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Incorporating Uncertainty into the Integrated Force Structure Assessment

Integrated Force Structure Week

By Jack McKechnie

The U.S. Navy has perhaps the toughest problem among the U.S. armed services for planning long-term force structure. Navy ships and submarines are much more expensive and require far longer times to procure compared to the military equipment of the other services. As a result, Navy force planners must consider long-term time horizons to create the force structure the nation needs given the projected threat environment and operational conditions.

Due to large capital expenditures over many budget cycles, the Navy provides to Congress a 30-year shipbuilding plan usually once a year.1 But anticipating the future warfighting environment over the next 30 years is a difficult task involving considerable uncertainty. While force structure assessments (FSA) can mitigate uncertainty through a variety of techniques, significant risk remains. A candid discussion of uncertainty and how we can adjust as unexpected conditions evolve would boost the value of the FSA, and set the stage for how measures could be instituted to ensure the FSA remains resilient and adaptive.

Three sources of uncertainty comprise the most significant risk over the long-term time horizon. Uncertainty of how potential adversaries will increase and modernize their forces is perhaps the most challenging aspect. In a world of great power competition as acknowledged by the U.S. National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, how great power competitors expand their capacity and capabilities is of paramount importance. Specifically, how the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chooses to expand the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is of upmost importance to the U.S. joint force. Accordingly, predictions of how the PLA Navy expands and modernizes is a chief factor for the U.S. Navy’s FSA.

The opaque nature of PLA budgeting and planning and the long-time horizon limits the confidence of force structure projections attempting to peer far into the future. Should the PLAN build and employ considerably more advanced platforms such as ballistic missile submarines and long-range strike cruisers over the next 30 years than the relatively low confidence level projections today suggest, the FSA will quickly be invalidated.

Another substantial source of uncertainty is understanding how a modern naval war between great powers will play out. Neither the U.S. Navy nor the PLAN have experienced the rigors of modern naval combat between highly capable systems and platforms. Our comprehension of how the conflict expands to include rivalry in the space and cyber domains and how the warfare environment is affected can best be described as educated speculation. The ability of each side to degrade or deny the other’s sensing and communication capabilities is highly uncertain in the face of determined resistance. Has the fundamental nature of warfare changed with the advent of increased firepower and other lethal capabilities, bestowing advantage to the defensive position, or have modern capabilities enhanced the ability of naval forces to offensively maneuver? How the fleet will fight will largely determine how the fleet is built, but myriad tactical dynamics of future warfighting remain unknown.  

A third source of uncertainty relates to how evolving technology will affect naval force capabilities and the warfighting environment. Will proliferation of unmanned platforms and advancing artificial intelligence render the maritime environment transparent so that even U.S. submarines will find it difficult to hide? To the contrary, perhaps swarming drone decoys and sophisticated algorithms could distract and degrade sensors so to enable extended freedom of maneuver for naval forces. Will swarms of unmanned platforms become a lethal and persistent aspect during a war, or will they face extensive early attrition due to counter drone technologies so that their impact is initially significant but acute? How will developing advanced firepower such as hypersonic weapons and directed energy alter the vulnerability or protection of forces?

While the questions above do not have simple answers or may not be answerable at this time, there are steps analysts can employ to mitigate the risks of the unknown.

Acknowledge uncertainty. Confidence levels should be thoroughly discussed, and low levels of confidence should be clearly acknowledged. A thorough discussion of the uncertainty and unknowable factors we face will help later as adjustments are necessary.

Define adjustment triggers. The FSA should have established criterion and triggers that describe when and how its findings should be adjusted as uncertainty changes over time. For example, if today’s best prediction of the number of Chinese SSBNs becomes inaccurate in a few years as unanticipated construction occurs, the FSA could identify this as a trigger point to reassess force structure with respect to U.S. ASW and missile defense capabilities.

Advocate. After the next FSA there will be disagreement about the suitability of the shipbuilding goal, which currently stands at 355. Some will advocate for a greater number, but consensus can be found for the factors clearly calling for an adjustment. Continued, dedicated expansion of the PLAN in ways that are not predicted now, but are flagged by adjustment triggers, would provide justification for an increase in U.S. Navy investment and procurement. Audiences such as the U.S. Congress and the American public at large can be prepared for the implications as information is revealed over time. Then demonstration of facts can best advocate for necessary FSA adjustments.  

Hedge. As the nature of warfighting evolves as well as the potential for new and developing technologies to make an impact, U.S. defense expenditures should aim to avoid missing a crucial development or dramatically misjudging the nature of future warfighting. This requires the continued development of expensive technologies to maintain an edge, even those that have not been as fruitful as anticipated, such as directed energy. In addition, material necessary for warfighting such as ammunition and fuel should be stockpiled in larger quantities and prepositioned forward as a relatively inexpensive means to compensate for an FSA that underestimates the opposing force and capabilities.

Expand to the Joint Force. The best FSA would account for the capabilities and forces of the Army and Air Force in addition to the Navy and Marine Corps. Navy and Marine Corps-only analysis is prone to myopically overlook the ability of other services to compensate for weaknesses or bolster strengths. A comprehensive assessment for the required capability and capacity of the entire Joint Force will result in the most efficient solution and avoid gaps or excess in key functions.

Through these measures the U.S. Navy and the Joint Force writ large could better align and adjust its force structure, and minimize the disruptive and deadly surprise that comes from when outdated force structure is finally thrust into war.

Jack McKechnie is a commander in the U.S. Navy and a graduate student at American University, School of International Service. The views expressed in this article are his own.

1. While the Navy also has plans for other platforms such as aircraft and unmanned vehicles or vessels, the shipbuilding plan receives the most focus due to  considerable higher cost per platform and longer time to build

Featured Image: SAN DIEGO (Oct. 15, 2019) Coastal Riverine Squadron (CRS) 3 Mark VI patrol boats provide escort protection to the landing platform dock ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) during its outbound transit in San Diego Bay as part of unit level training provided by Coastal Riverine Group (CRG) 1 Training and Evaluation Unit. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Boatswain’s Mate Nelson Doromal Jr./Released)

Integrated Force Structure Week Kicks Off on CIMSEC

By Dmitry Filipoff

This week CIMSEC will be featuring articles submitted in response to our Call for Articles on integrated force structure assessment. As the Navy and Marine Corps finalize an integrated force structure assessment that looks to align concepts and development, these authors share their thoughts on how to manage uncertainty and where critical changes may be made to current forces. We thank these authors for their contributions. 

Incorporating Uncertainty into the Integrated Force Structure Assessment” by Jack McKechnie
Sacred Cows For What? Considering Force Structure Cuts to Marine Infantry” by Walker D. Mills
The Next Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: Building a Stand-In Naval Force” by Lt. Col. Roy Draa, USMC

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org

Featured Image: ARABIAN SEA (May 22, 2007) – Ships assigned to the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, and the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group transits through the Gulf of Oman. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell)

At Mattis’s Side: Civil-Military Relations in the Age of Trump

By Dmitry Filipoff

CIMSEC had the opportunity to discuss with Commander Guy “Bus” Snodgrass, USN (ret.) his new book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis

The book takes readers inside the trials and successes of Defense Secretary James Mattis as he sought to transition the Defense Department toward great power competition, while also managing international tensions and uncoordinated White House policy shifts. Snodgrass reveals how civil-military relations fared under the Trump administration, how Mattis worked behind the scenes to reassure allies in spite of the president’s rhetoric, and how Mattis offered steady leadership in turbulent times. 

What made you want to write this book?

GS: A former Navy officer, I was taught early in my career the importance of passing on thoughtful lessons to those who will follow in our footsteps. 

So, I thought it was important to write this book. Consistent with the oath I took, I saw it as providing a service to the American people and those who would follow in my footsteps. I want readers to be able to share in my personal experience.

I was an eyewitness to an important, but under-documented, moment in American history, especially as it related to America’s military. I feel it’s also important to underscore the role our military plays in today’s hyper-politicized national security environment.

There’s a difference between talking out of school while on your boss’s staff or while they’re still in office. It’s quite another to reflect on the experience once they’re out of office in order to share lessons that others may benefit from.

Secretary Mattis is noteworthy for being a recently retired general who served in the top civilian position at the Defense Department. This came at a time when the White House delegated more operational authorities to DoD, and a growing perception that DoD civilians have waning influence compared to their military counterparts. How would you characterize civil-military relations under Secretary Mattis?

GS: There are several passages and chapters in the book dedicated to exploring this theme. 

Frankly, it was a challenging time for civ-mil relations. Far more junior (and active duty) military officers were expected to routinely provide direction to far more senior (and presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed) civilians. This was a construct fostered (and demanded) by retired Admiral Kevin Sweeney, Mattis’s chief of staff, and then-Rear Admiral Craig Faller, Mattis’s senior military assistant. We all worked within these confines to the best of our ability, but the minimization of civilian leaders, especially during Mattis’s first year, was a regular topic of conversation around the Pentagon. 

As with any leader, as subordinates you are expected to align with their vision and requirements to achieve mission success. In some cases, Mattis’s decision to lead in this fashion resulted in wins (the ability to move fast on issues of national and international significance), but it also reduced cohesiveness, diminished morale, and reduced the initiative of those in the lower ranks of the various OSD components.

When the president unexpectedly announced policy by tweet, whether Syria withdrawals or banning transgender people from serving, it clearly went against a core tenet of Mattis’s that was repeated throughout the book, the importance of alignment and coordination. When the president announced national security policy shifts with no warning or consultation, how did the damage manifest, and how would Mattis manage the aftermath?

GS: You are referring to Mattis’s template of working to ensure “transparency and alignment” within the Pentagon. To your point, we were caught off guard by numerous announcements, most notably the transgender ban, the creation of a Space Force, the cessation of military exercises with our South Korean allies, and the July 2018 threat in Brussels to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. 

This is akin to drawing your pistol from its holster, then blowing a hole in your own foot. 

There’s also no strategy behind these impulsive announcements. It’s not that they are staged for effect. When the president tweets a new policy shift, it tends to catch the administration off guard and, in many cases, our international allies and partners off guard as well.

The obvious danger is threefold: first, the administration is unable to coordinate, diminishing the ability to provide the president with a well-coordinated response that would better serve his policy decisions; second, allies and partners question America’s new course and wonder if America still remains the leader of choice in regions around the world; and third, our adversaries and competitors—nations like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are emboldened, and seek to exploit America’s perceived weakness/retrenchment.

For his part, Mattis would field phone calls from leaders around the world seeking reassurance. He would continually assure them that “America first does not mean America alone,” and that we still understood the importance of our alliances and commitments around the globe.

The book shows there was plenty of daylight between Mattis and President Trump when it came to managing relationships with allies. How did Mattis walk the tightrope of aligning with the president while also staying true to his own longstanding views of how to work with allies and respect their contributions despite policy differences? 

GS: Mattis continually reinforced that “there should not be one inch of daylight” between the public pronouncements from the White House and the Pentagon.

That being said, Mattis worked behind the scenes to provide his best advice to President Trump and others in the administration. He also worked closely with international leaders, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in particular, to reassure allies of America’s continued commitment to longstanding coalitions and alliances.

Secretary Mattis was considered one of the “adults in the room” who could manage Trump’s negative tendencies while also defending established policy. But as you note, after the ousters of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, Mattis was essentially the last man standing. How did Mattis’s ability to deal with the White House change after these senior officials were pushed out?

GS: I dedicate an entire chapter of the book, “The New Team,” to this change in Mattis’s stature within the administration. In short, it was readily apparent that Mattis was in trouble by April 2018. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both departed in relatively short order, leaving Mattis to wade into the role of running interference when disagreements in policy arose from within the White House.

In addition, the arrival of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton into their respective roles—both skilled political operatives— continued to diminish Mattis’s influence with President Trump. 

I highly recommend the book, as it provides a firsthand portrayal of how Mattis navigated his role throughout his two years within the administration.

Secretary Mattis found himself taking on a role as a senior diplomat, arguably more so than is usual for a Defense Secretary, and perhaps even a more trusted and credible diplomat than the first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. This occurred as the administration was attempting major cuts to the State Department and slashing the ranks of career diplomats. How did Mattis advocate for diplomacy as a tool of national security, and how was his interagency relationship with the State Department in particular?

GS: Mattis made clear that he and Tillerson were joined at the hip on the importance of diplomacy. Mattis continually deferred to Tillerson on issues of diplomacy, making sure that we all understood that the DoD’s role was to ensure America’s diplomats spoke from a position of strength. 

From my perspective, Mattis and Tillerson shared very similar worldviews regarding the importance of American participation in the international community, and on the importance of strengthening—not diminishing—our longstanding alliances and partnerships. As Churchill said, “The only thing more difficult than fighting alongside your allies, is fighting without them.” 

The internal divisions within the State Department, Tillerson’s relative disconnect from his own rank and file, and the media’s relentless coverage of Tillerson’s problems at State rapidly diminished his standing with the president, reducing his ability to advocate for State’s position within the White House.

In your roles as speechwriter and communications director you became intimately familiar with Mattis’s voice and views. What was that like, and how did it shape your view of Mattis?

GS: In several chapters of the book, I bring the reader into this process: the resources we had available to better understand Mattis’s worldview, our interactions with him on a continuing basis, and how we navigated crafting speeches that would require minimal interaction on his end. At the end of the day, the best possible outcome was a speech that I would send in to Mattis, and he would pass it back with no changes, or with minimal corrections. 

The role of chief speechwriter really afforded the incomparable opportunity to study Mattis up close and personal, to understand his worldview, and to be able to “channel” his words on the national and international stage.

It was an honor to have the opportunity to serve in that capacity, and to work alongside many stellar civil servants and military members throughout the Pentagon, as well as alongside two very talented speechwriters. 

Any final thoughts to share?

GS: Only that a lot of thought and consideration went into crafting this book, to include reaching out to senior mentors for their advice early in the writing process. It was important to craft a book that was historically accurate, that presented an apolitical view of Mattis’s two years in office, and that would stand the test of time. I saw it as a continuation of my service to capture my firsthand experiences in a memoir, one where I could also share lessons learned for those that read the book, and for those that will invariably follow in our footsteps.

Guy “Bus” Snodgrass recently served as director of communications and chief speechwriter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A former naval aviator and F/A-18 pilot, he served as a commanding officer of a fighter squadron based in Japan, a TOPGUN instructor, and a combat pilot over the skies of Iraq as part of his twenty-year navy career. Today he is the founder and CEO of Defense Analytics, a strategic consulting and advisory firm.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Content@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis briefs the press at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 29, 2017. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Being There Counts: Forward Naval Presence and a Theory of Influence

By Captain R. Robinson (Robby) Harris, USN (ret.)


In his November 1997 Proceedings article, Admiral Jay Johnson, the Chief of Naval Operations, reflected on the landmark white papers …From the Sea, Forward…From the Sea, and the Navy Operating Concept and opined, “…the purpose of the United States Navy is to influence, directly and decisively, events ashore…from the sea, anywhere, and anytime.”1 Scratch nearly any thoughtful naval officer and one finds an intuitive belief that naval forces, particularly forward present naval forces, possess the capability to affect events ashore, indeed even to deter actions by other nations. But how does the ability to influence events ashore really work? What is the theoretical underpinning? Such questions normally leave us mumbling platitudes and surveying the dust on our shoes. This paper is intended to begin to build a theoretical understanding of influence, particularly how forward present naval forces influence events and actors ashore.

Why a Theory of Influence

Before considering “how” forward present naval forces support and foster U.S. influence, first, let us briefly consider why a theory of influence is necessary in the first place. Who needs it? 

First, a theory helps us understand patterns of behavior. It helps us explain why events occurred in the past in a particular way, and a theory also serves as an aid in predicting future events. This does not mean that a theory will enable us to predict with perfect clairvoyance events of the future. What theory can do, however, is to allow us to “…trace the different tendencies which are inherent in the situation and to point out the different conditions which make it more likely for one tendency to prevail than for another, and, finally, assess the probabilities for the different conditions and tendencies to prevail in actuality.”2 The role of theory, then, is not just to account for the past or to explain the present but to provide a preview of what is to come. A theory of influence may be beneficial in helping us understand how nations have influenced each other in the past and to predict how influence may be accomplished in the future. Lastly, understanding how nations influence each other may help us deal with the issue of forward naval presence and how carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups affect influence.

A Definition of Influence

In the foreign policy arena, influence is an index of state power. Regarding power, it is often said that power is to foreign policy experts and practitioners what money is to economists: the medium via which transactions between states are measured and observed.3 Power, however, is a useful concept only in its relative sense. That is, absolute measures of military strength, gross domestic product, technological advancement, and others are helpful, but provide an incomplete gauge of power. Power cannot be adequately assessed until it is employed, and it is employed by nations engaged in the process of attempting to influence each other. Until one state attempts to influence another, we have no useful measure of power. Accordingly, the following definition is offered: influence is the ability of one state to secure a decision and/or an action or inaction by another state consistent with the former’s desires.4

Characteristics of Influence

Although not all inclusive, there are some important characteristics of influence.

All influence attempts are future-oriented. It is impossible to influence the past. Nor is it possible to influence the present unless a decision was made in the past to do so. Accordingly, all influence attempts are made to affect the anticipated future behavior of another state.

Influence does not necessarily imply a modification of another state’s behavior. There are situations in which one state (the influencee) is currently behaving and/or is predicted to behave as desired by another state (the influencer), but in which the influencer nevertheless attempts to increase the probability of continued favorable behavior. This type of influence activity on the part of the influencer is called reinforcement.5

Inter-nation influence is not dyadic in nature. For analytical or planning purposes, it is convenient to think only of the reciprocal influence of one pair of nations on each other, but clearly the international system is not a dyad. Many nations simultaneously influence many others, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally. Intentional or deliberate influence is called direct influence.6 Not only is the system characterized by reciprocity, but by multiple reciprocity.

Purposes of Influence

Having defined influence and reviewed some salient characteristics, let us now consider the purposes for which influence is used. Remembering that all influence is future-oriented, the following proposition is offered: Nations attempt to influence other nations for one of two purposes7 including to modify the anticipated behavior of another nation, and/or to assure or increase the probability of the anticipated behavior of another nation.

One normally thinks of attempts to influence behavior within the context of behavioral modification. That is, one nation predicts that the behavior of another nation will be unfavorable and via various means and with various tools attempts to influence the nation in question to modify the anticipated unfavorable behavior. But as posited above, nations also attempt to influence other nations to assure or to increase the probability that the nation in question will continue to behave favorably.

Influence Objectives

Let us now examine the objectives for which states attempt to modify or maintain/assure the behavior of other states. The following proposition is offered: the objectives for which states attempt to modify or to maintain the behavior of other states are based on the acceptability of the influencee’s predicted behavior. If the predicted behavior is favorable, the influencer will use means to promote or to reinforce the predicted behavior. On the other hand, if the predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer’s objective will be to employ means to deter or to compel the other nation. This taxonomy is presented in Table One.

If a nation predicts that another nation will behave favorably, clearly there would be no reason to attempt to modify that behavior. Similarly, if a nation predicts that another nation will behave unfavorably, there would be no reason to attempt to assure that behavior. On the other hand, if another nation’s predicted behavior is unfavorable, the influencer may elect to attempt to modify that behavior by attempting to deter the subject nation from taking a predicted unfavorable course of action. It should be noted that deterrence assumes that the influencee has not yet taken the unfavorable course of action. Compellence, conversely, assumes that the influencee has already taken an unfavorable course of action and must be influenced to rescind or withdraw from its unfavorable action.

If nations could predict with complete accuracy the behavior of other nations, efforts to promote or reinforce predicted favorable behavior would not be necessary. Because of the complexity of the international system and the poverty of intellectual disciplines involved, however, such predictability is not feasible. Accordingly, states attempt to increase the probability of anticipated favorable behavior by promoting behavior which is seen to be proceeding in a favorable direction and attempt to reinforce established favorable behavior.

Some examples of influence efforts to deter, compel, reinforce, and promote may be helpful:

  • Deterrence. The role of U.S. and Allied forces in Europe from 1945-1991 was to deter an attack by Soviet/Warsaw Pact forces. Similarly, Sixth Fleet forces in the Mediterranean were present to deter an attack on NATO’s southern flank.
  • Compellence. As Desert Shield/Storm coalition forces were mustered in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf from August 1990 through January 1991, threats were made to Saddam Hussein to compel him to withdraw from Kuwait. Because these threats (attempts to influence) were unsuccessful, actual use of force (armed conflict) was required to compel withdrawal.
  • Reinforcement. Among other objectives, the presence of U.S. forces in western Europe in the post-Cold War era also serves principally to reassure European allies of continued U.S. interest in European matters and reinforces current European policies favorable to the U.S. The Navy and Marine Corps conduct manifold exercises every year with friends and allies around the world to reinforce positive relations.
  • Promotion. In addition to stemming the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S., U.S. engagement in Latin America today serves to promote the evolving change to democratic governments and market driven economies. The presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Western Pacific promotes and reinforces peaceful relations among the nations of Northeastern and Southeastern Asia.

Techniques of Influence

Relations between nations range from complete consensus on almost all issues (U.S.-U.K.) to total discord on nearly all issues (U.S.-Iran). The amount and type of influence required for the influencer to achieve desired behavior on the part of the influencee varies with the nature of the relationship between two nations and their level of shared interests.

For example, when dealing with the U.K., in many if not most instances, very little if any influence is required for the U.S. to achieve its desires. This is because of the high level of shared interests between the two English-speaking nations. The situation between the U.S. and U.K. is rather like a family situation when a brother approaches his sister to enlist her support in making arrangements to obtain medical care for an ill parent. Because both siblings share a common interest in the health and well-being of the parent, normally no influence is required by the brother to gain the sister’s cooperation – a simple request may be sufficient.

On the other hand, since the 1979 revolution, the U.S. and Iran have shared so few common interests that extraordinary leverage has been required for the U.S. to achieve its desires vis-a-vis Iran and vice versa. These have ranged from crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to the use of force against Iranian military assets during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s.

Most relations between nations lie somewhere between the U.S.-U.K. and the U.S.-Iran extremes. On those occasions when influence is required, two broad categories of techniques are available to the influencer.

Techniques of Influence

A threat is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that unless the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to punish the influencee. A promise is a communication to the influencee by the influencer that if the influencee complies with the influencer’s desires, the influencer will act to reward the influencee. Although not necessarily always the case, in most instances threats are used to deter and to compel and promises are used to reinforce and promote.

Tools of Influence

With respect to the tools of influence, states may use diplomatic, economic, military, and informational tools to punish and to reward targets of influence.

Military tools of influence may be used to achieve military goals as well as political and economic objectives. Similarly, political and economic tools may sometimes be useful in gaining military objectives. For example, a trade embargo or conversely promising most favored nation trade status could be effective in deterring a nation from the sale of weapons of mass destruction. However, as relations between nations worsen, as they share fewer common interests, objectives can become more militarily dominated and defined, thereby causing the effectiveness of military tools of influence to increase.

Consider, for example, ensuring Iran compliance with UN sanctions. Although diplomatic demarches (political tool) and trade sanctions (economic tool) had been employed as threats to influence Iranian behavior, arguably the most effective tool to condition Iran’s actions is the presence of military forces (military tool) on the ground in allied states and naval forces on station in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea. Moreover, because the predominant concern of U.S. allies and friends in Middle East is one of military security (against an assertive Iran) military tools take on disproportionate influence for the U.S. in region.

The Effectiveness of Influence

Having derived a definition of influence, examined its characteristics, the purposes and objectives for which it is used, the techniques employed to achieve it, and the effect of shared interests on the requirements for the use of those techniques, let us now consider what makes influence effective.

Here we must examine the influencee’s decision calculus, and how the influencee weighs a range of outcomes of an influence situation. Two dimensions come into play: utility and probability.8 The degree to which the influencee likes or dislikes the prospect is called utility or disutility. The likelihood that the influencee assigns to the outcomes ever occurring is called probability. The influencee’s combined assessments of these two dimensions determines expectations and thus the influencee’s response to the influence attempt.

 Each nation has, either explicitly or implicitly, a continuum from good to bad along which it assesses outcomes of an influence attempt. The continuum is based on values systems and although values systems certainly are not uniform from nation to nation, there is some degree of similarity. Outcomes which tend to restrict a nation’s freedom of action are normally placed low on the utility scale (or high on the disutility scale). Conversely, outcomes which do not restrict freedom of action are placed high on the utility scale (low disutility score).

Nations do not, however, make decisions based solely on the attractiveness or unattractiveness of various potential outcomes. Nations also compare outcomes not only in terms of desirability, but also in terms of estimated likelihood. While some nations are more risk-prone than others, most nations are fairly conservative in foreign policy. They seldom commit resources and prestige to the pursuit of an outcome which seems improbable, regardless of how attractive the outcome may be.

Despite idiosyncrasies along one or the other dimension (utility/probability), nations combine both sets of considerations in responding to an influence attempt. The decision of how to respond to an influence attempt is the result of a utility and probability calculation.

Thus, for an influence attempt to be successful, the influencer must address something that the influencee considers valuable (high utility) and the influencer must persuade the influencee that the influencer will take action as threatened or promised (i.e., the influencer must be perceived as credible). Thus, the utility-probability calculus determines influencee response both to threats (deterrence/compellence) and promises (reinforcement/promotion).

Recent studies suggest that there is another important dimension to credibility, one not based solely on military capability or political will to use military force, but the speed with which military power (influence) can be employed.9 That is, the influencee’s knowledge that the influencer possesses the capability to act without delay seems to be a key component in the influencee’s decision calculus. This, of course, bolsters and helps to explain the argument advanced by the Navy and Marine Corps regarding the special “shaping” (influencing) role of forward present Navy and Marine Corps forces. Their nearly constant presence in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean/Arabian Gulf, and western Pacific is a visible reminder to friend and foe alike of U. S. intent, capability, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to act swiftly.


So, what does all this discussion of a theory of influence add up to? Hopefully, it will help naval officers better understand what we tend to understand intuitively already: forward present naval forces play a special role in influencing (shaping) other nations.

These forces are able to fulfill both purposes of influence: Assure the continuation of anticipated positive behavior and modify anticipated negative behavior. They are able to achieve both objectives of influence: Promote/reinforce positive behavior, and deter anticipated negative behavior/compel reversal of negative faits accompli. They are able to convey both techniques of influence: promises of rewards for positive behavior and threats of punishment for negative behavior. They are able to affect the influencee’s decision calculus of utility and probability. Their diversity and breadth (from F-35s and F/A-18s, from LRASMs to Tomahawks, and to a Marine rifle company squad) and reach (to a thousand miles) permits them to reach out and touch something that matters (high utility) and their combat readiness gives them high credibility/probability of successful employment.

Being there counts. The ability to act without delay during the early days of a crisis or a potential crisis affects the influencee’s initial decision calculus in a special way. It precludes an opponent an early and easy fait accompli. It forces a rational opponent (influencee) to carefully evaluate carefully their courses of action. It tends to preclude impulsive behavior. It forces the influencee to conduct a utility/probability calculation. It buys us time to augment U. S. forces, if necessary. It gives us timely influence. And, at the end of the day, if the influence attempt is not timely, it is far less effective. Here in their forward presence lies the unique influence advantage of naval forces.

Captain Harris commanded USS Conolly (DD-979) and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore he served as Executive Director of the CNO Executive Panel. He was a CNO Fellow in CNO Strategic Studies Group XII. It was during his stint as a CNO SSG Fellow that this article was first begun. Captain Harris is indebted to Mr. Dmitry Filipoff for his efforts in updating the draft, sharping the arguments, and greatly improving the readability.


1. Proceedings, U. S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland, November, 1997.

2. Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York, Knopf, 1948), pp. 6-7.

3. This discussion of power is drawn from J. David Singer, “Inter-Nation Influence: A Formal Model,” American Political Science Review, 17, 1963.

4. This papers examines the use of forward presence as an instrument of US influence and, therefore, focuses on those actions taken prior to the actual use of force, i.e., armed conflict.

5. The term “reinforcement” is taken from Singer, Ibid.

6. Intentional or deliberate influence is called DIRECT influence. Unintentional influence is here labeled INDIRECT influence.

7. See Barry Blechman and Stephen Kaplan, Force Without War, Brookings, 1978, pp. 70-78.

8. The utility-probability concept is drawn from Singer, op. cit., pp. 424-426.

9. See, for example, Dr. Edward Rhodes, “Conventional Deterrence: Reivew of Empirical Literature unpublished paper for the Department of the Navy (N3/5) 1997.

Featured Image: Off the coast of Hawaii on 20 June 2000, the Abraham Lincoln Battle Group steams alongside one another for a Battle Group Photo during RIMPAC 2000. Ships involved are Tucson (SSN-770) & Cheyenne (SSN-773), Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Shiloh (CG-67), Bunker Hill (CG-52), Fletcher (DD-992), Paul Hamilton (DDG-60), Cromlin (FFG-37) and Camden (AOE-2). (USN photo by PH2 Gabriel Wilson)