Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, USMC, retired

March 31, 1998

Despite the proliferation of glossy Department of Defense publications on national defense issues, current American strategic thinking is morbid. Official high-level pronouncements have replaced intellectual dialogue at the very time when new and difficult challenges demand a thorough debate. It is central to the democratic process of searching for innovative solutions and reaching compromises. Offering up slogans will never substitute for the kind of intellectual activity that is required today and tomorrow in the arena of national security.

When thinking about American strategy, it is important to keep in mind the sheer complexity of the issues. With strategy, as the noted British strategist Colin Gray points out, everything relates, or at least might relate, to everything else. Central to national security strategy is an understanding of its relation to policies that support national interests. In the United States from 1950 through 1990, development of security strategy and military strategy was guided by the policy of containment. As a result, the military was not required to plan in any original way; it simply continued to incrementally improve weapons and equipment to meet the changing Soviet threat. In a sense the American armed forces forgot how to plan strategically. With the end of the Cold War the military finds itself adrift. It has become enamored with process, while at the same time confusing thinking and goal setting with planning. Such a dysfunctional approach often gives the illusion that it is possible to forecast the future. To illustrate, the National Defense University recently published a book titled Creating Strategic Vision, discussing the need for long term (10-25 years) planning and emphasizing hedging strategies. It is not a very useful book. Despite a claim of taking the long view, the authors failed to see the demise of the Soviet Union just four years before the event took place. In fact, one of the authors of the book postulated such an event could not occur before 2030! Unfortunately, this is indicative of the poor quality of strategic thought throughout the defense community.

How can one approach strategic planning? Fundamentally, two options present themselves: classical decision making and intuitive reasoning. Both may have something to contribute. The classical method is most appropriate when facing a unique or unrecognized problem in a non-dynamic environment in which time is not an issue. In other situations, such as rapidly changing circumstances, limited time, or when there is a recognizable pattern, intuitive reasoning may be more appropriate.

Instead of a well-reasoned balanced approach incorporating both classical an intuitive methods, the current environment allows bureaucrats to produce pseudo-scientific jargon that masks the absence of thought. Examples are contained in statements by some of the Nation’s most senior uniformed officers, some as startling as "If you see the battlefield you win the war." The problem is compounded by the proliferation of meaningless phrases such as "information dominance," "decisive operations," "precision operations," "dominant battlespace awareness," "maneuver dominance," and "precision engagement." These phrases clutter strategic publications like "Joint Vision 2010," but contain little value or insight. Instead of inventing new sound bites, what is needed is an application of intellect. Strategic thinkers need to reflect on historical context, imagine a future, then formulate hypotheses on fighting and winning wars in that future environment, and, finally, test these in war games and exercises.

There are, however, some bright spots. Dr. Andrew Marshall, the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, has sponsored some imaginative work on the so-called revolution in military affairs. Steven Rosen, in his book, Winning the Next War, offers some clear thoughts on how ideas about the future security environment and requirements can be developed. Other beacons include the interdisciplinary work on complexity and chaos theory at the Santa Fe Institute. With the proper attention and support some of this work will inspire defense thinkers to broaden their discussions, open their minds, and produce new thoughts on security strategy. If this does not occur we may find our nation preparing for war as some might wish it to be, rather than war as it actually exists.

Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 1997, after more than 41 years of active and reserve service. A Senior Fellow with the Center for Naval Analyses, he continues to participate in various defense and security related seminars and conferences, both in the United States and overseas. He lectures frequently at the National Defense University and other professional military educational schools. He also consults part-time for a number of firms on military and operational matters.

Rapporteur: Richard Wilcox

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