Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:55 | SYDNEY

Strategic corporal or tactical strategist?


Rodger Shanahan


This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

29 July 2011 09:30

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

A friend of mine, still in uniform, was reading an Interpreter debate thread about the utility/futility of our presence in Afghanistan and asked me what I thought was meant when one contributor wrote about the '...lack of mutual understanding (that) has underwritten much of the tension between uniformed soldiers and civilian strategists' (my emphasis).

Because I have one foot in the think-tank world and had one foot in the uniformed soldier world, my friend thought I might be able to tell him what a 'civilian strategist' was. I couldn't exactly enlighten him, other than to tell him what I think people who call themselves civilian strategists think they are.

Some people have done courses, so consider themselves strategists as a result. Some have worked in the public service in intelligence or defence policy and consider themselves strategists, while others have written on strategic issues that have influenced government policy. But 'strategist' is not a qualification; it is an appellation one can give oneself.  

Which then got me thinking why the military seems to want to get its people to think strategically but why the strategic community never appear to think operationally or tactically.

The notion of the 'strategic corporal', a phrase coined by US Marine General Charles Krulack in 1999, is a good case in point. With the onset of the information age and the omnipresence of the media (both social and old), the decisions taken by tactical-level commanders can readily resonate at the strategic level. So the concept of tactical commanders needing to understand the strategic effects of their decisions has been taught as a fundamental part of professional military education.

I often wonder why the reverse never seems to occur. If tactical-level commanders are expected to take into account the strategic environment in which they operate, at what point do putative strategists need to understand the tactical or operational level implications of their strategic prognostications?

I used to wonder why those in the academic or bureaucratic community who advocated a Defence of Australia strategy were never asked to outline the impact of this approach on the army's ability to deploy and sustain itself outside continental Australia. Or, more recently, why those who advocate pulling Australian troops behind the wire in Uruzgan fail to address the impact of such a suggestion on the tactical environment outside the wire, and the impact on the ADF and OGA hunkered down inside the wire.

The military appreciation process, the means by which plans are formulated, requires those driving the plan to examine the intent of two levels of command above them and the impact of plans on two levels of command below them to ensure that both the higher level guidance and the lower level impact of decisions are understood.

I stand to be corrected, but I assume that strategic studies courses taught in universities don't spend much time discussing the second- or third-order effects of strategic plans at the operational or tactical level.

Photo by Flickr user avyfain.