On Strategic Performance

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s On Strategic Performance By C O L I N S. G R A Y It has become almost a commonplace to observe that in the two world wars of this century the Germans proved to be good at fighting but not very good at waging war.1 A similar judgment applies to the French and American experiences in Indochina. One of the better works on the latter concluded that the plight of the United States “was a failure of understanding and imagination. American leaders did not see that what for them was a limited war fo
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  It has become almost a commonplace toobserve that in the two world wars of thiscentury the Germans proved to be good atfighting but not very good at waging war. 1 A similar judgment applies to the Frenchand American experiences in Indochina.One of the better works on the latter con-cluded that the plight of the United States“was a failure of understanding and imagi-nation. American leaders did not see thatwhat for them was a limited war for lim-ited ends was, for the Vietnamese, an un-limited war of survival in which all themost basic values—loyalty to ancestors,love of country, resistance to foreigners—were involved.” 2 Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, andWilliam Westmoreland—to name but three of themore culpable parties—neither read nor under-stood, let alone adhered to, the wisdom of thatlong dead Prussian soldier-theorist, Carl vonClausewitz, who wrote: Thefirst,thesupreme,themostfar-reachingactofjudg-mentthatthestatesmanandcommanderhavetomakeistoestablishbythattest[ofwarasaninstrumentof  policy]thekindofwaronwhichtheyareembarking;neithermistakingitfor,nortryingtoturnitinto,some-thingthatisalientoitsnature.Thisisthefirstofallstrategicquestionsandthemostcomprehensive. 3 He also advised: No one starts a war—or, rather, no one in his sensesought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how heintends to conduct it. The former is its political pur- pose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will setits course, prescribe the scale of means and effortrequired, and make its influence felt down to thesmallest operational detail. 4 s 30 JFQ   /  Winter 1995–96 Colin S. Gray is director of the Centre forSecurity Studies at the University of Hull. Hisbooks include The Leverage of Sea Power: TheStrategic Advantage of Navies in War  . On StrategicPerformance  By  COLIN S.GRAY  Gray Winter 1995–96  /  JFQ  31 In the cases above, somewhat inchoate vi-sions of what was politically desirable inspiredscarcely more orderly sets of high policy goalswhich had to serve as dim and swaying guidinglights for military effort. In each, political ambi-tion exceeded the military means and the strate-gic skill available. Germany, France, and theUnited States lacked the myriad assets necessaryfor an approximation of political success.Whether or not a plausiblefacsimile of victory was at-tainable in any of thesecases is distinctly debatable.What is not in question isthat the countries involvedall faltered strategically.Each failed to wage war in such a manner or tosuch a degree that the more important of its pol-icy goals were secured.One should be sensitive to, but not cowedby, the charge that too much is revealed throughhindsight. Also, it is not to be denied that muchin the history of U.S. statecraft is strategically ad-mirable. America’s victory in the Cold War was asuccess for strategy of which any polity could beproud. Although there is usually more to belearnt from failure than success, one should notbe biased in favor of the study of failure. More-over, even when failure dominates the page, onemust seek empathy with the people and organiza-tions committed to generate strategic effective-ness in the face of real-world friction. Indeed, it isthe very difficulty of providing consistently highstrategic performance that yields much of the in-terest in this subject. If scholars are to have any-thing to say that merits attention in the world of practice, they must understand the constraints of that world. 5 The Meaning of Strategy ThevirtueofClausewitz’sdefinitionofstrat-egyisthatitiscrystalclearonthedistinctionbe-tweenitssubjectandothermatters.Specifically,strategyis“theuseofengagementsfortheobjectof thewar.”Havingdefinedtacticsas“theuseof armedforcesintheengagement,” 6 thedistinctioncouldhardlybemoreclear.Withoutexception,wellmeaningattemptstoimproveuponClausewitz’sdefinitionofstrategyhavenotprovedsuccessful.For example, a well regarded military theo-retician, writing in a no less well regarded series of quasi-official textbooks, invites acceptance of “strategy as the planning for, coordination of, andconcerted use of the multiple means and resourcesavailable to an alliance, a nation, a political group,or a commander, for the purpose of gaining ad-vantage over a rival.” 7 The theorist at fault hereseems not to appreciate that there is merit in par-simony, that clarity in definition depends on anuncluttered identification of the claimed essenceof the subject at issue, and that speculation on thepurpose of the subject is irrelevant at best andmisleading at worst. His definition is not withoutsome merit, but quite needlessly it muddies waterthat was clear in its Clausewitzian formulation.Beyond argument, that definition is not an im-provement on Clausewitz.Nonetheless, that definition shines by com-parison with one offered by Martin van Creveldwhich is rather casual and distinctly unhelpful. Hespeaks of “strategy, the method by which thosearmed forces [the military organization created bythe state] wage war.” 8 Lest there be confusion, “themethod by which those armed forces wage war” isthe realm of tactics or even of doctrine. Doctrine isguidance on how to fight, tactics is what forces do,and strategy is the meaning of what forces do forthe course and outcome of a conflict.What may be called the strategy test  appliedto behavior reduces usefully to the question “sowhat?” Tactical discussion should focus on whatforce, or the threat of force, did or might havedone. Strategic discussion, by contrast, shouldconsider what difference the use, or threat of use,of force would make to the course of events. strategy is the meaning ofwhat forces do for the courseand outcome of a conflict Paddy fields ofVietnam.    D   O   D  There is a sense in which all levels of conflicthave strategic features, as Edward Luttwak statespersuasively. 9 But the Clausewitzian approach ispreferable. To avoid pedantry, the terms navalstrategy, airpower strategy, space strategy, andeven nuclear strategy may be tolerated, but onlywith particular and consistent meaning. For exam-ple, naval strategy refers to the use of naval en-gagements for the object of war at sea; that objecthas to be the right to use the sea at will, or theability to deny its use to an enemy. Maritime strat-egy, by contrast, refers to the use of prowess at seafor the course of events in a conflict as a whole. 10 Provided that the means-ends reasoningwhich is the core of the meaning of strategy isnot forgotten, common sense and a little carepreclude the need for undue precision of usage.Scholars are good at making distinctions. Indeeddistinctions are crucial in generating theory thatshould help explain, even understand, events.But drawing distinctions must be complementedby the recognition of important connections. A Holistic Approach Strategic theory, reasoning, or planning con-nects activities which otherwise are liable to betreated as autonomous realms. 11 Lacking a holisticapproach to conflict assisted by the central ideaof strategy, the universe of possible concern ex-hibits a series of often disconnected loose ends.In the absence of a strategic framework of instru-mental thinking and planning, how should de-fense be governed? People fight on land, at sea,and in the air; they wage low-intensity, mid-in-tensity, and even high-intensity conflict; and, ingeopolitical terms, they deter or fight in placessuch as Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Per-sian Gulf, et al. Of these classifications, the first(the dimension) is inadequately exclusive, thesecond (the intensity of the conflict) is unhelp-fully vague, and the third (the regional context) isperilously specific for planning purposes.A strategic mindset accommodates hypothet-ical action or threat of action in all geographicalenvironments, at all levels of intensity, andagainst all foes for all political purposes. As apractical matter, a defining aspect of strategy, 12 the strategist is anything but indifferent to thecharacter and content of the policy in question.To harken back to Clausewitz yet again, if  the ob- ject of the war  is truly heroic politically, whilefriendly forces are able to perform only modestlyin engagements that the strategist must use , thenstrategic failure is all but certain. 13 Clausewitz exaggerates slightly, but onlyslightly, in observing, “The conduct of war, in itsgreat outlines, is therefore policy itself, which takesup the sword in place of the pen, but does not onthat account cease to think according to its ownlaws.” 14 Also he expresses the unexceptionableopinion that “a certain grasp of military affairs isvital for those in charge of general policy.” 15 Givenhis continentalist Prussian strategic culture, it isnot surprising that Clausewitz might err on theside of assuming a unity of purpose between policyand strategy. It might be more accurate to statethat he elected not to dwell on the divergent pathsthat policy and strategy could pursue. As an inter-preter of Napoleonic warfare and staff officertrained to revere Frederick the Great, 16 it was un-likely Clausewitz would be drawn to any frictionthat could imperil the subordinate relationship of strategy to high policy that was theoretically nec-essary. When the duties of head of state, head of government, and principal field commander alldevolve on one person, prospects for harmony be-tween policy and military action are maximized.Had Clausewitz been geostrategically broader inhis education, he might have learnt from theBritish experience how a maritime polity can havedifficulty coordinating political, economic, andmilitary interests. 17 A holistic approach does not require fool-ishly embracing a strictly nominal coordinationof political intent and military action. It recog-nizes that political goals and military capabilitiesmay be poorly matched. Clausewitz was con-strained by prescribing what ought to be. A holis-tic approach is correct. A vision of a politicallydesirable condition should inspire policy choicessupported by a strategy that makes good use of operational competence founded on tactical ex-cellence. In practice, tactical performance will beless than excellent, operational skills may be slim,and strategic plans may lack political guidanceworthy of the name. 18 As for the political visionthat should propel the entire process, it may lackpractical connection to behavior in the field (forexample, in the case of a united Ireland for theIrish Republican Army). Holism captures thewhole, but it does not assume a perfect coordina-tion of the whole. Clausewitz’s advice on the rela-tion between political ends and military meanswas not invalidated by the events of 1914–18which, to the contrary, demonstrated just howimportant it is for high policy and its military in-strument to be mutually empathetic.A holistic approach operates vertically andhorizontally. Seen vertically, strategy includes allaspects of peace and security from political visionto tactical military performance. Horizontallyconsidered, it includes the application of poweron land, at sea, in the air, and in space, togetherwith strategic  nuclear and special operationsforces. It is important that this dual-axis apprecia-tion should be accepted before challenges in de-tail are offered. s STRATEGIC PERFORMANCE 32 JFQ   /  Winter 1995–96  Gray Winter 1995–96  /  JFQ  33 Those who seek simple solutions to complexproblems are pejoratively called reductionists. Theadvocates of various types of military power willargue that landpower, seapower, airpower, (would-be) nuclear deterrence, orspecial operations forces“can do it.” They reduce thestrategic problem at hand toa task that their favored ca-pability can purportedly ful-fill. It is not necessarily re-ductionist in a pejorative sense to recognize thatthere are conflicts in which a geographically orfunctionally specific key force is strategically mostappropriate. For example, Northern Ireland is asobviously a special ops, low-intensity conflict caseas the Falklands was a maritime problem. 19 Northern Ireland is reduced  to a complex po-litical problem as well as an irregular form of war-fare, but it can be difficult to delineate betweenan analysis that penetrates to the heart of theproblem (that is, the key elements) and one thatreduces a complicated reality to an oversimpli-fied, more manageable reality-as-task. One shouldnot fear to assert the identity and strategic rele-vance of a key force. Notwithstanding the com-plexity of an issue, there is likely to be a particu-lar kind of power, probably military, mostappropriate to a specific context. 20 It is well to be suspicious of reductionism oressentialism. 21 Also it is well to be open to thesuggestion that one or another kind of powershould attempt to function as the cutting edge of policy. To say that airpower was the key force inthe Gulf War of 1991 is not to be reductionist, itis to be sensible. Similarly, to claim that thethreats implicit in U.S. nuclear forces were key tothe frustration of Soviet policy over Germany in1948–49 and 1958–61 again is not to be reduc-tionist, but rather to be realistic. To recognize ge-ographical and functional variety in strategicmatters is ( ipso facto ) to recognize the possible va-riety of key elements. Why Strategy Is Difficult As the great man wrote, “Everything in strat-egy is very simple, but that does not mean thateverything is very easy.” 22 Though it should beuseful to recognize why strategy is difficult, it is Americans andRussians on the Elbe,April 1945.    U .   S .   A  r  m  y one should not fear to assertthe identity and strategicrelevance of a key force
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