Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Richard Bailey, James W. Forsyth Jr., and Mark O. Yeisley (Eds.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.
In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed it is right not to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school. —Speech of Archidamus, from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War
For most of its first quarter century of existence, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) has been more like a Prohibition-style speakeasy than the U.S. Air Force’s “severest school” for strategists. To find it, you usually had to know someone inside, and follow their complicated directions through a maze of corridors inside another Air University institution’s building. When you finally found the telltale SAASS floormats below the door, you could imagine what Indiana Jones or Stanley Goodspeed must have felt after finding the door to the hidden treasure room. Even as a graduate, you could never be exactly sure where SAASS would be located on your next visit—the school has moved from place to place around Maxwell Air Force Base’s academic circle over the years. Even today, your best bet is usually to arrange for someone from the inside to meet outside and guide you in.
In that same spirit, I’d like to offer you a guided tour of the new book by the SAASS faculty, Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. As a 2010 graduate of SAASS, I freely admit my unavoidable bias; while I did not participate in the project, I know and admire many of the instructors who wrote it. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to offer a truly objective in a critical evaluation—the students, graduates, and instructors call ourselves the “SAASS Family,” and in this case it’s not just “mandatory fun” rhetoric. But for this book, it may help more than hurt to have such insider info. For, as with many books on strategy, it’s critical to have a sense of why the book was written, and for whom specifically it was written, before adding its insights to your own synthesis. While this book is definitely about strategy, it’s really more of a documentary, capturing a specific institution’s spirit and method as it commemorates its first quarter century of educating airpower strategists.
The Context of Strategy: Context and Adaptation
SAASS was initially chartered in 1990 by Air Force Chief of Staff General Larry Welch in response to deficiencies described in the Panel on Military Education’s report to Congress, commonly referred to as the “Skelton Report.” Then and now, the mission of SAASS is to educate strategists for the U.S. Air Force and the nation, including students from our sister services and coalition partners. While Strategy: Context and Adaptation is definitely about strategy, it throws the doors of the speakeasy open to a much wider world, documenting and explaining a specific approach to exploring strategy and teaching strategists. You could even say the authors are literally wearing their intent on their sleeve—the book sleeve, that is. Digging into the carefully chosen words on the cover is the key to discerning the authors’ method and intent:
Context: This book will tackle the tradeoffs between continuity and change that are key to the study and comprehension of strategy, which is ultimately about informing practical action in specific circumstances.
Adaptation: This book is about anticipating and successfully coping with change and uncertainty, which helps to distinguish the study of strategy from management and leadership.
Archidamus: “From the Past, the Future” is the SAASS motto. We study history for insights we can apply today to shape the future. Invoking the Spartan king who offered one of the earliest examples of lucid, sober, and complete strategic thinking about the realities of war before the Second Peloponnesian War, as interpreted and communicated in retrospect by Thucydides. Archidamus offers a great example of what SAASS hopes to generate—strategists who can look at the challenges and uncertainty of war wide-eyed, giving the best advice possible to those who give them guidance. In a military still searching for strategic competence, It’s also a perfect illustration of one of the most popular sayings at SAASS: “If you want a new idea, read an old book.”
Airpower: SAASS is dedicated to educating airpower strategists, which includes air, space, and cyberspace as the U.S. Air Force defines it. Unlike other books on general strategy, this book has a specific focus and audience in mind.
The most vital signal of the intent of the authors is gleaned from the dedication—this book was written specifically for the students of SAASS, both past and future. For the new students, it’s a hearty taste of what’s to come. For the alumni, it’s a reminder of where they came from and of their continuing responsibilities for continual learning and improvement if they’re to fully embrace their “second commission” as strategists, as one distinguished graduates and former instructor once described the challenge of applying the SAASS educational experience in action.
As a grad familiar with the school and its methods, I immediately recognized what the authors had done: they took the same approach to strategy as the SAASS curriculum and scaled it to book form. So while it is in part an informational work on the topic of strategy, it’s also an unapologetic demonstration of the SAASS method of educating strategists. Designed as a compilation of separate chapters by different individual authors, the book covers the following topics:
“Seeking Strategy” by Everett Carl Dolman
Going beyond the description of strategy as a “plan for attaining continuing advantage” from his book Pure Strategy, Dolman clarifies the distinctions between strategy and tactics, and emphasizes the importance of a holistic and continuous perspective. One plays the strategy game not to seek an artificial and elusive “decisive” end state, but rather to maintain the ability to keep playing the game with maximum advantage endlessly into the future.
“An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession” by Harold R. Winton
The theory Winton describes here may be an imperfect jewel, but this update of his widely cited paper on the description of theory and its functions—which has been acknowledged by leading strategy writers for years as perhaps the best and most concise treatment available on the subject—is the true gem in this anthology, one that has deserved to be included between the hard covers of a book for some time.
“The Realist as Strategist: A Critique” by James Wood Forsyth Jr.
Forsyth both illustrates and challenges his own preferred realist framework, providing a primer and formidable list of resources demonstrating the usefulness of Realism as a framework for thinking about strategy. Forsyth’s chapter, illustrating the top-down approach of state-centric realism, provides a useful contrast/complement to the bottom-up perspectives presented earlier by Dolman.
“Classical Strategy: A Socratic Dialogue” by James M. Tucci
Tucci cleverly accomplishes three things at once: he illustrates the classical technique of Socratic dialogue with a fictional example, uses the discussion as an apologetic for the technique’s centrality in the SAASS educational method, and also demonstrates the relevance of studying classical literature to enhance our ability to comprehend modern problems. Tucci shows how classical studies introduce the diligent student to the intellectual roots and unstated foundational assumptions of modern strategic thought, occasionally helping us to rediscover or untangle relevant original insights that have been lost or distorted over the centuries by subsequent interpreters.
“Technology and Strategy: A Symbiosis of Sorts” by Stephen D. Chiabotti
Chiabotti describes and reinforces the interconnected nature of strategy and technology, and the imperative to embrace their interconnected processes of innovation, while cautioning the reader that “no amount of tech proclivity can overcome bad strategy.”
“The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists” by Richard R. Muller
Muller discusses the tendency for military thinkers to concentrate on the “here and now” at the expense of investing time in the airpower history. Muller makes the case that historical study is completely relevant to modern challenges, as it helps the student develop a foundational underlying theory of strategy that would help us better identify critical factors and dynamics during a period of rapid social and technological change.
“Beyond the Horizon: Developing Future Airpower Strategy” by Jeffrey J. Smith
Echoing the argument he made in more detail in Tomorrow’s Air Force: Tracing the Past, Shaping the Future, Smith evaluates the U.S. Air Force’s current and proposed force structure and processes in view of the emerging security environment, reminding the reader how protecting current service culture, not clear eyed strategic assessment, is what usually drives our programs of record and human capital plans.
“Two Sides of a Coin: The Strategist and the Planner” by Steven E. Wright
Wright probes the crucial differences and linkages between the roles of the strategist and planner that anyone familiar with our current strategic planning challenges will immediately find useful, especially when faced with the default pressure in the larger national security system to “do something…anything” in response to complex challenges.
“Spacepower and the Strategist” by M.V. Smith, “Four Dimensions to the Digital Debate: How Should We Think Strategically about Cyberspace and Cyberpower?” by Richard J. Bailey Jr, and “Staying Regular? The Importance of Irregular Warfare to the Modern Strategist” by Mark O. Yeisley
In these chapters, the authors (all current or former SAASS instructors) present their topics much in the same way they are presented to students in their respective blocks at SAASS: the reader is introduced to key concepts and a body of literature, the instructor offers some ideas and concepts based upon that foundation, and the student is then challenged to process the information, reflect upon it, question it, and challenge what the instructor has proposed.
Given the specific purpose of the book, readers looking for a general theory of strategy, a history of the development of strategic thought, or a definitive position on what strategy is and how it should be done will find this book unsatisfying...and to some extent, that’s likely the very effect that the authors and editors were seeking to create. Like the educational program that spawned it, the book provides an invitation to a journey of continuous exploration, not directions to a specific and well known destination. No chapter seeks to provide the final world on the subject, and specialists in any of the areas covered will doubtlessly object to some of the assumptions and positioned offered by the authors, countering with those they think are better approximations of reality. And that’s exactly the point.
This book captures and reflects both the spirit and method of SAASS at a specific moment in time, as the never-ending challenge of “seeking strategy” continues.
Strategy: Context and Adaptation is definitely a book about strategy, offering many useful insights and practical takeaways for anyone interested in the field—the bibliography and footnotes alone are worth a detailed look, and would provide a solid basis for any serious study of the field of military strategy. But its greatest value is its function as a time capsule for the SAASS method of teaching timeless ideas, providing a method for the exploration of a subject area that by its very nature can never be formally captured or simply defined. In its essence, SAASS is not about hard-to-find classrooms,or groups of instructors and students stretching from the past and present. Like the classical methods that inspired it, SAASS in its essence is not the physical location where it resides on Maxwell Air Force Base, but rather the living method by which its graduates collaborate to view, investigate, question, shape, and ultimately act in ways that create continuing strategic advantage and serve the vital interests of our nation and its allies. This book captures and reflects both the spirit and method of SAASS at a specific moment in time, as the never-ending challenge of “seeking strategy” continues.
Dave Lyle is a U.S. Air Force strategist and 2010 graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. He is currently Deputy Director of Strategy and Concepts at the Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education at Air University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Statue of Thucydides