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Sea Power Matters: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay by LCDR BJ Armstrong is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

This is offered not as a personal dogma, or a theory of overall power, but instead as some general thoughts on a specific element of national power: sea power.

“The Navy, within the Department of the Navy, shall be organized, trained, and equipped primarily for prompt and sustained combat incident to operations at sea.”

— Title 32, Code of Federal Regulations

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that combat at sea is the focus of the United States Navy. It seems perfectly rational. This focus, codified in law and embraced by recent tradition, results in a view of sea power that skews toward the wartime, both the operational and tactical. Over the past century this has resulted in a slow migration away from the true meaning of the word. “Sea power” has lost the broad political, diplomatic, and economic meaning and the importance that it once had, shifting away from its true and proper place in strategic affairs.

Inspiration and Foundation

Uniformed and civilian senior leaders are not solely responsible for this shift. Strategists, with a broad definition of the label, share a hand in the shift as well. The Clausewitzians and devotees of Sun Tzu have come to dominate the foundations of strategic thought in the 21st century. There is no doubt that the writings of these thinkers offer a great deal to inform military affairs today. There are, however, some issues with using the texts of the Prussian General and the Chinese courtier as baselines for modern views of strategy. In doing so, we take continentalist views of the relationships between states and military force and attempt to apply them to a globalized world.

The migration of sea power toward the operational and tactical, and the attempts to connect it to continentalist strategic ideals, can be seen partially in the rise in popularity of Sir Julian Corbett’s Some Principles of Maritime Strategy. As Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influence has declined Corbett’s has grown and is commonly cited as more “relevant” by naval officers today. Surely, part of this has to do with the simple fact that Corbett wrote more clearly than Mahan did. It also must be stated that one book is not illustrative of the entirety of the British lawyer and lecturer’s thinking on sea power. However, the tendency within Corbett’s book to focus toward operational issues, or the “grammar” of naval strategy, allows it to appeal to a more practically minded, combat centric officer corps.

Sea power, however, is much more than operational design or combat planning for forces at sea. It has to do with international relationships, economic power, commercial interests, diplomacy and statecraft. Its results are not seen solely at the business end of a Tomahawk missile or in ballistic missile submarine patrols, but also on the stock of shelves at Walmart and the price of gas at the pump. This confusion, between the battle fleet and the navy, between combat incident to operations at sea and the global power and influence of maritime forces, results from the view which labels sea power as a domain centered ideal, as another name for combat operations at sea, rather than a broader field with wider relevance to the world affairs.

Looking Outward

The concepts surrounding the importance of naval forces, and the role which maritime issues play in global affairs, go back centuries. From Thucydides to Sir Walter Raleigh the importance of power at sea had been recognized and written about long before Mahan began reading Gibbon at the English Club while on liberty ashore in Lima. Despite our modern focus toward it, combat between fleets was never the exclusive raison d’etre for maritime forces, or the only lever of power available to them. Raleigh illustrated this in the 17th century when he wrote, “whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” In the United States this was echoed in 1787 by Federalist Paper No. 11, which advocated for the founding of the United States Navy on diplomatic and economic/commercial grounds instead of the need for wartime combat at sea.

In The Influence of Sea Power Upon History Mahan lays out the six elements of what makes a nation a sea power, none of which explicitly involve combat. Instead they are the factors that lead a nation to become a sea power. His initial discussion is as much political is it is military. In later works he continued to develop his thoughts on the position of sea power in world affairs. We all know the Clausewitizan truism that war is politics by other means. However, Mahan took things a step further and stated that political/diplomatic, economic/commercial, and military/combat considerations were all one integrated problem and that sea power was part of the connective tissue between the three in a globalized world.

This view of sea power, as something more than simply the when and how battle fleets are put together for combat, may be part of the reason that some continental strategists tend to struggle with the concept. Sea power strays into the realm of statecraft, global rivalries, and grand strategy in a way that may be uncomfortable for strategists focused on borders, territorial occupation, and the “decisiveness” of boots on the ground forcing a population to relent. The very concept of grand strategy is anathema to some, and debated by others, who claim the strict constructionist view of Clausewitz’s writing. These strategists tell us that the word “strategy” is reserved only for military combat. Today the concept of sea power is all too often viewed through this very limiting prism.

Bringing Balance to the Force

There are two dueling roles of navies that must be fulfilled to truly exercise sea power. One, as alluded to in the mission outlined by the Code of Federal Regulations, is to fight wars on and from the sea. This is critical. The ability to defeat adversaries lies at the foundation of the credibility needed to execute the rest of the sea power writ. But it is as much the beginning as it is the end of the sea power discussion.

The other mission of naval forces, which has been an important part of naval history for centuries, is to preserve the peace and secure the global system. This dual responsibility, conducting deployments and operations in both wartime and peacetime, has been central to American naval history since the very founding of the Republic. It was illustrated by Professor Craig Symonds when, in his study of the political debates on naval affairs in the first decades of the nation, he wrote:

All of President James Monroe’s surviving papers on the navy or on naval policy reflect a concern that it efficiently perform two distinct services: first, that it be adequate to cope with the daily problems of a maritime nation — smuggling, piracy, and combating the slave trade; and, second, that it provide the United States with a comfortable degree of readiness in case war should be forced upon the nation.

Despite this centuries old tension between the exercise of sea power in war and in peace, since 1941 the United States Navy has maintained itself on a war footing. The Second World War led directly into the Cold War and when the Soviet Union fell decades later the Navy’s institutional memory remembered nothing but a wartime posture. This mindset is not exclusive to the Navy. However, as a result the sea services have struggled with their vital role in the peace for more than two decades. Some have even resisted the discussion of their importance to the global system on a level above “combat incident to operations at sea.”

As we approach the centenary of Mahan’s death it is time to reexamine our modern conceptions of sea power. This will be a challenge. In recent decades naval officers have been taught strategy built on a land power framework and may have overlooked some of the fundamental differences between a continental view of national power and a global view international affairs. To uphold our responsibilities and American interests in the 21st century we must focus on a global view. It is time to expand the thinking, writing, and theory of sea power across the spectrum of its military, political, and economic implications. The broader obligations of a maritime state and a global power require it.

BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, helicopter pilot, PhD candidate with King’s College, London, and a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute. He is the editor of “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era.” The opinions and views expressed are those of the author alone and are presented in his private capacity.

Land Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Every war, and every belligerent in every war, manifests a distinctive pattern of strategic behaviour among an expanding list of geographical environments. It is true that modern strategy and war registers trends towards ever greater complexity, ever greater ‘jointness’ to offset and exploit that complexity, and in the maturing potency of new modes of combat…It is no less true, however, that land, even ground, warfare has yet to be demoted to an adjunct, auxiliary, or administrative, role vis-à-vis superficially more modern modes and foci of fighting.[i]

In a discussion over the modes of power that are employed to achieve political purpose, the above quote would likely halt all communication before it even started. Some would even immediately engage their cognitive biases and fill their slings with the tried-and-true military service-focused and parochial rhetorical ammunition. The current narratives from the various services can certainly be seen to support such an assertion.

However, while the above quote captures repeated insistence on the importance of land power, the author also indicates that while land power is vital, it is not sufficient, for “In practice, thus far, no single geographical domain suffices as provider of all strategic effect that belligerent states need.”[ii]

So, when a political decision requires a definitive, more enduring answer, land power will likely be the main element of national power employed — there’s a reason the key theorist of war and land power focused on destroying an adversary’s armed forces, occupying his country, and breaking that nation’s will as his three main objectives in war.[iii] Such use of large amounts of men and women in campaigns of physical control are not the only use for land power, however. While it is the only element of national power that can compel through physical dominance (or as some have described in recent posts by quoting Wylie, through a sequential strategy),[iv] land power can also accomplish tasks through three other approaches to the use of force — assurance, deterrence and coercion — to create strategic effect.

Grant and Lee at Appomattox | Tom Lovell

Beyond Physical Control
To Gray, “strategic effect is the [cumulative and sequential] impact of strategic performance on the course of events.”[v] It is the expression of how well a force translates tactical action into political gain; or said another way, how well the effects of military action maintain alliances and/or force an adversary (or adversaries) to change their behavior to match our desires. Given the fact that land power will likely be the element of national power least used to create strategic effect in today’s environment given its high political cost at home and abroad, how does an Army, as the principle manifestation of land power, provide options to assure, deter, and coerce?[vi]

Deterrence and assurance require both credibility and capability. Credibility is created through the perception that force will be used to achieve stated interests. However, without an acknowledged force required to achieve said interests, i.e. the capability, then the threat of its use to deter undesired behavior or assure anxious allies is empty. In the end, an adversary cannot be deterred or an ally assured unless they believe the offending party can be compelled to appropriately change their behavior. While other elements of national power are important to either deterrence or assurance, both require credible and capable land power, the only element of national power that can compel behavior through physical control. The size, capability, proficiency, and posturing of land forces is what provides a credible deterrent and assures allies. As has been shown in recent events in Eastern Europe, the lack of a credible and capable force for deterrence can lead to political adventurism by adversarial entities and a failure to assure allies in a region.

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Coercion is used to impel adversary behavior by shaping choices, either by punishment or denial; both utilize physical and psychological factors. Coercion by punishment is accomplished by damaging or destroying adversary capabilities required to achieve their interests, such as destroying naval assets that are being used in a blockade. Coercion by denial is using force to prevent the adversary from accessing the resources or territory required to accomplish their goals. Land power largely utilizes coercion by denial, such as placing American troops in a threatened country to significantly raise the costs of any action by an adversary. This also provides a degree of assurance for that partner nation. A recent example is the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The use of these three approaches to force — deterrence, assurance, and coercion — can be seen as largely an attempt to control the choices of an adversary through the threat of force or limited use of violence. In Wylie-speak, since he is in vogue throughout these blog posts, the threat of force or limited use of violence by land forces in this manner reduces the adversary’s choices through a sequential strategy, ideally creating “implications of certainty of the end” through “its persistent exercise…typically steadily reduce the number of viable options open to the enemy.”[vii]

Land Force Considerations Outside of Physical Control
Using land forces to deter, assure and coerce in today’s strategic environment will require three core elements:

1) The use of smaller, tailorable elements of the Army to accomplish strategic objectives. From a Special Forces detachment supporting a partner nation through foreign internal defense to a battalion task force taking part in a multinational exercise to strengthen NATO, Army forces must be prepared to train, equip, deploy, employ and sustain smaller packages of forces around the world. However, these elements must also be able to tap into larger regionally-focused/based forces to provide flexible options and scale up to conduct operations that provide denial by punishment, or compellence when necessary. The ability to disaggregate for cumulative operations must be matched with the ability to re-aggregate into larger formations — up to Division- and Corps-level — to conduct the combined arms operations required in ground combat across the range of military operations.[viii]

A launch of the Patriot air and missile defense system | Dan Plumpton.
A launch of the Patriot air and missile defense system | Dan Plumpton.

2) A better balance of combat and enabling capabilities. While the application of land power is largely seen through the action of combat elements, so called “tail” elements are as important, if not more so, to military forces. Even Clausewitz, who purposefully excluded logistics discussions in his magnum opus due to his focus on the fighting itself and its use as a political instrument, recognized that “The provisioning of troops, no matter how it is done…always presents such difficulty that it must have a decisive influence on the choice of operations.”[ix] The U.S. Army post-WWII has largely diminished the importance of its enabling capabilities — everything from transportation to engineers to missile defense to logistics — in favor of the “tooth” resident in its combat formations, even to the point of contracting out significant portions of the enabling functions; this in spite of the frequent acknowledgement of the importance of logistics in war.[x] The Army must create a better balance between combat units to those that project, set, protect, and sustain a theater.

3) Assigning dedicated Army forces to geographic combatant commands and posturing those forces forward. Supporting the two elements above, land forces should be more permanently provided to those that use them in theatre. The value of Army forces is not that they can be made expeditionary, but that they can provide quick and enduring force when properly postured in theater. These elements can be used to conduct any and all of the three uses of force, in addition to be present when compellence, or a sequential strategy, is required.

In discussions of military power today there is much elaboration upon of the loss of “overmatch capability”. This term is largely meant in terms of the decreasing technological gap between the U.S. and its likely adversaries, from non-state actors with anti-acess/area-denial capabilities to near-peer states with air and sea platforms that look suspiciously like our own technology still in production. Another aspect of overmatch is how presciently forces are postured and organized to prevent conflict through the assurance of allies or the deterrence or coercion of adversaries — or to be used to compel an enemy, if necessary. A decrease in overmatch from this aspect creates risk that our military will not be able to achieve the missions the U.S. requires of it. While we must mitigate risk across all domains, risk to the land domain is the most deadly. For, “Military success in land warfare can have a decisiveness unmatchable by success in the other geographies. If a state loses on land, it loses the war.”[xi]

Nathan K. Finney is a U.S. Army officer and a member of the Infinity Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board.  He has written on issues that involve strategy, building partner capacity, security sector reform, security force assistance, stability operations, and the integration of civilian and military agencies.  He holds a Masters in Public Administration from both Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.

[i] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 165.

[ii] Colin S Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2007), 316.

[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (New York: Alfrec A. Knopf, 1993), 102.

[iv] For example, see Rich Ganske’s use of Wylie as quoted by Lukas Milevski: “[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect” found in Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229.

[v] Gray, Modern Strategy, 19. The “cumulative and sequential” was added to the definition in Gray, Strategy Bridge, 18.

[vi] Elements of this strategic environment are not unique, of course, nor are its impact on the use of land power. For example, Clausewitz acknowledged the facts of limited war in his 10 July 1827 note and Corbett recognized land power was often ill-suited for limited warfare because of its inherent threat to the territorial imperative in his Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.

[vii] Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35:2, 2012, 233.

[viii] David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting, RAND, 2011, 173, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG1085.pdf, accessed 20 May 2014.

[ix] Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Hans W. Gatzke, The Principles of War (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 1942), http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Principles/, accessed on 24 May 2014.

[x] For example, see Martin van Creveld’s Supplying War, John Lynn’s Feeding Mars and Benjamin Bacon’s Sinews of War.

[xi] Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 313.

Cyber Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay by Billy Pope is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Cyberspace is enabling new forms of communication, influence, awareness, and power for people around the world. Families use cyberspace to communicate face-to-face over great distances. Financial institutions execute global business and commodity trades at the speed of light through the cyberspace domain. The world’s citizens are granted unprecedented access to information, facilitating more awareness and understanding than at any time in history. Yet the same cooperative domain that fosters so much good for mankind also offers a tremendous source of power. The antithesis of the mutually beneficial electronic environment is a cyberspace where competition and fear overshadow collaboration. This conundrum, however, is not new. Hobbes, in his fundamental law of nature, warns, “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of Warre.”[i] Cyberspace will continue to civilize. As the domain matures, however, so too will the forces that aim to use the cyberspace domain to project power.

Hobbes’ Leviathan

Before diving into the concept of cyber power, one must first frame the term power itself. Power, in its most basic form equates to might: the ability to compel a person or group to acquiesce through force. Thucydides captured this concept in his artful depiction of the Melian Dialog, penning the famous phrase, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”[ii] Hobbes, too, warned that power possessed is power to be used, suggesting every man lives in a state of constant competition with every other man.[iii] In this way, power is the ultimate arbiter, framing both what a man can do and what he should do in the same breath.

The close cousin to might is coercion. Thomas Schelling suggests “Coercion requires finding a bargain, arranging for him to be better off doing what we want — worse off not doing what we want — when he takes the threatened penalty into account.”[iv] Unlike a strategy centered on might, coercion requires insight. Military strategists and theorists who emerged from the Cold War coalesced around a single basic tenet of coercion: one must attempt to thoroughly understand an adversary before coercion can succeed.[v] Hearkening Sun Tzu’s notion that one must “know the enemy,” this community of great minds suggests in-depth analysis helps determine the bargaining chips in the coercion chess match.[vi]

Coercion is not limited to massive Cold War-styled conflicts. Non-state actors and other asymmetric threats may also be influenced through coercive strategies. Emile Simpson, in his book War From the Ground Up, infuses current counterinsurgency strategies with Aristotle’s concepts of logos, ethos, and pathos to distill the concepts of modern coercion.[vii] Simpson argues the vital importance of information as a source of power. He suggests the very definition of success in asymmetric conflicts is framed by one’s ability to compel an adversary to accept an imposed strategic narrative. Simpson writes, “In this sense, success or failure in war are perceived states in the minds of one’s intended audience.”[viii] In wars where annihilation cannot even be considered as a feasible strategy, one must win with ideas. Coercion offers a framework of thought that centers on this very approach.

Artist’s depiction of cyberspace, Feb 2011 via Cameroon’s Ministry of Defense

Why focus so much of an essay on cyber power theory to a lengthy discussion on traditional forms of power? Quite simply, cyber power is still just power at its core. Cyber power will not change the nature of war. Cyber power, at least in the foreseeable future, will not reorganize the international consortium of states, leaving the Westphalian system to flounder in a new electronic world order. Cyber power offers tremendous opportunities to enhance how people interact, cooperate, and even fight. It does not, however, make traditional forms of power obsolete.

Overzealous futurists exuberantly claim that cyber power is a game changer, saying things like, “Cyber war is real; it happens at the speed of light; it is global; it skips the battlefield; and, it has already begun.”[ix] The attuned strategist will peer through the chafe, realizing that cyber power offers new, innovative methods by which to project power. The same savvy practitioner will also appreciate that power and conflict are grounded in basic human requirements, psychology, and relationships. Neither Thucydides’ realist notions of fear, honor, and interests, nor Keohane’s collaborative concepts of cooperation and interconnectedness were developed with cyberspace in mind.[x] Cyberspace, and in turn any notion of cyber power, however, contains these concepts in troves.

What, then, is cyber power specifically? This author argues it takes two forms. First, cyber power extends and accentuates existing forms of military power. It helps shape the battlefield through intelligence collection and information operations. In some cases it facilitates military effects that were previously only achievable through kinetic means. Second, cyber power is a unique political instrument. Most military professionals are all too familiar with the elements of national power marched out during professional education courses: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. Cyber power connects to each of these components but also offers new options. Stronger than diplomacy and sanctions, yet not to the level of Clausewitzean war, cyber power expands the spectrum of power projection available to policy-makers.

The Aviationist, March 2013

In its militaristic form, cyber power has proven its worth as an accoutrement to traditional military engagements. Two historical examples of air power employment serve as cases in point. When the United States repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the American Air Force disabled Iraq’s integrated air defense system by permanently destroying radar sites, anti-aircraft systems, and electrical switching stations.[xi] In 2007, the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian airspace en route to an alleged nuclear reactor at Dier-ez-Zor. Israeli pilots simply flew past Syria’s air defense systems undetected. While Israeli officials have never confirmed the details of this operation, it is widely accepted that a cyber attack blinded the air defense systems, achieving the desired effect, while preserving the systems and their associated personnel from physical destruction.[xii] By producing military effects, cyber power enhances more traditionally understood forms of power in terms of might and projection.

The second framework of cyber power, however, places more emphasis on the combination of interdependence and leverage than military might. In this way, the concept of coercion again takes center stage. The United States serves as an appropriate case study. America is the most technologically advanced nation on Earth. The U.S., after all, invented the Internet and gave rise to the framework for cyberspace. Until very recently, the United States maintained control over the mechanisms that form the central nervous system of the Internet and its interdependent connections.[xiii] This outright advantage, however, also translates into a serious vulnerability. The U.S. and other similarly connected nations are more dependent on cyberspace for normal societal functions like banking, municipal utilities, and interstate commerce.

Prominent powers are incentivized to exercise cyber power to achieve political effects while attempting to limit vulnerabilities to the same types of actions. Largely non-lethal and quite influential against nations that find themselves dependent upon the domain, cyber power offers attractive options. Some states will attempt more cooperative approaches to limit vulnerability, as Keohane’s post-hegemonic theoretical approach would suggest. At a minimum, capable entities will communicate their abilities to exert influence in the cyber domain to influence the strategic narrative Emile Simpson so aptly describes. The ability to project power in the cyber domain becomes an important source of influence alongside economic, military, informational, and diplomatic leverage. It is in this grand-strategic purview that cyber power holds the most potential.

The difference between these two aspects of cyber power is both strategic and philosophical. In the militaristic sense, cyber might conjures a Clausewitzean approach where engagements form the foundation of strategy and digital blood is the price of victory.[xiv] A strategy centered on coercion, leverage, and dependence, however, falls into the realm of Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart where perfect strategies involve very little actual confrontation on the way to achieving political objectives.[xv] Familiar in concept yet quite novel in execution, these two methods produce power where none previously existed. Both approaches, however, must be considered as parts of a greater whole that includes the full spectrum of power and political will. Cyber power is poignant and increasingly relevant, but it is not sufficient in and of itself.

While some soothsayers predict cyberspace will reshape the global landscape and the power structures that govern it, this author suggests otherwise. So long as people depend on the physical domains of air, land, and sea for basic survival needs, the physical powers used to protect these domains will remain relevant. That is not to say, however, that cyber power is flaccid. Nations that depend on cyberspace can be held at risk through the exploitation of cyber power for political effects. Whether through direct engagement or a more indirect approach, cyber power is capable of swaying political decisions in the same way others sources of power influence policy. Cyber power is a force to consider as military leaders and statesmen alike contemplate all dimensions of national power.

[i] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Rev. student ed, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 92.

[ii] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, [Rev. ed, The Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth, Eng., Baltimore]: Penguin Books, 1972), 406.

[iii] Hobbes, Leviathan, 88.

[iv] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 4.

[v] Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed (New York: Longman, 1999), 404; John J Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), 338; Emile Simpson, War from the Ground up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), 206; Robert Anthony Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1996), 20. This list is not exhaustive, but is representative of the importance the community of scholars places on understanding one’s adversary.

[vi] Sun Tzu, The Illustrated Art of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 205.

[vii] Simpson, War from the Ground up, 202–203.

[viii] Simpson, War from the Ground up, 61.

[ix] Richard A. Clarke, Cyber War: The next Threat to National Security and What to Do about It, 1st ed (New York: Ecco, 2010), 30–31.

[x] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 20–21; Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, 1st Princeton classic ed, A Princeton Classic Edition (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005), 243.

[xi] Michael R Gordon and Trainor, The Generals’ War: The inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), 112.

[xii] Charles W. Douglass, 21st Century Cyber Security: Legal Authorities and Requirements, Strategic Research Project (U.S. Army War College, March 22, 2012), 14.

[xiii] “NTIA Announces Intent to Transition Key Internet Domain Name Functions | NTIA,” accessed May 7, 2014, http://www.ntia.doc.gov/press-release/2014/ntia-announces-intent-transition-key-internet-domain-name-functions; “US Transitioning Internet DNS Control,” accessed May 20, 2014, http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2014/03/us-transitioning-internet-dns-control.

[xiv] Carl Von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 128, http://site.ebrary.com/id/10578581.

[xv] Basil Henry Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2nd rev. ed (New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Meridian, 1991), 324.

Joint Action: A Personal Theory

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series here at CIMSEC and The Bridge, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Despite the historical success of joint action, many professional warriors and strategists continually debate which military function is most decisive in the termination of war. Even today, some question whether it is indeed worth the effort to work through the complications of combining competing strategies into effective joint action. My personal theory of joint action proposes an artful blend of both sequential and cumulative strategies to conduct unified operations that most effectively achieve our national objectives. Strategic effect is reduced when either cumulative or sequential strategies are parochially subordinated to the other, since there is no single, decisive function, service, or role in war.

Landing Craft Utility 1633, departs the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) with vehicles assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) after a stern gate marriage. Ashland is part of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and is conducting joint force amphibious operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Raymond D. Diaz)


The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 drastically changed how the US military operates. Most importantly, it required the military services to interact jointly by force of law. This legal requirement for joint operations is necessary; but is by itself insufficient to build a compelling basis for joint collaboration, integration, and interdependence. While there has been much ink spilt over the normative force of Goldwater-Nichols, few have explored the theoretical basis for joint interdependence since Sir Julian Corbett.[1] This essay attempts to expand Corbett’s theoretical foundation that gives the law its conceptual footing.

What is Jointness?

Joint action, or jointness, is the creation of complementary strategic effect across all domains towards a shared political objective. Achieving a degree of physical or psychological control over an adversary creates strategic effect and requires an appreciation for the unique specializations and inherent difficulties of each domain-focused force. This appreciation acknowledges that institutional professionalism is hardly omnicompetent or transitory between varied forms of military power.[2]

Categorization of Joint Action

Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Photo Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute)


In Military Strategy, J.C. Wylie[3] postulated that the “common factor” to all power struggles “is the concept of control, some form or degree or extent of control exercised by one social entity over another.”[4] Wylie’s work offers a novel lens for viewing fighting, the solitary means of war.[5] This combat-centric view turns our attention to questioning the best strategy for combat operations.

Often, the territorial imperative quickly comes to the forefront. If land matters most, as some have correctly suggested,[6] then our discussion of the best strategy comes to an abrupt conclusion if we assume that land is all that matters. If only land matters, then achieving the desired effect via the continental theory of war promulgated by some strategists answers our question. As Corbett suggested:

Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.[7]

Is this settled theory or should we concern ourselves with the nagging implications of Corbett’s fear of the possible? How should we properly understand the latter part of Corbett’s statement regarding the former’s pious and possibly sole finality? Wylie offers us insight when he suggests, “there are actually two very different categories of strategies that may be used in war.”[8] He categorized these strategies as sequential and cumulative:

Normally we consider a war as a series of discrete steps or action, with each one of this series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it. The total pattern of all the discrete or separate actions makes up, serially, the entire sequence of the war. If at any stage of the war one of these actions had happened differently, then the remainder of the sequence would have had a different pattern. The sequence would have been interrupted and altered. But there is another way to prosecute a war…. The other is cumulative, the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling on top of the other until at some unknown point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical. They are not incompatible strategies, they are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. In practice they are usually interdependent in their strategic result.[9]

“[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect,” Lukas Milevski suggests, “whereas a cumulative strategy would utilize the innate capacity of force to inflict damage.”[10] Sequential strategies strive for finality in achieving strategic effect, while cumulative strategies effectively deny such finality.

U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descend to the ground after jumping out of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft over drop zone Sicily during Joint Operations Access Exercise at Ft. Bragg, N.C. (Photo by A1c James Richardson, USAF)


Both strategies are best understood as complementary sides of the same coin, rather than inherently hierarchical or opposing inferior viewpoints. Sequential strategy promotes inherently offensive assertions of control, while cumulative strategy is an inherently defensive aspect of control that saps the strength of an adversary’s assertions for control.[11] These categorizations are not exhaustive, but they are useful in explaining how merging sequential and cumulative strategies jointly enhance strategic effect.

So, what aspects of joint action are typical of sequential and cumulative strategies? Conventional land power is a sequential strategy because of its unique ability to control political territory. Only conventional land power can assert control by seizing political territory, and only conventional land power can achieve control by protecting that valued territory. Alternatively, forms of power promoting cumulative strategies are sea power, air power, space power, and cyber power. Guerrilla warfare is also a cumulative strategy. All cumulative strategies, however, lack direct control upon the territorial imperative.[12]

Explanation of Joint Action via Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

A U.S. soldier shares grapes with Afghan boys in the southern province of Kandahar. (Photo by Tony Karumba)


It would seem inherent in Wylie’s suggestion that the “ultimate determinant” of control “in war is the man on the scene with a gun.”[13] However valid this point might be, as suggested above with the coin analogy, it illuminates only one part of the whole. War is a “duel on a larger scale” between opponents with varied capabilities and strategies at their disposal. There is room on both sides for misconceptions about the nature of the aforementioned coin.

Zealots will always promise “decisive” war termination via either type of strategy, omitting the obligatory importance of jointness. Slogans such as “Victory through air power,”[14] and “[land power] when specific outcomes matter,”[15] illustrate two such examples. Sometimes these are suggested as result of unwitting reductionism, but can also be the polemic tools of ideology or cynical competition for resources. The greatest barrier to joint action is parochial thinking that does not fully appreciate other strategic viewpoints, more precisely, a blend of sequential and cumulative strategies.

Relationship of Jointness to the Interaction of Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

While finality is possible with sequential strategies, hostility is always at play. War rarely allows for a single decisive blow, nor is the ultimate outcome of a war usually to be regarded as final. Additionally, lest we commit ourselves wholly to the lure of “decisive” strategies, one can never overlook the political constraints dictated by context in asserting control.[16] Clearly, there is more to consider than a simplified perspective of “decisiveness.”

Milevski illuminates the interplay between cumulative and sequential strategies further:

Cumulative strategy is underappreciated, in part because it cannot be ‘of itself reliably decisive’…. Its effect is limited and only works over time, anathema to those strategists whose aim is short, decisive wars. Cumulative strategy can on its own only achieve a denial of control the result of which is to obscure the choices that really are available and the consequences they may have…. Bereft of the ability to take, it cannot force a conclusion upon [an adversary] unwilling to accept it, as may be ultimately possible with sequential strategy…. To those not trained to think in terms of control, denial of control as an operational method seems inexplicable as it does not fall into more popular categories of operations such as direct and indirect or attritional or maneuver. Bereft of an intellectual framework, however implicit, practitioners facing a cumulative strategy have no way of understanding the character of the threat they face. This lack of comprehension affects not only the strategy chosen to counter it, but also practitioners’ grasp of who is more strongly affecting whom.[17]

The interaction of cumulative and sequential strategies is complex. As a result, it is useful to consider this interaction during the ongoing debate over war termination, counterinsurgency operations, and even resourcing of our future military capabilities. In each of these areas, success will be secured by balanced use of cumulative and sequential strategies in a joint and thoughtful manner.

Anticipation within a Positive View of Joint Action

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, 2011. (Via Wikimedia Commons)


Wylie’s theory of control viewed through the dichotomy of sequential and cumulative strategies is not meant to be prescriptive nor mathematical. After all, the interplay between friendly and adversarial combinations must be tested in real war.[18] Actual context requires the subjective blend of these strategies into unified action. By understanding the core of control as having two equally important strategies, sequential and cumulative, one grasps the fundamental basis of jointness as a principle in achieving a desired strategic effect.

“One can sense a very real possibility that this concept of sequential and cumulative strategies operating in coordination,” Wylie suggests, “may help us form more valid judgments of the interrelationship between ground and air, ground and sea, and sea and air forces.” Since he wrote these words, technology has irrevocably changed the modes of warfare making this interrelationship more complicated. Nevertheless, Wylie grasped the most important element of the debate when he suggested that control was best achieved via an interoperable application of both cumulative and sequential strategies.[19] It is for this reason that strategists should willfully acknowledge and be driven by a holistic understanding of the necessity for jointness, rather than by force of law. My personal theory suggests that this approach to joint action will increase success in translating tactical action into strategic effects that promote our national interests.

[1] This essay is greatly indebted to the works of Clausewitz, Corbett, Colin Gray, Lukas Milevski, and especially J.C. Wylie as the means for developing a basis of joint action. The latter’s work in Military Strategy is especially useful in parsing out how cumulative and sequential strategies drive how we think about war. Also, the author would like to thank Jeremy Renken, Scott Shipman, and Nick Prime for exchanges that further illuminated Wylie’s theory of control to me.

[2] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 209–211.

[3] If Sir Julian Corbett is the first joint theorist, then J.C. Wylie’s insistence upon integrated sequential and cumulative strategies as a prerequisite for political advantage within a military context demands that he be held as a close second.

[4] J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick, N.J.,: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 110.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 95, 97.

[6] Gray, Modern Strategy, 212–216; Wylie, Military Strategy, 85; Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 377; Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2 (January 18, 2012): 234.

[7] Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 16.

[8] Wylie, Military Strategy, 26.

[9] Ibid., 23–24, 26.

[10] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229.

[11] Ibid., 234, 235.

[12] Ibid., 232–234.

[13] Wylie, Military Strategy, 85.

[14] H.C. Potter et al., Victory Through Air Power (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Pictures, 1943), accessed May 23, 2014.

[15] Huba Wass De Czege, The Hard Truth about “Easy Fighting” Theories: The Army Is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter, Essay, The Landpower Essay Series (Association of the United States Army, April 2013), accessed January 14, 2014.

[16] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 75–89, 577, 593–594.

[17] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 235–236.

[18] Wylie, Military Strategy, 29.

[19] Ibid., 27–29, 33–35.