Small Wars Journal

Looking to the Stars: Imagining a Constellation of Capabilities

Thu, 07/17/2014 - 8:44am

Looking to the Stars: Imagining a Constellation of Capabilities

Dan Maurer

Army Major Matt Cavanaugh, professor of strategy at the United State Military Academy and founder/editor of the independent War Council website, recently initiated a “summer essay campaign.”  His laudable goal was to solicit thoughtful, if brief, answers to a series of questions about “the use of force in the modern world”–questions broader and deeper than the kind he believes remain unheard in the classrooms of Thayer Hall, regrettably unasked of cadets during their studies at West Point in any systematic, rigorous academic study.

One question Major Cavanaugh posed was deceptively simple: “What is the proper relationship between militaries and non-governmental organizations (i.e. the United Nations)?”[i]  This question, like many he suggested were of critical importance for the consideration of officers—young and old alike—was in the same vein as those questions the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Odierno, had his Strategic Studies Group Fellows address as part of their independent research over the last two years.[ii]  This kind of question also lurks behind major concept development efforts spanning several of the Services, like the Army-Marine Corps-SOCOM dance around “strategic landpower,” and the Navy-Air Force leaping splash into Air-Sea Battle doctrine.  Major Cavanaugh’s question may strike some as beyond the reach of the professional necessity of platoon leaders, company commanders, battalion and brigade staff officers, let alone students so young that the first year of the Global War on Terror likely predated their start of middle school.  Yet, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs emphasizing the decentralized nature of modern war, both personally[iii] and in emerging joint doctrine,[iv] we of the Saved by the Bell generation are likely inheritors of a national security structure that will likely be more starfish and less spider[v]—a vision of the future horizon that assumes flexible, mutable, and resilient organizations, linking state and non-state actors, will be the war-prevention and war-waging norm rather than the exception, and managed in ways alien to traditional alliances and coalition-of-the-willing partnerships.  This view demands we get off the pier and board the ship (or ark, depending on how pessimistic your view of that future is) before it sails on without us.  For this reason, the War Council invitation to reflect on this question of strategy—largely directed at a younger age cohort of thinkers and leaders than typically populate concept development staffs—is entirely apropos.[vi]

While the problem posed by the War Council seems straightforward, it presumes that there is a “proper relationship”—one that is objectively appropriate to the exclusion of (most) others.   In a way, it echoes most American civil-military relations theory, beginning with Huntington’s, which casts military professionals into a definitive master-servant or principal-agent relationship with civilian authority.[vii]  But unlike civil-military relations, the dynamic between a military force and NGOs may not be institutionalized, cemented in law and custom.  Rather than a “proper” form,  I argue that there are relatively better or worse constellations of relationships, with their qualitative value depending more on historical and operational context—which most importantly includes the strategic aim—the raison d’ état—for which the military and NGOs are working in concert (or arguing with each other in contempt).

This recasting of the question implicates the purpose for which militaries are used and the ways and means by which they achieve their purposes—sometimes with, sometimes without, the influence, participation, or engagement with domestic or international NGOs.  Of course, scale, strategy, location all matter but by and large our “purpose” is applying military might on land.  Landpower has been defined in Army doctrine as “the ability—by threat, force, or occupation—to gain, sustain, and exploit control over land, resources, and people.”[viii]  “Strategic Landpower” is considered the “application of landpower towards achieving overarching national or multinational (alliance or coalition) security objectives and guidance for a given military campaign or operation.”[ix]

But to help address the relationship between Armed Forces and NGOs, it is possible to take a broader view and attempt to generalize these ideas.  When we do this, the menu of potential arrangements between and among military forces and NGOs gets longer, giving policy-makers that many more choices and opportunities in which to apply the right means, in the right ways, for the given end.  For instance, an actor expresses power by influencing, changing, or controlling the behaviors, expectations, resources, or the capacity to volitionally act among other relevant parties and institutions.  This effect of power becomes “strategic” in quality when it materially advances an actor’s freedom of choice and freedom of action, such that (A) the effect is consistent with that actor’s policy objective that originally animated the expression of power, and/or (B) the effect redirects an adversary’s or a competitor’s actual or perceived policy objectives.[x]

The strategic quality of their relative expressions of power may be direct or indirect.  It may be caused by actors deliberately or inadvertently.  It will manifest in unpredictable ways.  And it will cause incidental unforeseen effects that will affirm, reverse, or realign the actor’s original motive for expressing its power.  Admittedly, this seems strikingly banal, even obvious.  One needs only look at Russia’s springtime annexation of Crimea, its oligarchic media painting Putin as the apotheosis of the country’s return to global significance, its massing on the Ukrainian border, and tacitly sponsoring or inciting pro-Russian separatists calling for Novorussiya’s flag to replace that of the newly elected government in Kiev.  When commentators are calling this the gravest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War itself, the apparent sudden shift of western attention to the successful ISIS surge in northwestern Iraq, displacing the elected government’s legitimate (though perhaps ineffectual) claims of authority, was equally unanticipated and added to a sense of strategically dizzying disorientation.  Both episodes—each far from resolution—illustrates again why the traditional and conventional US Armed Forces believe serious introspection is warranted: our institutional existential crisis is not a named enemy at the gate, but rather a threat to the way we usually distinguish friend from foe, and how we organize to protect the former and defeat the latter.[xi]

While history, including recent history, offers many such opportunities to be surprised by geopolitical bolts from the blue, history offers us in uniform another chance to consider the implication.  Try as we might, we cannot predict or understand the strategic impact of land power without appreciating the simple, realistic, fact that those in uniform are not the only players capable of digging “strategic” craters in which to trip or digging “strategic” canals through which to link resources.  Each of the U.S. Armed Services will retain its own core competencies and historical comparative advantages—those activities or capabilities that can be performed at a lower opportunity cost or smaller disadvantage than its sister Services.  Moreover, each of the U.S. Armed Services will retain its own equities, specific institutional concerns, and competitive advantages—those activities or capabilities that are performed qualitatively better than its sister Services.  Likewise, this is true across Executive Branch organizations, departments, and agencies, and true of NGOs.  There are humanitarian activities for which the specialists in Medecins sans Frontieres are fundamentally more valuable, efficient, and appropriate than a deployed Combat Support Hospital, just as there functions and tasks for which specialists from the Department of Justice are better informed than uniformed attorneys from the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, or civilian contractors we hire—depending in context, mission, and resources.

At the most macroscopic or generic of scales, institutional and organizational actors capable of applying or expressing power (as defined above) assume various archetypal guises, just as individuals might.  Depending on context, that organization might be filling the role of advisor, supplier, broker, catalyst, agent, partner, mentor, scout, director, recruiter, general contractor, general practitioner, leader, organizer, educator, mediator, negotiator, judge, CEO, CFO, trainer, operator, coordinator, triage nurse, beneficiary, or counselor.  Or a blend of some or all of these.  Actors may overlap in roles, and may change roles or trade functions over time, but these roles remain expressions of the actors’ core competencies and comparative and competitive advantages. 

Therefore, the question—changing yet again from that originally posed—is how might these various actors (military, government, NGO) build, sustain, and profit from the shifting and context-dependent relationships that are inevitable if we are applying power strategically on the land.  I offer the following analogy: the medical “integrated practice team.”  Medical professionals generally agree that the best outcomes for patients and most cost-effective use of existing resources and talent is the network: a context-dependent (e.g., patient and ailment) web of general practitioners, surgeons, nurses, administrative staff and “care managers,” therapists, and other community members or clinics organized around holistically addressing a particular patient’s condition.[xii]  This multidisciplinary approach is premised, in part, on the obvious point that no singular specialist can do everything without approaching mediocrity—or worse, ineptitude.  This teaming strategy attempts—again, the ideal—to leverage each professional’s best abilities and competencies, and mitigate their individual limitations.[xiii]  So, perhaps the nascent idea behind the Army’s “global landpower network” ought to be more than simply looking to our international allies and partners for tying together joint military capabilities. [xiv]  A true Constellation of Capabilities would be a robust and institutionalized networked approach to Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) collaboration and operations.  This constellation would have to be flexible enough to be responsive to evolving, uncertain national security strategies, capable of reacting quickly at low(er) cost to the unpredictable crisis, broadly aware of geographical, political, social, and military developments prior to crises, and adaptive to unforeseen consequences. 

The only way we can come close to the flexibility, reactivity, awareness, and adaptability we all agree we need[xv] is to acknowledge that the constellation may look a lot different than our current vision of JIIM, just like modern medical practice looks a lot different from the family practitioner traveling across rural homes and communities with his little black kit bag.  In other words, the new outlines of shapes we see may consist of unconventional or non-traditional “stars,” or simply those previously obscured by the gravity and luminosity of the larger suns we typically see without the mechanical aid of telescopes.  Consider this undesirable hypothetical: if the Army found itself operating in or around say, the “megacity” of Lagos, for a humanitarian mission-turned-counterterrorist operation, would not local paramilitary and city police forces, not to mention civil engineers, neighborhood organizations, hospitals, regional politicians, sanitation experts, the Red Crescent, local print and broadcast or online media, diplomatic assets, courts, and private industry be sought out as “partner” nodes in a network in which the military formed a hub?  Are they not all material, to some degree, in advancing our freedom of choice and freedom of action, and likely relevant to our ultimate policy objective?[xvi]

The Joint Staff recognizes that we must be “globally postured” to “quickly combine capabilities with . . . mission partners across domains, echelons, geographic boundaries, and organizational affiliations” in “networks of forces and partners that will form, evolve, dissolve, and reform in different arrangements.”[xvii]  Of course, networks come with inherent costs and benefits.  Of the former, we can count uncertain political support and resources—internationally and domestically; networks also come in varying degrees of fragility; they are subject to their constituent parts’ competing short-term and long-term interests; they may suffer from “disunity” of command; they require flexibility and patience to nurture overtime; and—not unimportantly—they may imply the scaling back of traditional roles and missions normally assumed by the actors if they had been acting unilaterally.  On the other hand, networks can be scaled to varying and escalating degrees of conflict and duration; they can be tailored to reflect nuanced missions and the unequal capabilities of the constituent nodes; they encourage collaborative planning and synchronized actions; they can optimize their “strength in numbers;” they offer enhanced ability to discriminately choose where, when, how, and who to engage; and they are able to absorb and respond to external shocks and internal disruptions better than conventional command and control hierarchies.  Moreover, the Army possesses—in house—professional analogues to just about any of the non-military actors that express power strategically on land: doctors (medical service corps officers), diplomats (foreign area officers), engineers (engineers), law enforcement (military police), and media (public affairs).  It is worth considering just how easily we might re-conceive of these analogues as not just necessary “enablers” (the proverbial “tail”) for the war fighter, but the formal channels or links connecting the nodes in this networked, integrated constellation. 

Ultimately, an answer to the question of how to best structure and secure relations between militaries and NGOs is just this: re-imagine these non-traditional “stars” as part and parcel of our now much wider multidisciplinary team—a constellation of capability that adapts, reacts, postures, prevents, and understands how, when, where, and why to express power “strategically.”  Accepting this paradigm shift has its consequences: answering this question of NGO-to-military arrangement in this way forces us to reconsider our assumptions and current practices in just about everything we do, from war-fighting doctrine to professional military education, from the “regional alignment of forces” to how we train, recruit, and organize our assets into these constellations.  If we are truly at a point of strategic inflection or transition, then the Army—really, the defense establishment—may need a new constellation by which to navigate these uncharted seas.

Major Dan Maurer is a former combat engineer officer and current judge advocate, was a 2013-14 Fellow on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, and has deployed twice to Iraq.  sHe has published previously in Small Wars Journal, Army Lawyer, Engineer, and several academic legal journals on topics ranging from mediation system design to court-martial panel selections.  The opinions in this essay are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the policy or views of HQDA or the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

End Notes

[i] Major Matthew Cavanaugh, comment posted on June 9, 2014, at, last accessed July 8, 2014.

[ii] In full disclosure, the author was one of those Fellows, in the 2013-14 cohort, and owes special thanks to his colleagues in the SSG who inspired or stirred many of the ideas in this essay.

[iii]General Martin Dempsey, July 26, 2011 (testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee),, last accessed July 8, 2014.

[iv] Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 (10 September 2012).

[v] Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 34-35.

[vi] An earlier, slightly briefer, version of this article appeared first on the War Council’s blog, in answer to Question 9 of the “Summer Essay Campaign,” posed on June 9, 2014.  My thanks to Major Cavanaugh for granting permission to update that essay and submit it here.

[vii] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), 16.

[viii] Army Doctrine Reference Publication 3-0.

[ix] General Raymond T. Odierno, General James F. Amos, and Admiral William H.  McRaven, “Strategic Landpower White Paper: Winning the Clash of Wills,” available at (hereinafter, “Strategic Landpower White Paper”).

[x] My thanks to Captain Paul Thomas, US Army, a colleague on the CSA’s Strategic Studies Group, for help in formulating this conceptualization of “power” and “strategic power.”

[xi] See, e.g., Odierno, Amos, and McRaven, “Strategic Landpower White Paper.”

[xii] See, e.g., Michael E. Porter and Thomas H. Lee, “The Strategy That Will Fix Health Care,” Harvard Business Review, October 2013, available at

[xiii] The author wishes to thank Colonel John Via, Army Medical Service Corps officer, and colleague on the 2013-14 SSG cohort, for help in constructing this analogy.

[xiv] See, e.g., Paul McLeary,  “US Army Working With Joint Chiefs to Develop ‘Global Landpower Network,’ News, 13 March 2014 (last accessed 24 June 2014).

[xv] General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 (10 September 2012), iii.

[xvi] See, e.g., Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (London: Vintage Books, 2004), 52.

[xvii] Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020, 4.


About the Author(s)

Major Dan Maurer, U.S. Army, is a contributing writer at USMA’s Modern War Institute, a judge advocate and former platoon leader in combat, and the first lawyer to serve as a Fellow on the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group.  He has a JD and LLM, and has published widely in various law reviews, as well as at Modern War Institute and in Military Review, Small Wars Journal, and the Harvard National Security Journal.  His book, Crisis, Agency, and the Law in U.S. Civil-Military Relations, will be published this spring by Palgrave Macmillan Press; his monograph, The Clash of the Trinities: A Theoretical Analysis of the General Nature of War, will be published this summer by the Strategic Studies Institute Press. His chapter on how the Star Wars films illustrate themes of modern strategic civil-military relationships will appear in a book forthcoming from Potomac Press in early 2018.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Army, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, or the Department of Defense.