The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H207 Is There a Strategist in the House?

russia 1941One of the reasons why the German offensive into Russia in 1941, Operation Barbarossa, failed, may have been the cultural inability of the German high command to think in terms of, and visualize strategic warfare on a global scale. The German military, prior to WWII, had very little experience with warfare outside of Europe. Their major war experience was WWI and the primary focus of the German military in that war was in the relatively small geographic area of western Europe. Thus, many students of World War II see the German military as experts at battle, experts at operational warfare, and complete failures as global strategists. Today’s American army is similarly considered expert at battle and joint warfare. Does the modern American military have a similar weakness when it comes to strategy?


February 9, 2016 - Posted by | H200, Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. There is inherent uncertainty in trying to predict the operational environment of future wars. However, a best-guess prediction is necessary to provide a basis for militaries to plan and prepare for future conflicts. The trend globally has been a growth in the number of megacities, which are defined as cities with populations of above ten million people. The US military needs to be cognizant of this development and take necessary steps to prepare for conflicts in such a densely populated urban terrain.

    The US military has operated in urban terrain, such as Baghdad, which has a population of approximately four million people. However, this is not quite the same scale as that for megacities. There is a parallel lesson from Germany’s failure in Operation Barbarossa. Germany was culturally used to conflict in western Europe, which is a relatively small geographic area, compared to the scale and distances in Operation Barbarossa. Similarly, the US military might be culturally used to conflict in smaller cities, which is not the same scale as that of large megacities. This could result in failure in future wars if the US military does not prepare for the possibility of conflict in large megacities.

    Comment by Luke Goh, SG 19B | February 10, 2016

  2. Luke makes a valid point regarding the importance of scale and the required institutional changes required to operate in a megacity of the future. Compound this scale with littoral geography that is threatened by rising sea levels, and the potential for millions of disenfranchised people destablizing a region with widespread security impacts is a likely scenario. I believe, however, that there is a more urgent threat to US interests that the modern American military is not prepared for: political warfare.

    Rising near-peer competitors are utilizing non-attributional proxy forces to achieve strategic objectives. These forces, like Russia’s little green men in Ukraine and China’s little blue men in the East and South China Sea, act in a realm that span the peace-conflict continuum. In contemporary vernacular, the Special Operations community refers to this as the “Gray Zone.” In the gray zone, state and non-state actors alike pursue their strategic objectives while remaining under the threshold of a US military response. China will send its maritime militia to harass US ships, Japanese coast guard cutters, and Filipino fishermen, to advance China’s maritime claims while preventing an escalation of military conflict. Russia’s little green men will create an environment in Ukraine that will prevent western influence, secure Russia energy exports, and undermine US credibility.

    The modern American military, and the modern American national security apparatus, operates on the framework that is almost 70 years old (the 1947 National Security Act). While changes like Goldwater-Nichols have increased joint capabilities, the framework for how we think and act about conflict is framed around a global environment that vastly different from today. If political objectives are the ultimate endstate of our military interventions, the framework for the employment of the force and how we view conflict must change. The modern American military must develop a political warfare capability that can effectively operate in the gray zone–between diplomacy, rule of law, and conflict–to thwart growing aggression from state, state-sponsored, and non-state actors alike.

    Comment by Kyle Johnston | February 11, 2016

  3. The modern American military will continue to struggle in grappling with strategic success but not because of tactical or operational superiority but instead due to the complex nature of warfare. Germany demonstrated the complex systems relationship of total warfare during World War II; while the case study of Operation Barbarosa effectively demonstrates German myopia on the strategic front, the larger macrocosm of global war demonstrates the challenges inherent to linking strategy to execution.

    Today’s American military is struggling with building cohesive strategy alongside civilian policy-makers. This struggle is manifesting dangerously as ends, ways and means are not aligned in modern struggles. A significant issue is singularly-focused services that are unable to establish joint strategy and policy. Instead, the services continue to focus myopically and fail to perceive the strategic issues at stake – albeit fiscal crises, future force tailoring, or hybrid threats.

    To preserve America’s military edge and learn from the German mistakes during World War II, America must identify strategic ends through transparent policy. With these ends identified, military leaders must then tailor tactical means to achieve these ends with a joint purpose. Generals must abandon myopic service opinions (cue the three retired Generals on stage who remain convinced the Army needs its own navy for port opening …) and enable future strategy to link ends, means, and ways.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, 19A | February 11, 2016

  4. I think the US is doing a better job now than before at understanding the strategic objectives in gaining success. As our military continues to evolve, Military leaders now understand the importance of strategic understanding. Operation Barbarossa came at the failure of Hitler rather than the military. Our military and government is controlled by civilian politicians as well, therefore it is imperative for our military leaders to shape our politicians in understanding military strategic objectives.

    Comment by James Stall | February 11, 2016

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