It’s Time to Think About Strategy

September 18, 2013

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Choices are hard.

In a recent op-ed on the Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR), I challenged those who expected more definitive choices in the review (or those I suspect want to avoid definitive choices).  The SCMR was really about establishing a framework for choices that the next QDR must actually make and explain.  It’s a two-step process, and I thought that review had set the stage for what will I think prove to be a critically important Pentagon effort for the remainder of this year.  We clearly need to match our aspirations more coherently with the resources we will be allotted.

Otherwise, we will remain “strategically insolvent” as my colleague at NDU, Professor Mike Mazarr, has argued in The Washington Quarterly. To improve our solvency, we will have to make some tradeoffs and come to appreciate risk better.

Strategy is all about making the right choices ― choices about what objectives to pick, what our priorities are, what risks we must actively reduce, and those we may hedge or simply have to live with. Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, quipped that in the doubling of the defense budget, “we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”

Well, we may be rusty, but sequestration is going to bring a can of WD-40 to the Pentagon’s program and budgeting shop real fast.

One of the major working groups in the SCMR was tasked with exploring tradeoffs between the size of our force and a more modernized force.  This was the so-called Capability vs. Capacity issue team.  The Pentagon usually examines this tradeoff between the readiness of today’s force (training, exercises, spare parts, personnel) against modernization investments for a better force (research and development, acquisition, etc.).  Since we outspend the rest of the planet, the Pentagon has rarely had to make such tradeoffs lately.  But those days are over—sequestration is all about appetite suppression and decisions.

Viewed from the outside, the SCMR appeared to be a necessary stepping stone towards a meaningful QDR that reinvigorates our ability to think and plan strategically.  We need to reestablish a genuine competence at making hard choices and focusing our resources on our interests in some priority order. I realize that some members of the national security community do not believe that resources are part of a strategy process, but instead that strategy merely creates requirements to be budgeted.  However, resources must be understood as the “means” in the effort to achieve coherent balancing of “ends-ways-means” of strategy.  To divorce resources from strategy is tantamount to removing oxygen from breathing.

Check out the related paper by General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel at the Center for a New American Security. In their CNAS commentary, “Decisions Deferred: Balancing Risks for Today and Tomorrow,” they pose clear questions. Should DoD invest in size and capacity, or in capability? Or does the United States face less risk now than it may face 20 years from now, and thus should invest more in developing future capabilities?”

In essence, should the US primarily invest in today to buy down risk now, or tomorrow to offset greater risk then?  This is a great question to wrestle with, and the ultimate answer is not at the two extremes but a balance of focused investments, managed risk, high-low capability mixes, and a prudently constructed force posture.  From my perch, these are exactly the kinds of choices the SCMR framed out for this fall’s QDR.  The SCMR has apprised Congress of the scale and scope of the tradeoffs that are before us, and the hard calls that have to be made if the Budget Control Act stands.  I expect the Policy and resourcing folks at the Pentagon understand this very well.

But the Pentagon cannot make all these choices themselves.  The White House needs to frame our national security interests with some clarity, and Congress needs to weigh in.  Some have called the choices framed in the SCMR an illusion.  But the real illusion is to think that serious strategic planning is simply hoping the Pentagon gets more money or that choices about major programs and force structure do not have to be made.  To think that we can stand still, preserve the rigid Service shares, sustain our costly overhead structure, stand pat on rising personnel costs, or maintain our Cold War forward basing posture – those are the illusions.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, and serves as Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, at the National Defense University, Washington DC.  These insights and comments are his own.


Photo Credit: Jean-David & Anne-Laure,Flickr

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4 thoughts on “It’s Time to Think About Strategy

  1. Frank Hoffman really caught my eye with his “repairing the strategy bridge” entry here on WOTR in July. Although this is admittedly only the second article of his I’ve read, I’m afraid he’s already showing signs of joining the innumerable and unending chorus of “that is not strategy” analysts and defense intellectuals, who can explain what strategy is very well, point out the shortcomings in US defense policy quite lucidly, but never actually seem to make any meaty strategy suggestions themselves. I’m getting slightly tired reading article after article about how bad US strategy is (you’ve won me on that point already) with so little “here’s what I’d do instead.”

    Granted you can’t craft a whole strategy in an online blog article, but just how long was Kennan’s “Long Telegram” again? I think it was 5,500 words or so, which is, what, about 12 pages of single paced 12 point font? A dozen pages that arguably seeded the entire strategy debate and policy activity of the cold war, and rooted it in some agreed assumptions and facts of life concerning an actual opponent and our interests. And let’s not forget it was considered “long.”

    I’m not expecting a WOTR post to become the next long telegram, but on the same token you don’t need a full-on think tank 200 page report either. Surely it’s time for the defense intellectuals who have so convincingly sat back and torn down current policy to at least stand up themselves, open their ideas to criticism, and at least try to offer some positive guidance. You have our attention, please don’t squander it.

  2. In an upcoming book chapter, from which the post was pulled, I lay out a series of structural, process, and educational initiatives that may be useful. Book forthcoming.

    But if someone wants to read some ideas about what I think a grand strategy might look like

    See Discriminate Power at
    Read “Forward Partnership” in January 2013 Orbis
    Read “Forward Partnership: A Maritime Based Grand Strategy” in January 2013 Naval Institute Proceedings?

    S/f FGH

  3. Forward Partnership is a good read and would be interested in some more concrete prescriptions, i.e. what exactly is meant by “naval maneuver” forces? Traditional CSG’s, ESG’s, and/or influence squadrons based on the LCS or some other small combatant? On the macro level of Army vs. Navy resource allocation in general it provides clear guidance, at the intermediate level of the shape of the Navy (I may not be up on lingo) it seems ambiguous, to me at least, rather than flexible. Any modern strategy should take some stance on WMD proliferation IMHO as well.

    On a deeper level (hopefully not too far out of left field here, but probably), couching the political ends of a strategy in “access to the commons” or just “security” alone seems to me like building on feet of clay. Previous, if you will -I recognize I’m stretching the concepts far in some cases-, strategic “zeitgeists” of American history, i.e. the city on a hill, manifest destiny, splendid isolation, crusade against fascism, freedom vs. communist tyranny, etc. all operated on a visceral, human level about transcendental ideas of a society’s purpose in life. The zeitgeist (for lack of a better word) itself certainly may not have prescribed an unalloyed allegiance, or even understanding, of the population to a political course of action or particular strategy, but at least it spoke to a level that mattered. All societies seek security so you need something more than just that, and I don’t think “access to the commons” quite makes the cut, especially in a world where radical Islam and Sino-Russian style authoritarianism seem to understand these political realities of meaning quite well, and are so opposed to the classical Western concepts of liberty, endowed by a creator (personally I think that’s indispensable that are eminently right and worth defending aggressively. I think if we accede to the post-Darwinian/Freudian/Nietzsche view that life has no higher purpose than what we make and it’s all about having enough money to enjoy the here and now (and nothing else, or perhaps create a Utopia the attempt of which always seems to collapse from the fire of un-restrained passion into a smoldering, dim and ashy chaos) we may inexorably be on the path Europe seems to be just a few years ahead of us on. No amount of defense spending cuts will matter because they’ll be more than replaced with extra social spending, and the military becomes a rump toy for feel good interventions that require no sacrifice from the population in general, and one that doesn’t really care about what happens on the ground anyway so long as they can emote that they did “something”, i.e. Libya most prominently/recently. If Syria were a complete pushover too we would have already intervened there, but it’s not so we hand-wave endlessly until Putin puts on the pants and takes charge, gladly ushering us out of the room while soothingly whispering peace in our ear.

    Anyway, please excuse the soap-box rant, but I’m still waiting for someone to couch a strategy in terms of something that actually matters, especially considering the heritage we have here in the west that is so worthy (but, tragically, seems so under-appreciated) and so diametrically opposed by other world forces.

    I look forward to your book.