Strategy is a thing, an activity, and a level

MILIT029I have been teaching my twin sons about strategy. We’ve looked at various authors, talked about it extensively during dinner, and tried to apply several of the concepts to real world events. I guess they corrected their 9th grade English teacher on some point when he used an example of strategy from “The Hunger Games” incorrectly identifying tactics as strategy. I haven’t seen the “Hunger Games” but from what they said he said the hero running away from a fire was strategy. Without having been there I’d have to say running away from a fire is a good idea but it isn’t strategic in any sense of the current doctrinal concepts.

The end result my kids came home with homework for me. What follows is what I’m sending to the school as to what we’ve been talking about at home. It is NOT a complete discussion and I’ve tried to pick easily understood examples without relying on the common Carl von Clausewitz quotes that go on simply forever.

Hope you enjoy a 9th grade primer on strategy, operations, and tactics.

Strategy is a thing, an activity, and a level

The definitive discussion and legal document for terminology used in making war for the United States of America is the Joint Publication 1 -02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Amended 15 August 2014. Most people mistakenly assume that the Army or the Navy make war. That is legally not true in the United States. All war fought in the United States since the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1984 is a “joint” activity.

The military services train and equip the forces of the United States, but it is the Regional Combatant Commanders who actually wage war. That is taught in the various colleges of the National Defense University. Specifically, it is taught in the Eisenhower School, the National War College, and the Information Resources Management College.

Each of the services maintains a war college too. There is the Navy War College, The Army War College, and the Air (Force) War College.

I have taught, lectured or spoke at each of the various service war colleges several times. I have also taught at the Swedish National Defense University, the Estonian Center for NATO, the Marshall Center in Garmische Germany, and I have briefed allies and partner nations across the world on strategic theory and practice. I have also guest lectured at the Naval Academy and various staff colleges of the armed forces.

Starting out are some definitions and then some discussion of the implementation is in order. The key take away is that lots of people mistake these and several authors have pointed out that the operational aspect is poorly understood and even doctrine has many contradictions. Edward Lutwalk and others have had long discussions over this topic. The current top thinker on strategic theory in the United States is likely Colin Gray. I note that I don’t agree with everything he says, but he is one of the top authors.

Currently there is a discussion going on about “strategic man” in the media and whether one can even exist. This is a familiar discussion as the now overcomes the perception of the long game where strategy exists. It also ignores that strategic theory is not owned by the military. The truly strategic thinkers will gravitate where their pattern analysis gifts do them the most good and where power can be wielded. Currently that is likely business not the military.


As a level

strategic level of warThe level of war at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) strategic security objectives and guidance, then develops and uses national resources to achieve those objectives. – p.241

operational level of warThe level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to achieve strategic objectives within theaters or other operational areas.

tactical level of warThe level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to achieve military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. – p. 248

As an activity

strategyA prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. – p.242

operational approach — A description of the broad actions the force must take to transform current conditions into those desired at end state. – p. 188

tacticsThe employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other. – p.249

Example of tactics

Two soldiers look at a problem and they are trying to determine a way of overcoming the issue before them. Any course of action they take will be a tactic. It will be an implementation of a tool, technique or procedure in achieving the military objective before them. There actions can have strategic effects but there actual actions are tactics. It is a foregone conclusion that the various actions taken on a battlefield are meant to build towards a win.

Examples of operations

Two soldiers have been giving a problem to accomplish (theoretical or not) and they develop plans and descriptions for how to solve the problem. War plans, and movement plans are all part of the operations domain. At the most basic war plans are how to move troops from point a to point b. In detail they look like a package of plans that consider all of the ramification and attempt to answer a problem in depth. You can read about one on Wikipedia that seems funny now. War Plan Red, the war against Canada The plan is an example of operations level of war, the activities undertaken to make the plan is the activity operations.

Example of strategy

Strategy is all about how (way or concept) leadership will use the power (means or resources) available to the state to exercise control over sets of circumstances and geographic locations to achieve objectives (ends) that support state interests. Strategy provides direction for the coercive or persuasive use of this power to achieve specified objectives. This direction is by nature proactive. It seeks to control the environment as opposed to reacting to it. Strategy is not crisis management. It is its antithesis. Crisis management occurs when there is no strategy or the strategy fails. Thus, the first premise of a theory of strategy is that strategy is proactive and anticipatory. From

  1. You have to have an idea, or goal.
  2. You have to be able to control a situation in a problem space.
  3. You have to have the ability to follow through on the objective.
  4. This is proactive not reactive. If you are in combat it is operational art or tactics.

At the United States Military Academy (West Point) they use a formulation that is much like this Politics -> Strategy -> Operations -> Tactics. That principle may or may not be of use but is culturally important in the United States for dealing with the concept of civilian control of the military.

As a final note. Most insurgencies utilize the principles of guerilla warfare to accomplish strategic objectives. The principles are tactical and operational plans. The preparation for blowing something up is operations, the techniques for getting the bomb in position is tactics, and the core principles of counterinsurgency is the strategy. For most insurgencies, the strategic goal is simply not to lose. As long as they continue to implement on the tactics of insurgency they will accomplish their goal of destabilization.

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