On Strategy – What Is It

A Guest post from Chris.B

So, TD is on a drive this summer to turn the debate temporarily away from shiny equipment and things that either blow other stuff up or can be fitted inside an ISO container (tip to other contributors; get your container reference in early to improve chances of getting published) and instead the focus is shifting slightly towards strategy.

I always find that at this point it’s useful to come up with a definition, hopefully one that everyone agrees with, or at least one that people can follow through the course of the article and ensuing comments section, a common terminology which everyone understands. On that note, my personal preferred definition of strategy comes from the free online dictionary, dictionary.reference.com;

Strategy – a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result

A plan for obtaining a specific goal or result. I like that. That’ll do me nicely. And so it is that this summer we – the think defence community – find ourselves discussing plans for obtaining a specific goal or result for the UK, presumably through the lens of the military. But immediately we come up against our first problem.

What is the goal or result we’re looking for?

You can’t develop a plan to obtain a specific goal or result without first knowing what the goal or result actually is. Now it could be argued that the goals of government are many fold and could include everything from economic growth to the health of the population. As this is “Think Defence” however, it’s probably best we restrict the scope of this article to just the goals of defence and not the entire remit of Her Majesty’s Government.

But even then we encounter another obstacle. The diplomatic service, UK Border Force, police and domestic secret intelligence services all play a role in UK defence. Thus really we have to go one step further and narrow the discussion down to “defence of the UK by military means”, such as the army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.

And herein lays the core problem with discussing strategy as it relates to the defence of the UK. In just the first few paragraphs I’ve already done what so many have done before me. I’ve swept aside a number of critical components of UK defence in favour of purely military solutions. Such a state of affairs will invariably plague any discussion about UK defence and highlights the critical need where possible to have joint discussions, not just joint in the context of the three armed services, but joint in the sense of bringing all interested/involved parties to the table.

That problem acknowledged we’ll move on, but treading carefully.

The next problem we have to deal with is trying to define just what the goal or result is that we’re looking for when we talk about “defence of the UK by military means”?

From one perspective this might just mean protecting the territorial integrity of the UK. That sounds easy until you consider the fact that the UK has a number of overseas territories that depend on the UK for the ultimate guarantee of their sovereign soil. Just to add to the challenge they are dispersed widely around the globe, often in quite remote locations such as the Pitcairn Islands or Ascension Island, or in the case of somewhere like the Falkland Islands they are right on the door step of a potential aggressor.

Even this though is not a satisfactory explanation of “defence of the UK by military means”. As a member of both the United Nations and NATO we are obliged under certain articles to come to the aide of other nations and their people, either as a military ally in response to hostile acts, or as a compassionate and capable nation who has sworn in treaty to uphold international law.

Article 5 of the NATO charter provides a perfect example of this (and indeed may soon be invoked by Turkey), stating that; “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

Thus an attack on Albania is by extension considered an attack on the UK, and although the UK is not specifically obliged to respond with military force, the implication of the treaty is that it would. Certainly the expectation of the Albanians would be for a military response.

By this measure, and measures like it, the “defence of the UK by military means” can quickly grow to encompass its allies and other foreign actors seeking military assistance, such as the Libyan rebels in 2011 and the Syrian rebels in 2012, or issues such as upholding international law by combating piracy, as well as the illegal movement of drugs, weapons and people.  The addition of these factors above and beyond the strict defence of UK sovereign territory further clouds and complicates discussions of strategy.

It also brings us back to the original question; what is the goal or result we are planning for? World peace? Peace for us and our fellow Europeans? Peace for NATO signatories? Or just peace for us, the UK, the rest of the world be damned?

Even if we took the slightly callous attitude of opting for just peace for the UK, there is still a complex web of issues to be considered such as energy security and food security. The UK imports energy products roughly equivalent to what it produces domestically, either for consumption or export. Food wise, the UK imports basic food staples, processed foods, meat, fruits and agricultural produce from all over the globe. We also export many billions of pounds worth of products annually to nations both regionally and globally.

This means that our way of life here in the UK can be negatively affected by events abroad, many miles away from our actual homes and businesses. Our energy and food supplies can be disrupted by military actions without a bullet, bomb or shell ever being expended on, above or around our nation’s territory.

The rational move then would be to identify every last one of these myriad of challenges and figure out a way to counter each one of them. Which we would undoubtedly do… if we possessed a crystal ball that allowed us to peer into the future. Sadly we do not and thus at best all we can do is “horizon scan”; trying to identify likely threats in the near to medium term while being aware of, and reasonably prepared for, the possibility that we may miss something.

But even here we face problems in trying to define what actually poses a threat to us in the short to medium time frame. A classic argument that highlights this discord and comes up on a regular basis is that we are an Island nation, dependent on the seas for trade.

Now strictly speaking this is true. However, the implicit suggestion that follows the “we are an Island” argument is that in order for that trade to proceed unmolested we must have command over large swathes of the world’s oceans.  The reality is that most of that essential trade travels by sea without ever leaving the European Union.

Food imports are a perfect example. The majority of the UK’s food imports travel overseas from the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and Italy. Combined these nations make up about 60% of UK food imports and provide most of the basic staple foods. Much of the remaining 40% of food stuffs imported tend to be goods that are either considered luxuries to a degree (New Zealand Lamb), cannot be grown economically here in the UK (Bananas), or are simply out of season products in the Northern Hemisphere.

To what degree control of the global oceans would be required to facilitate the continued import of these products is debateable, especially now that many of the fruits from distant climes are being flown in by refrigerated air cargo.

Energy imports are also a concern, as noted above, but perhaps not as much of a concern as some would believe. According to recent figures released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the UK was a net exporter of petroleum products in 2011. About 65% of crude oil imports come from Norway, followed by Russia, and small amounts from Nigeria and Libya, then a multitude of very minor suppliers. Coal is predominantly sourced from Russia, Colombia and Australia, with Russia making up about half of all coal imports.

In the short term, gas imports would be considered the most vulnerable. The majority of UK gas is imported from Norway, or through the BBL pipeline with the Netherlands, but Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imported from Qatar has also grown significantly in recent years and thus represents a source of vulnerability when the ongoing issues with Iran are considered.

Still, there is still a lot of leeway here. In addition to efforts by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to build pipelines that bypass the Straits of Hormuz, there is a lot of development going on around the world in the arena of LNG production. Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt and Trinidad & Tobago are all emerging as strong sources of LNG that could access the UK market quite easily.

And while there is strong demand for LNG from other countries too, there are two further developments that could ease the pressure. The first is the rise of Australia as a major LNG supplier, which with the correct investment could occur in the next ten years. Due to shorter transportation distances they would effectively wrap up the Asian markets.

The US also has potential to become a significant player in the market, with investment needed in the infrastructure of its southern ports to really break out as an exporter. US LNG reserves are being revised down as of late, due to suspected over reporting in the previous few years, but their supplies still remain significant. Canada is also likely to emerge as a potential player for European markets.

Only once we have considered all these issues and come to some consensus about what we consider to be the major threats that require “defence of the UK by military means” can we begin to formulate our plan for obtaining a specific goal or result.

But even then we face a significant challenges; economy.

Economically speaking the UK has found itself in a situation of rather dire straits, with significant debt service payments being made each year. The current government has elected to approach this problem with the “Austerity Model”, cutting back future spending to both reduce future debt requirements and to suppress the future cost of borrowing.

That means that money has been cut from the budgets of all government departments including the Ministry of Defence. This naturally has an impact on the plans we make to obtain our defence goals and results. Without the required funding it is simply not possible to pay for the entire wish list of personnel numbers and equipment programs that the services would otherwise desire in order to achieve the “defence of the UK by military means”.

As such, some capabilities that would normally be considered important or at least very useful will instead have to be “gapped”; going without until some unspecified time in the future at which the point the capability can be regenerated. In some cases the capability can be sustained, but only at a reduced level of some form.

So it is that we finally arrive at true strategy, deciding on a plan to achieve our desired goals and results. It is here, once all those other factors have been considered, that we can finally start to talk equipment and formations. Yet even here a further challenge lies.

It is a well known fact that a degree of rivalry exists between the services and that such rivalries extend all the way to the very top of each of the respective service food chains. Often then a propaganda war breaks out between various sides, all hell bent on trying to seek approval for their services solution to a given problem.

This creates additional friction in the strategic decision making process that in a perfect world would not exist, with everyone agreeing on the best solution based on pure merit. In theory the Falkland Islands provide a good example of this.

The Islands are under a certain degree of threat from Argentine aggression, though how much is open for debate. They certainly can’t be left unattended, I’m sure we would at least agree on that. But to defend them you could conceivably go one of three ways; air, sea or land.

The pure air defence would likely consist of the current arrangement with four Typhoons plus a tanker deployed to the Islands, but with extra funds set aside for a Maritime Patrol Aircraft and upgrades to the Typhoon to allow it to engage surface threats at stand off ranges. Defence of the base would fall to the RAF.

The pure sea defence would likely centre around the current permanent deployment of a warship to the Atlantic Patrol Task South, possibly a permanent submarine presence, but mainly the argument that an aircraft carrier could be sent south in the event of a successful invasion and simply win the Islands back.

The pure land solution would doubtless tackle the problem with a well stocked Infantry Battalion, routine patrols, some distributed air defence systems and a promise to hold on and make any invaders life a nightmare until reinforcements could be sent.

All three solutions have some validity, in reality the answer is a kind of mixture of all three. The problem is in making sure that individual service perspectives do not sway the debate from the most efficient and effective, shall we say optimal, solution for providing “defence of the UK by military means”.

And so it is that we reach the end of this particular discussion. My main hope is that this will serve as a background reference for scrutiny when viewing later submissions by all parties on the subject of strategy, to try and highlight some of the pitfalls and concerns that have to be considered when thinking about a strategy for the defence of the UK by military means.

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June 27, 2012 8:03 pm

Chris B,

Interesting read. I was hoping for a more positive slant on how to determine our strategic direction but agree with many of your statements about how difficult it really is.

Interestingly your definition of strategy is not quite like mine. Your definition seems to include both strategy and tactics in one. To me a strategy is a path to a goal and the tactics are the actions taken to facilitate that goal. Wiki has a good entry to describe it…

“If, for example, the overall goal is to win a war against another country, one strategy might be to undermine the other nation’s ability to wage war by preemptively annihilating their military forces. The tactics involved might describe specific actions taken in specific locations, like surprise attacks on military facilities, missile attacks on offensive weapon stockpiles, and the specific techniques involved in accomplishing such objectives.”

In fact, I think the word “manoeuvre” in your definition is almost specifically used to describe tactics and specifically not strategy.

June 27, 2012 8:16 pm

There isn’t a definition for strategy. There’s not many agreed definitions for anything. There’s entire volumes dedicated to arguing about the definition of the word risk for example. I think trying to define leads us into the catch 22 situation of people starting to disagree on definitions rather than the argument but I suppose some sort of definition is needed.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
June 27, 2012 8:23 pm

@ Chris b – Very good summary.

June 27, 2012 8:57 pm


I guess you’re right and I’m being a little pedantic but the title of the article is “On Strategy – What Is It?”.

It’s the goals that are the most important and is probably the things that we can all agree on (nearly).

1. Securing UK, EU and world financial stability
2. Upholding international laws
3. Rebalancing the disparity of world wealth
4. Undermining powerful and corrupt belief systems
5. Mediating conflicts
6. Plus, plus, plus???

How we then go about achieving this “in the large” is probably the strategy. As I suggested recently only some of a portion of the above require military intervention over and above a credible homeland (and overseas territories) defence.

June 27, 2012 9:42 pm

“is probably the strategy”

The question is, is it possible to even have a strategy in a world where the broad interests transcend governments and spending rounds?

June 27, 2012 9:48 pm

transcend democratic governments….

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
June 27, 2012 10:22 pm

Interesting question I’ve come across while doing strategy research – does a grand strategy require a grand enemy?

June 27, 2012 10:39 pm

Now we know why Turkey did not proceed direct to Article V consultations
“attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America ”
…just joking

June 28, 2012 1:30 am

I think the thing that we have learned is that you may import your oil from places other than the middle east if that price goes up so does yours. Not to say you couldn’t get oil but there is a pain point when people will be upset and expect their government to do something about it. The world as gotten very small in almost every way. While you can live without some things how long will it be before your people are out in the streets wanting their new I-pod 6.

June 28, 2012 8:46 am

Phil, Gareth Jones,

I guess a “grand enemy” helps transcend the spending rounds. So maybe you have a valid point.

However, I’d suggest the “grand enemy” simply helps “scale” the strategy rather than actually change it. You still need to assume you’ll probably need to undermine someone, somewhere, it’s only when it’s Russia that you have to throw a lot of spys out and built up your interceptor fleet!?!

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
June 28, 2012 8:55 am

@ Simon – I personally don’t think you need a “Grand Enemy” to have a grand strategy but to does appear to be helpful in focusing minds.

June 28, 2012 9:07 am

Gareth Jones,

Shame! I was wondering who we should pick on next ;-)

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
June 28, 2012 9:26 am

@ Simon – was wondering about that myself…. Any ideas? ;)

June 28, 2012 9:48 am

Gareth Jones,

The whole of South America?

It’s only right and proper for the UK to totally dominate the entire South Atlantic after all :-)

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
June 28, 2012 10:32 am

UK imports of food from Europe are heavily dependent on European imports of Fertilizer.

Europe itself is dependent[1] to the tune of nearly 5 million tons of Nitrogen and Phosphate.

When seen in this light, fertilizer transportation should be considered in the same category as energy imports.

[1] Current World Fertilizer Trends and Outlook 2012 (Word .doc Document)

June 28, 2012 10:45 am

The Other Chris,


Another example of how we import things that we can produce with ease using a bit of ecology and green thinking. Shows how cheap oil/gas is if importing a man made version of urine soaked grass is cheaper than just mucking out the stables!

June 28, 2012 12:00 pm

Potash is mined in Boulby near Redcar. It’s the second deepest mine in Europe. I think they are extracting nearly a million tonnes of the stuff.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
June 28, 2012 12:18 pm

Aye, I think they’re part of why Europe has a net export of K2O as a whole.

June 28, 2012 1:52 pm

@ The Other Chris,

To be fair looking at those numbers, the actual percentage of demand compared to the rest of the world is very low and much of the supply is quite local, shall we say regional.

The Other Chris
The Other Chris
June 28, 2012 4:26 pm

We’re pretty lucky in that Europe may be able to find alternate supply, including from internally, in the event of a crisis quite quickly. We’d have to bear in mind that as an Importer, Britain would likely receive a cut of what’s left after the European producers consume their own slices.

As mentioned Potash is already produced in volume and, all jokes aside, Nitrates in the form of urea can be sourced rapidly. I’m envisaging a Typical British Spirit “Don’t flush” style campaign complete with provided plastic cans.

(Did I say *all* jokes aside?)

Phosphates are the problem as the majority of supply is in the Indian and Pacific Oceans regions.

Most likely supplier of Phosphates to Europe in the event of an Indian Ocean (or South Atlantic?) problem would be the USA if they can be convinced to transport from the West to East Coasts before shipping.

Likely in exchange for the aforementioned Nitrates!

June 29, 2012 1:49 am

Chris B – sorry mate, I am not sure you actually answer your own question ?

Or maybe you do but I missed it.

As an MBA alumni of the Open University, may I provide you all with some free online eduction on strategy :

Introducing a Framework for Strategy: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=4520

And, to assist in our handling of complex issues, may I also recommend:

Systems Thinking and Practice: http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=1289


June 29, 2012 2:00 am

Okey dokey, edit function seems to be failing, but, meant to add this to above:

Wipedia definition of strategy – which I like better than Chris B’s simple definition:

“A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. Strategy is all about gaining (or being prepared to gain) a position of advantage over adversaries or best exploiting emerging possibilities. As there is always an element of uncertainty about future, strategy is more about a set of options (“strategic choices”) than a fixed plan.”

Note it talks about “Vision” – this is conceptually a higher level than Chris ‘goals’ – the hierarchy I learned in my MBA strategy courses was:
Vision – Aims – Goals – Objectives.

Also Wikipedia, does of course have an article on Military Strategy:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_strategy from which I copy part of the content:

“Military strategy is the planning and execution of the contest between groups of armed adversaries. Strategy, which is a subdiscipline of warfare and of foreign policy, is a principal tool to secure national interests. It is larger in perspective than military tactics, which involves the disposition and maneuver of units on a particular sea or battlefield,[6] but less broad than grand strategy, which is the overarching strategy of the largest of organizations such as the nation state, confederation, or international alliance. Military strategy involves wielding diplomatic, informational, military, and economic resources against the opponent’s resources to gain supremacy or reduce the opponent’s will to fight, developed through the precepts of military science.”

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
June 29, 2012 9:50 am

@ Simon – well I was tbinking of the traditional foes of France or Russia… ;)

As for S. America, I’ve neen thinling we’re missing a trick with the F.I. – instead of viewing it as a peice of Britan which needs to be defended from evil foreigners, why don’t we use it to get a foot in the door of the S.American game? Ask to be invited to regional meetings, request observer status in the regional trade regiemes, etc…

June 29, 2012 11:45 am

@ Jed,

“Chris B – sorry mate, I am not sure you actually answer your own question?”

Despite summing it up in one line? The broad purpose was to explore just how difficult it is to try and pin down something like strategy, let alone come to any real consensus about it, while also highlighting the pitfalls of simplistic attitudes to strategy.

“Note it talks about “Vision” – this is conceptually a higher level than Chris ‘goals’ – the hierarchy I learned in my MBA strategy courses was: Vision – Aims – Goals – Objectives.”

Maybe this is just a difference of upbringing, experience etc (I don’t have an MBA for example) but to me that paragrapgh above is a classic example of how many businesses over complicate things that should be realtively simple. All four of those words above are essentially the same thing. Trying to attach conceptual layers and meanings to them just serves to bugger up what should be a simple task. Take for example;

““A strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a vision. Strategy is all about gaining (or being prepared to gain) a position of advantage over adversaries or best exploiting emerging possibilities. As there is always an element of uncertainty about future, strategy is more about a set of options (“strategic choices”) than a fixed plan.””

To me that is just a bloody elaborate and utterly pointless revision of the more concise phrase; Strategy – a plan, method, or series of manoeuvres or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result.

You’ll have to forgive me if I seem abrasive. I’ve spent many years working for people who are more concerned with how smart they sound than actually delivering a clear message to the people that matter on the sharp end.

June 29, 2012 2:45 pm

Chris B

Well as ever we will not agree on anything then I guess, which is fine, as we like a hearty debate on these pages don’t we ?

“You’ll have to forgive me if I seem abrasive. I’ve spent many years working for people who are more concerned with how smart they sound than actually delivering a clear message to the people that matter on the sharp end.”

Well, if your saying I wrote what I wrote to make myself sound clever, then I am deeply wounded….. Actually as you noted, we just have a difference of perspective. I am a strategist, its what I am paid to do, in fact my job title until last monday was “Senior Strategy Consultant” in a group called “Strategy and Planning”.

Strategy is not in itself about delivering a clear message. While KISS can and should be applied at all levels, strategy is not about being simple, so we agree on that too !

However a strategy is not a plan, which is why I don’t like the overly simplistic language – but like I say, that’s because I do this for a living, I am not saying your definition is wrong, I just dont like it. A strategy requires many plans in order to execute on it. As anyone who has done a British Army leadership course at any level knows:
1. Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance – BUT
2. No plan survives first contact with the enemy

So strategies are frameworks for plans, lots of plans to deal with lots of contingencies.

Interestingly enough the academics / business “borrowed” Vision, Aims, Goals and Objectives from the military – and they certainly don’t all mean the same thing at all. For example

1. Strategic level (NATO Command level)- Vision: constrain the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean

2. Theatre / Campaign level (NATO Subordinate command e.g. ComEastLant)- Aims: to stop Soviet submarines reaching operational areas, to attrite where ever possible, to constrain the enemies operational manouvre

3. Operational level (TG / TF Commanders) – Goals: to seal the Greenland – Iceland – UK gaps, to deter, detect and to sink soviet subs, and surface units whenever possible

4. Tactical level (sub-element / ship CO’s) – Objectives: to patrol the box, to protect the cvs, to prosecute sonar contacts…. etc…

I will end by saying that my experience in business is that people don’t get confused by strategies, front line people get confused and screwed over by over-engineered processes, over complicated policy and procedure and to your earlier point, an inability of middle management to provide clear operational direction that aligns with organizational strategy.

Oh and all UK politicians of any ilk are too short term-ist to deal with strategy, hence many of our problems.

June 29, 2012 3:26 pm


I’d agree that Strategy in itself need not be simplistic, but the communication of it to subordinate entities must be if they’re to have a chance of understanding and executing it.

I chose the explanation I did precisely because in one sentence it incorporates the idea of either a) one plan or method, or b) a multitude of plans (“.. or series of manoeuvres or stratagems..”) to reach that end goal.

Now I look at your list of words; vision, aims, goals, objectives, and to me they are essentially different words for the same thing. For example;

Vision – constrain the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean,
Aim – constrain the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean,
Goal – constrain the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean,
Objective – constrain the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean,

To me “to stop Soviet submarines reaching operational areas, to attrite where ever possible, to constrain the enemies operational manouvre”, is not so much an aim in itself, it’s just a part of the wider plan above, a method. You’re planning to constrain the red banner Northern fleet to the Arctic Ocean by stopping their submarines reaching operational areas etc.

The next two; 1) to seal the Greenland – Iceland – UK gaps, to deter, detect and to sink soviet subs, and surface units whenever possible, and 2) to patrol the box, to protect the cvs, to prosecute sonar contacts…

… are to me, tasks. They’re not really objectives, their requirements that have been laid out. They’re jobs that need doing to facilitate a higher purpose, not a purpose in themselves.

If sacrificing the CVS or leaving the patrol box meant achieveing the wider aim of constraining the red banner northern fleet to the Arctic ocean then that would be acceptable only if patrolling the box or protecting the CVS was considered a task. If protecting the CVS or patrolling the box was an objective then you wouldn’t risk failing in either of them, as losing the CVS or not patrolling the box would be considered a failure to meet your assigned objectives.

And just briefly to end, my experience of middle managers has been that they’re very good at repeating rote statements that they’ve been taught, they’re very good at sharing abstract conceptual frameworks that they learnt at some training seminar, they’re very good at running pointless, arbitrary, “whacky” and in many cases (ironically) demoralising “team building and morale boosting” exercises and games, but they’re almost without exception completely incapable of converting their flow charts and buzzwords into any kind of meaningful results at the sharp end, while showing a stunning lack of adaptability, initiative, common sense, and communication.