The American experience in Vietnam defined a generation, spurring civil unrest and the degradation of trust in important political and military institutions. Spanning the course of two decades, the United States’ engagement in the conflict reflected the heightened global tension of the Cold War. American involvement in Vietnam began as early as 1950, initially in the form of assistance to the French during the First Indochina War. By the end of the Kennedy administration, the United States had begun to send American advisers and military forces to Vietnam, aiming to prevent the spread of communism to Southeast Asia.
In theory, policy, and strategy are the product of extensive analysis, detailed cost-benefit calculations, and rational criteria for decision-making. In practice, good strategy development is also about compromise and consensus building, resolving problems, mitigating uncertainty and constraints, and steering downstream through the fluid dynamics of international and domestic politics.
The politically successful no-fly zones over Iraq from 1991-2003, Bosnia from 1993-1995, and Libya in 2011 illustrate not only the utility of employing limited airpower for limited-yet-strategic political effect, but also the need to evolve coercive airpower theory to embrace risk strategies as viable and effective.
Simply admitting that existing operational planning methodology and doctrine are not applicable for complex strategic problem sets is a crucial first step. Once we break this paradigm, military strategists will be empowered to design new and better paradigms, yielding novel methods to more appropriately meet our nation’s strategic needs.
Without the right mindset, even the most tactically competent force becomes vulnerable to strategic missteps, and, in the worst case, strategic defeat. Although we can never predict the future with perfect accuracy, we can benefit by trying to understand the parameters and to build a mindset in the force that will help the future leaders address the challenges they will likely face. If soldiers can progress beyond learning what to think and how to think, and learn how to approach thinking, they will be better able to overcome the novel and complex adaptive strategic problems of that future, whatever they may be.
Why has the U.S. failed to see any conclusive strategic victories in any of its recent conflicts? Second, within the context of a changed global post-cold-war strategic order and a massive American globalized infrastructure in place to support military operations, is the inability of the U.S. to be successful a failure of the American way of war or a failure in strategy as it relates to the American way of war? Instead of trying to answer each puzzle, we seek to define the contours of it. We argue American strategy has become increasingly incoherent. This is the product of a stagnant American political system that led to an incredibly effective military, but one that is strategically incapable due to it being a global discount security shop.
Emotions are abundantly present in contemporary warfare, and various non-state actors, in particular, use acts of terror to invoke fear in target audiences. The same emotion is also central to the successes or failures of deterrence. Various intra-state conflicts in Central Africa are waged for the most emotional of causes, usually a mixture of greed and grievances. It seems the role of moral factors has actually expanded in modern warfare due to the influence of real-time mass media on public opinion. Despite their abundance, emotions are largely ignored by students of strategic studies.
Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy. Here are the winners.
In its complexity of ways, means, and ends, strategy is more than just another level of war. Perhaps this is why the record of strategy is so marked by error and failure. Failure in war is most often a failure of strategy. For the officer, this means all the effort, sacrifice, and success at the tactical and operational levels may well come to naught because of a flawed strategy.
Reading science fiction nurtures hope that there is a better future. While conflict, catastrophe, and climate change feature in many of these novels and movies, much science fiction is highly optimistic in nature…However, reading science fiction also allows us to consider a variety of negative potential futures…it is the first step in ensuring that they do not come to pass.
Secretary Lehman, awaiting the declassification of several key Cold War documents, recently published Oceans Ventured, meticulously documenting the Navy’s aggressive operations in the 1980s. Secretary Lehman’s readily accessible book tells the story as if you were having a casual conversation at the Black Pearl, listening to the reminiscences and sea stories of a well-traveled naval officer.
These essays represent ongoing efforts at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department to investigate operationally relevant emerging technology. These efforts must continue if defense officials are to create a competitive innovation landscape across the services. Producing a collaborative ecosystem that fuses emerging technology with multifaceted operational challenges is an excellent start.
What’s missing is a strategy that accounts for latent and emerging technology-enabled threats and matches them with prioritized military requirements. Such a strategy would include an optimized mix of new and old technologies designed to exploit adversary vulnerabilities and minimize American weaknesses. There is reason for optimism in America’s potential to leverage technology for its own security as long as leaders make the hard choices around national priorities that will allow planners and strategists to engage technology with focus and purpose.
Even without a lifelong appreciation for all things Star Wars, anyone with a basic understanding of the movies and their stories and an interest in better understanding modern military conflict will benefit greatly from reading Strategy Strikes Back. I have not found another collection of essays where the authors use their superior imaginations to explain and simplify complex topics so well.
At a time when the U.S. maintains a significant military advantage over all other countries, it is seductive to think that simply applying those resources to any and all problems will cause success, but it will not. As a country, the U.S. can and must do better. One small step toward improving American strategic competence is to explicitly articulate our strategies as theories of success based on clear conceptualization of all variables and causal mechanisms.