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Can Military Excellence Overcome Bad Strategy?

Operational or tactical excellence cannot overcome a mistake in strategy. Strategy is the art and science of developing and employing instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater or national objectives. Strategy not only selects the objectives, but also often shapes the means by placing concomitant parameters on policy execution in order to guarantee conformity. Additionally, strategy involves the arrangement in time and space of all elements of national power, most of which are usually outside the sphere of a military commanders at any level. Therefore, only strategy can ensure that the whole of government supports military action at any level, irrespective of the quality of that action. Strategy may be flawed in three basic ways: incorrect objectives, wrong or inadequate means, and wrong arrangement of sources of national power. A flaw in any of these areas is sufficient to render military operational or tactical excellence irrelevant.
Operational art is the employment of military forces to attain strategic objectives through the design, organization, integration, and conduct of campaigns, operations, and battles. Operational art translates strategy into operational design, and, ultimately, tactical action, by integrating the key activities at all levels of war. It necessarily follows that if the strategic objectives are flawed, then the operational level will simply obtain and reinforce the wrong objective. Similarly, by linking tactical actions to these wrong objectives, tactical excellence in pursuit of the wrong strategy only secures defeat faster.
A mistake in strategy can result from choosing the wrong objectives. In Viet Nam, the U.S. strategic objective of containing communism caused us to overlook Ho Chi Minh’s nationalism and commit the military to all of the wrong objectives (Langgruth,J., Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, Simon & Schuster, NY: 2000). A contemporary example is the recent U.S. invasion of Iraq. The U.S. strategy selected regime change as an objective, which the U.S. military achieved operationally and tactically with remarkable efficiency and excellence. It is now clear that the strategy was flawed and that now amount of operational or tactical excellence could hope to overcome this fundamental error (Ricks, Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq, Penguin, NY, 2006, 87).
A mistake in strategy can result from dictating the wrong means. For example, during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler burdened the German with tasks beyond its resources and required a form of maneuver inappropriate to the expanse of the Soviet front (Cooper, Matthew, The German Army, Scarborough, Chelsea, MI: 1978, pp.viii). In Viet Nam the U.S. strategy dictated the wrong means in a number of ways by employing the gradualist approach, limiting bombing, and initial refusal to enter Cambodia and Laos. The result in Viet Nam is that no amount of tactical excellence, perhaps best measured by winning every engagement, could overcome flawed strategy. Similarly, the U.S. President and Secretary of Defense limited the means prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom over the objections of then-Army Chief of Staff Shinseki (Ricks, Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq, Penguin, NY, 2006, 97).
A mistake in strategy can result from a failure to correctly arrange the whole of government. Contemporary U.S. expeditions seem to highlight this problem in a variety of ways. There is credible evidence that military planning for Operation Iraqi Freedom relied upon flawed assumptions concerning contributions to nation building from the whole of government (Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, COBRA II, Pantheon, NY, 2006).
In conclusion, if strategy is flawed either in the selection of wrong objectives, imposition of wrong means or failure to arrange the whole of government, then no amount of military excellence can overcome. As was the case in the examples above, military excellence will only bring about the wrong conclusion faster.

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