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Home of Mahan, Corbett, and modern naval theory.

Capability and Intent in Developing Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clausewitz and Corbett are Now Too Much

clausewitz-1
Carl von Clausewitz

The 20th century American strategist Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie said, “I believe deeply that strategy is everyone’s business.”1 The expansion of internet-based strategic commentary, and the greater distribution of traditional sources of strategic discussion like the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, and The Naval War College Review have certainly played a role in achieving Admiral Wylie’s desire. The works of strategic theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, and Wylie himself are discussed on a daily basis in multiple global mediums. Many would-be strategic thinkers are happy to drop comments from all four of these experts within their writings in support of the policy they advocate. These “hipster” strategists and their overly-familiar homilies to the teachings of “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” (as if these long-dead strategists were their drinking companions) often obscure the backgrounds, geopolitical world views, and national goals of these noted military theorists. The world is rapidly leaving behind the period of the U.S. “unipolar moment” (1991-2008). It is now entering a new multipolar period of great power and non-state actor activity reminiscent of the period that ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers. While the works of all four have a role to play in determining the next U.S. military strategy, the writings of Mahan and Wylie have much more currency than those of Clausewitz and Corbett.  Their focus on operational vice strategic issues is a handicap in a new age when preliminary strategic decision rather than operational art is the key. While it is evident that both Clausewitz and Corbett were masters of the strategic geography and warfare methods in their own times, their applicability in the second decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. For these reasons, the U.S. should ignore the strategic “hipsters” and their plethora of Corbett and Clausewitz quotations and instead embrace the sound combination of strategic, operational, and tactical thinking found in the works of Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie.

The works of Carl von Clausewitz and Sir Julian Corbett are directly influenced by their backgrounds, associations, and by the geopolitical situations of their respective nations during their lives. Clausewitz wrote On War at a time when his nation was recovering from the wreckage of Napoleonic Europe, and just beginning to compete with the Austrian Empire for domination of the Confederation of German States that emerged from the final breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire. Since the re-emergence of the nation state in the late Middles Ages, state structures have been primarily geared for the making of war for offensive and defensive purposes. Well known Ohio State University military historian Geoffrey Parker noted that in the period from 1641-1815, “hardly a decade can be found in which at least one battle did not take place.”2 The rise of the bureaucratic European state from the Renaissance forward was primarily directed toward a nation’s army, which Clausewitz described as “the center of gravity” for leaders from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great.3 It is perhaps no wonder then that a staff officer from a land-locked garrison state organized primarily for life and death military contests against similar European monarchical elements would determine that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”4 While this key phrase has been mistranslated and Clausewitz clearly desired to subordinate the military to civilian authority, his ideas on conflict are firmly rooted in the Prussian military experience.5 The geography of the book is limited to operational and tactical discussion. Geographic locations, whether the Rhine River, the fortress of Olmutz, or the forests of Russia and Poland are treated as obstacles to an army’s tactical or operational movement rather than as strategic strong points to be taken or lost. The continued existence of the armed forces of the nation as an employable tool of the monarch, rather than the possession of any one or more key geographic locations is what matters. On War was written in German and intended for the use of other Prussian Staff Officers with world views analogous to that of Clausewitz. It is very much a product of an army-centric central European world view. Prussia had a known reputation as a warlike state. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Prussia was hatched from a cannonball” and the French aristocrat and later revolutionary the Count of Mirabeau said, “War was Prussia’s national industry.”

Corbett
Sir Julian Corbett

The writings of Sir Julian Corbett are equally reflective of the general mindset of the British Empire at the high noon of its existence in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Royal Navy (RN) had not faced a peer competitor in pitched battle at sea since Trafalgar in 1805. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 brought with it the” two power standard” measure of British naval superiority where the RN would maintain a number of battleships equal or superior to the next two ranking naval powers. France and Russia struggled to match the British in quality and quantity of warship construction, but largely failed in their endeavors to create equivalent fleets. The chief threats to imperial security were not from enemy battle fleets or direct attacks on the British Isles, but rather assaults on the vital imperial lines of communication and supply. The French in fact largely eschewed battleship construction for a time and instead concentrated in the construction of large commerce-raiding cruisers. The RN saw these ships as a direct threat to the security of the Empire. Protection of the lines of communication between London and Cairo, Delhi, and on to Singapore and Sidney was vital to commercial activity and provided the British the ability to rapidly reinforce beleaguered dominions threatened by external invasion. The problem of reinforcing India against a Russian invasion through Afghanistan in particular was a source of great concern to British statesmen and military leaders from the period of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 onward to the early 20th century.

It is perhaps no wonder that the writings of Corbett, and the opinions of his most significant interlocutor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Fisher, focus on protecting these imperial lines of communication rather than in the engagement of enemy battle fleets in decisive combat. Corbett defined “command of the sea” as means nothing but the control of maritime communications, whether for commercial or military purposes. The object of naval warfare is the control of communications, and not, as in land warfare, the conquest of territory.”6 Corbett seldom references geography except as loci of communications. These “naval positions” he defines as “firstly, naval bases and, secondly, the terminals of the greater lines of communication or trade-routes and the focal areas where they tend to converge, as at Finisterre, Gibraltar, Suez, the Cape, Singapore, and many others.”7 Corbett’s rather loose reference to specific locations is explained by the fact that the principle audience of his book, British naval officers who sat in his War College courses, had no need of a strategic geography course. As Clausewitz’s lectures were written to inform Prussian military officers, so Corbett’s concepts of operational warfare were designed to be employed by the Royal Navy in defense of the far flung British Empire. The RN had spent the last 300 years striving to control key geographic positions around the world in order to isolate opponents and protect its own lines of communications. Admiral Fisher in 1904 said “five keys (Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, the entrance to the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, and Dover at the entrance to the English Channel) lock up the world!”8 The radical new component of naval force structure Fisher proposed to defend these routes was the heavily armed, high speed battle cruiser.9 Corbett for his part emphasized the importance of “cruisers” and specifically labeled them as central to control of the routes communication.10 British statesmen of the period were equally well versed in the Empire’s strategic geography. It was the civilian First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, who conceived of the masterful geographic re-balancing of the Royal Navy in reply to big geopolitical changes at the dawn of the 20th century.11 Even the average British citizen of the late 19th and early 20th century understood that the maintenance of the nation’s sea power was of vital importance to its national interest. One popular English music hall song of the period exclaimed, “We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.” Working among such knowledgeable geopoliticians as Selborne and Fisher, Corbett could comfortably maintain focus on the operational aspects of “imperial” warfare.

Potential U.S. application of both Clausewitz and Corbett in the 2nd decade of the 21st century is problematic at best. Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is a continuation of political action (mistranslated or not)” is, however, not a useful tool for nation not as centrally organized for war as was 19th century Prussia. Admiral Wylie said, “War for a non-aggressor nation is actually a nearly complete collapse of policy.”12 In the coming of war then, he says, “nearly all prewar policy is utterly invalid because the setting in which it was designed to function no longer corresponds with reality.”13 From Wylie it is fairly clear that the paranoid Prussian garrison state model has little relevance to a democratic government committed to the preservation of peace and active deterrence of war. Corbett’s operational concepts embodied in Some Principles of Maritime Strategy are more applicable to contemporary U.S. strategic issues. His notion of “Sea Control”, however, is more constrained by its focus on the maintenance of communication with other parts of the British Empire than contemporary U.S. requirements to police global common spaces. The most important of these imperial communication routes was that from Great Britain itself to India. British historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher wrote, “To all Victorian statesmen, India and the British Isles were the twin centres of their wealth and strength in the world as a whole”.14 They further noted that the principal reason for the establishment of British colonies in Africa was the preservation of the communication route to India from the British Isles.15 There is no U.S. equivalent of India as a focal point around which U.S. global communications must be constructed. U.S. strategic interests are global in nature, but more distributive than those of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. The wars of the past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq also seem to have discouraged many U.S. defense and foreign policy elites from contemplating similar efforts to influence events ashore through the deployment of ground forces. Accordingly, the concept of Sea Control, as defined by Corbett may not be of the same importance for naval forces for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, both the writings of Clausewitz and Corbett both supported well-established strategies.

The United States, by contrast, has been in a kind of strategic drift since the end of the Cold War in 1991. It has been bereft until the past several years of a specific opponent or opponents around which to construct a replacement to the successive Cold War strategy of Containment. Defense reform efforts like the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 reduced the power of service chiefs who traditionally formulated strategy. In their place, a distributive combination of regional military commanders supported by joint and service elements from Washington D.C. created ad hoc operational solutions to regional issues. The first Gulf War of 1991, operations in the Balkans in the mid 1990’s and even the opening battles of the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) represent this focus on regional operational issues that often neglected wider strategic concerns. It is perhaps not surprising that the rise of joint-enabled operational solutions to these problems of the last two decades coincided with a rise in the quotation of Clausewitz and Corbett as the touchstones for this effort. Military historian Williamson Murray labeled this result as “operational solutions to strategic problems” in his description of the military policy of the German Empire, but his further description of its use of an “infallible central planning role for a general staff” and embrace of “an unquestioned cult of the offensive” could also characterize U.S. action in the period from 1991-2008.16

wylie2
Rear Admiral Wylie

While it is not necessary to entirely remove Clausewitz and Corbett from the War College curriculum, it is perhaps time to limit their use in favor of those theorists who speak in terms of long range strategy, and those more relevant to the current U.S. experience. Admirals Alfred Thayer Mahan and J.C. Wylie represent such a combination of strategic thought supported by a more recent experience than either Clausewitz or Corbett. The works of Alfred Thayer Mahan cover a wide field of concepts and disciplines, but a large number combine the disciplines of history and geography as the principal components of strategic thought. Mahan described the importance of history in strategic thinking through a quote from the esteemed French naval strategist Captain Rene Daveluy as:

“History, being the record of experience, if exhaustively studied, brings out all of the variable factors which enter war; because history, however imperfect, forgets none of them. History is photographic, where as the rational processes, that is, when a man having established a basis of truth, builds up his system without checking it by history, the rational processes tend to be selective. History in short gives you all of the qualifying factors; whereas reason, in love with its own refinements, is liable to overlook that which should refine them.”17

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Alfred Thayer Mahan

Some of Mahan’s concepts are also rooted in the geostrategic situation that confronted the United States in his lifetime. His belief in the concentration of forces as vital to combat success was as much influenced by U.S. strategic geography and potential opponents as it was by the history of past British naval wars he imparted. In the years before the First World War the primary strategic threat to the U.S. homeland was expected to come in the form of a cross-Atlantic invasion by an aggressive European power such as the German Empire. Only through concentration of its battle fleet would the U.S. likely prevail against a cross Atlantic invasion force. Mahan’s greatest contribution according to Wylie was “his recognition of seapower as a basis of national power.”18
Admiral Wylie’s works represent a synthesis of work of Clausewitz, Corbett and Mahan, as well as that of 20th century air and guerilla warfare disciplines. Wylie’s work is remarkably enduring in that it acknowledges that “terrorism is not going to disappear tomorrow” in spite of the information revolution or other aspects of advanced technology.19 He respects and anticipates that advances in missile and guidance technology will make war at sea more challenging.20 Finally, Admiral Wylie’s thinking and associated analysis are firmly grounded in the American experience of war, an aspect of his work that Clausewitz and Corbett do not necessarily reflect. The Prussian officer and the British operational theorist still have a part to play in the War College classroom, but their role in the curriculum should be adjusted for current events.

A notable naval history conference held at the Naval War College in September 1992 declared “Mahan is not Enough” and rightly suggested that the works of Corbett, and British Admiral turned historian Sir Herbert Richmond had been unfairly ignored in the study of 20th century naval history and strategy. The message was also a warning that the United States did not focus enough on operational art in the achievement of its military and national objectives. The brief period of the American “hyper power moment”, however, ended in the period 2008-2010. The rise of new competitors, the return of old challengers, and increasing disorder throughout the globe calls for an emphasis on historical strategic thinkers like Mahan and Wylie rather than operational artists like Clausewitz and Corbett. The strategic hipsters would do well to remember that “Uncle Carl” and “Sir Julian” could not have developed in the absence of underlying strategy that supported their operational theories. Rather than be concerned about numbers of strategists trained, the War Colleges would do better to improve the strategic curriculum in order to train a new generation of Mahans and Wylies to confront the nation’s present strategic challenges.

Steve Wills is a retired surface warfare officer and a PhD student in military history at Ohio University. His focus areas are modern U.S. naval and military reorganization efforts and British naval strategy and policy from 1889-1941. He posts here at CIMSEC, sailorbob.com and at informationdissemination.org under the pen name of “Lazarus”.

1.  J.C. Wylie, Maritime Strategy, A General Theory of Power Control, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1989, p. 1.
2.  Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 1.
3.  Parker, p. 168.
4.  Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 87.
5.  Wylie, p. 67.
6.  Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Project Gutenberg E-Book, released 16 February 2005, p. 94.
7.  Corbett, p. 106.
8.  Peter Kemp, ed, The Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, Volume 1, London, NRS, 1960, p. 161.
9.  Nicholas A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution, Columbia, SC, University of South Carolina Press, 199, p. 93.
10.  Corbett, pp 114, 115.
11.  Aaron l. Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895-1905, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 135.
12.  Wylie, pp. 67-68.
13.  Wylie, p 68.
14.  Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, The Official Mind of Imperialism, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1978, p. 17.
15.  Robinson and Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians, p. 464.
16.  Williamson Murray, McGregor Knox, and Alan Bernstein, eds. The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War, 1996, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 80.
17.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy, Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practices of Military Operations on Land, London, Sampson, Low, Marston, and Co., 1911, p. 16.
18.  Wylie, p. 34.
19.  Wylie, p. 106.
10.  Wylie, p. 102.

Stumbling on Peace: The exposition of strategic misstep

This article is part of a series hosted by The Strategy Bridge and CIMSEC, entitled #Shakespeare and Strategy. See all of the entries at the Asides blog of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to the Young Professionals Consortium for setting up the series.

Siward confronts GruachDavid Greig’s Dunsinane, while set in the centuries-ago land of Scotland, offers a modern perspective on the nature of war, peace, language, and politics. The events of the production explore the interplay between Siward, commander of English forces in Scotland, Malcolm, the English-installed King of Scotland, and Gruach, formerly both Lady Macbeth and queen of Scotland. Through several rounds and layers of intrigue, Gruach sows enough discord and mayhem to keep English forces at bay. Malcolm, for his part, does his best to engage with Siward in an attempt to illustrate that the use of overwhelming force is not always tenable. After a betrayal late in the first act, the second act functions as an extended denouement, with less action and less emotion. Indeed, the conclusion of the play, with a wandering Siward numbly stumbling out of the scene, parallels the endings to French and U.S. operations in Vietnam, Russian and ISAF campaigns in Afghanistan, UN experiences in Somalia, and the US adventure in Iraq.1

Nuanced allegiances come to the fore in the first act when Siward and Malcolm discuss their own perceived strengths. Siward wishes for Malcolm to act forcefully and seriously, rather than be thought of as a drunken playboy. Malcolm’s subsequent lecture on the desirability of being perceived as weak while operating from a position of strength mirrors current discussions on the rise of Chinese power in the Pacific, echoing Sun Tzu’s exhortation to “appear weak when you are strong.”

The arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

That Malcolm channels Sun Tzu is not an accident — throughout the play, Malcolm uses a longer, strategic vision of conflict, whereas Siward focuses on the operational level. Siward initially senses that, having “ended” the fighting through the regime change at the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, peace is nigh for Scotland and its clans. Throughout the play, Siward’s lack of vision and misunderstanding of the country that he now occupies enables Gruach and the Scottish clan leaders to undermine the English vision for peace. Gruach’s admonition at the end of the play — “you’ve been in Scotland a year, and you still don’t know the language!” — drives home the point that Siward, as the arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland, owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

Siward’s lieutenant, the tactical supervisor, has no appreciation for Scotland beyond its resources and his survival. He realizes through collaboration with his ostensible foes along with exploitation of war trophies that he has no investment in Scotland, and indeed survives through tactical fits of inaction. His inaction comes back to haunt him at the end of the first act, when, after witnessing a brutally treacherous and suicidal act, he helplessly cries out “we have got to get the fuck out of here,” an exclamation that could be heard on any of a dozen fields of quagmire.2


The slower, more deliberate second act has a scene with the line

“We win because if we don’t win – we lose – and if we lose – then what?”

Here again the play foreshadows discourse about assumptions of a zero-sum world of power. In instances such as China’s increasing influence in the Pacific and the adventures of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there exists a tendency to leave alternatives to military-centric actions on the table. This unexamined default course of action leads to a path dependency wherein strategic leaders are stuck; they cannot simply withdraw, nor can they simply win. Strategic leaders in those situations, as Malcolm remarks about the English in Scotland, are committed to an extended dance of saving face. In this case — as well with Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al — peace operations entail vastly increased losses of materiel, personnel, and treasure.

Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea.

Put another way, assumptions of power as a zero-sum game are increasingly outmoded.3 Dunsinane anticipates requirements for transitioning towards alternative concepts of power and peace. Interestingly, through Siward’s downward spiral, Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea. In doing so, he makes the case that hard, coercive methods may only have existed as an effective means of exerting power and making peace for a narrow slice of the early 20th century.

Dunsinane’s last and most vivid impression — that of the formerly upright and powerful Siward stumbling around a frozen loch, trying to “find a new country” — conjures images of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the mid 20th century, with former powers retreating from far-flung lands and their subsequent search for a new identity. At the same time, Siward’s search for “a new country” calls to mind Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” of a life after death. Judging from Grieg’s narrative, newly post-colonial countries may indeed have to undergo a rebirth if their Siwards are to find peace.


LT Vic Allen serves at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and serves as CIMSEC’s Director of Social Media. He can be followed at Medium here. All posts contain the authors’ opinions alone and do not represent any of the military services or the Department of Defense.

1. Ramberg, B. (2009). The Precedents for Withdrawal: From Vietnam to Iraq. Foreign Affairs, 88, 2.

2. The mostly civilian audience laughed at this line, which struck me as oddly incongruent with the sad and violent end of the first act.

3. Read, J. H. (2012). Is Power Zero-sum or Variable-sum? Old Arguments and New Beginnings. Journal of Political Power, 5(1), 5-31. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1900717

The Foundations of Innovation (Part 1 of 5) – A Model of Innovative Change

How should we scope and understand the dynamic processes behind innovation, in order to better set ourselves up for success? Stealing from John Boyd’s formulation of “people, ideas, and hardware”, let’s add some more nuance, and consider a simple and universal model of change in social systems. We’ll start by artificially separating the world into three basic categories: groups (bureaucracy, incentives, processes, etc), ideas (doctrine, concepts, narratives, etc) and tools (tech, infrastructure, etc), and simulate them evolving and interacting with each other on a left to right timeline.

whatreallyhappens

Figure 1. A General Model of Change and Innovation

Successful Innovation springs from the mutual evolution of ideas, groups, and tools, with each influencing the adaptation of the others in no particular order or precedence, but rather by building upon each other iteratively and simultaneously. Let’s look at each component in detail:

IDEAS – Ideas are both the reason groups are formed, and are the genesis of our tools. If the nature of warfare is constant, as most modern strategists advocate, it is because the basic ideas inherent to human nature (including many tacit ones) have stayed constant over the millennia. Ideas set the context for what we do with our tools, and drives the formation and modification of our groups.

TOOLS – Even as the nature of war stays constant, its character is constantly changing mostly due to advances in these. Tools are born from ideas, but they also make new ideas and group social structures possible.

GROUPS – Groups define how we blend both ideas and tools in order to cooperate and adapt to the environment collectively. The way groups are structured through norms, rules, and bureaucracy determines how easily some ideas and tools develop and flourish, and can alternately decide which ones attenuate or disappear. Groups effectively act as the “throttles” of human societal evolution through the predictability and synergy that they make possible by focusing the efforts of many individuals towards common purposes. They also provoke conflict when the identities and aspirations of separate groups come in conflict with one another in ways that cannot be reconciled through compromise or toleration.

Engineering Innovation – How Strategic Agility is Created

We create strategic agility when we actively invest in improvements in all three of the areas mentioned above, and look for new possibilities in each specific area that will help us to release the full potential of the others. We also achieve agility by exploring multiple alternatives in each area, creating the adaptive variety needed to respond to emerging challenges that we won’t be able to fully anticipate. Then when the future presents itself, we have invested in the ideas, groups, and tools we need to cope. To innovate successfully, you have to innovate in all three areas, not just the most familiar or tangible ones.

But there’s a catch…

smooth adaptation

What we imagine happens – We like to think that there’s a smooth interchange between innovations in the three areas, that Moore’s law will grant us continuous returns in speed and power, that progress will continue upwards on a steady slope, and that the exchange between the three areas will keep pace with each other.

 

realistic adaptation

 

What really happens – In truth, we often see advances in one area without a commensurate advance in the others, creating imbalances that often lead to unpredictable and undesirable results. In many ways we’ve designed “Tools 3.0”, but are still stuck with the old ways of thinking, and the old bureaucratic structures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We will talk about how and why this happens this week on DEF and the Bridge, and what we can do to maintain a healthy balance between innovations in all three areas.

Conclusion

Innovation is optional, but change is not. As Williamson Murray admonishes us in Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change):

It is clear that we live in an era of increasingly rapid technological change. The historical lesson is equally clear: US military forces are going to have to place increasing emphasis on realistic innovation in peacetime and swift adaptation in combat. This will require leaders who understand war and its reality as well as the implications of technological change. Imagination and intellectual qualities will be as important as the specific technical and tactical details of war making. The great challenge here is how to inculcate those qualities widely in the officer corps.

We’ll use our examination of the three components of the innovation model to help determine what those qualities are, and how we can promote them within our own organizations, even as junior members in the corporate process.

Bottom line: Those who fail to innovate will be left in the dust kicked up by those who do. It’s our duty to be successful innovators – and advocates for the constructs and concepts that lead to successful innovation in groups – lest we forfeit the legacy of freedom and self-determination that those who came before us fought, bled, and died for. You can’t just choose your favorite part of the model and expect that your problems will be solved – if you’re not innovating in all three areas simultaneously, you’re setting yourself up for even more unpredictability, unanticipated systemic consequences and vulnerabilities, expensive projects with little return on investment, and an increased possibility of a catastrophic failure in some situations.

Next in the series: We’ll continue with a deep dive into each component of the model, starting with Ideas.