On the Need for a Blue Theory of Victory

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The United States could well lose the next big war — not because it lacks the right capabilities but because it has not done the hard intellectual work to know how to win. This is a central conclusion of the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission in its November 2018 report. It goes on to argue that defense planners understand neither the fundamental characteristics of regional conventional wars against adversaries capable of all-domain, transregional escalation nor how to shape the dynamics of such wars to safeguard U.S. interests.

As commissions come and go frequently inside the Washington beltway, their impact on public policy is typically short-lived. But this report struck a nerve — and rightly so. At a time when the risks of such regional wars are rising, the United States has lagged behind in the development of the needed new strategic thought, which has magnified risk. It is time for the U.S. defense community to put its intellectual house in order about modern major-power war and especially its strategic dimensions.



Lest anyone think that the criticism emanates from a single cranky commission, consider the judgment of Gen. Joseph Dunford, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2016 declared that “we’re already behind in adapting to the changing character of war today, in so many ways.” Or consider the views of the director of military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Peter Roberts, who wrote in 2017:

Potential adversaries … have reconceptualized warfare and reimagined conflict without the boundaries the West imposes upon it. … A belief in Western conceptual or intellectual superiority remains deeply entrenched in the Western orthodoxy; such hubris has distinct dangers.

The United States is “already behind” because Russia and China have worked for three decades to put their intellectual houses in order. Their development of new strategic thought has been robust, sustained, and distressing. Russian and Chinese planners have “reconceptualized warfare and reimagined conflict” with the United States in ways that the West has been slow to grasp. They studied the American way of war in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc. They monitored closely periodic U.S. reviews of defense policy, strategy, and capabilities for what they signal about U.S. military ambitions and the future American way of war. They then revised military strategies, developed new concepts of operations, realigned military organizational structures, developed and tested new doctrines, and designed, acquired, and fielded new capabilities aligned with those concepts and doctrines. Finally, leaders in Russia and China mustered the political will and sustained focus to overcome significant bureaucratic, technical, and financial obstacles.

Their intellectual homework has focused on a realm most U.S. military experts have long considered America’s to dominate — the realm of escalatory action. But where Americans perceive strength, experts in Russia and China perceive opportunity. This mismatch is at the core of the National Defense Strategy Commission’s concern. U.S. adversaries have put together ideas about how to shape regional conflicts by shaping the decisions of the United States and its allies in a manner conducive to their objectives by imposing cost and risk through escalation and the threat of more to come. This implies that future major-power wars are likely to be contests of will, stake, and risk-taking, involving coercion, blackmail, and brinkmanship at least as much as direct armed hostilities between general-purpose military forces. Accordingly, the commission was critical of the absence of clear thinking at the Defense Department on “what deterrence means in practice,” “how escalation dynamics might play out,” “how the U.S. military would defeat major-power adversaries should deterrence fail,” and how to win against an adversary willing to employ nuclear weapons “in ways that would fall short of justifying a large-scale U.S. nuclear response.”

Theories of Victory

As I argued in my 2015 book on U.S. nuclear policy, the collection of ideas about how to shape these regional conflicts combine into something that can usefully be labeled as a theory of victory. A theory of victory is not a strategy. Strategy, in Thomas Schelling’s foundational formulation, is a “rational, conscious, artful kind of behavior aimed at trying to ‘win’ a contest.” A strategy should plausibly link actions and outcomes. In the more formal catechism of the war colleges, strategy is an approach that aligns ends, ways, and means. It seems logical that a strategy for “trying to win a contest” would encompass a theory of how to do so — that is, of victory. But strategy is not necessarily explicit about the logic behind the links between actions and outcomes. In the ends-ways-means construct, the theory is unexpressed even if the ends, ways, and means are lined up. It is implicit, not explicit. Thus, a theory of victory is a set of propositions about how and why the behavior of one belligerent in war or conflict short of war will or might affect the behavior of another belligerent in a desired manner. It is a “continuous thread” running through strategy with an “internal logic” and “causal links” among ends, ways, and means. Invoking Clausewitz, a theory of victory explains how to bring an enemy to a “culminating point” where it chooses not to run the costs and risks of further conflict and instead to acquiesce to the preferences of the first actor in terminating the conflict. A variant invokes Sun Tzu, with victory associated with subduing an enemy without fighting.

Borrowing from the wargamer’s vocabulary, in 2015 I associated Red with the theories of victory of Russia, China, and North Korea, and Blue with those of the United States and its allies. There is a Red theory of victory — that is, they have developed a set of ideas about how to out-compete the United States and its allies to a preferable regional order and, if necessary, to deter and defeat them in crisis and war. The Red theory of victory consists of two notions. First, that decisive military action by the United States to reverse a fait accompli can be prevented by exploiting divisions within and among its allies and the United States itself. And second, that the United States can be persuaded to cede some important regional interest rather than employ its full military potential because its stake is not sufficient to engage in sustained brinkmanship and competitive escalation. The Red concept of victory includes more than just seizing and holding some gain. It encompasses also the choice by Blue to terminate conflict on terms that sacrifice the interest it was defending, thereby showing America’s security guarantee to be unreliable.

There is no comparable Blue theory of victory. Until 2014 or so, the United States and its allies were too busy fighting other wars to focus adequately on this task. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, they have taken some steps in the right direction. The Obama administration’s “third offset” and call for a “new playbook” on Russia helped to restore focus on major-power war and to renew thinking about the requirements of deterrence at the conventional level of war. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy put the defense planning focus on regional conventional conflicts against major-power rivals with nuclear and other high-leverage means to defend their interests. The Joint Staff and armed services have begun to update doctrine to fight in contested environments. And the expert community has begun to explore Russian and Chinese strategic thought about modern conflict. This was all hard-won progress. But does it add up to success, in the form of a credible Blue theory of victory? The harsh judgments of Chairman Dunford in 2017 and of the National Defense Strategy Commission in 2018 provide a stark answer. In turning to the problem of modern war in 2014, the United States discovered the price of three decades of strategic atrophy in the form of the clutter of old thinking, the allure of quick fixes, and limited analytical capacity for new problems.

A Blue theory of victory can be further developed in a three-step process: “go to school” on Red the way Red has gone to school on Blue; develop a generic counter to the generic Red theory of victory; and tailor that model to specific regional contexts. As suggested above, pieces of this puzzle exist, but the puzzle as such has not come together. Its core concept should not be deterrence or escalation control. Rather, it should focus on stripping away the confidence of leaders in Russia and China in their escalation calculus. This is their assessment of the benefits, costs, and risks of escalatory action in crisis and war and also in the gray zone (i.e., part of the spectrum of conflict not involving armed hostilities). Blue must be capable of reducing Red’s expected benefits of actions while increasing Red’s expected costs and risks. Think of this as a counter-escalation strategy and not as an escalation dominance strategy. The generic Blue theory of victory should also account for the requirements of deterrence in a second theater from which assets might be stripped in time of crisis and war. A credible theory of victory in the neglected second theater requires that the United States both become more dependent on allied deterrence capabilities and more willing to ensure a credible nuclear deterrent for this particular problem.

Despite many years of proselytizing for a Blue theory of victory, I continue to find many skeptics in the United States about the value of such a way of thinking (among America’s allies, there are few such skeptics). Some are uncomfortable with the word “victory” (especially in conjunction with nuclear conflict) and with being asked to win, as opposed to deter or prevail. Conspicuously, the word “victory” is not in the official Defense Department dictionary. Other skeptics place great confidence in U.S. military supremacy and believe that no adversary would ever dare to cross major American redlines, including the employment of nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies, because they must fear a punishing American response. Still others believe that the current imbalance in Red and Blue strategic thought and preparedness can be quickly rectified by a superior American ability to out-think, out-innovate, and out-compete its adversaries (to cite the National Defense Strategy). These skeptics simply haven’t taken on the message of the National Defense Strategy Commission. The United States has been out-thought and out-innovated by adversaries with clear visions of victory in crisis and war and also in peacetime. Moreover, as the commission argues repeatedly, U.S. military supremacy is slipping away. Put differently, the skeptics noted above have no reason to be complacent. Dangers are mounting.

What might be the consequences of continuing to limp along without a Blue theory of victory? Four stand out. First, without such a Blue theory, leaders in Moscow and Beijing could be emboldened to test their newfound confidence and the perceived weakness of underprepared U.S. alliances. They might precipitate crises and try to manipulate them to their long-term advantage. Second, the United States and its allies, though armed with many powerful tools, military and otherwise, have no coherent set of ideas about how to marshal them to achieve objectives in crisis and war. The United States and its allies “could lose,” in the words of the National Defense Strategy. Or they could win — but in a heavy-handed manner that only sows the seeds of resentment and further conflict.

Third, without such a Blue theory, the United States may be inefficient and/or ineffective at mobilizing competitive responses to multi-domain strategic competition in a multipolar security environment. And fourth, without such a Blue theory, leaders in allied countries could choose independence and proliferation rather than continued reliance on the United States as guarantor of their security. Doubts about U.S. credibility are an enduring feature of alliances but they have spiked in recent years. Both right and left in America talk today about the supposed burdens allies impose on the United States. Allies seeking strategic autonomy from neighboring major powers face sharper than ever choices about how to secure that autonomy and/or how much deference to show to those neighbors.

In sum, a Blue theory of victory is a necessary condition for strategic competence and strategic success. And in 2022, the National Defense Strategy Commission will again come looking for one. With the next iteration of the U.S. defense strategy in hand, it will again render judgment on the military thought devoted to modern war, especially its strategic dimensions. If we in the U.S. defense community have failed by then to make significant headway in putting our intellectual house in order on this new problem, the commission will have to report a further deepening of the crisis of American power.



Brad Roberts is the director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views expressed here are his personal views and should not be attributed to his employer or its sponsors. This essay is a distillation of key arguments from a new monograph of the same title and available at https://cgsr.llnl.gov/research/livermore-papers.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Heather Salazar)