Teaching Practical Strategy: The Contemporary War and Warfare Course at King’s College London

What follows is a contribution to the debate on improving education in strategy and military affairs for potential leaders facing the major global issues of the 21st century. As it covers a single postgraduate course at a single university in the United Kingdom, it presents a way of teaching the subject, rather than the way, and is emphatically not a definitive guide on how to teach strategy. Rather, it is intended as a "think piece" and intended to provoke further discussion and give food for thought for others engaged in teaching in these fields, be they in military, government, or academic environments.

Contemporary War and Warfare is a postgraduate (Masters’) level course forming part of several Master’s degrees taught in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Its broad aim, as stated in the course outline, is to enable its students “to develop their ability to critically analyse policy, strategy and military operations in current conflicts; and to conduct real-world policy and strategy analysis relevant for national decision-makers.” In other words, students are expected to develop the basic potential to become practical strategists, capable of participating in strategic analysis and planning in a meaningful and constructive way, or, at the very least, should finish the course with a good and sympathetic understanding of how professionals go about the process. Consequently, this is emphatically not a theory course; while students are certainly expected to understand the conceptual background to modern strategy, the principal focus of the course is on how military force is used to pursue political objectives in the real world of the 21st century and the many factors contributing to or impeding the intended outcome both generally and in theatres students examine in detail as part of the course. So, this is a course about war, how it is organised, and how and why it is being fought now—indeed, Professor David Betz, who teaches on the course, has suggested that a good alternative title might be How War Works. A key aim is to get students to understand that all war is conducted to meet policy aims and therefore warfare, the actual fighting, is a political act also; practical strategy, therefore, requires an understanding of how military operations are planned and conducted, what policy aims they can meet, and how policy aims and political culture affect actual types of operation decided on and how they are carried out.

To pursue these aims, we begin by teaching strategic terminology, the levels of war, and the role of military doctrine in order to provide the right conceptual toolkit, but students then become familiar with the practicalities of interagency cooperation and working with allies, war termination (and why this can be so elusive), the utility of military technology, the part played by the media, both old and new, and the importance of narrative in creating legitimacy and shaping strategy and the challenges of dealing with host nations and regional actors hostile, friendly, and neutral. We teach via lectures and syndicate-based discussions, and teaching culminates in students conducting political, strategic, and operational analysis for themselves and simulating presenting their findings to decision makers via role-playing exercises which form part of their assessment.

Modern postgraduate courses must cater for a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds, expectations, aspirations, and political standpoints, so it is essential teachers begin by establishing a common base of knowledge and understanding. Consequently, our reading list centres on Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Hew Strachan’s The Direction of War, and, from its publication, David Betz’s Carnage and Connectivity, works instilling understanding of the relationship between politics and war and where it stands in the early twenty-first century. The teaching reinforces this, approximately the first 75% of the course consisting of lectures covering a range of relevant themes, many delivered by professional experts with decades of experience behind them.

Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley (Getty Images)

Getting professionals involved is key for teaching strategy as practice rather than theoretical concept, allowing as it does the development of an understanding of factors affecting the development of strategy based on first-hand testimony of those who have had deal with these factors for real. In our case, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry speaks on the impact of civil-military relations based on his experience of commanding military operations in Northern Ireland, the Gulf, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan and as chief of staff at the UK Permanent Joint HQ at Northwood; Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley, who won the Distinguished Service Order for defending the Muslim enclave in Gorazde in 1995 before rising to become General Officer Commanding British Forces in Iraq and Deputy Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, presents on the role of senior military commanders in war and the major issues arising from dealing with allies; Nik Gowing, a political correspondent with thirty years’ experience of reporting from global trouble spots before becoming the main presenter for BBC World News, gives a multimedia presentation on the role of new media and social media in shaping the modern battlefield; and Chris Kolenda speaks on the problems and issues he encountered while participating in attempts to terminate the conflict in Afghanistan. It is also important that students understand the global context strategists now work in, so alongside these speakers academics from the War Studies Department present from the very latest research on broader themes, David Betz on the rising importance of international networks and non-state actors in modern war; Michael Rainsborough on the theory and practice of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, post 9/11; and Theo Farrell on media and war and the evolution of the war in Afghanistan, the latter based partially on interviews with senior Taliban leaders attending peace talks in Dubai.

  Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in 2006. (Getty Images)

Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in 2006. (Getty Images)

Each lecture is followed directly by the class breaking into seminar groups to examine the theme of the week in more detail. To ensure active learning, these are not traditional seminars based on student papers, but syndicate-based discussions centring on a particular question related to that week’s lecture, with each seminar group split into smaller syndicates who discuss the question among themselves prior to a general class discussion led by one of the teaching staff. For instance, General Fry’s lecture on civil-military relations was followed by a discussion on how far civilian political leaders should be involved in the conduct of war, Nik Gowing’s on new media by one on the impact of online social media on war in the 21st century, and my own on Special Forces by one on what options these kinds of forces might offer strategists which others might not.

The aim of these lectures and discussions, and the reading which supports them, is to develop the students’ ability to think about world military issues and the formation of strategy in an independent and original but informed way. To test this, the first part of the assessment is a 4,000-word essay examining these broad themes and others in greater detail, questions covering, for example, the difference between war and warfare, whether Western powers have lost “the art of strategy,” whether there is actually anything new about today’s “new wars,” case studies of contemporary wars of the student’s choice, or examinations of the strategy of various world powers in recent years.

The second part of the module tests the students’ ability to think and reason about strategy and regional security-related matters practically and independently. This is the policy recommendation phase, a team-based role-playing exercise in which each week, each team of students provides a recommended strategy for a particular actor in a recent or contemporary war, imagining they are an advisory team for a government or organisation unhappy with the strategy followed currently and required to produce a realistic alternative. The four scenarios used this year were Afghanistan immediately post 9/11, Ukraine and Crimea, Afghanistan post 2015, and the war against the Daesh in Syria and Iraq. (In the case of the Daesh scenario teams were assigned to advise the USA, NATO, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as the Daesh themselves; with Ukraine, they had to advise Russia, the USA, the Ukrainian government, the EU, or NATO.) Choice of scenario is flexible and reflects current global events, so future exercises may cover Israel and the Palestinians and/or Iran, Korea, Nagorno-Karabakh, or the Sino-US confrontation in the Pacific, to give some potential examples.

The second part of the module tests the students’ ability to think and reason about strategy and regional security-related matters practically and independently. 

The policy recommendation process begins with students being divided into their teams, of 7-10 people each, which will stay together for the four weeks of the exercise. Once allocated the actor they are supposed to be advising, team members then agree jointly on what policy aims they will be following for that actor in the scenario they are examining, and each member must then write a 1,000-word brief on one specific aspect of the strategy as described below, so that all the aspects are covered and the team should produce a coherent strategy for reaching those aims. While the briefing papers are marked individually, the outcome depends on team effort. To begin with, therefore, a different team leader is appointed for each of the four sessions, who, in addition to presenting the team’s findings overall in the policy recommendation classes, will be expected to coordinate the team’s efforts, resolve disputes, and make sure the team arrives at a coherent strategy which is more than just the sum of 6-8 disjointed parts.

The 1000-word policy papers are as follows:

Executive Summary – This is always the task for the team leader for that particular week, who is required to outline what policy aims the team is trying to achieve, the main points of the adopted strategy for reaching them, and why the actor concerned should adopt it.

Strategic Analysis – A summary of what major challenges stand in the way of achieving the policy aims, what enemy vulnerabilities we might exploit, and whether we, or our allies, have any vulnerabilities which may need protecting.

Strategic Concept – The major lines of effort the team recommends, along with how they will fit together to achieve the aim. Ideally there should be 2-4 critical tasks for each line of effort.

Assumptions and Judgements – What key assumptions about ourselves and the opponent/enemy must be valid in order for the strategy to be viable, and what evidence is there for each such judgement?

Risks and Opportunities – What are the critical risks to success, and what can be done to mitigate them, and are there further opportunities can we exploit?

Pre-Mortem – At least two alternative outcomes from following the recommended strategy, one positive and one negative, must be considered, along with possible indicators these might be becoming more likely than the intended outcome.

Enemy/Opponent Actions – The enemy always has a vote, so we must assess how our opponents might react to our strategy. 2-3 likely actions they might take should be given, along with how we can tell if they are taking them, and what we should do about it if they do.

Partner/Ally Reactions – These days our allies and local actors have a vote, too, so how might our allies or local partners react to what we are doing? 2-3 likely reactions should be given along with how we might adapt to them.

The final four classes of the course are given over to the policy recommendation sessions, each team leader making a short presentation based on their executive summary after which the entire team takes questions about their chosen strategy from the teaching staff and invited guests. What, exactly, are we looking for here? The first thing is a clear understanding of what strategy is—that it is not the same as policy and that strategic analysis is not the same as political analysis, something driven home in early lectures and in the reading and which students are expected to appreciate and register at all times. Secondly, we reward originality in thinking, not just regurgitation of what has happened already on the ground. Having said this, students should also understand the difference between a plan which is bold and original and one which is preposterous—whatever the prescriptions of theory, a viable strategy is one which can be executed in real life with the resources you have available. This one reason why I repeat the line about dilettantes talking strategy while professionals talk logistics several times throughout my teaching, as well as the observation of the former head of War Studies, Professor Mervyn Frost, that “theory is only useful in that it casts light upon reality.” Thirdly is an ability to see a particular global situation from multiple perspectives (Crimea, for instance, from the separate viewpoints of Russia, Ukraine, the USA, the EU, etc., the Daesh from the viewpoints of the USA, the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, Iran, and others) and to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes and see the world as they see it, something which every practical strategist ought to do but frequently does not, to judge from collective Western surprise at Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea or the post-2011 collapse of Libya, to give just a couple of examples. Fourthly, and tying all the others together, is understanding that any idea is only as good as the evidence presented for it and this is particularly the case in policy and strategy. The policy recommendations are assessed therefore according to the same criteria as other academic papers—strength of argument, ability to assemble and assess evidence critically, coherence of presentation, etc. The presentations are a chance to test how well each team knows its strategy and then deal with the kind of questions a head of government or armed forces chief of staff might ask about it, and the questioning is aimed as much at provoking thought for future sessions and beyond as it is at teasing out knowledge.

The primary aim of the Contemporary War course, therefore, is to give postgraduate students a beginning in the art and science of practical strategy in the 21st century, starting with background and context before moving onto practice, taught, and assessed via exercises in forming strategy for real-world scenarios. We do so in the hope that professionals or potential professionals in this field can learn from the experience and insight of others in an environment where discussion and debate are encouraged, while all students on the course will gain a greater understanding of how and why modern wars have taken the shape they have and why countries—or, at least, some countries—do what they do in the way they do. This is just one way of teaching strategy and military matters, but there are many others, and hopefully this piece will provoke at least a degree of further thought and cross-fertilisation; if it can do that, it has succeeded in its intent.


Simon Anglim is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.  He is the author of numerous articles on military history and operations and has recently crossed over into the blogging world.  He has published in Small Wars & Insurgencies, Contemporary Security Policy, Intelligence and National Security, The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Infinity Journal, and The Journal of Military Operations.  His most recent work is Orde Wingate: Unconventional Warrior, and he has embarked on a volume on the 1950s ‘Djebel War’ in Oman.

The author would like pay tribute to Mark Baillie, Professor David Betz, Professor Theo Farrell, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Fry, Nik Gowing, Professor Jan Willem Honig, Colonel Chris Kolenda, Dr Samir Puri, Professor Michael Rainsborough, Lieutenant General Jonathon Riley and Dr Arrigo Velicogna for the part they have played in developing and teaching this course, and offer thanks to William F. Owen for his thoughts on it.


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Header Image: Graf August Neidhardt von Gneisenau with Hermann von Boyen, König Friedrich Wilhelm III., Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Karl Wilhelm Georg von Grolmann, and Karl Freiherr vom Stein in Königsberg (Allbuch)