Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 4  /  

Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?

Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy? Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2012, pages 4-7.

Strategy is a necessarily future-centric discipline; all its objectives lie therein. An element of predictive ability is inherently necessary for strategy to work as hoped, lest those who practice it be unable suitably to match ends, ways, and means. Nonetheless, little thought has been dedicated to which aspect of the trinity – ends, ways, means – contributes most to predictability of effect. Ends, ways, and means will each be examined in turn for their contribution to strategic effect, and to the predictability thereof. Ultimately, ends reflect an understanding of effect; ways determine a strategy’s quality relative to the adversary and predict effect inasmuch as a chosen strategy is better than the opponent’s. Finally, means form the real bedrock of predicting effect because only means reflect the real physical limits of action. Although myriad other factors, such as public opinion, may inhibit decision-making as well, they will not be considered.

Predictability and Assumptions

Richard Betts flagged the issue of predictability in strategy when he pondered whether or not strategy was an illusion, and why some people might think it was. His words are worth quoting in full:

“Without believing in some measure of predictability, one cannot believe in strategic calculation. For strategy to have hope of working better than a shot in the dark, it must be possible to analyze patterns of military and political cause and effect, identify which instruments produce which effects in which circumstances, and apply the lessons to future choices. Unless strategists can show that a particular choice in particular circumstances is likely to produce a particular outcome, they are out of business.”[i]

This is all true, but it is nonetheless problematic. To predict effect, one must know what it is. It is tempting to identify political effect, which is the ultimate purpose of strategy, but this cannot be achieved logically with a single step. Two steps are minimally required for one’s strategy to influence the opponent’s politics. Conflating these two steps disaggregates predictability from the ends, ways, means trinity by allowing prediction to be based purely on assumptions concerning the political efficacy of force, which as often as not do not reflect reality. If Hitler assumes that the whole Soviet house will crumble at the first kick, the physical limits of his armed forces in action will matter little to him. To draw political predictions from one’s own assumptions is clearly unsatisfactory. Predictability must come from what the strategist is actually able to control.

André Beaufre proposes that “[a]ny dialectical contest is a contest for freedom of action.”[ii] The strategist’s first logical step is to control his opposite’s freedom of action. The details of strategic behavior in war are varied by accident, by design, and by necessity, but the real capabilities of power upon which this variable behavior rests are universal. Colin Gray suggests that strategy may be defined as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose; it is neither military power per se nor political purpose.”[iii] At the risk of perhaps unduly narrowing the concept of strategic (as opposed to political) effect, effect is strategic when it impairs the opponent’s bridge, his ability to employ his military gainfully, for offense or defense. Impairment concerns the developing physical situation and opportunities therein, newly opened or recently closed. Strategic effect reflects the relative freedoms of action enjoyed by two adversaries and the utility contextually inherent in exploiting that freedom of action. Context is important because the enemy always has a vote in how freedom of action is distributed between the belligerents, and what that freedom means. One purpose of strategy is to minimize the significance of that vote.

The strategist’s second logical step is to influence his enemy’s policy behaviors. Ideally, this is achieved by limiting the enemy’s options for action while exploiting one’s own, although history attests to how messy this process becomes. Because strategy is an interactive process, in practice this second step coincides with the first, one reason for their frequent conflation. It is a given that application of one’s power changes the foe’s policies, but questions abound about how much power, applied where, and for how long. Success in the first step abets achievement in the second; strategists rarely count on gaining strategic and political advantage from tactical and operational failure. Ascertaining the source of predictability of strategic effect within the first step, controlling the opponent’s freedom of action, is worthwhile on its own, and may also provide insight into the second step.

Strategy is carried out by properly matching ends, ways, and means against an intelligent foe. Predictability must reside within some aspect of the ends, ways, and means trinity for it to be available to the practicing strategist. Arthur Lykke, one of the first to develop this trinity in detail, offers the following definitions of each of the three concepts:

“‘Ends’ can be expressed as military objectives and ‘Ways’ are concerned with the various methods of applying military force. In essence, this becomes an examination of courses of action (termed military strategic concepts) that are designed to achieve the military objective. ‘Means’ refers to the military resources (manpower, material, money, forces, logistics, etc.) required to accomplish the mission.”[iv]

Lykke’s definitions will form the basis for exploring separately each of the three elements of the trinity to determine how significantly each may or may not contribute to predictability in strategic effect.


In discussing the ‘ends’ aspect of the trinity, Harry Yarger plants his flag quite firmly in suggesting that “[i]n strategy formulation, getting the objectives (ends) right matters most! Too often in strategy development, too little time is spent on consideration of the appropriate objectives in the context of the desired policy, national interests, and the environment. Yet it is the identification and achievement of the right objectives that creates the desired strategic effect.”[v] He goes on to suggest, “If the wrong objectives are identified, the concepts and resources serve no strategic purpose…In this regard, objectives are concerned with doing the right things. Concepts are concerned with doing things right. Resources are concerned with costs. Objectives determine effectiveness; concepts and resources are measures of efficiency.”[vi]

Yarger’s position is difficult to accept with regard to a general theory of strategy, however. His discussion of objectives betrays some confusion, for he suggests examples such as “deter war, promote regional stability, destroy Iraqi armed forces”.[vii] Two of the identified ends, deterring war and promoting regional stability, are political and behavioral in nature. Yarger confounds objective with desired political effect. There is no direct path a military can take that would allow it to achieve either deterrence or regional stability, no matter what means it deploys or the ways it uses them. Such effects stem from influencing the enemy’s behaviors, the logically distinct and unpredictable second step of strategy, rather than the first. The destruction of hostile armed forces is certainly achievable for one’s armed forces, but the manner in which the enemy is destroyed weighs heavily on the meaning of that action. The way in which the Iraqi army was destroyed in 2003 was more problematic to the aftermath than the way the German army was destroyed in 1944-45.

Predictability cannot lie solely within the chosen ends. Military ends must ultimately be physical: objectives such as the capture of geographical locations, the destruction of an opposing army, etc, or the physical prevention of the enemy from achieving such aims. Although Yarger’s overall argument that objectives must be chosen carefully is correct and well taken, it is more appropriate to suggest that the ends a strategist chooses reflect the desired effect, rather than cause it. A chosen objective indicates how a strategist desires to constrain his enemy’s freedom of action, and improve and exploit his own. The actual restriction comes from a different part of the ends, ways, means trinity.


Most of strategy deals with ways. Means are frequently assumed, and may change only slowly. Similarly, political ends are given and beyond a strategist’s control. Military objectives must somehow reflect both political interests and stakes, and the strategist’s task of constraining, and imposing his will upon, the enemy. Clausewitz defined strategy as “the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war,” emphasizing (correctly) the central role of violence in war.[vii] The details nevertheless matter in how and why the violence is brought about and used. Ways are thus usually the focus of strategy and of policy, for they must balance strategic and political needs.

Basil Liddell Hart, a theorist fixated on the ways of strategy, argued, “throughout the ages, effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponent’s unreadiness to meet it. The indirectness has usually been physical, and always psychological.”[ix] The introduction of the operational level of war into Anglo-American strategic discourse by Edward Luttwak and others occurred precisely because they felt that there was a lack of attention being paid to the ways in which military force might be employed.[x] Seeking to find effect in the way their weapons could be used should the need arise, nuclear strategists during the Cold War similarly argued over counter-value, counterforce, and countervailing modes of action.

Many theorists of strategic ways and operational modes prefer to dichotomize the ways available to strategists: annihilation and exhaustion (Hans Delbrück); direct and indirect (Liddell Hart); sequential and cumulative (J.C. Wylie); attritional and relational-maneuver (Edward Luttwak); and so on. The best dichotomies acknowledge that purity of concept in practice is rare, if possible at all, and that actual conduct represents some mixture of both operational patterns. Dichotomies are abstractions conceived to simplify the sheer variety of ways open to a strategist. These strategic theorists either implicitly or, as in Liddell Hart’s case, somewhat explicitly conclude that the predictive element of war resides in the way military force is employed and so they deliberately simplify the myriad choices available for the purposes of easing the task of prediction. Luttwak, in explaining the benefits of relational-maneuver, offers a good example: “[i]nstead of cumulative destruction [required for attrition], the desired process is systemic disruption-where the ‘system’ may be the whole array of armed forces, some fraction thereof, or indeed technical systems pure and simple.”[xi] The aggregate discourse on ways in strategy implicitly recognizes that the ends of military action must be physical in some way, although some theorists do extrapolate to suggest further behavioral effects.

Ways concern both effectiveness and efficiency in strategy, in that order. Strategy by definition is adversarial, meaning that any chosen way of fighting an intelligent enemy must first be able to thwart the enemy’s own plans before fulfilling one’s own. Ways are first and foremost about effectiveness: a strategist must be able to obstruct his foe. Once acting toward a positive objective, ways transition to considerations of efficiency. The strategist’s task becomes achievement of his goal as efficiently as possible. This is a necessarily imprecise art because the opponent, although frustrated in his own positive goals, remains intelligent and determined to return the favor, barring behavioral change. This shift in emphasis from effectiveness to efficiency is necessarily rougher and more uneven in practice than in theory. Behavioral insight and political assumptions, although they cannot form the foundation of effect, play a significant role in expediting the achievement of both effect and efficiency because ways in strategy are necessarily adversarial.

Predictability of effect only partially derives from ways. The contingent nature of ways in strategy indicates that they are only effective if they overcome the test of an intelligent adversary, and are thereafter concerned with efficiency. Therefore, the real impact of the chosen way(s) has already been fulfilled once a strategist becomes concerned with efficiency over effectiveness. Advantage has been gained over the enemy, and all that remains is to press it while simultaneously preventing him from upsetting it. Ways somewhat influence the character of effect achieved against the enemy’s strategy bridge, his freedom of action, but ultimately they cannot determine it, as too many other important factors remain contingent even when the chosen way is successful.


The means of strategy are not often discussed in detail. Raoul Castex, commenting on the expansion of definitions of naval strategy to encompass not just wartime but also certain peacetime activities, including the development of means, firmly proscribes strategy’s responsibility for such enterprises. “Properly speaking, preparations of this sort constitute naval policy, and their realm borders that of policy as a whole”, even though their quality clearly influences the conduct of strategy in wartime.[xii] Although the use of means belongs to strategy and their development belongs to policy, they generally fall in-between the two.

The definition of means employed here is somewhat more expansive than that proposed by Lykke. Instead of discussing “manpower, material, money, forces, logistics, etc”, broader brushstrokes are used: landpower, seapower, airpower, etc. The reason for this is to preclude the “deep and abiding confusion between deploying a force and employing force” to which Sir Rupert Smith draws attention.[xiii] Employing force means fighting. One might deploy manpower and material without having either a way to use them meaningfully or a coherent objective they can fulfill, but a strategist necessarily must employ power in a particular way toward a specific end that is physically definable and achievable.

To consider means in terms of forms of power, rather than the physical resources that make up that power, is to seek their individual strategic significance in and through combat. The individual meanings of landpower, seapower, or airpower are all different because they all have their own physical operational constraints which dictate their mutual interrelationships, in both methodological detail and the limits of achievability. First and foremost in this consideration is that humans live solely on land, and so land will always remain the ultimate center of gravity of conflict. The association of the forms of power to land is the most prevalent set of power relationships in strategy.

One may write about command or control of the ocean or the air with as much meaning as one may write about seizing the initiative on land. The control of any non-terrestrial geographical dimension denies the enemy easy access and freedom of action and improves one’s own therein. Yet the ability of seapower and airpower to interact directly with events on land is limited either to destruction, or to logistical support. Success at sea or in the air may also enable operations on land that may otherwise not occur. Nevertheless, neither seapower nor airpower can take control of events on the ground.

The nature of each geographical dimension determines the possibilities and the limits of combat within that dimension, and of attack from that dimension into others. By defining the boundaries of interaction, the geographical dimensions also delineate the limits of strategic effect, how much action in one dimension can impinge upon freedom of action in another. Physical capabilities ultimately determine everything else. To speak of landpower, seapower, or airpower is not simply to discuss their physical and supportive components, but also to understand what significance these broad forms of power have in holistic strategic interaction.


The ends chosen reflect an understanding of the desired strategic effect, or lack thereof, but the manner in which the ends are achieved influences the character of the resultant effect. Ways determine whether or not a strategist succeeds in his task, but the courses of action open to him, and their limits in practice, depend upon the means available. The means available, varied in their interrelationships, and in their capabilities and significance for mutual influence, determine together the character of strategic effect. Means are the fount of strategic effect, which in turn is affected and shaped through practice by the chosen ways and ends, and their success against an intelligent foe.

The purpose of strategic effect as a discrete notion, imbued by an appropriate and practical conception of what effect looks like, is to provide coherence to strategic discourse. This notion provides a concept adaptable to both military and non-military ends, ways, and means, and to strategic analysis and action. Political effect, although it is the ultimate aim of strategy, cannot provide the necessary coherence as it has no direct logical connection to military action. Tactical success tends to produce strategic success, which tends to enable political success, but not always. This question of currency conversion will continue to bedevil strategists. The division of strategy into two logical steps—controlling the enemy’s freedom of action, and influencing his policy—may be useful for considering the conversion of military means and ways into political ends.

Political assumptions cannot be excised from strategy, but they can be drawn away from the role they have heretofore occupied, of generating arguably complacent predictions of effect. Ultimately, this task of prediction remains, but political assumptions must answer a number of questions: what sort of effect matches the enemy’s political stake in the conflict? Do we have the means to generate that effect? Do we have the ways to guarantee successful generation? Do we have the political will to continue until victorious? These questions do not pertain to the second step of strategy, but rather the first. It was Sun Tzu who first recognized two logically distinct steps in strategy, having written that “[b]eing unconquerable lies within yourself, being conquerable lies with the enemy.”[xiv]

No deterministic, winning formula can be provided. Highlighted, rather, are the holistic, adversarial, and political natures of war and strategy. The use of any particular means does not guarantee strategic, let alone political, success, nor is a specific tool always appropriate for all geopolitical contexts. The adversarial employment of power denotes simply that one belligerent will constrain, or perhaps even remove, the other’s freedom of action to the extent that his chosen means allow. This strategic effect is subject to the quality of the way in which power is employed, and to the appropriateness of the ends chosen. The strategic effect on freedom of action from any particular means then becomes predictable. Who achieves the effect, who suffers it, and how efficient it is depends on the other two factors of the ends, ways, and means trinity.


[i] Richard K. Betts. “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security 25/2 (Fall 2000), 16.
[ii] André Beaufre. An Introduction to Strategy. R.H. Barry trans. (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 110.
[iii] Colin S. Gray. Modern Strategy. (Oxford: Oxford UP 1999), 17.
[iv] Arthur F. Lykke, Jr. “Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy” in Joseph R. Cerami & James F. Holcomb, Jr (eds). U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute 2001), 180.
[v] Harry R. Yarger. Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy. (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute 2006), 48-49.
[vi] Ibid, 49.
[vii] Ibid, 53.
[viii] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 177.
[ix] Basil Liddell Hart. Strategy. (New York: Meridian 1991), 5.
[x] Edward N. Luttwak. “The Operational Level of War”, International Security 5/3 (Winter 1980-81), 61-79.
[xi] Ibid, 64.
[xii] Raoul Castex. Strategic Theories. Eugenia C. Kiesling (trans. & ed). (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press 1994), 17.
[xiii] Rupert Smith. The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. (London: Penguin Books 2006), 4.
[xiv] Sun Tzu. The Art of War. Trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (Boulder: Westview Press 1994), 183.