Category Archives: Strategy

Future Visions and Planned Obsolescence: Implementing 30-year Horizons in Defense Planning

By Travis Reese and Dylan Phillips-Levine

This is the third and final part of Travis Reese’s CIMSEC Readiness Series. Read Part 1 on properly defining joint readiness, Read Part 2 on how Defense Department planning horizons can better avoid strategic surprise.

The False Dilemma

“Necessity, especially in politics, often occasions false hopes, false reasonings, and a system of measures correspondingly erroneous.” —Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 35, 1788. 

“Innovation is [sic] an exercise in risk management, a balancing act between the promises of a new capability and the perils of losing older ones.”—Kendrick Kuo of the Naval War College.

Current readiness and future requirements can be synchronized in DoD, reconciling the tension between contemporary force employment and future force design with the proper framework. The debate on how to balance the paradigms and viewpoints of what are often termed “traditionalists” and “futurists” is something which many national security practitioners appreciate, but little has been done to rectify. Both paradigms of traditionalists and futurists are equally unhelpful to delivering a clear-eyed assessment of the security environment when looked through that singular lens. The misunderstanding between these diametrically opposed paradigms has been historically regarded as an “either-or” statement: the choice is adaptation of existing and legacy means or developing future-minded innovation which may be at the root of this phenomenon. Both camps staunchly dig their heels into the sand and are either reticent to change existing solutions to answered problems or overly enthusiastic about advocating for solutions to potential problems based on the allure of technological promise.

The whole concept of traditionalists and futurists is a little comical given the fact that what is tradition now was once future and what is future assumes that older solutions are merely inadequate because they are old. People in one camp or the other are either reticent to change by disposition or overly enthusiastic about the future sometimes suppressing discussion of risk by overvaluing opportunity.

Despite the entrenched viewpoints between both camps, two complementary models will be detailed in this article that define how to apply the principles of the Horizons of Innovation. These models bridge the gap from traditionalists to futurists and provide a framework to develop the transition from “as is” into the “to be.” These models are designed to help overcome the temptation to remain fixated on the static logic of a traditionalist or futurist point of view. They provide clear criteria to frame objective discussion within the two camps as they assess the implications of the future horizons model on preserving legacy capability or shifting to future means. Horizons of Innovation models create an objective framework to reconcile the current environment with the future before making the risky decision between sustaining the “old” or adopting the “new.”

The First Horizons Application Model shows the level of detail that should populate appropriate timeframes depicted in the Horizons of Innovation. The Second Horizons Application Model accounts for the dynamic response by adversaries to potential innovations and how DoD can gain the most utility from a range of potential capability investments before adversaries respond with effective countermeasures. The Second Model is a framework that minimizes the institutional shock to capability replacement and succession.

Horizons of Innovation Recap

The Three Horizons model introduced by business strategists around the turn of this millennia serves as the inspiration to develop the Horizons of Innovation Model. The operating definitions in this article for innovation and adaptation are derived from remarks by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford: Innovation is doing new things in new ways with new means and concepts. Adaptation is using current means and applying them to new or emerging challenges.

Figure 1: The Horizons of Innovation Model. 

Horizons of Innovation Model is represented in Figure 1. The Horizon Innovation model provides a framework for three horizons. The Y-axis, labeled “solutions” spans the spectrum from unsuitable to perfect. The X-axis, labeled “time” spans from the present into the future. Solutions are constrained by the positively sloped “innovation” line and negatively sloped “adaptation.” All solutions constrained in the angle formed between adaptation and innovation are acceptable where the bisecting dashed line represents the best performance. Solutions that exist below the adaptation line are unacceptable while solutions that exist above the innovation line are unattainable. DoD force planners should look at the limiting lines of innovation and adaptation across the three different horizons of 10, 20, and 30 years to develop the framework to address future challenges.

The historical length of time required to develop technological innovations or adopt new concepts informed the 30 years timeline. This timeline of 30-years from conception to adoption of innovative solutions is a consistent trend (opposed amphibious assault for example) for modern military capability development and precedes many modern bureaucracies. The misguided belief that modern information and manufacturing compresses technology advancement and is only stifled by institutional processes or bureaucratic hinderances to develop or adopt new capabilities is not reflected reality. Recent analysis by the GAO identified the necessity to improve and secure the defense industrial base and confirmed that synchronizing capability development with the needed modifications to industrial capacity to meet future demands is a matter of extreme forethought. Famed futurist Bran Ferren said it best: “We don’t do strategic or long-term thinking anymore. If anything, we may do long-term tactical thinking and call it strategic, but it’s really just a spreadsheet exercise…That’s not a survivable model.”

The issue is not process improvement or increasing efficiencies. The issue is the need to adopt strategic horizons that correspond to the realities of technology development and concept adoption. Defense “professionals” constantly surprise themselves every time a new institutional horizon is established for consideration under a national defense strategy only to discover that industrial base and resources are not prepared for the new problem set. This phenomenon tends to exacerbate the tension between traditionalists – who reflexively hedge by advocating for “tried and true” capabilities – and the frustrated futurists who don’t understand why their certain vision of the future isn’t accepted and quickly translated into physical reality.

First Model: Framework for detailed future projections and reconciling emergent challenges

The hardest thing about future analysis is to reconcile projections with current, or emergent, challenges. In 2014 the discovery of large gaps in defense capacity due to Russian and Chinese development over the Global War on Terror (GWOT) years created a need to energize “innovation” and pursue “disruption”. Those buzzwords proliferated in the new defense jargon around the 3d Offset Strategy and the supporting Long Range Research and Development Plan initiatives The use of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) to cover emergent Combatant Commander-identified gaps along with the creation of DIUx to better integrate with America’s technology base were direct reflections of the mindset forming around how to sponsor and conduct defense innovation. As the reality of future capability needs found itself at odds with the timeline to see true technology development occur, the rift between traditionalists and futurists only grew. As a result, strategists did not develop a process or method to reconcile transition from old to new as a matter of managed risk around a set of common criteria that would satiate the conflict between “as is” traditionalist and “to be” futurists.

However, as the reality of future capability needs settled in along with an appreciation of how long it takes to see true technology development occur, the confrontation between how to manage current and future by traditionalists and futurists was never resolved in defense culture or process. One reason why was that there was no clear engagement on how the continuum from current to future should be managed nor what level of detail should populate long range projections compared to near-term realities. Worse, there is still a lack of direction on how to manage normal capability succession if an unanticipated adversary capability is identified that may pre-empt planned investments or divestments, especially if the problem is severe or urgent enough that it requires redirection of re‐ sources. The First Model below provides clear steps to introduce a process to reconcile legacy and future requirements. 

Figure 2: The First Model and levels of detail to inform planning in the Horizons of Innovation Model.

The model above shows the level of detail that should inform discovery, learning, experimentation, and investment for different planning horizons. This model reads from right to left. Planning conducted in the 30-year block on the far right is broken into 5-year increments. Its focus is on the conceptual framework that underpins plausible security situations in 30 years, derived from long-term trends to include: demographics, economics, technology projections, and other factors. The effort of the 30-year period shapes a future defined by the projected operating environment and captures potential threats and opportunities to U.S. security interests. The 30-year projection then gives way to the 20- and 10-year horizons. Finally, this model shows that emergent or unmitigated gaps discovered in the Annual Joint Assessment of the current environment, for which there is no near-term resolution, can be referred to future analysis.

If no solution exists to mitigate a gap with current capabilities, the solution becomes an object of future consideration. The level of risk determines how soon a gap must be filled. As a caveat, this is not a form of “backcasting,” which is often used in future disciplines to define a future state and then identify how in the contemporary environment that desired outcomes should be achieved. This is decidedly not path determinant in that manner, it is simply a guide to the level of detail that should populate strategy and planning activities in each Horizon. Long-term projections are necessary to shape sustained development efforts, but not at the discounting of emergent conditions. Conversely, the emergent pressures of the “now” should not divert all attention from the future as it may set a detrimental course that will impact long-term security.

To develop an effective understanding of the future as it may impact the security environment must be a continuous effort. That future environment is often depicted in the form of defense planning scenarios. However, tension often arises about how much detail a scenario should have. Regardless of the detail requirements, the model effectively shapes 30-year projections through a process of assessment and then, with increasing details, converts assessment into an actionable criterion for defense strategy. Future projections are reconciled to the Joint Strategic Planning System (JSPS) process of force design (five-15 years), force development (two-seven years), and force employment (zero-three years) for the Joint Force synchronized with the Services. The Annual Joint Assessment conducted as part of the JSPS quantifies the capacity of the Joint Force to address current challenges and identifies any newly revealed and emergent threats from adversaries that were not anticipated in Force Design. These emergent concerns are considered and referred to the Joint Staff and Services for resolution. If an arriving capability fills the gap in an acceptable period, then transition can continue. If an emergent challenge is significant enough and a near-term solution can be delivered within two years, then the adjustment to timelines and budgets must be made. If, however, an emergent challenge cannot be mitigated in the near term and is expected to be a continuing challenge with long-term impacts to Joint Force effectiveness, it needs to be allocated to a horizon timeline with corresponding priority where research and experimentation can begin, even if it offsets other newly recognized lower priority efforts.

The First Model also helps to create cognitive space between current programs and future programs to enable honest assessments in each timeframe. It keeps these time periods from being conflated thus, avoiding unnecessary confusion between traditionalists and futurists when it comes to assessing the utility of legacy or future capabilities. It shows how to sustain a constant flow of future projections that mature in detail the closer one gets to the period under question while also accounting for near-term risks. This model establishes the level of detail that can feed a future projection and corresponding defense planning scenario based on its relevant timeframe thus impacting the level of analysis that can contribute to programmatic decisions.

For example, analysis in the 20-year timeframe may only be able to inform decisions to investigate a broad range of solutions or pursue basic or applied research vice selection of specific projects or solutions. Analysis in the 10-year timeframe should be more detailed and aligned with the current operating environment to inform final acquisition decisions and capability transition. Allowing current force commanders to contribute to future analysis in the 10-year horizon can prevent chaining DoD to an exclusive fixation on current concerns at the expense of future readiness while serving to eliminate any anchoring and availability bias in DoD planning and programming.

DoD struggles with how to weigh the consequence of emergent discoveries against other anticipated threats that have been matured and modeled over years. Posture hearings and testimony in front of Congressional committees play this drama out repeatedly as lawmakers question Department staff, Combatant Commanders, and Service leaders over which problem is the greatest and where to focus resources. Often the consequence of immediately allocating resources to an emergent problem is not reconciled against the impact for long-term shaping of force design efforts. The First Model both mends the rift between traditionalists and futurists while clarifying the depth of detail to inform multiple planning horizons. This model provides a solution to end the long-standing chasm between traditionalists and futurists misunderstanding through a mutually beneficial model with clear and common appreciation of the framework from which they view security challenges and remedies.

Second Model: Material and Technology Obsolescence vs Threat Obsolescence

Many proposed future capabilities are increasingly complex technologically both from a hardware and software perspective. Many extant capabilities, having proved their worth in previous generations, become the paradigm of successful means despite indicators that they may not be effective in the future. It is tempting in DoD to avoid re-assessing the efficacy of a capability against an adversary once it becomes a program of record regardless of whether it is an evolutionary or revolutionary capability due to the length of investment of time, money, and institutional alignment around the acquisition effort. Threat information contained in requirements documents introduce a single appreciation of the adversary once signed. Ironically, the need to re-assess increases the longer the capability dwells in development. Potential shifts in adversary capability throughout the capability development and acquisition process is something that demands updating. The Second Model illustrates the importance of a continuous assessment for adversary capabilities during a capability development to assess current legacy systems or their future programmed replacements.

Figure 3: The Second Model and material and technology obsolescence versus threat obsolescence.

In the Second Model depicted above, the Y-axis, labeled “capability,” spans the spectrum of our relative capability against an adversary. The X-axis spans time from the present to the future. Every capability DoD produces moves along the negatively sloped “Own Capability” line from useful to useless as it materially degrades over time. In the “Own capability” line, current capabilities are useful to provide overmatch, followed by neutral or parity as materiel condition over time, then followed by disadvantage as materiel condition and lack of sustainment render the current capability as useless. To exacerbate the entropic “Own capability” line, adversaries also decrease the time of usefulness of “own capability” since adversaries have their own negentropic positive sloped “Adversary capability” line. For each “Own capability,” adversaries adapt and introduce their own means to decrease time to make our “own capability” transition from useful to useless. The intersection of “own capability” and “adversarial capability” creates a point of competitive parity where sustained “own capability” beyond competitive parity generates an unnecessary risk to force and mission.

DoD generally does not consider of the ways that an adversary could respond after the decision to commence research and development of a new capability. The Services generally presume they will start from a position of overmatch and replace the capability as a technology improvement creates an advantage that makes retiring a system worthwhile compared to the expense of its development. The Second Model demonstrates that the adversary capability shift from disadvantage to overmatch may happen faster than the Services project. This template delivers an objective case for how both futurists and traditionalists can bridge the gap from their respective biases when they consider the adversary capacity to overcome either evolutionary or revolutionary means. Depending on the overmatch-disadvantage and present to future deltas, both traditionalists and futurists can assess feasibility of any capability opportunity and whether long-lead technology or a rapid and cheap adaptation is better in the face of an ever-changing adversary.

Peer and near-peer threats seemed less likely just 10 years ago, which afforded the luxury of capability introduction and replacement to be based on self-assessed warfighting improvements that dominated the approach to acquisition and sustainment. This self-assessment helped facilitate multi-mission exquisite platforms and was based on what the U.S. wanted to do or achieve given the low probability, or even lack of consideration, of a peer competitor. The perceived economy of multi-role platforms was derived from the need to have optionality in functions vice specificity derived from a single, or potent grouping, of comparable adversaries. The U.S. largely enjoyed the luxury of time for making features of the systems the dominant design variable rather than the threats they were devised for. A capability was threat informed but largely for adversaries expected to lack the capacity or means to rapidly respond with an effective countermeasure. The Services honored their invested preferences by sustaining capabilities as long as possible either in their original form or through ad-hoc adaptations that did not require major revisions to stave off obsolescence. Spiral development approaches of single systems informed this method with notable examples include the M2A2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle or most of the Navy’s weapons programs and ship construction. In the years of the GWOT, most adversary capabilities, although potent, did not stress the ability of the acquisition system to provide a capable response, just the willingness of the bureaucracy to accept the demand and energize appropriately.

In recent years the U.S. and its allies have seen the ability of adversaries to offset their capability overmatch. Near-peer adversaries are now capable of operating in environments that defy or limit the use of many primary systems to affect conventional deterrence or that present credible high-end capabilities that may achieve an overmatch to U.S. means and systems. With adversaries devoted not simply to regional concerns but limiting U.S. and allied efforts to check their global influence, the moment a capability is introduced, there should be an expectation that an adversary will develop a countermeasure; both symmetrically and asymmetrically. The cost imposing strategy of responding to a well-developed measure with a cheap countermeasure should cause DoD to change the timeframe the Services should expect utility from capabilities and consider replacements. 

Honoring sunk cost and assuming good stewardship of resources based on giving the taxpayer a “return on investment” by merely sustaining or adapting a capability is no longer a viable economy in the face of expected countermeasures for all but a few systems or platforms given the capacity of adversaries to respond technologically and materially. For this reason, force developers and force designers should meet often to develop clear appreciations of what capabilities or concepts will resolve adversary capacity at the point they achieve parity. More importantly, it should give pause to consider many long-lead programs if the time of utility is dramatically less than expected or if the proposed capability gap can be filled by a significantly cheaper and more risk-worthy option before parity is achieved.

Although the U.S. will be unlikely to see very many capabilities that will truly be useful for 30 years that are worth enormous time and capital investments, those that are pursued for 20 years with an expected service life of 20 or 30 years need to have assumptions of their utility validated during the development cycle with a dynamically considered adversary, and not one statically anchored. Only a concerted effort to develop an objective framework offered by the Second Model can help the critical traditionalist versus futurist debate into an actionable accord that delivers platforms and solution.


There should be no false boundary between those who choose to be either traditionalists or futurists. True defense professionals appreciate both perspectives and understand that each is subject to assessment of the claims advocated by either side. One method to address this challenge in DoD culture is to adopt an approach to capability development that treats current and future as a part of a continuum. The Horizons of Innovation illustrate that principle supported by the two subsequent detailed models. From the Horizons, institutional strategists, capability developers, and acquisition professionals can better identify when a capability will face obsolescence, not just due to material degradation but also to adversary response. Merely improving the bureaucracy is insufficient alone to accelerate the choice between innovation and adaptation.

The key process for DoD to gain maximum advantage is to adopt a longer-range strategic scan and continually update and compare multiple horizons against each other. More importantly, the ability to make a compelling case between sustaining current technology or adopting future technology depends entirely on developing measured and accurate models of future concerns that are more right than wrong which can only occur through sustained institutional learning and study.

Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps as Lieutenant Colonel after nearly 21 years of service. While on active duty he served in a variety of billets including tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Since his retirement in 2016 he was one of the co-developers of the Joint Force Operating Scenario process. Mr. Reese is now the Director of Wargaming and Net Assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA. 

Dylan Phillips-Levine is a naval aviator assigned to a tactical air control squadron. His Twitter handle is @JooseBoludo.

Featured Image: Busan, Republic of Korea (Feb. 23, 2023) Tugboats assist the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine USS Springfield (SSN 761) as it pulls into port in Busan. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Adam Craft)

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)