So Much Strategy, So Little Strategic Direction

By Commander Michael Junge, U.S. Navy

Those are poignant and cutting questions from Congress that the Navy is unprepared to answer with anything other than platitudes and buzzword bingo. But it is easy to throw potshots at testimony, especially when it is politely acrimonious. More important, what should the Navy do about its strategy problem? First, we must refine our thoughts and studies about both strategy and strategic leadership. And the place to start is to better define what is meant by strategy and then clearly differentiate strategy from tactics.

Second, we need to stop rewarding short-term success. Finally, we need to recognize the societal and bureaucratic norms that are inhibiting strategic thought. Then, by effecting incremental change to the military culture, we must gradually overhaul the military education system to rectify the science-technology imbalance. By forcing the systems and processes we work within to ensure that the budget informs rather than dictates our strategy, we can achieve a long-term change to Navy strategic thought and action.

Strategy or Tactics?

The words “strategy” and “strategic” are probably some of the most abused, misused, misunderstood, and misapplied words in the military lexicon. They have been appended as adjectives to everything from corporals to weapons—and in almost every case that adjectival use is not only false, but also rarely carries the same meaning. The Department of Defense Dictionary lists 18 appellations of “strategic” tied to words from “airlift” to “debriefing” to “vulnerability.” 4

Even when asked conversationally to provide the difference between “strategy” and “tactics,” most will say that strategy is “long-term planning” or “what wins the war” and tactics are “that stuff you do in combat to operate your ships and systems.” In order to both simplify and delineate the terms, and to do so in as plain language as possible, for the ensuing discussion “strategy” refers to a “large-scale long-term plan” (or “why”), while “tactics” refers to “localized short-term action” (or “how”).

As Sun Tzu observed, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” There is a clear and inescapable symbiotic relationship between the two—one must have a strategy in order to ensure that tactics are correctly employed, but one cannot have a strategy that requires unexecutable tactics. For instance, it would be foolish for a commander to posit a strategy of “defeat the adversary at sea, then move to defeat him on land” if that commander has neither a Navy nor the ability to build one. Likewise, it would be foolish to build a strategy of seeking and then maintaining global sea control simply because a country has a Navy and must find a reason to use it.

What are the signs the Navy and government have a cultural avoidance of strategic thought? The most telling is a complete and unhealthy obsession with the concept of rewarding short-term success. Which command gets more money at the end of the fiscal year? The frugal and efficient one—or the spendthrift who makes the best case for more funding? How many inspections or training exercises are completed “because it’s on the schedule” rather than because it is applicable to the next operation? Dump fuel at the end of the month? Spend every last penny before the end of the fiscal year? How often do we defer, or even cancel, maintenance requirements because of a lack of time or money? All too often, all the time knowing full well that when we do get around to the maintenance it will cost more and take longer than originally planned.

The list is lengthy, and it is almost all brought on by societal norms—from both within the government and without.

A Propensity for Shortsightedness

Wharton’s Risk Management and Decision Processes Center runs a simulation that for the past four years has shown “a psychological bias toward short-term maximization instead of long-term planning.” 5 Starting with $20,000, the players are told that they must build a house in an earthquake zone, and that three to five earthquakes—from mild to severe—will occur during the course of the game. They can choose either to build up their house or bank the money and earn 10-percent interest. Invariably, even if they start out building strong homes, the players end up stopping construction and improvement and instead seek to maximize their savings. And as a result, when the earthquake invariably comes, they lose. More than 500 people, from students to executives, have participated in this simple-sounding game, and most of them have lost. Even when pulled aside by a facilitator and told that to win they need to build the strongest possible house as quickly as possible and then sit things out, they still fall victim to short-term success in the form of interest payments.

But the most illustrative example of a strategy/tactics mismatch comes from the Department of Defense budgeting process. The father of the Navy’s current strategic concept, now-retired Vice Admiral John Morgan, frequently said, “Every budget is a strategy.” 6 By conflating budget and resources (the stuff of tactics) with strategy, he showed a systemic and cultural misunderstanding of both. Further, given the manner in which DOD develops its budgets, Morgan’s concept would mean that at any given moment the Navy is operating under three separate strategies—the execution-year “strategy,” the “strategy” submitted to Congress but not yet signed by the President, and the “strategy” being developed within the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff. An ever-changing strategy or the triumvirate hydra of strategies that this concept speaks to is at best no strategy and is at worst tactics mistaken for strategy.

So, flawed and easily distracted humans that we are, we make short-term one-dimensional decisions that end up producing long-term systemic failures; we will continue this tendency unless we mitigate the societal and cultural bias against strategic thought. Among the solutions must be incremental change within the existing bureaucracy, a cultural change to military education, and a transition of power away from the budget bureaucrat.

Repaving the Path

We are trained from naval infancy that when we see a problem, something must be done. And since the problem is typically new to us, a new solution is therefore warranted. At the February 2010 Center for a New American Security (CNAS) presentation, “Keeping the Edge,” each of the panelists (distinguished flag and general officers all) indicated that to revitalize the officer corps, and by so doing to regain strategic competency, the entire officer-career progression needed to be overhauled so that it exposed more officers to strategic decision-making at more junior ranks. To do this they agreed that each service needed a modern career path from O-1 to 3-star. In other words, develop a career path for 100 percent of the officer corps that ultimately applies to less than 0.4 percent of them. Perhaps it is time to jettison the concept of the “path to flag” and instead build a career path to O-5—a rank that is both more achievable and must be served in honorably anyway before moving further up the promotion path.

If the general consensus that Wharton’s quake simulation showed us is that people are not naturally hardwired to think strategically—and the CNAS paper and panelists supported this concept as well—then why should we completely overhaul a system that is from inception destined to fail? Certainly, like singers, athletes, and leaders, strategic thinkers are molded over time from the right clay and not brought forth fully formed when bestowed the appropriate collar insignia. Getting back to asserting national strategic competence needs a long-term planning approach that looks holistically—not just at the tactical approach of officer progression.

One manner of approaching this is by reimagining the military education system. For more than 40 years the Navy has pressed forward with the idea that in order to lead effectively, an officer must be well grounded in “hard science”—engineering, mathematics, chemistry, or physics. But the unexpected, unanticipated, unplanned-for results of a strategy of pursuing technical degrees almost to the exclusion of all others is part of what led to our modern failure at strategic thought and action. The reality is that to deal with the uncertainty of the modern battlefield, leaders should be more exposed to the humanities, must learn that they can speak out without fear of retribution, and must learn to integrate with the alien life form known as the “civilian.” That mind needs to be developed to see patterns in technology and human behavior, to understand that not everything needs to be (or can easily be) reduced to ones and zeroes, and to be able to draw on historical examples to inform the present.

When discussing academic reform in the Navy, there is a common refrain: “I think that the level of academic discourse within the ranks of the Navy is a by-product of how we do business. A) It’s not encouraged to study our history and tactics to learn from them at the level it is in the Army or Marine Corps. B) The time demands we place on our officer corps allow even less time to pursue such studies. We have to get the ship to sea, war or no war. There is no such thing as ‘garrison’ in the Navy.” 7 If the conversation goes further than that it invariably centers on Joint Professional Military Education and the war colleges. But to effect real reform, three things need to be addressed: baccalaureate education requirements, the insularity of the war colleges, and an anti-education culture.

The challenge is best described by James Traub in The New York Times :

Annapolis . . . has an engineering mentality even when it isn’t teaching engineering. . . . Midshipmen wake up every day knowing exactly what is expected of them, and they want to know exactly what is expected of them in the classroom—an attitude which naturally infringes on the sort of where-curiosity-leads educational style that might enable more intellectual stimulation. 8

Traub further quotes military historian and former Naval Academy professor Williamson Murray, who says that students who stick to engineering may “make great officers in nuclear submarines,” but “the danger is when they become admiral they will not have the intellectual preparation to handle the world we’re in.” 9

While the civilian world once held the same idea that technical degrees were required in technical fields, recent research turns the concept on its head. In a survey of 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies, only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and only 2 percent held them in mathematics. The majority held degrees as diverse as business, accounting, finance, health care, and arts and the humanities. 10

Changing the culture is even more challenging. Unless the engineering focus at the baccalaureate level alters, and the attitude of “it’s only a lot of reading if you do it” at the war colleges shifts, then there is no possibility of creating a culture of true lifelong learning and academics. Insular education is one of our greatest problems, and it is likely not a coincidence that those officers regarded as the primary strategic thinkers in the Navy have advanced humanities degrees beyond the normal Naval Postgraduate School and Naval War College credentials. However, in moving forward with any change in academic focus, it is important not to confuse academic excellence with strategic thinking.

Put Strategy Before the Budget Process

Budgets are tactics, not strategy, yet the decades old Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System (PPBES) has given the power to annual-budget writers because it does not include a rigorous or systematic approach to strategic thinking. And since the budgeters have the power, strategy falls behind the budget.

Take, for example, the Navy Strategic Plan. As Vice Admiral Morgan noted at a blogger roundtable, “What the Navy Strategic Plan does, it takes the strategic imperatives from the maritime strategy and translates it into risk guidance that’s issued to the folks who build our budget and program our budget on the front end of the cycle.” 11 This concept of “risk guidance” is not a strategy, but instead a justification for where to make budget cuts. It is significantly different from the strategic business budget process described thusly by Tony Golsby-Smith in the Harvard Business Review : “It’s also about imagining a big, bold goal and designing ways to reach that goal.” He elaborates on the separate approaches that the budget process and strategy process should have. In his concepts, the budgetary and business planning system (think PPBES) manages the “today” but also extrapolates into the near future. The strategic system should deal with an uncertain, further-off future and imagine a desired future state.

Golsby-Smith clearly recognizes something that is universal: “When the two activities are conflated, the strong, data-driven budgeting process can overwhelm the more fragile (but equally important) strategy-making process.” 12 While the Navy will insist that the Navy Strategic Plan is the strategy, from the outside it looks like little more than an annual justification of desired programs.

The next time that the Navy decides to write a new strategy, we must first envision a future state—not an “end state.” Next, the Navy should determine potential paths that lead in the direction of that future state. Finally, the strategy must drive each and every budget decision to the point that after the budget achieves “wholeness,” it should be briefed to the Information, Plans, and Strategy office before it goes to the Chief of Naval Operations. If the Navy is unwilling to have the dedication to stand back and rationally consider each and every step of the process, then there is no need to do strategic planning, because annual tactical concessions will defeat the long-term plan before the ink is even dry.

Developing Strategic Thinkers

So how do we identify the strategic thinkers before they are either jaded by the system and leave to sail different seas, or become co-opted by the lure of short-term success? Frankly, we need a system of self-identification and self-selection at the junior level, followed by performance-driven advancement to the next level.

Why not a lateral transfer or redesignation board process? Because ducks pick ducks and if there is a problem in today’s Navy with strategic thinking, then it is unlikely that the tactical ducks in charge will select strategic swans. Then why not a new community of Navy strategists? Because strategy is a team sport and universal requirement. Taking strategists out of their warfare and staff communities would reduce their capacity, degrade the communities they had been drawn from, and ill serve the Navy.

How would an officer self-select a route toward strategic thinking? First, the Navy would need to relax the requirements for technical undergraduate degrees—not do away with them, but move toward parity and away from the predominance that exists today. Then, the Naval Postgraduate School would need to expand its offerings and the availability of strategy-minded curricula. And most important, the Navy must allow more technical undergraduates to pursue non-technical graduate degrees.

While in the post-graduate school strategy curriculum, the officer then could apply for a subspecialty in strategy, serve an internship with a major staff, and then return to the appropriate warfare-community path. Tours then would alternate between community-operational and strategy-staff tours, perhaps even teaching at the Naval or National War College. Before Admiral Raymond A. Spruance became president of the Naval War College, he’d been both a student and a member of the faculty. Roughly a third of today’s flag officers are graduates of the Naval War College; none is former faculty.

Finally, the number of doctoral programs available for strategists would need to be immensely expanded, and doing so may require some experimentation, some failure, and some paradigm destruction. But the idea that the line only needs one doctoral graduate every three years in strategy-related disciplines is part of the problem with the Navy’s tactical culture.

Within that process, officers will promote and advance to the same level they do today, based on the value they bring to the future of the Navy and their particular community. Over two or three decades, the number of strategic-minded individuals will rise, and the tactical culture ultimately will be subsumed into one that looks downrange while also remaining rooted in the here-and-now.

The Navy has a strategy problem—but it is correctable. Over time. Process may assist strategy generation, but it will not find and nurture strategic thinkers. The creation of today’s process took decades, and the creation of any new process will take decades. We should act now, and take time to act.

1. Bryan McGrath has repeatedly made this statement over the spring and summer of 2011 in blog posts and speeches; for the most recent example, see .

2. House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Hearing on Defense Aviation and Shipbuilding Plans, 1 June 2011.

3. Ibid.

4. “Tactics” has 29 such listings; see Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms , .

5. Jason Fagone, “Masters of Disaster,” Wharton Magazine , 1 April 2010, .

6. VADM John G. Morgan Jr., luncheon address, IFPA-Fletcher Conference, 26 September 2007.

7. “Checks with Chart,” .

8. James Traub, “What a Naval Officer Now Knows” The New York Times , 19 September 2008.

9. Ibid.

10. Vivek Wadhwa et al., Education and Tech Entrepreneurship , 1 May 2008, .

11. Defense Bloggers Roundtable, 27 March 2008, .

12. Tony Golsby-Smith, “Is Your Budgeting Process Killing Your Strategy?” Harvard Business Review , 18 January 2011, .

Commander Junge, a career surface-warfare officer who commanded the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41), is currently a student at the Naval War College.



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