Strategic studies

This issue of Militært Tidsskrift [Military Journal], the quarterly journal published by the Society for War Science in Denmark, is dedicated to presenting the MA-level teaching and research in strategy that takes place at the Royal Danish Defence College (RDDC). Strategy in the contemporary context of national defence is not merely a term that encompasses traditional military strategy which articulates military objectives, concepts and resources within the domain of military conflict.


Strategy is a multi-layered instrument encompassing political-administrative, military and diplomatic practices of translating political visions into plans for how to pursue security interests. Strategy in general is based on political visions such as that of transforming Danish defence from a mobilization force to an expeditionary force. This involves changing focus from defending national territory from invasion to the defence of Western values against aggressors that use violence to undermine their impact. Similarly, strategy concerns initiatives such as the plans for reorienting the Danish armed forces from concentrating on integration into NATO defence structures on the basis of geostrategic interests towards focusing on integration into NATO, UN and EU security structures on the basis of political-normative worldviews. Strategies do not belong to the realm of academic ivory towers or to the detailed series of battles entailed in a campaign plan. Instead, our theoretical starting point is that they belong to the realm of feasible paths to enhanced state security.

The teaching and research that takes place at the Royal Danish Defence College aim at contributing to conceptual development and practical applicability. A close relationship exists between our research projects and the Senior Joint Staff Course for officers that are trained to occupy top management positions in the armed forces. The Research Group on Strategy involves staff from across the RDDC, including the Institute for Strategy, the Institute for Military Operations, the Institute for Management and Organization and the Center for Advanced Land Operations. The work of the group is based on ideas developed in the courses offered to our students and on debates between researchers at the college and discussions with guests from other institutions. Similarly, seminars, teaching and discussions on military strategy at the college have resulted in research products and in revisions to our curriculum on strategy, which constitutes one third of the compulsory elements of the Senior Joint Staff Course. Some of our ideas on strategy have also been presented in external forums such as the US Pacific Command in Honolulu and the Academy of Military Science in Beijing. The close interplay between students, staff and external institutions and partners on strategic studies increases the level at which strategy is taught at the college and it enhances the usefulness of research for all groups involved in strategic studies. The articles in this issue reflect some of these efforts.

Conceptual development of strategy is carried out with a view to the needs of national defence and the usefulness for teaching officers how to formulate and implement strategies. In other words, strategic thinking at RDDC focuses on practical applicability. These objectives entail a critical and constructive approach to conventional approaches to strategy with a view to developing strategic concepts that are suitable in a Danish security context. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that the military and its planning processes tend to take over the ends, ways and means adopted in theatres. Sometimes, this is an inherent part of the strategic planning process from the start. At other times, the military gradually comes to dominate processes of strategic planning because implementation is mostly left to military personnel. As a consequence, the contributions of civilian agencies such as diplomatic missions, non-governmental organizations and private companies tend to be crowded out. In addition, the link between the political visions agreed at the governmental and alliance level on the one hand and implementation in theatres on the other hand could be broken.

The risk of decoupling political guidance from on-the-ground strategic planning invests operations with a life of their own. This is the case in terms of utilizing capabilities and finding sources of legitimacy that are often unrelated to the mandate originally given to operations by governments and international society. The upside to these characteristics of post-Cold War operations is the inherent flexibility that comes with leaving greater authority in the hands of those operating at theatre level. At this level, swift adjustments to changes in the local context of operations are much easier to make than at higher levels where divergent political commitments often result in objectives that originate from political compromises rather than rational means-ends calculations. The downside could be the lack of popular consent to alterations in the objectives and instruments of operations. Equally problematic is the tendency for the detailed planning processes of the military to dominate processes of strategy formulation and implementation in practice. The consequence could be that strategic planners lose sight of the main objectives and the realities on the ground and devise strategies that do not take into account the political guidance and the conditions that apply at the operational level.  

Strategy can be defined as a process that translates political visions into attainable objectives, applying the available instruments by feasible methods.[1] Strategy is not simply the result of specific meetings and processes that are presented in key documents accessible to those responsible for their implementation. States contain large bureaucracies that are rarely sufficiently united in their views on objectives of the state that a coherent process of strategy formulation is feasible.[2] Instead, strategy formulation and implementation is a complex process involving numerous actors and variables. These include politicians with different visions, civil servants with vested interests in promoting the institutions they work for and which secure their promotion, and implementing agencies whose objectives and available means may be affected by concerns to satisfy the interests of local and regional managers with immediate concerns about individual welfare, rather than general visions of the state at large.

Strategy can be seen to operate on three different levels: grand strategy, security strategy and theatre strategy. Grand strategy we define as a state’s vision concerning its future relative position on the basis of national interests and values. It represents the most general level of strategy and lies at the intersection between policy making and bureaucracy, focusing on the core interests and values pursued by the state. Security strategy can be defined as the development, application and allocation of methods and instruments to achieve national security objectives.

Security strategy is functionally specific in the sense that states can have strategies of economic development, foreign policy, defense, energy and foreign aid. These translate the general visions into sector-specific programs for the implementation of these visions. Compared to grand strategy, security strategy is more practical. It concerns what is possible in the real world of conflicts of interests and demands. It is the preserve of those tasked with amending the visions to the behavior of other states with their own interests and values, to a reality characterized by limited resources for realizing visions, and to issue areas where individuals and agencies with sector-specific views may affect processes of strategic planning and implementation. The classical concept of military strategy predominantly belongs to the realm of security strategy since it entails using military forces as the primary instrument to outline the planned course of wars.

Theatre strategy involves the coordinated and synchronized application of methods and instruments within a defined area. It has a geographical focus and is located below the instrumental level. Compared to security strategy, strategy at this level is very action-oriented and tailors the available tools to the specific situation. Theatre strategy is where the rubber meets the road. These realities may include unforeseen crises resulting from unexpected behavior from opponents or partners, developments on the ground such as changes in the physical terrain, or new regional organizations that jeopardize the utility of existing instruments for meeting strategic objectives. It also includes inter-agency disputes that divert the focus of implementing personnel from the strategic objectives to rivalry with other actors competing for scarce resources and influence. Such problems occur in alliance as well as national contexts.

Below the three strategic levels of grand strategy, security strategy and theatre strategy we find campaigns and operations. This level encompasses tactical doctrines in the form of standard sets of maneuvers, types of troops and weapons to be employed in the event of a particular kind of operation.

This issue of Military Journal [Militært Tidsskrift] aims to assess the qualities and the problematic aspects of contemporary processes of strategy formulation and implementation. To this end, the articles focus on the interplay between political, civilian and military agencies in strategic planning processes in states and alliances at grand strategy, security strategy and theatre strategy level. In addition, the issue looks at how developments at the operational level impact on strategic planning at higher levels.

Robert R. Dorff’s contribution, “Understanding and Teaching Strategy at the U.S. Army War College”, demonstrates the complexity of devising strategies with feasible objectives in a context of numerous actors with different vested interests in the ends, ways and means that make up strategies. Strategies are works in progress requiring that top-level personnel focusing on the core national security interests at grand strategy level adjust the strategies to changes in political priorities and to theatre level developments that have moved implementation away from the initial ends, ways and means.

Peter H. Sølling’s contribution, “Military Strategy Is not just Military Strategy? [Militærstrategy er ikke bare militærstrategi?], shows that military strategy is a functionally specific field of expertise which operates at the junction between power struggles at grand strategy level about the appropriate definition of state interests on the one hand and the ends-ways-means processes at security strategy level that ensures that political visions are translated into attainable defence planning that gives guidance to the use of armed forces in campaigns.

Thomas Elkjer Nissen and Steen Kjærgaard’s contribution, “The Role of Strategic Communication in Strategies and Strategy Formulation” [Strategisk kommunikations rolle i strategier og strategiformulering], argues that strategic communication, which aims to influence target audiences of importance for strategic objectives, must be a determining factor when formulating ends, ways and means. Furthermore, the article posits that strategic communication must be a purposeful and integrated effort at grand, security as well as theater strategy level. Used in this way, strategic communication can both support the use of capacities for specific objectives and be a capacity in itself which promotes for instance the legitimacy of specific strategies in the general public.

James R. Stark’s contribution, “U.S. National Security Strategy: A Global Outlook in Transition”, argues that the interplay between political visions and the grand strategy definition of core U.S. national objectives and the ways and means of realizing those objectives is characterized by incremental processes of adjustment that result in considerable continuity between the national security strategies of Republican and Democratic administrations.

Nicolai Meulengracht’s contribution, “Nationalism in China’s Security Strategies”, posits that processes of strategic planning in China are heavily influenced by nationalist dynamics centering on the protection of China’s cultural unity from internal and external threats such as Uyghur separatism in the northwestern Xinjiang province and overlapping claims to territory and maritime space in the East China Sea. The perceived need to address nationalist concerns at grand strategy level to preserve Chinese Communist Party rule heavily influences the definition of threats and the ways and means of addressing them in the top-echelons of China’s political system.

Mark F. Laity’s contribution, “NATO’s Strategy for Afghanistan”, demonstrates that in NATO, commanders are not merely key figures at theatre strategic level, but also end up defining the ways and means used to pursue core national interests at grand strategy level. A contributing factor to the key role of the commander in NATO operations is the relative ineffectiveness of the comprehensive approach. This approach has introduced a plethora of actors at theatre level which have added to the complexity and detracted from the efficiency of grand strategic guidance of implementation of strategies. The comparative effectiveness of military commanders in planning processes has allowed successive commanders in NATOs operations in Afghanistan to dominate strategy formulation from bottom to top.

Ole Kværnø’s contribution, “Governance in Southern Afghanistan – Managerial and Strategic Challenges”, describes the difficulties in implementing the objectives of the comprehensive approach at the regional level in the Afghan theatre. Legitimacy in the Afghan population and legality in terms of liberal definitions of the rule of law have been defined as key objectives for the indigenous Afghan political, military and civilian institutions that NATO have been tasked to assist in establishing. The numerous actors engaged in these nation-building processes at theatre level have led to the establishment of numerous overlapping institutions and the emergence of a plethora of divergent interests that have decoupled regional governance processes from the objectives devised at security strategy level, where specialists have devised the core institutions to be established and the ways and means by which they are invested with popular legitimacy and are ruled by law.

Carsten Fugleholm’s contribution, “Strategy for Cyber Defence in Denmark” [Strategi for cyberdefence i Danmark], shows that strategies are not necessarily coherent official documents, but may be de facto practices that have developed as a result of the need of functionally specialized agencies for defining ends, ways and means to meet political demands for addressing the proliferation in threats from cyber space. The specialized knowledge at security strategy level therefore comes to play a relatively large role in strategic planning in cyber defence compared to the general core state interests defined at grand strategy level. As a consequence, sector-specific interests play a large role in addressing threats in this field in the Danish context.

As a whole, the contributions to this special issue on strategic studies reveal that problems of coordination, adjustment and efficiency pervade the field of strategic planning across functional and geographical issue areas. In particular, it would appear that the complexity of actors and institutions involved in implementing strategies at security and theatre strategy levels detract from the ability of the grand strategy level to translate core national interests into central ends, ways and means that guide strategic planning at the two other levels.

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[1] The definitions of strategy are based on Villiam Krüger-Klausen and Liselotte Odgaard, “Strategy formulation – issues of legitimacy, coordination and feedback”, Paper, 11 February 2010, presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention 2010, New Orleans, USA, 17-20 February 2010.

[2] On the complexity of the process of strategic planning, see Harry R. Yarger, Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century, Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2008, pp. 27-37.