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Dismantling Contemporary Military Thinking and Reconstructing Patterns of Information: Thinking Deeper About Future War and Warfighting

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Dismantling Contemporary Military Thinking and Reconstructing Patterns of Information: Thinking Deeper About Future War and Warfighting

Bradley L. Rees

 “Capturing the perceptions of foreign audiences will replace seizing terrain as the new high ground for the future joint force.”     

General (retired) James Mattis

June 2009

“This is a totally new kind of threat, as we all know.  Our adversaries, both state and non-state actors, view the entire information domain as a battlespace, and across it, they are waging a new kind of war against us, a war involving but also extending beyond our military, to include our infrastructure, our businesses, and our people.”

Senator John S. McCain, III

SASC Hearing on the Roles and Responsibilities for Defending the Nation from Cyber Attack,

19 October 2017


This article explores the progression of Western, and specifically United States, military thinking and warfighting philosophies.  It centers on the utility of information, information warfare, and information in war; the operational framework and battlefield geometry by which military forces are employed; and posits that a new conceptual construct is required to better frame contemporary and more importantly future warfare.  This article is also oriented on the growing importance of information as it relates to strategic fragility and how it now expands beyond simply being concerned about the vulnerability to malicious cyber-attack on our interdependent critical infrastructure systems to a strategic fragility that also encompasses vulnerabilities associated with the state itself.  This article’s relevance is directly applicable to tactical practioners, operational artists, strategists, and theorists because military doctrine and warfighting philosophies represent the fundamental principles that are guided by sound judgement in action by which modern militaries conduct operations, actions, and activities in support of national objectives.[1]  As such, the exploration of doctrinal military thinking and warfighting philosophies provides the rubric by which change is charted over time and space; and further provides opportunities for dialogue and discourse that are intended to precipitate r/evolutionary thought and growth within the profession of arms.

This article posits that because information is now the seventh Joint Function, its relation to the other Joint Functions (intrinsically and operationally) has evolved beyond current conceptual constructs meant to inform the employment of the Joint Force in the contemporary operational environment (OE).  As such, this article’s underlying argument suggests a new approach to incorporating information in waging war and leveraging the various types of warfare (traditional and irregular) need considered; essentially moving from using information as a tactic to using information as an underlying logic in U.S. military operations.  By moving beyond using simply information as a tactic to its use as logic itself, a firmer footing establishes its utility in war and warfare, emphasizes its transcendent qualities, and its applicability across all levels of war, especially at the operational and strategic levels.  More so, in declaring the use of information as logic, its use, on principle, must be connected, integrated, prioritized and coordinated fully into joint operations.  It must have purpose.[2]  Information as logic itself can “ensure [any resulting] theory [to be] more than a collection of individual experiences, that it [can be] the product of disciplined observation rather than undisciplined imagination.” Additionally, when accepting information as the logic, it provides “rules of thought” for the planning and execution of joint operations.[3]  Readers should consider what implications Information as a Joint Function has in relation to the specific components of the OE.  Additional considerations about the current conceptual construct of the information environment (IE) itself, the utility of having a separate Cyberspace Domain, and the nuanced relationship that exists in current doctrine regarding the IE, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) as they relate with the other remaining domains of Space, Air, Maritime, and Land should also be explored.  Lastly, this article seeks to insight dialogue and discourse that furthers the development of “joint enhance the operational effectiveness of joint forces [in their employment and application of force in efforts] to meet a common objective.”[4] In reviewing the following analysis of the different schools of military thinking and warfighting philosophies, the author suggests that thinking more broadly about information and its use in war and warfighting requires a new OE construct:   an environment made up simply of the Land, Air-Space, Maritime, and Informational Domains.  This position, when accepted, may require additional planning and/or modification to existing laws, policies, regulations, authorities, and doctrine associated with the full integration of information, information warfare, and information in war.

The methodology for this article uses ontology and epistemology as the means by which change is examined.  Ontologically speaking, the progression of military thought and warfighting philosophies are examined, from an informational perspective, by detailing the characteristics and properties of historical approaches to warfighting and then compares them in relation to one another.  Ontologically, this article reviews the creation of arrangements, progressions, and taxonomies that facilitate a fuller understanding of the linkages between the different schools of military theory.  For the purpose of this article, the ontological characteristics and properties of military thinking and warfighting philosophies are stratified as (1) Modern Warfare, which represents the Technical School of Thought;  (2) Post-modern Warfare, which represents the Tactical School of Thought; (3) Structuralist Warfare representative of the Operational School; and lastly(4) Deconstructivist (or Post-structuralist) Warfare, which forms the cornerstones for the Strategic School.[5] From the epistemological perspective, this article explores the utility of information as it relates to the separate schools of thought, as well as examines how information relates to the other Joint Functions in the generation of informational and physical power. 

The Emerging Security Environment

The security environment is transforming precipitously.  A byproduct of this is the fact that the OE is becoming more contested by relevant actors that capitalize on the changing face of the geopolitical balancing act that resulted from the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the “long wars” of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism since 2001.  Our relevant actors of concern are also exploiting the shift in the monopoly of the legitimate use of force away from Western nations and specifically the United States to other actors that, legitimately or not, seek to leverage asymmetric ways and means to achieve strategic goals more so than to attempt any direct, parity-based confrontation with the United States.  Along with contested norms is persistent disorder, which is the byproduct of weaker, less-capable actors that are unable to maintain domestic or territorial safety and security.  These shifts in the security environment are not new developments.  Relevant actors of concern, and specifically our declared adversaries and enemies, have been astute observers of the contemporary American way of war and warfighting for more than two decades.  So much so that while the United States continues to fight the Global War on Terrorism and counterinsurgency efforts across the globe, our adversaries and acknowledged enemies have sought to continue developing, purchasing, lending leasing, or stealing capabilities that are meant to off-set America’s once-guaranteed full-spectrum superiority.  Historically, the United States has experienced relative parity or complete overmatch in one or more domains since the late 19th century.  This, however, is no longer the case.  For Western militaries, and specifically the United States, to achieve success in contemporary and future conflict, we must examine deeply how we think about warfare and deliberate on the philosophies that underpin how information is levied in future engagements.    

This article builds off the ideas and concepts outlined in the Joint Operating Environment 2035; the current National Security, Defense, and Military Strategies; the 2017-2019 Joint Strategic Campaign Plan; and the evolving doctrine and concepts associated with Information as the seventh Joint Function.  Lessons learned and analysis of the expansive, and unchecked, growth of information, dis/mis-information, subversion, propaganda, and psychological warfare being conducted by relevant actors also informed the writing of this thought piece.  Specifically, this article seeks to present new ways of thinking – and in turn new ways of employing the Joint Force – that better facilitates the achievement of national-level leaders’ and joint force commanders’ objectives.  The concepts outlined in this article are meant to accelerate future force development activities and provide an analytic foundation for current and future Joint concept development efforts. 

Progressive Schools of Conflict: Ontology and Epistemology of War Thinking, War Philosophies, and Warfare[6]

While the maturation of warfare has traditionally followed a commonly accepted lineage-of-progression from Classical Warfare through Modern (and in some cases what has been termed Post-Modern Warfare), this article focuses specifically on the past 400-years of r/evolutionary (progressive) military thinking and its associated philosophies beginning in the mid-17th century.  This article uses Dr. Aaron P. Jackson’s analysis of the changes and continuity in understanding the practices of historical and future warfare as the framework of inquiry, which is then further modified to better reflect the changing state of warfare and warfighting in the 21st century.  As introduced previously, Jackson outlines four primary schools of thought from the Technical School to the Strategic.  This article expands and reframes the scope of these schools of thought by taking a critical theory approach to how warfare and warfighting are currently stratified. 

This article introduces new warfare classifications that are nuanced yet important distinctions:  Modern/Technical, Post-modern/Tactical, Structuralist/Operational, and Deconstructivist/Strategic.  In postulating that a new way of thinking is required about the use and understanding of information, the author presents for consideration that Joint Force’s recognition of information in warfare is implicit, which needs to change to being an explicit acceptance of information’s central role in contemporary and future war.  Following this logic-path, this article seeks to offer new conceptual considerations of the OE by eliminating the IE as a separate environment within the OE; and clarifies and combines the attributes of the EMS and the Cyberspace Domain to forge a new Informational Domain within the contemporary OE.  These considerations seek to better codify the understanding of Information as a Joint Function; streamline how cyberspace operations, electronic warfare (EW), and other information related capabilities (IRC) will be employed absent a proposed non-existent Cyberspace Domain or separate EMS; and introduce a new strategic theory of Perceptual Positioning and Informational Maneuver in and through the new Informational Domain.       

The Maturation of Thought and Understanding of War and Warfighting

Beginning with the Modern/Technical School, an overview shows the progression of thought on modern military thinking came about because of the thinking of Gustavus Adolphus and the subsequent offspring that resulted from the Treaties of Munster and Osnabruck and the Peace of Westphalia by 1648.  With the ushering in of new ways of governance, defining and protecting sovereignty and international diplomacy came, too, new approaches in organizing, educating, and employing military forces.  Notable vanguards for these new approaches by the early 19th century included Gerhard Johann David Waitz von Scharnhorst and his protégé Carl von Clausewitz.[7] 

The underlying conditions that accompanied the development of the modern state system brought with it a very precise and technical manner of thinking about the application and employment of force as an extension of policy.  Central to much of this was the importance of and effectiveness by society and the human condition in warfare.  However, while acknowledging the importance of societal behavior and cognition in conflict, such a breakthrough was still treated more so as an enabler to material military might.  Jackson’s doctrinal ontology that categorized this school of thought as “Technical” is aptly applied as this thought process was overly mechanistic and scientific.  These characteristics resulted directly from the influences of the Scientific Revolution that occurred on the European Continent between approximately mid-16th and early 18th centuries.  Unfortunately, little emphasis during this period was placed on the psychology of war. 

Despite the r/evolutionary tenets of warfare that came from precise applications of scientific and technological doctrines, the Modern/Technical School’s misinterpretation of much of Clausewitzian theory ultimately manifested in an over-adherence to Jominian mechanics, Napoleonic maneuver, and von Moltke the Elder’s approach to the application of force.  As a result, the Modern/Technical School was implicit rather than explicit in its relationship to the cognitive and philosophical ontologies of war and warfighting.  As Jackson highlights, the Technical School describes the where, who, and how to employ weapons and materiel but falls short of providing insight into the broader what, when, and more importantly why such application is required.  As such, the Modern/Technical School fails to address a military’s ontology that considers any possible influence that outside factors – foreign to the system in question – have on the application of force.[8]  So, too, will the American history of war and warfighting show that a primary focus solely on large-scale war itself - while neglecting the post-conflict requirements of stabilization, nation-building, and returning power to civil authorities  - would ensure any such “other considerations” simply be considered as “bolt-ons” and after-thoughts in war planning rather than an integral part of it.  In the same vein, information, IRCs, and the applicability of information in war always seems to be an afterthought prior to declared conflict.  Even today, such ways of leveraging and exploiting such “soft power” remains something of an after-thought and the realm of theorists and academics more so than with mainstream warriors and commanders. 

Through the late 18th century and the early 19th century, the progression of maneuver and how force was employed as an extension of the state eventually formed a new school of thinking and warfighting philosophy that ultimately stayed as a central component to military thought and theory through even the latter part of the 20th century.  The Post-modern/Tactical School resulted from the Enlightenment and all of its associated scientific underpinnings; as well as from the Industrial Revolution and the experiments of state-based warfare and production.  Contextually, the Post-modern/Tactical School was an evolution beyond and an improvement on the Modern/Technical School, however when viewed from a contemporary, macro perspective, even the Post-modern/Tactical School remained limited.  It was during this time that the phrase – or perhaps the military moniker – the American Way of War[9] was coined.  However, as many military theorists have surmised, this moniker was over-reaching and ultimately led to a false sense of understanding and application of post-modern/tactical warfare.    

While the Post-modern/Tactical School was an improvement on the Modern/Technical School’s doctrinal ontology, it continued to be captured and considered solely at the tactical level of understanding up to and following the American involvement in the Vietnam War.  Except for the manifestation of Post-modern/Tactical warfighting supporting an existential fight during World War II, post-modern/tactical approaches to warfighting remained limited in great part because of its fundamental tactical focus on and inclination to win engagements and battles rather than campaigns and wars.  As Jackson notes, the ontological assumptions underlying the Post-modern/Tactical School remain implicit.  Answers to ontological questions that might be raised about the relationship between militaries and taken for granted. Having assumed away the answers to questions about military interaction with the greater security environment and the relative importance of information and its effects on the broader system, the Post-modern/Tactical School focused much more so on developing approaches to overcome an enemy on the battlefield rather than in a wider campaign or a global competition.”[10]   As such, following the Vietnam War, military theorists such as Harry Summers and John Boyd took a more discerning and in-depth look at America’s way of warfighting and postulated that intellect, thought models, and cognition were as important as the other elements associated with the application of material force.  History would ultimately prove though, that despite such novel approaches to strategy and warfighting focusing on critical thinking, information, and its use in decision making, it was again misunderstood and misapplied to be simply an enabler to positional, maneuver warfare.

Up until this point, this article has chronicled the r/evolution of warfare in commonly accepted or doctrinally adequate terms.  However, from this point onward, new lexicon is introduced to delineate previous modes of thinking versus more innovative approaches to capturing contemporary and future understandings of war and warfighting.   A structuralist criticism of military thinking and warfighting philosophies is used to further the discussion on the military ontology for categorizing warfare. This approach seeks to rectify the cognitive dissonance that manifests between the Modern/Technical and Post-modern/Tactical Schools of thought with that which is being presented here as the Structuralist/Operational School of military thinking and warfighting philosophies.  Before we begin, a short explanation of structuralism is required.

Structuralism and the structuralist approach to defining the next r/evolutionary step in contemporary and future warfare does not mean that we will be examining the separate levels of war:  strategic, operational, and tactical; or the structure of any particular military organization or its respective tactics, techniques, or procedures associated with thinking about war or its associated warfighting philosophies.  Rather, structuralism is being used as the methodology to examine how all militaries (and specifically the United States military) think about war and their associated warfighting philosophies in relation to the historical evolution of military thought and the evolving application of force in military engagement.  Structuralism is being used to define the next type of warfare being discussed in order to uncover the fundamental principles that frame their arrangement and associative properties to the broader system.  Simply put, the Structuralist/Operational School can be seen as not being necessarily concerned with individual applications of force for the sake of winning engagements or battles.  Rather, the Structuralist/Operational School is meant to better explain and afford inquiry and explanation of the broader meaning and importance of engagements and battles as they relate to the entire campaign or war.  By taking a more abstract view of war and warfighting, structuralism is applied as a means by which the r/evolution of military thinking and warfighting philosophies are studied, and the growing importance of information in war is brought to the forefront.  Structuralism is being used because it is “a human science whose effort is to understand, in a systematic way, the fundamental structures that underlie all human experience and, therefore, all human behavior... [It is] a method of systematizing human experience” in war.[11] While this r/evolutionary step in military ontology goes well beyond the technical or tactical application of force and despite the intent for the U.S. military to embrace a broader and more holistic understanding of its approach to warfighting, the analyses of Harry Summers, John Boyd, and John Warden were ultimately misinterpreted by most military practitioners. 

Towards a Deeper Understanding of Military Thought and Warfighting Philosophies

While acknowledging the thought-pieces by Harry Summer, John Warden, and other contributions to military and strategic theory following the Vietnam War through the earliest of days of the 21st century, the central theories and primary thought-pieces of John Boyd are used to detail the third school of thinking: Structuralist/Operational School.  Following the battlefield successes and their accompanying strategic failure of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Boyd sought to capture, articulate, and champion the shift in thinking from mechanistic and tactical modes of thinking to those associated with a newer science founded on complexity, chaos, probability, and the human endeavor as they relate to war and warfighting.  His approach is at the crux of the Structuralis/Operational School.  In Boyd’s Destruction and Creation, he offered a means by which to think on war and warfighting when he introduced what Kurt Godel revealed in 1931, which basically stated that it was “impossible to embrace mathematics within a single system of logic [and] any consistent system is incomplete”[12]  without a fundamental foundation based on logic.  Boyd’s use of mathematics and logic in framing a new way of thinking was meant to emphasize a uniformity and dependency of any one system requires us to re/construct an entirely different system of inquiry and employment of engagement.[13]  One of Boyd’s primary influences for such approaches to new thinking included Jean-Francois Lyotard and his writings on the postmodern condition.  It is important to clarify that the postmodern condition focuses on the study of society and its use of knowledge in what the philosophical, artistic, anthropological, and other social science disciplines reference beginning in the mid-20th century.  The postmodern condition is not synonymous with the Post-modern/Tactical School outlined in this article.[14]  Nevertheless, Lyotard’s influence on Boyd’s thinking is structuralist in nature whereby the third school is conceptualized through a fuller understanding of a system’s overall completeness, the variable properties of the system, and the self-determination abilities of the system itself.[15]

Regardless of the similarity of terms and their relation to the central themes of this article, one of Boyd’s main hypotheses on broad thinking in relation to its application in war and warfighting centers on the demand that “we must constantly make sure we develop mental models to make up for the ever-present and unavoidable level of uncertainty” in conflict.[16]  This article is not meant to belittle, take away from, or distill down Boyd’s accomplishments in strategic thought or his development of contemporary military theory.  Instead, this article aims to raise awareness to and insight a deeper appreciation of how Boyd viewed the importance of models, logic, and cognition as means to better understand, react to, and - in essence -  control uncertainty. 

Despite the breadth and depth of Boyd’s theoretical writings on strategy and warfighting, he is probably best known for the “so called ‘OODA loop’ where ‘OODA’ is generally understood to stand for observation, orientation, decision, and action.”[17]  Over the past 40-years, the OODA has become synonymous with decision cycles and more importantly, the decision cycles of U.S. commanders in relation to the adversary.  Notwithstanding Boyd’s intentions for this paradigm to rise above the intrinsic desire of many, if not most, within the U.S. military to gain advantageous spatial positioning over an adversary, the OODA ultimately became more accepted by U.S. commanders (and staffs) in making decisions better, faster, and more accurately in the application of force comparable to the decisions and actions of respective adversaries.  While the OODA and the Structuralist/Operational School breaks away from the technical and tactical applications of force, much of the operational-level thinking and application of force remained tactically oriented despite the fact that such applications were being off-set by spatial applications of force across vast distances.  This, however, was never the intent behind Boyd’s premise pertaining to the changing face of war and warfighting.  Regardless of this, the Structuralist/Operational School did initiate a significant shift in how Western militaries in general and the U.S. military in particular began applying tactical action in efforts to meet strategic goals. 

The third military ontology categorized as the Structuralist/Operational School, coupled with new strategic theory by such thought leaders as John Boyd, eventually paved the way for the development of new ways of war and warfighting throughout the last three decades of the 20th century.  A fairly evolutionary process at first went from experiments with nuclear-armed Army divisions and follow-on doctrine that placed a heavy emphasis on weapon systems that were primarily meant for attrition warfare more so than any previous American military doctrine.  “Active Defense,” as it came to be called, based itself on the tenets of an elastic defense that prioritized trading geographic space for time.  This doctrine ultimately evolved into AirLand Battle and Full-Spectrum Dominance doctrine.  Purposeful or not, the maturation of military thinking and warfighting philosophies remained rooted in a fairly tactical paradigm despite the gains achieved by technology, battlefield awareness, networked command and control, precision weapons, and the inception of operational art in American warfighting.  Perhaps the choice of “Battle” as part of the AirLand Battle moniker was an ontological prelude.  Nevertheless, from a military ontological perspective, AirLand Battle in the late 20th century and its off-spring of Full-Spectrum Dominance by the early 21st century was no longer weighed fully down or constrained solely by technical or tactical anchors.  Rather, the third ontology provided “a mechanism for disseminating analytically sound and theoretically-derived operational concepts that prompted commanders to engage [technical and tactical considerations] in a much more intellectual manner.”[18]  They did, however, remain focuses more so on using operational precepts to again gain and maintain spatial positioning over adversaries in a given space and time (regional contingencies and limited campaigns).  This, again, limited the use and strategic importance of information, its relation to maneuver and the other Joint Functions, and to operational precepts eventually being developed by the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. 

In the end, most U.S. military theorists and practioners misinterpreted Boyd’s theories and focused on what they thought was his central argument, which in their view rested on the premise that victory goes to the side that completes the OODA loop faster than the adversary; in essence applying force on behalf of the faster thinking side.  As a result, several Joint Functions in general and informational components in particular, became codified simply as enablers to the decisive action.  In using a critical theory approach to the next r/evolution in thinking, this article acknowledges that while the Structuralist/Operational School rests on the notion that victory goes to the victor that completes the OODA first, there is a higher level of thinking needed in the next school of thought that stresses that victory does not necessarily go to the side that completes the OODA first from a friendly force perspective.  Rather, it is more of an operational reality that victory ultimately goes to the side that controls the OODA first, fastest, or more efficiently than the other side.  The former focusing on ultimately gaining some faster way in which to make decisions to gain some measure of spatial advantage over the adversary.  The latter focusing more so on placing the adversary at some disadvantage resulting from Perceptual Positioning and Informational Maneuver.  Contemporary thinking and warfighting philosophies are only now beginning to incorporate such considerations that information may not necessarily be simply an enabler to decisive action.  A common misconception remains in much of the military that the OODA is simply a decision-making process predicated on information superiority, speed, mass, and firepower.  “The OODA loop is much less a model of decision-making than a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation in which orientation...plays the dominant role.”[19]  The security environment now demands we consider “Big “I” information” to be both an enabler to decisive action, as well as, in some instances, the decisive action in and of itself.  Especially in light of the increased emphasis by senior military and national-level leaders to compete below the threshold of traditional armed conflict, the generation of informational power as the decisive action validates the importance such directives mandate.

Approaching a Pedagogy[20] of Cognition and the Application of Information in War

Through the 1990s AirLand Battle and the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) - both underpinned and characterized by operational tenets influenced by military theorists including Summers, Warden, and Boyd – inspired new approaches to applying force in combat as well as in operations other than war.  The digitization of warfare and the idea of “smart power” and “smart bombs” became the terms du jour.  So much so that the Joint Community finally codified how the Joint Force was to “govern the joint activities, and performance of the Armed Forces of the United States in joint operations as well as the doctrinal basis for US military involvement in multinational and interagency operations.” However, because of the successes of AirLand Battle and Full-Spectrum Dominance that underpinned the U.S. and Coalition successes in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991, new joint doctrine by 1993 publicly stated that it was meant to describe “how to think about directing, planning, and conducting joint and multinational operations, as well as interagency operations across the full range of military operations (war and operations other than war).”[21] In reality, this new doctrine would continue to focus much more heavily on the application of material force as a part of full-scale combat operations rather than anything else.  Senior leaders’ inclinations and institutional acceptance of such thinking is epitomized in a statement by General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who once said that “...they should hang a sign outside the building [Pentagon], REAL MEN DON'T DO PEACEKEEPING [and...] to this day the doctrine [introduced in the early 1990s and accepted by the preponderance of the military] remains that the best peacekeepers are the soldiers best trained for combat.”[22] Essentially codifying the mindset that doctrine for combat and the application of force, as the extreme manifestation for modern militaries, could simply be tailored to meet the demands of what today is being captured as requirements occurring “below the thresholds of traditional armed conflict.”  Sadly, though, as seen over the past decade and a half of war in Iraq, the Levant, and Afghanistan, one size does not necessarily fit all. 

With only slight modifications in the 1990s, U.S. military thinking on war and warfighting remained stagnant, with the Joint Force continuing to treat doctrine much more as dogma rather than as principles and precepts.  Such adherence pulled the Joint Force back into focusing on “fighting the last war” up to and even beyond the events of September 11, 2001.  Despite the seminal publication in 2006 of Field Manual 3-24/Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5, Counterinsurgency (COIN) Operations[23], the Joint Force continued to be pulled by two horses traveling in opposite directions:  one towards stability and peacekeeping operations while the other galloped towards full-spectrum combat operations.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the middle of the second decade of the 21st century that the Joint Force began exploring again military thinking and warfighting philosophies that went well beyond a 21st century adaptation of AirLand Battle, Full Spectrum Dominance, and COIN.  Regardless of the timeline, by mid-2015 and well into 2017 many (if not most) tactical practioners, operational artists, strategists, and theorists alike became acutely aware of the depths and breadths of our adversaries’ efforts at leveraging information, information in war, and information warfare.  It is from these events that the Destructionist/Strategic School manifests itself today.   

Similar to how structuralism was explained previously, it is important to expound on why “deconstructist/deconstructivism” is applied to categorize this next school of military thinking and warfighting philosophies.  Taking cues from modern philosophical thinking, this article applies “deconstruction” as the form of analysis and categorization of the Strategic School.  Deconstruction was originally a form of philosophical and literary analysis, which was derived mainly from work begun in the mid-twentieth century by French philosopher, Jacques Derrida.  For Derrida, deconstruction is meant to formally and methodically query the conceptual and accepted logic of philosophy and literature.  However, since the 1960s, deconstruction has gone on to be applied in numerous fields of study that extend well beyond philosophy and literature.  These fields of study include history, theology, psychology, neuroscience, international relations, economics, and political theory among numerous other fields.  Simply, deconstruction is being applied in this article as a means by which a critical dismantling, disassembling, and demolishing of tradition and traditional modes of thinking occurs.  Essentially, it accomplishes a “deconstruction” and reevaluation of the Structuralist/Operational School of thinking and Boyd’s theories on strategy and warfighting.

For Derrida, he saw the deconstruction of something by way of the “play” of differences between content and context of an existing essence – not necessarily making something completely new, but rather taking something that pre-existed (in this case the Stucturalist/Operational School of military thinking and warfighting philosophies) and decompose it to make something new or different.  Derrida coined the term différance, which means both a difference in and an act of deferring, which is meant to better characterize the way in which meaning is created through the play of differences between pre-existing and future formations of something.  Given this, the Deconstructivist/Strategic School takes a much more discerning review of and appreciates much deeper the original intent and content of Boyd’s theories and the essence of the OODA.  There is no mistake that this article, similar to Boyd’s Destruction and Creation, seeks a destruction of current thinking (in this instance about information) and the creation of different ways of thinking and using information in contemporary and future war.

As Jackson introduced in The Roots of Military Doctrine, he ontologically frames his Strategic School as one that is much more philosophical in character and intent.[24]  Expanding on this acknowledges that this level of doctrine serves as “the capstone joint doctrine [that] provides doctrine for unified action by the Armed Forces of the United States [and provides guidance that is] broad, authoritative, and serves as a foundation for the development”[25] of the Joint Force.  As importantly, this article presents the Strategic School as the maturation of military thinking and warfighting philosophies from a much higher, abstract perspective.  It does so by deconstructing what has been previously presented and considered as the Structuralist/Operational School.  As such, the Deconstructivist/Strategic School attempts to walk back much of the confusion by many in the U.S. military that were “unable to derive from the resulting amalgam much sense”[26] of Boyd’s original positions and importance of information in warfare.   

It is important to focus on one of Boyd’s overarching premises, which stressed that forces must “comprehend and cope with our environment [by developing] mental patterns or concepts of meaning... to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment.”[27]  It is the “shaping” aspects of this statement that serves as a cornerstone to the Deconstructionist/Strategic School.  By taking a more holistic and abstract look at the Structuralist/Operational School and then deconstructing it, while using key portions of it in different ways, the Decontructionst/Strategic School takes on greater relevance and applicability in the contemporary and future security environments.   

While it can be argued that Boyd’s theories on maneuver warfare were novel and ultimately most impactful at the operational level of war, his original intent for his theories was to be “useful conceptual frameworks by means of which to understand the general requirements of a strategy and the general logic associated with its effective employment.”[28] Therein lies the rub between the misinterpretations of Boyd and the eventual manifestations in Airland Battle and Full-Spectrum Dominance of the Structuralist/Operational School and the Deconstructivist/Strategic School approach being proposed here.  Osinga cages it nicely when he states that strategic theory should “take into account novel actors... new technologies... or phenomena [and] contemporary social context determines what [is] employed in a purposeful manner in war, and as this social context evolves, so does (or should) strategic theory.”[29]  Osinga, by introducing the works of Barry Watts, further highlights that Boyd (like Watts) focused heavily on the notion that “uncertainty is inherent in the physical and social world, [which] favored a more organic image of war in which human nature and behavior in  war forms the foundation for military theory.”[30]

Through our examination, we can assess that the U.S. military based the majority of its doctrine on Boyd’s concept of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting faster than the adversary rather than looking deeper at the basis of Boyd’s fundamental argument that thinking, emotion, and behavior are the most important tenets in warfare.  The OODA was taken more so as a means by which U.S. military commanders could focus on “two concepts of universal significance in generating combat power:  speed and focus.  Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly.”[31]  Again, though, Boyd’s approach to warfighting was not so much concerned with completing the OODA first.  Rather, its aim is to control the OODA of the adversary; to shape the emotions, behaviors, and decision making by generating informational power separately, in concert with, or complimentary to the generation of physical power.    When we look at Boyd’s three dimensions of control:  physical, mental, and moral, we can reexamine and better understand the essence of his theories and the critical importance of information in warfare.  In doing so, a new “deconstructed” appreciation for and application of the strategic school of thought is manifesting in current theoretical debates within the U.S. military.[32]

There is a growing military role of information in the contemporary and future security environment at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, in military thinking, and in new warfighting philosophies.  The operational environment and its components (to include the information environment, the cyberspace domain, and the electromagnetic spectrum) have changed over the past 30-years.  The dynamically evolving nature of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and ease of access to such capabilities has changed the nature of information and its use as an element of national and non-state power.  Despite conventional U.S. military capabilities remaining unchecked, albeit with some near-peer competition from specific nation-state adversaries, all of our relevant actors of concern are seeking (and employing) means to contest the United States by more indirect means and ways – again just below the thresholds of traditional armed conflict.  Because the United States has built and trained a military and cultivated a civilian support base that thrive on mindsets and paradigms associated with fighting and winning large-scale conventional contingencies, our adversaries are out-maneuvering us as they seek to take advantage of our thinking, our policies, laws, and capabilities that rest on tactically and operationally oriented 20th century.  Furthermore, because we are the most technologically advanced nation in the world, we are also the most lethal military.  However, with this high level of technology and sophistication come a high level of vulnerability due to the nation’s and the U.S. military’s high reliance on technology, networks, and automated processes.  Paradoxically, there is a penchant within the U.S. military to find it easier – from a capabilities, policies, and authoritative perspectives – to drop ordinance on a target rather than generating other less-lethal, less-irreversible, and less-transparent effects.  This inclination to generate lethal effects vice non-lethal effects is very applicable at the tactical and operational levels of war.  However, as demands increase to compete below thresholds of traditional armed conflict, the use of less-conventional means to generate more non-lethal effects at all levels of war (with a growing requirement for operational and strategic engagement) will become more routine.  This demands a paradigm shift in how the United States leverages information in order to generate physical and informational effects across the entire conflict continuum. 

Finally coming to terms with the fact that outcomes in peace and in war hinge ultimately on the human-cognitive and psychological-behavioral aspects of decision making amongst individuals, small cells, groups, militaries, and even entire nations now demands a new way of warfighting and military thinking within the U.S. military.  Under the tutelage of the technical, tactical, and operational schools of thought, militaries used to seek to gain some modicum of spatial positioning against an adversary.  Now, from the Deconstructivist/Strategic School of military thinking and warfighting philosophies, commanders need now to consider how they will employ information to gain perceptual positioning and cognitive maneuver against an adversary.   

As Steven Biddle argues in Military Power, the use of information and cognitive maneuver in war gives “rein to cognitive and organizational distortions” and can lead adversaries to look at true information and that can still “be misinterpreted, [considered] true but irrelevant, some false, [but always] ambiguous.”[33]  He goes on to emphasize that that “historical change in military [capabilities] is not the root cause to mission failure,” rather mission failure and military defeat results “not from technological change but from the failure of particular states to implement the (very difficult) methods” of employing such new systems and capabilities.[34]  Transitioning from the Structuralist/Operational School of Thought to a higher level of contemplation and abstraction in the Deconstructionist/Strategic School brings to light the growing importance of human factors: the emotional, behavioral, perceptive, cognitive, and psychological that are the base for all decisions, logical or illogical, rational, or something less than rational. 

With Information being raised as the seventh Joint Function, the U.S. military requires a shift in how we think about “Military” and its interaction with “Information” as one of the elements of national power and how the military will leverage Information as one of the seven Joint Functions.  In 2016, Secretary Gates said it succinctly that the U.S. military will, in future conflict, gain and through the Information Environment.  While the use of force generates effects on the behavior, perceptions, decision making, and emotions of relevant actors, so too do does information as a function and the associated IRCs separately or in concert with one another.  The trans-regional, multifunctional, and multi-domain threats the United States faces today and for the foreseeable future requires new concepts, capabilities, and considerations be undertaken so that mission failure and perhaps direct threats to national security do not occur.  Dismantling many of the misinterpreted aspects of Boyd’s theories now proves valuable in the 21st century and is only now beginning to uncover the importance of routinely employing “non-traditional tools for creating combat power [against] non-traditional targets in an enemy system.”[35]  


In closing, the author seeks, at a minimum, for this article to encourage dialogue and discourse about the state of contemporary and future war, the U.S. military’s contributions to these institutions, and how the U.S. military’s level of thinking on the application of information is maturing.  At most, this article seeks to initiate broad, critical thinking, conversations, working groups, planning sessions, and decision boards convened to address the utility of how the current OE, IE, cyberspace domain, EMS, and the other operational domains are defined; the utility and operational relevance for a new definition and composition of the OE – one that removes cyberspace as a domain and includes a new informational domain that subsumes cyberspace and the EMS to better capture the mind/medium, content/flow, technical/psychological, or other comparable dimensions.  Additionally, how the U.S. military will address the other IRCs, and information, information in war, and information warfare must occur through a much more responsive, adaptive, and flexible Joint Capabilities Integration Development System (JCIDS) Process.  However, unlike 20th century research, development, test, and evaluation; acquisition; and lifecycle management processes, the JCIDS Process needed to address future informational requirements for the U.S. military needs to be one that is streamlined, accelerated, right-sized, and decentralized to a much greater extent than DoD programs have been predominantly over the past 75-years.  Such a process will require significant modifications, changes, or complete revisions or recensions to one or a combination of doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF).  Because the strategic direction for the U.S. military points towards information - as the seventh Joint Function and its overall importance to contemporary and future war – Geographic and Functional Combatant Commanders need now to identify capabilities gaps in the context of information in order to influence the direction of manning, equipping, training, organizing, directing, employing, and assessing the Joint Force as quickly as possible.  Our future force requires it.  The security of the nation demands it.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not represent those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, U.S. Air Force, or United States Cyber Command.

End Notes

[1] Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms Joint Publication 1-02. Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, February 2018.

[2] Pape, R. A., “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 97 No.3. University of Chicago, August 2003. 

[3] Echevarria, A. J., Clausewitz and Contemporary War. Oxford, United Kingdom:  Oxford University Press:  37-38.

[4] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States. Joint Publication 1. Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, July 2017, I-1.

[5] Jackson, A. P., The Roots of Military Doctrine:  Change and Continuity in Understanding the Practice of Warfare. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas:  Combat Studies Institute Press, 2013.  This article uses Jackson’s approach of detailing the maturation of doctrinal thinking in Western militaries (Technical, Tactical, Operational, and Strategic) as the framework within which the philosophical and more intrinsic exploration of military thinking and warfighting philosophies has occurred (and continues to occur) within Western, and specifically, U.S. military institutions.

[6] Ibid

[7] White, C. E., The Enlightened Soldier:  Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805. London, United Kingdom:  Praeger Press, 1988.

[8] Idib

[9] Weigley, R. F., The American Way of War:  A History of United States Strategy and Policy. Bloomington, Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 1978.

[11] Tyson, L., Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide 2nd Edition. Abington, United Kingdom:  Routledge Company, 210-211.

[12] Boyd, J. R., “Destruction and Creation,” (accessed January 4, 2018), 4.

[13] Ibid, 4-5

[14] Lyotard, J-F, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis, Minnesota:  University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[15] Tyson, L., Critical Theory, 211.

[16] Osinga, F., Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd. Abington, United Kingdom:  Routledge Press, December 2006, 224.

[17] Ibid, 2

[18] Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine, 22.

[19] Osinga, F., Science, Strategy and War, 235.

[20] Pedagogy is used to describe the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of military art and science.  This abstraction is meant to inform tacticians, operational artists, strategists, and theorists, by taking into consideration the different theories of war and warfighting over time.  This pedagogy further seeks to consider how information interacts with the other Joint Functions and how, in doing so, reframes how the Joint Force is employed, how the OE is depicted, and how the Joint Force leverages information in the contemporary and future security environment. 

[21] Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Operations, Publication 3-0, Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, January 17, 2017, v.-vi.

[22] Kline, J., “It’s Time for Extreme Peacekeeping,” Time Magazine, November 16, 2003,,8599,543748,00.html, (accessed February 6, 2018) 47.

[23] United States Army, Counterinsurgency Operations.  Department of the Army Field Manual 3-24.  Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 2006. 

[24] Jackson, The Roots of Military Doctrine, 29

[25] Joint Publication 1, i-ii.

[26] Bassford, C., Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945.  Oxford, United Kingdom:  Oxford University Press, February 17, 1994, 223. 

[27] Boyd, “Destruction and Creation,” 1.

[28] Osinga, F., Science, Strategy, and War, 13.

[29] Ibid, 13.

[30] Ibid, 17-18.

[31] Department of the Navy, Headquarters United States Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication MCDP 1 Warfighting.  Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, 20 June 1997, 40.

[32] Boyd, J., “Strategic Game of ? and ?,” (accessed January 7, 2018),  34-38.

[33] Biddle, S., Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle, Princeton, New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, July 2006.  64.

[34] Ibid, 197.

[35] Osinga, F., Science, Strategy and War 242.

About the Author(s)

Mr. Bradley L. Rees is the Lead Operational Planner and a Strategist at the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), Fort Meade, Maryland.  He is the Joint Planning Group Lead responsible for developing or overseeing the USCYBERCOM Campaign Plan and Family of Plans.  He is a retired U.S. Army Officer with more than 29-years of civilian and military experience within the defense, diplomatic, and intelligence communities.  Among other accomplishments, he is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College’s Defense Strategy Course and U.S. Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting (SAW).


Alex Frank

Tue, 04/03/2018 - 11:49am

This is perhaps the most sophisticated article I have seen on SWJ. You take a dauntingly broad and complex topic with good thinking. I especially appreciated your emphasis on elevating information from a tactic to strategy and background on the (r)evolution of military thinking. That being said, I have some feedback. The article would gain from more directness. I often did not know what you were trying to say in a section until the last sentence. I especially lost you in the distinction between the Modernist and Post-Modernist schools of thought. I think the post modernist was even more reductionist in that it completely ignored political and strategic considerations in favor of tactical and managerial efficiency. This is a worrying trend indeed. Further, is not the structuralist school basically Wehrmacht-style Auftragstaktik?

The lack of directness especially become a problem when you bring in Derrida. While it is necessary to deconstruct the tactical school by showing its utter lack of blindness to context, deconstructionism leaves us with no way to pick up the pieces. At a minimum, we would need a few guidelines to inform our approach to the new information battle space. I propose two. First, the key feature of the modern battle space is the increased interdependence of political narratives. That is, narratives about a conflict travel quickly across interconnected media spaces and have large effects on important social groups. As a result, asymmetric means that engage with narratives are far more decisive than they were in the past. Second, to deal with this, the US military must do two seemingly contradictory things: ruthlessly professionalize some aspects while decentralizing core political functions. We must professionalize our COIN training and administration. The neoliberal delegation of massive paperwork down to the lowest levels leaves infantry officers scrambling to complete useless power-points or administrative work which they have no training on. Further, we must have more professionalized information specialists. The second vein involves decentralized political-security operations. VSO in Afghanistan is an excellent example. Small teams of SF embedded in Afghan villages alongside Civil Affairs, Conventional Security, Psychological Operations, and other enablers. The combination proved effective at gaining extensive knowledge of the local context and winning the contest for legitimacy, thereby sustainably displacing the Taliban. 


Thu, 03/15/2018 - 4:00am


To address the below point.

Begin Quote:

"At most, this article seeks to initiate broad, critical thinking, conversations, working groups, planning sessions, and decision boards convened to address the utility of how the current OE, IE, cyberspace domain, EMS, and the other operational domains are defined; the utility and operational relevance for a new definition and composition of the OE – one that removes cyberspace as a domain and includes a new informational domain that subsumes cyberspace and the EMS to better capture the mind/medium, content/flow, technical/psychological, or other comparable dimensions. "

End Quote

From a joint perspective (JP 2-01.3) the "Holistic View of the Operational Environment" illustrates interrelated and overlapping domains and dimensions.

Begin Quote:

"The information environment is the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information. It is made up of three interrelated dimensions: physical, informational, and cognitive. A significant component of the information environment is cyberspace, which overlaps the physical and informational dimensions of the information environment."

End Quote

Physical refers to the land, air, space and maritime domains.

Taking another perspective, the joint operational area should be assessed as one interconnected or extended domain to accelerate cross-domain targeting and effects. It must also be put in the relevant component context to assess the level of military effort and servicing of targets in domains that enable the land component to reach mission objectives.

Concepts in the 1999 book Unrestricted Warfare highlight the disjointed nature of assessing individual domains and adding more labels to the battle space. Once again, the concept of extended domain is emphasized by the PLA authors. The human domain is also a contested concept, but is arguably the center of gravity or wielder of power in the operational environment and is consistent throughout the physical domains, IE, EMS and cyberspace.