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What Is Strategy?

This article is part of Strategy Central's mission to assist the national security community in developing, implementing, and evaluating strategy. It is for practitioners, by practitioners..




This article was conceived to help frame a definition for strategy that would baseline how we use the term at Strategy Central. Our focus is primarily military but extends to the National Security Council and, by default, to other interagency elements. The definition is not exhaustive but practical and condensed enough to be useful. In this article, military strategy will be defined; we will show how well StratBot defined it and offer a definition of strategy that tries to show how the basics have a universal application.




Military strategy is the art and science of achieving a political objective through the military instrument of national power. It is not simply planning or a campaign plan but rather a guiding and directing force that is distinct from the products and activities of a campaign plan. Military strategy serves as a means to reduce strategic risk and achieve specific objectives that protect national interests as conveyed by national policy and strategy.


Unlike national strategy, military strategy focuses specifically on the military instrument of national power. However, it must still be integrated with the diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments to be effective. A comprehensive approach to strategy is necessary for achieving successful outcomes.


The ends, ways, and means in military strategy represent the objectives, execution methods, and available resources of the joint force. These frameworks provide a lens for subsequent campaign planning and contingency planning. Risk in military strategy is localized to the ends, ways, and means and may differ from risk in a defense strategy. Overall, military strategy is both practical and purposeful, entailing a coherent design for harmonizing and focusing efforts to achieve policy objectives. It involves analyzing and synthesizing information across various domains to adapt to unfolding circumstances and shape the desired outcomes.


Military strategy is only one element of national power and must fit into broader national strategy, highlighting the interrelation between military actions and national objectives. The following is a breakdown of strategy integration, the military strategy framework, and their applications:

Military Strategy within National Strategy

  • Integration with National Strategy: Military strategy is a subset of national strategy, emphasizing that military efforts must align with and support the government's overarching goals and policies. This reflects a holistic approach where military actions are not isolated but are instrumental in achieving national objectives.

  • Compliance with National Policy: The requirement for military strategy to comply with national policy underscores the principle that military actions must aim at achieving tactical or operational success and contribute positively towards the nation's broader political and social objectives.

The Conceptual Framework of Military Strategy

  • Strategy as Ends, Ways, and Means: This formula is a foundational framework for understanding and developing military strategy. It simplifies the complex process of strategy formulation into three fundamental components:

  • Ends: The objectives or desired outcomes that military action seeks to achieve.

  • Ways: The methods or courses of action that are employed to achieve these objectives.

  • Means: The resources (human, material, financial, etc.) required to execute the chosen methods.

Application Across Levels of War

  • Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Levels: The conceptual approach to military strategy applies across all levels of war, indicating a universal framework that guides decision-making from the highest strategic echelons down to tactical units. This universality ensures coherence and consistency in applying military power toward achieving national objectives.

  • Fundamental Similarities: Highlighting the similarities across different levels of war (strategic, operational, and tactical) emphasizes that, despite the differences in scale and scope, the core principles of employing means to achieve ends through various ways remain consistent. This principle unites strategists, planners, and leaders at all levels in a common purpose and approach.



This definition draws heavily from Colonel Arthur F. Lykke's Jr., (US Army, Retired) influential article Defining Military Strategy."[1]  He does an excellent job demonstrating how military strategy is integral to national strategy. Lykke illustrates the necessity for military actions to be aligned with national objectives and policies, employing a systematic framework of ends, ways, and means. This approach ensures that military efforts are purposeful and aligned with national interests and underscores the importance of strategic coherence across all levels of warfare.



The team at Strategy Central is training StratBot to hone its strategic acuity. We are feeding it a steady diet of the most renowned strategists and definitions from the preeminent sources in strategy. StratBot is getting there quickly. The following was produced before introducing Lykke's definition and supporting logic:

"Strategy can be best understood as the threat or use of force for political purposes. It involves the mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing efforts to realize a specific aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and contending interests. The aim or purpose of strategy is to improve our ability to shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances so that we can survive on our own terms as individuals, groups, cultures, or nation-states."


The central theme of strategy is one of interaction/isolation, and the fundamental ideas underlying strategy are the moral-mental-physical means toward realizing this interaction/isolation. Strategy is played out through an instinctive see-saw of analysis and synthesis across various domains or competing/independent information channels. This allows for the spontaneous generation of new mental images or impressions that align with the uncertainties and changes of the world.


In its contemporary usage, the origins of "strategy" can be traced back to Paul Gédéon Joly de Maizeroy's reference to "la stratégique" in 1771. Strategy studies the relationships between time, positions, means, and different interests, considering every factor. It involves reasoning and the highest faculty of the mind. Strategy is the method for translating political goals into tangible military action, as the military acts in pursuit of political goals.


According to current American joint doctrine, strategy is defined as a prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. The strategic level of war is defined as the level at which strategy is formulated and executed to achieve these objectives.


This is a good start, and we expect to continuously refine it to improve what StratBot can produce and make it a more powerful strategic tool. We hope to follow up soon with a progress report.




It might be a good idea to show that not all strategies appear the same when applied to other fields than the military. A quick examination of business strategy reveals that the difference can be quite stark, at least on the surface.


Michael E. Porter is a highly influential academic and business strategist. He defines business strategy as: the process of identifying a unique and valuable position within a competitive landscape, achieved through a set of distinct activities. His approach emphasizes the necessity of making hard choices about what activities to pursue and what not to pursue that will differentiate an organization from its competitors. Porter emphasizes that strategy is not just about operational effectiveness, rather it is choosing a unique position and performing different activities or similar activities in different ways than rivals. This approach to strategy focuses on creating a sustainable competitive advantage by aligning organizational activities with strategic goals.[2]


Porter is frequently cited when the subject of business strategy is raised. From a military strategist's point of view, this seems more like a specific strategy, not the definition of strategy. If we try to parse out elements a military strategist would recognize, we see that a business strategy outlines a vision, establishes objectives, and offers a plan of action to achieve the vision by realizing the objectives of an organization. With the objectives obtained, the vision is realized. The strategy guides the decision-making processes to improve the company's financial performance in a competing market.


Unique positions? Competitive landscape? Activities? It is pretty foreign to a military strategist. However, once you tease out the underpinning logic, it is similar to the military approach. Ends, ways, and means remain excellent tools for understanding strategy. The ends are found in the vision, the planning process will outline objectives necessary to achieve the vision and will apply means and ways to achieve the objectives. This process could apply at any level of the organization. However, each subordinate level must align to the highest level's objectives and vision. 




This article from Strategy Central serves as a basic guide for understanding military strategy within the broader context of national security. It offers a comprehensive overview that integrates military actions with national strategy by dissecting the art and science of employing military power to achieve political objectives. Drawing insights from Colonel Arthur F. Lykke Jr.'s framework and the comparison with business strategy, the document emphasizes the universal applicability of the ends, ways, and means formula across various domains. It underscores the necessity for strategic coherence, alignment with national policy, and the adaptive application of strategy across levels of war, highlighting the critical role of strategic thinking in safeguarding national interests.

[1] Lykke, Arthur F. Jr.  “Defining Military Strategy.”  Military Review. 1989.

[2] Porter, Michael E. What is Strategy?  Harvard Business Review Magaazine.  November-December 1996.

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