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The Strategy Web: A New Framework for Analyzing Military Strategy

Wild Blue Yonder / Maxwell AFB, AL --

 

Introduction

Early in the morning, as narrow shafts of light began to illuminate a dark cave, a spider hung relentlessly to a single thread attached to the roof of the hollow. Six times the insect had tried to vault itself to a beam above the cave, and each time it had failed. The legendary King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, watched each attempt with fascination and thought of his similar failures to break the power of England. He concluded that he would face the English once more if the spider were successful on its seventh attempt. The spider succeeded, Robert the Bruce faced and defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, and a legend was born.1

The simple but effective complexity of a spider web may offer more than just another lesson on persistence. According to the legend, the spider’s effort provided the spark Robert needed to challenge the English one more time. The subsequent battle laid the groundwork for a victorious strategy, resulting in the expulsion of the English and the recognition of Scotland as an independent kingdom. But how do some leaders find the keys to successful strategies while others fail, often with greater power and resources at their disposal? Perhaps the spider web can also represent the ways to unlock the often immense puzzle of military strategy.

The existence of war and political violence drives the need for military strategy. Warfare is a complex endeavor, and those tasked with planning and implementing military strategy must be equipped with a robust framework capable of incorporating theory, historical evidence, and truths. This article is an attempt to build upon the theoretical foundations of long-deceased strategic thinkers such as Carl von Clausewitz and more contemporary scholars of warfare like Colin Gray and John Lewis Gaddis.

Unlike previous scholars, however, the fundamental premise of the argument in these pages is to demonstrate the potential for cultivating an entirely new framework for representing and analyzing strategy. If one were to evaluate the United States’ record of strategic success over the last two decades, the results would be fairly disheartening. The US certainly needs to improve its strategic decision-making process, but it also needs to see progress in how to display, describe, and analyze its chosen strategic approach. This article will touch briefly on the former while spending the majority of the content on the latter. The first section describes how theory presents challenges in strategic decision making and offers a future path—macroduction—to address the problems. The second section then introduces the idea of using a spider web to visualize, describe, and analyze a particular strategy. The article ends with a brief discussion of how to use the strategy web framework to dissect the current US strategy related to the situation in Syria. This analysis is merely a starting point in the development of an improved model for strategic thinking. More work will inevitably be required to refine the ideas into a useful framework further.

Theory and Thinking in Strategic Decision Making

When Carl von Clausewitz wrote his monumental work, On War, he offered the world an expansive study on warfare and strategy. His work has thus far stood the test of time and continues to have great relevance in modern strategic thinking. However, over the last two centuries, scholars have dramatically expanded the scope and depth of research on wide-ranging topics from human behavior to international relations. How do these academic advances relate to older strategic ideas like those of Clausewitz? Have strategists incorporated the new knowledge, or are they unintentionally limiting valuable inputs to their decision-making process? These are critical questions in the future development of a strategy.

To begin answering these questions, one must start with the nature of theory. Currently, the underlying and most popular framework for studying human knowledge is theory-based. Theory has many definitions, but in 1935 the philosopher Karl Popper penned an early description of theory as a net “cast to catch what we call ‘the world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavor to make the mesh ever finer and finer.”2 His perception of theory matches that of contemporary scholars, namely that theory is an attempt to explain what we see in the world around us. By making the net ever finer, we can simplify the complexities that are readily apparent in every field of study.

Theories are intended to make sense of the world by breaking problems down into observable, testable links that can be replicated. This approach is extremely useful for scientists attempting to solve a particular technical problem, and it is also helpful for scholars of social sciences because it allows them to view the significance of certain variables in different environments or contexts. The development of theory inevitably forms a host of categories centered on observations that either confirm or reject the proposed ideas. These categories can be useful to practitioners facing complex situations that need to be divided into manageable problem sets.

Unfortunately, the fine mesh net of theory presents one striking weakness—the inability for a theory (or theories) to provide comprehensive explanations. Strategic thought is no exception to this rule; it mirrors theoretical thinking in other academic disciplines. Colin Gray, a scholar of strategy, illustrates the issue quite effectively: “Neither strategic history writ large, nor the occurrence of particular wars specifically lend themselves to explanation by general theory. It is no secret why this should be so. Both are too complex, too variable in historical detail, to succumb to the discipline of a single grand narrative of comprehension.”3 The more one probes into the misty world of human choice, the more the prospects of finding orderly theoretical solutions becomes elusive. But if this is the case, then what is the answer?

Developing a new way of thinking may provide answers to the limitations of theory. Most theories conform to very linear logic chains. A scholar either presents an idea within a specific academic field and gathers evidence to determine whether the idea is accurate (deductive logic), or she starts with evidence and seeks to devise a theory confirming the assembled observations (inductive logic). Even sophisticated models like game theory still rely on gathering evidence to support an idea. What if there were a type of thinking or logic entirely different than common forms like deduction or induction?

A need exists for a new type of logic, what I call macroduction. This innovative way of thinking should have three major characteristics: nonlinear, multifaceted, and capable of dealing with uncertainty. Macroduction is more than just a new combination of a Greek prefix with a Latin root. It is a process of moving beyond linear links in causality or correlation (nonlinear) and transitioning to a decision-making approach that incorporates ideas across the academic spectrum (multifaceted). The logic should accept, even embrace, uncertainty since ambiguity is ever-present in most human interaction and particularly in warfare.

While this article does not attempt to provide a detailed explanation for how macroduction could work, there are two areas of research that may hold the key to the eventual answer. Both areas relate to the study of the human brain. The first is a field called naturalistic decision making. Much of the previous research on human decision making focused on the fact that individuals “rarely employed systematic evaluation techniques.”4 Naturalistic decision-making researchers sought to try a different approach focused on “how people were able to make tough decisions under difficult conditions such as limited time, uncertainty, high stakes, vague goals, and unstable conditions.”5 One of the exciting results of their research was the discovery that people could successfully make rapid decisions without comparing options.6 They found that experienced professionals needing to make a decision would often match the situation to learned patterns and follow a typical course of action if it matched the pattern.7 Scholars even coined the idea of macrocognition, which they defined as “the study of cognitive processes affecting people such as firefighters, pilots, nurses, and others who had to wrestle with difficult dilemmas in complex settings under time pressure and uncertainty.”8

If research continues to develop in naturalistic decision making, macroduction could be the scholarly companion to macrocognition. While macrocognition focuses on studying time-critical decisions made in a realm of uncertainty, macroduction could focus on the deliberate decision-making process in the same domain of ambiguity. Naturalistic decision making is comfortable with a nonlinear and uncertain world, so it holds great promise. The difficulty will be shifting from a study of human decision making to providing useful models for actual decision-makers. Fortunately, researchers are already exploring this concept by seeking to compile “a toolbox, not to do research, but to enhance performance.”9

Another promising area of scholarship is in the area of artificial intelligence (AI). Corporations across the globe are in a furious race to develop AI due to its potential for great financial rewards. Governments are also seeking to harness the technology to expand their military and political power. The pinnacle of AI research is the pursuit of artificial general intelligence (AGI). AGI is simply the “ability of a machine to perform any task that a human can.”10 To achieve this goal, AGI researchers will inevitably have to focus heavily on studies of the brain and how the human brain uses logic. Researchers hope to achieve AGI by producing ever more complex algorithms, which are simply “a preset, rigid, coded recipe that gets executed when it encounters a trigger.”11 AI takes algorithms to a new level by modifying algorithms and creating new ones in response to learned inputs and data.12 Current AI capabilities require massive amounts of data to create effective learning and accurate outputs. However, our human brains can learn and make sense of data, sometimes with only a few examples or inputs. AI’s ability to inform a new type of human logic may remain limited until computer-generated algorithms can replicate the human brain’s ability to make decisions with small numbers of inputs.

At the same time, AI research will certainly lead to a deeper understanding of the human brain. AGI, in particular, is a lofty goal, and enabling a machine to perform any human task will depend on learning how the brain functions. The intense research required may help the process of developing macroduction because it could give unique insight into how human brains make decisions in uncertain environments. While computer scientists may or may not ever design an AGI machine, it is a field that strategists should follow closely.

The Strategy Web13

While the concept of macroduction may take years to develop, a need still exists to portray and describe a given strategic approach. A new framework could easily become unwieldy due to the complexity of strategy, so it is essential to make the concept usable. A mass of unrelated and unorganized inputs will never result in a quality output. One must bring order to chaos through framing. Humans have used framing for centuries since it is a basic survival function that helps the brain find patterns in chaos.14 There are problems with framing to be sure. Daniel Kahneman makes those clear when he speaks of the “unjustified influences of formulation on beliefs and preferences.”15 But, at the same time, framing is unavoidable; the key is to understand potential biases and be willing to adjust the frame if necessary.16

For strategy, a useful frame is a spider web. A spider web’s many threads and ordered style is a natural choice, and it will form the basis of the remainder of the discussion below. Before exploring the strategy web, it is necessary to begin with a definition. My current favorite definition is from John Lewis Gaddis. His idea of strategy—grand strategy to be precise—is “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.”17 A more conventional way of explaining his definition is to say that a strategist must take political objectives (ends) that are limited only by imagination and match them with the always limited capabilities at his disposal (means). The route that one uses to connect the capabilities (means) to the political aspirations (ends) is the way or the plan or the approach. Strategic success, therefore, depends upon achieving political aspirations with the limited capabilities available.

So how can a spider web describe the alignment of aspirations and capabilities? A web’s many threads and ordered style is a natural choice. It consists of anchor threads, frame lines, radius lines, the capture spiral, and silk proteins (see fig. 1 below). Anchor threads attach to the surface outlining the web, frame lines are the outer threads connecting all the anchor threads, and radius lines connect the center of the web to the frame lines. The capture spiral is the strong, flexible, stretchable center of the web that can dissipate the energy from an incoming flying insect. Silk proteins are responsible for giving spider webs their unique characteristics. Most of the anchor threads, frame lines, and radius lines consist of major ampullate silk that is “one of the toughest materials on earth, able to withstand great stress and absorb immense amounts of energy without rupturing.”18 This type of silk defines a spider, and the amino acid sequences in the silk proteins are the secret to the incredible material.19

Components of an orb web. (Adapted from Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig, “Components of an Orb Web,” in Spider Silk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 123, fig. 25.)
Components of an orb web
Components of an orb web. (Adapted from Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig, “Components of an Orb Web,” in Spider Silk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 123, fig. 25.)
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200326-F-YT915-0001

Figure 1. Components of an orb web. (Adapted from Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig, “Components of an Orb Web,” in Spider Silk (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 123, fig. 25.)

With these qualities in mind, the ability to conceptualize a strategy web becomes far more straightforward. The key is to use the conceptual framework (in this case, a spider web) to visualize the strategic problem and all the interrelated parts of the situation, the actors, the objectives, and the relevant ideas. The primary elements in a strategy web align with the standard three components of strategic thinking: ends, ways, and means. The ends (political aspirations or objectives) are the captured insects; this is the whole purpose of a spider web and thus serves as a useful method to imagine the political ends of a specific strategy. The spider creating the web represents the nation-state, group, organization, or individual planning and executing the strategy, and therefore the spider’s characteristics, skills, and resources symbolize the strategic means. The web itself is the way or strategic approach.

All the specific components of a spider web are also useful for characterizing important aspects of a strategy. Spiders anchor their webs into something firm, such as wood, stone, or other sturdy material. Every strategy should be firmly rooted in an informed historical perspective, including the society, culture, politics, religion, and other critical factors in the country or region. History, consequently, informs the foundation of the strategy web, and the anchor threads are affixed to it. The actual anchor threads and frame lines signify key theories connecting historical evidence to the capabilities and means chosen to achieve the political ends. This connection is a critical component missing in most deliberate planning processes at both the strategic and operational levels. Evaluating relevant theories across the spectrum of academic knowledge gives a strategy the broad outline required to address significant challenges.

But how does one reconcile multiple theories, especially competing ideas? The most difficult part is identifying which theories are applicable and then describing those theories in succinct thoughts. Using short summaries of a particular theory is not intended to overlook the nuance and context of the theory. It is only a starting point to determine which theories apply to a given strategy. Once it is obvious that certain theories relate to the situation, more analysis is necessary—particularly if there are competing theories involved. For example, compare the basic ideas of two theories of international relations. Realists believe that power or survival is what drives the behavior of nation-states, the only actor that matters in the international system.20 Liberals or institutionalists believe that states can pursue meaningful actions in their self-interest by cooperating economically or through international institutions.21 Viewing a strategic challenge through the realist perspective would offer ideas focused on the power and intense interests of nation-states. On the other hand, the liberal perspective would suggest ideas related to international cooperation or the role of international institutions. Employing a mix of both concepts would provide more strength and intricacy to the strategic response. Incorporating even more international relations theories, economic theories, and behavioral theories would greatly multiply the variety of ways to respond to or analyze the situation.

Radius lines represent decisive strategic actions leading to the desired end state. Each of these lines is important and impart depth and breadth to the strategy when combined, but the failure of only one or two of these lines will not necessarily lead to the failure of the strategy. On the other hand, when many of these lines snap, the strategy is likely doomed to collapse.

Another note on the representation of the threads is important. The point of exploring historical perspectives and many different theories in multiple academic fields is to illuminate the options available to decision-makers charged with executing the strategy. The strategic planning process will unearth many options, but building an actual depiction of the strategy could expand the quantity, variety, and potency of methods to achieve the political objectives. Furthermore, the web can be visualized in a way that demonstrates the connections between the various theories, historical evidence, and the key capabilities needed to achieve the end state. Incorporating more academic theories can also reveal ways to link means and ends that may have otherwise been obscured. They may also uncover means or even political ends, which had not yet been considered that could help the strategic planning process.

The environment surrounding the web represents another critical part of a good strategy. Different spiders create different webs based on their specific environment and unique capabilities. The same concept applies to a strategy; history has proven time and time again how important the environment (weather, terrain, geography, political situation, etc.) is to the success or failure of a campaign. Strategic thinkers must align their strategy to the unique environment it resides within.

Another important component of the web, the capture spiral, depicts the critical capabilities necessary to achieve the political end state. The friendly capture spiral naturally must be aligned to defeat the core critical capabilities, strategy, and end state of the adversary. To use the spider web analogy, the capture spiral’s strength, flexibility, capacity to dissipate an insect’s energy, and stickiness are the core ingredients that overcome the insect’s stunning speed and agility. Likewise, a good strategy must have strength, flexibility, an ability to dissipate the enemy’s capabilities, and the power to mire the enemy into a futile struggle. The decisive strategic actions (represented by the radius lines) must connect the friendly critical capabilities (capture spiral) to the relevant theories (frame lines) that are subsequently connected directly to the relevant historical context (anchor threads). The capture spiral graphically represents those critical capabilities needed to achieve the final political end state.

The silk protein analogy is the final component of a good strategy. The analogy is especially important when it comes to problems related to human behavior where warfare certainly resides. The proteins that make up the qualities of strength, flexibility, and stickiness mentioned above are inherent in a spider web. Similarly, timeless concepts about the nature of warfare and human behavior are intrinsic to any military strategy and must be considered. Some of these concepts include warfare being intrinsically connected to political ends, the existence of fog and friction, and other ideas related to the nature of war. But other fundamental notions of human behavior exist, such as the natural struggle between love or hate, selfish ambition or selfless service, and patience or exasperation. These timeless qualities exist across cultures, time, and space, so a suitable strategy must consider their presence and impact.

All these components of a spider web illustrate key facets of a strategy. The web can demonstrate links between historical evidence, theoretical scholarship, and timeless strategic truths. Most importantly, the strategy web can serve as a starting point for critically examining a strategy while also identifying potential weaknesses and potentially providing useful improvements to the strategic approach. This is the intent of the strategy web framework, but examining an actual strategy is essential to truly understand it.

US Strategy and Syria

Analyzing the current US strategy related to Syria with the strategy web framework is a great starting point for three reasons. First, the situation is current and thus significant since circumstances are still unfolding. Second, we do not yet have the benefit of hindsight because it is an ongoing challenge. This benefit is important because it will show how the framework can be used “in real-time” without the advantage of knowing critical details that may be more illuminating through the lens of history than they are at the time. Lastly, the US strategy in Syria is an excellent case study because an overwhelming consensus on what to do with Syria does not necessarily exist.

Before discussing the details of the strategy web, a few caveats are warranted. The below analysis will focus on only one political end state: the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The overall US global strategy is outlined in the 2017 National Security Strategy. Still, for the purposes of the example, I will only examine the objective of defeating ISIS that is nested under pillar one, “Protecting the American People,” and the “Defeat Jihadist Terrorists” subsection.22 This analysis is also not intended to be exhaustive. I included several examples of historical perspectives and potential theories to study, but there are surely more that are important and applicable to the situation in Syria. Lastly, the strategy web example below only identifies areas for a brief, initial analysis. An article-length examination does not allow for a full analysis of the theories and historical evidence. The discussion of theories and historical evidence will center mostly on intriguing ideas or questions related to each respective area. With those caveats in place, it is time to begin a look at US strategy related to Syria.

President Trump received a great deal of criticism near the end of 2019 for his decision to withdraw most US troops from Syria. Instead of focusing on the criticism, it is more useful to analyze one key question: was President Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria part of an effective strategy to achieve a political objective? The strategy web offers a useful framework to analyze this question (see fig. 2 below for a summary of the strategy web related to Syria). To begin, let us start with the spider that represents the nation-state or organization charged with planning or implementing the strategy. In this case, the spider is the United States. One could also include the US’s allies or coalition partners, but for purposes of this analysis I will focus only on the US. The captured insect, symbolizing the political aspiration or objective, is defeating jihadist terrorists. As described above, this end state is clearly defined in the 2017 National Security Strategy. President Trump himself mentioned multiple times over the last two years that his ultimate objective in Syria is to defeat ISIS.23 This objective is aligned with the overall national strategic aspiration of protecting the American people by defeating jihadist terrorists.

The spider and captured insect portion of the frame is relatively straightforward in the context of Syria, but the overall spider web (strategic approach) is slightly more difficult to describe. President Trump summarized his view of the comprehensive strategic approach in a long string of tweets on 7 October 2019. He wrote, “When I arrived in Washington, ISIS was running rampant in the area. We quickly defeated 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. . . . The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so . . . but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home. WE WILL FIGHT WHERE IT IS TO OUR BENEFIT, AND ONLY FIGHT TO WIN. Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out . . .”24 Judging by this statement, it appears that President Trump’s overall strategic approach is to defeat ISIS through the use of proxy forces (primarily the Kurds) while leaving stability operations to regional actors such as Syria, Turkey, the Kurds, and so forth. While there is most certainly more that can be said about the US strategic approach, this serves a sufficient initial summary of the intent.

The Strategy Web in Syria
The Strategy Web in Syria
The Strategy Web in Syria
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200326-F-YT915-0003

Figure 2. The Strategy Web in Syria

Knowing how to characterize the overall spider web allows us to examine some of the related components in greater detail. If the spider represents the United States, what are the relevant characteristics and skills of the spider (symbolizing strategic means)? The US appears to rely on four primary means to achieve its end state in Syria: allied proxy forces, supporting US military forces, diplomatic relationships in the Middle East, and economic or financial leverage over various actors. The tweet above outlined the use of US forces and proxy forces. It also alluded to diplomatic efforts necessary to support military action. President Trump’s calls with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outreach to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and additional State Department efforts to shore up support for the US are all examples of diplomatic means. The US has also employed many economic and financial actions to counter ISIS, such as the Treasury Department designating organizations and individuals facilitating ISIS networks.25

Another key symbol of the strategy web is the foundation or structure upon which the web is anchored represented by relevant historical perspectives. There are numerous potential aspects of history related to the situation in Syria, but the key is to focus on the ones most relevant. Examining the recent history of the Syrian regime, the counter-ISIS campaign starting in 2014 and the Arab Spring would add critical context and detail to the US strategic approach. Some relevant questions include: How will the regime’s recent history affect its response to the US leaving stability operations to regional actors? How does the regime view US actions during the extent of the counter-ISIS campaign, particularly when the US moved air and ground forces into sovereign Syrian territory? How does the Arab Spring and US response to the Arab Spring relate to current Syrian perceptions of the US? All these are only initial questions, but they illustrate some of the avenues for further analysis that the strategy web can unearth. Other questions could relate to the US war in Iraq, US history in the Middle East, US history of interventions, Turkish and Kurdish relations, US and Russia relations, and so forth. Given sufficient time, all these paths would greatly enhance an overall understanding of the situation and how it relates to the US chosen strategic approach.

Anchor threads and frame lines symbolize relevant theories connecting history to decisive strategic actions. There are multiple areas of possible analysis related to the situation in Syria. A look at realist theory could clarify why President Trump chose to accept the risk of alienating Kurdish allies by withdrawing US troops. Institutionalism could show what role organizations like the United Nations will play as regional actors take a lead role in potentially stabilizing Syria. Examining theories on authoritarianism and nationalism could offer evidence on how the Syrian regime may respond to the emerging situation. Terrorism and counterinsurgency theory would naturally illuminate potential future actions against ISIS or offshoots of the organization. Irredentism theory could show why it may be critical to prevent Turkey or Syria from losing territory in the aftermath of the conflict. Social conflict theory might demonstrate how religious or class tension will affect Syria’s future. Other theories related to post-colonialism, democratization, and social movement theory all may provide further context to the challenge. Once again, it is critical to identify some of the most explanatory or relevant theories and then use available time to sufficiently analyze those theories in light of the current situation and proposed strategic course of action.

Radius lines represent key strategic actions connecting relevant history and theory to the core capability required to meet the end state. This area of analysis is essential because it ensures that the strategic approach addresses all the important aspects of the problem instead of the one generating the most attention. Figure 3 illustrates the significance of this step. The rise of ISIS increased the threat of attack in the US and allied nations, so it would be easy to narrow the strategic vantage point on ISIS and its capabilities. The figure demonstrates that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency theory relate to both the origins of ISIS and to the history of the US in the Middle East. To combat ISIS, the US would naturally rely heavily upon military action combined with stability operations designed to address some of the shortfalls that may have contributed to the rise of the terrorist group. However, as figure 3 shows, the rise of ISIS is only one aspect of the overall strategic problem. Many other historical or regional issues directly relate to the conflict against ISIS. The Arab Spring, history of the Assad regime, and Russian interests in Syria are all relevant and important. Furthermore, actions to address these additional aspects of the problem may weaken or counter actions against ISIS.

The Strategy Web in Syria
The Strategy Web in Syria
The Strategy Web in Syria
Photo By: Dr. Ernest Rockwell
VIRIN: 200326-F-YT915-0002

Figure 3. The Strategy Web in Syria

Tracing a few radius lines outward from the center of figure 3 reveals the natural tension between each area of the overall strategic problem. While exciting to many Western observers, the Arab Spring created massive unrest in several nations, and democratization theory clearly lays out the challenges of transitioning from an authoritarian government to a democracy. If President Trump simultaneously advocated for democratic reform throughout the Middle East while also countering ISIS, he could torpedo any peace settlement or post-conflict negotiations before they even started. Since defeating ISIS and bringing stability to Syria are arguably more important than expanding democracy in the Middle East, it makes sense that the US under President Trump has significantly curtailed discussions of democracy promotion in Syria. At the same time, the US also needs to ensure its strategic approach against ISIS does not allow Russia or Iran to dramatically expand their influence in the Middle East. When President Trump initially decided to allow some residual US presence in Syria, his decision probably centered on retaining an ability to contain Russian and Iran expansion while also countering Turkish incursions into the northeastern area of the country.

The recent escalation between the US and Iran also clearly demonstrates the inherent tension when multiple strategies overlap in a particular area. President Trump declared victory against ISIS and wanted to leave Syria as quickly as possible. In one sense, his end state had been achieved, and he saw an opening to reduce US presence in the area. Unfortunately, Iranian influence in Syria and the region had already expanded significantly due to the efforts of Quds Force commander, Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian commander aimed to take advantage of any US withdrawal and carried out multiple attacks to undermine the US position in the Middle East. President Trump’s decision to eliminate General Soleimani in January had more to do with the maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but he may never have arrived at such a decision if the US had never deployed to Syria to fight ISIS. It is unclear whether death will lead to a more favorable end state in the strategy against ISIS, but it is certain that the US strategy to counter Iran and its strategy to defeat ISIS are closely interconnected. All the above considerations clearly establish the importance of aligning the final strategic approach to all significant aspects of the problem rather than focusing exclusively on the most pressing part of the problem.

When it comes to the environment surrounding the spider web, it is important to determine how much the overall situation plays to the strengths or weaknesses of the strategy. The environment around Syria is characterized by many aspects, but some are more important than others. The region is highly unstable due to political unrest in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, and other areas. There are also active conflicts occurring in parts of Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, and elsewhere. Economic growth has stagnated in many areas, and there are huge problems with refugees, financial instability, and political legitimacy. The analysis of the environment should also include an examination of the weather in the area, the terrain, and other essential geographical features. Each of these areas are important to understand and analyze in the overall study of the strategy.

The capture spiral of the web represents the core capabilities necessary to achieving the political end state. While this part of the web could clearly elicit a wide range of opinions, I will focus on the will of the American people. President Trump definitely seems to grasp the political dimension of war, and as stated above he strongly believes that the American public is tired of endless wars. It seems as if this factor is decisive in President Trump’s calculus. In his eyes, if the American people really believe their government continues to start endless wars, then their patience with a situation like Syria may be perilously thin. It is that perception of waning patience that may explain his willingness to accept the risk of alienating proxy fighters, allies, or international partners. If this is truly the case, President Trump may actually be standing on fairly firm historical ground. A RAND study in 1996 looked at public support for US military operations. One of the study’s conclusions was, “[When assessments lead] to broad recognition that important national interests are engaged, important principles are being promoted, and the prospects for success are high, a majority of the American public is likely to accept costs that are commensurable with the perceived stakes. However, when such agreement is missing, even low costs will often be sufficient to erode public support for intervention.”26 President Trump may be banking on the fact that he will not be able to adequately demonstrate the importance of national interests and prospects for success in Syria.

Graphically representing President Trump’s strategy in Syria underscores the importance of connecting core capabilities to relevant theory and history. If American political will is the core capability required to reach the end state of defeating ISIS, then each strategic action (radius line) must strengthen American political will. Containing Russian expansion may be a decisive strategic action, but if the action is overly aggressive and alienates the American public, the entire strategy is doomed to fail. All the decisive strategic actions represented by radius lines in figure 3 must ultimately align with American political will if it is truly the core capability of achieving the end state. This fact alone shows how it is possible to visually ensure that proposed strategic actions are aligned with desired political end states.

The final aspect of the strategy web is the representation of silk proteins symbolizing timeless concepts about the nature of war and human behavior. These concepts are woven into the entire web and relate to all the other ideas already discussed above. Some scholars may question how “timeless” such concepts actually are, but the point is that it allows the exploration of additional dimensions to the strategy. One area of potential focus includes war as a political act. The two paragraphs above briefly covered President Trump’s realization of his efforts in Syria being closely connected to political dynamics in his country. Other timeless concepts for study could include the potential for fog and friction and Thucydides’ ideas of fear, honor and interest. The possibility of increased fog and friction in Syria may help explain the decision to withdraw most forces from Syria. President Trump could also have counted on the fact that fear and honor would drive his Kurdish allies to reach out to other actors such as the Syrian regime or Russia to counter the threat from Turkey. Timeless ideas of warfare and human behavior enable strategists to see the plan from additional angles and are thus useful to the overall analysis.

When creating a strategy web, one final aspect is critical. Once the initial sketch is complete, it is absolutely essential to view the web in context with other political aspirations or objectives. Figure 3 discusses some aspects of the strategic problem that are not directly related to defeating ISIS, but it is still important to fully consider entirely separate end states or political objectives. The situation in Syria is again a great example of this feature in the process. Strategy is complex, and it is dangerous to isolate one strategic approach from others. Unfortunately, as the situation with Iran demonstrated, the war against ISIS in Syria is not the only national interest at stake in Syria. One must also consider other factors such as Chinese and Russian actions. Because Russia became intimately involved in the conflict, the Syrian crisis also increasingly became connected to another political objective: restoring America’s competitive advantages.27 Competing with increasingly aggressive actions on the part of China and Russia is an important part of the 2017 National Security Strategy. I argued in an article a year ago that withdrawing from Syria would embolden Russia, China, Syria, and Iran and weaken President Trump’s effort to restore American competitive advantages.28 The potential for this outcome was clearly evident months ago and remains evident today. Will our strategic approach in Syria significantly degrade our ability to compete with Russia and China? This is an important question because the political objective of competing with Russia and China may arguably be more important than the defeat ISIS campaign. Regardless of the solution, it is an essential question to ask. A strategy web related to competition with Russia and China would include its own set of relevant historical evidence, theoretical ideas, and other features of the web. It is also critical to examine where aspects of one strategy web complement or negatively impact the features of another strategy web. Overlooking this fact will result in strategic approaches that are not sufficiently integrated and aligned.

Now that an initial example of the strategy web is complete, it is important to note two final points about the people tasked with producing and analyzing the strategy web. Determining who specifically should use the framework is a significant question. National security planners of all kinds can use the framework to outline a particular strategic approach. For example, in the US military, joint planners could employ the framework in both the operational design process and the mission analysis portion of the joint planning process. But the framework would be just as helpful for National Security Council staffers tasked with creating a policy to address an emerging or ongoing strategic challenge. In a deliberate process, the strategy web would add a great deal of depth to the overall analysis and subsequent decision. It could then inform how the components of the crisis relate to one another and ensure planners do not overlook critical aspects of the issue or approach.

Identifying personnel with expertise is the other significant aspect of producing a strategy web. National security planners need certain skills to successfully implement this approach. Implementation requires a strong knowledge of history and a grasp of a variety of theoretical approaches from multiple academic disciplines. Realistically, this would be difficult to achieve individually, and the outcome would be necessarily limited by the individual’s own familiarity with both history and other theories. The process should ideally involve the work of a team of experts in multiple different academic fields who advise national security planners tasked to develop a policy. Strategic planners could perform an initial strategy web diagram and then use experts to perform deeper analysis related to relevant historical evidence and theories. The extended analysis would also look at competing historical evidence and theories to determine whether those ideas have more merit or explanatory power. Finally, national security planners and military leaders must develop their own strategic knowledge over time, particularly in military history. Michael Howard’s seminal piece on this topic and his three rules of study (in width, depth, and context) should be required reading for planners tasked with developing military strategy.29

Further study is surely warranted to refine the process. The next step would involve a far more expansive analysis of a given strategy using the strategy web. Building a graphical template to display the strategy web is also essential. Once the concept matures, war colleges or military academics could test the framework to address current strategic challenges and examine its effectiveness. If successful, policymakers and military leaders armed with this tool could enhance plans that sufficiently match the complexity of the problems they are attempting to solve.

Conclusion

Strategic challenges facing the United States have only grown more complex since the end of the Cold War. The country faces many internal and external struggles requiring diligence and prudence from all the men and women tasked with formulating and implementing policy for the nation. The growing difficulties in the world demand an ability to effectively identify a winning strategic approach to a given problem. Ideas such as macroduction may eventually inform and dramatically improve the entire strategic decision-making process. Until that occurs, strategists can use the strategy web framework to better capture the essence of a desired strategic approach. The web will ideally provide more nuance, context, and analysis to the existing strategic planning process. This article and its argument are intended to be a starting point for a new path of scholarship on military strategy and warfare. It is by no means the final word. Developing a better method for mentally addressing the impending challenges is just as important as building the military capabilities and training required for future conflicts. My hope is that this article can at least offer a creative outline for the road ahead.

Col Timothy Murphy, USAF

Colonel Murphy (BS, US Air Force Academy; MA, Troy University; MA, National Defense University) is the chief of current operations at United States Space Command.  

 

Notes

1 Sir Walter Scott, Tales of a Grandfather (Edinburgh: Cadell and Co., 1828), 116–18, https://archive.org/. The story of Robert the Bruce and the spider is well-known, and according to the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, Sir Walter Scott is often credited with first documenting the legend: http://www.sath.org.uk/.

2 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), 38.

3 Colin Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Phoenix Paperback, 2005), 133.

4 Gary Klein, “Naturalistic Decision Making,” Human Factors 50, no. 3 (June 2008): 456.

5 Klein, “Naturalistic Decision Making,” 456.

6 Gary Klein, “Naturalistic Decision Making,” 457.

7 Gary Klein, “Naturalistic Decision Making,” 457.

8 Gary Klein and Corinne Wright, “Macrocognition: From Theory to Toolbox,” Frontiers in Psychology, 29 January 2016, https://www.frontiersin.org/.

9 Klein and Wright, “Macrocognition: From Theory to Toolbox.”

10 Naveen Joshi, “How Far Are We from Achieving Artificial General Intelligence?” Forbes, 10 June 2019, https://www.forbes.com/.

11 Kaya Ismail, “AI vs. Algorithms: What’s the Difference,” CMS Wire, 26 October 2018, https://www.cmswire.com/.

12 Ismail, “AI vs. Algorithms.”

13 Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig, Spider Silk (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). All information on how a spider web functions and its specific components, including silk proteins, come from this fascinating book. Specific descriptions on the components of a spider web are from pages 122–24; silk proteins are from pages 112–14 and 130–133.

14 Noam Shpancer, “Framing: Your Most Important and Least Recognized Daily Ment,” Psychology Today, 22 December 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/.

15 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 364.

16 Shpancer, “Framing: Your Most Important.”

17 John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 21.

18 Brunetta and Craig, Spider Silk, 56.

19 Brunetta and Craig, Spider Silk, 79.

20 “Political Realism in International Relations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 26 July 2010, https://plato.stanford.edu/.

21 “Political Realism in International Relations,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

22 White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

23 “Trump’s Numerous Declarations of Victory Over IS,” VOA News, 21 March 2019, https://www.voanews.com/.

24 President Donald Trump, 7 October 2019 https://twitter.com/.

25 Department of Treasury Press Release, “Treasury Designates Key Nodes of ISIS’s Financial Network Stretching Across the Middle East, Europe, and East Africa,” 15 April 2019, https://home.treasury.gov/.

26 Eric Larson, “Public Support for U.S. Military Operations,” 1996, https://www.rand.org/.

27 National Security Strategy, 26.

28 Timothy Murphy, “The Syrian Pardox,” Washington Times, 14 February 2019, https://www.washingtontimes.com/.

29 Michael Howard, “The Use and Abuse of Military History,” reprinted in Parameters 9, no. 1 (March 1981), 14.

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