivan, "Force Requirements in Stability Operations," Parameters vol 25, no. 1 (1995), pp 59-69
[xxiv] “Security Council authorises ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya” UN News, 17 March 2011. https://news.un.org/en/story/2011/03/369382
[xxv] Barak Obama, Letter from the President to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, 21 March 2011. http://c-span.org/uploadedfiles/Content/Documents/2011libya.military.rel.pdf.
[xxvi] Barak Obama, “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya” (speech, Washington D.C., 28 March 2011) https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2011/03/28/remarks-president-address-nation-libya
[xxvii] Christopher S. Chivvis and Jeffrey Martini, Libya After Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014), p ix
[xxviii] Ibid, p 4