The Weaker Foe – Part 3: Transforming to Win Future Wars



The Finnish success in the Winter War case study suggests that it is possible to win as the weaker foe, but not if we fight in the same way as the stronger enemy. Since we don’t know we will remain the strongest military power, the U.S. Army must develop the attributes necessary to win as the weaker foe, as the near-peer. The good news is these attributes—cunning, risk-taking, problem-generating, and asymmetrical operations—are those that effective military organizations ought to practice anyway. Our challenge has been that because we have thought, acted, prepared, and resourced as the superpower that we are, those attributes have gradually atrophied out of our organizations, individuals, and culture. Still, all is not lost, and it is not too late to change.

Previous articles in this series explained how the U.S. Army must transform in order to win if confronted with a war in which we are the weaker foe. Part One of this analysis focused on the necessary characteristics a force must have to win as the weaker foe. Part Two followed with a historical case study of Finnish success in the Winter War to reinforce those characteristics. This article will explain how––if we take steps now––in the physical, mental, and cultural domains we can develop the leaders, organizations, and personnel needed to win future wars whether we are the stronger or the weaker foe.

An organization cannot change only through physical and mental changes. It can only truly transform if the culture changes, and culture lies in the moral domain.

Why must we change physically, mentally, and culturally? Let’s assume for a minute that we intellectually follow the argument that we may become the weaker foe and decide we are going to do something about it. How do we go about changing? In the past, we have led with doctrine, which falls into the mental domain. For example, we wrote the Active Defense doctrine to make a change after Vietnam, and wrote the AirLand Battle doctrine in response to the lethality of modern mechanized forces observed in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War[1] and the growing size and strength of the Soviet land forces. We wrote Unified Land Operations when we realized we had to be truly joint and needed to integrate mid-to-high intensity combined arms operations with lower intensity security operations. Typically, we follow up doctrine with education. In our professional military education we teach the doctrine so our leaders can teach their subordinates, command their units, and staff an Army that can execute the doctrine. Doctrine and leader development are in the mental domain.

But, to execute the doctrine as written we must train the force to operate accordingly, and organize it to place the necessary capabilities at the correct echelon and in the optimal formations. Additionally, we must field the necessary weapons systems and materiel, and develop the infrastructure to support readiness for and execution of established doctrine. These tasks are all in the physical domain and are the actions our Army is best at. We are superb trainers; we have great organizations; we have the best equipment today––as was pointed out perhaps not in the future, and we have good infrastructure––although admittedly we gave up most of our overseas locations for which we are already feeling adverse effects in Europe and the Pacific. But an organization cannot change only through physical and mental changes. It can only truly transform if the culture changes, and culture lies in the moral domain.

“Culture is a set of learned behaviors that enable a people to survive in a specific environment.”

For the purposes of this article, “Culture is a set of learned behaviors that enable a people to survive in a specific environment.”[2] For example, the tribes of the Middle East and Afghanistan have a set of behaviors they have developed over thousands of years that enable their people to survive in harsh environments. Those behaviors, such as honor payments in Afghanistan when one causes the death of another, are learned by each succeeding generation. Setting this definition of culture in the context of military operations we find:

●      “A specific environment.” No environment is more specific or challenging than combat, and the U.S. Army must be prepared to deploy to a variety of harsh environments.

●      “To survive.” Again, no environment challenges one’s survival more than combat, in which other people are actively and systematically trying to kill you.

●      “Enable a people.” Military organizations are definitely social groupings, some would say tribes, whether the entire Army or a unit. Thus, our culture must enable all, from the most junior private to the most senior general, as well as our civilian workforce.

●      “A set of learned behaviors.” No one enters the Army with the behaviors they will need to survive in that organization, even if their parents were in the military. From the first day of basic training, soldiers are taught to behave in a certain way, both formally in training and informally through their superior’s example, peer pressure, and organizational mores. Over time these learned behaviors are cemented in the individual and the unit and are nearly impossible to change. The Army is its culture, because the culture transcends any individual, leader, organization, or system.

What is the impact of culture? Peter Drucker is widely believed to have said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”[3] Drucker is suggesting that no strategy can succeed if the culture does not support and enable that strategy. If, as examined in Part One of this series, we are to prepare for the possibility that we may not be the most powerful land force in the world––that we may be the weaker foe––we have to recognize that simply relying on a revised strategy may not work. The typical military strategy in the Department of Defense is based on applying resources against problems, paying reverence to the beloved Ends-Ways-Means. Our strategies are basically to buy things. Sometimes we buy new weapons systems; sometimes we buy end strength; sometimes we buy training and education capabilities. But buying things will not change our culture and, as we can understand from Drucker’s observation, if our culture does not change the typical approach to strategy will fail and we will not be prepared in 2050 for what may come our way.

As noted above, culture is a set of learned behaviors. Those learned behaviors become habits that individuals and organizations adopt over time to adapt to their environment. Charles Duhigg suggests habits are the foundation of behaviors and when we develop new habits or change existing ones we modify those behaviors. He also suggests all habits work in the form of a cycle.[4] The cycle is initiated with a cue, which then causes a routine to be executed, resulting in some reward, all driven by the power of a craving.

The weaker foe has to generate problems for the stronger force that were unforeseen and require non-traditional solutions.

For example, if we want to employ a deception tactic during a training event, the cue might be a ratio of combat power favoring the enemy. The routine would be integrating deception into the plan, and the reward would be positive reinforcement from outside observers tasked with evaluating performance. The craving is recognition, with all its attentive benefits, because that is a trait that is almost universal across members of the military. Military culture, whether in peacetime or at war, consists of a multitude of such habits, ranging from physical training in the morning, or the rehearsed execution of a battle drill to react to an ambush in combat. Thus, changing culture is accomplished through replacing undesirable or irrelevant individual and organizational habits with more relevant or effective habits. But, unlike ancient cultures that emerged over centuries, if we desire to change our culture within a few decades leadership is required, and moreover it would require transformational leadership.

Transformational Leadership

As argued in Part One of this series, the weaker foe must be cunning in their approach to combat. They must be sneaky. The weaker foe must hide behind trees or disguise improvised explosive devices inside dead animals. They must employ ambushes, misdirection, deception, and maximize surprise. The weaker foe has to take risks. They cannot engage in straight up pitched battles or they will lose. The weaker foe has to accept the risk of economy of force in many areas to be strong and mass in just a few areas. They have to attack as Washington did at Trenton when the odds are against them. The weaker foe has to generate problems for the stronger force that were unforeseen and require non-traditional solutions. And, the weaker foe has to be asymmetric in organization, execution, and the human component of their force. But, above all, the weaker foe requires a special type of leader who is different from the one valued by the traditional larger force.

The weaker foe needs a Marion, a Washington, a Jackson[5], a Lawrence, a Lettow-Vorbeck,[6] a Stirling,[7] or a Giap. Such leaders are cunning, take risks, present complex problems to their enemies, and take asymmetrical approaches to combat operations. These leaders also think beyond tactics; visualizing their operations within a broader campaign and strategy aimed at overcoming significant deficits in military power. But most of all, such leaders are transformational. In this context, it is useful to remember the officers who will be the Chief of Staff of the Army and our Combatant Commanders fighting our nation’s wars in 2050 are Second Lieutenants today!

For the past several decades the Army has promoted agile and adaptive leadership. This type of leadership is good when you are the strongest Army in the world and you’re focused on rapidly adapting to dynamic situations during operations.

For the past several decades the Army has promoted agile and adaptive leadership. This type of leadership is good when you are the strongest Army in the world and you’re focused on rapidly adapting to dynamic situations during operations.[8] However, an entirely different type of leadership is necessary if you intend to transform the organization from the way it is today to the way you want it to be in the future. Transformational leadership requires leaders to first transform themselves to the type of leader the Army requires to lead a different Army. Today's leaders––process-oriented, risk averse,[9] managers vice leaders,[10] compliance-driven, focused on deliberate planning and execution––must transform themselves into cunning, innovative,[11] problem-generating, asymmetric warriors, and moreover transform themselves in a way that enables them to promote and sustain a culture that enables cunning to flourish.

For senior leaders, this requires that they start by critiquing and altering the very culture they spent a lifetime maintaining and promoting. Remembering that culture is a set of learned behaviors, the behaviors that the leaders advocate, teach, and reward must change if the Army is to change, and those changed behaviors have to permeate every facet of military life. If you want leaders and soldiers to take risks, you have to be seen to take risk yourself; you have to teach people to take risk, and you have to reward taking risk. Moreover, you have to accept that some risks will fail; and you have to reward the risk taking even if it fails.[12] All this adds up to reinforce that for our senior leaders to transform our culture and our Army, they must first transform themselves.

Another aspect of transforming yourself is your own professional development. A leader who can demonstrate cunning, asymmetry, problem-generation and risk-taking is a leader who has mastered both the art and science of war. Today’s leader development and operations processes are heavily weighted toward the science of war, yet the creativity and innovation required for the weaker foe flows from the art of war. This means that we have to develop the artist in each of our leaders. With the current U.S. education system emphasis on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fewer of our leaders are educated in the arts and humanities.[13] Ideally, the Army will recognize the necessity of investing in leader development to enhance creativity through professional military education courses and Advanced Civil Schooling in video game design (a combination of software programming and 3D art), the arts, literature, philosophy, and languages. Absent such an investment by the institution, it falls on those who desire to be transformational leaders to take on their own professional development in these subjects. Cunning, deception, innovation, development of ploys and stratagem all flow from the practice of both art and science of war. The future leader of a weaker force must combine those attributes in ways that will confuse and frustrate our enemies, creating in their minds a false illusion as to what is actually occurring. As the Greek poet Horace observed, “The art is to conceal the art.”

If we are going to transform our Army, its leaders must be able to motivate subordinates to transform their culture, which means we must develop leaders who know how to motivate others.

The second requirement of transformational leaders is that they transform others. In the context of an organization with a strong and embedded culture, like the Army, such transformation can only take place if the individual soldiers, leaders, and civilians are motivated to adopt a new culture, in this case, one in sharp contrast to which they have been immersed since basic training. In order to motivate others to change leaders must do four things:

●      Gain the subordinate’s attention that the change in culture is required

●      Demonstrate the relevance of the change to the subordinate’s life, career, and success

●      Build confidence the change in strategy will not adversely affect the subordinate

●      Generate individual and organizational satisfaction with the change

Once individuals are sufficiently motivated the leader must teach, coach, and mentor so that the new behaviors will be executed routinely by the individual's own volition and with the requisite commitment. Taken together, motivation to change and reinforcement of a new culture is accomplished by leaders’ actions that create: attention, relevance, confidence, satisfaction, volition, and commitment. This is known as the ARCS-V approach to motivation and is a necessary skill set for transformational leaders.[14] Have you ever wondered why an organization whose leaders have the supreme challenge of motivating soldiers to place their lives at risk and charge into enemy fire do not consider motivation to be a competence, attribute, or outcome of leadership?[15] If we are going to transform our Army, its leaders must be able to motivate subordinates to transform their culture, which means we must develop leaders who know how to motivate others.

Motivation to change is one half of the equation in leading others to transform. The other half is describing the desired characteristics of the future force and culture. If we are relatively confident the future culture must prize cunning, risk-taking, problem-generating, and asymmetry, then we must ensure our soldiers, leaders, and civilians are headed in the same direction, understand why, and have a sense for the overall vision of the future force. It is important to understand that culture is emergent; it cannot be forced upon an individual. Leaders must set conditions in which the desired behaviors will be learned and reinforced by the organization.

Transformational leadership requires the next operating concept account for the fact that the U.S. Army may remain the dominant force, but may also be the weaker foe.

The third requirement of the transformational leader is to transform the organization. Fortunately for the U.S. Army this is the part we are good at. The Army uses concepts to lead requirements for changing organizations across doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leader development, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF). Today’s capstone concept is the Army Operating Concept (AOC). The current AOC describes the concept that leads DOTMLPF development of the Army out to 2025.[16] The challenge is that the current AOC is written based on the implicit assumption that the U.S. Army will be the dominant force through 2025. Given that 2025 is only nine years from now, the assumption is probably true. However, as discussed previously, over time this may no longer be the case. Transformational leadership requires the next operating concept account for the fact that the U.S. Army may remain the dominant force, but may also be the weaker foe. Written in such a manner it will guide the DOTMLPF linkages so that force development decisions are made with an eye toward both possibilities.

An Observation about Remaining the Stronger Foe

As we observed in Part One of this series, it is entirely possible that our Army may remain the strongest in the world, and that our Air Force and Navy may remain dominant in their domains. Why then should we develop the transformational leadership and culture necessary to be cunning, to conduct asymmetric operations, to generate problems for our opponents and to become risk takers? What need have we of those attributes if we are the strongest conventional force and our potential opponents are weaker foes such as Russia, employing weak conventional forces supplemented by irregulars and local ethnic groups to defeat Second World countries such as the Ukraine?

The burial of Major General Edward Braddock after the battle on the Monongahela River. After the burial, supposedly conducted by George Washington, wagons were driven across the burial site to ensure it could not be found by the French and Indians presumed to be pursuing the beaten army. (Martha Hall)

Perhaps it might be useful to remember an example that took place in our own territory:  Braddock’s defeat in the French and Indian War is a stark reminder of what happens when the world’s strongest army ignores signals the conduct of warfare is changing. Braddock was defeated by a mixed force––today we would say hybrid––consisting of French regular troops, French colonial militia, and Indian irregulars. Moreover, Braddock’s forces were defeated by cunning tactics––swarms in today’s parlance––that employed asymmetric means with long-range rifles and silent bows; generating unforeseen problems, such as fighting a 360-degree front rather than the traditional linear fight; and was led by a transformational leader, de Beaujeu, who took risk by preemptively attacking a force much larger than his own. The conclusion must be that, even if we firmly believe we will always be the strongest force in the world, we must be prepared to fight a weaker foe who is prepared and able to defeat us. In the years ahead our Army needs transformational leaders who will shape our culture to one that demonstrates cunning, embraces asymmetry, generates unforeseen problems, and takes risks in order to win decisively.

Jim Greer is a retired U.S. Army officer, the Vice President of the Center for Strategic Leadership and Design at ALIS, Inc., and a former Director of the School of Advanced Military Studies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of ALIS, Inc., the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "The Shooting of General Braddock at Fort Duquesne, 1755" by Edwin Willard Deming


[1] Starry, D. (2009). Press On: Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry. Lewis Sorley (ed). Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press.

[2] I worked with the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System in 2007-2008. It was a learning experience because I knew little about culture. I worked with some great anthropologists and one of them provided the above definition, which I have not forgotten. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which anthropologist it was, and I haven’t seen the definition in writing anywhere. But, it makes perfect sense to those of us who have been immersed in other cultures, so it is my working definition. Full credit to the anonymous anthropologist, who if they read this can help me correct the record.

[3] While this quote is attributed to Peter Drucker in many works on culture and strategy, the exact reference is unknown. Quote Investigator explored the origin of the statement in their May 2017 article, “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.”

[4] Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

[5] Stonewall Jackson, not Andrew.

[6] Lieutenant Colonel Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck commanded the German forces in East Africa during World War I and with a few thousand troops kept hundreds of thousands of Allied troops occupied throughout the war.

[7] David Sterling developed and was the first commander of the British Special Air Service in World War II, operating with very small special forces behind German lines against conventional Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

[8] U.S. Army (2012). ADP 6-22, Army Leadership. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.

[9] In the 2014 Center for Army Leadership Annual survey of Army Leadership (CASAL) junior leaders do not believe their higher headquarters allow them to exercise disciplined initiative or take prudent risk.

[10] In the 2014 CASAL senior leaders were rated highest for “gets results,” and lowest for “builds trust” and “develops others,” the very competencies that are necessary for transformational leadership.

[11] In the 2014 CASAL senior leaders were rated lower for “innovation” than any other attribute. In contrast, their “military bearing” (how they look in uniform) was rated far higher.

[12] Wolters, H., Conrad, T., Riches, C., Nicely, K., Morath, R., and Keller-Glaze, H. (2014). Technical Report 1339: Identification of Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities for Army Design. Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army Research Institute. Wolters, et al point out there must be a culture that permits innovative thought and action where failure is not met with negative repercussions. This is an understandably difficult recommendation because widespread organizational change is inherently risky, as it disrupts the status quo, and in the operational environment failure can have life and death consequences.

[13] Policy, funding, and enrollment have been consistently tending toward increases in STEM education since the 1960s as illustrated by National Science Foundation data at, the Association of American Colleges and Universities at, and the Department of Education

[14] Keller, J. (2010). Motivational Design for Learning and Performance. New York, NY: Springer.

[15] U.S. Army (2012). The Army’s leadership manual uses the word motivate 3 times and motivation 6 times. In all 9 instances, it is simply to state that leaders motivate. Interestingly, the word motivate does not appear at all in the Army’s other leadership manual, ADP 6.0, Mission Command.

[16] U.S. Army (2014). TRADOC Pam 525-3: The U.S. Army Operating Concept. Fort Eustis, VA: Headquarters, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.