Note #22. Multi-Dimensional Strategy for Dynamic End-States: A Realistic Framework, An Application from China, and Recommendations for Strategists

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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There is nothing static about an “end-state“ because it’s defined in terms of conditions, which are always changing. Strategy needs to be multi-dimensional to achieve, maintain and adjust an end-state vis a vis competitors trying to do the same.

Multiple Dimensions

Competitive strategy integrates ways and means to achieve ends in conditional end-states. If we look at three basic dimensions of strategy and compare them to the three basic elements of strategy, we see that all of them are contestable.

The dimensions in which the elemental ends, ways and means of strategy vary are cooperative-confrontational, physical-psychological, and preventive-productive. These distinctions yield 18 distinct combinations of dimensions and elements:

Combined Effects Strategy Framework: Basic Dimensions and Elements

That is quite an attack surface, especially in a pervasive information environment whose inputs, changes and outputs define any operation (see “Information: An Assessable Definition”).

To cooperate and confront beyond our self-restrictive “competition continuum” below armed conflict, US security strategy should consider the enduring nature of effective strategy across historical contexts. Despite revolutionary advances in technology, three aspects of strategy continue to provide relative advantage in many circumstances.

Nature of Effective Strategy

Nature #1: Holistic

An effective strategy is holistic. It expands competition to areas where opponents are vulnerable or unwilling to go. Historical examples include combined arms, “irrevocable expansion” (p. 639; the origin of unified China), new forms of organization, a “super battlefield” that targets forces and economies (Allies in WWII), alliances that isolate, social networks that penetrate, and hybrid forms of civil-military competition. Successes and failures begin with parts that combine in ways which outstrip agents’ capacities to manage the interactions. Unified threats with coercive synergies and cohesive narratives can overwhelm isolated targets. The global information environment is the most encompassing whole. 

A holistic strategy of combinative ends, ways and means is provided in the combined effects strategy framework below. The details are taken from China’s invasion of territory and manufacture of artificial structures in the disputed South China Sea. The multi-dimensional Ends of this strategy are arranged horizontally across the top of the table. Each End is supported by Ways and Means arranged vertically below. 

Combined Effects Strategy Framework Example

Note: the end-state conditions and supporting objectives are not shown separately here for the sake of brevity. However, a strategist can develop those by asking, “what conditions must be in place to realize these Ends, and what objectives can achieve those conditions?” In that case, you may come up with different ways and means to achieve the end-state conditions and objectives, and compete them as alternatives. 

Nature #2: Agile

Holistic strategy requires agility to create syntheses. History tells us that the rewards of agile holism can be decisive. Examples include swarms of skilled archers (mobility + speed + mass = expanded Mongol empire), a line of heavy fast cruisers (protection + mass + speed + range = destroyed Russian fleet in the Tsushima Strait), and a mobilized Vietnamese society (morale + unity + resilience = broken American will). Strategic agility adjusts ends, ways and means. Altering the desired ends is most difficult. Yet, too much agility via inconsistent leadership can wreck desired outcomes that require time, not just timing. 

In the above example, arranging the Ends in a sequence produces phases: claim, seize and develop the territory while blocking access and establishing sovereignty via annexation. To achieve these ends, the proposed synergy of Ways requires agile economic-legal-military-political coordination: free trade zone supported by nationalized energy + lawfare-justified occupation + isolated proxy governance = annexation fait accompli.    

Nature #3: Asymmetric

Asymmetric strategy seeks relative advantage by exploiting similarities and differences. Historical cases of relationships among strengths and weaknesses apply to the ends, ways and means of strategy. Superior ends can render superior ways and means irrelevant. Although they are overlooked in favor of common cause, differences among competitors’ ends can provide a basis for exchanges of interests. The net assessment of asymmetries encompasses resources, concepts and constraints related to threats. The global information environment empowers an unprecedented diversity of actors contending for asymmetric advantage. 

When faced with the strategy in the framework above, an opponent could devise an asymmetric counter-strategy by targeting vulnerabilities in its ends, ways or means. Weaknesses would include problems in blocking access, unpopular occupation, and inability to control assets. Knowing your target’s vulnerabilities is vital to designing asymmetric advantages that transform adversary weaknesses into your strengths, or use an assumed weakness as a relative strength under the right conditions.

Multiple Combinations

Effective strategy provides combinative options, such as in the ways that means are used to accomplish objectives. In multi-dimensional strategy, the ways and means of strategy are designed as cooperative and/or confrontational, physical and/or psychological, and preventing and/or producing action. The ends of strategy—effects, objectives and goals—also may be cooperative or confrontational, physical or psychological, and preventative or productive, or blends thereof.

A 3-D view of the above framework is rendered by three axes that relate to the basic elements of strategy. This conception offers exceptional agility. A strategist can start with any of the three dimensions and apply them to any or all elements of strategy in any order:

Combined Effects Strategy Cube Showing Eight Combinative Effects


Apply cooperative-confrontational, psychological-physical and preventive-productive dimensions of strategy to each element of strategy—ends, ways and means. 

Start with the end in mind, characterized as a conditional end-state in a strategic environment. Enter the problem set by thinking in terms of cooperative and confrontational ways that use psychological and physical means to prevent and produce actions to achieve the end-state. Then apply those three sets of distinctions to the other elements of strategy.

Drawing from the nature of effective strategy across history, develop holistic, agile and asymmetric ends, ways and means in each of the three dimensions. Add combinations of effects that compete well.

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

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