Friday, February 10, 2012

Strategy is intelligent design and willful, intended action

I've recently become acquainted with a principle of constitutional law called the rational basis test. When a questionable law is subjected to legal challenge, it must first clear this very low hurdle: the court must be able to conceive of a plausible way in which the law's enactment could serve a legitimate interest of the government. The government isn't required to testify as to the legislature's purposes, and the law need not even be effective in serving the stated interest—it simply needs to be a plausible attempt. In short, the court must find that the government has behaved rationally; whether or not it has behaved intelligently is a separate – and for the purposes of the rational basis test, irrelevant – question. This strikes me as a good place to kick off a conversation about strategy and tactics.

Strategy is intelligent design: the reasoned application of available resources in a rational way, offering a plausible, logical path to the accomplishment of our goals. Clausewitz defined it narrowly as "the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war," but in the modern era its use has broadened to apply at nearly every level; "strategy" now essentially means something like the willful use of activity and resources to accomplish specified ends.

By this standard, strategy can be applied at all levels of war—not just the strategic. (Bear with me; I know this gets a little confusing.) One can have a generalized strategy for success in certain types of tactical engagement; this is frequently manifest as a set of procedures, the sort of thing that immediate action/battle drills are intended to perfect—performance of the required actions for tactical success. But to call this a "strategy" is a little misleading, if only because it obscures an important reality: at the tactical level, we're talking not about the reasoned, case-sensitive, tailored administration of resources and performance of planned actions to meet unique objectives, but a somewhat more mechanical application of accepted prodedures and best practices. This is the stuff of doctrine, which sets down a military organization's authoritative, collective view of how it conducts specific missions or types of operations. Doctrine's value is that it can be considered and codified in the abstract, as its tenets are presumed to be somewhat generalizable across a range of roughly similar conditions.

Moving up the levels of war, one can also have a strategy for operational or campaign success: how various tactical engagements will be combined to achieve campaign objectives. There is, of course, more art to this than at the tactical level simply because there is more uncertainty and more choice. No two tactical engagements are precisely the same, but it's much simpler to identify general "rules" for success when confronted with an L-shaped ambush than to prescribe methods for translating battlefield success into operational progress. No two campaigns are the same. It is at the operational level that strategy begins to take on the meaning with which we're familiar: a general idea of how we hope to use operational mobility and battle in phased, sequential actions to achieve goals within the broader framework of the war, while accepting the need for flexbility and adaptability in response to the enemy and war's fundamental unpredictability.

And then we come to the familiar strategic level of war, where campaigns are sequenced and combined to achieve the political objectives of the combatants. Here we see strategy from a slightly different angle: as the ways that the means of military action are applied to achieve the ends set out by policy. Let me explain this a little more.

The various levels of war are overlapping and nested within one another, and within the overarching framework of policy. Often the ends of the lower level serve as the means of the next-higher level: that is, tactical success is a means (to be combined with other means along various lines of effort) to achieve operational objectives, which are then used as means to be translated through operational art into strategic success. This means-ways-ends construct – reasoned activity conducted to produce conditions which are manipulated and exploited by yet more reasoned activity as we ascend the levels of war – is the very essence of strategy. Planning is strategy worked in reverse—beginning with a desired end, identifying objectives that will enable and facilitate this end, planning campaigns and operations to attain those objectives, and allocating resources, capabilities, and tactical actions in line with those plans. This construct can be extended even further into the development of capabilities: an armed force can have a strategy for manning, training, equipping, organizing, and so on to deliver the capabilities required for tactical, operational, and strategic success.

Effective tactical actions must be combined in rational ways to achieve operational ends.

Successful operations must be combined in rational ways to achieve campaign objectives.

Meaningful campaigns must contribute in rational ways to the satisfaction of strategic goals.

And the accomplishment of strategic goals should rationally lead to the enactment of policy's ends.

The fabric that holds all of this together is strategy. And it follows that strategy must always involve what we call a theory of victory: at every level, the actions we choose to take must form a plausible narrative that leads to the accomplishment of our objectives and enables the next element of the overarching plan. The strategist must continually ask himself not only to what end?, but how?

As I noted above, the so-called theory of victory is more empirical – almost mathematical – at the level of tactical action. My forces will do X, Y, and Z to produce effects A, B, and C. Operational-level doctrine, too, suggests a certain institutional confidence in an accepted way of doing business, how tactical actions can be combined to create successful campaigns. But it is at the strategic level that procedures and doctrine mostly lose their value, giving way to operational art and strategic theory. Just the same, the strategist must begin with a clear idea of how it is that he hopes to achieve his goals through directed action—a theory of victory.

To come to the point of all this: Jason wrote a post earlier this week in which he considered the validity of Gian Gentile's repeated claim that counterinsurgency as practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan is a "strategy of tactics." Carl is right to point out in the comments that the good colonel did not invent this construction, though there's a ring of sophistry to his claim that it "predates Gian Gentile by decades and has been bandied about by a Who's Who of strategic savants."

The phrase did indeed originate with Andrew Krepinevich, whose 1986 book The Army and Vietnam described Westmoreland's approach as a "strategy of tactics." This went hand-in-hand with the argument that the U.S. fought that war in line with the "Army concept"—a set idea of how war ought to be fought that springs not from strategic logic but rather organizational imperative: what the Army mans, organizes, and trains to do. LTC D.W. Beveridge paraphrased Krepinevich's argument (enormous pdf) in asserting that "the upshot of viewing the war in terms of the Army Concept was a preoccupation with 'grand tactics' rather than strategy, resulting in a perpetuation of the search and destroy operations imposed on the ARVN [South Vietnamense Army] during the earlier advisory period" (89).

This complaint is reflective of the flaws of the incrementalist approach in Vietnam: as the U.S. commitment increased and the correlation of forces (between U.S., ARVN, North Vietnamese Army, and VC/NLF) shifted, American commanders failed to re-assess the strategy being employed and consider a change in the role of U.S. forces. Westmoreland had been convinced that large NVA formations posed the greatest threat to South Vietnam, so he built a strategy focused on the use of American firepower and mobility to find, fix, and destroy them. In short, he misperceived the political nature of the war and suffered the consequences.
But Krepinevich's complaint about Westmoreland's "strategy of tactics" in Vietnam rings slightly hollow. A more accurate description would recognize that Westmoreland had a rational strategic plan and a sense for how American forces could be tactically employed to achieve it, but lacked a theory of victory: that is, he had no concept of how tactical action by U.S. forces could create strategic success because he permitted an essential element of his campaign plan – pacification of the South Vietnamese countryside, which was left to the ARVN – to exist outside his control. He seemed not even to recognize that the effective accomplishment of this mission was essential to strategic success. Westmoreland had too much strategy and not enough sense of how it would be accomplished. After the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, he had effective, proven tactics with which to destroy the NVA in the South but no concept for how those victories could be translated into political success.

The story with COIN (specifically in Afghanistan) is quite different: the campaign plan there has plenty of "theory of victory," but there's room to question whether or not it is plausible—that is, whether or not the tactics prescribed will actually produce the effects they're meant to. U.S. commanders have a clear idea of what they mean to accomplish and how, but there is far less certainty over whether the available tools are suited to this approach. It is plausible that the pacification of towns and villages, expanding territorial control in the countryside, reductions in violence, and increasingly effective Afghan governance and security forces will create an environment that is inhospitable to insurgents, one in which the enemy cannot sustain himself, and eliminate the possibility of extremist safe havens. This is a rational concept. The problem is that we're not sure our tactical actions can actually produce these effects—that is, we're not sure our resources, personnel, units, and capabilities can be combined along the lines of effort specified in doctrine to actually do the things that need to be done. This is the very opposite of Krepinevich's problem with Vietnam strategy.

As a peripheral but related note: it strikes me as very unlikely that Gentile adopted the "strategy of tactics" construction from Gray, whose use of the term is limited to approving references to Krepinevich. (The same is true, I think, of Owens.) In fact, the argument that Americans are or were ineffective counterinsurgents owing either to an unsuitable strategic or military culture (Gray) or misdirected doctrinal emphasis (Krepinevich) is one that Gentile rejects. He reads Brian Linn's The Echo of Battle as describing a "better way of American war" in the historical culture of the Army, one that is defined by "improvisation and practicality." (This has is apparently being thrown out, Gentile tells us, in favor of "the American Army's new way of war, otherwise called population-centric counterinsurgency.")

COL Gentile's fundamental inconsistency is here exposed: he rejects Krepinevich's critique while mirror-imaging it. He asserts that doctrinal bias and intellectual inertia have determined our strategic course in Iraq and Afghanistan while rejecting the very idea that our Vietnam strategy was shaped similarly. Gentile has cribbed Krepinevich's phrase while rejecting the very substance of what it means; this, he seems to be telling us, is actually a strategy of tactics. What Krepinevich was describing was a failure of strategy, but not the same kind!

I happen to share COL Gentile's conviction that both the Vietnam and Afghanistan (at least post-2002) wars were and are strategically senseless, which is part of the reason I'm so troubled by his insistence that the deus ex machina of "the American Army's new way of war, population-centric counterinsurgency" is what's responsible for our national foolishness. The strategy may be a poor one, and I think that it is. That's not because it lacks a theory of victory, though – i.e., because it's simply an assemblage of uncoordinated tactics – but because we aren't sure that the tactics are effective. If I developed a campaign plan to liberate Syria from the Asad regime by the destruction of its military through happy thoughts, text messages, and pictures of rainbows, the appropriate criticism would not be that I had employed a "strategy of tactics" but rather that my strategy was dependent on unproven and ineffective tactics. And don't get me wrong, COL Gentile levels this criticism at modern COIN doctrine, as well. "COIN doctrine directs an operational method based on uncertain causality and tactical actions of questionable effectiveness" may not roll off the tongue quite so easily, but it's much more accurate than this "COIN is a strategy of tactics" trope.


  1. You think but have you asked him? I mean, the phrase has been bandied about for a long time and sometimes it's even used ironically.

    Perhaps one might assume that I have.

    But I digress.


  2. Gulliver-

    I like it, especially "the theory of victory" concept.

    As to Krepinevich, Gentile and "strategy of tactics", I think Gentile closer to the mark the way I understand the label. Westmoreland's approach was to use military force to inflict enough punishment on the NVA to convince the North Vietnamese government to stop in their attempts to subvert the RVN. Our policy was limited, that is the war was limited from our perspective, not the total overthrow of North Vietnam, but coercing them into changing their political goals. Thomas Schelling laid out the strategy quite well in his "Arms and Influence" of 1966. The problem was that the North Vietnamese were willing to take whatever punishment we were able to dish out and the RVN was unable to use the time we provided them to establish enough support among the Vietnamese people to assure their survival. Going "whole hog" on North Vietnam was simply not a political consideration for the US government at the time. So is Krepinevich focusing on the tactics while ignoring the political context?

    Afghanistan and Iraq were/are quite different. From the beginning the US policy goals were radical, the overthrow of the existing government and their replacement with a US-friendly entity. This required essentially the remaking of the political identity of both countries and imposing on these quite different political communities a system of government seen by their respective peoples as having been imposed by the US. How exactly was the US military, as it was structured in let's say 2001-4, expected to be an effective instrument in achieving these radical goals? It seems to me that Gentile's argument was that simply the military instrument did not fit the strategic requirements and that the focus changed with COIN to simply remaining militarily "operational", since as long as military operations continued the political/military leadership could simply "kick the can down the road" and avoid having to face the strategic reality of essentially two lost wars.

    I posted something on Gentile's article using this label some time back. You may find it of interest:

  3. Carl — Not sure I understand which specific bit you're addressing. I don't doubt that you've got a better idea of what COL Gentile means when he uses the phrase than I do. The point I'm trying to make is that his commentary on COIN and U.S. military culture is not terribly consistent with what Gray has written on the subject. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, though, as Gentile's various arguments are sometimes inconsistent with one another.

  4. Nice post, Gulliver. On that word I've come to, well, hate a tiny bit, STRATEGY:

    Some more of my patented nuttiness and flights-of-fancy here:


    Hope you all are well. Happy Friday. I am so glad it's Friday....