Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 1  /  

Strategy: How to Make it Work

Strategy: How to Make it Work Strategy: How to Make it Work
To cite this article: Mihara, Robert, “Strategy: How to Make it Work”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Winter, 2012, pages 19-22.

“[At] the highest realms of strategy… there is little or no difference between strategy, policy and statesmanship.”

Carl von Clausewitz, On War[i]

It is broadly understood that the fundamental interaction described by the term “strategy” is the reconciliation of desired policy ends with the available means and methods of battle. However, strategists are practitioners in peace as well as war. They must not only translate policy objectives into military objectives, but must also engineer the very instruments that are required to prevail in future conflicts. A critical question raised by this dual-responsibility of strategy professionals is whether the conduct of military strategy can be properly divided from the provision of war’s instruments in peacetime. In other words, is the strategy function, which governs war’s conduct alien to the preparation for war, or is there a general nature that unifies the two?

There is more at stake in how we answer these questions than merely adding nuance to our view of the strategist’s craft. Our understanding of the necessary interaction between the function of planning for the peacetime military establishment and the function of translating policy goals into military objectives for war determines the perspective we assume in every aspect of strategy and statecraft. It is the symbiotic link between policy and the conduct and preparation for war that distinguishes strategy from every other instance of organizational planning. At the national-level, strategy is necessarily disjointed absent a justification of policy. It is the inclusion of policy’s rationale that makes strategy truly strategic. Strategic planning at the apex of our military institutions conceptually begins only after answering the existential questions of enduring purpose during peace as well as during war. Policy articulates the answer to those questions, and it is this dependency of strategy upon policy that represents the essential nature of what is strategic.[ii]

Senior U.S. military leaders have not accepted the distinction between crafting a strategy in the pursuit of given wartime goals and articulating a strategy in pursuit of enduring national interests. American general officers have frequently presumed to segregate strategy from policy under the premise of preserving professional autonomy and submission to civil authority. However, this commitment to proper civil-military relations undermines the planning bridge that binds strategy to the national will, in the form of policy, and ultimately makes military professionals less accountable by absolving them of any significant responsibility for providing cogent advice on what is within the realm of the possible. The public discourse of the past year regarding the future of the U.S. military has affirmed that pattern of behavior.[iii]

U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey introduced the summer 2012 issue of Joint Force Quarterly with a brief article titled “Making Strategy Work” in which he affirmed the direction set by senior U.S. military leaders in support of the defense strategic guidance released in January 2012.[iv] In the article, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) holds that strategy is about balancing ends against available ways and means and that the military’s decisions over the past six months have established a framework for doing precisely that. Gen. Dempsey summarizes the key points which he had been elaborating on through the spring months at several speaking engagements, reassuring the public that the military services were doing the necessary work to emerge from the heated political battles ready to protect American interests into the future. In that vein, the CJCS names three decisions in JFQ that he and the military service chiefs have made: “mainlining” new capabilities, rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region, and cooperation across parochial boundaries internal and external to the Department of Defense (DoD). He reiterates his confidence in those choices and asserts that the future rests on the challenge of implementing them.

This assertion, however, overstates the sufficiency of those choices for assuring the security of the U.S. It exaggerates their value by understating a necessary distinction between the nature of strategy in the operational and the strategic domains, and the operational nature of the choices that Gen. Dempsey highlights. This means that U.S. national security over the long-term remains at risk through acts of policy as much as from external threats.[v]

This article focuses on the underlying problems with Gen. Dempsey’s line of argument and how those flaws point to broader issues with the prevalent understanding of strategic theory and its practice amongst senior leaders. At the root of strategy malpractice has often been the application of strategy’s ubiquitous ends-ways-means construct. Carl von Clausewitz suggested this triune approach when he defined strategy as “the use of the engagement for the purpose of war.”[vi] More recently, the trinitarian view of strategy was rearticulated in 1993 by retired U.S. Army Colonel Arthur Lykke, Jr., as a three-legged stool upon which rested national security policy, with each leg representing one of the aforementioned components of strategy. The metaphor facilely conveyed the need to calibrate one’s chosen ends to the available means and the ways in which those means could be feasibly employed.

The elegance and intuitiveness of Lykke’s articulation of strategy led it to become broadly accepted amongst American strategy practitioners as a tool, and as a means for communicating the art of their profession. However, Lykke’s conceptualization of strategy deals with the practice thereof and not its comprehensive nature. The brilliance of ends-ways-means is in how it intuitively conveys strategy’s function and essential value, but, as a method, it ignores the unique and necessary requirements of strategy at the national-level — where one leads institutions, and not formations. Understanding the limits of Lykke’s distillation of strategy is critical for institutional leaders because it is not enough for them to be managing available means to advance national interests. For something as complex as national defense, institutional leadership is necessarily also about driving organizations toward purposes that are enduring. It is this aspect of managing institutions that requires going beyond balancing Lykke’s trinity.[vii] Strategy at the national level is as much about policy, and its articulation of ends, as it is about strategy’s reconciliation of ends with ways and means.[viii]

Colin Gray, a leading strategy theorist, distinguished between the nature of strategies which are focused on operational issues, and hence contextualized, and the general theory of strategy which he describes as universal and timeless.

The simplistic utilization of ends-ways-means forces a narrowly reductionist view of strategy and precludes one from acknowledging the choices that must be made at the national-level. The focus on allocating means towards identified goals imposes blinders on decision-makers by directing them into taking an episodic, or programmatic, perspective instead of adopting an enduring, or institutional, mindset. The former approach assumes the “why” or the purposes to which we align resources in our material preparation for future conflict. The latter demands a sober reevaluation of the goals to which we ascribe and a reconsideration of how we define those goals in a dynamic operating environment where central ideas, such as security, are perpetually subject to redefinition. The critical distinction between the nature of strategy in the operational world and that of the institutional, which is necessarily strategic, is what has been missing from the public discourse amongst senior defense officials and military leaders. A dismissal, or ignorance, of the divergent natures of the contingent and the enduring has been a major shortcoming in U.S. strategic planning.[ix]

It is in this regard that the January 2012 guidance and the choices described by Gen. Dempsey leave unfinished the task of focusing the U.S. military on a force structure and design which guards the nation’s enduring interests and of offering a logic which effectively governs resourcing across the U.S. joint force. The critical test of a strategic vision and plan for any institution is the degree to which it enables the intelligent and responsible contraction, or expansion, of the institution according to the ups and downs of resource availability over time. As Gen. Dempsey himself has said, America’s armed forces “will need to be selective in the joint capabilities [they] reconstitute after a decade of war.”[x] Even so, what will the U.S. military do if it cannot have all that it desires?

The solutions designed in the present have thus far not offered a foundational logic for institutionally responding to the unexpected turns of the future. American senior military leaders have emphasized their role as responsible stewards and articulated institutional strategies which align to operational priorities, but they have not provided the strategic logic that would ground the military services in a coherent justification of the ends for which American armed force is to achieve. While strategy in general is about reconciling the use of means with the ends to be achieved, the necessary aspect of strategy at the national-level is the determination and prioritization of the strategic effects to be realized. It is at the national-level that one charts the future course and exercises the fullest expression of political initiative.

Leaders at this level alone have the power and responsibility for synthesizing moral values and material interests into a coherent articulation of purpose or what Gray categorizes as “vision” (a concept of the desired condition that serves to inspire, and provide moral and political authority for, policy preferences and choices) and “policy” (the political objectives that provide the purposes of particular historical strategies). As such, national leaders have the freedom and burden of prioritizing those goals so that the fluctuation in available means can never lead to a loss of focus or resolve. When done properly, strategy for the nation and for national institutions captures what must be done, what should be done, and in what order those aims are to be abandoned in moments of exceptional austerity. An obstacle for properly exercising these functions of strategy remains the way in which the U.S. military has understood extant and future operating conditions.[xi]

The operating environment itself has often been interpreted in tautological terms. In JFQ, Gen. Dempsey contrasts the global political trends toward stability with the disruptive trends toward the diffusion of destructive means, referring to the situation as a “security paradox.” He concludes that “more people have the ability to harm us than at any point in many decades.”[xii] There is no denying that the myriad threats present a daunting picture for senior military leaders, but the juxtaposition of political calm with the tumult of threats and vulnerabilities is less a paradox than a historically common problem for hegemons.[xiii]

Every great power has confronted like tensions during past transitions in the international order. The key is in avoiding the debilitating tendency of responding to every threat without rational calculations as to their essential significance to strategic concerns. Phillip II’s Spain ultimately failed in this regard, fighting wars and shadows of war around the globe to the point of exhaustion, while Imperial Britain passed its trials in better condition. “The [Spanish] empire on which the sun never set” seemed to its leaders to have become “the target on which the sun never set,” and Spain’s response to those arrows mortally wounded Phillip II’s empire before its culmination in 1580. So the creative tension between stasis and disruption, or from those that wish to reorder the world and those that wish to maintain that order, has not uniquely and capriciously aligned against the U.S. in the twenty-first century. The world has seen this play out before.

The strategy choices highlighted by Gen. Dempsey in JFQ (“mainlining” new capabilities, etc.) can therefore be justified as prudent tactical policy decisions for dealing with the evolutionary interaction between stability and conflict-driven change. They are not, however, strategic choices. The danger inherent in the current approach is that senior leaders have prejudicially determined that future conditions only require that the U.S. military choose how and where it will likely operate and not in what it will, or will not, seek to achieve. Even in cyberspace and space, the investments in those domains represent changes in emphasis and structure rather than true strategic choices which acquire, divest, or reprioritize select ends. The perceived enormity of changes across the future operating environment seems to have led military leaders to abandon the exercise of strategic initiative in favor of optimizing the defense institutions as they currently exist. For example, the advent of U.S. Cyber Command and emergent initiatives which Gen. Dempsey cites are tactical outcomes, resourcing latent or warm-based capabilities in order to render them fully functional.[xiv]

The CJCS states that the real test of the military’s strategy is in “putting the choices to work,” but this presumes too much in both the soundness of the chosen strategy and the preparedness of future leaders to steer that strategy. The absence of strategic choice has artificially lowered the threshold for future success by shifting the focus from macro issues, which require strategic solutions, over to the component problems which privilege crisis management and incumbent interests in the bureaucracy. This runs in contradiction to Gen. Dempsey’s own stated intent of driving the military services toward interdependence.[xv]

Arguably, the real test of strategic planning is not in implementation but in the fidelity that one’s choices keep to the vital and important interests of the nation. This is as much about knowing what we will not do as it is about what we will do. More work must be done in this regard to bind near- and mid-term priorities, as outlined in the defense strategic guidance, to enduring U.S. national interests. This shortcoming in American national and institutional planning must be resolved if the U.S. military is to properly contribute to the security of its nation and of American allies and partners. American senior military leaders must be cognizant of this planning gap in order to identify all the necessary choices to be made. It falls to them as military professionals to ensure that the aggregate capabilities of the military are necessary and sufficient for preserving national interests when taken in combination with those of the interagency community. Such a comprehensive responsibility has been made all the more challenging for the U.S. military by the absence of a consensus amongst American elites over future U.S. grand strategy. Yet, while the military leadership cannot wait idly for such a consensus to emerge, the military service chiefs should be under no illusions about the adequacy of their institutional strategies until vital national interests have been properly ensconced in a reconciled balance of ends, ways, and means.[xvi]

Beyond the conceptual issues, however, the other critical barrier to having effective and enduring institutional strategies for the military services has been uniformed leaders recusing themselves from deliberations on the ultimate purpose of military force. General officers should offer their perspective when policymakers deliberate over the ends which military force must be prepared to serve. Generals and policymakers must understand, however, that involving senior officers in the deliberation over the purpose of military institutions is a distinct and separate matter from involving them in the determination of policy objectives. Clausewitz identified this dichotomy when he observed the convergence of policy and strategy at the national-level but warned that “[in] no sense can the art of war ever be regarded as the preceptor of policy.”[xvii] Generals may joke that they, unlike academics and businessmen, cannot refuse a task given to them, but this self-limiting assertion abdicates the duty of military professionals to never allow their civilian masters to be held responsible for misadventures in which they were not properly advised. No one should know better what is possible and plausible in war, and no single corps of individuals is more accountable when military institutions are ill-prepared than those in uniform.[xviii]

To fulfill their professional responsibility, senior military leaders must demand that the existential question (i.e., for what enduring national interests does military force serve and in what priority?) be answered while accepting that their elected leaders may yet ask for the impossible. Great Britain emerged victorious in the Battle of Britain in large part because the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Sir Hugh Dowding properly determined the ends to be pursued with the approval of his civilian masters and chartered a rational strategy to make those ends manifest. Dowding’s advice against expanding the RAF’s commitment to the defense of France in May 1940 is evidence of the British commander’s strategic comprehension. It is also proof of his unwavering commitment to a vital national interest (namely, protecting the home islands) and his understanding of the foundational assumptions that further defined that end. More important than his decisions in war, however, Dowding had used the preceding decade to build an RAF that was based on an understanding of the enduring policy ends to be achieved and that was thoroughly reconciled with those ends in its structure, equipment, doctrine, and strategic perspective.

The imperative in the U.S. today for senior military professionals is to likewise provide substantive policy advice for the peacetime transition of American military institutions to follow the end of major operations in Afghanistan. Gen. Dempsey and the military service chiefs must address this imperative in order to preclude Lykke’s strategy construct from being a model road to ruin or merely a serendipitous path to victory. [xix]


Disclaimer: The arguments and characterizations presented in this document are the author’s alone and do not in any way represent the policy or position of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any other agency of the U.S. Government.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. by M. Howard and P. Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 178.
[ii] Clausewitz, On War, 202, 227, 577, 606-607.
[iii] C. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 102.
[iv] M. Dempsey, “From the Chairman: Making Strategy Work,” Joint Force Quarterly 66 (July 2012): 2-3.
[v] Gen. Dempsey has consistently articulated the exercise of strategy using the ends-ways-means construct in his guidance to the U.S. joint force, see Chairman’s Strategic Direction to the Joint Force (6 February 2012): 6-7 (hereafter cited as CJCS Strategic Direction), [accessed 6 February 2012].
[vi] Clausewitz, On War, 143, 177.
[vii] A. Lykke, Jr., “Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy” In The U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, ed. J. Cerami and J. Holcomb, Jr. (Carlisle, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, 2001), 179, [accessed 11 August 2012].
[viii] Clausewitz, On War, 178.
[ix] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 18, 26, 41-42.
[x] Dempsey, CJCS Strategic Direction, 5.
[xi] Gray, Strategy Bridge, 18, 19-20, and 28-33; J. Black, Defence: Policy Issues for a New Government (London, UK: Social Affairs Unit, 2009) 23-24.
[xii] Dempsey, “From the Chairman: Making Strategy Work,” 2; Dempsey, Remarks, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 12 April 2012, [accessed 25 July 2012]; Dempsey, Joint Education White Paper (16 July 2012), 3-4, [accessed 21 July 2012]; A. Echevarria, Preparing for One War and Getting Another?, Advancing Strategic Thought Series (Carlisle, Pa.: SSI, 2010), vi-vii, 3-4.
[xiii] B. Lombardi, “Assumptions and Grand Strategy,” Parameters 41 (Spring 2011): 38.