*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.
A few years ago, I showed a senior officer a draft strategy. He looked at it, and then looked at me with a Christmas orphan’s unsatisfied disappointment: “We need to more clearly explain our ends, ways, means analysis,” he said, leaving silent the implied threat—or it’s not a real strategy. Underwhelmed but outranked, I grudgingly included the formula.
American strategists know the formula well. It’s Col. Arthur Lykke’s, published in Military Review in 1989, and since then widely taught and promulgated by the US Army War College: “Strategy equals ends (objectives toward which one strives) plus ways (courses of action) plus means (instruments by which some end can be achieved).” It is convenient and concise, short enough to fit cleanly onto a PowerPoint slide and clear enough to be expressed as an actual mathematical equation: ends + ways + means = strategy (less residual risk). This simplicity has driven universal adoption; nearly every single strategic document the American military generates is directly or indirectly influenced by Lykke’s formula.
But what if this dominant view is bad for American strategy, as Jeffrey Meiser points out in a recent essay? While he acknowledges “some value” to this method, Meiser also alleges the formula “has become a crutch undermining creative and effective strategic thinking” because it channels practitioners toward “viewing strategy as a problem of ends-means congruence” (e.g., do we have enough troops to do the job?). Is Meiser right? Is Lykke’s model a tyrannical mental straightjacket, constraining American strategists?
I think so. Lykke’s model is flawed on four counts: (1) it’s too formulaic, (2) “ends” don’t really end, (3) it minimizes the adversary, and (4) our strategic performance since widespread adoption has been unremarkable at best.
Strategy cannot be fixed into place with equations. War’s units of measure are as different as bombs and bandages; set numbers of rifles do not directly convert to a sense of security (in fact, sometimes, the net sense of security decreases with more weapons!). Equations might work for straightforward planning (e.g., if the objective is to get a tank to Timbuktu, then this will require five hundred gallons of fuel), but strategy is not so clear-cut. Just as National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has criticized PowerPoint as “dangerous” because “some problems in the world are not bullet-izable,” most strategic problems in the world are not equation-able. At best, strategy is “nebulous.”
And let’s face it, neither do “ends” really end, which is the reason a strategy publication like The Infinity Journalfeatures a tagline that reads: “Because Strategy Never Stops.” Even at the conclusion of decisive conflicts like World War II, the need for strategy in Germany and Japan did not end with Hitler’s death and Hiroshima’s destruction. America met massively important objectives—but we’re still there today! Or, consider the laundry list of commanders and strategists that have stated, unequivocally, that “this” is the “decisive” year in Afghanistan—where we’ve been nearing the “end” every year for going on two decades. Which begs a question: is there really a near-term, hard-stop “end” in the Forever War, the Long War, or the “era of persistent conflict?” While we should always aim for some desired objective, some better state, we should do so with modest expectations that explicitly acknowledge the practice of strategy is never final and always uncertain.
This uncertainty exists because the enemy gets a say in strategy-making, a factor that’s excluded from Lykke’s formula. This isn’t some minor detail; this is a very Big Deal. Lykke’s model is entirely preoccupied with one’s own ends, one’s own ways, one’s own means—a mental half measure that inevitably leads to the myopia strategist Edward Luttwak has described as strategic “autism.” It’s almost banal to point out, but, any definition or way of articulating strategy must have at its core a deep consideration of the adversary (and interactions with that adversary). Anything less is professional narcissism.
This may be why Lykke’s equation has run alongside a not-too-distinguished period of America’s strategic history. As historian Richard Kohn observed in 2009, this post–Cold War era has shown the “withering of strategy as a central focus for the armed forces, and this has been manifest in a continual string of military problems” including the Gulf War’s incomplete result, Somalia’s bloodied withdrawal, and “initially successful campaigns” in Iraq and Afghanistan “which metastasized into interminable . . . guerilla wars of attrition that have tried American patience and will.” Correlation is not causation, but, it is curious that this relatively unsuccessful era has gone in parallel with American strategy largely developed by an enemy-omitted, end-seeking equation.
My own explanation for Lykke’s stranglehold on strategy is the American military (like all militaries) prefers to plan for certainty as opposed to strategizing for uncertainty. Gen. Omar Bradley once (potentially apocryphally) said, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” In line with this sentiment, for the American military, strategy is too often a necessary evil, flyover territory—just get that ends-ways-means stuff done quickly so we can get on with the really important stuff (like supply).
That said, we shouldn’t throw out any useful tool, even if it is limited; we should, instead, ensure the tool is used properly. Lykke’s model is clearly a better fit for planning than strategy-making, as a check on means-end feasibility. So, if not Lykke, where should strategists look to for a core logic to govern strategy development?
Here we return to Meiser, who points to Barry Posen on grand strategy (“a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself”) and Eliot Cohen on strategy (“a theory of victory”). The key word is “theory.” Others, including Tami Biddle and Colin Gray agree. As Gray has written, “strategies are theories, which is to say they are purported explanations of how desired effects can be achieved by selected causes of threat and action applied in a particular sequence.” Theory forces the strategist to describe how and why success is to happen against a competitive foe.
Thinking of strategy as theory has the distinct advantage of placing primary focus on engagement with the enemy, while lessening the importance of getting to some “end.” This is better.
But, just as strategy never ends, Lykke’s formula likely won’t either. We’ll have to aim for sustained disregard, so that the next time a senior officer asks for a strategy, he or she won’t expect a formula; maybe instead, we’ll use theory and our words.