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The Death of Military Strategy
If a strategy does not address ends, ways, and means, it is not a strategy but a set of aspirations.


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Jim Lacey

Earlier this year, the Department of Defense released the 2011 National Military Strategy (NMS), which purports to explain how the military will support the National Defense Strategy, which in turn explains how the Department of Defense will support the objectives of the National Security Strategy. Taken together, the three documents are supposed to provide our military leaders with all the strategic-planning guidance they require for the next year. Given their stated importance, I probably should not have taken several months to get around to reading the NMS. On the other hand, very few persons in the military ever bother to read it at all. In fact, most of the few dozen or so who do read it, do so only because they want to have something to ridicule. Most recognize that the NMS is useless as far as providing strategic direction for the force, so why should officers busy fighting 2.5 wars waste any of their precious time on it?

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I teach strategy to Marines and other military officers for a living. The classes hear ad nauseam that if your plan does not include any directions as to how to carry it out, and how to obtain resources for it, then you do not have a strategy. You have an aspiration. The NMS has a lot of aspirations. There are several dozen of them in the first few pages alone. One has to wade through eight pages of aspirations before coming to: “The core task of our Armed Forces remains to defend our Nation and win its wars.” Wow! I would have led with that one.

Military strategists might wonder why the authors of the NMS made them wade through a third of the document before getting to the crucial reason of why we maintain a military in the first place. One might even wonder if the NMS authors really mean that winning wars is job number one, since elsewhere in the document you find: “Lastly, we will be prepared to act as security guarantor — preferably with partners and allies, but alone if necessary — to deter and defeat acts of aggression.” Lastly? Really? Since page one says, “Our foremost priority is the security of the American people, our territory, and our way of life,” one wonders what activities are so important that the military has moved defeating aggression to last in its order of concerns.

If you do not tell commanders and planners the relative priority of each of the 250 (plus) things you want them to prepare for, then everything becomes a top priority — or a bottom priority. With the budget constraints the military will face in upcoming years, commanders need to know what the priorities are so they can properly allocate limited funds. The NMS pays lip service to this on its second page: “Defense budget projections indicate that leaders must continue to plan for and make difficult choices between current and future challenges.” I bet a lot of leaders hoped to find a clue somewhere in the next 19 pages as to how to do that. Instead they get this:

Both our Nation and military will face increased budget pressures and we cannot assume an increase in the defense budget. As we adjust to these pressures, we must not become a hollow force with a large force structure lacking the readiness, training, and modern equipment it needs. Instead, we will maintain a whole, Joint Force that retains quality people, sustains and develops the right capabilities, and maintains a sustainable tempo to effectively mitigate operational, institutional, force management, and future challenges risk. We must continue to . . .

blah blah blah.

In other words, you leaders will not have anywhere near the money you need, but you are still expected to do everything you did before, plus some.

The NMS tells commanders that this strategy “acknowledges the need for leadership that is redefined for an increasingly complex strategic environment,” but it gives us no idea what “redefined” means or how commanders should go about redefining themselves. It tells leaders they must “leverage our capabilities,” without telling them what capabilities to leverage or how to do so. The NMS states: “As a convener, our relationships, values and military capabilities provide us, often uniquely, with the ability to bring others together . . .” What the heck is a convener?

It is also good to know that “the Joint Force will take a strong role in international efforts to safeguard access, sustain security, provide oversight and accountability, and promote responsible norms in the global commons.” What exactly does it mean to provide “oversight and accountability” for the global commons? I was unable to find “providing oversight and accountability” on any of the Services’ mission lists. And for that matter, does anyone have a list of these “norms” and possibly even some pointers on how a carrier task force goes about promoting them?

This is not real strategy. Rather it is strategy by platitude.

Platitudes, for the uninitiated, are a long-honored tradition in the military. When I was a young Army infantry officer, they used to bring a number of general officers in to speak to us during training. Over time, someone developed a list of platitudes generals loved to use (e.g., Train as you fight, or, What you do in training you will do in combat). Copies were handed out before every talk. As a result, no one paid much attention to the general’s message, as the soldiers were all checking off boxes so as to win Platitude Bingo. If such a list existed for scoring national-security documents, the NMS might not win, but it would be close.

A real strategy must address three items: ends (What do you want the military to do? — and saying “Everything” is not the best answer), ways (How do you want it done?), and means (What do I have to do it with?). If your strategy does not include all three of these essentials, then you have produced trash that no one will read. Well, maybe not no one. Whatever committee gets assigned the task of writing the NMS for 2012, its members will pull the 2011 version up on their computers and use it as the draft for their own version.

 

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.



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