Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 3  /  

The Foundation of Strategic Thinking

The Foundation of Strategic Thinking The Foundation of Strategic Thinking
To cite this article: Van Riper, Paul, The Foundation of Strategic Thinking,” Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2012, pages 4-10.

The noted strategist Colin Gray claims that, “Everything pertaining to strategy relates, or at least might relate, to everything else.”[i] Although I subscribe to Professor Gray’s assertion, my reach in this article is far more limited. Specifically, I intend to show why system theory as represented in mental models underpins and connects Clausewitz’s remarkable or paradoxical trinity, operational art, and operational design, making these seemingly disparate subjects the foundation of strategic thinking. My contention is that when national leaders and defense officials understand the relationships among these outwardly unrelated subjects, they are able to implement military strategy more effectively.

System Theory

Because it is central to my line of reasoning we turn first to system theory. Few in the U.S. military are bothered by the term system when defense professionals use it in relation to weapon systems; or functions, such as intelligence systems, logistics systems, or command and control systems, and so forth. Outside of these realms, however, the term often conjures up unpleasant memories of former Secretary of Defense Robert. S. McNamara’s attempts to apply systems analysis to the battlefields of Vietnam.

The word system, however, is simply a noun meaning “an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole.”[ii] We only know what those things or parts form when we delineate them by adding an adjective in front of the noun; as an example, economic system. Or if we wish to be more specific we can identify the U.S. economic system. With each addition of an adjective we become more exacting about a system, so to take our example one step further, we can describe the current U.S. economic system. The words, however, are only a symbolic representation of the system. When we form an image of a system in our minds we create a schema or mental model, which is also a symbolic representation.

Mental Models

Cognitive psychologists tell us that humans think and reason using mental pictures or mental models. These pictures or models determine how we perceive actual or imagined objects or situations. Derived from our intuition such models are central to reasoning and decision-making. Sometimes we sketch these models on paper to help explain an idea to others. Nearly all groups or teams working together construct shared mental models depicting how the members see a particular problem or circumstance.

We occasionally encounter shared mental models when we observe drawings that appear to be purposeful musings on white boards or flip-charts in offices and classrooms. In a way, all mental models portray a system view of an entity or a state of affairs. That is, mental models reveal how individuals or groups select and arrange into a system the elements of something in which they are interested. Succinctly stated, mental models reflect how we think components that we have circumscribed operate as a system, or more narrowly, how we believe some part of our world works.

Few of us consciously recognize that there are two distinct types of systems. One writer identified these as structurally complex or interactively complex systems in a 1997 publication.[iii] The use of these two terms is now widespread within and outside the military when people discuss system theory.

When thinking of a system most people conjure up attributes that are mechanical in nature and therefore exhibit structural complexity. Accordingly, the more parts in a system, and the more orderly the arrangement of those parts, the greater its structural complexity. These systems produce fixed, regular, and generally predictable behaviors. Machines like automobiles and weapons possess these characteristics; they have numerous parts arranged in specific structures, but they operate in a specific way or they malfunction. Elements of our bodies—skeletons and circulatory systems—have the same attributes. Electrical power grids and integrated air defenses systems are examples of greater structural complexity.

Usually we can understand structurally complex systems better by disassembling them and studying their parts separately. They are systems where the sum—the entire system—equals the parts. When we act on a structurally complex system — that is, do something to affect a component — it produces a reaction in that system that is proportional to the action. Structurally complex systems function with related causes and effects; therefore, systems analysis is a powerful tool for examining and studying them. We can create computer models that accurately reflect what happens in actual structurally complex systems. Structurally complex systems are also known as linear systems.

Conversely, interactively complex systems lack a fixed structure, and their parts have significant freedom of action. Thus these systems are often dynamic and unpredictable. In general, the more freedom of action the parts enjoy, the greater are the dynamics of the system. Interactively complex systems create multifaceted, rich, challenging, and potentially volatile behaviors. Even interactively complex systems with only a few parts can exhibit surprisingly rich and novel behavior. Measures taken to affect these systems often produce disproportionate results relative to the size or scale of the measures, because effects cascade throughout the system. Interaction among constituent parts commonly produces unanticipated emergent behaviors that make these systems unique.

Interactively complex systems are, on the other hand, not additive systems; indeed, they are greater—or more accurately, different—than the sum of their parts. We benefit little when we separate the parts of an interactively complex system and study the parts in isolation, because in the act of separation the system loses its coherence and the parts lose their meaning. For this reason, a reductionist approach like systems analysis is an ineffective tool for examining such systems; we must look at them holistically. We can model these systems in computers, however, the models are only representative, thus we cannot expect an actual system to behave exactly as the model does. Interactively complex systems are also known as nonlinear systems since any action to these systems can cascade and produce disproportionate and unexpected outcomes.

Ecologies, weather, economies, and political systems are excellent illustrations of interactively complex or nonlinear systems. While not commonly thought of as systems, international relations, wars, campaigns, and battles are also nonlinear systems. Human organizations like schools, businesses, and battalions are as well.

We note again that systems are in effect mental models that human minds create and destroy constantly. Therefore, there is no realistic way of fixing on how many may exist. However, of the two types of systems that we encounter, those that are nonlinear or interactively complex undoubtedly constitute the larger set by many orders of magnitude.[iv]

Clausewitz’s Remarkable Trinity

Although a few scientist and mathematicians recognized the significance of nonlinear systems more than a century ago,[v] it is only within the last thirty years or so that the general population began to become aware of their existence.[vi] Hence, it is surprising to many members of the defense community that some 180 years ago Carl von Clausewitz, the master military theorist, clearly understood that the central elements of war and, therefore war itself, manifest the features of nonlinear systems.

While Clausewitz alludes to this nonlinearity through much of his opus On War, he speaks to it directly in Book One, Chapter 1, Section 28. This section, which hardly takes up half a page, summarizes many of the essentials of Clausewitz’s theory of war. He begins the section noting: “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.”[vii] His use of a biological metaphor indicates war is not mechanistic and therefore not a controllable or predictable phenomenon. He then lays out the dominant tendencies of that phenomenon, which strategists often sum up as passion, probability, and reason. He mentions that most often the three tendencies are the concern of the people, army, and government.[viii] Continuing, Clausewitz makes a strong claim: “A theory that ignores anyone of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”[ix]

In other words, to be valid any theory of war must incorporate war’s intrinsic dynamism. He goes on to say: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets.” This analogy points to a cutting-edge scientific experiment of his era, that demonstrates the nonlinearity of any system where there is freedom of movement among three or more elements.[x] The virtual impossibility of duplicating the path of a pendulum as it moves among three equally spaced magnets tells us that despite our desire to balance passion, probability, and reason—the three central tendencies of war—it is simply not possible.[xi] War is a nonlinear phenomenon.

As with all nonlinear phenomena, we can only study war as a complete system, not as individual parts. Clausewitz is clear in this regard claiming that, “. . . in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”[xii] This advice runs counter to Americans’ preference for using an engineering approach to solve all problems. Reductionism tends to be part of the national character. We persist in using linear methods even when the evidence shows their limitations.

John Lewis Gaddis described the difficulties this approach has caused the U.S. national security community in a ground-breaking article questioning why political scientists failed to forecast the end of the Cold War.[xiii] His convincing conclusion is that while members of the physical and natural sciences were incorporating the tools of nonlinear science into their various disciplines those in political science were adopting classical linear practices, which blinded them to the dynamics that led to the Soviet Union’s demise. In the end, we confront the reality that as with war, international relations is nonlinear. Indeed, so also are most things that flow from it, including strategies and strategic thinking.

Strategy and Strategic Thinking

Hew Strachan contends that “[t}he word ‘strategy’ has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it with only banalities.”[xiv] This charge certainly fits American military officers, whose professional lexicon is careless at best, and often simply confused and meaningless. Throughout the U.S. defense community definitions of strategy abound, making any discussion of the subject difficult unless those involved first clarify their terminology.

So, at this point I’m compelled to tell the reader that my definition of strategy is specifically about linking military actions to a nation’s policy goals, and ensuring the selected military ways and means achieve the policy ends in the manner that leaders intend. Today this normally involves two steps. The first is to determine a nation’s grand strategy, or national security strategy in contemporary terminology, which lays out how that nation expects to coordinate and employ all elements of national power—diplomatic, economic, military, and informational— to protect its interests. The second step is to determine how the nation’s military actions are to achieve the stated policy goals. This step includes the creation of operational plans, as well as the conceptual ideas that lead to operational doctrine.

Historians and pundits have made a strong case that the United States has failed since the end of the Cold War to develop a national security strategy that articulates clear and attainable goals. More often what passes as goals are actually ambiguous statements meant to advance the cause of freedom and expand democratic ideals. These supposed national strategies are further hampered by a lack of detail on how the instruments of government might actually attain the stated goals, even when the strategies state those goals more concretely. Among the most significant reasons for these shortcomings are the absence of an identifiable threat, and flawed methodologies for thinking about the emerging international security environment.

Colin Gray argues in an article meant for defense planners that, “[b]y implication, strategy (and by extension defence planning) requires an enemy.”[xv] Defense planning involves considering many factors. The products of this planning include national security and military strategies, guidance for development and employment of the force, and strategic guidance for combatant commanders, service chiefs, and heads of various defense agencies. The U.S. experiment with capabilities-based defense planning in the 1990s, as opposed to its traditional threat-based planning, proved less than successful, particularly in regard to writing the operating concepts that guide force development.

I use the definition for an operating concept contained in a respected paper on the subject of writing concepts: “An operating concept is the articulation in broad terms of the application of military art and science within some defined set of parameters. In simplest terms, operating concepts describe how military forces operate.”[xvi] The U.S. military creates operating concepts for two reasons. First, to solve a problem, that is:

. . . propose a solution to an anticipated or newly identified military problem for which there is currently no adequate military solution. This new problem is brought about by some new combination of political, social, economic, technological, doctrinal or other factors. The new problem may be brought about by new objectives in an existing situation. For example, a situation itself may be unchanged, but political expectations may have increased, necessitating a new operating concept. [xvii]

Second, to take advantage of an opportunity, that is:

. . . propose a better solution than currently exists to an existing military problem. This better solution may be made possible by some technological, organizational, tactical, societal or other developments that did not exist previously, or it may be necessitated by the failure of an existing operating concept.[xviii]

There are many signs that the failure of the United States to identify a potential enemy contributed to the nation’s dismal attempts to develop imaginative operating concepts in the years leading up to September 11, 2001.[xix] A number of qualified observers have made known that factoring in an enemy and the challenge that this enemy presents is a core requirement to all defense planning. Williamson Murray, pointing to successful innovation in the years between the First and Second World Wars states, “. . . that in virtually every case was the presence of specific military problems the solution of which offered significant advantages to furthering the achievement of national strategy.”[xx] Some very effective operating concepts were meant to take advantage of an opportunity, not solve a specific problem. For example, the use of V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to enhance the concept of operational maneuver. Bottom line, the first order of business in all types of defense planning is to come some understanding of the emerging security environment, and to determine who might be an enemy. 

Most U.S. leaders have an unwarranted faith in the ability of various organizations and agencies to predict the emerging international security environment with some measure of accuracy. This predicting depends upon a number of techniques. One authority lists and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of “three distinct methodologies currently in favor for use in assessing the future security environment: estimates, forecasts, and scenarios.”[xxi] The record of success with all of these methodologies is dismal.

This should not surprise us for as a story of a detailed and extensive study evaluating expert judgment tells us: “The simple and disturbing truth is that experts’ predictions were no more accurate than random guesses.”[xxii] To illustrate this point, the team of an experienced and very practical U.S. General commissioned in 2010 to examine the coming operating environment found that the “common wisdom” about the future at the beginning of every decade for the past century was absolutely wrong.[xxiii] To those who understand nonlinear systems the reason is obvious, the interaction of so many variables causes countless unexpected and surprising events.

Yet despite this, too many strategists are unaware, perhaps even uninterested, in advances in the nonlinear sciences of the past half-century. Many, being pragmatic and ahistorical, are unlikely to have read these words from the “Dean of Cold War Historians,” John Lewis Gaddis:

By the 1960s it was becoming apparent that . . . two whole classes of phenomena existed, one of which lent itself to prediction, and one that did not. Prediction was possible where one or two variables interacted under known or controlled conditions. But if the number of variables increased even slightly, or if the conditions under which they operated changed even a little, all bets were off.[xxiv]

Similarly, most strategists likely missed the words of Williamson Murray, a historian reporting on advances in science who wrote:

…the world as a whole does not work in a mechanistic, deterministic fashion…complex social interactions like military innovation or actual combat do not reduce to simple, linear processes and…the study of human affairs, the interplay of literally hundreds, if not thousands of independent variables, is more of an art than a science.[xxv]

Good strategists know how nonlinear systems such as nation-states, non-state actors, international relations, politics, economics, wars, campaigns, and a host of others work in the real world. More importantly, they use this knowledge of a nonlinear world when they ponder strategic questions or recommend strategies. Good strategists don’t depend on analytical tools to uncover the future security environment or potential enemies. Rather, they look to history and economic and demographic trends to inform their judgments of what might happen in a nonlinear world.

Operational Art

Following the end of the Vietnam War the U.S. military undertook an extensive examination of what went wrong. An outcome of this thorough assessment was an intellectual renaissance, leading to important changes in doctrine and military education.[xxvi] One of the products of the renewed interest in professional thought was the recognition of operational art as a needed activity to tie together strategy and tactics.

The term entered the U.S. military’s lexicon in the 1986 edition of the U.S. Army’s Field Manual 100-5, Operations with this definition: “Operational art is the employment of military forces to attain strategic goals in a theater of war or theater of operations through the design, organization, and conduct of campaigns and major operations.”[xxvii] This definition of operational art reflected that of its originator, Soviet General-Major Alexander A. Svechin who introduced the term in 1922.[xxviii] “Svechin defined operational art as a critical conceptual linkage between tactics and strategy. In this manner, senior commanders transformed tactical success into operational ‘bounds’ to achieve strategic objectives.”[xxix]

Another, but related, construct created by the American military during this intellectual renaissance was a three-level mental model of war, that is, the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The rational for this three-level construct was similar to that of operational art, that is, to enable commanders to plan campaigns and major operations that allowed U.S. forces to fight battles and engagements to accomplish a higher purpose — one related to the strategic and in turn policy goals. Properly designed campaigns and operations were to overcome a serious and accurate charge that U.S. forces won every battle and engagement of the Vietnam War—on occasion at tremendous cost—even though they were unable to win the war itself because there was no overarching plan.[xxx] Political and strategic failures negated tactical successes in that tragic war.

Regrettably, introduction of the operational level of war did not bring about the desired results. Rather than center attention on operational art, too many officers focused on mundane issues like what types of units were to deal with the operational and tactical levels, and the creation of new and more complicated planning techniques based on formal analyses. Noted historian Hew Strachan sees an even more pernicious fault with the so-called ‘operational level’ of war, that is, it “occupies a politics-free zone” where military officers are able to concentrate on maneuver while ignoring strategy and policy.[xxxi]

A better and more useful construct than the popular levels of war is one of strategy, operational art, and tactics with no artificial divisions. All strategies possess some degree of abstraction while tactics are always particular. The challenge is to convert the relative abstraction of strategy to the mechanics of tactic. Operational art serves as a bridge from strategy to tactics, while the operational level tends to erect boundaries between the two.[xxxii] Operational art’s very purpose is to force discourse between policy makers, strategists and operational commanders. There can be no politics or strategy-free zone where operational artists practice their role professionally. The principal means of operational art is operational design whose purpose is to arrange campaigns and major operations in time and space to fulfill the aims of strategy, which in turn is to accomplish the goals of policy.

Ironically, this “new” approach is simply retuning the United States to similar ones many civilian and military leaders employed very well in the Second World War—though the military did not call it operational design. Unfortunately, such approaches atrophied in the years after the war as the entire U.S. defense community became enamored with applying management techniques to strategic, operational, and in some cases, tactical planning.

Operational Design

Information on operational design in U.S. joint doctrine has always been very thin, constituting little more than definitions such as the elements of operational design; examples being centers of gravity and lines of operation.[xxxiii] Though the U.S. military has been slow to adopt it, a more formidable approach to operational design exists. Retired Israeli Defense Force Brigadier General Shimon Naveh first introduced the outlines of this much improved method to the U.S. military in 2004.[xxxiv] Known as systemic operational design, it rests on an understanding of system theory. Due to language and cultural differences, many U.S. officers found General Naveh’s pure method unworkable. However, several individuals have revised and integrated his method with the concept of ill-structured or unstructured problems.[xxxv] The latter idea was offered by two sociologists in an important journal article in 1973.[xxxvi] These ill-structured problems exist as undesirable situations, and there is no obvious way to tackle them. They are not subject to intuition or analytical procedures; a rule-set does not exist for solving them. Each is unique; therefore, planners must uncover a structure.

The essence of this more modern approach to operational design requires a group of people knowledgeable about some aspect of an area, enemy, issue, and so forth to engage in a discourse as they attempt to give structure to what appears unstructured. This discourse must extend to policy makers and national strategists if the means and methods the participants recommend using are to support policy and strategy. All members of the group must be conversant with the basics of nonlinear systems as they undertake to create a system view, which they hope will reveal some structure.

The product they create not only reflects the nonlinearity of the system, it also serves as a shared mental model of how they perceive and think about the situation. In the act of creating that structure a potential solution commonly becomes self-evident. In place of the verb structure some have used words like frame, set, formulate, or define the problem. Of course, since the design team considers the problem as a nonlinear system there are a multitude of ways to structure it, which means there are no right and wrong answers, just better and poorer ones. Moreover, there are no permanent answers, just a way to act on the existing system to move it to a different and more desirable state. John Schmitt provides an eloquent and elegant synopsis of the central elements of design in his paper on the subject:

To the extent that we face socially complex, wicked problems, we should design before we plan and execute. Design is essentially the process of rationally formulating the problem to be solved out of the mess that confronts us, and doing it in such a way that the logic for solving the problem emerges intuitively. We design by holding a conversational discourse among stakeholders during which an image of the problem and the solution emerges gradually through the collective intelligence of the group subjected to critical argument. During operational design, we think systemically—we imagine the problem as a system driven primarily by its own purpose, structure and processes, but also influenced by the broader environment within which it exists. We do this by developing, testing and modifying conceptual models hypothesized to explain the workings of the system in its environment. Because we cannot observe the physical causality that underlies the situation, we test our hypothesis heuristically through action. We observe the results of our action to see if they conform to the expectations of our design, and we redesign accordingly. In this way, design provides the basis for assessment and for adapting our operations to the situation through learning.[xxxvii]

To date no part of the American Armed Forces has adopted this simple and common sense version of operational design. Instead, each service and the joint community have attempted to merge some of the key ideas with old analytical methodologies, thus creating doctrinal publications that are confusing to readers in all cases and virtually unintelligible in others. To illustrate, U.S. Army Field Manual 5-0, Operations Process dated March 2010 and U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 5-1, Marine Corps Planning Process dated 24 August 2010 fail to capture the essence of the ideas espoused by General Naveh or the approach outlined in the Rittel and Webber article. On 7 October 2011 the Joint Staff J-7 issued a Planner’s Handbook for Operational Design, Version 1.0 whose value is limited since it mixes some good material with other material that is especially bad. Moreover, the citations provide evidence that the authors of the publication had minimal knowledge of the important literature on system theory and decision-making. This handbook refers to some of the ideas espoused by General Naveh and the approach described in the Rittel and Webber article, but it frequently misinterprets those ideas.



The United States and its allies need senior civilian officials and military officers who grasp the fundamental nature of systems, are adept at building shared mental models, comprehend the significance of Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity, understand operational art and can connect strategic thinking with tactical actions through operational design. These are the true competencies of modern defense professionals.


[i] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 14.
[ii] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003).
[iii] John F. Schmitt, “Command and (Out of) Control: The Military Implications of Complexity Theory,” Complexity, Global Politics, and National Security, edited by David S. Alberts and Thomas J. Czerwinski (Washington, DC: National Defense University, June 1997), p. 234. According to a 2 November 2011 e-mail to the author from John Schmitt, he drew from Heinz R.Pagels’ The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988) in naming the two types of systems, especially from page 40. Reinforcing this paper’s argument for the power of mental models are these words from that page: “What has changed is that we, in forming a picture of all sciences in our mind, have appealed to new categories in organizing that picture, categories that are informed by new instruments.” A web search on 14 November 2011 does, however, show separate uses of the terms in other fields and contexts, none related to system theory.
[iv] In chapters 1, 4 and 5 and scattered elsewhere in a well-argued book Colin Gray discusses the relationship of chaos theory to strategy. In a chapter endnote in that book he takes the author of this article and other defense scholars to task for, “. . . neglecting the fact that much, perhaps most, strategic behaviour in peace and war is significantly linear.” (See note 1 on page 57 of chapter 1, “High Concept” of Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History, Frank Cass: London, 2002.) I beg to differ. Scientists have long understood that any system where three or more elements have freedom of action is in effect nonlinear, that is, we can only approximate its motion and future state. Often referred to as the “three-body problem” because of its association with astronomers’ inability to predict the future relationship of three heavenly bodies, it is more accurately an n-body problem. Certainly, Gray does not intend to imply that strategic behavior of any sort is limited to two elements. This inability to predict a motion or a future state does not mean, however, that strategist should throw up their arms in dismay for many nonlinear systems display patterns that allow us to manage our actions reasonably well. Otherwise we would never be able to drive safely, for traffic patterns are a nonlinear phenomena. Drivers as well as strategists, military commanders, and all experienced decision makers look for familiar patterns in nonlinear systems to guide their actions.
[v] As an example, Jules Henri Poincare in his 1890 “Acta Mathematica” provided mathematical descriptions of the chaotic behavior evidenced in dynamical systems.
[vi] A large number of books were published in the 1990s under the rubric of chaos or complexity theory that described the ubiquity of nonlinear systems. Among the most popular were: James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1993), and Murray Gell-Mann’s The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1994).
[vii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 89.
[viii] Ibid. Several noted historians have mis-interpreted the people, army, and government as the primary elements of the “remarkable trinity” and then dismissed the trinity because of the supposed demise of governments and the rise of non-state actors. Among these are Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of Warfare: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1991) and John Keegan in A History of Warfare (1993). Christopher Bassford has published several articles pointing out van Creveld and Keegan’s erroneous interpretation of the Clausewitzian trinity (see
[ix] Clausewitz, 89.
[x] The experiment is reflective of the “three-body—or more accurately n-body problem” (also discussed in endnote iv), which puzzled astronomers for generations. Employing Newtonian physics mathematicians could accurately determine the future position of two heavenly bodies affected by gravitational pull; adding a third body, however, precluded them from doing so. Only after many unsuccessful attempts did mathematicians come to understand that any system in which three or more elements have freedom of action will be inherently nonlinear; the future state of such a system is unknowable.
[xi] Alan Beyerchen’s “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War” in International Security (Winter 1992/93), pp. 59-90 is the seminal work on Clausewitz and nonlinearity.
[xii] Clausewitz, 75.
[xiii] John Lewis Gaddis, “International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War” in International Security (Winter 1992/93), pp. 5-58.
[xiv] Hew Strachan, “The Lost Meaning of Strategy” in Survival (Autumn 2005), p. 34.
[xv] Colin S. Gray, “Strategic Thoughts for Defence Planners” in Survival (June-July 2010), p. 170.
[xvi] John F. Schmitt. A Practical Guide for Developing and Writing Military Concepts, Defense Adaptive Red Team (DART) Working Paper #02-4. (McLean, Virginia: Hicks & Associates, Inc., December 2002), p. 7. (
[xvii] John Schmitt, A Practical Guide to Developing and Writing Military Concepts, Defense Adaptive Red Team (DART) Working Paper #02-4 (McLean, Virginia: Hicks & Associates, Inc., 2002), p. 12.
[xviii] Ibid.
[xix] Among the most egregious of the vacuous concepts developed during this period were “effects-based operations” and “network-centric operations.” Neither these two nor other similarly weak concepts truly recognized a thinking and adaptive enemy.
[xx] Williamson Murray, “Innovation: Past and Future” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period edited by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 311.
[xxi] Sam J. Tangredi, Futures of War: Toward a Consensus View of the Future Security Environment, 2010-2035 (Newport, Rhode Island: Alidade Press, 2008), p. 43.
[xxii] Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless and You Can Do Better (New York: Dutton, 2011), p. 25. Gardner’s book is based on a study by Phillip E. Tetlock described in his Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005).
[xxiii] Joint Operating Environment, “Strategic Estimates,” U.S. Joint Forces Command, February 18, 2010, signed by General James N. Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps.
[xxiv] Gaddis, p. 54.
[xxv] Ibid. p. 303.
[xxvi] Unfortunately, for all its successes this intellectual renaissance failed to capture and benefit from the hard lessons of the many years of counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam, consequently, a new generation of soldiers and Marines was forced to learn these lessons again in Iraq and Afghanistan at great cost in lives, limbs, time, and dollars.
[xxvii] A current joint definition of operational art misses the mark: “The cognitive approach by commanders and staffs--supported by their skill, knowledge, experience, creativity, and judgment--to develop strategies, campaigns, and operations to organize and employ military forces by integrating ends, ways, and means.” (DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, accessed on 11 May 2012). This definition is more appropriately that of operational design.
[xxviii] Jacob W. Kipp, “General Major A.A. Svechin and Modern Warfare: Military History and Military Theory” in Aleksandr A. Svechin’s Strategy (Minneapolis, Minnesota: East View Information Services, 1991, a translation of Strategiia, Moscow: Voennyi vestnik, 1927), p. 23.
[xxix] Jacob W. Kipp, “The Tsarist and Soviet Operational Art, 1853-1991” in The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 65.
[xxx] Williamson Murray asserts in Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 29-30 that the battle at Landing Zone Albany during the Vietnam War was so pyrrhic that it can hardly be considered a victory. He also contends that the war was lost as a result of poor political and strategic decision making.
[xxxi] Strachan, p. 47.
[xxxii] Several observers have made the claim that operational art has usurped strategy. Among these are Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan in a monograph titled Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, September 2009). Though well documented, the argument Kelly and Brennan present is disjointed and factually inaccurate in many areas; but, it is fatally flawed by their erroneous contention that:”It is time we returned what we now call campaign design to the political and strategic leadership of the country and returned operational art to its original venue, where it was overwhelmingly concerned with tactics.” (See page viii.) Neither the Soviets who originated the term nor the Americans, who adopted and practiced it for some twenty years, ever saw operational art as “overwhelmingly concerned with tactics.” Moreover, the term campaign design is unique to Kelly and Brennan as it does not appear in the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms or the U.S. Joint Forces Staff College’s The Joint Officers Staff Guide. The DOD Dictionary does define operational design: “The conception and construction of the framework that underpins a campaign or major operation plan and its subsequent execution.” Kelly and Brennan also conflate operational art and campaigns when they write; “campaigns clearly need to be designed and that if we call this process ‘operational art’ it does not matter that we are diverging from the classical use of the term.” (See page 3.) Classical use can only refer to the Soviet military’s use of operational art, which saw operational art and campaign as separate and discrete things; therefore, Kelly and Brennan’s recommendation makes no sense. Moreover, to suggest that operational art and campaigns are the same is as illogical as claiming that tactics and battles are the same thing. Surprisingly, Kelly and Brennan appear unaware of the latest research on Russian and Soviet development of operational art, for example Richard H. Harrison’s 2001, The Russian Way of War: Operational Art, 1904-1940, which drew upon Russian military archives unavailable to earlier researchers. Another example is Bruce W. Menning’s July 2005 translation of G.S. Isserson’s, The Evolution of Operational Art. This is a U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies publication. Happily, Kelly and Brennan do make a case similar to the author of this article that the three-levels of war construct hinders clear thinking about war and war planning.
[xxxiii] See especially Joint Publications 3-0 Joint Operations and 5-0 Joint Operation Planning
[xxxiv] Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War in Lebanon some analysts blamed the Israel Defense Force’s deficiencies on its adoption and use of effects-based operations. There is evidence to support this contention. At least one analyst, Matt M. Matthews, however, incorrectly connected effects-based operations and systemic operational design as similar ideas in his occasional paper, We Were Caught Unprepared:
The 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli War (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Combined Arms Center Combat Studies Institute Press, undated, p. 63):
Shimon Naveh’s SOD, which formed the core of the new IDF doctrine, also proved highly disruptive. The new language and methodology severely handicapped many commanders in the field. A large majority of IDF officers simply did not grasp the SOD-inspired doctrine. When the terminology made its way into at least one division’s operation orders, the brigade commanders were at a complete loss to understand them. The use of this effects-based, SOD-inspired doctrine in the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war should promote spirited debate within the US Military’s doctrinal establishment and stand as a lucent example of the limitations of EBO. [Italics added.]
Nothing could be more wrong; effects-based operations take a linear view of war and operations while systemic operational design takes a nonlinear view. They are polar opposites. Nonetheless, Matthews’ accusation that systemic operational design terminology was extremely difficult to understand is accurate. Shimon Naveh’s other work has been criticized by some as lacking intellectual rigor. His writing may contain errors (whose doesn’t?), but his superb intellect is beyond reproach. I have worked with him on a number of projects and found his knowledge and insights on all aspects of war and warfare to be profound and often original. He is the most widely read person I know. Argumentative and even at times arrogant, he either overwhelms or infuriates the less informed.
[xxxv] The very best of several good pamphlets on operational design is John S. Schmitt’s, A Systemic Concept for Operational Design published by the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Concepts and Plans Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in August 2006, Also of some value is the former U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Design in Military Operations: A Primer for Joint Warfighters published on 20 September 2010 as Pamphlet 10, part of its Joint Warfighting Center Joint Doctrine Series. A commercial company, Booz Allen Hamilton has created an extensive program, which it uses to educate military staffs on the new approach to operational design. The company has considerable written material on the subject that is useful, however, all of it is proprietary.
[xxxvi] Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169.
[xxxvii] John S. Schmitt, A Systemic Concept for Operational Design published by the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Concepts and Plans Division, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in August 2006, p. 32.