A New Strategy for Complex Warfare: Combined Effects in East Asia

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A New Strategy for Complex Warfare: Combined Effects in East Asia by Thomas A. Drohan. Cambria Press, 2016, 305 pp.

With a shift from the third-party counterinsurgency and counterterrorism priorities of the past decade and a half to a priority on “long term strategic competitions with China and Russia,” the complexity of global operations is foremost in the minds of our strategists.1 Brig Gen Thomas A. Drohan, USAF, retired, has brought to the fore an innovative approach to strategy for policy makers focusing on historical context and cultural understanding. The former head of the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the United States Air Force Academy, General Drohan attempts to illuminate the folly of a one-size-fits-all military approach to strategic issues that emphasizes the application of technologically superior combined-arms campaigns without analysis of culturally nuanced differences permeating the modern, complex operational environment.

The main assumption that lies with Drohan’s argument is that culture affects strategy. In turn, China, Korea (North and South), and Japan are examined from a historical perspective followed by an analysis of potential strategic considerations using his “combined-effects” framework. This framework attempts to inculcate ideas of friendly and adversarial cultural norms, mores, and morality into the strategic (perhaps operational) design process. This work is an attempt to bridge academia and the military through the creation of a novel framework that provides a basis for strategic considerations and strategic logic as “lines of effects.” These lines of effects direct the strategist to clarify the desired outcomes early in the development of strategy and to consider the strategic context in which we operate.

In Drohan’s three case studies, we see the diversity of security cultures across three geographically close states that are culturally and historically intertwined. The cases expose the points of divergence. China’s historical view on its nonnegotiable sovereignty and humiliation by the West drives China’s long-term view of threats and its pragmatic view of any “solution” to threats. Korea’s cultural drive of sadaejuui (obliging a greater power) and inculcation of juche (self-reliance) are woven through Korean hopes of reunification and North/South Korean attitudes toward nuclear weapons. Japan’s combination of Shintō beliefs with a historical bent toward isolationism shows Japan to be seemingly indifferent and slow to react to its many security challenges. The case studies on these states’ respective security cultures are concise and sufficient for the strategist. They are powerful in setting the stage for Drohan’s analysis using his lines of effects methodology. The chapters are well researched with enough sourcing for the practitioner to follow up on any curiosity that might be developed.

After deftly intersecting the respective cultures with US foreign policy, Drohan demonstrates strategic concerns and attempts to draw out hidden competing interests using his novel framework. In this section, he develops the lines of effect logic into two domains: psychological and physical. The psychological domain demands that the strategist look at the dichotomy of deter/compel (adversarial) or dissuade/persuade (cooperative), while the physical domain focuses on the dichotomy of defense/coercion (adversarial) or secure/induce (cooperative). For example, “China is credibly deterred by the US from attacking Taiwan with nuclear weapons while at the same time somewhat compelled to conduct an intimidating missile launch toward Taiwan” (emphasis added) (14). Additionally, Drohan includes four forms of interaction that further describe the lines of effects with respect to implications (18–19). This feature is probably the most salient feature of the book as Drohan has created a promising tool with the potential to clarify and simplify some of the complex historical and cultural inputs into strategic design. It should be noted here that Drohan is keenly aware of the looming US strategic logic in these analyses and demonstrates that through his framework in a way that is easy to grasp.

Overall, this book would be a fine addition to any strategist’s bookshelf. I do wonder if Drohan’s thesis may be overstated insofar as the extent of the influence of strategic culture on strategic behavior. One might argue, as do rationalists/realists, that the converse is true: strategic behavior drives culture. That being said, assuming that Drohan’s supposition is correct regarding culture, this book offers a well-developed assessment of case studies for three important Asian states along with a nascent tool for strategic analysis. Readers searching for an analytical tool to apply to complex situations will not be disappointed with this selection.

Robert B. Scaife, Foreign Affairs Specialist
Headquarters, Air Combat Command
Directorate of International Affairs, Langley AFB


     1. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2018), 4, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."