Tag Archives: Clausewitz

Reconsidering the American Way of Strategy

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By John T. Kuehn


The ship of state that we call the United States is adrift at the political-strategic level or what some may call the grand strategic level. 24-hour news cycles, a president (and Congress) addicted to tweeting and posturing, an ambivalent and often ignorant public, and a complete failure by the national and sometimes international media to discern what is of value from what is pabulum has led to strategic gridlock in the foreign policy of the United States.

First, there are two caveats that must be addressed. The first caveat acknowledges that these ideas regarding a strategy for the United States of America are wholly unoriginal and derivative from those of Barry Posen, principally those in his article “Command of the Commons” (2002) and his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), and similarly focuses on concepts like grand strategy, command of the commons, and “liberal hegemony” (defined below).1 Secondly, ideas “on strategy” comes from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Book Three of that work addresses what we today call operational art more than it does grand strategy, but the elements of thinking about strategy at that level are not significantly different from thinking about it at the higher levels.2

On Strategy

A cursory structural examination of On War’s section “on strategy” reveals that when one turns to the index the first thing one reads is a list of topics, including a discussion of just what strategy is, or strategy as Clausewitz defines it. In today’s terminology Clausewitz expounds on campaign strategy, i.e. operational art at the operational level of warfare. Next, Clausewitz addresses some factors one does not normally associate with strategy writ large: virtue, moral factors, and things like boldness and “perseverance” (patience). Clausewitz is really discussing the attributes of the military strategist, although perhaps his comments can be extrapolated up the levels of war to the policy strategist in charge of overall events and national well-being or even survival. It closes, after a review of essentially Jominian operational considerations, on what might seem an odd pair of notes: “the character of contemporary war” and a discussion of “tension and rest.”3

These last two have particular importance for today because they get us from the operational level to what is normally now thought of as the strategic, or even grand strategic, level—the levels where ends are decided and acted upon. First the issue of tension and rest: “…in most campaigns, periods of inaction and repose have been much longer than periods of action.”4 This supports the claim made here that Clausewitz’s strategy here is really minor strategy, or campaign strategy. He is referring to the concept of culmination of action in war and that sooner or later exhaustion occurs at which point overt military activity (combat) diminishes or ceases while the protagonists build up combat power, will, political will, or all of the above to resume active operations. This has real implications for American policy today since the U.S. military has figured out how to keep the operational train moving with little suspension of action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria and Yemen. It has also figured out how, by using an all-volunteer force, unmanned aerial systems (i.e. “drones”), long range missiles (Tomahawks), and Special Forces to continue to get around this “dynamic law of war.” The naval aspect here is particularly important because U.S. naval forces have, since World War II, been primarily used for the purposes of power projection, not sea control or large scale fleet actions. This in turn has caused the application of naval power to be “a part of the problem” of maintaining the status quo of “permanent war for permanent peace.”

The U.S. military – and one must include CIA drone warfare and naval forces as mentioned above – keeps operations relatively constant, albeit at low levels, but still lethal. Interestingly, this steady state of activity does little to achieve long term political results and in Afghanistan in particular has led to what may be called a “declining status quo.” That is, a situation that over time gets worse. This is because the enemy – the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS)—all in Afghanistan, do not violate this law. They suspend operations and rest and then apply the tension at times and places of their choosing, slowly sapping the political will of their much more powerful, but ironically impotent, foes. They fight each other, too, but nonetheless they obey the law while “we” violate it. A similar dynamic is also witnessed in the ongoing conflicts in East Ukraine as well as the Syrian Civil War and a number of other conflicts around the globe in Asia and Africa.

Which brings us to Clausewitz’s second-to-last, and perhaps most compelling chapter in his book on operational strategy—which is what we can now properly characterize it as. He discusses the “character of contemporary warfare” in his day. The lesson here is not to draw lessons from Bonaparte’s 1812 Russian campaign, as he does in order to set up his law of “tension and rest,” but rather to tell the prospective operational artist or strategist that he or she, too, must assess the contemporary character of warfare as they craft a campaign strategy. He contrasts the nearly absolute wars of his day with those more limited wars of previous times: “Wars waged by both sides to the full extent of their national strength must be conducted on different principles from war in which policy was based on the comparative size of regular armies.”6 The lesson for today is that the character of contemporary wars must be assessed, on all sides – not just both sides since most wars these days have multiple protagonists, not a clearly delineated Axis versus Allies paradigm as in World War II.  

The strategist must study contemporary warfare along with the other things Clausewitz says he must develop (patience and boldness) or study of the enemy (threats). This means understanding not just warfare locally, but one’s own cultural context for war. Perhaps the key character of contemporary American warfare — as opaque as it is to the majority of the American public — is that it is maintained by a political will unconnected to most Americans, in other words they are choices made by policy elites, choices most Americans either feel unable to affect or simply do not care about. This is dangerous. It cedes the initiative at the strategic level to the enemies we have chosen to engage with. Simply, policy elites have more skin in the game. It also increases the chance that the strategist will make choices disconnected from national interests and policies and more narrowly focused on the biases and preferences of the strategist himself. This also opens the door for irrational forces associated with emotions and neuroses of the strategist, rather than rational policy considerations, to influence decision-making. As Clausewitz emphasizes in his “fascinating trinity,” war is a team sport, not a solo event or just for a group of special insiders.7

Strategic Restraint

Here is where we bring in Barry Posen’s ideas about grand strategic restraint. First we must understand what he argues against. He does this by clearly outlining the existing grand strategy of the United States as something he calls liberal hegemony — and not a mild form either, but an aggressive, proactive form that emerged with the end of the Cold War. However, in the 1990s it was a more moderate form of what we have today. 9/11 caused a group of policy makers known as neoconservatives to adopt the more extreme elements of a liberal hegemonist agenda: muscular cooperative security and something Posen labels “military primacy.”8 Cooperative security was manifested, especially during the Clinton Administration, by the expansion and employment of NATO in the 1990s. Those who doubt this should consult Operations SHARP GUARD (Adriatic Sea 1993-1996), DELIBERATE FORCE (Bosnia 1995), and ALLIED FORCE (Kosovo 1999 ). More recently the implications of NATO’s expansion to include nations along the Baltic littoral have influenced how U.S. naval officers have had to think about meeting NATO obligations in that body of water with U.S. naval forces to continue the status quo of power projection. This has further stressed the capabilities of the U.S. Navy in ways that policy elites had not anticipated, nor adjusted force structure in the long term to address.

The NATO 1990s air campaigns highlight Posen’s second component—military primacy. But this primacy most forcefully manifested itself after 9/11. It was then demonstrated again with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Even so, it had been conceived of years earlier, by President George H.W. Bush:

“Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration…and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.9

Liberal hegemony characterized by the maintenance of military primacy is the source of many of our problems vis-à-vis contemporary warfare. As long as this remains the policy of the United States, and there is nothing coming out of the current Trump administration to indicate otherwise, this is the United States’ strategy, like it or not.

So what is the way ahead? It all begins with persuasion. People made these decisions and people will make decisions that can ameliorate and perhaps get the United States to a position of relative “rest” in the current global system. Current moderation of strategy may be temporary and we could only be one crisis away in today’s 24-hour news cycle from another iteration of the more extreme approach in use since the end of the Cold War. Making restraint a habit takes time and practice.

Good News Bad News

A position that has merit is to return to the policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) of the 1930s, armed neutrality with a build-up of naval and air forces to dominate the air and sea commons around the North American continent. Additionally, he was willing to make America serve as the “arsenal of democracy” to support those states who needed it against totalitarian and militaristic regimes.10 It was not his fault those states badly mismanaged the problem posed by the Axis causing FDR to more forcefully plan for war. Yes, FDR did not have to deal with intercontinental ballistic missiles, but during the Cold War the U.S. had some “good enough” strategies in place to manage this very scary scenario. But it is best managed by engagement with Russia, China, and even North Korea. Setting aside the nuclear case, let us return to the idea of “command of the commons” by primarily naval and air forces.11 That means efforts to better command, or influence, the space, air, ocean, and cyber commons. There is plenty to do in these domains, little of which requires “boots on the ground.”

However, liberal hegemony in its current state is looking more like “illiberal hegemony”—a reference of course to the rise of demagoguery and authoritarian personalities in traditionally democratic states. Said another way, U.S. grand strategy is on autopilot because of the current, self-induced presidential crises. Thus, the diplomatic-military-congressional-industrial complex continues doing what it was doing—maintaining liberal hegemony via primacy and cooperative security— and keeping its head down in Washington while servicing its agendas abroad.12 Meanwhile, policy elites bemoan a false change in U.S. strategy, claiming that restraint, or neutrality, or whatever one wishes to call it, has lost ground for the U.S. globally, first under President Obama and now accelerates with Donald Trump’s election.13 What has lost the U.S. ground globally is 16 years of indecisive and expensive military operations combined with an ongoing leadership crisis in Washington, not that leadership’s change of the current strategy. Posen himself has said as much in a recent interview.14 

A metaphor will help explain the situation. The current “ship of state” for the U.S. is like an aircraft carrier that has lost the ability to control its steering from the bridge, and changing course from the bowels of the ship in auxiliary control (auxcon) has not occurred, thus the momentum of the current strategy continues to keep the ship on its last commanded heading — the failing and failed strategies of the past. There is no way to give orders to the helm to change the course of the ship of state on the bridge by the captain (president) — and no one has any idea how to regain control, some in fact prefer the rudderless ship.

Now for some good news — ironically, the ongoing loss of presidential power is a positive force for actually empowering changing the course from below.15 But there must be a will to change course “from below,” that is by the people executing (and making) policy in Congress as well as in the various executive bureaucracies. Donald Trump’s loss of power undermines effective execution of the strategy to some degree, but it does not change it. First we must admit that the overall strategy is misplaced. That is going to take some doing and it is not going to happen quickly. Thus, today’s strategists in America must get their heads out of the operational sands overseas, and turn their attention to the policy debates and battlefields back home.


Deploying three aircraft carrier groups into a sea-denial environment in the Sea of Japan—as was recently the case vis-à-vis North Korea—is not the best use of U.S. resources. Never, at any point in time has the leadership of the Navy been in a better position to drive strategy from below by dissenting on these meaningless, some might even call them reckless, displays of naval power. Admirals John Richardson (the CNO) and Admiral Harry Harris (PACOM) could set an example, and perhaps educate the civilian leadership (Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster) in shepherding liberal hegemony by “just saying no.” They may be relieved in any case because of all the high profile Navy accidents, so why not make it count for something?16 Perhaps the Navy, and the nation, need another “revolt of the admirals,” as was seen in 1949 when the strategic ship of state was on the wrong heading.17 We do not need to create new frameworks and theories of strategy. We do need to think through the wisdom that is sitting already on our bookshelves and in the past. It is not too late to change course, if only we would. A good place to start is with naval forces. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, this might no longer be true.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is a former naval aviator, retiring as a Commander from the U.S. Navy in 2004. He is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Dr. Kuehn was awarded the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, A Military History of Japan (2014), and Napoleonic Warfare (2015). His latest book is America’s First General Staff.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Barry R. Posen,  Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), xii; see also Posen, “Command of the C)ommons, The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer, 2003): 5-46.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz,  On War, edited by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 175; see also Clausewitz, “Two letters on Strategy,” located at http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/carlvonc.pdf (accessed 11 June 2017).

[3] Clausewitz, On War, vi, 177, 184, 186, 220-221.

[4] Clausewitz, 221.

[5] This discussion based on recent scholarship by the author on the organizational culture of the US Navy, soon to be published as a chapter on the Navy since 1941 in anthology edited by Peter Mansoor and Williamson Murray by Cambridge University Press; the permanent war for permanent peace reference comes from Michael Howard’s discussion of Immanuel Kant’s ideas on collective security in War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Clausewitz, 89.  “Fascinating” is a better translation, according to Christopher Bassford, than “paradoxical.”  See Clausewitz Homepage, https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Bassford/Trinity/TrinityTeachingNote.htm (accessed 10/02/2017).

[8] Posen, 6-7.

[9] Defense Policy Guidance of first Bush administration, cited in Posen, 8.

[10] See David Kaiser, No End Save Victory (New York:  Basic Books, 2014), 25-30, 155. Kaiser also highlights how FDR’s “four freedoms” contributed, via the crucible of war, to the adoption of liberal hegemony (157), although he perhaps did not intend to do this.

[11] Posen, “Command of the Commons,” passim.

[12] Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010),   32; Bacevich implies the Congressional component on page 228.

[13] See for example Ben Miller, “Will Trumpism increase the Danger of War in the International System?” at https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/176888/policy-series-will-trumpism-increase-danger-war-international (accessed 14/06/2017); see also Kyle Haynes, https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/183005/haynes-lieber-retreat-and-its-consequences-american-foreign-policy-and (accessed 14/06/2017).

[14] See, http://cimsec.org/barry-posen-draft/30281 (accessed 14/06/2017).

[15] See John T. Kuehn, “Problematic Presidencies” at Proceedings Today, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2017/08/18/problematic-presidencies-are-not-necessarily-a-bad-thing (accessed 10/03/2017).

[16] The reference here is to the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, among others, “Previous Collisions Involving U.S. Navy Vessels,” by May Salam, 21 August 2017 in New York Times, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/us/navy-collisions-history-mccain-fitzgerald.html (accessed 10/27/2017).

[17] The CNO Admiral Louis Denfield dissented from existing Administration strategy and policy and was relieved by the Secretary of Defense.   See Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals (Washington, DC, 1994), p. 288; Love,  History of the U.S. Navy, p. 379.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2017. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

Distributed Lethality: A Cultural Shift

The following is a submission from guest author James Davenport for CIMSEC’s Distributed Lethality week.

Despite the recent article on Distributed Lethality1 and the paper on Offensive Sea Control2, there is a sense of hesitancy in the surface force in embracing these ideas. The hesitation is understandable. Distributed Lethality and Offensive Sea Control (henceforth referred to as Distributed Lethality for brevity) run counter to recent experience, and they appear to challenge the most successful surface program in history, Aegis, by suggesting that offensive warfare is equal to or greater in importance than the defensive operations the surface force is so well-equipped and trained to perform.

Distributed Lethality cannot succeed without a change in the surface force’s culture. To enable that change in culture the surface force must understand where its bias towards the defensive originates. The surface force must understand why Distributed Lethality is sound military theory. The surface force needs to be reminded that it has embraced Distributed Lethality before to great effect. The surface force must rethink how it views survivability in an anti-access/ area denial (A2/AD) environment. Finally, the surface force must change its culture through training and repeated exposure to the concept of Distributed Lethality.

Institutional Perception of the Surface Force

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the USN’s superiority was unchallenged for more than a decade. The USN became a victim of its own success. Assured of its superiority, the Navy started reducing its offensive flexibility. The USN built thirty-four guided-missile destroyers with no over the horizon anti-ship capability at all and retired the long-range anti-ship version of the Tomahawk missile. There was no challenger to use it, or practice using it, on. The surface force’s focus was squarely on visit, board, search, and seizure and air and missile defense operations.

The focus on air and missile defense operations is reinforced by the superb training on the Aegis Weapon System most Surface Warfare Officers receive at some point in their careers. Aegis Training and Readiness Center in Dahlgren, VA is rightly regarded as a center of 1975028_1481959128698444_800990737_nexcellence for training. Surface Warfare Officers can receive training there three or four times through their career inculcating Surface Warfare Officers in the Aegis culture of excellence. The success of Aegis and its adaptation to the ballistic missile defense mission is a tribute to the partnership between the Navy, the Missile Defense Agency, and our industry partners. No one system has dominated the thinking of the surface force in the way Aegis has.

The result of these influences is a defensive-minded surface force. Many in the surface force perceive their mission as providing defense against small surface vessels, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines. In return, the air wing goes on the offensive against ships and aircraft, while the submarine force goes on the offense against threat submarines and ships. This mindset says in order to survive the force has to operate as a whole, while concentrating the majority of the offensive firepower in a small number of submarines and an even smaller number of aircraft carriers and their air wings. This concentration of offensive firepower limits flexibility, reducing the Navy’s ability to operate against anti-access /area denial threats.

The Theory Behind Offensive Sea Control

Recognizing wholesale command of the seas is impractical in the face of A2/AD threats, admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta argue for the use of distributed lethality to take control of the seas in key areas in order to project power.1 This is certainly one significant advantage of distributed lethality and offensive sea control. It is not the only advantage, however.

Corbett also recognized it would be impractical to dominate the seas completely, at all times. Corbett does identify a solution; prevent the enemy from securing or controlling the seas by “active defensive operations.”3 In Corbett’s view, sea control is not sitting web_101210-N-2885V-025off the coast of a hostile nation, asserting air, sea, and electromagnetic dominance, while launching strikes ashore. Corbett’s opinion, in more modern terminology, is that sea denial is sufficient.

No matter what it is called, sea denial or sea control, the concept has value. Equipping our surface ships with more offensive capability complicates our adversaries’ planning. A distributed, lethal force must be accounted for, either by devoting resources, to defend against it, to negate it, or by amassing a robust enough force to absorb more losses and still perform their mission. Enough offensive capability may even deter our adversaries from adventurism in the first place.

Distributed Operations

Not only does distributed lethality have value in disrupting and deterring potential adversaries, but it can also play a significant part in defeating them. The bulk of the USN is generally located far from potential hot spots. Only a fraction of the fleet is forward deployed. Furthermore, that fraction is spread across the globe in support of the nation’s interests. The nation’s adversaries have the advantage of being able to operate near their own shores as well as to determining when and where they will strike; in effect, negating the advantages in capability and mass the USN possesses. Thus, at the onset of hostilities the USN will be likely the inferior force, which is not necessarily the disadvantage it may seem, as long as that forward-deployed force is lethal.

Clausewitz argues a force not concentrated at the same place at the same time has an advantage over a force that is concentrated. A concentrated force attacked by a smaller force will suffer disproportionate casualties and suffer disorganization from the attack, as long as the smaller force has reinforcements to press home this advantage.4 Although, the example is tactical in nature, this idea is remarkably similar to the situation the USN finds itself in today and has relevance in a modern operational context. If equipped properly with both offensive capability and mindset, a small number of forward deployed units could inflict disproportionate casualties, while being able to call upon a much larger force assembled from across the globe to administer a coup de grace against the aggressor.

What Was Old is New Again

The value of distributing lethality is not an unknown or a new idea. In the 1970s, the Soviet Navy was growing and the USN carrier force was dwindling. From the commissioning of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in 1968 to the commissioning of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in 1982, four aircraft carriers were commissioned, while 17 aircraft carriers were decommissioned.5

Faced with this new reality, the USN embraced Corbett’s view of sea control and implemented it in two ways. First, lethality of surface combatants was increased by fielding Harpoon missiles and Tomahawk missiles in both land attack and anti-ship variants. Second, this increased lethality was distributed by retrofitting older classes of ships and equipping future classes of ships with one or both of these weapons. One of the desired effects of this first iteration of Distributed Lethality, was to complicate our adversary’s scouting picture, by making them devote resources to finding, not only our carriers, but our newly lethal surface ships as well.6

Distribution Contributes to Force Survivability

Captain Wayne P. Hughes echoes the issue of complicating an adversary’s scouting picture in the first points on survivability applicable to Distributed Lethality in his book Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. “The great constant of scouting seems to be there is never enough of it.”7 This is the effect of “spreading the playing field” admirals Rowden, Gumataotao, and Fanta want to achieve with Distributed Lethality.1

Captain Hughes’ makes and additional point that applies to survivability. That is offensive firepower has the advantage early in a conflict. At Jutland, in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and more recently in the Falklands, offensive weapons were more effective than their defensive counterparts, until defenses had the necessary time to adapt to the realities of those conflicts.8 The USN’s offense will be more effective than our adversary’s defense just at the time when the USN’s surface ships are most likely to encounter the enemy without the support of the larger fleet and its accompanying defensive umbrella. In light of historical examples, how the surface force currently perceives survivability must be challenged.

The Way Forward

The key enabler to Distributed Lethality is developing a training infrastructure rivaling that of Aegis while complementing, not challenging, Aegis . The new training must emphasize the advantages and how to mitigate perceived disadvantages of Distributed Lethality. In order to accomplish this, the training must address exploiting gaps in and deceiving an adversary’s scouting capability, over the horizon targeting, coordinating dispersed offensive capability in an A2/AD environment, and, of course, the proper employment of offensive weapons. Finally, Distributed Lethality training must be delivered at multiple points throughout a Surface Warfare Officer’s career to keep the officer current in the latest tactics, techniques, and procedures, and to build on the officer’s understanding of Distributed Lethality.

The surface force needs to embrace the advantages of a distributed lethal force. The foremost step is equipping our force to be lethal and offensive in posture. However, weapons and sensors are not enough. The surface force must change its mindset. Only through a change of mindset, enabled by time and training, will the surface force be able to fully exploit the strengths of Distributed Lethality.

LCDR James Davenport is a Surface Warfare Officer currently stations at Surface Forces Atlantic.

1 VADM Thomas Rowden, RADM Peter Gumataotao, and RADM Peter Fanta. “Distributed Lethality.” U.S. Naval Institute. January 2015. Accessed February 13, 2015. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015-01/distributed-lethality.

2 Clark, Bryan. “Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare.” Commanding the Seas: A Plan to Reinvigorate U.S. Navy Surface Warfare. November 17, 2014. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://csbaonline.org/publications/2014/11/commanding-the-seas-a-plan-to-reinvigorate-u-s-navy-surface-warfare/.

3 Corbett, Julian S. “Some Principles of Maritime Warfare.” Internet Archive. February 16, 2005. Accessed February 13, 2015. https://ia700506.us.archive.org/20/items/someprinciplesof15076gut/15076-h/15076-h.htm.

4 von Clausewitz, Carl. “On War.” Chapter XII Assembly in Time. Accessed February 13, 2015. http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK3ch12.html.

5 “Navy.mil Home Page.” The US Navy Aircraft Carriers. Accessed March 23, 2015. http://www.navy.mil/navydata/ships/carriers/cv-list.asp.

6 MUIR, Malcolm. “The Zumwalt Years and Aftermath.” In Black Shoes and Blue Water, 220. Honolulu, Hawaii: University Press of the Pacific, 1996.

7 Hughes, Wayne P. “The Great Constants.” In Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, 183. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

8 Hughes, Wayne P. “The Great Constants.” In Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice, 180-181. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

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Joint Action: A Personal Theory

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series here at CIMSEC and The Bridge, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Despite the historical success of joint action, many professional warriors and strategists continually debate which military function is most decisive in the termination of war. Even today, some question whether it is indeed worth the effort to work through the complications of combining competing strategies into effective joint action. My personal theory of joint action proposes an artful blend of both sequential and cumulative strategies to conduct unified operations that most effectively achieve our national objectives. Strategic effect is reduced when either cumulative or sequential strategies are parochially subordinated to the other, since there is no single, decisive function, service, or role in war.

Landing Craft Utility 1633, departs the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) with vehicles assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) after a stern gate marriage. Ashland is part of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and is conducting joint force amphibious operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Raymond D. Diaz)


The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 drastically changed how the US military operates. Most importantly, it required the military services to interact jointly by force of law. This legal requirement for joint operations is necessary; but is by itself insufficient to build a compelling basis for joint collaboration, integration, and interdependence. While there has been much ink spilt over the normative force of Goldwater-Nichols, few have explored the theoretical basis for joint interdependence since Sir Julian Corbett.[1] This essay attempts to expand Corbett’s theoretical foundation that gives the law its conceptual footing.

What is Jointness?

Joint action, or jointness, is the creation of complementary strategic effect across all domains towards a shared political objective. Achieving a degree of physical or psychological control over an adversary creates strategic effect and requires an appreciation for the unique specializations and inherent difficulties of each domain-focused force. This appreciation acknowledges that institutional professionalism is hardly omnicompetent or transitory between varied forms of military power.[2]

Categorization of Joint Action

Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Photo Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute)


In Military Strategy, J.C. Wylie[3] postulated that the “common factor” to all power struggles “is the concept of control, some form or degree or extent of control exercised by one social entity over another.”[4] Wylie’s work offers a novel lens for viewing fighting, the solitary means of war.[5] This combat-centric view turns our attention to questioning the best strategy for combat operations.

Often, the territorial imperative quickly comes to the forefront. If land matters most, as some have correctly suggested,[6] then our discussion of the best strategy comes to an abrupt conclusion if we assume that land is all that matters. If only land matters, then achieving the desired effect via the continental theory of war promulgated by some strategists answers our question. As Corbett suggested:

Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.[7]

Is this settled theory or should we concern ourselves with the nagging implications of Corbett’s fear of the possible? How should we properly understand the latter part of Corbett’s statement regarding the former’s pious and possibly sole finality? Wylie offers us insight when he suggests, “there are actually two very different categories of strategies that may be used in war.”[8] He categorized these strategies as sequential and cumulative:

Normally we consider a war as a series of discrete steps or action, with each one of this series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it. The total pattern of all the discrete or separate actions makes up, serially, the entire sequence of the war. If at any stage of the war one of these actions had happened differently, then the remainder of the sequence would have had a different pattern. The sequence would have been interrupted and altered. But there is another way to prosecute a war…. The other is cumulative, the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling on top of the other until at some unknown point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical. They are not incompatible strategies, they are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. In practice they are usually interdependent in their strategic result.[9]

“[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect,” Lukas Milevski suggests, “whereas a cumulative strategy would utilize the innate capacity of force to inflict damage.”[10] Sequential strategies strive for finality in achieving strategic effect, while cumulative strategies effectively deny such finality.

U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descend to the ground after jumping out of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft over drop zone Sicily during Joint Operations Access Exercise at Ft. Bragg, N.C. (Photo by A1c James Richardson, USAF)


Both strategies are best understood as complementary sides of the same coin, rather than inherently hierarchical or opposing inferior viewpoints. Sequential strategy promotes inherently offensive assertions of control, while cumulative strategy is an inherently defensive aspect of control that saps the strength of an adversary’s assertions for control.[11] These categorizations are not exhaustive, but they are useful in explaining how merging sequential and cumulative strategies jointly enhance strategic effect.

So, what aspects of joint action are typical of sequential and cumulative strategies? Conventional land power is a sequential strategy because of its unique ability to control political territory. Only conventional land power can assert control by seizing political territory, and only conventional land power can achieve control by protecting that valued territory. Alternatively, forms of power promoting cumulative strategies are sea power, air power, space power, and cyber power. Guerrilla warfare is also a cumulative strategy. All cumulative strategies, however, lack direct control upon the territorial imperative.[12]

Explanation of Joint Action via Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

A U.S. soldier shares grapes with Afghan boys in the southern province of Kandahar. (Photo by Tony Karumba)


It would seem inherent in Wylie’s suggestion that the “ultimate determinant” of control “in war is the man on the scene with a gun.”[13] However valid this point might be, as suggested above with the coin analogy, it illuminates only one part of the whole. War is a “duel on a larger scale” between opponents with varied capabilities and strategies at their disposal. There is room on both sides for misconceptions about the nature of the aforementioned coin.

Zealots will always promise “decisive” war termination via either type of strategy, omitting the obligatory importance of jointness. Slogans such as “Victory through air power,”[14] and “[land power] when specific outcomes matter,”[15] illustrate two such examples. Sometimes these are suggested as result of unwitting reductionism, but can also be the polemic tools of ideology or cynical competition for resources. The greatest barrier to joint action is parochial thinking that does not fully appreciate other strategic viewpoints, more precisely, a blend of sequential and cumulative strategies.

Relationship of Jointness to the Interaction of Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

While finality is possible with sequential strategies, hostility is always at play. War rarely allows for a single decisive blow, nor is the ultimate outcome of a war usually to be regarded as final. Additionally, lest we commit ourselves wholly to the lure of “decisive” strategies, one can never overlook the political constraints dictated by context in asserting control.[16] Clearly, there is more to consider than a simplified perspective of “decisiveness.”

Milevski illuminates the interplay between cumulative and sequential strategies further:

Cumulative strategy is underappreciated, in part because it cannot be ‘of itself reliably decisive’…. Its effect is limited and only works over time, anathema to those strategists whose aim is short, decisive wars. Cumulative strategy can on its own only achieve a denial of control the result of which is to obscure the choices that really are available and the consequences they may have…. Bereft of the ability to take, it cannot force a conclusion upon [an adversary] unwilling to accept it, as may be ultimately possible with sequential strategy…. To those not trained to think in terms of control, denial of control as an operational method seems inexplicable as it does not fall into more popular categories of operations such as direct and indirect or attritional or maneuver. Bereft of an intellectual framework, however implicit, practitioners facing a cumulative strategy have no way of understanding the character of the threat they face. This lack of comprehension affects not only the strategy chosen to counter it, but also practitioners’ grasp of who is more strongly affecting whom.[17]

The interaction of cumulative and sequential strategies is complex. As a result, it is useful to consider this interaction during the ongoing debate over war termination, counterinsurgency operations, and even resourcing of our future military capabilities. In each of these areas, success will be secured by balanced use of cumulative and sequential strategies in a joint and thoughtful manner.

Anticipation within a Positive View of Joint Action

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, 2011. (Via Wikimedia Commons)


Wylie’s theory of control viewed through the dichotomy of sequential and cumulative strategies is not meant to be prescriptive nor mathematical. After all, the interplay between friendly and adversarial combinations must be tested in real war.[18] Actual context requires the subjective blend of these strategies into unified action. By understanding the core of control as having two equally important strategies, sequential and cumulative, one grasps the fundamental basis of jointness as a principle in achieving a desired strategic effect.

“One can sense a very real possibility that this concept of sequential and cumulative strategies operating in coordination,” Wylie suggests, “may help us form more valid judgments of the interrelationship between ground and air, ground and sea, and sea and air forces.” Since he wrote these words, technology has irrevocably changed the modes of warfare making this interrelationship more complicated. Nevertheless, Wylie grasped the most important element of the debate when he suggested that control was best achieved via an interoperable application of both cumulative and sequential strategies.[19] It is for this reason that strategists should willfully acknowledge and be driven by a holistic understanding of the necessity for jointness, rather than by force of law. My personal theory suggests that this approach to joint action will increase success in translating tactical action into strategic effects that promote our national interests.

[1] This essay is greatly indebted to the works of Clausewitz, Corbett, Colin Gray, Lukas Milevski, and especially J.C. Wylie as the means for developing a basis of joint action. The latter’s work in Military Strategy is especially useful in parsing out how cumulative and sequential strategies drive how we think about war. Also, the author would like to thank Jeremy Renken, Scott Shipman, and Nick Prime for exchanges that further illuminated Wylie’s theory of control to me.

[2] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 209–211.

[3] If Sir Julian Corbett is the first joint theorist, then J.C. Wylie’s insistence upon integrated sequential and cumulative strategies as a prerequisite for political advantage within a military context demands that he be held as a close second.

[4] J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick, N.J.,: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 110.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 95, 97.

[6] Gray, Modern Strategy, 212–216; Wylie, Military Strategy, 85; Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 377; Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2 (January 18, 2012): 234.

[7] Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 16.

[8] Wylie, Military Strategy, 26.

[9] Ibid., 23–24, 26.

[10] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229.

[11] Ibid., 234, 235.

[12] Ibid., 232–234.

[13] Wylie, Military Strategy, 85.

[14] H.C. Potter et al., Victory Through Air Power (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Pictures, 1943), accessed May 23, 2014.

[15] Huba Wass De Czege, The Hard Truth about “Easy Fighting” Theories: The Army Is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter, Essay, The Landpower Essay Series (Association of the United States Army, April 2013), accessed January 14, 2014.

[16] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 75–89, 577, 593–594.

[17] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 235–236.

[18] Wylie, Military Strategy, 29.

[19] Ibid., 27–29, 33–35.