Strategic Guidance for Countering the Proliferation of Strategic Guidance


Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his team are busy working on the National Defense Strategy. A rite of passage for every new administration, his band of strategic thinkers is giving blood, toil, tears, and sweat as it evaluates different defense strategies and the attendant permutations of the future force inherent to each. Mattis is attempting to make the National Defense Strategy a small-scale, top-down enterprise, with the promise of personal involvement and provocation. His instincts here are spot-on and augur well for a credible process, yet they do not guarantee the final result will be influential. However profound the final disposition of the strategy, it will have a limited effect on the future of the U.S. military short of a simultaneous effort to declutter the Defense Department’s landscape of strategic guidance. A cacophony of strategies is maligning the Pentagon and driving extensive confusion—even among some of the department’s top strategists—about what is authoritative and how it all relates. Chaos would do well to rein in the chaos.

A Cacophony of Strategic Guidance

The proliferation of the Pentagon’s strategic guidance is paved with good intentions. At different points, someone in the department or in Congress identified a genuine need for direction that was subsequently filled through the creation of a Quadrennial Defense Review, a National Military Strategy, or even a Strategy for the Information Environment. Over time, each of these efforts gained institutional traction with rationales and constituencies of their own and staffs to produce, coordinate, and implement them.

It’s a problem akin to many of our own closets. We keep buying clothes while failing to get rid of anything. The Joint Staff maintains a remarkable slide attempting to explain how many of the extant strategic guidance efforts are connected or nested. While a stunning achievement in slideology, it is irrational by any common-sense standard, and yet far too many claim to understand it. There are lots of bewildering arrows revealing how the alpaca sweater you picked up on that 2003 trip to Machu Picchu complements those spandex capris you use for yoga.  It’s that moment of vuja de that leads you to seek out Marie Kondo. Such is Pentagon strategery in 2017.

Good intentions aside, the unchecked proliferation of strategic guidance has created confusion and given license to pick and choose favorite parts of the guidance. It is not the only problem like this in the department, and like many others in the Pentagon, it is concealed through PowerPoint.

A cottage industry of sorts has grown up in the Pentagon around strategy development, making an already shambolic endeavor increasingly fraught. Communities of interest around any number of issues are in search of strategies to order their problem sets. The Pentagon maintains strategies for nearly every region of the globe, and in some cases for sub-regions or particular countries. Name your functional policy concern—homeland defense, counterterrorism, space, cyber, special operations, missile defense, climate change—and you are likely to find corresponding strategic guidance or something glossy attempting to be. There are strategies for human capital, and acquisition, and defense intelligence. The Navy alone lists 18 distinct strategic guidance documents—including three focused specifically on the Arctic—that presumably provide critical direction about its mission. Notably, the lengthy list doesn’t include a seminal effort like the National Military Strategy, calling into question why the chairman’s top strategy isn’t on the Navy’s priority list and showing how it could be lost in the hubbub.

There is a straightforward theory of how the Pentagon is supposed to develop strategy. The White House produces a National Security Strategy, from which the Department of Defense develops a National Defense Strategy, from which flows guidance on the development and employment of the armed forces. The particulars of this have changed over time, but the basic theory is sound. The practice, on the other hand, is a messier proposition. As Peter Feaver thoughtfully explains, there are myriad obstacles to an effective process for developing strategy. The sequencing is inescapably star-crossed. The budget cycle intervenes, forcing the department to make critical decisions without an agreed-upon strategy. Real-world events might intercede to modify the direction of the discourse, as the staff working on the 2002 Quadrennial Defense Review found on September 11, 2001. Any sane Pentagon strategist is resigned to the fact that disorder is inherent to the exercise. Yet there is an often-overlooked variable that can be controlled and that is necessary to make the strategy business more orderly: less strategic guidance and clearer lines of direction.

Problems Inherent to Strategic Congestion

We will not use this space to indulge deeply in the eternal arguments about what strategy is or should be, except to stipulate our belief that one of the main goals of a document like the National Defense Strategy is to get everyone rowing in a synchronized fashion. This is rarely a straightforward endeavor. Even the pinnacle of U.S. grand strategy, containment, was initially a curious and confusing concept for many of its practitioners, only infused with clarity and coherence over time or in retrospect. Moreover, many of the department’s “strategy” efforts misapply the term, in reality working as implementing guidance or action plans or something else altogether. In the best of circumstances, both the concept and the practice of strategy are nebulous. The problem is compounded when there are a multitude of efforts competing for attention and prominence.

During our time in government, we sponsored a “State of the Strategy” conference in part to explore our hypothesis that the strategic guidance landscape was jumbled. Ahead of the meeting, we distributed a survey asking participants to evaluate the health of the current defense strategy. Tellingly, the survey results proved inconclusive because of widespread disagreement about which document or series of documents actually constituted the department’s strategy. Strategy mavens from around the Pentagon referenced any number of guidance documents as their source for divining the department’s game plan. Synchronized rowing is considerably harder when we are all using different boats and have different finish lines in sight.

Ultimately, we identified four specific problems deriving from the proliferation of strategic guidance in the Pentagon:

Conflicting or Muddled Guidance: All too often, a given strategy is willfully ignorant of an associated effort or resolves that it’s not important to be consistent with an existing strategy because the hierarchy of these documents is unclear. Even when the authors of different strategy efforts attempt to make them consistent with related or higher-order guidance, they invariably differ, at best in points of emphasis, but too often in points of fact.

Guidance Cherry-Picking: Organizations exploit differences in guidance by cherry-picking that which best fits their agendas. With so much strategic guidance to choose from, a service or combatant command or policy office (we have never, ever done this ourselves) can find any number of references to support a parochial agenda, upending how this all is supposed to work.

Discordant Dialogue: Widespread disagreement about which document or series of documents actually constitutes the department’s strategy makes it impossible to determine how well the strategy is faring in any number of areas. Without a cross-organizational dialogue about the health of the defense strategy, it is much harder for the secretary to make course corrections or shift resources in an effective manner.

Entrenched, Competing Staffs: Lastly, the bureaucratic footprint needed to produce, coordinate, promulgate, and implement each of these guidance documents is staggering, leading to duplication, infighting, and inefficiency.

Straightening Up the Clutter 

The Pentagon is an enormous and cumbersome enterprise that undeniably requires guidance on a great number of fronts. Absent a routine consideration of how necessary, topical, and compatible it all is, however, there will be too much guidance that is too similar and too centrifugal. Fortunately, awareness of the problem is on the rise. In fact, the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act took laudable, if piecemeal, steps towards achieving strategic guidance euphony. These include streamlining National Defense Strategy requirements and establishing a requirement for the secretary to regularly assess the strategy’s implementation. There’s more hard work ahead, however, and it needs to be more, well, strategic. We recommend the following actions:

Collaborate on a Clear Framework That Prioritizes the National Defense Strategy: Mattis should use the occasion of the National Defense Strategy to make clear that it constitutes the governing guidance for the entire department. He should underscore his expectation that all the other strategies nest under it and, at a minimum, are complementary. Strategies are more likely to succeed when senior leaders recognize them and take responsibility for their implementation; that’s virtually impossible to do when there are so many.

More broadly, the department will be better able to execute Mattis’ vision with a coherent hierarchy of documents, recognized by everyone. That framework might look similar to how it does now: A singular overarching strategy for the department broken into a classified document each for force development and force employment. Nevertheless, we support a serious effort to experiment with alternative frameworks to find whether there’s a more sensible one (and one that can integrate a more prominent routine assessment of the strategy’s health than is imagined by the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act). Whatever is decided, we should be open-minded and creative about how organizations collaborate to produce these documents.  Mattis should actively engage the leadership of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees on such a framework, codifying it both in legislation and in departmental directives/instructions.

Eliminate Duplication: Mattis should prompt a serious discussion about duplicative documents. A close reading of the legislation governing the National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy will identify distinctions between the two efforts, but practically speaking, they serve similar functions — true to the fact they are both strategies for the Department of Defense. We should have a serious discussion about whether we need both. Strategic guidance documents one step down like the Defense Planning Guidance and the Guidance for the Employment of the Force are apt and generally sensible, and are mirrored by similar Joint Staff efforts as well. In some cases, it feels as though guidance is as much about who is producing it as about what is being produced. We need to do better. The elimination of unnecessary duplication will allow for the combining, reduction or re-purposing of corresponding staff.

Police All the Other Strategies, Focusing on Return on Investment: Eliminating all of the department’s strategies besides the National Defense Strategy is impossible and, at a point, counterproductive. However, Mattis should establish a process by which to consider whether a strategy is necessary, and if so, how it complements higher-order or other associated guidance. Moreover, there should be some standard for what constitutes a strategy. These actions would go a long way toward ensuring that miscellaneous strategies governing regional or functional issues have a high return on investment and that there are distinctions between genuine strategies and things like action plans or road-maps.

Rationalize the Universe of Strategists: There is a strong correlation between the number of strategies in the department and the number of organizations who believe they have a stake in “doing strategy.” From the Strategy Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy, to the J-5 Strategy Division, to the cross-hatch team working on the third offset, to the myriad commander’s action groups and strategy cells populating the components, there is a lot of traffic in this space. Each of these organizations has value distinct from creating strategic guidance, yet too often find themselves competing for prominence in doing just that. Mattis should better rationalize the precise roles for and relationships among these organizations.

Having spent good portions of our Pentagon careers in the “strategy space,” we’ve been confronted by any number of arguments about the ultimate value of the strategic guidance enterprise. Credible points can be made that the department is too complex to be effectively governed by a single set of strategy documents. Or that the process of developing strategy—the debate, the networking, the analysis-—matters more than the resulting glossy document, which is obsolete from the minute it’s published. Or that, in practical terms, the defense strategy matters little to the men and women in uniform executing tactical missions down range.

There are elements of truth in each of these perspectives. We concede that a less cluttered, more coherent approach to strategic guidance is unlikely to magically resolve the many challenges facing the Defense Department. But we believe it’s the place to start. Successful, well-run organizations invariably are good at strategy, and history has proven this is especially true for military organizations.  The value of good strategy in international security often takes decades, or longer, to measure fully. For instance, the seeds of the second offset strategy were planted long before its successful manifestation years on. Equally, the effects of poor strategy are not always obvious until much later, although one could reasonably argue that unsatisfactory outcomes thus far in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria are indicators of shortcomings in strategy sometime in the past. Decisions about the size, structure, capabilities, and kit of the U.S. military are often determined by the thrust of strategic guidance that developed years before – and that is precisely why we must be persistently vigilant about modernizing and organizing the Pentagon’s strategy wardrobe.


Dr. Mara Karlin and Christopher Skaluba served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense and principal director for strategy and force development, respectively.

Image: Senior Airman Amber Carter/U.S. Air Force