Simplifying Strategic Concepts: Thinking about what landpower, seapower, airpower (and the marines) ought to do

The principal United States Armed Services - Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army.  Image from Disney's

The principal United States Armed Services – Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Army.  Image from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about simplification lately. Bruce Lee said once that “the height of cultivation runs to simplicity.”  Of course, there’s a downside to this process – Mencken would retort, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  For the record I think both are right, but that doesn’t negate the advantages of finding clearer ways of thinking.

In this case that topic is “strategic concepts.”  In 1954, Samuel Huntington suggested that each military service is built around such a “strategic concept,” which is “its role or purpose in implementing national policy.”  In short, what is your utility to society such that society ought to continue to support and nurture it going forward?  This is a particularly important topic right now – as military budgets recede.

So how to simplify thinking about the strategic concepts for the four principal armed services?  Eliot Cohen is actually the genesis for this idea, when in 1994 he referred to airpower as “seductive” because “it appears to offer gratification without commitment.”  It got me thinking – instead of “gratification” – perhaps “engagement” would be a better fit? And how might that apply to the other geographic domains?  This is what I came up with [I wonder if someone has already categorized these as such?]

  • Airpower: Engagement – No/Low Commitment
  • Marine Corps: Engagement – No/Low Commitment
  • Seapower: Commitment – No/Low Engagement
  • Landpower: Engagement & Commitment

*Note: you could add two subsidiary categories:

  • Special Operations (“Black”/Direct Action): Little Engagement – No Commitment
  • Special Operations (“White”/Foreign Int. Defense): Little Commitment – No Engagement

Some will undoubtedly quibble with my categorization of seapower as “No/Low” engagement or amphibious forces as “No/Low” commitment.  Frankly, however, that’s the way they are designed, according to their strategic concepts (i.e. Marines doctrinally fight for 60 days past landing – so maybe a “summer fling” instead of a “one night stand?”).

Lastly, I don’t have time for it now, but I think the spectrum also could use one more concept added in – that is, what do/can you get for each of these geographic efforts?  Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategic Coercion contains great discussion on this particular range: between influence and control.  It seems logical that seapower, airpower and the marines can only achieve influence with an opponent – and that (doctrinally) a full land army is the only geographic service capable of control.  But I’m certain others would find fault with that statement!

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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