DoD Failing To Build Good Strategists

DoD Failing To Build Good Strategists

America has done a lousy job of ensuring we have a crop of well trained and experienced strategists and must act to fix this. That’s the conclusion of Barry Watts, one of the leading US experts on transformation and its discontents and a top analyst of weapons systems. Watts, who served under Rumsfeld as head of the crucial PA and E shop, was speaking at a seminar on the acquisition crisis facing the Air Force and mentioned the paucity of sound strategic decision making in recent years. I asked him to write something for us about the problem and how to fix it. Few failures are as fraught with consequences as poor strategic decision making. We may have the best weapons and and best trained troops, but if we use them badly the results are unlikely to transcend the abilities of the fine men and women who serve in the military. The last eight years should be ample proof of the poor quality of our national security strategists. Now is the time to act and reverse this. For those who don’t recognize him the picture is of Clausewitz, whose writings (along with Sun Tzu) are still the touchstone for most strategists.

Watts’ piece follows.

Finding Strategists


Do most U.S. political leaders have the cognitive skills and talents to craft and implement effective long-term strategies? Do most senior American military leaders — even those who have demonstrated tactical competence in combat — have those skills and talents? Historical evidence, as well as leading-edge research into human cognition, suggest that the answer to both questions is: no.

There is considerable evidence that strategic performance is an area in which U.S. political and military leaders have shown declining overall competence in recent decades. True, as the outcome of the Cold War and the turn-around in Iraq testify, American strategies have not been uniformly poor. Still, a case can be made that, on the whole, American strategic competence has been declining since the Vietnam War and continues to do so today. Given the recent financial crisis and economic down-turn, can the United States afford another decade of declining strategic competence? Or is it time to begin finding good strategists and put strategy in their hands?

Dwight Eisenhower noted in 1948 that although the “basic principles of strategy are so simple that a child may understand them,” determining “their proper application to a given situation requires the hardest kind of work.” John Collins added in 1973, based on faculty experience at the National War College, that while strategy is a game anyone can play, only the most gifted can play it well.

The most elemental fact behind these observations is that human cognition has two distinct modes: intuition and reasoning. The meticulous research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky indicates that intuitive responses in time-pressured situations based on pattern recognition are fast, parallel, automatic, effortless and associative, whereas reasoned responses based on logic and analysis are slow, serial, controlled, effortful and rule governed. Furthermore, building up a repertoire of successful patterns for dealing with “tactical” situations ranging from air-to-air combat to firefighters or nurses abruptly confronted with emergencies usually re quires lengthy training or experience. By contrast, the “Aha!” moments associated with genuine strategic insight usually happen in a flash of inspiration, even if that moment is often preceded by a preparatory period of wrestling unsuccessfully with a difficult problem.

If relatively few political and military leaders possess the cognitive skills demanded for competent strategic performance, can these skills be inculcated in most individuals through education, training, or other experience? In the case of intuitive responses in “do-or-die” situations, the Navy’s Topgun fighter weapons school, the Air Force’s Red Flag exercises, and rotations at the Army National Training Center, along with Gary Klein’s research into realistic training, all argue that we can provide most soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines with the proficiency to make good tactical decisions. In the case of strategic competence, however, the work of Mark Jung-Beeman, John Kournios and others indicates that that subjects who were un-able to solve problems requiring the in-sight of sudden “Aha!” moments were unable to solve them at all. A military parallel to this experimental result can be seen in the fact that, prior to 2007, so few Army generals could see the line of solution in Iraq that General David Petraeus and a few others saw.

Given what has been learned in recent decades about how mammalian brains develop and operate, it appears that the cognitive skills to make insightful strategic choices are capabilities individuals either have by their early twenties or they do not. Here insightful strategic choices refer to devising courses of action likely to achieve one’s ultimate goals despite resource constraints, political considerations, bureaucratic resistance, the adversary’s opposing efforts, and the intractable un-certainties as to how a chosen strategy may ultimately work out. This conclusion is further supported by empirical observations of the specific portions of the cerebral cortex utilized during “Aha” moments.

Good strategists, then, are not only rare birds, but their distinguishing cognitive skills do not appear to be ones that can be inculcated in most individuals through education, training, or other experience. If so, then the best we can hope for in trying to find strategists is to look for those few individuals with the requisite cognitive skills. This is precisely what the British strive to do with their Higher Command and Staff Course (HCSC): use it as a filter to identify those senior officers who have the cognitive skills to make the transition from tactics to operational art and strategy.

Two unsettling observations follow. First, the U.S. military has no comparable mechanism to the British HCSC. Instead the U.S. military services cling to the view that strategic decision-making can be taught as a linear extension of tactical decision-making. Second, if the president has neither a talent for, nor an interest in, strategy, then national security strategy is likely to wander in the wilderness for the duration of that administration.

For more detail, read Watts’s article, “US Combat Training, Operational Art, and Strategic Competence: Problems and Opportunities,” ; Watts and and CSBA’s head Andrew F. Krepinevich will soon release a fuller treatment, “Regaining Strategic Competence.”

Join the Conversation

The strategy/structure and structure/weapons acquisition process is a problem. Brilliant thinkers can create strategies but that strategy requires force structure. If the politicians say nope too expensive or we want to build more of weapon “A” instead of “B” because more jobs are at stake, then what?

The Air Force said that to execute their strategic operational plan for the future they needed a minimum of 381 F-22’s, they are not going to get them. Another example is the strategic implications of “Conventional Prompt Global Strike”. The capability offers key strategic advantages but geopolitically it may be a non-starter. FCS is another example along with the nuclear deterrent mission. Gen. Kevin Chilton has laid out a broad strategic rationale for the continued presence and modernization of the triad, again the politicians are saying no.

An NFL offensive co-ordinator can have the most dynamic playbook (strategy) but without the players (capabilities) it typically won’t result in victory.

Although the process of creating broad strategic plans and policies is monumentally complicated, I imagine having to deal with politicians and budgets would be very frustrating.

The U.S. military is focused primarily on age and gender (young males). This narrows the probability of acquiring sufficient cognitive thinkers. Not being able to compete with pay, and uncertain treatment of enlisted further complicates the problem.

These soldiers and Marines are valuable human resources, but are often treated as disposable. This is not a good recruitment strategy for the best and brightest. They actually have the brain power to see through the BS. Also, these people are not always “typical”, and the military tends to shun any deviation from the norm.

It would take a sea change in attitude, in order to get these cognitive thinkers to join en masse — and enough intelligent military recruiting personnel to recognize and go after them. According to the “word on the street”, these people are currently being turned away for seemingly silly reasons.

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 3/31/2009, at The Unreligious Right

How does equipment=strategy? Strategy is a manpower issue first and foremost, not the other way around.

Equipment is meaningless without the mind to use it. Warfare depends on people, ideas, and equipment — in that order. History is rife with battles won by underequipped but better-led armies.

The social sciences have been trying to quantify human potential and behavior since the days of eugenics. While I understand the need to study and learn about the human mind, I am not excited about choosing strategists through measuring the cerebral cortex during “aha” moments or telling individuals they’re not qualified if they don’t show the correct cognitive skills as demonstrated by their cerebral cortex at age 20.

So what if the Brits do that. Since 1944, their “strategy” has been mostly to follow the lead of the U.S. Given that U.S. strategy led to the implosion of the world’s most powerful military state without firing a shot or setting foot on Soviet soil, I’d say somebody knew a little about strategy.

I wonder what the cerebral cortex activity of Washington, Grant, Eisenhower and Patton were at a young age.

It’s interesting that this article was adorned with a picture of Clausewitz. Clausewitz was the last to support the idea that wars are won by strategic planning. He argued the role of intangibles and the requirement for the military genius to see through the fog and friction of war to determine what needed to be done to achieve victory. It takes more than a good cerebral cortex measurement at age 20 to create the Grants and Pattons that demonstrated this ability in battle. It does take training, education and experience and lots of it.

Finally, one of this nation’s strategic tenets is to forward democracy. The reasoning being that democracies are less likely to generate instability and war. The Bush administration rid the world of two of the most oppressive and blood-thirsty governments in modern history and replaced them with either a democracy or stable interim government headed towards democracy. I would say he did more to support the nation’s long-term strategy than his predecessor who did comparatively little to replace hostile tyranny with democracy. Those that argue the Bush administration did not understand or have a coherent national security strategy either don’t understand the concept or are hopelessly biased.

Excellent post and one I wholeheartedly agree with. I am not much of a history student as I’ve always been attracted to modern warfare and weapons. Still the little that I do know of prior wars it really strikes me that in past wars (namely WW2) there were a number of US military officers that one could say were brilliant strategists.

Compare that with today and the numbers are few and far betweeen. Perhaps one might say that it’s a reflection that WW2 was a massive force on force war, yet that is a misunderstanding that strategists would only appear in a major conventional war. That kind of thinking actually PROVES that we don’t have strategists in our upper echelons of the military.

Why should the fact that we are always prepared for a WW3 conventional battle prevent our generals from being able to use our troops and equipment in a brilliant fashion regardless of the enemy or terrain? I think the answer lies not just the military industial complex, but the inability of our general officers to go beyond force on force tactical and operational thinking.

For one… all our technology/research is still developing weapons/tactics for conventional warefare… when we are fighting unconventinal wars… we need to get our priorities straight… not saying we dump everything (as china is still a potential future threat). But we have not developed a clear strategy to win unconventional wars, and this self evident in the way we train and prepare for war… Our forces have to be more flexible, step outside the box of conventinal warfare, and need to be specifically trained for unconventional warefare..

Brilliant strategy is defined entirely by hindsight. If Market Garden had paid off we’d all be talking about how Montgomery was smarter than Einstein. If Pickett’s charge had succeeded we’d be reading books about the genius of Robert E. Lee.

I do agree, though, that for all Eisenhower’s dire warnings about the “military-industrial complex”, we really do need close coordination between those who build the weapons and those who use them. Our best and most effective defense systems (of ALL types, not just bombs and guns and jets) were done when the user selected an individual contractor and worked directly with them to ensure success.

Not only that, but like I said, it’s necessary to think in terms of SYSTEMS. We are no longer in a situation where you can just say “this is a good gun, if we buy twice as many then our army will be twice as strong”. You need to buy the guns AND the sensors AND the tasking systems AND the radios AND the transport AND the logistical support, and you need to do it all at the same time. Single combat is no longer acceptable, because we CAN do better.

I disagree with the author’s conclusion that new cognitive skills and a new framework for strategic thinking cannot be learned. We now have the knowledge and the tools to develop the skills needed in our interconnected and rapidly changing world. Professional development and training in complex systems thinking–based on complex systems research and complexity science–can help individuals and groups develop better strategic thinking and foresight skills as described above.

I agree with the authors conclusion and would remark that academia, the only people who can, is trying to solve the issue.

Look at the education going on at the National War College or at Yale with their Grand Strategy Program to see what is being done
http://​sec​.online​.wsj​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​S​B​1​2​2​9​7​3​9​2​5​5​5​9​3​2​3​5​8​3​.​h​t​m​l​?​m​o​d​=​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​-​o​u​t​s​e​t​-​box

Barry D. Watts assets that America’s strategic performance is in decline. His study Identifies research that indicates different thinking processes are required to solve tame problems, at the tactical level of war, and wicked problems, at the strategic and operations levels of war. He argues that America’s waning strategic performance stems from a dearth of people competent in the latter skill set. These people either have what it takes by age 20, or they do not. One aspect of the problem then is to identify the people capable of strategic thinking and place them in a key position to provide their best thinking to national leadership. The second aspect of the problem is whether or not the President has the proclivity to seek such strategic advice and implement it. In other words, how do you get the horse to drink the water?

Watts proposes a solution that addresses only the first aspect of the problem. If America is really short of people capable of the hard reasoning necessary to create grand strategy, then it cannot identify the individuals because they do not exist. If they do exist is sufficient numbers then identifying them is the key task. This group of 8 to 10 (7 would be too few and 11 just over the top) would do the hard thinking needed to create successful grand strategy if, and only if, the President decides to consider their advise.

The real key to America’s strategic decline then is the attitude of the President. If the chief executive does not appreciate the contributions that such a group can provide, we run the risk of simply creating a pencil-ready jobs program for self-promoting geniuses who have the gravitas to convince the hiring authority that they are competent strategic thinkers.

This article and thread may illustrate some of the inherent difficulties for “strategy” in a Western liberal democracy. When findings of cognitive science contradict our egalitarian instincts, it is science that is ignored rather than questioning the assumptions of our political culture.

Tactical and strategic military effectiveness have many dimensions, just as does National power. High on any list of important factors, however, is the ability to quickly recognize when our strategies or tactics aren’t working. I have personally witnessed multiple systemic failures in this area, during a 40-year career in military systems acquisition both as a military officer and a senior systems engineer.

Perhaps no failure has been quite so consequential as that of the US Intelligence Community to recognize (much less anticipate or influence) changes in world political and religious affairs. Such problems have long been recognized by Community insiders. In 1998, I supported a “Colloquium for the Twenty-First Century” that examined the reasons for such failure. At the top of the list was an unwillingness of US political decision makers to ask appropriate questions or to allow intelligence analysts to ask them without career-crippling penalties. With 911, we experienced the natural outcomes of that failure. It remains to be seen whether our current crop of politicians will learn anything from that experience.

We have met the enemy… and he is US!

If indeed this commentary is correct (and I’m not convinced) there are many culprits most of whom reside outside the military. During the 30+ years I’ve been associated with the US Army, and for as far back as I can research, American strategic thinking and planning have both been derivative of the budgetary process, not vice versa. Even today the President speaks of reducing end strength even as the Army plays catch up with “Grow the Army” initiatives. I don’t believe that this can be blamed on the Army. The old bromide “An army is always prepared to fight the previous war.” is truer now than probably ever but it should be placed at the feet of those who provide or more precisely don’t provide the funding.

The Big Defense Contractors run the Pentagon now.
And the Mega Corporations and Banks run the Country. Not much strategy needed. We don’t fight for survival. We fight for gain. And the people that pay for it, never benefit from it. People at AIG, Chase, Arco, and GE do though. All this talk about strategy. The people that run things, you think they want to hear about what would be the best strategy. That would create conflict at too high level. Better to dumb down the staff. Like getting married to someone very simple. It’s not about the conversations your thinking about. It’s getting agreement. The Pentagon is full of people like the ones Japan had just before ww11. Yes men.

I love my Country! America the beautiful home of the proud the brave…

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