Can Strategy Be Reduced to a Formula of S = E + W + M?


Having returned to the Joint Services Command and Staff College in 2012 after a seven-year absence, changes to the teaching of strategy struck me strongly. While I was happy to see a renewed enthusiasm for the study of this important subject, I have been somewhat worried by a tendency to simplify what is a complicated process. All too often, it seems that in many Western professional military education institutions ‘strategy’ and ‘strategy formation’ have been largely reduced to a simple formula of ‘ends, ways, and means.’ In other words, strategy is about ensuring that the appropriate means were available to achieve the ends (or goals) with the ‘ways’ being the path connecting them.

The renewed focus of strategy is both laudable and understandable. For some time, there has been a sense that the West, and Britain in particular, ‘doesn’t do strategy’ or ‘doesn’t understand strategy.’ Indeed, the issue was the subject of session of the UK House of Commons’ Public Administration Select Committee and reorganization within the UK Government and Ministry of Defence after the general election of 2010 was designed to address perceived institutional weaknesses in strategy formation.

A new focus on teaching strategy is also a result of this unease. However, where has this strategic formula of ends, ways, means come from? From what I can determine, it was developed, or at least popularized, by Col. Arthur F. Lyyke, Jr., US Army (Ret.), while he was teaching at the US Army War College in the 1980s and 1990s. Having lectured on the subject for a number of years, Lyyke published his concept in the May 1989 issue of Military Review entitled ‘Defining Military Strategy = E + W+ M’ and later in a 1993 US Army War College publication Military Strategy: Theory and Application (a 2001 edition of which can be found here). Lyyke drew his inspiration from a number of sources. First, he wrote that Gen Maxwell Taylor mentioned the basics of the formula in a 1981 War College lecture. He also drew on the well-known British military theorist, B.H. Liddell Hart. In his 1954 book, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, Liddell Hart also uses the terms ‘ends’ and ‘means’ in a similar fashion to Lyyke. Liddell Hart, in turn, attributes this formula to Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, one of the 19th century’s greatest strategists. The British theorist quoted Moltke’s definition of strategy as ‘the practical adaptation of the means placed at a general’s disposal to the attainment of the objective in view.’ Liddell Hart did not footnote his quotation from Moltke. This is unfortunate because I can find this quotation nowhere in the published works of Moltke. It is unclear if Liddell Hart, who did not read German, was paraphrasing or was quoting from a poor English translation of Moltke’s works.

It is a shame we don’t have a source for Liddell Hart’s quotation, as Moltke took a very different view of strategy than that presented by Lykke and Liddell Hart. In this light, it is worth quoting Moltke the Elder’s definition of strategy, because this shows the complexity of the process of strategy formation in contrast to the simple formula advocated by Lyyke. In his essay ‘On Strategy,’ originally written in 1871, Moltke wrote: ‘Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than science: It is the application of thought to practical life; the development of the original guiding concept according to continually changing circumstances; it is the art of action under the pressure of the most difficult circumstances.’

In the same essay, Moltke developed this idea of uncertainty in strategy formulation further. He wrote: ‘The commander, undisturbed by changes to his situation, will always keep his eye firmly on the highest objectives. However, the way these goals will be achieved can never be determined with any certainty in advance. Throughout the whole of the campaign, he will have to make a series of decisions based on conditions that could not be foreseen. All the acts of the war follow from each other, not through some preordained plan, but rather through spontaneous events dictated by the outcome of military operations. It is essential for him see through the fog of uncertainty that surrounds situations, to see things clearly, to guess the unknown in order to make a decision quickly and then to carry this out forcefully and without distraction.’

There is something seductive about Lykke’s S = E + W + M formula: it is certainly easy to learn, if not always to apply. However, I fear that it seriously oversimplifies what is a complex process. As Sir Lawrence Freedman has most recently pointed out in his new study on the topic, strategy is more than simply a plan – strategy is a process. Freedman again touches on this in a recent War On the Rock‘s blog post, where he explains uncertainty inherent in strategic planning. Conflict is interactive. In war, the enemy gets a vote and as history has shown repeatedly the best plans run afoul of enemy counter-moves. Indeed, as we have seen, Moltke believed that the strategist had to redraw constantly the path to his goals in response to enemy action and unforeseeable events. In 1866 and in 1870/71, Moltke had also experienced first hand how political goals changed during the course of a war, which again necessitated change in strategy. Moltke would never have advocated strategy as a simple formula of S = E + W + M so why should we? Strategy can no more be a formula than war can be a science.

Image from: Joseph R. Cerami and James F. Holcomb, Jr., eds. US Army War College Guide to Strategy (February 2001) p.182.

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