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Strategy & Defence Planning: Meeting the Challenge of Uncertainty

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Strategy & Defence Planning: Meeting the Challenge of Uncertainty by Colin Gray. Oxford University Press, 2014, 225 pp.

Strategy specialist Colin Gray delivers an excellent discussion illustrating how history, politics, and military means all intertwine during defense planning in his work Strategy & Defence Planning: Meeting the Challenge of Uncertainty. Dr. Gray considers this work as the third in a series leading from the two previous texts within the same vein: The Strategy Bridge (2010) and Perspectives on Strategy (2013). The earlier books provide an overview of various national strategy options, while this volume strives to answer the how and why questions for defense planners. After reviewing his previous strategic conclusions, Gray in this text examines how historical perspectives contribute to planning, political influences, and popular factors and then constructs an imminently usable framework for defense planners. Gray's key assumptions emphasize that all future events are unknown and nonquantifiable, so all defense planning serves to reduce uncertainty rather than guarantee outcomes.

Gray provides a theory outline for defense planning within a societal context through strategic, historical, and political references. Working from a solid core provided by the other two volumes, the text details how defense planning functions anticipate challenges without predicting future events. Much like every good intelligence process, planning reduces uncertainty for policy makers about ways and means options for future events. Strategic planners are guided to blend political ends, strategic ways, and military means in creating a comprehensive approach to deal with emerging events. Gray recognizes three potential challenges within his theory: planners cannot know which contingency will happen, what the future context may be, and what cause will initiate those conflicts. For Gray, defense planning serves as a strategic outlook combining historical perspectives with the political realities in attempting to mitigate future crises.

Gray's first step in addressing future concerns looks back to historical perspectives. Historical planning addresses two potential issues: time only moves forward, and, at its best, history only provides a potential pattern rather than specific future events. History's forward movement from past to present recognizes politics as the expression of societal and national power in every age. When pursuing a security end, future contingency events will likely be similar to those of the past, expressing behaviors caused by the cultural and political contexts from which they emerge. Gray notes a key human behavior, constraint, as future actions may not follow any rational pattern. Predicting future events through past occurrences remains problematic as not only do trend analysis type predictions not account for irrational behavior, they may also neglect strategic shifts. In one example, the late 1940s transition to nuclear weapons and the subsequent impact on all strategic planning for the century's remainder was neglected by defense planners prior to that transition. Gray also notes the absence of nuclear employment from any conflict since World War II provides no assurances a nuclear weapon will not be employed next week, next year, or even in the next decade. Anticipating any events still falls within a defense planner's potential challenges and should be addressed during the process.

Gray rapidly shifts from a theoretical perspective to defense planning framework. His framework includes discussing how to transfer political ends into military means that remain supported by the general populace. Politics requires interaction from both the national government and the populace supporting those governments. National populations tend to be motivated by three factors--fear, honor, and interest--which must all be accounted for during planning. The text suggests addressing current fear regarding what may happen and how those events affect national honor with historical support from Thucydides and Clausewitz. Finally ongoing national interests for stability, growth, and security should be addressed in an understandable and easily conveyable manner. For example, US engagement in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor addressed fears of an invasion of California, defending honor after a sneak attack, and overall interest in popular security. Gray urges planners to consider interactions between civilian and military interests, including responsibility, values, statecraft, and any potential opportunity costs on the various involved actors. He illustrates politicians will primarily continue to seek power while military leaders prefer certainty in purpose aligned with clear leadership decisions. Seeking political power does not always guarantee an alignment between a national strategy, ways to employ military means, and reaching desired ends for all parties.

Gray continues his defense planner framework, identifying several strategic concepts required to even attempt to anticipate future events. Planners should identify motivation and priorities through existing strategies, science and certainty, politics and economics, and historical perspectives. Through all events, planners should maintain an awareness of potential gaps and errors within those fields as well as their own tolerance for shortfalls within planning. Events need breadth, depth, and context to adequately translate through planning, and all sources include some errors based on both recording means and their perspective. Error tolerance builds upon Gray's common themes of future uncertainty, though reinforcing future events is not quantifiable. He further states any metric analysis based on future events should be regarded with suspicion. Gray's framework concludes with two pages of key findings, too long to summarize here, but excellent in suggesting ways to ensure ends, ways, and means are adequately linked within planning (pp. 202-3).

One of the work's true strengths is the constant reference to other strategic contributors. Clausewitz and Thucydides' foundational works, On War and The History of the Peloponnesian War, are consistently referenced. In addition, Schelling's texts, The Strategy of Conflict and Arms and Influence, play a central role supporting overall concepts. Gray also notes the influence of Nassim Taleb's Black Swan in understanding how, at best, future events remain largely undetermined. For the unfamiliar, Taleb's work examines the influence of potential high impact events, referred to as black swans, which--though statistical outliers--change the shape of everything after within those areas. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a black swan event, completely different from all other attacks but sufficiently drastic to change all future planning regarding terrorism.

Gray is a continual contributor to strategic planning discussions and clearly notable within a field with very few truly outstanding authors. If one does not have time to fully consider outside works, Gray's strategic synopsis (p. 71) and defense planning assumptions (pp. 202-3) alone make this work worth adding to your shelf. That said, every chapter should be thoroughly read as each contributes a better strategic understanding and defense planning framework. This work significantly adds to anyone's strategic understanding, through careful source consideration, inclusion of popular motivation, and excellent planning framework. I consider Gray's work a must read for all field grade officers or equivalents involved with planning at any level.

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

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