Military Strategy 101

Strategy has four fundamental characteristics: defined ends; interdependent interaction between all involved; it is an idea, the ‘ways’ in ends, ways and means; and it has a life cycle. They are all evident in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa at the end of WWII.

Originally published in Engage: Naval Warfare Officer's Association Journal, Vol. 16, Spring 2017, pp. 18-26. Access here.

'Strategy' confuses many. At its core however, it's just a way to solve certain kinds of problems. Strategy’s big idea – and its big attraction - is that it offers the possibility of shaping events rather than being shaped by them.

This article discusses small ‘s’ strategy rather than solely examining a specific big ‘S’ historical example. Such an approach allows consideration of aspects of strategy common to all, that can be used later in solving strategy problems of your own whether devising new ones or critiquing old ones – and we’ll do just that with Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, the largest joint service amphibious assault of the Pacific War.

The article aims to clarify the idea of strategy not make it more mystifying. Making successful strategies is by no means easy particularly when time is short and demands many. The task is not made easier if you’re unsure what strategy is.

Four Fundamental Characteristics

Strategy is simply a methodology that can be used to solve specific types of problems. Other methods are better for other types of problems as we’ll discuss later. This is an instrumental view of strategy but it highlights that strategy has a practical purpose for practical people.

The type of problems that strategy is intended for are those where an objective – an endpoint - can be defined. The strategy adopted may not succeed but the intention is to achieve this desired outcome. In the case of using military force, Western thinking since Carl von Clausewitz has stressed that this is used to achieve political outcomes; “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it…”.[1]

The objective in a strategy (as specifically relates to armed conflict) is accordingly best expressed in terms of politics. The field of politics between states has been examined for decades within the academic discipline of International Relations. Its language, concepts and theories developed over many years can be used to assist defining the ends of a strategy.

There was an important modifier articulated by British strategist Basil Liddell-Hart who held that the aim of war should be a better peace.[2] When fighting ceased, you should be better, not worse, off. Accordingly your political object is not just the return to the status quo ante as this led to the war in the first place. War then aims at the peace beyond, not the war in itself. Clausewitz noted: “The political object…will thus determine…the military objective to be reached…”.[3] Achieving the military objective is a stepping-stone to the political end, not an end in itself.

In recent years, Western states have had great difficulty in defining the desired endpoints of various conflicts entered into. Strategy as a problem-solving tool is however, inappropriate if you cannot.

In this, the desired endpoint depends on the context. As the old saw declares, the enemy gets a vote. This highlights the second fundamental characteristic of strategy: it involves interacting with intelligent and adaptive others, whether friends, neutrals or adversaries. This social interaction though is of a particular kind.

Each party involved continuously modifies their position, intent and actions based on the perceptions and actions of the others participating. Here the arcane world of game theory has something useful to say. These interactions “…are essentially bargaining situations…in which the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent …on the choices or decisions the other participant will make.”[4]

In operation a strategy constantly evolves in response to the other actors implementing their own countervailing or supportive strategies. Edward Luttwak termed this “the paradoxical logic of strategy” where successful actions cannot be repeated as the other party adapts in response to ensure the same outcome cannot be gained in this way again.[5] Strategy is simply a particular form of interactive social activity where victory comes from bargaining with those involved.

This attribute reveals the difference between a strategy and a plan. The objects of a strategy actively try to implement their own strategies, changing and evolving as necessary to thwart efforts made to impede them. In a strategy all involved are actively seeking their own ends. In contrast, in a plan all involved are working towards the same objective, they do not have their own countervailing goals. Plans are not “essentially bargaining situations”.

And so to the third fundamental characteristic of strategy: it’s just an idea. To discuss this, and extend the debate it is useful to examine the scope of strategy as encompassed in a simple oft-used model.

Art Lykke deconstructed the art of strategy into ends, ways and means where the ‘ends’ are the objectives, the ‘ways’ are the courses of actions and the ‘means’ are the instruments of national power (in this article mainly in the form of military power).[6] The ‘means’ are used in certain ‘ways’ to achieve specific ‘ends’. All three parts are important albeit some err in trying to simplify this even further.

Some conceive strategy as being solely a balance between ends and means; “strategy is simple: it is the process by which a state matches ends to means.”[7] In the industrial era, victory then seemingly resided with having great mechanised forces; in today’s information technology era, victory seemingly resides with having great information technology (to get inside other’s OODA loops no less). In this perspective, great means leads directly to great victories.

Historically however, nations with great means have often found it surprisingly difficult to convert these into achieving their desired ends.[8] Given its great means, the U.S. should have been able to readily achieve its objectives in Afghanistan after 2001, in Iraq after 2003 or indeed in the 1960-70s in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The outcomes actually achieved suggest strategy is more than the simple balancing of ends and means. The ways also need deep consideration. Sir Lawrence Freedman nicely phrases this in observing that strategy is “about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.” [9]

Good strategy involves an astute course of action, a shrewd ‘way’, that is additive to the available power; the impact of the means is then magnified. In contrast, poor strategy subtracts from the available means; it destroys the power you have. This might all be simplified into Ends = Ways + Means albeit it is essential to recall the inherent impossibility of actually summing unlike objects.

The formula highlights that if a strategy fails it may not be solely due to inadequate means; there could be shortcomings in the way the means are used as well. If the means are meagre, the ends may still be achievable through using the means in more clever ways without needing to adjust the ends downwards. Freedman continues that such: “underdog strategies, in situations where the starting balance of power would predict defeat, provide the real tests of creativity. Such strategies often look to the possibility of success through the application of a superior intelligence which takes advantage of the boring, ponderous, muscle-bound approach by those who take their superior resources for grant.”[10]

Strategy is then the ‘ways’ in Lykke’s formula. It sets out the causal path to victory. Strategy explains how the means will be used in terms of how this leads to the defined political objective. Strategy is an idea but one with a defined purpose.

Extending this, and a look back at Ends=Ways+Means, highlights that ways and means and ends are directly related. A single way doesn’t lead to all possible ends, the way used needs to be related to the ends sought.

The final characteristic is one that is often neglected: strategies have a finite life. There is sometimes a perception strategies are simply set-and-forget, that once started continue unchanged for an indefinite but protracted period. This is a serious misunderstanding; strategies should remain dynamic throughout their life.

A strategy fundamentally involves interacting with intelligent others, all seeking their own objectives. A strategy as first conceived will inevitably decline in effectiveness and efficiency over time as others take actions that oppose it, either deliberately or unintentionally. Moreover, the complex environment within which the strategies operate remains continually evolving and changing; strategies cannot remain static.

Strategies should be continually adjusted to meet the ever-changing circumstances. In this way, they then have a distinct life cycle: strategies arise, are purposefully evolved through learning and then at some point finish. A strategy may finish when it reaches its desired objective although, an earlier termination may be as likely given a strategy is characterised by interaction with intelligent and adaptive others. Minor adjustments may only go so far to address steadily changing situations and eventually the extant strategy may reach a point at which its utility is less than its costs.[11]

Clausewitz’s notion of a culminating point captures this idea.[12] At some time in its life cycle a strategy will reach a culminating point where it has achieved the greatest effect for the effort expended. Beyond this point greater efforts will yield diminishing effects and bring only marginally greater benefits.

There are two broad alternatives when a strategy reaches its culminating point. The strategy may be terminated, with a careful transition to a replacement strategy or some other approach. Conversely, the strategy may be continued if there are reasonable expectations it will still achieve the desired objectives. The focus may then shift to optimising the strategy’s effectiveness and efficiency to shift its culminating point further into the future.

These then are the four fundamental characteristics of strategy: there are defined ends; it is all about interdependent interaction between all involved; it is simply an idea, the ‘ways’ in ends, ways and means; and it has a life cycle, it arises, evolves through learning and finishes.

These characteristics define what kind of problems strategy is suited to addressing. The most fundamental is the ‘ends’. If you cannot define an objective with sufficient clarity then using strategy as a problem-solving tool is impractical. In such circumstances, better approaches might be those that don’t try to shape the future but instead respond to events.

An example is risk management that tries to limit the losses incurred if some specific feared risk eventuates. This is the logic of the view that perceives defence forces as insurance policies to be ‘cashed in’ if national security is seriously threatened. Another is opportunism: where states take advantage of events, of sudden windows of opportunity. Both are valid approaches if ends cannot be reasonably defined. They both require having the right means available at the right time as to be able to adequately respond to specific events.

To mention a current situation, a strategy might be an appropriate approach to defeat a specific terrorist group like Islamic State; sensible ‘ends’ might be able to be devised. However, if you hold the view terrorism is a tactic any hostile non-state group could potentially use in the future then, lacking specificity in ends, risk management – that is trying to minimise the impact terrorism might have at some future time – becomes the more sensible approach.

Operation Iceberg – Capturing Okinawa

In the second half of the article we’ll use some of the terminology and concepts elaborated in discussing an example of strategy in practice: the three month capture of the Japanese island of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Island chain, the largest amphibious operation of the Second World War. Its possibility had been a feature of American war plans since 1906.

When the Russo-Japanese war (1904-06) ended, President Theodore Roosevelt inaugurated what became War Plan Orange – a future American war against Japan. Plan Orange went through many iterations as the context evolved, Japanese force structure changed and new technologies emerged. Even so, the basic strategy remained the same: a push across the central Pacific, capturing various well-placed islands as fleet bases including in the Ryukyu Island chain and culminating in severing Japan’s sea lines of communications. A negotiated peace was assumed to then shortly follow.

This was a vision of unlimited economic war where the USN would straggle Japan, bring about “complete commercial isolation” leading to “eventual impoverishment and exhaustion.” There are echoes here of Operation Anaconda, were the USN straggled Confederate merchant trade, This is unsurprising as in 1906 that was the big war that USN planners remembered and looked back to for guidance.[13]

The strategy was continually refined in numerous war games and entered the DNA of the USN’s (and USMC’s) officer corps. Capability and capacity development was driven by the demands of the envisaged trans-oceanic strategy particularly in terms of developing a fleet train including refuelling at sea. Major General Ben Hodge, commander of the XXIV Army Corps at Okinawa, referred to the battle as “90% logistics and 10% fighting.”[14] Of equal import was the USMC’s concentration on developing the tactical expertise, doctrine and technology for opposed landings; in the interwar period this focus was unique amongst major powers.[15]

When the Plan was eventually required after Pearl Harbor, US forces to a considerable extent simply needed expanding albeit the Japanese was a clever enemy and the strategy needed constant adjustment. Admiral Chester Nimitz, for the invasion Commander-In-Chief Pacific Fleet, famously stated that the war unfolded just as the Plan Orange war games had predicted.[16] This might be overstating matters a little in the specific case of the invasion of Okinawa.

The USN was surprised by the Kamikazes, the manned forerunner of the modern anti-ship missile, that sank more than 30 ships and damaged another 350 or so. Moreover, the logistics supply train was stretched to the limit because of conflicting demands elsewhere in the Pacific and Europe. Some consider the consequent supply shortages contributed to the battle being protracted with subsequently high US causalities.

The US Army and USMC land force units were similarly surprised that Japanese forces adopted a strategy of defence in depth rather than the previously employed ‘bamboo spear’ tactics that used nocturnal Banzai charges and beachhead defence efforts.[17] The adversary had learned and now inflicted more casualties. On the other hand Japanese forces were surprised that US land forces rarely attacked at night as the Japanese found this hard to counter.[18]

At the higher strategic level matters were somewhat more confused. The Navy focussed on implementing Plan Orange albeit without a compelling causal path that explained how Japan losing control of the sea would necessarily lead to victory. Regardless, by the Okinawa invasion the USN submarine fleet, combined with airborne mining and maritime air attacks, had achieved virtual sea dominance. While the original strategy called for the Ryukyu Islands to be taken, technological developments had made the invasion arguably unnecessary if the original economic warfare ‘way’ held. In the Navy’s defence however, at the time its leaders argued that strangling Japan would lead to a negotiated peace – not an unconditional surrender – and only after a long time.[19]

The US Army’s ‘way’ to gain victory was based upon a large-scale battle to defeat the Japanese Army on the Tokyo plains, impose their will upon the enemy and achieve an unconditional surrender. Clausewitzian in approach, the Japanese Imperial Army thought the same – except they would win the large-scale battle, the American public would lose interest and give up. The US Army did need the Ryukyu Islands captured to turn into a forward mounting base to support such a ‘way’, now anticipated to possibly cost 1.7 - 4 million American casualties, including 400,000 - 800,000 killed, and five to ten million Japanese deaths. Many Americans, including the President, lacked enthusiasm for this.[20]

The USAAF’s ‘way’ to gain victory was different again. Air power would destroy Japan’s ability and will to resist. By the Okinawa invasion the USAF was undertaking large-scale city raids, having to divert bombers from this to provide tactical support for Operation Iceberg. The USAAF did not need the Ryukyu Islands captured for their strategy.[21] The USAAF strategy was no easy path to victory. American and Japanese studies estimated some 500,000 Japanese died (including the two atomic attacks) albeit there is robust disagreement over totals.

In the end, two atomic bombs made a Japanese home island invasion unnecessary. They addressed the Plan Orange strategy’s defect of how to translate maritime trade strangulation into a quick surrender. At least, the Japanese emperor believed the bombs were decisive. In his speech to the Japanese people he declared that the: “cruel bombs…kill and maim extremely large numbers… To continue the war further could lead in the end to…the extermination of our race….[surrendering] would open the way for a great peace...”.[22]

Even so, Operation Iceberg cost 12,000 American’s killed, 110,000 Japanese military deaths and around 100,000 Okinawan’s killed (mostly civilian). The invasion was necessary for victory only if the Army ‘way’ was accepted.

On the other hand, some argue that such losses made clear to American military and political leaders that invading the home islands would be a most difficult operation. The benefits of unconditional surrender - like achieved against Germany halfway into Operation Iceberg – started to look less appealing when weighed against the potential costs. A negotiated peace became more attractive and this was explicitly offered in the Potsdam Deceleration on 26 July 1945, which included a subtle implication that the Emperor might be retained.[23]

You’ll recall we determined there are the four fundamental characteristics of strategy: it has defined ends; it is all about interdependent interaction between all involved; it is simply an idea, the ‘ways’ in ends, ways and means; and it has a life cycle, it arises, evolves through learning and finishes.

While Plan Orange outlined the way Japan would be defeated it was vague about the better peace that would result. There were no thoughts of dismemberment with more a fuzzy understanding that the negotiated victory would reintegrate a now-peaceful Japan into the regional economic system. By the time the Pacific War started though, America and Great Britain had agreed in the 1941 Atlantic Charter to a relatively well-defined better peace that would result.

In the language of the International Relations discipline this was a vision of an institutionalised peace that bought order, prosperity and legitimacy.[24] Reminiscent of today’s rules-based order ‘better peace’, the institutionalised peace sought was different in being built around people being free to decide their governments themselves. In contrast the rules-based order advocated today holds authoritarian states as equal to democracies.

War Plan Orange was weak on what happened in the end-game, which partly explains why the Navy, Army and Air Force drifted into seemingly fighting separate wars albeit assisting each other as needs be. The strategic ‘ends’ were not closely integrated with the strategic ‘ways’ and this became progressively more troublesome as American forces neared Japan.

The accidental atomic victory proved congruent with the desired ends. The Plan Orange strategy morphed into one that aimed to guide Japan’s recovery towards mutually acceptable outcomes.[25] The Plan Orange strategy finished but there was another waiting in the wings to replace it.[26]

The other characteristics of strategy can be realised in our discussion: the strategy evolved under wartime demands; the strategies in play were simply ideas and there were several competing as Plan Orange ran out of steam and its lack of a compelling causal path to victory became apparent, and the Plan Orange strategy had a definite life cycle.

Strategy is an intellectual tool to solve certain types of problems – but not all. The four fundamental characteristics discussed provide the bare bones on which to build. Making strategy is important and consequential in time of both peace and war, as Operation Iceberg revealed. Moreover, it drives force development, doctrine and tactics. As Clausewitz realised, strategy is fundamental to victory, the ultimate purpose of a nation’s armed forces.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.

[1]. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 605.

[2]. B.H.Liddell-Hart, On Strategy, 2nd revised edn, London: Faber and Faber, 1967, p 338.

[3]. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War: Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 81.

[4]. Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict; New York: A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press 1963, p. 5.

[5]. Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace; Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1987, p. 7-65.

[6]. Jr. Arthur F. Lykke, Military Strategy: Theory and Application; Carlisle: U.S. Army War College, 1989, p. 3-9. Harry R. Yarger, 'Toward a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model', in Jr. J. Boone Bartholomees (ed.), U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy; Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, June 2006, pp.

[7]. Christopher Layne, 'Rethinking American Grand Strategy: Hegemony or Balance of Power in the Twenty-First Century?', World Policy Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer 1998, pp. 8-28, p. 8.

[8]. Critics of this power-as-resources model decry this as a ‘vehicle fallacy’. David Macdonald, 'The Power of Ideas in International Relations', in Nadine Godehardt and Dirk Nabers (eds.), Regional Powers and Regional Orders; Abingdon: Routledge, 2011, pp. 33-48, p. 34.

[9]. Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. xii.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. A strategy may though also reach such a point of diminishing returns because of poor implementation not just due to the original conception losing effectiveness.

[12]. For Clausewitz an offensive strategy continued until it could no longer advance and then the strategy needed to transition to the defensive. Clausewitz, op.cit., p. 528.

[13]. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897-1945, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991, p.28

[14]. Major General Ben Hodge, April 12, 1945, Interview with LTC Stevens, Army Historical Division, National Archives College Park.

[15]. Williamson Murray and Alan R. Millet (eds), Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.59

[16]. Miller, op.cit, p.2

[17]. G. Vance Corbett, Operation Iceberg: Campaigning In The Ryukyus, Newport: Naval War College, 1998, p.10

[18]. ibid., p.22

[19]. Miller, op.cit, pp. 366-368

[20]. Figures from a study undertaken for Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, New York: Random House, 1999, p.5

[21]. Haywood S. Hasell, Strategic Air War Against Japan, Alabama, Air War College, 1980, p, 91

[22]. Emperor Hirohito’s speech of 15 August 1945 quoted in John Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II, London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 36

[23]. Akira Iriye, Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 1941-1945, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981, pp 248-264

[24]. Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005, p.5

[25]. Iriye, op.cit., p.266-267

[26]. Dower, op.cit., pp. 65-84


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