James Holmes

Defining Military Strategy

Does allocating a certain amount of national resources towards defense equal a military strategy?

A family feud of sorts is brewing over at the redoubtable navy blog Information Dissemination, a site all Naval Diplomat readers should check out. Retired U.S. Navy commander Bryan McGrath, a regular ID contributor and self-professed conservative wahoo, is sparring with ID host Raymond Pritchett over whether GDP figures equate to strategy. Sparking the debate was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s call for allocating 4 percent of GDP to defense.

To oversimplify—read their exchange here—Raymond maintains that setting a number isn’t strategy, whereas Bryan thinks it might be. Let me wax Solomonic for a minute. As Raymond notes, a fixed percentage of GDP doesn’t qualify as strategy in any strict sense. But nations often define how many resources they’re prepared to spend on some cause and instruct commanders to—as Larry the Cable Guy might say—git ‘er done within those constraints. (King Solomon just turned over in his crypt at being lumped with Larry.)

My favorite definition of strategy comes from Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie. Wylie defines it straight forwardly as a “plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.” A fixed sum of money is neither a plan of action nor a system of measures. Here’s the but: maritime strategist Julian S. Corbett channels Carl von Clausewitz, noting that statesmen can limit war by its ends, or purposes, or by the means they allocate to it.

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Corbett and Clausewitz  refer to designating—in advance—the number of troops or military units a nation is willing to expend for limited aims and instructing commanders to design operations to advance those goals on a shoestring. That usually involves looking for ways to impose heavy costs on an adversary at low cost to oneself. Wellington prosecuted such a “war by contingent” in Iberia, giving Napoleon a “Spanish ulcer.” Toshi Yoshihara and I have argued that the U.S. military ought to think in such terms about strategy in Asia. Retired U.S. Marine colonel T. X. Hammes says much the same thing.

Is defense-by-GDP a variant of war-by-contingent? It’s worth pondering.