The forthcoming 2022 National Military Strategy’s (NMS) organizing principle is “strategic discipline.” Its “Theory of Success is to exercise Strategic Discipline to continuously calibrate Joint Force weight of effort between campaigning and rapidly building warfighting advantage to deter now and reduce future risk.” The inherent challenge with implementing this NMS is that strategic discipline requires senior military leaders to make hard choices and accept risk. They must go against the intrinsic incentive to prioritize their “watch” versus that of their successors. Strategic discipline contradicts leaders’ natural inclination and requires a truly strategic perspective that gives the future force a vote. This type of prioritization is an attribute that pundits claim is often lacking in national strategy documents. The 2022 NMS recognizes the Joint Force can't do everything well and won't try. Instead, it outlines clear, classified guidance for high thresholds of areas when and where the Joint Force will not assume risk; everywhere else it will.
While leading the Joint Staff’s development of the 2022 NMS and attempting to ensure it drives future budget choices, I found it helpful to figuratively “run to the sound of the guns.” Young Army leaders in combat arms branches are taught this enables them to direct troops and assets to influence the battle from the critical place. Positioning themselves where they can observe key developments and direct fire and maneuver against enemy forces enables tactical leaders to make important decisions to prioritize how, when, and where to best overcome enemy advances and accomplish the mission. During the drafting of the NMS, we had to practice this same technique at the strategic level. We ran into friction points regarding differing perspectives on critical threat-related matters and uncertainty regarding the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine. To resolve those conflicts, “tunning to the sound of the guns”—instead of shying away from the differences, always holding to our original position, or embracing least common denominator consensus positions—proved more effective.
As anyone who has led similar efforts will attest, the development of important national military documents tends to pit strong-willed combatant commanders, service chiefs, policy leaders, and their staffs against each other. Adjudicating between their arguments can be a knife fight because the ultimate language either makes or breaks each organization’s future resource fight. Thus, informed by where they “sit,” leaders and staff members want important documents to prioritize certain threats and missions. Others recognize that they are the economy of force effort but attempt to have their command’s tasks added on as barnacles to various sections. It’s the military’s version of congressional “pork barrel” spending. It primarily benefits the “local interests” of one command by translating into more resources down the road while deluding the finances, manpower, and time available for the most important missions.
Time for Strategic Discipline
To avoid such diffusion of Joint Force resources, and despite the desire to be inclusive, we recognized that the NMS couldn’t be a consensus document, or it would be worthless. It had to make difficult choices and prioritize key missions over others. It does so, in the chairman’s words, by “biasing the future over the present.” General Mark Milley’s guidance is that the Joint Force will do that by emphasizing “strategic discipline” in calibrating between strategic ways of “Building Warfighting Advantage and Campaigning,” generally rebalancing toward the former versus the latter.
The Joint Force has campaigned against near-term threats from violent extremist organizations for the past two decades. It has recognized for more than a decade the urgent need to modernize and prioritize preparation for a great-power war, part of what is meant by building warfighting advantage. The time has come for the pendulum to swing toward building warfighting advantage (a service-centric responsibility) while not neglecting the current campaigning necessary to deter adversaries as well as assure allies and partners (a combatant command mission).
As then-director of the Joint Staff J-5, Vice Admiral Lisa Franchetti pointed out to the NMS development team, despite the decade-long recognition of a need to rebalance toward the Pacific and China that the Joint Force has struggled to prioritize accordingly. There is limited evidence of “strategic discipline” over that period. Nor has there been much in the way of building a warfighting advantage against great powers. Yet we realized the continuing and dire need for it. Thus, “strategic discipline” became the 2022 NMS’ organizing principle and central idea. I leveraged Franchetti’s insights with the NMS Council of Colonels working group, indicating that the military did not want to find itself in the same predicament in another ten years.
Running to the Sound of the Guns
As my team developed the 2022 National Military Strategy (NMS), we “ran to the sound of the guns” in a figurative and unconventional manner—and the strategy is better off for it. We obviously were not locked in mortal combat with the enemy as we outlined the NMS’ sections or penned its words. For us, running to the sound of the guns meant embracing the tension of different viewpoints on important issues. We came to realize that running to—instead of away—from such tension was where the figurative “money” was to be made.
Running away from the friction would have been easier. By running away, we could have tried to ignore the friction, include all the input we received, or allowed the NMS to be a consensus document. But seeking out the friction, asking “why” it existed, and what was behind each side’s recommendations was figuratively “running to the sound of the guns” in a way that made the NMS better. The friction points, where the “sound of the guns” was loudest, are where the decisive points were. It was in trying to decipher differing views that we could usually find a more creative, accurate, or just plain better solution.
By so doing we positioned ourselves—like tactical leaders who’ve moved to the “sound of the guns” and can best influence the battle—to leverage the strongest assets we had for the greatest gain. On the battlefield, the most critical assets can be those that are the most lethal, like cannons, tanks, attack aviation, close air support, and armed drones. Other times, it may be the intelligence asset which provides the enemy’s location. Still other times it’s the logistics supply chain that provides much need ammunition, fuel, food, water, or other supplies. On other occasions, engineers that open a way through the obstacles may be most important. Our strongest assets were superb and contrasting input from the services, combatant commands, and Joint Staff.
I didn’t always view the input of those outside the core writing team as our strongest assets. After a couple of times working through contrary opinions that caused us to rethink whether we had it right, it dawned on me: such mental gymnastics was often the key to success. We needed contrasting input to such tough questions as: Which country posed the greatest threat and in what ways? What other threats were worth mentioning? How could various threats be mentioned without diluting the Joint Force’s effort? How focused could the NMS be without causing the Joint Force to be surprised by a future threat? What was the Joint Force most likely to face from various threats? (The answers to these questions are classified, so I don’t address them here.)
Wrestling with difficult questions, and the dissenting opinions and contradictory input to answer those questions, was only one form of friction. Being ready for chairman touchpoints was another, completely different type. The team made sure we always had products ready to show our progress and several key questions ready should we be called to the chairman’s office on fifteen minutes’ notice. That was our effort to plan ahead for success and avoid the internal friction that comes from a lack of preparation. It ensured we were able to ask and receive the guidance we most needed at each point to continue developing the NMS within the chairman’s intent.
Before these meetings, we dealt with what some would have deemed as the “too little guidance” friction point by leveraging Milley’s existing public record of speeches and posture testimony instead of wringing our hands. We then read between the lines and connected the strategic dots to move forward until we received confirmation of our direction or guidance steering us along a different azimuth. The chairman’s repeated public emphasis on the importance of modernization, not just of technology-centric platforms but also of novel concepts, is one area in this category. As Milley often champions, it is the side that best anticipates the character of future war and integrates new concepts with emerging capabilities and leader-directed training that enters the next war with an advantage. It doesn’t stop there. Strategy is iterative. The side that adapts most rapidly during wars retains or regains the advantage. We took this and developed three of our ten Joint Force tasks based on this guidance. Though Milley never told us to do that directly, he had indirectly. Guidance from our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff meetings subsequently enabled proper prioritization when gathering input from the services (including the Coast Guard and the National Guard Bureau), the combatant commands, the Joint Staff Directorates, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), and the State Department.