Why Jointness Makes for Bad Strategy, and Other Thoughts


The 2015 U.S. National Military Strategy is chock-full of wholesome goodness yet may leave those who do business in great waters feeling undernourished. Why? Because the strategy is so determinedly — relentlessly — joint in outlook, from its garish purple cover (purple being the signifier for joint endeavors) all the way to its bitter end. “Jointness,” to use the awkward Pentagon term, connotes each armed service having a roughly equal claim on missions and taxpayer largesse.

Call it egalitarianism, military style. Released last week, the strategy explains how the Joint Staff headed by U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (and about to be headed by Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford) intends to harness ground, air, and sea power to achieve strategic and political purposes. What it doesn’t do is explain fully how the armed forces will do things in the terrestrial, air, or nautical realms — let alone set priorities among those domains, or among the land, air, and sea arms.

First, the upsides. Here’s one laudable aspect of Dempsey & Co.’s handiwork: A strategy meant for public and foreign as well as military consumption should be an essay, not just a plan of action designed to use martial means to achieve some larger end.

That is, it should spell out a thesis, marshal arguments and data to defend it, and proceed methodically to conclusions its authors want to convey. It should be written with one uniform voice, abjuring the patched-together, Frankenstein’s-monster character that typifies bureaucratic documents “staffed” through many agencies — all determined to put their imprint on it. And it should be couched in plainspoken language that’s accessible to laymen, rather than the jargon military folk have loved for as long as there have been military folk.

The National Military Strategy passes these tests of craftsmanship, and does so with aplomb. This is no small feat. Read the whole thing for yourself. And the content? Like the 2007 Maritime Strategy and its “refreshed” 2015 edition, the National Military Strategy rightly touts America as the chief guardian of the global system of trade and commerce. It vows to keep pivoting to Asia (as soon as we fix that pesky Middle East), and it notes that regional challengers are amassing the means to deny U.S. and allied forces ready access to the global commons — to air and marine routes beyond the jurisdiction or control of any coastal state.

Now, the downsides. In effect, sea and air lanes constitute the lineaments binding the system together, letting merchantmen transit hither and yon and men-of-war radiate force into faraway theaters. Deny a hostile sea power like the United States the use of the sea and sky, and you cut those lineaments — obstructing its strategy with a stroke. U.S. forces can accomplish little if they can’t get there from here. The strategy says next to nothing about any of this beyond generalities.

Indeed, the geospatial dimension of U.S. strategy is missing here. There’s no analysis of political or strategic geography — the physical settings where armed forces operate. Maybe the document’s framers considered these operational matters, to be sorted out by seagoing joint forces — although America has no strategic position in Asia absent access to Asia. Maybe they didn’t intend for it to be read as a standalone document, but to be taken in conjunction with the 2015 Maritime Strategy.

Anyway, the National Military Strategy’s silence about the mechanics behind the Asia pivot struck this sea power-minded reader as odd. Strategy takes on an abstract, otherworldly feel when ripped out of its physical context.

It’s worth speculating about one other dimension. Military strategy has an oddball relationship with maritime strategy. Why? Because maritime strategy, properly understood, is a strange creature. It exists both on a higher and a lower plane than military strategy. Why it operates underneath military strategy is plain enough. Military strategy is about deploying military implements to fulfill larger goals. Sea services like the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and — in wartime — Coast Guard constitute a subset of the republic’s martial panoply. Ergo, maritime strategy is subordinate to military strategy. QED.

But why is maritime strategy superior to military strategy? Because — according to the greats of sea power theory — it’s a de facto grand strategy. Just ask Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s evangelist of sea power. For Mahan, the foremost object of maritime strategy was to assure access to distant regions. Commercial, political, and military access in that order, he was careful to specify. That’s a broad-based perspective, encompassing not just naval might but sister military forces, not to mention diplomatic and economic implements. Military power helps guarantee diplomatic access to keep foreign markets open to American business folk.

Alloying “all instruments of national power,” as international relations specialists like to say, into a single policy implement constitutes the art and science of executing grand strategy. Mahan’s is a compelling syllogism, then, but alas, the result isn’t very joint. It assigns pride of place to forces able to keep the nautical commons open. Today that means prioritizing sea and air forces, augmented by ground forces able to shape events at sea and aloft. Embracing a saltwater grand strategy may represent a bridge too far for today’s joint force — no matter how beguiling the logic for doing so.

That’s a shame.


James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery