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Military Strategic Direction in the UK – Is there another way?

Strategy’s function is to operate like a bridge 1 that “provides a secure connection between the worlds of purpose, which contestably is generally called policy…and its agents and instruments, including the military.”2 Applying the theoretical metaphor to the UK’s MoD, it can be argued that the bridge in the British system is broken. The principal cause of this damaged connection is a conceptual muddle that undermines the MoD’s ability to direct the military purposefully. And the evidence lies in the department’s doctrine and written orders used to convey strategic intent.

The conceptual malfunction is a hierarchical device, influenced by misplaced doctrinal concepts, employed to develop and communicate military strategy. From policy, direction flows through three cascading levels: strategic outcomes, into military strategic objectives (MSO), into strategic effects. From bottom to top, each one is a steppingstone to the next. Achieving effects lead to objectives which lead to outcomes. This hierarchy gives structure to written directives which guide military tactical plans – these being the building blocks of a military strategy. 3To show why this conceptual approach does not “connect policy purposefully with the military…instrument of power and influence,” 4 the article will examine three things: first, the underlying doctrinal shortcomings on the strategic and operational interface. Second, the ineffectiveness of two dominant strategy making concepts: ‘military strategic objectives’ and ‘strategic effects.’  Third, the conflation of strategic outcomes with policy which again draws Head Office away from strategic thinking. Consequently, the MoD struggles to fulfil its purported function as the UK’s strategic HQ.

Part 1 – The levels of war and strategic direction

Underpinning the three-level hierarchical flow of strategic direction lies the MoD’s conception of what is ‘strategic’ vice ‘operational.’ The operational level is understood as a distinct stratum between strategy and tactics. It is “the level…at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives.”5 MoD strategists, therefore, become responsible for devising those strategic objectives and effects from which the operational level can develop operations. Hence, if you are sat at the component or theatre level and are reading a directive from CJO, you will see both strategic (2 up (MoD)) and operational (1 up (CJO)) objectives and effects. The two, in British military thinking, are separate. This is where the problems begin.

 Military strategic objectives don’t exist. Due to the MoD’s doctrinal take on the levels of war, the department believes strategic objectives and effects (emphasis on the plural) exist when they do not. That there can only be tactical objectives – or ‘operational’ which is basically the same – comes down to what strategy is and what it is not. Strategy is an abstraction because “all military behaviour is tactical in execution.” 6The role of strategies is to direct the military instrument to carry out physical operations with the expectation that the aggregate of military action generates the consequences that lead to the policy outcome (our ‘ends’). So, if there is nothing inherently strategic in the physical domain (and I include cyber and information operations in this category which are all forms of tactical activity) then the MoD cannot logically be setting ‘strategic’ objectives. Instead, if one can point to an objective in which there is a physical tactical outcome, it is tactical, and it is these objectives that are the building blocks of strategic ways.

To show how tactical objectives form the basis of a strategy take a post hoc summary of Britain’s Falkland’s War strategy. It comprised the successful attainment of the following tactical objectives: 1. Generate a task group; 2. Establish and hold a maritime exclusion zone; 3. Infiltrate San Carlos waters and insert the landing force ashore; 4. Sustain the landing force; 5. Defeat the Goose Green garrison; and 6. Recapture Port Stanley. It was likely more iterative but the strategy was expressed in discrete tactical plans. There was no military behaviour that was anything other than tactical. The ‘strategic’ bit of this tactical behaviour are the consequences: that Britain controlled the Falkland Islands and the Argentinians did not. As Colin Gray puts it “tactical in the doing, strategic in the meaning” 7(more on this point later).

By having both ‘strategic’ and operational objectives, MoD strategists become reluctant to delve into what is perceived as ‘operational’ matters reserved for PJHQ. Rather than getting to grips with the major tactical steps that are required to achieve the ends, MSOs drift away from tactics. For example, it is common to read, in a directive, MSOs like “deter war (and) promote regional stability,”8or “enhance British leadership.” These are not expressions of tactical behaviour but rather political effects. MSOs then do not do the hard yards of ‘currency conversion’:9 turning policy into action. Using the Falklands example, imagine the consequence of applying the MoD’s current approach to strategic direction. To avoid encroaching upon what are perceived as operational matters (objectives 1-6) the strategist would be left with a single objective: defeat Argentinian forces on the Falkland Islands. There would be no value added by the strategic level because that was the policy. So, for the staff officers and seniors developing and writing strategic direction they must remember one thing: operational or tactical objectives (whichever is used) is the strategists’ business and the MoD should be setting them. Currently, it is not.

Part II – Strategic effect(s) and outcomes

OMSE – more confusion inbound. A recent publication called the Orchestration of Military Strategic Effects (OMSE) 10 put in motion a concept that applies effects-based operations (EBO) doctrine to the strategic level as the step to achieving MSOs. Unfortunately, EBO is being misused and repackaged as OMSE. The MoD’s use of this tactical concept provides escape from intellectual effort, creates swathes of wasted Defence activity, and often misses the opportunity to align means with ways and ends.  First effects-based planning, as demonstrated by the MoD, is easy. All an officer must do is take an MSO of ‘enhancing British leadership’ and service that objective with a panoply of vague effects statements like ‘support allies’ or ‘develop’ partners. This encourages an immensely speculative approach to planning in which it is common to see 15 to 20 ‘effects’ given to a single force element in a directive. So, the strategic direction offers no disciplining function. Second, the resourcing is left wide open to the loosest interpretation. A component commander can choose either to latch a minimal and tokenistic resource to an international exercise or transfer entire formations under command of NATO, and anything in between. Although freely interpreting higher direction can be used positively – in that it encourages the free flow of original ideas that contribute to a strategy – the downside is a free-for-all. The speculative nature of strategic effects terms means myriad military activity can be pinned against a single effect regardless of the activity’s consequential value. Resource is never properly aligned with effects and the concept permits tactical action that is not necessarily in keeping with any golden thread of strategic purpose. In its worst manifestations, the inherent freedom of ‘strategic effects’ give the veneer of purposeful direction to the tactical level but the reality is anything but.

OMSE overlooks consequences. Strategy and thinking strategically is about consequences but this is neglected in the OMSE concept. Understanding consequences is the difference between a strategist and tactician: the former creates favourable consequences from military operations whilst the latter is interested in the successful execution of an operation largely regardless of the consequences. To illustrate the point, take Harry Summers oft-repeated story of an American colonel saying to a North Vietnamese officer: “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ said the American colonel. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. ‘That may be so,’ he replied, ‘but it is also irrelevant.”11  The American is tactically minded, the North Vietnamese colonel strategically so.

By employing OMSE, the MoD focuses on the inputs to a strategy at the expense of the outputs, the consequences. For example, if the UK wants to disrupt militia ‘X’ or support ally ‘Z’, then we are measuring inputs only. What the MoD should be concerned with is whether the combination of effects has achieved policy – the ‘so what.’ However, because of strategic effects’ predominance and the irrelevance of MSOs, the joint HQ and components measure whether they have, for sake of argument, supported an ally enough. But that is irrelevant if said support is not having the desired impact.

To reintroduce the importance of consequences back into the MoD’s psyche, there are two things that should be done. First, recast strategic effects in the singular and as an output – i.e. the net consequences 12 (effect) of all our operations in a given strategic environment.13 The dominant focus on effects (plural and as an input), prevents planners from thinking strategically. Second, by moving strategic effect away from inputs to consequences, it becomes the superordinate step up from objectives. In other words, rather than strategic effects delivering objectives, strategic direction should be restructured the other way around. A strategist in the MoD would therefore focus on designing the objectives (guiding tactical action) with the aim of realising those favourable consequences, strategic effect, that create the policy outcome required. This would leave the application of EBO to the tactical level and sharpen thinking.

‘Strategic outcomes’ – policy restated, again. The problem with the strategic outcome to policy logic flow is that the relationship between the two is false. Rather than beginning the process of translating policy into actionable direction, the two levels overlap in which policy – not strategy – is restated in a different guise. Take a recent unclassified case study, the Ministry of Defences Outcome Delivery Plan 2021-22, that shows this blurring between the two strata. The document’s outcomes are: 1. Protect the UK and its overseas territory; and 2. enhance global security through persistent engagement and response to crisis. The blurring between outcome and policy is clear. These outcomes merely restate the fundamental necessity of government: security – the highest form of policy. Should the reader look at any similar classified strategic level OSW, they would find the same issue multiple times over. If the MoD cannot determine what is policy, then it will struggle to develop a strategy. When outcomes and policy are blurred it does very little for the clear articulation of strategic intent. The concept should be deleted altogether for simplicity and clarity of thought.

Part III – Conclusion: So what? And is there another way?

Within its own written orders and doctrine lies evidence that MoD’s strategy function is ineffective. The use of MSOsreveals a misunderstanding of what strategy is. It is done by tactics and, as such, the strategist’s responsibility is to articulate those tactical objectives that create favourable conditions for policy. There should be no concern about stepping on the operational level’s toes. Instead, the MoD thinks of MSOs as something ethereal and non-tactical and, as a result, they are not useful. The concept of strategic effects makes the most egregious error. It is not ‘strategic’ because it draws the institution to focus on the individual effects not the aggregated consequences of such effects. And the use of effects lexicon is too broad to be useful in aligning ways and means. The MoD is concentrating on the wrong thing. Finally, as the MoD’s edifice of strategic direction moves further from providing tactical direction, strategic outcomes suffer a similar fate echoing the policy. Put together, the whole approach hampers the MoD from “impos(ing) discipline upon the choices advertised and advocated.”14 The strategy bridge weakens, UK Defence loses sight of what it is trying to achieve and how, with wasted effort generated at the tactical levels. As that connection falters between policy and military instrument there is a real risk that much is done in the name of the MoD’s ‘strategy’ but without any clear idea as to whether it is useful. At best, the MoD, that should be the ‘designated strategist’, ‘merely acts as the sponsor of operational commanders.’15 That is not strengthening the strategy bridge.

What needs to change? There are two potential routes for change. The first option is conceptual and procedural – and achievable with the right resource – the second is structural but harder to realise. To start, the MoD could change how it understands, teaches, formulates, and communicates strategy. It should do away with the notion that there are ‘strategic’ objectives and effects (plural) in favour of directing operational/tactical objectives with the aim of creating net strategic effect (singular) – i.e., the favourable consequences necessary for policy success. On one hand, this offers the MoD simplification removing the entire broken, complicated, and unwieldy multi-layered structure of strategic direction in favour of a leaner approach. On the other hand, this increases the burden of intellectual thinking on MoD strategists and forces the institution to cease hiding behind the ambiguity of the current concept. This poses a question: is the MoD even up to the task of being the strategic HQ? If ‘yes’, then adopt the changes above and we may be closer to having a strategic HQ worthy of that name. If the answer is ‘no’, for whatever reason, then the MoD will forever remain merely a sponsor of operational activity and a department that deals in policy only. It would then have to acknowledge the need for structural change and move the strategic HQ function somewhere else. The issue, for the MoD, is where.

David H

David is a Naval Service Officer with experience working in the MoD, along with joint and naval operational experience.


  1. C. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, (Oxford: OUP 2010), p. 29-30.
  2. ibid
  3. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, pp. 29-30.
  4. ibid
  5. AJP 3 sourced in: UK MoD, Joint Doctrine Publication 01: UK Joint Operations Doctrine, p. 37.
  6. Gray, The Future of Strategy, 47.
  7. ‘The operational level does not exist,’ from This Means War Podcast, 1 Dec 2022.
  8. Milevski argues that these objectives are political and behavioural in nature. See L. Milevski, “Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 4, Fall 2012, pages 4-7.
  9. ibid
  10. UK MoD, The Orchestration of Military Strategic Effects, (Shrivenham: DCDC, Jan 2021).
  11. Winning Battles, Losing Wars By Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik U.S. Army retired in The Institute for the study of war at Winning Battles, Losing Wars | Institute for the Study of War (understandingwar.org)
  12. See H. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy, (Kansas: US Army War College, 2006) and Gray, The Strategy Bridge, 167-190 for the most complete theoretical explanation of strategic effect.
  13. H. Yarger, Strategic Theory for the 21st Century: The Little Book on Big Strategy, (Kansas: US Army War College, 2006): pp. 17-19.
  14. Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect, p. 58.
  15. ibid

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