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Eight Good Questions Strategic Thinkers Should Ask

This article originally featured on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Aaron Bazin

Strategic thinking can happen almostb anywhere: in a conference room, a university lecture hall, or in the dark basement of a military headquarters. If you think about it, really anyone can do it, from a president to an Army private, from a subject matter expert to an armchair general. Although anyone can do it at any time and in any place, doing it well is neither easy nor is it commonplace.

A variety of research projects have sought to uncover what it means to think strategically in the military context. In general, strategic thinkers act primarily in one of four roles: leader, advisor, practitioner, or planner. To function effectively in these roles require the skills of information gathering, learning, critical thinking, creative thinking, thinking in time, and systems thinking. Building upon these ideas, the purpose of this article is to explore some of the timeless questions that strategic thinkers can ask to help themselves and others think clearly about issues of strategic significance.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS, ASSUMPTIONS, AND LIMITATIONS?

"My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)
“My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” Vice President Dick Cheney on Meet The Press. (NBC)

This question is so basic it is often forgotten or glossed over, but asking it is absolutely essential. In a strategic context, there are a tremendous number of facts to consider. The key is to identify the ones that really matter the most without going too far and reaching the point of paralysis by analysis. As for assumptions, if never surfaced and debated they represent a sizable gap in one’s logic. Many failures at the strategic level are due to people insufficiently discussing assumptions, or worse, dismissing them outright. One recent example that highlights the importance of good assumptions is when decision makers assumed that the troops that invaded Iraq in 2003 would be “greeted as liberators.”

While strategic thinkers always should try to think in an unconstrained manner, there always exist some physical, logistical, moral, or financial limits to what is possible. Failure to understand the parameters and limits of a strategic approach has led to many military overextensions throughout history (e.g., Napoleon in Russia, Soviet Union in Afghanistan, etc.). Much like the enemy, the real world always gets a vote. Understanding the limiting factors and developing a common understanding of the problem are supporting activities, which leads to the next question.

WHAT IS THE STRATEGIC PROBLEM AND DOES IT PRESENT ANY OPPORTUNITIES?

Uncovering a problem statement is also essential, but often overlooked. Many strategic thinkers immediately dive in and start describing what must be done. In a fast-paced environment, it can be very tempting to do this, but it should be avoided. Fundamentally, if you do not pause and take the time to identify the problem you are trying to solve, how can you ever hope to solve it?

One of the easiest and most effective ways to develop a problem statement is to spot the gap between the current conditions and the desired conditions (the “want-got” gap). What is almost magical about developing a problem statement is that if you get it about right, the answer should begin to reveal itself, even in the most difficult of situations. Of course, most strategic problems are complex or wicked and change over time. Therefore, it is important for the strategic thinker to not only ask this question early, but also ask it again and again as the strategic problem unfolds.

By their nature, military thinkers often tend to think about negative, worse–case scenarios and outcomes. To take a more optimistic approach, one may find it valuable to look for opportunities as well as problems. The idea here is this: if one can seize small opportunities over time, this can build irreversible momentum and eventually bring about positive change. Overall, this question helps focus time, effort, and resources in a coherent, positive, singular direction.

WHAT ENDURING INTERESTS ARE AT PLAY?

Many strategic thinkers seek to implement parrot the latest policy position they heard without fully thinking about the inherent interests at play. Some argue that interests such as prosperity, values, security, and legitimacy, will always be important despite which direction the political winds are blowing. The strategic thinker should try to understand how the political intent is tied to the enduring interests that will remain long after a political position has changed. This question helps one put the problem in context and reflect upon the deeper strategic meaning behind the problem and its possible solutions.

IN THE PAST, WHICH STRATEGIES WORKED, WHICH DIDN’T, AND WHY?

The lessons of the past are always there to school the strategic thinker if they are willing to listen. Of course, events will rarely unfold exactly the same way twice, but there are often important echoes from the past to be heard in the present. This question suggests that strategists would be well served by looking for practical advice from history and tying those lessons to prudent courses of action in the present. Neustadt and May’s Thinking in Time describes even more questions that help the strategic thinker make the most effective use of history. The benefits of this question are that it helps one reflect upon the past and generate possible options on what can be done today.

WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS (AND WHICH ONE IS THE LEAST WORST)?

In the past, policy makers may have been satisfied with being presented between one and three courses of action. Today, many policy makers demand strategic advice as a menu of options, where they can pick and choose what to implement and when to implement it. In these cases, the strategic thinker has to think divergently and come up with as many options as possible. As strategic problems rarely have solely military solutions, strategic thinkers should have the ability to develop options that include elements of national power beyond just the “M” in the Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic (DIME) model. Of course, with wicked problems, there are often no good options, just a series of progressively bad ones.

HOW DOES THIS ALL END?

It is easy for a strategic thinker to become so engrossed with the minutiae of the problem that they can lose sight of their goal. Perhaps, at times, the goal shifts and the previously agreed upon destination is now a fool’s errand. That is why this question is so important. The strategic thinker must have the ability to take a break from the crisis of the day and take the long view. Because there is often so much uncertainty surrounding strategic problems, reflecting on the end state is often difficult. However, if you do not know where you really want to go, any road will take you there.

IS THIS WORKING?

When a policy is approved or a plan is signed, the thoughts captured on the document are frozen in time and begin their rapid descent into irrelevancy. This is a natural progression where a key concept’s idea is game-changing today, much less so in six-months, and barely remembered a year later. The key here for the strategic thinker is to not rest too much and remain in a state of continual assessment and advocate appropriate change as events unfold. As strategic problems are usually both quantitative and qualitative in nature, keeping an open mind to all types and sources of information is prudent.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Even the best strategic ideas are subject to failure if the follow through is lackluster, therefore, it is important to always ask what happens next. Every strategic choice comes with some degree of risk. These risks should be understood and, if possible, mitigated. In addition, with complex problems many issues remain unseen, and there is always the possibility of unintended consequences. Many strategic shortcomings are the result of taking prudent action in the present that results in future blowback that was unforeseen at the time.  An excellent example is the lack of U.S. follow through in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, popularized in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.

CONCLUSION

The level of responsibility placed on the shoulders of a strategic thinker can be daunting. The ability to think clearly is difficult in situations where time is of the essence, lives are on the line, or billions of dollars are on the table. It is precisely because of the high-stakes that good strategic thinkers need to ask good questions to uncover good answers. Of course, there are many questions that strategic thinkers should ask and this list is simply one starting point. In the end, the quality of one’s strategic thought will be directly proportional to the time and effort they put into the endeavor, no more and no less.

 Aaron Bazin is career Army officer with over 20 years of leadership and experience at the combatant command level, NATO, and the institutional Army.  Aaron was the lead-planner for four numbered contingency plans between 2009 and 2012, and has operational experience in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and UAE. He is the author of the new book, Think: Tools to Build Your Mind. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: A reporter raises his hand to ask a question as US Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Commander of US Forces-Iraq, delivers an operational update on the state of affairs in Iraq during a press briefing at the Pentagon, 4 June 2010. (Cherie Cullen/DoD Photo)

CALL FOR ARTICLES: Movie Re-Fights (Dec 14-20)

As Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, people are already arguing over what the nature of the new Empire, or how the Rebellion has evolved. Many are debating the nuance of how these fictional sides even fight their wars to begin with, a question that remains delightfully open ended for most fictional war movies. So, we decided to use opening week as an excuse to throw down the gauntlet!

For any film – Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, Aliens, Independence Day, Top Gun, Rambo II-IV, Battleship, Tears of the Sun, the Great Escape, Failsafe, Master & Commander  – we are looking for articles answering the time-old cinema debate: How would you have done things differently, and why? How would you have fought the battles, the firefights, executed the operations, or set your rules of engagement? How would you have negotiated the treaties or… betrayed them? Maybe you wouldn’t have done anything differently – which is another fine argument to make. Perhaps, like the insanely plausible idea that Jar-Jar is a sith lord, you have a conspiracy theory to share… no worries, we’re not picky.

There was a recent article that suggested Star Wars could “prove” an operational concept couldn’t work, but movies can’t “prove” anything. We can, however, use them as a proxy by wish to discuss our ideas on strategy, politics, and military operations.

Week Dates: 14-20 Dec 15
Articles Due: 6 Dec 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

God and The Great Naval Theorist

 

God and Seapower

God and Seapower: The Influence of Religion on Alfred Thayer Mahan by Suzanne Geissler.  USNI Press, October 15, 2015. 280pp. $39.95.

For many of us, Alfred Thayer Mahan is certainly no stranger. His theories and writings have been talked about and analyzed for years.  They have been savored by everyone from the President of the United States, the lowly Naval War College graduate, and many others around the world.  Thus, it is always refreshing to read something new and interesting about this well-known and often talked about historical figure. Suzanne Geissler has done just that.  Professor Geissler has delivered some fresh insights and probably stirred some debate with her new book, God and Seapower.  The book is a fascinating look into Mahan’s life by focusing on his religious beliefs. At 280 pages this book is a nice size; something that can be read in a week and yet she still manages to cover ATM’s life, from childhood to wise naval theorist, quite nicely.  Recently I had the opportunity to interview Professor Geissler about her new book.  What follows is the transcript of our interview which was conducted over e-mail.

Why Mahan and Religion?  Why did you want to write this book?

My specialty is American religious history, but I have always been interested in military and naval history, more as a hobby than a professional specialization.  Many years ago – I don’t remember why or in what context – I read that Mahan was an Episcopalian.  I’m an Episcopalian, too, so I just filed that away as an interesting factoid, but didn’t think much more about it.  Then some years later I read Robert Seager II’s biography of Mahan and came away disappointed in the book, but intrigued further about Mahan’s religious involvement.  I did a little digging and discovered that he wrote extensively about religion and church issues.  There was tons of stuff out there that no one had ever looked at in a serious way.  I thought there had to be a significant story here.

The book, in part, is a counter argument to one of Mahan’s most well-known biographers, Robert Seager II.  Readers will quickly realize that you disagree with many of Seager’s opinions.  Who was Seager and why do you disagree with him so strongly?

Seager was a former merchant mariner who had become an academic historian.  A few years prior to his biography coming out he, along with Doris Maguire, had co-edited Mahan’s papers.  He used that as the raw material for his biography of him.  The problem with the book, as I think is readily apparent after only reading a few pages, is that Seager thoroughly disliked Mahan.  Now I’m not saying that a biographer has to like his subject, but there needs to be at least an attempt to be fair and look at the sources in an impartial manner.  But Seager so disliked Mahan – as though he knew him personally and couldn’t stand the guy – that it colored the entire book.  Everything Mahan did throughout his whole life, from the trivial to the monumental, is presented in the worst possible light.  Also, the whole book is written in a sarcastic tone – what today we would call snarky – that becomes really tiresome after a while.  My biggest beef with Seager is that he loathes – and I don’t think that’s too strong a word – Mahan’s religious devotion and piety and thinks it is the root of all that makes Mahan so – and these are Seager’s words – arrogant, egotistical, racist, to name a few.  Seager is entitled to his own opinion, of course, but the more I got into the sources, Mahan’s own letters and writings, the more I saw that Seager had no interest in being fair or even attempting to understand Mahan in the context of his own time.  My other complaint about Seager is that on numerous occasions he either disregarded what a source clearly said or twisted it out of context in order to present Mahan in a bad light.

On what points do you agree with Seager on Mahan?

The only thing I agree with Seager on is his statement that Mahan wrote the most influential book by an American in the nineteenth century.

You mention Mahan’s father and uncle were two of the biggest religious influences in his life.  How so?

Mahan’s father, Dennis Hart Mahan, was a former Army officer and professor of engineering at West Point for almost fifty years.  He was a monumental figure at West Point and in the Army officer corps.  In those days the field of military engineering included strategy, tactics, and military history.  So Alfred had a role model of exceptional brilliance whom Army officers – including people such as Grant and Sherman – held in awe.  Alfred got his introduction to military history through his father.  But Dennis was also a devout Christian and Episcopalian who modeled those attributes to his son.  Dennis epitomized the 19th– century ideal of a “Christian gentleman” but in a way that was genuine, not superficial.  Milo Mahan, Dennis’s younger half-brother, was an Episcopal priest and professor of church history at General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal seminary in New York City.  Alfred lived with him for two years (when Alfred was fourteen – fifteen and attending Columbia University), a period which imbued him with Milo’s High Church piety.  For the next fourteen years or so, Milo was Alfred’s main theological mentor.  They had an extensive correspondence and Milo provided Alfred with reading lists of theological works which Alfred read on long sea voyages.  As Alfred told his fiancée, Milo was the man he went to with any biblical or theological questions.  All that reading, under Milo’s guidance, in effect gave Alfred the equivalent of a seminary education. 

Mahan’s father, I didn’t realize, was well-known in political and military circles in the 19th century.  When did Mahan step out of his father’s shadow?

One of my favorite anecdotes occurs in the waning days of the Civil War.  Alfred is on Admiral Dahlgren’s staff stationed off Savannah when the victorious General William Tecumseh Sherman arrives in the city.  Alfred goes ashore to see Sherman bearing a congratulatory telegram from his father.  Sherman greets him by saying “What, the son of old Dennis?”  Certainly, for more than half of his active duty career Alfred was best known for being Dennis’s son.  He doesn’t really emerge from his father’s shadow until the publication of his first book The Gulf and Inland Waters in 1883 when he’s forty-three.  This book leads to his appointment at the Naval War College which in turn leads to the publication of his lectures as The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. 

Mahan loved his dog, Jomini. And as you quote, Mahan believed his dog would go to heaven when he died.  Was this belief, that  a dog’s soul goes to heaven, abnormal for an Episcopalian at this time?  

Mahan never expounds on the reasons that he believes his dogs, Jomini and Rovie, went to heaven, so I have to extrapolate based on what I know about this issue and Mahan’s own beliefs. 

Alfred Thayer Mahan's dog, Jomini. Courtesy of USNI Press.
Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dog, Jomini. Courtesy of USNI Press.

As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls.  Most Protestants, though, considered the “soul” issue irrelevant and based their view – that we will see our beloved pets in heaven – on the fact that animals clearly are part of creation and God has promised that all creation will be redeemed (Romans 8:21).  Mahan knew his Bible thoroughly so I’m willing to bet that he would have based his view on this scripture rather than abstract speculation on whether animals have souls or not.

One of your more, shall we say, contentious statements, is that Mahan’s  The Influence of Sea Power Upon History was inspired by God.  Could you expand on this?  

Well, I don’t claim that, but Mahan certainly did.  In his autobiography, From Sail to Steam, he made reference to his “special call” to be a naval historian, or, more specifically, to be the expositor of the importance of sea power on the course of history.  He never claimed that he discovered the concept.  He was always generous in crediting previous historians whose thought influenced his.  But he claimed that “in the fullness of time” – a biblical expression — the call was given to him to be the one who explained it and drew the correct implications from it.

What did Mahan think of Catholics?  Other Christians?  Other religions?

I’m simplifying a lot here, but, basically, Mahan had a kind of layered view of religious categories.  Christianity was better than other, i.e. non-Christian, religions (though Judaism was in a special category as Christianity’s older brother, so to speak).  Within Christianity, Protestantism was best, and within Protestantism, Anglicanism was best.  Having said that, I should point out that the groupings within Christianity related mainly to polity (types of church governance), liturgy (forms of worship), and history.  Mahan clearly had his preferences, but he never claimed that, for example, there was only one true church.  For him the most important thing was to be a Christian.  If you loved Jesus and accepted him as Lord and Savior, it did not matter what denomination you belonged to.  In a similar vein, Mahan once stated that he would cooperate with any Christian group in evangelistic or missions work as long as such a group did not include Unitarians.  He did not consider them Christians since they did not recognize the divinity of Jesus.  One of the things that makes Mahan so fascinating to me is that he’s not easily pigeon-holed into conventional religious categories.  On the one hand he’s very much a High Church Episcopalian, but he’s also very much a born-again evangelical. 

Was Mahan able to separate his writing?  That is, did he keep naval theory separate from his religious writing?  It seems like he was able to live in two different worlds on the page, yet his religious life infused everything he did.

Mahan was actually quite sophisticated in his historical methodology.  He understood that history and theology were two different fields, each with its own ways of interpreting events.  As a Christian he believed that God was the sovereign creator and ruler of the universe and God’s decrees always came to pass.  However, he understood that God operated through what theologians called “secondary causes,” that is the choices made by human beings and their resultant actions.  A historian deals with secondary causes.  It was extremely rare for Mahan to speculate on God’s purposes in his naval history writings. 

US Naval Academy Chapel circa 1850s. Courtesy of USNI Press.
US Naval Academy Chapel circa 1850s. Courtesy of USNI Press.

For those readers that wish to read a book on Mahan after they read your book, what do you recommend? 

I recommend Jon T. Sumida’s Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered.  This is a fascinating book full of original insights on Mahan. 

Are there other historians working today that do not have a theology background, yet pay serious consideration to their subject’s religious belief?  Specifically, military biographies?

This is difficult for me to answer since I don’t really know who is working on what topics, especially in military biography.  But the two naval historians who were most helpful and encouraging to me when I undertook this project, Jon Sumida and John Hattendorf, are both very interested in religion and the role it plays in people’s lives.  And they both have a positive view of it rather than a negative one.  Hattendorf, particularly, is very knowledgeable about the Episcopal Church.  In his editing of the writings of Admiral Stephen B. Luce he does incorporate a discussion of Luce’s piety. 

Why do you think religion so often takes a back seat when we discuss historical figures — past or present? Or does it?

As I mentioned, my field is religious history, so for most of the people I read and study about, by definition, religion is important.  However, you’re right, in other historical sub-fields religion is usually ignored or misunderstood.  For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to mind.  Even in a case such as that, where you would think the religious angle would be obvious – his being a clergyman and pastor — there are some writers who have downplayed that and made his story one of “social justice” and politics, completely ignoring the biblical roots of his thought, not to mention his dramatic conversion experience.  I don’t like to generalize about historians, but in order to answer your question, I’ll do it anyway!  Most present day historians are either indifferent or hostile to religion, especially the notion of an individual having a personal encounter with God, or believing that God has called that person to a specific task in life.  Some writers see this sort of thing as just an eccentricity, not necessarily bad, but of no real significance.  Others take a more negative view and see religious faith as a personality defect that could have pernicious consequences.  One thinks of all the historians who have blamed the defects of the Versailles Treaty on Woodrow Wilson’s Presbyterian piety. 

Suzanne Geissler received her Ph.D. in history from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.  She also holds a Master of Theological Studies degree in church history from Drew University.  She is professor of history at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.  Her previous books include Jonathan Edwards to Aaron Burr Jr., Lutheranism and Anglicanism in Colonial New Jersey, and “A Widening Sphere of Usefulness”: Newark Academy 1774-1993.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson is a US naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the US Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island.  The opinions above do not necessarily reflect those of the US Department of Defense or the US Navy.

Capability and Intent in Developing Strategy

Robert Haddick argues early in his Fire on the Water that:

This book will make the case that with respect to China, U.S. policymakers will be wise to focus on China’s projected military capabilities and waste little effort attempting to discern the current or future intentions of China’s leaders. The reason is straightforward: intentions, and thus a country’s national security policies, can change suddenly. What matters for a leader’s calculations is whether the adversary has the instruments, including military capacity, to implement a revised policy. (p. 8)

This seems a reasonable proposition that simplifies the difficult problem of developing strategy. Intentions are fickle and subject to sudden change. Capabilities, by contrast, are relatively stable. They are the combined hardware, personnel, and doctrine that make up military forces. They have a substance to them which is countable and relatively certain. Defense analysts can be fairly certain that tanks will not suddenly transform into submarines. This stability makes it attractive to prioritize analyzing an opponent’s capabilities over identifying and analyzing their intent. It also tends towards the strategic shorthand of treating capability as intent. Unfortunately, ignoring intent or equating it with capability leads to flawed analysis for three reasons.

The first is that ignoring intent denies an opponent’s agency. War is a competitive endeavor between at least two opposing parties. If we are developing a strategy to achieve our goals it is because there is an opponent who would see our goals go unrealized. Our opponent can and will act in order to prevent us achieving our objectives. Our opponent will also act to achieve their own objectives, which are either diametrically opposed to ours, of a different nature, or somewhere in between. Ignoring intent is to argue that our opponent’s objectives are irrelevant to their behavior and that our opponent is simply an object to be acted upon. This never has and never will be the case in international relations. Opponents have the agency to act according to their own strategies in order to achieve their own objectives. To be clear, ignoring intent is not the same as saying an opponent’s intentions are difficult or impossible to comprehend. It is often difficult to identify an adversary’s true objectives, but it is always possible to propose a certain set of opponent intentions and assign a probability to each. It is also possible to discard a certain number of possible opponent goals, no matter how achievable. This thought experiment has the benefit of at least attempting to understand where our opponent is most likely to devote their finite resources and how they may develop their own strategy. Acknowledging an opponent’s agency ensures that we appreciate the inherently interactive nature of strategy as we seek to develop our own.

The second reason is that ignoring adversary intent prevents us from prioritizing our own limited resources. Looking at every enemy capability and asking how it will affect our strategy opens up a near infinite set of effects that must be considered and then countered if not moderated by a theory of most-likely adversary intentions. Take the following small example. Say Country A builds a squadron of advanced multi-role fighter aircraft capable of air defense, ground attack, and strike missions. Country B, a potential opponent, sees this and, ignoring Country A’s motives, determines these aircraft pose a threat to its own air, ground, and naval forces. It therefore develops countermeasures for its forces across all three domains, spending its resources to defeat Country A’s capability. Reasonable, no? But what if Country A had no intention of using these aircraft for the strike or ground attack roles? Country B wasted valuable, limited resources developing defenses against these capabilities. Or suppose Country A truly developed its military to defend against Country C. Country B’s resources were entirely wasted. A final case to consider is if Country B invested resources to build a military that never had any hope of matching Country A. In this case, assume that even if Country B devoted 100% of its gross domestic product to defense, Country A would still overmatch B’s military capabilities. Country B’s defense expenditure could be a total loss if the goal was to deter Country A. These are extremely simple examples, but history is rife with cases of wasted military expenditure designed to counter the wrong enemy or to deter the undeterrable. Focusing only on capabilities, the tendency is to expand threat horizons through well intentioned, but nearly infinite, what-ifs. These what-ifs demand answers, and answers cost money, time, and energy, all of which are limited. Again, strategy is interactive and we cannot consider opponent actions in a vacuum of their intentions.

The third reason is that even supposedly dispassionate capability analysis is subject to cognitive biases. The objects that define capabilities may be concrete, but that does not mean they are of necessity a firmer foundation for analysis. Ships are famously black boxes impervious to detailed peacetime analysis. Haze gray and underway, two nation’s destroyers appear roughly the same, and admirals assume they will operate the same way. But this may simply be mirror-imaging. Perhaps, unbounded by our mental shackles, our opponent has developed some new tactic, technique, or procedure or improved weapon system that generates new possibilities for employing their ship. Ignoring to what end our opponent would use their ships, we are left open to assuming our own tactical and operational art on our opponent. A focus on the technical aspects of adversary capabilities, often necessary in the naval context, can also hamper attempts to come to deeper understandings of operational employment. Mirror-imaging is also a criticism leveled at defense analysts attempting to understand Chinese strategy. The argument in the cited article is that American analysts believe China is pursuing an A2/AD strategy because that is what the U.S. would do if it was in the same position as China and had the same capabilities as the People’s Liberation Army. Ignoring Chinese intentions is exactly the logic that results in equating PLA military capability with Chinese national strategy. Continuing to foster analysis that does not engage with Beijing’s known or likely intentions is not likely to result in better analysis. Cognitive bias is possible in analyzing capabilities and in understanding adversary strategies more widely. Ignoring adversary intentions only serves to make the problem worse by discarding half the material available for understanding an opponent’s strategy.

Ultimately, strategy is competitive. It is crafted to deal with living, breathing, thinking opponents. In order to defeat an opponent we must understand them. This requires empathy, which means intimately understanding their thought processes, fears, and ultimately their intentions. If we focus only on their capabilities we run not only the risk of misunderstanding their capabilities, but also projecting our own intentions on our opponents, leading to incorrect strategic conclusions. Analyzing military capability is difficult, and adding intent to the mix only makes it more difficult to create sound strategy. But ignoring an opponent’s intentions in developing strategy is like navigating dangerous waters using a chart without soundings.

Ian Sundstrom is a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the United States Department of Defense.