There Ain’t No Copyright in Strategy

December 16, 2013

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Strategy is inherently a future-focused pursuit, with the obvious belief being that the strategist can impose a measure of control on events in the pursuit of his or her desired objectives. One can logically question how much, or even if control can be established, but the important point to acknowledge is that to be a strategist means believing in the establishment of control over future events. Clearly, in order for the strategist to enjoy the possibility of control, he or she must cultivate and develop advantages over potential adversaries. Innovation in strategy is dearly sought after, be it the successful development of stealth aircraft in the United States, Hitler’s faith in the V-weapons program, as well as less technologically driven innovations, such as the British pioneering of the modern civil service structure. These resemble potent examples of strategic actors investing considerably in attaining advantages that provide the edge over other actors. Indeed, the drive for such development has resulted, however, in the subtle, yet fundamental neglect of a problem that walks hand-in-hand with innovation—the adaptation to, and replication of, other actors to one’s own innovation.

In the strategic world, there is no copyright to protect one’s innovations from the prying eyes of opponents; no system of patents to ensure that your advantage, once cultivated, will actually endure and become the intellectual property of the original innovator. Opponents can do two things to offset another’s advantage: they can adapt, or they can replicate. Both must be dealt with in kind.

Adaptation is the least serious concern here, for it is already well understood through Luttwak’s paradoxical logic that tells us opponents will adapt to our methods. A clear example of such adaptation lies with the irregular adversaries whom the United States has faced over the past twenty years. Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh argued in 1995 that perhaps the greatest lesson to have then been taken from the 1991 Gulf War was that adversaries would seek to face the United States on terms other than its own, and such adaptation was not long in coming. The tactics of militias in Somalia in 1993, designed to restrict the use of American firepower and airpower, as well as exploit a perception of casualty aversion, clearly did not seek to meet American military might on its own terms. Progressively, in both Iraq and Afghanistan fighters have utilised a huge array of their own tactical innovations in order to obviate those of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs. Iraq and Afghanistan are testimonies to the success of low-tech adaptations to high-tech innovations.

It is replication, however, that should concern present and future strategists. Adaptation is a given and always encounters state of affairs in practice. What is overlooked, however, are the third-party actors not directly involved in hostilities that observe events closely. Theories of war and strategy generally utilise simple binary frameworks, assuming merely two adversaries purely for the sake of explanatory simplicity. Such simplicity can deceive the reader into forgetting that the strategic world is populated with a vast array of actors, many of whom watch with a keen eye the developments and clashes between other actors, sometimes planning mere adaptations to observed innovations, other times seeking to replicate the advantages utilised by one side.

Why should replication matter? The first reason is cost: a third-party actor can piggyback on the success of someone else’s innovation, avoiding the considerable research and development costs associated with generating those advantages in the first place. In a world without any form of “strategic copyright” to protect innovation, and where developing truly innovative capacity is a generational pursuit, such risk is woefully disregarded in strategic thinking.

The second reason is proliferation: a strategist wants not only to cultivate advantage, but also utilise that advantage in order to establish control and secure political objectives. These should not be viewed as one-off events, but instead as part of the ongoing pursuit of politics. The strategist, therefore, wants to maintain the integrity of his or her innovations and advantages over other actors, to ensure innovation is a privileged commodity. This cannot take place if replication results in the broad proliferation of such innovations. An example in point is the progressive attainment of knowledge of stealth technology by the Chinese state over the past 15 years. It is well known that Chinese personnel bought up much of the available wreckage of the F-117 fighter that was shot down over Kosovo in 1999; it is also an often overlooked detail that the experimental stealth helicopter that crashed during the Abbottabad raid in 2011 was not destroyed in its entirety. The compound wall that the helicopter crashed into prevented the destruction of the tail rotor section, a section rumoured as sold by Pakistani authorities to the Chinese (or at least inspected by them) less than one week after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The replication of stealth technology in Chinese aircraft represents tangible examples of the risks incurred by the innovator.

The strategist can take solace, however, from the assurance that others cannot easily replicate the establishment of sustained competitive advantages. The development of organisational, financial, and intellectual capital required to sustain even the replication of the innovations of others can be daunting indeed. Yet, this should not provide room for complacency; the small examples of patient Chinese exposure to stealth technology should represent a warning of how strategic actors can “free-ride” their way into innovations not of their own making. Even if the risk is simply one of a competitor reducing its enemy’s own advantage, rather than equalling or even improving the innovation, it remains a risk that must be seriously considered by the practising strategist.

The strategic world is a brutal and unforgiving place, one that punishes even the slightest mistake. Generally the strategist is so fixated on his ends and innovations that he forgets to consider how others may be watching and waiting, seeking to replicate innovations that have bestowed previously privileged advantages. One may pioneer innovation, but one does not own it once achieved. In this anarchic world, other actors can jump on the idea and replicate similar advantages for minimal investment. Thinking towards third-party replication should be strongly considered by strategists everywhere, after all, in a world of bulk-whistleblowing from the likes of Wikileaks and Snowden betraying our advantages, can we afford to no longer consider the use of our own pioneered innovations against us?


Dr Daniel Steed has recently taken up position as Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter’s newly established Strategy and Security Institute. His tasks at Exeter include helping in the design and delivery of the new MA in Applied Security Strategy, under the direction of General (Rtd.) Sir Paul Newton and Professor Paul Cornish.  He is also a contributor at War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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