Category Archives: Strategy

The CNO’s Navigation Plan for 2022: A Critique

This piece was originally published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Anthony H. Cordesman

There should be a clear difference between efforts to provide unclassified documents that explain and justify U.S. military forces and issuing official reports that are little more than public relations exercises. The U.S. faces major security challenges and the annual cost of U.S. defense is over $760 billion, even if one ignores the cost of nuclear weapons, the Veterans Administration, related activities of the State Department and other agencies, and substantial additional intelligence activity.

The effort to shape U.S. forces and strategy must deal with very real threats. They include a Russia that has invaded the Ukraine, a China that is actively seeking to challenge the U.S. in military and economic power, and regional threats like Iran and North Korea. The U.S. must cope with emerging and disruptive technologies that constantly alter the nature of military forces in unexpected ways, support America’s strategic partners on a global level, and deal with near collapse of many arms control efforts and major increases in Russian and Chinese nuclear and long-range strike programs.

Far too often, however, the Department of Defense issues documents that are little more than sales pitches – filled with slogans, and that are an awkward cross between a shipping list that borders on being a child’s letter to Santa Claus and a used car commercial.

The CNO’s Navigation Plan for 2022 is a case in point. In fairness, it does highlight a long list of important points about the threat, and the need to reshape U.S. naval forces, but it comes far too close to burying them in overall and hype. It fails to meaningfully address and justify the cost of the U.S. Navy, to provide any clear picture of the threat, to address the need to cooperate with key U.S. allies, and to provide a clear program for shaping the Navy’s future.

It is scarcely unique in failing to provide a clear and meaningful plan. The defense budget requests talk about being strategic documents, but almost all of their contents are shopping lists for individual military services. U.S. strategy documents have become little more than long lists of broad goals and wish lists with no actual plan, program, or budget.

The U.S. no longer issues a meaningful Five-Year Defense Plan (FDYP) with force levels and costs, and no real “net assessments” have been issued at the unclassified level. Aside from an annual report on Chinese Military Power, there are no documents that summarizes the threat, and reports on Russian and Iranian military power have not been updated for years. The U.S. State Department has finally killed a public report on World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers that once served as a reference for much of the world’s media and military analysis – one that it had already rendered confusing and difficult to use.

Still, the Navigation Plan for 2022 represents the kind of empty hard sell that no one needs and highlights the contrast between U.S. defense papers and the far more detailed and useful work done by some other countries – with Japan’s Defense of Japan 2022 being a prime example. The relentless hard sell is bad enough, and so is the tendency to deal with every possible issue by setting a goal that is little more than a slogan with no clear plan or priority for tangible action.

That said, the substantive problems in the Navigation Plan for 2022 go far deeper:

1. Strategy, Predictability and “the Five-Year Rule”

The Navigation Plan talks about planning for 2045 as if the needs for U.S. forces this far in the future were predictable. Like the Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) issues in the past, it tries to look too far into the future in grand strategic terms without addressing even near-term future and force costs in specific terms. It does so without recognizing the need to regularly update and revise a fully defined strategy for the coming year and a future period that was reasonably predictable.

In the real world, 2045 is a long, long way in the future, given global instability and the uncertain priorities for U.S. forces. In practice, we haven’t been able to do a particularly good job of throwing a FYDP together since the end of the Cold War. Figure One shows the turning points in U.S. force levels between 1950 and 2021. It is clear from this histogram that our history of military commitments since 1945 has had so many sudden shifts that it proves that it is barely possible to set goals for planning a workable strategy even five years into the future.

Figure One would also portray far more key points of uncertainty if it included a histogram of nuclear forces levels, strategic priorities, and the role of arms control. The same would be true if it included a histogram of the major shifts in China’s posture and goals and military spending, if it included a chart of the shifting impact of the past versions of new and disruptive technologies. And, if one needs a more tangible example of a massive sudden surge in military spending that had only minimal ties to sea power, Figure Two shows the pattern of unpredictable strategic commitments and military defense spending for the war in Afghanistan.

In practice, even efforts to draft a realistic Five-Year Defense Plan means constantly adjusting the past year’s FYDP on a rolling annual basis and taking account of civil needs and the steady growth of civil entitlement spending.

2. Assumptions about Future Spending and Resources

No one can credibly define a strategy without a force plan and clear assumptions about resources. Figure Three highlights the past levels of sudden change and uncertainty in U.S. forces and budgets and looks at some key budget trends. It warns that U.S. spending levels have steadily dropped as a percent of GDP since the height of the Korean War, and that a case for major increases in the quality of U.S. forces requires detailed justification.

Figure Four warns that current budget projections call for just the opposite trend, and it does not take account of the major new levels of civil spending that have just been enacted by the U.S. Congress. The assumptions the Congressional Budget Office is making about cuts in the future U.S. defense effort call for cuts in defense spending from 3.6% of GDP in 1995, and 3.2% in 2022 to only 2.2% in 2030. In contrast, they call for major increases in Social Security and Major Health Care Programs, and Net Interest.

Long before the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Congressional Budget Office projected major cuts in the level of national defense efforts in order to meet civil needs. It sent a clear warning about the uncertain relevance of any U.S. defense strategy based on broad, undefined goals and priorities, and that focused on desired U.S. defense and forces without any references to budget needs and constraints.

It highlights the fact that there was a reason for including the Future Year Defense Plan (FYDP) in past statements by the Secretary of Defense and in the defense budget request – even if recent projections have rolled the FDYP forward without any clear ties to future force levels and strategy.

However, the Navigation Plan calls for more with almost no detail or justification. It states that,

“To maintain our advantage at sea, America needs a larger and more capable Navy. Faced with peer competitors and emerging disruptive technologies, the Navy needs to become more agile in developing and delivering our future force. Above all, our naval forces must be combat credible — measured by our ability to deliver lethal effects in contested and persistently surveilled battlespaces.” (p. 7)

This need for more naval spending may well be true, but the same may be true of the other services and the Congress has already made major increases in long term federal spending. A Navigation Plan with no funding plan at best follows the Oliver Twist approach to asking for porridge. It simply asks for more.

3. Buzzwords and Generic Goals are not a Strategy

The sections in the Navigation Plan that cover “Force Design Imperatives” and “Force Design 2045” dodge around these issues by citing six “imperatives” that are so broad that they call for advances in every area that is the focus of current force plans.

The Plan lists a “Force Design 2045” and a “need for a more capable, larger Navy” (pp 9-10) which do not seem to track with the options in U.S. shipbuilding plans reported by the Congressional Research Service. The plan refers to rapidly evolving competitors, but then sets the following broad goals for 2040 – some two decades in the rapidly evolving future: “In the 2040s and beyond, we envision this hybrid fleet to require more than 350 manned ships, about 150 large, unmanned surface and subsurface platforms, and approximately 3,000 aircraft.”

It then goes on to list undefined “capacity goals” for ships by type or class but does so without advancing specific goals for given time periods, does not clearly relate them to the previous force goals for manned and unmanned ships, and justifies each set of such goals largely in terms of strategic buzzwords.

Resources are only addressed to the extent that the section on “Navigation Plan Priorities” states that,

“To simultaneously modernize and grow the capacity of our fleet, the Navy will require 3- 5% sustained budget growth above actual inflation. Short of that, we will prioritize modernization over preserving force structure. This will decrease the size of the fleet until we can deploy smaller, more cost-effective, and more autonomous force packages at scale.”

The following section on the Navigation Plan Implementation Framework (NIF) then sets 18 generic priority areas which are only specific in terms of recent and short-term actions, and whose main message seems to be that the Navy’s planning effort has been reorganized, but there as yet is no real strategy or plan.

It might well make sense to try to look as far ahead as 2045 if this was the final section of a strategy based on an analysis of short-, medium-, and long-term issues, priorities, and diminishing levels of confidence – focusing on specifics in the near term and trying to identify key issues for the future. Right now, however, we can’t even assess how a key threat like Russia will behave even three years into the future or predict our strategic path with China.

4. Integrated Strategies, AI, Cyber, Space, and JADO

The document talks about integrated strategies, and all domain operations and warfare. These presumably include key space, AI, and programs, and “integrated” implies an effort to integrate the Navy’s efforts with those of the other services, the needs of the major national and regional commands, and the forces of our strategic partners. However, the Navigation Plan does not address any of the practical priorities and needs involved. It does not have any plan for how the Navy can “integrate” and what this actually means for other U.S. services, and strategic partners. In fact, it states that,

“America cannot cede the competition for influence. This is a uniquely naval mission. A combat-credible U.S. Navy—forward-deployed and integrated with all elements of national power—remains our Nation’s most potent, flexible, and versatile instrument of military influence. As the United States responds to the security environment through integrated deterrence, our Navy must deploy forward and campaign with a ready, capable, combat-credible fleet” (p.5)

Its approach to integration is indicated by other statements that single out the Navy without referring to any other service like: “The Nation cannot afford to cede influence to China or Russia. Nor can it afford to lose combat credibility. We must deliver a Navy designed to deter conflict and help win our Nation’s wars as we maintain a global posture to assure our prosperity. Our national security depends on it.” (p. 12)

5. AI, Cyber, Space, and JADO

The Navigation Plan does list many of the new technologies that are already reshaping military forces throughout the world, but it does not address the fact that most now have relatively short-term windows of predictability, and that some clear path is needed to coordinating U.S. and partner military efforts in new and exploratory ways. It does not address the real-world challenges caused by the fact that major breakthroughs are unpredictable by definition, and that the most strategy can do is focus on key areas of change, describe clear plans for action where immediate priorities exist, and single out the areas for future focus – the technologies NATO calls “disruptive.”

Once again, when the Navigation Plan does mention specific area of technology, it does so largely in terms of broad goals and buzzwords. (e.g. pp. 18-19)

As is noted throughout this critique, strategy documents that set broad goals for doing everything in unstated ways with unstated timelines and unstated implementation plans have little practical value. Good intentions alone do not address real world needs and priorities.

6. Net Assessment and the Threats the US and its Partners Must Face

The section on the “Security Environment” (pp. 4-5) highlights key issues, but in a way so lacking in detail and justification that it reads more like propaganda than a plan. There is no real net assessment of U.S. and partner capabilities to deal with present and project threats, and the ability – or lack of it – to deal with the probable changes in Chinese, Russian, and other hostile forces.

It does not summarize the ongoing shifts in Chinese sea, air, and missile power that are making a major threat, identify the problems emerging in the Persian/Arab Gulf and North Korea, the growing level of Russian and Chinese military cooperation in the Pacific, and the broader changes in Russian and Chinese nuclear and long-range strike forces. If anything, it implies that the Navy and SSBNs are the only major solution to modernizing “our nuclear command, control, and communications systems to ensure the United States can deter nuclear coercion and nuclear employment in any scenario (p. 6).”

Here, the new Japanese defense white paper – Defense of Japan 2022 – provides examples of short and long-term trend analysis that highlights the growth of key threats and the current military balance in summary terms as well as major future trends. It centers proposed spending and force development around the key challenges Japan’s forces must respond to and shows that a well-structured strategy paper can do so in an unclassified form that can help win the support of the public, legislators, and strategic partners.

7. Focusing on Strategic Partners and Other States

The Navigation Plan is US-centric to the point of neo-isolationism. It touches upon on strategic partnerships, but it does not single any out as part of a common effort and strategy, and skims over the need to focus on the need to reinforce regional influence on a political and civil level as well as a military one – which is a key aspect of successful sea power.

It ignores the need to reorganize our Atlantic and Mediterranean posture in view of the Ukraine war, and the need to work with NATO and other European allies in creating interoperable and effective forces at a time major efforts are needed to revitalize many NATO navies and work with Britain to shape its naval role in a post-EU world.

Similarly, it largely ignores the need to link the US naval (and joint) posture to our Pacific, Indian Ocean, and MENA strategic partners which still has at least equal priority. Once again the contrast with Japanese defense white paper – which does this – is striking.

The financial value of close cooperation with our partners is illustrated by Figure Five. Partners are not only critical in terms of war fighting and deterrence. They can play a key potential rule in meeting future spending and economic challenges.

Anthony H. Cordesman is the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Department of Energy. During his time at CSIS, Dr. Cordesman previously held the Burke Chair in Strategy. He is the author of more than 50 books, including a four-volume series on the lessons of modern war.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (August 7, 2022) Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG 111) sails alongside Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) during an air power demonstration. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeffrey F. Yale)

Crafting Naval Strategy, Pt. 3

The following was originally published by the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies of the Naval War College under the title Crafting Naval Strategy: Observations and Recommendations for the Development of Future Strategies. Read it in its original form here. It is republished here with permission and several excerpts will be featured.

Read Part One, Part Two.

By Bruce Stubbs

Observation 33

Obviously, the crafting of strategy takes time. What may not be obvious is that the timing of issuing a strategy plays a major role in its overall effectiveness, let alone its effective dissemination. Similar to policies issued in the final months of a lame-duck presidency, those strategy documents issued shortly before a change of Navy or DoD leadership rarely have significant impact or lasting effect.

Strategy documents ultimately reflect the desired policies of the chief strategist (the CNO); thus their implementation is dependent on the tenure of the strategist, or on the willingness of his successor to maintain the same strategy without significant revision. In a competitive environment in which hyperbole-laced debates over resources take place, the thirst for a “new” strategy with new, “innovative” terminology and arguments is always present. Leaders feel pressure to sign off on their own strategy documents. This creates a churn in which strategies appear credible only as long as the chief strategist/leader remains in that position. Strategies issued early in the leader’s tenure have a chance to gain effect, whereas those issued late in the tour indeed are viewed as lame ducks.

In recent years, continuity has become very artificial. Instead of attempting to replace an existing official strategy document, SECNAVs and CNOs have issued guidance papers and directives that reinterpret or supersede some part of the existing strategy.

Often this has been done for the sake of speed and to avoid a laborious crafting of strategy. Sometimes, however, it is done to avoid public debate about or external involvement in any obvious shift in Navy strategy.

Meanwhile, new strategies from higher authorities may or may not be issued on any firm schedule. Such schedules may exist, particularly as concerns joint documents, but often they are overtaken by events. Congress has put in place (legal) time requirements for the issuance of the president’s National Security Strategy, but recent administrations have ignored these time requirements without consequence. Presumably, Navy strategies should incorporate all the guidance from the NSS, the SECDEF’s National Defense Strategy, and the CJCS’s National Military Strategy, but rarely do they align in sequence or terminology. Crafters of strategy must be wary of timing, but there are no hard-and-fast answers except that any strategy issued late in a CNO’s term is unlikely to have any significant effect.

Observation 35

Most defense debates are not about strategy, but instead about the adoption of new capabilities—of which emerging technologies have become a driving factor. This has given many of the debaters the impression that the emergence of new technologies automatically overturns existing strategies and that technological development and acquisition is an effective strategy in itself. This impression violates the very definition and theory of strategy, because the conflation of technology and capabilities with strategy ensures that the ends are defined by the means. As the old saying goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Driving a nail into the wrong place at the wrong time simply because the hammer exists—even if it is the most technologically advanced hammer ever conceived—is not good strategy. In fact, it is not strategy at all.

Observation 36

The CJCS is the principal military adviser to the president, SECDEF, and NSC. All Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) members have a responsibility to provide advice or opinions, when requested or on their own initiative, via the CJCS, to the president, SECDEF, and NSC. Therefore, in addition to the CNO’s Title 10 responsibility to develop the Navy, he has a responsibility to describe to the JCS how the Navy will be employed. This requires two distinct strategies, one to develop the force and the other to employ the force. The two strategies require different components.

Images source: DoD Imagery Library.

The graphic above conveys an important point illustrated by the famous 1980s Maritime Strategy and the equally famous objective to reach a 600-ship Navy. The former was a Navy force-employment strategy with a central idea of offensively attacking the Soviets’ Barents Sea bastions to deprive them of a maritime sanctuary, while the latter was a Navy force-development strategy to build a Navy that could deter and, if necessary, defeat the Soviets. Depending on the strategy, the forces and capabilities are either the means or the ends.

Note that, in this post-Goldwater-Nichols era, the force-employment component is not a strategy to fight. LOEs, phasing, and other tools for fighting are not best addressed in a service capstone strategy. Today and into the future, the Navy mans, organizes, trains, and equips its future force for the fight, but does not fight by itself. Therefore the force-employment-strategy component is more an expression of how the Navy will fight and how a conflict may unfold. This allows the OPNAV staff to pursue solutions for maintaining the current force and building the future force.

Observation 37

Graphic source: Justturnright, “Economics for Dummies . . . and Liberals,” Two Heads Are Better than One (blog), 29 December 2012, Used by permission.

Your strategy must be capable of informing resource allocation for force development. Navy budget programmers considered the 2007 Cooperative Strategy to be “not useful” for articulating requirements and defending budgets; the 2015 version of this strategy (CS21R) likewise was not considered particularly useful. Indeed, CNO Jonathan Greenert (2011–15) did not construct three of his annual posture statements for Congress around this strategy.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule for how to design a strategy document so that it informs resource allocation, starting the crafting of a strategy without a firm recognition that part of its purpose is to give guidance to budget programmers is a mistake. 

Observation 38

Graphic source: DreamsTime Free Images. Used by permission.

Drafting a strategy is only a first step, albeit a difficult one. The crafter needs to develop the strategy with implementation in mind. Here is how to institutionalize strategy:

• Begin by inserting high-level implementation taskers into the body of a Navy strategy to signal that the strategy is real, relevant, and significant—not to be ignored.
• Produce an implementation plan that specifies the processes, activities, and objectives required to achieve the ends of a Navy strategy.
• Translate the ends of a Navy strategy into measurable implementation objectives
linked to DCNO and subordinate organizational goals.
• Assign owners to each objective and initiative, for clear responsibilities and accountability.
• Conduct periodic progress reviews of implementation to monitor execution.
• Oversee execution by active senior leadership and drive implementation across the Navy by dedicated operational planning teams.
• Communicate strategy repeatedly to explain its logic and achieve buy-in.

Leaders habitually underestimate the challenge of implementing strategy. Follow-up procedures are needed to ascertain whether implementation is being carried out effectively. The follow-up should include the actions listed below:

• Conducting periodic progress reviews of implementation to determine whether the strategy is relevant to the Navy’s purpose. Since the Navy operates in a very dynamic environment, the reviews are essential to know whether the strategy is meeting the Navy’s needs.
• Assigning objectives and initiatives to individual “owners.” Accountability drives implementation. The implementation plan requires that clear and specific tasks be defined to implement the strategy. Everyone with implementation responsibilities needs to know what to do and what to achieve.
• Selecting the correct strategic metrics to track progress on the objectives or initiatives identified in the implementation plan. Measurable objectives provide an effective basis for management control of the implementation.
• Ensuring that senior leaders actively manage the execution of the strategy and guide implementation across the Navy. The focus should be on ensuring that the strategy is understood throughout the Navy.

The quote by retired Army colonel Ralph Peters is an appropriate description of strategies that are executed poorly.38 No matter how simple, logical, and eloquent, they amount to little if they do not have a positive result; hence the need for crafters of strategy to be concerned with—and involved in guiding—their execution.

Observation 41

Notes: Lindsey Ford, “The ‘Lippmann Gap’ in Asia: Four Challenges to a Credible U.S. Strategy,” War on the Rocks, 3 December 2018,; Stephanie Pezard and Ashley L. Rhoades, What Provokes Putin’s Russia? Deterring without Unintended Escalation (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2020), p. 13, available at; Hew Strachan, “Strategy and Contingency,” International Affairs 87, no. 6 (November 2011), pp. 1284–96, available at

For military and naval assessments, the term risk is used in the following different ways:

• as a synonym for a threat itself;
• as a description that identifies chance of harm or injury from a threat;
• as an expression of the mathematical result of frequency of occurrence multiplied by consequence
• as an expression of whether forces can accomplish assigned missions—in other words, risk as a result of operations.

All these forms generate the famous “friction” of the unpredicted. In crafting strategy, there never will be sufficient resources or predictability to eliminate risk completely, so one must analyze the strategic environment properly and make informed decisions that
both mitigate and accept appropriate degrees of risk. Unfortunately, there is no ready formula.

Risks must be listed in a context of realism, along with the means to address them. Risk to the Navy can be categorized within four dimensions: operational, force management, institutional, and future challenges.

• Operational risk deals with the short-term challenges facing the Navy, as well as our ability to succeed in the current fight, including preparedness for contingencies in the near term.
• Force-management risk deals with ensuring that the Navy is efficiently and effectively organized, manned, equipped, trained, and sustained to provide trained and ready forces to the force commanders.
• Institutional risk addresses the generating force’s ability to support the Navy’s operating force.
• Future-challenges risk deals with the Navy’s ability to address longer-term threats.

The Navy mitigates exposure to risk by ensuring that the right capabilities and sufficient capacity are balanced and available within acceptable bounds of risk to respond effectively and efficiently to challenges.

Col. Mackubin T. Owens, USMC (Ret.), notes the following:

“A good strategy also seeks to minimize risk by, to the extent possible, avoiding mismatches between strategy and related factors. For instance, strategy must be appropriate to the ends as established by policy. Strategy also requires the appropriate tactical instrument to implement it. Finally, the forces required to implement a strategy must be funded, or else it must be revised. If the risk generated by such policy/strategy, strategy/force, and force/budget mismatches cannot be managed, the variables must be brought into better alignment.”39

Observation 42

Graphic source: Lanworks Public Domain.

How can one grade a strategy document on its probable effectiveness? As with everything involved in the crafting of strategy, there are no hard-and-fast answers. However, one can evaluate the product in terms of (1) acceptability, (2) feasibility, (3) suitability to the circumstances, (4) sustainability, and (5) adaptability.

• Acceptability to the leadership is obvious; if—in terms of naval strategy—the product is not acceptable to the CNO, it is going nowhere.
• Feasibility requires an assessment of whether the Navy has or (probably) will have the resources to carry out the strategy. A strategy can be aspirational in the sense that it can be used as an argument for more resources; however, it must be adaptable enough to be implemented with a reasonable probability of success—not with no or even low risk, but with justifiable risk.
• Suitability to circumstances refers to the product’s conformity to national objectives. A strategy that postulates a threat that the political leadership does not recognize will be controversial, to say the least.
• Sustainability refers to more than supporting resources; it also encompasses whether personnel can carry out the product’s implications over the long term. A strategy that postulates substitution of autonomous systems for human control cannot be carried out if there is insufficient funding for such systems at the same time that manpower is being cut. The U.S. Navy has had previous experience with not having enough personnel to operate complex systems that optimistically were assumed to be “lower maintenance.” Without an honest and rigorous examination, it is possible to assume that a strategy will be easier to implement than reality dictates.
• The apocryphal quote by Field Marshal von Moltke cited in the introduction—that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”—can be translated as saying that no strategy can survive a changing security environment if adaptability is not built into its design.

Observation 43

Image source: author.

With one exception, observation 43 is a collecting together of points made previously, restated as a guideline on what easily contributes to failure in the crafting of strategy. Number 43 is, in fact, the most significant observation of all in distinguishing successful efforts from failed attempts. In my experience, these are not mere suggestions; rather, failure to recognize any one of the above truths will damage fatally any effort to develop a strategy. Of course, recognition of the reality of these dangers is not enough; the crafters of strategy always must have a plan to mitigate the dangers or otherwise use and benefit from that reality.

The one point not previously discussed is the separation of the crafters’ egos from the product crafted. It is easy for writers to fall in love with their own words, for those with insight to become enamored of their own ideas, and for intermediate reviewers to be committed to their edits. Yet the final document—which will reflect the decisions of the issuing authority (the CNO)—may appear vastly different from previous versions. In such a process, pride of authorship becomes a burden, particularly when submitted drafts are returned repeatedly for additional editing. Crafting strategy is not about the strategists or their intervening chain of command; it is about the product.

This truly is hard stuff.

Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is Director of Navy Strategy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N7).

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Aug. 24, 2021) Ships from the United Kingdom Carrier Strike Group and the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group, with the embarked 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), begin multinational advanced aviation operations in support of Large Scale Global Exercise (LSGE) 21, Aug. 20, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aron Montano)

Crafting Naval Strategy, Pt. 2

The following was originally published by the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies of the Naval War College under the title Crafting Naval Strategy: Observations and Recommendations for the Development of Future Strategies. Read it in its original form here. It is republished here with permission and several excerpts will be featured.

Read Part One

By Bruce Stubbs

Observation 13

As previously noted, the term theory of victory can be somewhat confusing. There is no formal DoD definition for it, but broadly it is a hypothesis of how a nation intends to achieve strategic objectives during a conflict. It articulates how and why we think our actions will work. Ultimately, we use military force to change other nations’ will or wills. A theory of victory describes how we think our tactical- and operational-level actions will lead to achieving our strategic-political objectives.

The United States was supreme at the tactical and operational levels in Vietnam, but that dominance did not lead to a strategic or political victory. We had no successful theory of victory to link tactical- and operational-level successes to political victory.

A theory of victory is the conceptual means of establishing clear ends in the ends-ways-means equation. “Defining strategy in this manner gives us a tool for identifying a strategy, analyzing the conceptual clarity and logic of the strategy, and assessing the quality of the strategy. It provides a broad foundation from which all types of strategy can be defined, analyzed, and assessed, including corporate strategy, grand strategy, and military strategy.”21

Observation 14

Graphic source: Central Idea Agency. Used by permission.

In addition (or perhaps as an alternative) to beginning with a theory of victory, drafters of strategy should identify the central idea around which the document is to revolve. A very valuable treatise on strategy issued by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence states as follows:

• “The innovative and compelling ‘big idea’ is often the basis of a new strategy.”
• “A strategy which has no unifying idea is not a strategy.”
• The central idea must bind the ends, ways, and means—and inspire others to support it.
• “In practice, the intent of all good strategies can be summed up in a page if not even better—in a paragraph.”22

This is the most concise summary I have found concerning the need for a central idea in any drafting of strategy.

Hollywood movies provide outstanding examples of how an entire production can be built around a concisely stated central idea. The movie industry refers to a statement of the central idea as a log line, as in the example below.

This log line for the movie Jaws is one of the greatest of all time. It depicts the overarching storyline in an interesting, straightforward way, rather than focusing on details that might seem meaningless without the context of the bigger picture. It captures the entirety of the plot—and thus the essence of what the audience will experience—in a single sentence.

In communications, the human brain craves meaning before details. If the core message of a strategy can be captured in a single sentence, there is a higher probability the strategy will be effective. As noted in one of the endnotes to the introduction, the overarching American strategy during the Cold War can be summarized in one sentence: “to contain the expansion of the Soviet Union (and its influence) until the internal contradictions within communism bring about its own demise.” And that was what was achieved.

Observation 18

According to Samuel Huntington, the strategy—or, in Huntington’s words, the strategic concept—must explain the Navy’s role in implementing national security. It must describe how, when, and where the Navy expects to protect the nation. Without a strategy or a strategic concept of the Navy’s role, the public and political leaders will be (1) confused about the role of the Navy—uncertain whether its existence is necessary— and (2) apathetic to Navy requests for additional resources.

Note again Huntington’s use of the term strategic concept, not strategy. As Huntington uses it, strategic concept is similar to the term value proposition, and relates to what the introduction describes as the strategic vision. Again, this is much different from what the Joint Staff considers to be a concept.

What follows below is an expanded description of the Navy’s value proposition.

U.S. naval forces can be visible or invisible, large or small, provocative or peaceful, depending on what serves American interests best. The sight of a single U.S. warship in the harbor of a friend can serve as tangible evidence of close relations between the United States and that country or their commitment to each other. American naval forces can modulate their presence to exert the kind and degree of influence best suited to resolve the situation, whatever it is, in a manner compatible with U.S. interests. In a crisis in which force might be required to protect U.S. interests or evacuate U.S. nationals, but where visibility could provoke the outbreak of hostilities, American naval forces can remain out of sight, over the horizon, but ready to respond in a matter of minutes.

U.S. naval forces do not have to rely on prior international agreements before taking a position beyond a coastal state’s territorial sea in an area of potential crisis; U.S. naval forces do not have to request overflight authorization or diplomatic clearance. By remaining on station in international waters, for indefinite periods, naval forces communicate a capability for action that ground or air forces can duplicate only by landing or entering sovereign airspace. U.S. naval forces can be positioned near potential trouble spots without the political entanglement associated with the employment of land-based forces.

Although bases on foreign soil can be valuable, U.S. naval forces do not require them in the way that land-based ground and air forces do. Ships are integral units that carry with them much of their own support, and through mobile logistics support they can be maintained on forward stations for long durations. U.S. naval forces, moreover, are relatively immune to the politics of host-nation governments, whereas those governments can constrain operations by land-based forces significantly. As the U.S. military base structure overseas has diminished over recent decades, the ability of naval forces to arrive in an area fully prepared to conduct sustained combat operations has taken on added importance.

Observation 20

The essence of strategy is the making of hard choices. Unfortunately, most strategies, especially at the unclassified level, studiously avoid making hard choices; however, the reality of finite resources forces us to make these choices.

Listed below are several classic choices that strategists face that you should address early in your production process:

• State which objectives are not going to be pursued
• Describe how and where risk will be accepted
• Establish a pecking order for resources to achieve objectives

Observation 25

Image source: DoD Imagery Library.

Almost every book on strategy insists that the crafters need to meet with the top leadership/chief executive officer (CEO) to ensure that guidance is direct and clear. As discussed earlier, this often is difficult. Yet it is imperative that the strategists have some degree of direct access if their efforts are to yield an approved, effective result that the leadership is committed to executing. An initial meeting should be held at the beginning of the project. Frequent and unimpeded access is needed to accomplish the following:

• Implement CNO guidance—not guidance altered by the agendas of the OPNAV directorates
• Provide unfiltered advice to the CNO, especially alternative views
• Proceed quickly and with a minimum of interference from others
• Ensure linkage between the strategy and the program objective memorandum
(known as a POM), other elements of the resource-development, force-capabilities, and force-development processes, all of which the CNO directs (the strategists/crafters need to remind the CNO of this necessary linkage)
• Ensure that the CNO receives Navy strategy products that reflect a consistent and aligned set of principles, concepts, and tenets regarding the Navy’s fundamental role in implementing national policy.

In his guidance to the drafters of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, then-SECDEF James N. Mattis (2017–18) stated, “As a practical matter, strategy cannot be built by a large group process. [OSD and the JS will lead a small team reporting directly to me.] . . . I will be personally involved in this effort. . . . The team will provide interim products. . . . These products may be provocative, as any good strategy requires hard choices. I expect you to review these as a means to genuine debate.”30

Almost every defense official has expressed and expresses similar sentiments, but that does not mean they are translated into direct meetings with their strategists. Given the time constraints the senior leader (in this case, the CNO) faces, as previously discussed, the “front office” (which manages time and appointments) is unlikely to initiate an invitation. So the initiative to meet with the CNO must come from the crafters themselves (or their immediate boss), and they figuratively may have to “fight for it.” However, such fighting is necessary if the crafters are to do their work efficiently and avoid becoming overwhelmed by frustration and cynicism.

Observation 29

Graphic source: DreamsTime Free Images. Used by permission.

A strategy that cannot be communicated effectively is an ineffective strategy. The crafters of strategy not only bear a responsibility to make it understandable but must take the lead in building a strategic communications plan. You never can rely wholly on outside specialists (such as public affairs officers) to come up with a strategic communications plan. They simply do not know the strategy as intimately as the crafters do; thus they may not be able to capitalize on the nuances and internal messaging.

Build your strategic communications plan around the central idea. Have a clear core message. Your rollout plan must engage across multiple media venues. Have a scalable message suitable for any size venue. Understand that every action is a message—a strategic communication. Synchronize the message inside and coming from OPNAV and echelon components.

Observation 30

Image source: DoD Imagery Library.

Whether or not one agreed with President Ronald W. Reagan’s policies or decisions, no one can deny that he was a great communicator who made his goals for his presidency simple and clear. He incorporated this core message into almost all his speeches, relating specific decisions to his general goal. Through this approach, the core message became a guiding philosophy, generating corresponding lines of effort for problem solving.

The single-core-message approach makes for a tight, internally consistent strategy and a subsequent network of supporting plans. Notice, too, that President Reagan’s message confined itself to three points.

This approach deserves emulation in any crafting of strategy. Unfortunately, the recent Navy attempts at strategy have not emulated this approach, particularly in 2019.

With so many different lists of priorities, themes, core messages, and lines of effort (LOEs) in 2019, it was difficult for the Navy to communicate its strategic policy goals with a single voice, so it could stay on message and be understood. There never was a real agreement on the Navy’s mission and desired end state.

The mission:

• From the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV): “The Department of the Navy will recruit, train, equip, and organize to deliver combat-ready naval forces to win conflicts and wars while maintaining security and deterrence through sustained forward presence.”

• From the CNO: “The United States Navy will be ready to conduct prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea. Our Navy will protect America from attack, promote American prosperity, and preserve America’s strategic influence.” (Note that this is just the first two sentences of the four-sentence mission statement in the CNO’s Design 2.0 directive.)

The vision (or end state):

 • From the SECNAV: “A combat-credible Navy and Marine Corps Team focused on rebuilding military readiness, strengthening alliances, and reforming business practices in support of the National Defense Strategy.”

• From the CNO: “A Naval Force that produces leaders and teams, armed with the best equipment, who learn and adapt faster than our rivals to achieve maximum possible performance and is ready for decisive combat operations.”

Given that these lists, missions, and end states all reflect SECNAV and CNO direction, not much could have been done to align and simplify the Navy’s overall strategic message. There simply was too much divergence in language.

Observation 31

N. C. Wyeth, The Storybook, 1921. Source: Betty Krulik Fine Art, NY. Used by permission.

Authors Peter W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking write the following about the importance of narrative in today’s world:

“Narratives are the building blocks that explain both how humans see the world and how they exist in large groups. They provide the lens through which we perceive ourselves, others, and the environment around us. They are the stories that bind the small to the large, connecting personal experience to some bigger notion of how the world works. The stronger a narrative is, the more likely it is to be retained and remembered.

The power of a narrative depends on a confluence of factors, but the most important is consistency—the way that one event links logically to the next. . . . As narratives generate attention and interest, they necessarily abandon some of their complexity. . . . 

By simplifying complex realities, good narratives can slot into other people’s preexisting comprehension. . . . The most effective narratives can thus be shared among entire communities, peoples, or nations, because they tap into our most elemental notions. . . .

These three traits—simplicity, resonance, and novelty—determine which narratives stick and which fall flat. It’s no coincidence that everyone from far-right political leaders to women’s rights activists to the Kardashian clan speaks constantly of “controlling the narrative.” To control the narrative is to dictate to an audience who the heroes and villains are; what is right and what is wrong; what’s real and what’s not. As jihadist Omar Hammami, a leader of the Somali-based terror group Al-Shabaab, put it, “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalm, and knives.”

The big losers in this narrative battle are those people or institutions that are too big, too slow, or too hesitant to weave such stories. These are not the kinds of battles that a plodding, uninventive bureaucracy can win. As a U.S. Army officer lamented to us about what happens when the military deploys to fight this generation’s web-enabled insurgents and terrorists, “Today we go in with the assumption that we’ll lose the battle of the narrative.”35

Since we do not want to “lose the battle of the narrative,” it is imperative that we apply a narrative approach to the crafting of naval strategy, as in the example below.

My own awareness of the power of the narrative approach started with an e-mail from Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., a retired U.S. Army colonel, author, and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in February 2016. Krepinevich suggested that we not use the core attributes or characteristics of the Navy in isolation as the foundation of our message. Instead, he recommended that we attach a relevant, understandable purpose to each attribute by answering the question “To do what?” He gave an example from a conversation he had with a congressman, who stated, “I kinda get a 30-slide, high density, small font brief when it’s presented, but a week later, I can’t give you the logic train behind the brief.”

So Krepinevich suggested using the text shown here. The kernel of his suggested narrative is crystal clear and easy to remember: “China is building a big navy that is changing the strategic balance in the western Pacific.”36 In contrast, the bureaucratic staff approach simply does not grab the reader’s attention; it lacks specificity and real-world logic, and generally is too abstract—which is fairly representative of military staff writing.

Read Part Three.

Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is Director of Navy Strategy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N7).

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 17, 2021) Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Gridley (DDG 101) transits the Pacific Ocean during a navigation exercise. Gridley is underway conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Colby A. Mothershead)

Crafting Naval Strategy, Part 1

The following was originally published by the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies of the Naval War College under the title Crafting Naval Strategy: Observations and Recommendations for the Development of Future Strategies. Read it in its original form here. It is republished here with permission and several excerpts will be featured.

By Bruce Stubbs

Observation 1

Cover source: © by Condé Nast Publications. Used by permission.

All my comments flow from personal observations, but that is appropriate. The genesis of all effective strategies occurs within the minds of individuals. The drafting of a strategy may involve a team of researchers, thinkers, and writers, but the truly innovative ideas come out of group discussions only rarely. The group may develop, reinforce, and strengthen those ideas further through conversation and debate; however, the principal or fundamental idea guiding any strategic concept inevitably is the product of the personal study, education, contemplation, and experience of an individual strategist. Thought leader is a term used frequently to describe such a person, particularly in laudatory introductions and résumés. To some it is a grandiose term, but it is appropriately descriptive.

The standard caveat applies to this publication: these are my personal observations and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Department of Defense (DoD) or the Department of the Navy. Yet that caveat also applies to the generating thought of any strategy; the final, official document, signed or released by the proper authority, represents an official view, whereas a strategy in the process of development does not. I have been by position a thought leader in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the Department of the Navy, as well as a student of strategy and history by avocation and passion. In providing these observations, I rely on over thirty years of experience in the development of strategic documents, including five years as the deputy director of strategy and policy on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) and then five more years as the director, during both stints as a member of the Senior Executive Service. Throughout this period, my position title, division designator, and relevant organizational chart have been adjusted, but the job has remained: to lead the drafting of plans and policies that direct service-wide decision-making and outline the objectives of the organization in a particular time and situation.

Time and situations change, and that is why effective strategy changes. These observations focus on the construction and production of naval strategies, not on the merits of a particular maritime or sea power strategy. During my ten years at OPNAV, I have served four Chiefs of Naval Operations (CNOs) and have had active and direct participation in the production of the following three capstone Navy service strategies (or strategic visions, as the introduction calls them):

A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower: Forward, Engaged, Ready (2015)—an unclassified, tri–Sea Service document
The Navy Strategy (2018)—a classified, U.S. Navy–only strategy
The Naval Strategy (2020)—a classified and unclassified, tri–Sea Service document

Each of these strategic visions was designed for a particular situation—a problem set, one might call it—in which the U.S. Navy needed first to determine and then to explain how it could contribute most effectively and efficiently to the national security of the United States, identifying Navy objectives and the manner in which they would be achieved. Sometimes, of course, those objectives are not achieved before the situation changes. In this monograph, I will not debate the merits of the strategic visions to which crafting naval strategy I have contributed, but will outline elements of the craft applicable to the process of determining and explaining how the U.S. Navy could contribute most effectively and efficiently to the national security of the United States.

Within OPNAV, this process includes the development of Navy input for the production of U.S. national security strategy documents, such as the National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy, as well as the drafting of other internal Navy strategic documents such as the U.S. Navy Arctic Roadmap 2014–2030, the Navy Strategic Plan series, the Navy’s “Strategic Laydown and Dispersal Plan,” and the first USN-USCG National Fleet Plan.

Prior to this assignment, in another life, I was one of the five principal authors of the first National Strategy for Maritime Security (2005), signed by President George W. Bush, as well as the principal author of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Strategy for Homeland Security, the Coast Guard’s first National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness, the U.S. Coast Guard Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security, and Stewardship, and the first edition of Coast Guard Publication 1, U.S. Coast Guard: America’s Maritime Guardian. The common element in all these experiences is the knowledge and skillsets that the individual participants brought to the process.

Since my goal is to pass along the accumulated knowledge and experience in the crafting of strategy to those who will perform this task in the future, it is appropriate to acknowledge the importance and intellectual independence of the individual strategist.

Observation 2

Graphic source: Blue Diamond Group. Used by permission.

What follows are the realities that need to be kept in mind always:

All strategy statements are political documents. Whatever their form, all strategy statements are political documents that reflect accommodations, compromises, agendas both overt and hidden, and prejudices. As the introduction refers to them, these factors are the expedients. Kori N. Schake, a scholar and former government official, writes that “[s]trategy divorced from politics leads either to irrelevance, because the strategy will not be employed, or disaster, when political leaders are confronted with the unexpected costs and consequences.”1

Decision makers are subject to huge time demands. Senior leaders are caught up in pressing matters of the day and have limited time to reflect on weighty, long-term issues. This results in what might be called the difference between strategic thinking and strategy
thinking. Many senior leaders engage in strategy thinking, in that they contemplate plans to solve the pressing matters, which may range from putting together a service’s budget for the coming fiscal year to determining how to counter current gray-zone activity. Few have the time or inclination to engage in the type of long-range, service defining, “every assumption on the table” strategic thinking that is necessary for the craft of drafting a (reasonably) enduring strategic vision.

Everyone is a strategist. Col. Jobie S. Turner, USAF, expounds on this theme, noting the reality that “[i]n the Pentagon everyone fancies themselves a strategist. Every graduate of professional military education, every contractor with a new weapon system, every think-tank or consultancy pundit: all feel that if they were only given the chance, they could impose order with the right ‘big idea.’ Meanwhile, . . . ‘the programmers’ smile, content in their view that the budgets they build are the real strategy.”2

The staffing process dulls all strategies. This reality is in keeping with observation 1. Although innovative ideas start with the individual strategist, the addition of others during the staffing process necessarily affects those ideas. At best, the staffing process knocks off the rough edges and protects the interests of the decision makers from dangerous currents, ensuring that the strategy is more in keeping with their objectives; at worst, the tumbling and polishing of the ideas wear them down to almost nothing. As much as the individual strategic thinker might bewail the staffing process, this is the reality for many such projects.

Many of what pass for service strategies are really plans. Owing to the Goldwater-Nichols Act defense reforms (1986), the Naval Services no longer produce strategies such as the famous Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, which drove war and operations planning.3 Here I must confess that I disagree with the author of the introduction, who believes that such production is still possible. Yes, the services still must articulate how they intend to fight their service, but that articulation is more for force-development purposes than for actual crafting naval strategy force-employment purposes. Consequently, what passes today for Naval Service strategies are more in keeping with strategic plans or strategic concepts than pure military strategies that define the required military conditions for achieving national objectives.

Observation 3

Image source: DoD Imagery Library.

Before you immediately plunge into drafting a strategy, you need to spend your time answering the five basic W questions of journalism: who, what, where, when, and why. This will ensure a solid foundation as you go forward. “[D]efining the 5Ws first [will open]
more avenues to talk about the ideas and concepts and also [result] in more buy-in from the [staffs]. . . . It sounds simple, but Simon Sinek is right: start with why.”4 Analyzing the who, what, where, when, and why allows for identifying the problems that create the need for a strategy, the knowledge of which is the starting point for framing the strategy’s objectives and determining the best way to craft it.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, USA (2011–15), drove home this point at his 2011 confirmation hearing with his reference to a quote attributed to Einstein. “[I]f you have an hour to save the world, spend 55 minutes of it understanding the problem and five minutes of it trying to solve it. And I think sometimes, in particular as a military culture, we don’t have that ratio right. We tend to spend 55 minutes trying to [figure out] how to solve the problem and five minutes understanding it.”5

I advise all teams of crafters to start their project with an inclusive session to hammer out agreement on the five Ws. The dividend on this investment will pay out in almost every later phase of the project. It is a very effective means of building an initial framework.

Observation 5

Graphic source: U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Used by permission.

It has been my personal experience that the best approach in starting to draft any strategy is to use the ends-ways-means formula (others alter the order to ways-means-ends to reflect a bottom-up approach). For the purposes of developing naval strategy, it is “ultimately best understood as the interaction of three things, all within the context of risk assessment.”8 These are as follows:

• Ends—the goals or objectives that the strategic actor seeks to achieve
• Ways—the strategic actor’s plan of action for using the means available
• Means—the resources available to the strategic actor

Constructing a strategy with ends, ways, and means provides a clear, easy-to-follow train of logic.

The risk-assessment context includes an honest assessment of the assumptions the strategists are using to initiate the ends-ways-means construct. As Colin S. Gray advises, “To this fundamental triptych of ends, ways and means, it is advisable to insist upon adding the vital ingredient of ASSUMPTIONS. This fourth element is always important and typically reigns unchallenged as the greatest source of mischief for entire strategic enterprises.”9

The ends-ways-means formulation has become the semiofficial approach of DoD, reflected in joint documents and echoed in professional and policy journals. It is logical; it is easy to understand; it is not dependent on the elegance of the narrative; and it makes decision makers feel they are in charge of the effort (since, presumably, they have set the ends). “[A]ny strategy worth the name should articulate a clear set of achievable goals; identify concrete threats to those goals; and then, given available resources, recommend the employment of specific instruments to meet and overcome those threats.”10 As then-CJCS Adm. Michael G. Mullen, USN (2007–11), wrote in the foreword of the public National Military Strategy of the United States 2011, “The purpose of this document is to provide the ways and means by which our military will advance our enduring national interests as articulated in the 2010 National Security Strategy and to accomplish the defense objectives [ends] in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.”11

Some critics question the ends-ways-means formula because the development of the means—in this case, defense acquisition—appears disconnected from the identification of the ends. A dismissive saying in DoD is that “amateurs discuss strategy; professionals discuss resources.” Arguably, defense acquisition programs do tend to take on lives of their own, seemingly regardless of changes in strategy. However, the largest defense programs take up to a decade to produce a system, making it logical that they survive incremental changes in strategy. Despite changes in presidential administrations and Congresses, American objectives do not swing wildly enough that most of these programs become irrelevant during their period of initial development.

Other critics charge that changes in technology drive strategy, not the other way around. Indeed, emerging technology would seem to be another factor that would influence the crafting of strategy, along with changes in the nature of the threat and the overall security environment (which would include diffusion of emerging technologies). Technology is thereby a driver in the same sense that all other geopolitical or geoeconomic factors are drivers.

Another criticism centers on the observation that “the United States goes to war with the forces it has, not the forces it would like.” The implication is that changes in a strategy rarely leave decision makers time to tailor the forces for its execution. However, that assumes that strategic visions last only for the short term; this mistakes the words crafting naval strategy of (new) strategy documents for the strategies themselves. The United States produced many strategic documents during the Cold War period, but the overall strategy rarely swerved.

My view is that these criticisms do not invalidate ends-ways-means as an initial approach. The strategy must connect available means to desired outcomes in creative ways, and reduce the sought-after outcomes if ways cannot be found. A good strategy avoids mismatches among the ends, ways, and means. For instance, if the means required to implement a strategy cannot be funded, then strategy must be revised by changing the ends or the ways to reduce the risk by managing the mismatches and ensuring alignment. As Colin Gray notes: “Even though strategists and those they sought to advise have been capable of adopting almost awesomely improbable assumptions, the game has always had to be about ends, ways, and means.”12

Observation 6

Graphics source: Deposit Photos. Used by permission.

We tend to conflate strategy and planning. The essence of strategy is about making choices and setting priorities, such as the famous Allied strategy of “Germany first” in the Second World War. Strategy is what you want to do; your plan is how you actually will do it.13 As U.S. Army War College professor Harry R. Yarger notes,

“[t]he purpose of planning is to create certainty so that people and organizations can act. The purpose of strategy formulation is to clarify, influence, manage, or resolve the [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity] of the strategic environment through the identification and creation of strategic effects in support of policy goals. Strategy lays down what is important and to be achieved, sets the parameters for the necessary actions, and prescribes what the state is willing to allocate in terms of resources. Thus, strategy, through its hierarchal nature, identifies the objectives to be achieved and defines the box in which detailed planning can be accomplished—it bounds planning.”14

Columbia Business School professor William G. Pietersen cautions, “To be clear, planning is also important. But it is not a substitute for strategy. We don’t create a strategy with a plan. We execute it with a plan. For example, your budget should be the financial expression of your strategy, not the reverse. The right sequence is essential: strategy first, planning afterwards.”15 As noted in observation 5, however, there are those involved in DoD resource planning who might dispute that “your budget should be the financial expression of your strategy, not the reverse.” They would be wrong, of course.

This is why I raise what might seem to others merely an “issue of semantics.” There will be those outside the strategy-crafting process who will want to ensure that their “plan” (such as an acquisition proposal to solve a particular warfighting problem) is incorporated into the strategy. A firm insistence on the difference between strategies and plans might help mitigate such assaults.

Observation 7

Graphics source: BigStock Free Images. Used by permission.

In their analysis of past Navy strategies, Capt. Peter M. Swartz, USN (Ret.), and Karin Duggan of CNA maintain that “there are a range of reasons why strategies are written.” (Some of them are listed on the slide above.) Historically, we have written Navy strategies for the three overarching purposes: to explain the need for the Navy, how the Navy meets that need, and where the Navy is heading.16 The “other purposes” actually are subsets of the big three; however, they can be examined individually to ascertain the quality of a draft strategy. In fact, they collectively constitute an informal checklist that crafters should use to analyze potential support for the draft strategy.

There is nothing nefarious about any of the individual other purposes. A naval strategy (like all military strategies) must conform in its basics to the guidance of civilian authorities, as exemplified by the National Security Strategy (NSS). As I argue later, the CNO is the Navy’s chief strategist, so advocating for his (or, eventually, her) ideas and priorities clearly is part of the process leading to implantation of the strategy. This requires the ideas to be translated into budget decisions.

Notably, one of the other purposes—signaling to potential competitors—has not been prominent in recent years, yet it was one of the more significant purposes of the public version of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s. Arguably, the very existence of that particular strategy played a role in deterring the Soviet Union.

Observation 9

Source: Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (Washington, DC: 2019), p. 87.

The paramount importance of understanding the dominant strategic problem is underscored by the following statement by Carl von Clausewitz: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is
to establish by that test [i.e., the fit with policy goals] the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”17

Professor Turner of the U.S. Air War College offers some very useful insights on the value of a problem-based approach to strategy.

• A key to developing a strategy is to focus on the dominant military problem.
• “A problem-based approach to strategy offers several advantages.” A properly defined military problem forces the Navy to decide what is important in the future warfighting environment. “In the absence of a clear problem to solve, the future environment can become unwieldy.”
• First, a “well-thought-out military problem constrains . . . intellectual wandering,” keeping the Navy focused on what is important. “With a clear problem, it’s easier to decide how the [Navy] orients itself.” In short, the military problem keeps the Navy “grounded in reality, preventing bureaucratic inertia from overwhelming [it].”
• “Second, while aspirations are important, they must be backed by more[-]concrete, specific objectives” and coherent solutions “to win public and congressional support in the form of budgets.”
• “Third, military problems force technological solutions into a supporting role. . . . [A]s Colin Gray notes . . . , ‘Weaponry does not equal strategy.’ . . . When the problem comes first, however, the technology can come second.”
• “Fourth, solving military problems harnesses the talent already on staff and their recent operational experience. . . . With a clearly defined problem the inputs from recent warfighting are much easier to capture or, when necessary, discard.”18

Two related but distinct problems on which strategies may focus are (1) force employment (such as in war plans) and (2) force development (such as resource decisions, training, and acquisition).

The slides above and below (examples 1 and 2) illustrate force-employment problems. If China decides to use force against Taiwan or Russia assaults its Baltic neighbors, American forces likely would find themselves attempting to defend exposed territories on the adversary’s doorstep. The United States would have to project decisive power over thousands of miles, into areas where China and Russia can bring to bear capabilities more rapidly. Joint forces must be ready to fight large-scale combat operations in a joint, multinational, multidomain environment, under the most demanding conditions. Maritime formations must be capable of fighting through layers of enemy anti-access systems while operating in a degraded communications environment and under constant surveillance.

Obviously, force-deployment strategies must be based on the capabilities and employment of joint forces, even if they describe only the naval component. Ultimately such strategies require integration with joint planning and must be designed with that in mind. Additionally, they must be compatible with the projected contributions of allies and partners.

Source: Adapted and modified by OPNAV from “Sweden,” Tuesday’s World Events 2, Student News Daily, 23 January 2018,

Although the ultimate goal of service strategies is the solution of real-world strategic force-employment problems, they necessarily focus on force-development problems—that is, how to man, train, equip, and prepare the forces necessary for the potential employment. As noted before, the services are creating the means by which force employment problems can be solved—which actually requires a more complex, intricate, nuanced, persuasive, and politically savvy strategy than the employment problem, which assumes that the forces already exist and the decision to carry out
the action already has been made. Crafting a force-development strategy calls for the greatest level of creativity.

Read Part Two.

Bruce B. Stubbs, SES, is Director of Navy Strategy, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV N7).

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 26, 2022) The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) transits the Atlantic Ocean, March 26, 2022.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackson Adkins)