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Strategy: Back to Basics… And More

Date: Fall 2006-Spring 2007

STRATEGY – Back to Basics…AND MORE

Walter Jajko

(Expanded version of an article in The Intelligencer, v. xv, Fall-Winter, 2006-7, Association For Intelligence Officers, McLean, Virginia.)


For many citizens, military strategy is arcane, esoteric, and simply incomprehensible – and, in practice, seemingly ill-used, poorly practiced, or even absent. It often seems to be so also to the many who are charged with developing or practicing military strategy and to the many who pontificate about it.Thus, I think it instructive to recall some elementary truths and realities about war and strategy, and, in doing so, I will state some general assertions and opinionated observations about the present and future of military strategy.

Military strategy is the relationship among ends, means, and ways.The ends are the objectives.The objective of military strategy is always political.There is no such thing as a purely military operation conducted for purely military ends.Military strategy is the employment of violence in a deliberate, rational way for a political purpose.If military operations have no political objective, then they are merely mayhem and murder.No matter how intellectual and artful, however brilliantly conceived and elegantly executed, strategy is an exercise of mere meaningless craftsmanship unless the political objective for which force was employed is attained.Only the attainment of the political objective is the success of a strategy; this is the necessary and exclusive definition of victory.Means are the instruments applied to achieve the ends.The means are the resources of men, money, and materiel – including men’s exertions, talents, and understanding.Ways are the courses of action, the applications of force.Strategy is simply an intellectual attempt to order and direct these factors – ends, ways, and means – and a practical endeavor to apply them to one’s own advantage against the advantage of the enemy.Because the causes and courses and certainly the consequences, the purposes and objectives, the means and modes, the costs and risks, the scope and duration of wars vary – widely – there is no single, universal strategy that suits all wars.Each strategy must be unique.

War is the greatest affair of a state and its people because it risks their very existence.It is so even when resorted to by so-called “non-state entities”.Thus, war truly is ultima ratio regni.War’s condition is chance, immanence, insufficiency, uncertainty, contingency, fallibility, tenuousness, and, of course, fear, misery, and pervasive violence; and each of these circumstances exacerbates the effects of all others.War, in its many parts, by its very nature, is characterized by unknowability and uncontrollability.Hence, all strategy is, by definition, a calculation of risk.Every strategy is based on assumptions.Every assumption is both an expectation of a desirable advantage and an admission of inadequate knowledge.Assumptions are among the greatest risks.The task of intelligence is to replace assumptions with facts to reduce uncertainty and, therefore, risks and, thereby, avoid costs in influence, blood and treasure, power and reputation.Thus, intelligence is the foundation of strategy.Intelligence is now the premier – in both senses – principle of war in that classic collection.

Intelligence has an indispensable role in understanding the strategy to be applied to the battlespace.In war, the nonpareil objective of an attack is the enemy’s strategy.Intelligence can best reduce uncertainty by providing an understanding of the enemy’s strategy, that is the enemy’s understanding of the battlespace and the enemy’s understanding of our strategy.The enemy’s strategy can then be shaped by deceiving him about our strategy and manipulating the development and execution of his strategy, thereby nullifying his strategy by rendering it irrelevant and forcing him to conform to our strategy, thus setting the terms of the conflict to our advantage.Of course, the ability to manipulate an enemy and alter the very framework, the factors, the operative parameters of a conflict demands timely, extraordinary, and insightful understanding of the enemy.

Every strategy is constrained by technology, logistics, training, doctrine, geography, climate or weather, and, in great measure, leadership, and, also, national character, a Victorian conception no longer in fashion in academia.Above all, military strategy is constrained by policy: strategy should derive from, conform to, be directed by, and answer to policy.As such, military strategy is but an instrument, an expression, a means, a mode, and a continuation of policy.If strategy is not an arm of policy, it is uncontrolled and worse than directionless, it is a danger to policy and the state itself.

Technology and its tactics are the essential expression of warfare, and, today, technology, more than other influences, has visibly transformed war.Technology has provided almost absolute awareness of the entire battlespace.But awareness is not always understanding.Sensors sense but don’t provide a sure sense of some things.Understanding of the battlespace is always incomplete and often incorrect.Intelligence is imperfect; yet, its task is to make the understanding of the battlespace complete, correct, and timely, in short, useful.

War is now waged in and for the electronic spectrum, and soon war will be waged in, from, and for astronomical space.The technology that has transformed war and created this new and decisive medium is the computer.Indeed, it is the computer that is the engine of the Revolution in Military Affairs.The dependence of the U.S. on communications, command and control, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, warning, weapons control, targeting, and battle management systems – in the electronic spectrum and astronomical space – can not be exaggerated.These systems and all their appliances, applications, appurtenances, and actions have taken on such essentiality that they themselves have become the subjects and objects of operations.The dependence of modern societies, governments, and military establishments on information and information systems writ large in almost all of their activities and the increase in information systems and their interconnection and interdependence worldwide now offer, simply by their existence, innumerable, incomparable opportunities for hostile exploitation with inordinate gains.

Warfare has always been dependent on information.At present, information dominates warfare.Wars already are waged essentially with, for, and against information.Much of this is information warfare; much is cyberwar.Information warfare, particularly cyberwar, provides the possibility of integrating virtual with actual combat operations, and, perhaps, of substituting virtual for actual operations.Information warfare can transform the possibilities and potentialities of a strategy by imposing on the enemy a false reality in place of an actual reality, causing the virtual to foreclose the veritable.Information warfare can preempt, misdirect, negate, and – more desirable – control an enemy’s strategy.Information warfare can subvert the autonomy, integrity, adaptability, and sustainability of an enemy’s strategy – and, ultimately, even his policy.However, the formidable potential of information warfare is yet to be fully realized, most particularly in the integration of all its disciplines in strategic applications at the national level as an interdepartmental instrument in operations short of combat.

The development of information warfare, particularly cyberwar, has raised deception to a new and greater utility in warfare – and in statecraft in general – whose scope, uses, and results in both are yet to be thoroughly explored and exploited.Deception is no longer a mere sometime multiplier or enhancer of force, an occasional operational artifice, or a pro forma adjunct in planning. In virtual warfare, deception will be ubiquitous, a constant danger.Because the classic principles of war can take on new forms, functions, and meaning in information warfare, deception can facilitate and enhance their applications in the virtual dimension of combat operations to produce real and decisive effects.Deception, therefore, should no longer be regarded as merely a stratagem in a strategy; deception now is an independent factor in warfare.

Since the end of the Cold War, military operations have changed fundamentally in more elements than information warfare only.America’s enemies can not approximate, much less oppose, its singular superiority in and its at will employment of high technology, rapid mobility, high tempo, all-weather, day-night, global, combined, precision warfare.Yet, this historically unprecedented, massive military advantage is often inapplicable and irrelevant in the new warfare, which is much more than the novel and unorthodox employment of asymmetric abilities, as experienced most frustratingly in contemporary insurgencies.Much has been made thus far in this century of asymmetrical warfare, as if this were some kind of new warfare, both unheard of and unfair.Asymmetrical warfare is nothing more than an opponent’s use of his strengths to best advantage against the weaknesses of his enemy.It is an astonishing and quaint notion that we are still surprised and appalled that the native hostiles will not fight according to our expectations.Asymmetrical warfare is simply an accurate descriptive term; it should not be a pejorative complaint and a defensive excuse.Nevertheless, asymmetry, left simply as an unaddressed analytical observation, is a dangerous disguise of the failure to correct one’s own vulnerabilities, be they budgetary, political, technical, intellectual, psychological, or moral.

Traditional insurgencies seek to replace a regime and usurp its power and authority, despite its societal support.They attack the legitimacy of traditional regimes, the very idea of their right to exist, by forcing them to fight a war that undermines their moral authority.The worst, most radical of these classic insurgencies seek to subvert the soul of a society.Some contemporary insurgencies are fundamentally different from historic guerrilla warfare.The most extreme and potentially the most consequential contemporary insurgencies aim to eliminate the very foundations, institutions, traditions, values, and allegiances of a political, social, and ethical system.They seek the complete destruction of that they oppose.They are elementally, intrinsically, integrally, and uncompromisingly hostile, not to be dissuaded from death and destruction, whilst condemning coexistence, in their struggle to annihilate all existing order and to establish a new transcendental, international system.The current radical Islamic insurgencies maintain the most uncompromising objective: obliteration of the very existence of Western Civilization.

The U.S. operates against insurgencies with a disabling disadvantage: it seeks stability, often based on accommodation and compromise.As such, the U.S. is on the defensive.Insurgents disdain and reject accommodation and compromise.They seek, require, and create instability.As such, insurgents are on the offensive.The insurgents always have the advantage because the insurgency is fought at their initiative.The U.S. has not yet learned how to wage protracted warfare in exotic environments involving seemingly unreasonable, incomprehensible, and unresolvable disputes and demands.In these wars, above all, political and psychological understanding, issues, instruments, expertise, and effects are paramount.Such wars require resolve, prolonged patience, steadfastness, tenacity, impervious political will, and unshakeable and sophisticated commitment – including acceptance of decades-long bloodletting if necessary.Such wars require also the defending leaders’ absolute clarity as to the cause, its cost and consequences, the character of the contestants, and the capability to convince their constituents of the necessity for their commitment.Thus far, this new warfare apparently is inexplicable to the U.S. leadership.

The American failure to comprehend and conduct contemporary war is profoundly affected by elemental factors, including: an unwillingness to commit to protracted intervention; detachment from international affairs; popular ignorance of other peoples; the immediacy and transience of the U.S. political process; the absence of leadership from the executive and legislative branches; the inability of Presidents to convincingly explain national interests; the inappropriate organization of national security institutions; the media’s unremitting hostility to government; partisan creation of bogus realities; the failure to resort to the strategic use of the several instruments of statecraft; the historical commitment to technology as invincible virtue; the corruption of our national character; the abandonment of our history; and the absence of – indeed, the rejection of and the denial of the need for – a consensus on Western moral, social, and political values.

The very definition of war has changed, but America’s warriors have yet to find it in their glossary.Some of the permanent, universal verities of war have been transformed by radical changes in the international system, whose traditional entities, modalities, and values are no longer universally accepted.Wars are no longer fought only or even mainly by armies and states; wars are now fought by nascent nationalities, clans, sects, tribes, and criminal enterprises – and often some complicated combination of these.Moreover, in many contemporary wars, military force has been introduced before other instruments of statecraft have been exhausted and the relevance and likelihood of success of military force have been assumed or overestimated.Oftentimes, military force has been introduced without a realistic accompanying and directing political strategy or, worse yet, in the absence of any political strategy.Thus, the military force lacks its essential political context, both for the conduct of military operations in themselves and for the subsequent political settlement.Without its political strategy, military strategy lacks its purpose.

Settlements of disputes are so protracted and the political outcomes intended to be effected by the use of force are so inadequate to and incommensurable with the underlying issues that they prove unattractive and inconclusive and often merely impel another phase to the conflict.Some efforts to solve or contain disputes have been abandoned, misguided, misunderstood, or misrepresented – sometimes deliberately – and military force has been used prematurely, inappropriately, or unnecessarily, and, of course, ineffectively.In some instances, the kinds of forces, weapons, tactics, and rules of engagement have been employed that have proven unsuitable to the dispute and counterproductive of the objective.Sometimes, the application of military force has produced tactical success but inconclusive results – by definition, at best a postponement and at worst an induced and avoidable worsening of the situation, always with increased risk and cost and decreased possibility of political success.The military success, often superficial to the dispute, is a strategic irrelevance, and, as such, the military operation is a waste and the political outcome is a failure.Definitive political settlements are indefinitely postponed.

The aims of wars are no longer only and primarily political.The unrelenting, ruthless, fanatical, radical Islamic threat, that has no possible curbs on its unlimited means and transcendental aims, is the starkest example of a fundamental change in warfare, indeed in the international system.Another fundamental change in contemporary war is the unique, profoundly different conceptual approach to warfare of Chinese strategists.If and when applied in operations, the Chinese way of war will undoubtedly surprise the United States, notwithstanding the pro forma requirement to read a translation of Sun Tzu’s treatise in the service schools.

Whether in traditional or contemporary warfare, the Twentieth Century has left the bloodiest legacy in history.Perhaps the most pernicious part of the legacy is the obliteration of the distinction between soldier and civilian, combatant and non-combatant, the warfront and the home front, and, ultimately, peace and war.In a further degeneration, no longer do the armed forces alone wage war, although seldom is it called that.Sovereignty and independence are rendered meaningless, societies are subverted, authority is undermined, cultures are corrupted as war is now waged under the opportunistic convenience and dissembling cover of many guises and innumerable euphemisms for easier intervention and exploitation, for example: police-paramilitary operations, counterterrorism, resolutions enforcement, muscular diplomacy, political action, economic sanctions, resources protection, ethnic autonomy, minorities protection, religious proselytization, humanitarian operations, nation building, democracy building, preemptive defense, and, even, peacekeeping; and most of these are the justificatory rationalizations for external interventions and some are also the justifacatory rationalizations sometimes for internal repression in which governments wage war against their own peoples.There no longer is a significant distinction between war and peace.In short, peace is merely war fought by other means.This assault has not only been unprecedented and enormously destructive but, more important, it has had profoundly evil, anti-human consequences whose full effects we probably have not yet fully suffered or understood.In the meantime, the U.S. has not recognized the need or learned how to wage war as peace.Parenthetically, to such ambiguous, indefinable, or unresolvable disputes, it is increasingly more difficult to apply just war criteria, which are premised on, relevant to, and descriptive and prescriptive of a traditional warfare that should seldom occur in the Twenty-First Century.

Strategy has become an unceasing, frustrating, and seemingly seldom successful endeavor.Strategy making has much difficulty in grounding itself ruthlessly on reality and a penetrating understanding of the enemy, whilst being powered by logic, clear thinking, intellectual imagination, and a coherent, congruent correlation of capabilities, objectives, exertions, resources, risks, costs, benefits, and outcomes.Strategy has been conflated and confused with policy as policy has absorbed strategy.Military strategy is no longer the province solely of generals, its provenance lies with politicians.Generals only dispose of strategies that politicians approve.Because of the demands of contemporary war, in whatever guise or under whatever rubric, military strategy alone is now insufficient.The successful execution of military strategy requires much coordination with and support from the other instruments of statecraft, including diplomacy, political action, propaganda, economic warfare, etc.The planning and application of a mutually reinforcing effort against an enemy has to be the result of an integrated, coherent orchestration of a sustained national strategy that is suffused with an authentically strategic direction.Unfortunately, in the U.S., an understanding of this necessity and an organization for its conduct are absent.Neither Congress nor the Executive has any grasp of this need and the political class seems determined to prevent such an understanding. For the enterprise of military strategy, the prospect is unclear and expectation is unwarranted, yet, engagement is unavoidable.

All wars are horrible, but, for that, they can be no less useful, effective, necessary, and justifiable – and, often, unavoidable or, rarely, even preferable.However, wars are often, if not always, uncontrollable and seldom are their outcomes fully realized as originally expected.Nevertheless, war is not an aberration. War is more than one of the most popular social pursuits of man.War is a political act in pursuit of a political objective.As such, war is susceptible to rational analysis, and rigorous, rational analysis of war is the method of strategy.To understand, to formulate, to apply, to explain, and, above all, to lead a clear, realistic, achievable strategy is the duty of the decision maker.

Walter Jajko, a retired Air Force Brigadier General, former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight, and former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense (Policy Support, is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Fellow and Professor of Defense Studies at The Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington DC, where he teaches military strategy.He acknowledges his intellectual debt to Carl von Clausewitz, the great theorist of military strategy.His views are not those of the United States government.

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