Note #13. Waiting to Win & Being Proactive

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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Waiting to retaliate against use of force is a losing strategy by itself. The problem is, reacting to attacks fits prevailing outdated expectations of warfare.

We conflate the act of warfare with ideal conditions: either being at peace or being at war. In reality, when attacks come they happen in combination with cooperative relations. Actors cooperate and confront in a complex information environment of relative peace and war. More actors have more opportunities to influence and set conditions.

As a result, winning strategy confronts and cooperates at the same time. Losing strategy concedes the initiative. What to do?

Complex Warfare & Anticipation

We can preempt some attacks and advance strategic goals with all-domain, all-instruments of power strategies. This requires anticipation. Consider a few indicators of such complex warfare from Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China.

We’ll follow up the indicators with “so, did we/are we …?” questions that sharpen this “anticipation distinction“ between winning and losing strategy.


Looking for indicators of Iran’s Quds Force attacks? The terrorist organization: provides Hezbollah $700 million a year via transnational crime; organizes pro-Assad militias in Syria; orchestrates pro-Iran militias in Iraq; transports trainers and weaponry to Houthi rebels in Yemen; recruits Shia militants and foments violence in Afghanistan; and funds Hamas in exchange for intelligence, and runs paramilitary operations in Latin America. These broad activities overshadow narrower concerns over whether the killing of the Quds Force commander, in Iraq, was justified by an “imminent threat” to US embassies.

Winning & Losing Strategy Q

So, did we anticipate that the deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces also killed in the attack would be buried in Najaf with a narrative that lives on?

North Korea

Looking for indicators of North Korean intent? Development of a multi-stage solid-fueled nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is only part of Pyongyang’s coop-frontation. Deciphering meaning in Pyongyang requires a broad view: patronage networks; the Office of the General Directorate; and private markets. See North Korea Confidential by Tudor and Pearson. North Korean behavior is consistent a cause-and-prevent strategy aimed at regime survival, nuclear power status, and coerced reunification.

Winning & Losing Strategy Q

So, are we anticipating the conditions that could cause South Koreans to risk reunification without a resident deterrent of US forces stationed on the peninsula?


Looking for indictors of Russian intelligence operations? Open source details are in Andy Greenberg’s book, Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers. Such operations are all-domain, all-instruments of power. They also are global in scope. Evidence include attacks on: democratic elections; Olympic games; power grids; NATO’s nuclear politics; government legitimacy; and both specific, and collateral, individuals. Disruptive disinformation characterizes these grey zone campaigns.

Winning & Losing Strategy Q

So, are we anticipating Russian actions to create proxy “statelets” in interior as well as borderline NATO member countries? 


Looking for indicators of Chinese efforts to displace a Western rules-based international system? Beijing’s territorial re-expansion uses diplomatic pressure, disinformation, military coercion, economic inducements, and social mobilization against states all around China’s periphery. Targets include Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India. Party rhetoric of collaborative harmony is lame concealment of reality: an authoritarian state attempting to impose its will on small states.

Winning & Losing Strategy Q

 So, are we anticipating the normative global impact of militarized artificial “islands” in disputed waters combined with economic coercion along the Belt and Road Initiative?

What is to be done? Advanced analysts, planners, strategists and operators, Unite!

Advanced Analysis includes Synthesis

One thing that teaching information environment advanced analysis (IEAA) teaches me, is the need to proactively engage with information narratives.

Being in the Arena

This effort requires tools for identifying hidden linkages, patterns, trends and anomalies. Why? Analysts, planners, strategists and operators use these tools to practice anticipating future possibilities. Seizing the initiative in the IE thicket is a constant struggle between winning and losing strategy. Any snap advantage is temporary and insufficient. Therefore we need to sustain the initiative through interactions while creating effective syntheses that matter. How?

We can start by collecting data, and visualizing and exploring dynamic relationships in real time. We need databases that can be analyzed, and used to inform plans, strategies and operations. Our IEAA systems approach involves discovering linkages and nodes, updating relationships with new information provided by a live case, and rearranging our characterization of the IE as conditions change.

Going further, we adapt our understanding to anticipate changes. Some leaders encourage the “red-teaming” of any potentially significant sentient actors.

This type of advanced learning provides a comparative advantage, even against adversaries operating under command guidance. The latter empowers decentralized cells with connections that are more difficult to discern. The key to making sense of this, is developing an ability to recognize syntheses of cooperation and confrontation across domains. This requires attributing intent in uncertain conditions.

We need to test and contest those strategies. Part of having a winning strategy compared to a losing strategy is, being in the arena. 

Examples of Synthesis

There are many syntheses of different ideas that become weaponized in order to out-compete adversaries. Four relevant examples here are:

These syntheses of cooperation and confrontation may be applied in diverse contexts, such as:

1. In a general strategy that combines physical and psychological ends, ways and means (the author’s combined effects model)

2. In a cyberspace domain consisting of physical, syntactic and semantic layers (12-13)

3. In a hybrid strategy that exploits vulnerabilities via informational-technical and informational-psychological (2) ways and means

Rapid Relevant Learning

We can enhance our ability to be holistic, flexible, and proficient against proactive competitors with processed data and intelligence. Machines can accelerate the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills at the speed of relevance. Our losing strategy does not have that intellectual aggressiveness. So we become food for someone else’s thought.

There are a host of related challenges. These include: learning advanced analytical and programming skills; organizing public and private sectors to share compatible databases; gaining appropriate rights, permissions, and authorities; and cultivating innovative and professional practices within legal and ethical boundaries. 

For just the programmatic part of rapid learning, tools such as Kineviz and Savant X can help us compete. Performing advanced analysis quickly yet with awareness of complex relationships can yield decisive advantages. This especially challenging in a hyper-connected, dynamic IE.

The tools to engage the competition proactively are available, and being put to effective use against disinformation. So, why wait to win? 

Shaping the Environment

Waiting may look like a losing strategy, until we consider the role of anticipation. There does seem to be at least one advantage to waiting.

Napoleon Bonaparte reportedly once said, never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake. What’s the assumption here? That we are going to exploit the mistake. Even better would be to arrange, or at least anticipate, the mistake. At a minimum, we should strive to be aware and flexible enough to take advantage of observed mistakes.

If Napoleon were waging the information-age equivalent of his mass-mobilized maneuver warfare, he might well shape the environment via crowd-sourced, distributed-control operations under centralized command. Not just to seize and maintain the initiative for its own sake. Rather, a winning strategy to generate and sustain superior effects that are strategically significant.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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