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In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’

[by J. Scott Shipman] [Warning: Maritime in flavor]

No matter how far humanity may go in seeking to foster the arts of civilization and the ideals of civic peace, there will come times when acts of war are required in order to defend world order and sustain the peace of civilized peoples. Charles Hill’s, Grand Strategies, Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, page 48

The lift quote in the title is attributed to Winston Churchill, and in this period of uncertainty with sequestration and deep cuts in defense commanding the attention of military leadership, one thing is becoming crystal clear: we have no cogent or explainable military strategy. Sure, we have “concepts” like Air-Sea/Air-Land Battle, A2/AD, and Off-Shore Control, but our most recent unclassified Navy strategy document A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was written in 2007 may be a bit dated.

This week I attended the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual Defense Forum, Shaping the Maritime Strategy and Navigating the Budget Gap Reality and given the title, there was a lot of talk about funding and in that light/context, strategy was that thing “we’re in the process of doing.” Several people I spoke with expressed concern about “telling the navy’s story,” “why we have a navy,” and one member of Congress encouraged us to build an engaged constituency to put pressure on Congress to knock-off the schizophrenic approach to appropriations, so that a bit of certainty will allow the development of a strategy. Since DoD hasn’t been successfully audited in a long, long time (if ever), I wouldn’t hold out hope for a grass-roots rescue. As Mr. Churchill wisely advises, “now we have to think.”

Strategy Defined

Since strategy is a hot topic, offered here are several definitions ranging from the classic to practitioners and academics, with the goal of framing the elegant simplicity of strategy as a theory, and challenge of defining in reality. As Colin Gray points out in his National Security Dilemmas: “The United States has shown a persisting strategy deficit.” (page 170) Dilemmas, written in 2009 before the budget axe fell in earnest he offers: “One would think that the following definition and explanation must defy even determined efforts of misunderstanding:” (he then quotes Clausewitz)

Strategy is the use of engagement for the purpose of war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide the individual engagements.” (On War, page 177)

The definition of strategy from the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02:

strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

Other definitions:

J.C. Wylie, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Strategy, page 14

“A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment” 

Henry E. Eccles, RADM, USN, Ret., Military Concepts and Philosophy page 48:

Strategy is the art of comprehensive direction of power to control situations and areas in order to attain objectives. (emphasis in original)

Bernard Brodie, Sea Power in the Machine Age, page 78

“Tactics may be distinguished from strategy by the criterion proposed by Mahan—the fact of contact. “Tactics” refers to localized hostilities that occur where the adversaries are in contact; “strategy” refers to those basic dispositions in strength which comprise the entire conduct of a war.” 

General André Beaufre, Introduction á la stratégie, 1963, page 16. (note: I don’t read/speak French, I found the quote in Edward Luttwak’s Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace)

“…the art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.” 

Paul Van Riper, LtGen, USMC, Ret, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, Summer 2012

“…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.”

From John Boyd’s Strategic Game of ?And?

What is strategy?

A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.

What is the aim or purpose of strategy?

To improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances, so that we (as individuals or as groups or as a culture or as a nation?state) can survive on our own terms. (emphasis added)

Our own Lynn Rees

Politics is the division of strength. Strategy, its tool, squares drive, reach, and grip while striving for a certain division of strength.

Drive falls between too weak and too strong. Reach falls between too short and too far. Grip falls between too loose and too tight.

How strategy squares the three is open ended and ongoing. Outside friction, deliberate or not, always conspires with inside friction, intentional or not, to keep things interesting for strategy.

Drive is the certainty you want. Reach is the certainty you try. Grip is the certainty you get. Grip can be a little sway over certain minds. It can be big hurt carved in flesh and thing. Amid uncertainty, strategy strives for certain grip. The varying gulf between certain want, uncertain try, and not certain getting is the father of strategy.


Paradoxically, complexity is easy to design.  Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, page 25

All of these definitions have merit, and most coalesce around: power, conflicting wills, violence, and control. Lynn recently had a post on “Grip” where he offers a guide to physically grasp strategy (I do admire his imagery). Admiral Eccles also has a similar and complementary list:

A strategic concept is best expressed in explicit statements of

What to control,

What is the purpose of this control,

What is the nature of the control,

What degree of control is necessary,

When the control is to be initiated,

How long the control is to be maintained,

What general method or scheme of control is to be used. (page 48)

Both of these lists are unambiguous. (One of the biggest complaints about Air-Sea Battle and A2/AD is the ambiguity. Sam Tangredi wrote a book on the latter which I’ll review soon.) Bernard Brodie in A Layman’s Guide to Naval Strategy, page 14-15 (emphasis added), reminds us:

There is no need for a complicated terminology. However, to say that the basic principles of war are easy to understand is not to say that it is easy to comprehend the finer points, or what is more important, to determine upon a wise plan of strategy and then carry it out. The great commander must of course have a profound insight into all the ramifications of strategic principle, but that is only the first requirement of military leadership. He must thoroughly understand tactics, which with modern arms is bound to be exceedingly complex and require long training and experience. He must know how to solve problems of supply or “logistics,” he must know human nature, and he must have certain qualities of character and personality which transcend mere knowledge. He must be able to stick to his course despite a thousand distractions and yet be sufficiently elastic to recognize when a change in circumstances demands a change in plan. He must above all be able to make adjustments to the inevitable shocks and surprises of war.

Unfortunately, the very preoccupation of commanders with specific and inevitably complex problems sometimes tends to make them impatient with the age old verities. Long-tested doctrines which are utterly simple are rejected in part because of their very simplicity, and in part too because of the dogma of innovation so prevalent in our age. The French High Command in the summer of 1940 found out too late that the side which carries the ball makes the touchdowns, and that all the maxims of great military leaders of the past relative to the merits of initiative had not been outmoded by modern arms. We live in an age when basic theories of naval warfare are being rejected out of hand by responsible officials on the wholly unwarranted assumption that they do not fit modern conditions. One can say about theory what Mahan said about materiel: “It is possible to be too quick in discarding as well as too slow in adopting.”

There’s a lot to digest in those two paragraphs, but one take away is that whatever the Navy presents as a strategy should be easy to understand and explain. The strategy should also explain how it plans to maintain control or “command the seas.” And finally, as Wylie reminds the planner:

Wylie’s assumptions in a General Theory of War:

Despite whatever effort to prevent it, there will be war

The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy

We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves

The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun

As we build our strategies and plans, these decidedly old-fashioned and many cases very simple guides can help us get it right.

22 Responses to “In Search of Strategy(s), a Voice, a Narrative because, ‘Gentlemen, We Have Run Out Of Money; Now We Have to Think’”

  1. larrydunbar Says:

    “We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves”
    Exactly, that is why all strategy is flawed. If it wasn’t flawed, it would be useless in war, because we are preparing ourselves for unpredictable patterns. Maybe the tempo (from the glossary of Tempo the book) of war is a predictable pattern, because you train for it, but little else is predictable. 
    “The ultimate determinate in war is the man on the scene with a gun.”
    He may command the situation, as the call is to pull the trigger, but the person dying has a certain amount of control, and the ultimate determinate has both an element of command and an element of control. Just saying….

  2. david ronfeldt Says:

    quite an interesting useful overview.  it surely involved a lot of effort, scott.  many thanks from here.  i’m surprised there’s been little comment so far.
    these past few years have given rise to more discussions about strategy than any i can recall in decades.  not just regarding what america’s strategy is and should be.  but rather regarding abstract meta matters about what strategy is, why and how.  and i keep wondering why.  it is a sign of u.s. decline?  a side-effect of the emergence of the network form?  not to mention a lot of other possible considerations.
    the simplest definition i seem to recall is that strategy is the art of relating ends, ways, and means.  it’s reflected in parts of your write-up.  but do you recall a more specific quote and source?
    your overview covers particular purposes that help define strategy: notably engagement, employment of power, direction of power, control, etc.  one that i’d add (and much prefer) is that strategy is the art of positioning.  michael porter is the only analyst i find who emphasizes the concept of positioning, as in his book about business strategy.  but i think it applies to all realms of strategy, and maybe especially grand strategy.

  3. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Larry,
    Many thanks!
    Hi David,
    Many thanks for the kind words! I’ve been doing a review of semantics w/respect to strategy. There is a lot of complaining about budgets hindering strategy when strategy should drive budgets. This was a first salvo; a scaffold to build a case for a strategy based on the real-world. Your addition of positioning is excellent, as I believe our Navy may have had this in mind in the now famous pivot. I’ve read the Porter book, but many years ago—so thanks for the reminder.
    I do not see our military’s seeming indifference to strategy as a decline in as much as a decline in real rigor in the face of an emerging networked world. Perhaps an artifact of our culture? I don’t know, but I do appreciate the comment. 

  4. zen Says:

    i’m surprised there’s been little comment so far.”
    That may be, David because Scott had the largest group of prospective commenters in his living room this weekend. 😉
    It is an excellent post, though. As i said to Scott elsewhere, I am not sure f the Navy grasps (here is “grip” again) the importance of strategy as a public narrative in order to have it be politically sustained. Narratives for supporting platforms and budgets they get the importance of and put effort there but the raison d’etre for shipbuilding and systems is confusing if your Navy four stars are engaged in a mostly unrequited PR campaign to woo the PLA into a constructive partnership. If China is friendly ( which looks less and less likely) what is the urgency of high priced platforms? If China is unfriendly, what’s the strategy?

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    If Scott siphons off all our natural commentators like this, should we chastise him? We could demand three posts a week for a month, say — harsh, I admit, but Justice must be served.

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Zen, Well said!
    Charles, I concur, though I’m not sure I have enough time/material to comply with your just suggestion 🙂
    I’m working through a follow-on… 

  7. larrydunbar Says:

    Of all the definitions of strategy presented I understand Lynn Rees’s the best. As a millwright I had to square “drive, reach, and grip” every time I picked up a wrench. But then it took me many years before I understood that my real job was safety, and if I concentrated on my first job (safety), I didn’t have to do nearly as much of the second (craft). 

    In the domain of drive, it is certainty that makes a mechanic pickup a torque wrench, and it is that certainty that is the flaw in the strategy. A torque wrench is a instrument of destruction unless the environment, of the treads of the assembly, conforms to the environment of the test that configured the torque wrench. If the threads were clean and dry in the test, then they have to be clean and dry when using the wrench. In any other environment the torque wrench is useless. So the mechanic not only has to search for certainty, but enforce conformity as well.  

    Which, as  the strategist is generating diversity (isn’t that the whole point of strategy, applying the drive, reach and gip needed to bring about change, even if that change is to only bring about a repair?).

    The strategist needs the environment to hold to a conformity that he/she can be certain of, or at least conforms at the end. So while the drive, reach and grip are important enough, it is the vision of what the environment will be like at the end, that makes good strategy, despite its flaws.

    Which makes me ask: in the End Game or Starcraft, was that “end” environment ever imagined, and, if it was, by who? Certainly not by the player, or was it?

  8. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Larry,
    Concur on the Rees description—it was included for contrast. Truly two main paths present: passive (deter and encourage) and active (conquer, convert, capture, or contain) [via Jeremy and Hans Delbruck]…as for games, I’ve no familiarity.
    The strategist needs cognitive elasticity (Boyd would call “adaptability” and Eccles/Rosinski would call “strategic flexibility”), as the world/circumstances are ever-changing. 

  9. slapout9 Says:

    “Strategy is the art of maneuvering an Army in the theater of operations with the view to placing it in such position relative to the enemy as to increase the probability of victory,increase the consequence of victory and lesson the consequences of defeat.” This from an article on Strategy for Small Wars from the Marine corps gazette. Originally it was a 3 part article and for some reason the 3rd part was never published and was never found to my knowledge, at least I have not be able to located it.

  10. larrydunbar Says:

    I agree with the cognitive elasticity part. But, because I believed my job was about safety (end), there were times I had to think strategically, at least after being tossed around by the strategic narrative in the blogosphere that is what I believed I was doing.

    And to think strategically the “end” has to be kept in sight, and everything within the changing environment of the workspace (the area of the environment where orientation takes place) conforms (adapt) to that image. If nothing conforms to the end, then the vision of the strategist is broken. There reaches a point where it is easier for the environment to change than the vision of the strategist.

    And, as far as “reach” goes, when anyone has an idea for improving the workspace, there are always howls from those inside your workspace. These “howls” are voices of reasons why your idea will not work. I was just inclined to howl as the next person, and I came to think of this as wishing bad luck on a project.

    Wishing bad luck on a project seemed to make a difference in how a project turns out. I found if I restricted my voice in what could happen, more times than not the project was a success. That was not to say that what I thought would happen didn’t happen. The reason for success was more often than not because the strategist working on the project was better able to handle the problem when we reached the problem.

    There is usually a million reasons for a project not to succeed, and usually only one reason for succeeding. I think negative feelings, and negativity in general, restricts the “reach” a strategist has when trying to complete a strategic movement.

    I mean there is a time for adaptation, as strategy takes hold, but there are other times when, as the Roman fighting force was famous for, put your shoulder to it and push.

    Any thing on positive/negative feelings or when/when not to adapt, in your lessons of strategy? And how is adaptability handled in operations or tactics?

    Is one key aspect of strategy: that it’s “the” place for adaptation, specifically?  

    I apologise in advance. Many question that may or may not be readable or worthy. Great post! 🙂 

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    “But, because I believed my job [as a millwright] was [really] about safety (end), [I began to think strategically]”

    In other words, the mind becomes strategic when you begin to think about two ends, simultaneously. Up to that point you are thinking more linearly. The fact that more than two thoughts can be occupying the same area, or more than one area, takes you off a single “path”.

    Where a single path can be, as I once said on one of Zen’s posts about horizontal thinking, marked by stakes that have to be taken out one at a time, the path that is not single perhaps can look around and beyond the stakes.

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    “The fact that more than two thoughts, [in the same workspace], can be occupying the same area of the brain, or more than one area [of the brain], takes you off a single “path”.” Just to be clear.

    I think Howard Bloom in his book “Global Brain”, said it best. To paraphrase, more than two thoughts (domains) and you are a philosopher, instead of a millwright:)

  13. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Well said, Larry!
    slapout9, Interesting definition. I’ve several more for a follow-up post, but I sense Lynn’s will be hard to beat. 

  14. T. Greer Says:

    “In any other environment the torque wrench is useless. So the mechanic not only has to search for certainty, but enforce conformity as well.”
    This seems to match well with James C Scott’s idea of “legibility.” (Those unfamiliar can read Scott’s short essay on the topic here, a much longer analysis of the topic by Kevin Carson here, and my personal favorite, Ashwin Parameswaran’s thoughts on how the idea applies to complex systems theory here). The gist of the idea is that when kings and governments in days of old started to form states and extend their control over the population, they ran into a hitch: they did not understand the populations, places, and markets they were trying to control. Reality was too complex for them to measure, make sense of, or use. In larry’s words, they lacked “certainty.” In order to control their domains they had to simplify and centralize them, forcing things around until they had something they could measure, understand, and manipulate. As Paramsweran says:
    “The simplification of the domain is as much a prerequisite of control as it is a consequence of the control effort. During the initial stages of the control project, simplification and implementation of control technologies work in a positive feedback loop where simplification aids control which further simplifies the domain. Even in domains where simplification is not an explicit aim, it is often the result of the control effort. For example, modern medicine probably doesn’t set out to tamper with the natural, complex dynamics of the human body. But it often does exactly that – by using an implicit map of disease as a battle against a single microbe or chemical imbalance, the process of medication transforms the body into something resembling exactly that. Antibiotics, by erasing the bacterial population of the body, transforms the complex ecological dynamics of the human microbiome into a straight “shoot-out” between the drug and the harmful bacteria.”
    I strongly recommend the folks over here at ZP read this entire essay.
    I have often wondered how this dynamic – the need for legibility and the ‘control mill’ that follows – apply to strategy. The strategist must also make his world legible to form his ends, means, and ways. But in an important sense the task of the strategist differs from Larry in his tool shop, the doctor fighting a bacterial infection, a German forestry official trying to maximize timber yields , or a government forcing the populace into a census. In those cases you have one thinker/decision making body trying to understand and exercise control over a complex system by making it legible–and thus grip-able. But in the context of war or power competition, we have two thinkers, each not only trying to exercise control over their own system, but the other side’s as well. A statesman must do more than make his world legible–he must make the enemy legible as well.
    This leaves me with many questions: how is this done? How do planners make the enemy legible? Do competing powers have the capacity to impose their own vision on each other? The conclusions of Scott et. al. is that making things legible also makes them more fragile. How does this apply to two systems in competition with each other?
    I have been thinking about this for a while and I have a few thoughts on it. But I would really like to hear what the ZP community has to say. What is the relationship between legibility and strategy?

  15. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    T. Greer:


    An earlier variation on the three Scott cites above ran something like this:


    purpose: the desire to make the world conform to a story


    power: the possibility that the world can conform to a story


    control: the certainty that the world can conform to a story<


    Since I view strategy as part of a full stack:


    culture: the priority (and prioritization) of story (viewed as a compression algorithm, a reduced simplification (and assertion of control over reality))


    politics: the division of strength between stories, a continuation of culture


    strategy: the squaring of strength in pursuit of the division of strength


    Then strategy is very much an integrated part of attempting to make reality conform with the stories rotating through the brain. Much of that is complicated by the fact that story is always a compressed version of reality with a good many important bits left out. The enemy suffers from a similar dilemma and it is the three way struggle (another simplification) between enemy attempts at control, your attempts at control, and the friction reality throws between those two interlocking gears that defines reality, the outcome of politics, and its angrier flavor war. Legibility, from my cursory glance, is what I’ve called grip or control, of a sort ultimately derived from RADM Wylie.

  16. Grurray Says:

    “There is usually a million reasons for a project not to succeed, and usually only one reason for succeeding”
    You can think of the obstructions to a project as negativity, but there’s also another kind of negativity.
    The negativity that strips away all those million reasons. This kind of negativity makes it fairly easy to come up with a coherent story.
    Constructing and imposing, because of uncertainty, magnifies illegibility.
    So instead of constructing, you are really subtracting, and what you’re left with is the story by default.
    The key then is to make your adversaries stories too cumbersome for them to negate and come up with a coherent story. This is Boyd’s moral conflict.
    And I’m a big fan of Macroresilience. Pay close attention to his entry on distributed robustness. This corresponds to Boyd’s transients and many centers of gravity.

  17. larrydunbar Says:

    ” In those cases you have one thinker/decision making body trying to understand and exercise control over a complex system by making it legible–and thus grip-able.”

    If I was in my shop, this would be true.

    But my shop is on the floor of the production environment where I am thinking about safety.

    Safety people have their own way of thinking as do production people and mechanics. So you actually have 3 thinkers in 3 domains. Domains in this scenario are workspaces that people form their orientations from to some advantage. Strategically we are trying to square all 3 domains.

    I think Boyd would agree that to be a strategic thinker you need to enter the OODA loop of your enemy. The OODA loop is a process where energy is distributed from the potential observed to the velocity expended in acting.

    Strategy is a narrative based decision-making that jumps over a process, and the process is trying to square all 3 domains. So, in this, case you strategically enter the process through orientation, and luckily you also love your enemy in the act of re-harmonization.  

    That is assuming you start out in harmony.

  18. slapout9 Says:

    J.Scott Shipman
    I absolutely love this post as “What is Strategy” has been a major passion of mine since I was 17 year old Paratrooper and actually had the audacity to ask an officer what Strategy is….his response was “Stuff Generals do so I didn’t need to Worry about it.” So after all these years I decided to stop looking and invent my own Strategy=Targeting. In the end the most fundamental question a Military leader smust decide is what Target he will aim at in order to accomplish his Mission. Also some thing some things about Boyd that are coming may mean he is not as smart as people think he is.

  19. Grurray Says:

    Well you know the old saying:
    It’s better to be lucky than smart,
    but easier to be smart twice than lucky twice
    Boyd got it right once in Gulf War I. Was he lucky or smart?

  20. Grurray Says:

    Since T. Greer brought it up, here was a recent post from one Ashwin Parameswaran:
    A bimodal strategy of combining a conservative core with an aggressive periphery is common across complex adaptive systems in many different domains.”
    This is LCR’s hardware and software
    Wylie’s sequential and cumulative
    Mao’s two-pronged conventional-positional and guerrilla-logistical.

  21. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi T. Greer,
    Many thanks for the macroresilience essay—enjoyed and see the parallels to strategy. Also, your “legibility,” is my made-up word: articulate-able/apprehendable—though yours is cleaner/clearer. There is also an element of “tacit” implied in legible, and a hint of Boyd’s notion of insight (from his “trinity” of insight, imagination, and initiative).
    slapout9, I just finished a book on A2/AD and read a bunch of stuff on AirSea Battle—all in light of rereading Wylie and Rosinski, and working my way through Eccles. “Strategy” as control kept coming up, so I decided to corral and compare. Glad you like it; I’m not finished. 
    Smart, IMHO. Not sure how much T.E. Lawrence Boyd read, but his thinking on maneuver shows hints of TEL’s use of the Beduins’ inherent approach to conflict.
    Larry, Concur on the assumption of harmony as a starting state.
    As always, LCR makes any post better by offering his insights. 

  22. larrydunbar Says:

    Thanks Scot. I suppose if Boyd didn’t mention harmony as a starting state it was to keep things simple, as it is hard to find a “starting” point on a “loop” 🙂 I like the idea of it being a state, and that probably is the only point when the loop is at a state, and not a variant of a state.
    Which kind of makes me think that legibility might be one of the great destroyers of an OODA loop. Take the torque wrench as an example.
    The torque wrench made the tightness of the nut more easily visible to all concern, but, because it only tells a person how much energy was applied to the nut, it looses its relationship with the tension forces inside the bolt.
    I mean the real relationship between the nut and the bolt is in the incline plane of the treads, which the torque wrench doesn’t even take into account. So the correct way to apply the correct amount of torque to the nut is not to measure torque, but to measure how far the nut turns in degrees after the nut makes contact with the opposing surface. Legibility in this case has completely hidden the meaning of “tightening” the bolt correctly, for the advantages of legibility, which is mainly efficiency.
    Really, one mile from Colfax on the Durham road is not enough information? It probably is if the person taking the 911 call wasn’t outside your loop. That may also be why you can have a billion dollar corporation like Google in town and only meet its casts-offs. Google is too far away and clean, for any of the locals to grip. And when they do come to “grips” it is for handouts for the schools instead of taxes owed the community 🙂

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