My rather immodest, or even arrogant endeavour with this piece is to redefine strategy from the perspective of changes that have occurred in modern times.
To begin, I will quote the famous phrase by Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The story of Stuxnet and Iran illustrates this point perfectly.
Since February 2003, when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced that his government intended to extract uranium from the Saghand mine to aid its nuclear fuel production, Iran became a hotbed for targeted espionage attacks. Despite Iran’s nuclear strategy beginning in the 1950s, when they signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement as part of the United States Atom for Peace program, it had gone on for so long without failure. Their strategy was so successful that after the UN Security Council imposed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in June 2010, President Ahmadinejad openly boasted that the sanctions were “a used handkerchief that should be thrown in the dustbin” and they were not “capable of harming Iranians.”
Perhaps President Ahmadinejad had considered all the land and economic factors from his standpoint, considering the multiple reasons why a military action in Iran was potentially not an option. The terrible effects it could have on the Non-Proliferation Treaty for one, or maybe even kill hopes for rapprochement between Tehran and Washington and put in danger the safe passage of energy from the Strait of Hormuz, leading to a massive increase in the cost of a barrel of oil.
These three factors are just a few of the hundreds of things that could have potentially gone wrong with military action in Iran. Perhaps some of these factors might have led to this powerful proclaimed feeling of infallibility. However, here are two of the major problems with strategy: 1. There is no way to test if a defined strategy is good or not until examining the results from its application. 2. The strength of the enemy can only be assumed.
In June 2010, Stuxnet was detected on Iranian computers. Stuxnet was a 500-kilobyte computer worm that infiltrated numerous computer systems. The worm infiltrated the machines and continued to replicate itself. It then gained access to the industrial program logic controllers. Many strategic experts later described the use of Stuxnet in this case as one of the first weaponized computer operations in history. Although Iran never released specific details regarding the attack’s impact, it is estimated that Stuxnet destroyed 984 uranium-enriching centrifuges, leading to an estimated 30% decrease in enrichment efficiency. Stuxnet crippled the Iranian nuclear mission at that point, forcing Iran back to the negotiation table with the UN General Security Council in September 2010.
From Iran’s experience, two things were not considered: the changing availability of machinery and the changing political landscape as to what will be considered within appetite and what would not. Iran had a strategy until it was hit by an unexpected approach. Tying this into Colin Gray’s very apt summary of what makes a strategy successful, “to succeed in the strategy one does not have to be distinguished or even particularly competent. All that is required is performing well enough to beat an enemy. One does not have to win elegantly; One just has to win”.
Hence my attempt to define strategy below:
Strategy is “an attempt to create a roadmap of what the best course of action to take is, considering factors within and beyond one’s control including changing political, economic and machinery of all kinds alongside the availability of resources, uncertainty of the perceived strength of the enemy and overall objectives in order to WIN and attain VICTORY. If a strategy of any kind leads to one’s loss, regardless of how compact or failproof it might appear to be, it becomes a flawed and failed approach.”
Unlike Clauswitz and other know scholars of strategy, I strongly believe that there is pretty much only one way to test if a strategy is good or not within a particular set of circumstances. That is victory. However, one of the reasons why history exists is the ability to teach failings from the past, so it does not happen again. Perhaps studying multiple failed strategies would give some insight into what has failed in the past, under what circumstances had they failed, and a correlation to what strategy is currently being proposed. For example, during WW1, Britain had suffered considerable casualties on the British front when they tried to exploit their gains. They had given tanks and another motorized infantry an autonomous role on the battlefield. They were able to advance more rapidly, but this undermined the commander’s ability to coordinate all the forces under his control. By 1918, Britain recorded some massive successes by revisiting this strategy and making tanks and other mobile machinery be used in coordination with both infantry and artillery.
This experience, of course, might be considered as redefining what victory actually means. Maybe victory can be seen from perspectives different from just the overall defeat of the enemy. Perhaps victory could be measured by both the overall defeat of the enemy and other non-static metrics such as how many of the defined objectives were achieved? How much people and machinery power were lost against what size and capacity of the enemy? Would losing a significant army proportion also be considered a victory? A case in point for this is the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939. Although the Soviet forces achieved victory, 450,000 soviets with approximately 4000 planes and 6000 tanks and armoured vehicles were stopped by 180,000 Finnish troops operating 130 outdated aircraft and 30 armoured vehicles. Although the soviets eventually won the war, it had cost them nearly 130,000 lives, with another 270,000 troops wounded and captured. Would that be considered a victorious strategy that should be replicated?
In order to effectively study strategy, it is important to use a variety of tools and methods to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject. One of the most important tools for studying strategy is the use of historical analysis. Examining past strategies, both successful and unsuccessful, can provide valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, as well as the conditions under which they were implemented. This may help in identifing patterns and trends that can inform the development of new strategies.
Another important tool for studying strategy is the use of theoretical frameworks and models. These can help to organize and structure the analysis of different strategies, providing a framework for understanding the underlying principles and concepts that are at play. For example, Clausewitz’s theory of war can provide a useful lens for understanding the role of strategy in military conflict, while game theory can help to understand the strategic interactions between different actors.
In addition to historical analysis and theoretical frameworks, it is also important to use quantitative methods to study strategy in modern times. This includes the use of statistical analysis and data modelling to understand the relationships between different variables and to make predictions about future outcomes. This can help to identify trends and patterns in the data, and to test hypotheses about the effectiveness of different strategies. The importance of simulations and war games can in no way be overemphasized. These can provide a safe and controlled environment for testing different strategies and for training military personnel and other decision-makers. This allows for practice in a controlled environment and allows for the testing of different strategies and actions.
Finally, it is also important to engage in ongoing monitoring and evaluation of strategies as they are implemented. This can help to identify areas of success and failure, and to make necessary adjustments to the strategy in order to optimize its effectiveness. This could be done through regular reporting, feedback and monitoring activities.
Overall, studying strategy is a complex and multifaceted task that requires a combination of different tools and methods. By using a combination of historical analysis, theoretical frameworks, quantitative methods, simulations, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation, it is possible to gain a comprehensive understanding of the subject and to develop effective strategies for achieving goals and objectives.
While overall victory is a crucial method to study the success of a particular implemented strategy, it should not stand alone. Other moving factors as described above should be considered when defining what victory means. However, my key argument remains that for strategy to be considered “good” in any form that may appear to be, it must in fact lead to victory.