Small Wars Journal

An Apolitical Military, Not a Non-political Military, is Key to Superior Strategy and National Values

An Apolitical Military, Not a Non-political Military, is Key to Superior Strategy and National Values

Thomas A. Drohan

A cultural “firebreak” between what is broadly branded as political, and what is narrowly construed as military, is undermining effective strategy and values.

The firebreak is—military leaders avoiding political issues—being non-political. Military operations occur in deeply political contexts and narratives with long-term causes and effects, but senior military leaders generally don’t go there. The causes of this avoidance appear to be cultural, and cultural transformation tends to lag technology and threats. The firebreak shows up in policy, strategy, and doctrine — which leadership can change.

Culture. For better or for worse, the US military is a risk averse culture with respect to politics. What’s more debatable than politics? Perhaps religion. So it’s safer to be non-political than apolitical, even though the US Constitution requires of our military, the latter. Let me explain this distinction.

By non-political, I mean steering clear of political issues altogether. Such avoidance seems safe, since what’s political is a slippery topic that encompasses values, interests, and choices.

By apolitical, I refer to separating one’s personal politics from one’s professional duties. This distinction is a fine point, but it has broad brush impact on the quality of security strategy and the integrity of national values. How?

Despite the inherent political character of war and warfare, senior military leaders reinforce being non-political. It’s more secure and defensible to stay inside one’s job jar by defining responsibilities in military terms, short of politics. The problem is, any military action has political consequences. And, we win or lose wars of all types when we ignore political outcomes.

With respect to being apolitical, the basic legal restrictions began with the Hatch Act, which since 1939 requires federal employees to serve in a non-partisan manner. Politicization of military judgment is always a concern. Perceived awareness of partisanship becomes acute when: (a) senior military leaders retire and exercise their right to serve in the government, subject to government ethics restrictions; and (b) elected officials engage in partisan behavior in military settings. The apolitical strength of the US military, however, is girded by substantial legal support to military operations, which are internal to the government but multi-level. The comprehensive oversight covers law of war, rules of engagement, deployment orders, plans and operations.

While apolitical service is the professional standard, there is no legal barrier against military members providing politically informed professional advice. In fact, just the opposite is expected.

“Military” advice includes a myriad of factors considered in joint doctrine that spans personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics, planning, and communications. The operations series doctrine alone extends beyond domain-specific land, maritime, air, space, cyberspace and information warfare, and special operations, and chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear response. Publications also include inter-organizational cooperation, urban operations, stability operations, defense support of civil authorities, legal support, multi-national operations, security cooperation, foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, countering threat networks, foreign humanitarian assistance, civil military operations, and public affairs.

Clearly, the use of military forces in any manner influences the emergence of threats and potential political solutions, as we have seen with challenge of transnational terrorism.  Indeed the political context of any military operation is critical to success particularly in our interconnected information environment. Yet, the firebreak keeps showing up.

Policy. At the level of policy, the pol-mil firebreak shows up incessantly. Many leaders publicly adopt an “on-off” perspective to peace or war, conflict or cooperation, and friend or foe. This over-simple distinction flies in the face of persistent fears, hybrid threats, and frenemies that define the actual character of warfare: confrontation and cooperation at the same time.

Within the government, the policy gets translated as: politics and diplomacy are supported operations; military activities are supporting operations. One need only look at the budget of the Department of State and the Department of Defense to see that this policy does not fit reality. And within the DoD, one need only look at the flag officer billets populated by infantry, aircraft and ship commanders (lead operators) compared to intelligence, cyber and space commanders (supporting functionaries). A RAND study (xxii) of flag officer billets reflects the enculturated bias toward leaders who operate platforms with the following criteria of “military essentiality” — command of a military unit, an operational focus, and leadership of a significant military formation.

Do platform operators firebreak-think more than functional leaders? That remains to be seen, as military leaders adapt to an age that includes super-connected human and artificial intelligence interacting at quantum speed, with pervasive uncertainty. The question is vital to how the military profession will contribute to security strategy. Flag officers at the highest levels of responsibility necessarily become familiar with a myriad of factors that broaden “military” considerations. This personal challenge strains the firebreak and can be a force for cultural change. We have seen the same issue with respect to building a Joint mindset out of service-specific capabilities.

The big reveal of the preceding should not be surprising: kinetic military operations lead American security strategy despite normative policy. Political considerations do have primacy in one respect. Military operations support the politics of the defense budget.

Strategy and Doctrine. At the level of national strategy, the firebreak is one of military and political effects, as reflected in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

National Security Strategy. The National Security Strategy (NSS) assigns purpose to tasks at a very general level. The latest version propounds four pillars of national security and lays out priority actions to achieve them. The four pillars, or goals, are: protect the homeland; promote American prosperity; preserve peace through strength; and advance American influence. The firebreak has at least two layers.

First, the concept of effects is entirely missing in the NSS for the second and fourth pillars (prosperity and influence). This conceptual gap means that priority actions such as military operations are not connected via effects to these two pillars, which are economic and political. My point is not to micro-direct how effects should be achieved, but to specify what the desired effects are.

Second, many senior military leaders don’t speak this language anyway. Most are operator-commanders. So the language of military doctrine or heritage identity tends to take over, and it is exceedingly limited in scope.

Consider, for instance, strategy, tactics, and operations. Perhaps nothing is more fundamental to military doctrine than these nouns and their respective implementing adjectives—strategic, tactical and operational.

Strategy is a process of seeking desired ends through ways and means. The art should encompass best  goals, methods and resources. However, when we implement strategy and set priorities, “strategic” is still too often equated with weapons’ reach and destructive yield, rather than with the significance of their effects. More leaders seem to recognize that information, weaponized via space and cyber, can coerce behavior, but most default to providing military (read kinetic) solutions to military problems.

In similar fashion, tactics in military strategy is narrowly defined as the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other (212). This definition inures military leaders from thinking about tactics more broadly, such as the rearrangement of any and all instruments of power—diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES). With more situational and joint/interagency awareness, the more tailored the tactics can be.

Operations are supposed to connect strategy to tactics and vice versa, but our language is truncated there, too. Consider the term “end-state,” which describes desired conditions military operations seek to bring about. End-state is defined in exclusively military terms even though such a thing does not exist. Any military action has at least political, economic and social effects, and those are what determine relative victory and relative defeat.

Overall, the doctrinal language of strategy, operations and tactics is focused on military matters. What’s wrong with that? The problem is, applying military doctrine in its current language and culture reduces political considerations to military considerations. Military leaders steer clear of political issues by ending their responsibility for thinking, at the military end-state.

National Defense Strategy. The National Defense Strategy constructs an intellectual firebreak by emphasizing the basic function of the Department of Defense (DoD): to deter war and protect security. The problem here is that more actors with more access to more instruments of power are seeking more ways to achieve their goals. We are at war and peace all of the time.

Neither national security strategy nor military doctrine recognizes this predicament. Instead, our defense strategy advocates a deterrent approach of “achieving peace through strength” by reinforcing diplomatic negotiations with potential military options. It’s a logic of peace or war. When peace fails—that is, war is not deterred—the DoD’s job is to win the resulting conflict. For the grey zone in between peace and war, the DoD is to reinforce “traditional tools of diplomacy, ensuring that the President and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength.” Again and again, the real world does not behave that way. Actors confront and cooperate at the same time using all available instruments of power.

Winning Tomorrow’s Wars. The preceding assumptions do not fit an age of combined effects warfare. Our competitors blend all instruments of power (IoP) across all domains. Add artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and the effects of all-IoP warfare become more rapid and less predictable. Current efforts are but a beginning to meet this challenge. Here are two.

First, the multi-domain operations (MDO) effort led by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein is registering success in integrating multi-service capabilities across domains. While the effects of MDO are societal in scope, the effort is limited to military operations. Second, an initiative led by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen John Hyten seeks to redirect the Joint Requirements Oversight Council toward its original purpose. The scope is all-domain. Similar to MDO, this effort fits inside the firebreak’s prescribed burn. These course changes are bold with respect to winning military battles, but skirt the edge of DIMES-wide wars.

An all-domain, combined arms operations approach is not sufficient to win complex wars because the strategy is too narrow. We must prepare not only to win battles but also to achieve strategically significant victories. The latter requires strategy to be superior. Even if we forsake so-called forever wars to resource so-called great power competition, how will we integrate military strategy into broader defense and security strategy? We at least need to speak a common language that considers combinations of all relevant effects. Effects are what win forever wars and for what it’s worth, make any power great.

Being specific with respect to goals is also important. Instead of military and other operations chasing vague goals (stability, security, etc.), objectives and effects need to be defined in terms of what to cause, and what to prevent. With that as a starting point, we might plan to integrate effects, not just causes. That means developing combinations of goals that are superior to combinations of arms and efforts. The stakes are even greater than the quality of strategy.

Failure to specify broad combined effects also threatens the trust people have in the military profession as its adapts to emerging challenges. How so?

If the US military does not provide military advice that includes political, diplomatic, economic, technological, social, and any other relevant consideration, it becomes non-political. Loyal military leaders enroute to greater responsibility dare not risk giving political advice. When that happens, a paradox can occur. The military profession becomes prostituted to providing services without regard to their more-than-military impact.

Eliminating the self-imposed firebreak is compatible with our democracy’s military subordination to political authority. Civilian control of the military includes seeking advice, recommendations, and options from military experts to help solve interrelated political and other security problems. The specific permissions and authorities to make impactful decisions are made by properly elected and appointed officials. What to do?

Political leaders should make certain that senior military leaders are expected to take into account the combined effects of proposed military operations. Military leaders should provide apolitical solutions, which are not necessarily non-political ones.

Both of these recommendations require whole-of-government collaboration that is deep and rapid among networks of subject matter experts. The challenge presents opportunities for improvement. Together, such proactive leadership can built upon multi-and all-domain initiatives to develop superior security strategy within the framework and values of the US Constitution.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Tom Drohan, Director of JMark Services Inc.  International Center for Security and Leadership, is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military and strategic studies, USAF Academy. His 38-year career as a pilot and permanent professor included operational campaigns and commands, undergraduate and graduate-level teaching, and educational leadership. His academic experience includes B.S. in national security studies (USAF Academy), M.A. in political science (University of Hawaii), Ph.D. in politics (Princeton University), Council on Foreign Relations fellowship in Japan, mentor at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, visiting scholar at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, and dean of the United Arab Emirates National Defense College. He is the author of American-Japanese Security Agreements (McFarland & Co., 2007), A New Strategy for Complex Warfare (Cambria Press, 2016), and various publications on security and strategy.