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A Primer on Strategy Analysis


James A. Mowbray, Ph.D.
Air War College Faculty

THE PRIMARY purpose of this course of instruction is to introduce you to the analysis of military strategy. The only way to come to some realistic understanding of the nature, characteristics, and role of military strategy in war fighting is to study it in some detail. But the focus of this course will remain at the level of strategy, and we will not descend into the tactical arena at all. That is too much detail for our purposes here. You will have to undertake some study of the operational, or campaign, level of war- fare, because more often than not that is the level of execution of any strategic plan.

This understanding of strategy through the study of past campaigns and wars is important because historical examples are simply real world case studies of sorts. Studying real world experience is the next best thing to having real world experience. Historical case studies are as near to the real thing as we can get you as a student.

Understanding by analysis of past case studies of strategy helps you to develop insights which will be useful to you when you go on to later work in this program. Subsequently, you will be required to study and then develop campaign plans for a theater of operations set within a larger strategic plan and frame- work. This case study experience is a major step towards preparing you to be able to do that.

The Mowbray Strategy/Process Analysis Model (V940120.5) used in this course is designed to show you the interrelationships among the major factors influencing first the development, and then the adoption, of a nation’s military strategy. The model can be used either for a single nation1 or for a coalition of nations. The model analyzes the factors that go into the development of a past (historical) strategy, at several possible levels, and includes national military strategy, coalition military strategy, theater military strategy, or campaign planning. If you are doing the latter, you must identify the theater and national, or coalition, military strategy above it in the hierarchy. (Refer to the Collins articles which you have just finished reading for the strategy hierarchy.) Keep in mind that this model is not useful for the analysis of national strategy in the broad sense of political, economic, and military components together. This model, as good models must, shows not only the relationships among factors upon which the strategy is based, but the developmental process and its relationships, as well as their intensity. Remember, this is useful for HISTORICAL, that is, past strategy only! This is not a predictive model for studying the development of future strategy: that will come later in the program.

The alpha designations from A. to I. show the phases, or steps, of the strategy development process in a generic way. This process is not, nor was it meant to be, specifically American. The width of the arrows in the model, along with the numerics, show the importance of the output from step to step in the process. The direction in which the arrow is pointing shows the primary flow of influence from one level of concern to the next. The arrows also represent, however, channels by which influence may flow in reverse. This is indicated by a narrow arrow within the arrow showing the primary flow of influence. These narrow arrows are labeled as feedback loops. For example, while the military leadership (G.1) may well have input to the policy (D.) being developed by the political leadership (C.1), its ability to influence such policies is less than that of the political leadership. This situation is indicated by a connecting feedback arrow.

Let us start our examination of the model with the threat (A.) which is the paramount concern in war. It is therefore placed at the top of the diagram. A threat to be considered as serious, must involve directly or indirectly, the national interests of a nation, or of a coalition of nations. This is the starting point for all considerations of strategy, be it military strategy, national strategy, or grand strategy and from it all else flows. Without a threat, whether real or perceived, there is no need for a strategy. Hence, you must always try to identify at the outset the threat and then you can relate it to a strategy. In this regard, both the analysis of a past strategy and the process of developing a strategy to confront a current threat are very much alike. If the strategy does not address the identified threat, it is without value. If it does not change responsively as the threat alters, it loses its value.

Keep in mind that this country, in present circumstances, has opted to base its present and future generic strategies upon capabilities. That lasts only until you have a real-world situation in which a threat materializes. Since we are only looking at historical examples, a threat will always be apparent from the readings that we give you.

The threat (A.) to the national interests (B.) causes the national security decision-making (C.) machinery to go into operation. The national interests of the country whose strategy is being investigated are a major, if not the major, influence upon policy and the national objectives (F.) of the war. The arrows from national interests, to national security decision-making, to policies (D.), to national objectives, are wider than any others for a reason. These show the predominant influence on military decision-making (G.), and hence, upon the strategy aimed at the threat.

The political leadership (C.1), consistent with societal values (C.3) and attitudes, employing appropriate national resources (C.2), makes decisions in the form of policies (D.) about how to respond to the threat. The most powerful influence in the development of any strategic plan (strategy [H.]), once the policies have been settled upon, is the political leadership.


Chief among those policies to be settled upon by the political leadership, is selection of national objectives, such as “what is our goal in the course of military operations,” and “what should the world look like after the smoke clears.” The national objectives in the model are national objectives for the nation whose strategy is under consideration, or a coalition objective, and may be thought of as the objective for which the war is being waged. It is a result of policy from the political leadership at the national level, influenced by military inputs to both the objective making process and to the strategy, or strategic plan. That input is primarily what the military tells the civilian leadership it can and cannot accomplish at the level of military strategy. In cases where there are allies involved, their input to the coalition objectives (F.) and the strategic plan (strategy) will strongly influence what may or may not be undertaken. Be careful to distinguish between formal alliances between nations, and informal arrangements which spring up on short notice. They do tend to work differently.

The other important policies for our purposes here are the policies given to the military as guidance. These may be rules of engagement (ROE), for example. ROEs may be restrictive or aggressively non-restrictive. While there is a notion that in the modern world only the former is likely, that is most likely true only of westernized and liberal nations. The war in Bosnia, Iraq’s handling of the Shiite opposition, or earlier of the Kurds, suggests that aggressively non-restrictive ROEs are not unlikely. For that matter, the strategic bombing of both Germany and Japan in the Second World War were cases of aggressively non-restrictive ROEs.

Policies are a product of national security decision-making elements, such as the national resources (C.2) of the nation, the ability to generate resources on the scale required. Limits imposed on the war by the policies of the political leadership, limits such as ROEs, are frequently a product of the societal values (C.3) of the nation involved. While North Vietnam could and did make it a matter of policy to use women and children as living bombs, munitions carriers, and even beasts of burden, such policies were never acceptable under American ROEs. And, when abuses happened they were held to be outside the rules and were not approved policy. Also, of primary importance to a national war-effort are societal values, such as national will, the will to win, the will to go the course. Domestic politics, the nature of the political system, and similar values may also be of great importance. Thus, societal values may limit, or expand policy options, contingent upon the value system of the society in question.

Those policies, where the state under examination is a member of an alliance, or a coalition, are subject to influence by allies (E.). In the analysis of strategy you must consider the impact of the views of allies upon the alliance or coalition strategy, where there is an effect. As with the principal power in a war, which may have its own objective for the war, separate and apart from the agreed-to coalition objective, each ally in a coalition may also have its own objective. As a result the objective which we are identifying in the model may be taken, where a power has allies involved, as an agreed-to coalition objective. The national objectives of a country, where they are different, may be imbedded in the policy of the nation whose strategy you are analyzing. By the same token, each ally will have its own objectives imbedded in its policy.

The model articulates the notion that the military decision-making (G.) machinery of the country under consideration makes its input to the objectives (F.) of the war and to the strategic plan (H.). No objective of war is practical if it is beyond the capacity of the military forces in question to realistically carry it out. The military strategy, while it may be largely determined by the political leadership, and even allies’ inputs, must finally be the product of military decision-making.2 It must be, to quote Clausewitz, “a continuation of political activities by other means,” that is, it must aim at the accomplishment of the national or coalition objectives (F.) set by the government or coalition in question. In analyzing military strategy you must always ask if the strategic plan settled upon can accomplish, or at least materially contribute to the accomplishment of, those objectives.

What the military of a country can contribute to accomplishment of an objective is determined by the vision and ideas of the military, that is the capability of the military decision-making (G) apparatus of the country, in particular the military leadership (G.1) of that country. That leadership in turn is driven by the available force structure (G.2), its nature, size, effectiveness, logistics base, and morale. The effectiveness of a nation’s forces (its force structure) is determined by the doctrine (G.3) with which it fights, and the technology (G.4) with which it goes to the field. The model is meant to show that there is continual interplay among the elements of military leadership, doctrine, force structure, and technology, and that each influences, and is in turn influenced by, each of the other factors. Collectively they represent the military decision-making (G.) machinery of a government.

The strategy (H.) itself, by which the threat is addressed, is simply a plan of action for the attainment of the objectives (F.) of the war. A strategic plan (strategy) may have one or more objectives which must be met sequentially, or concurrently, in order to address the threat effectively. Each such objective must be consistent with the objectives of the war, which determine in substantial measure what your strategy for the war will be. Generally, these objectives in a theater of war, or a theater of operations, are the objectives of a campaign plan at the operational level of war. Strategy may be construed as a collection of one or more campaign plans each with its own operational objective or objectives. As a result these campaign objectives are sub-strategic in their character, but they are nonetheless vitally important to understand, since their accomplishment contributes materially and directly to the success or failure of the strategy, and hence the outcome of the war. In analyzing military strategy or a campaign plan, always be sure you identify the objective of that activity and be sure that it contributes to the accomplishment of the war aim (national objectives), as well as that it is something which can be accomplished by military force.

The last element in the model is the execution (I.) of the strategic or operational plan (H.) against the objective of that plan (against the threat [A.]). Analysis of the execution effort requires analysis of the combat operations at the appropriate level of conflict. Often a perfectly sound strategic or operational plan fails because of faulty execution, rather than because the plan is faulty. This is the only really important analytical conclusion to which you must come in order to complete your analysis of a strategy or a campaign plan. When, a little further down the road, we begin to introduce you to evaluation of strategy you will find that you must evaluate both the strategy (“the plan”) and whether or not it was correctly executed. Questions in the evaluation model, such as, “what are the limits of military power?”, lead you to ask about execution. Was it obtainable by military means is another way of reading that question. So keep in mind, that analysis of a strategy is the first step in a rather more complicated process of understanding and becoming comfortable with the study, and later the building, of a military strategy.

If it is necessary to analyze the strategy inputs of allies, you may expand the model to do that. For each ally in the strategic equation, assume that they go through the same process as the central power upon whom your analysis is focused. Thus, each ally will have its own national interests, societal values, and require national resources capable of supporting their own undertakings in war. These factors are inputs to that country’s political leadership, which in turn produces a policy which governs their military and determines their objective. In coalition warfare each member nation must have an objective which is at least not inconsistent with the agreed-to objective of the coalition.

When you begin to use this model for analysis of strategy, there are some methods which will work better for you than others. First, determine what the war objectives (national or coalition objectives) of each side are in the case under examination. Next, look carefully in the text for the strategic plan by which the nation proposes to accomplish its war objectives (national or coalition objectives). Describe that, in writing, with the Collins vocabulary as carefully and fully as you are able. As you read along, watch for changes in strategy.

Then ask yourself whether or not that plan, if correctly executed (I.), will handle the threat and accomplish the war objective. Does it aim at an enemy “centre of gravity,” a vital objective which might produce decisive results? Can such a centre of gravity be reached, and if so by what means? Does the strategic plan accommodate that, or has something been missed? Be careful, for sometimes the objective is not to win, but to avoid defeat, protract the war, or something similar. Next, ask yourself if the force structure, doctrine, and military experience (leadership experience) suggest that they can carry out the strategic plan as adopted.

Look carefully for technological differences, incongruities, and close similarities between the military forces of the two sides in question. If they are identical in technology, similar in type of force structure, and in doctrine, force structure size may become paramount. As Napoleon once noted, “God is on the side of the large battalions.”

Thereafter, you might ask, if you determine that the objectives of the war are either correct, or incorrect, why is it so? What is the role of the political leadership and its policies? Can the economy deliver and sustain the support the strategy requires? Has the leadership and its resulting policies produced an objective consistent with the national interests? Can the objective be accomplished without a serious violation of, or affront to, the societal values?

Finally, you must query the role of any allies in the achievement of the war objective. Will they influence the country under examination adversely or positively? What can they contribute to the plan and effort? Are they a liability rather than an asset? If so, in what manner are they a liability? If they are an asset, what is it they bring to the war? Will they stay the course?

In the final analysis, you must dig into the readings and find the material with which to address each and every one of these factors which you deem applicable. If you will do this in each lesson, and do it in writing, you will master the techniques of analysis of past strategies. This is the first step towards learning how to build current strategic plans conceptually. With these skills mastered, you will be on the way to being able to think about the building of such plans. In point of fact, building a strategic plan against a scenario is far more difficult than analyzing an old strategy. However, these skills are the building blocks of that skill. It is a skill that you will be required to master in the third part of this program.

Remember, you can never read too much on the subject of strategy and war while you are working on these skills, nor while you are working on those strategy building skills in the Planning for Combat course coming later. Good luck.


1. The term nation has been selected for use here after some careful thought about the matter. This term, in this context, is defined as an organized political entity with an effective government in control, and supported by the fundamentals of population, an economy, and sufficient culture to provide a system of societal values. Whether it is Athens of the 5th Century BC., the United Kingdom of the Napoleonic Wars, or the modern United States, they all meet that criteria. It is nothing more than a simple handle for you to use.

2. If you determine that this is not the case, you may have identified a major fault in the strategy of the nation under examination.

3. Karl von Clausewitz On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976, p. 87.10

Reprinted with permission of the author, Dr. James A. Mowbray, Air War College Faculty