Paper # 56. Hierarchy of Effort: Reforming Tactics, Operations, and Strategy for Advantage

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A hierarchy of effort is essential to achieving meaningful advantage in the information environment (IE). The IE’s diverse contexts are multi-domain and all-effects. Three reforms can improve tactics, operations, and strategy against human and AI competitors:

  • Align the ends of desired cause-and-effect relationships
    • Note: the basic strategy process consists of interactive ends (the why—goals), ways (the how—methods), and means (the what—resources)
  • Redefine industrial-age doctrine to fit the IE and AI Age
  • Combine effects to create synergistic influence

1. Align Ends

Specify our priorities and adjust how we achieve them as conditions change. Using the language of joint US military doctrine, JMark courses in Information Environment Advanced Analysis and Multi-Domain Information Advantage address how to align, deconflict, and synchronize activities, effects, objectives, end states, and strategic priorities.

For example, we operate with tactics (activities) to produce outcomes (effects) directed toward goals (objectives) that create conditions (end states) aligned with strategic priorities. This hierarchy of effort helps manage highly competitive, dynamic cause-and-effect relationships. Doing so requires more than an “that’s outside my job jar” Orientation (as in OODA).

To prevail in the AI Age, we must generate superior information in joint operations (see JP 3-04, Information in Joint Operations) and more. This breadth requires accountable, coherent leadership in whole-of-government-plus collaboration. Enter the hierarchy of effort, a shared understanding that can align the ends of strategy. In the language of joint doctrine, our ends go all the way from effects to strategic priorities.

The hierarchy of effort process is a contest—we intend to shape the future. Competitors are doing the same. Xi Jinping accuses the United States of Cold War-style containment. He seeks to portray US activities as containing China…without acknowledging, of course, that China has been expanding its claims and seizing territory around its periphery since 1950. His Foreign Minister uses the same deception to present China’s support of Russia as peaceful, in contrast to the West arming Ukraine. Both examples are aligned in a hierarchy of effort backed by Communist Party narrative warfare. The overarching narrative is one of an historically victimized, benign, and blameless People’s Republic  righteously liberating lost territories. The narrative operates several themes backed by messaging, such as: “Have the courage to fight as the country faces profound and complex changes in both the domestic and international landscape.”

Rather than blaming politics or retreating into being non-political—(apolitical professionalism is what’s required), we need to clarify ambiguous ends such as “stability.” Specify what those terms mean in context (the definition of information in JP 3-03) for operations. Operations should support strategic priorities.

National strategic priorities include democratic political values—freedom, equality, representative government—those fundamental values are professionally apolitical. In other words, expressing such Constitutional values does not favor one political party over another. They are not non-political. We support and defend the Constitution of the United States, which is filled with national political values. The chain of command should coordinate invoking those ends to compete against Xi’s calls for Chinese citizens to have the courage to fight for national liberation and sovereignty.

When we fail to specify what “stability” or “security” or “balance of power” means in context for operations, we truncate strategy. We tend to focus on self-justifying, existential ways and means without ends. Our themes are “in my lane” service identities: boots on the ground, semper fi, semper fortis, fly and fight. We need our ways and means to be instrumental elements of national power. Tactics and operations must achieve advantages that advance strategic priorities.

We absolutely need to acknowledge hard-won identities to inspire will and sacrifice. But our effort should not end there. We mean to win wars, not just battles. So must define excellence and success in terms of competitive results, all the way to strategic priorities.

Success in one engagement should support the hierarchy of effort, particularly its hierarchy of ends. Strategy must specify what ends to prevent and cause, then how to do so. The ends that are outside one’s job jar require collaboration with those who do have the relevant permissions and authorities, not avoidance.

2. Redefine Tactic, Force, Operation, Strategy, Tactical, Operational, and Strategic

We must stop wrongly equating tactics with tactical, operations with operational, and strategy with strategic levels of war.

Our doctrinal levels of war don’t fit into a more fluid, interconnected information environment. A tactic can be strategically significant. We know this, but how do we perpetuate organizational identities? By highlighting the tactics of our weapon systems. More than that, we must innovate superior tactics, operations, and strategy together, even if that means transforming the meaning and content of a unit’s identity.

US Army cavalry is a positive example of preserving the spirit and sacrifice of a mobile force, while innovating beyond horses to include aviation, armor, remotely operated vehicles, and most recently, info-intel-electronic warfare-space (I2CEWS). An I2CEWS task force identity should include multi-domain effects that contribute to the hierarchy of effort.

We win battles with human and technological advantage, but we must win wars. In the information environment, this means winning the battles for fundamental advantages. How?

Ukraine outcompeted Russia’s victimization narrative in the first month of Putin’s invasion. This fundamental advantage built Ukrainian resolve and secured international support that has enabled Ukraine’s defense and counteroffensives so far. The IE contest is perpetual. Authoritarian China is changing the geography in the South China Sea with artificial constructions democracies have not effectively contested. While changing that fundamental determinant, Beijing simply lied about its obvious militarization and can issue a territorial ultimatum once it achieves conventional and nuclear parity, if not sooner.

Too often, we win narrower battles and lost broader wars. Why? Just look at how we define and apply DoD definitions of tactic, operation, and strategy.

Tactic — The employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other. See also procedures; techniques. (CJCSM 5120.01).

We need to apply this definition broadly, using more than military forces and beyond any single job jar. If we fail to apply tactics against diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social (DIMES)-wide, all-effects competitors, we cannot defeat authoritarian actors for long. They adapt.

Tactics must include lethal and non-lethal capabilities that “force” (change the status quo) new behavior by best acceptable means. A sniper kills the target; a bomb destroys all or a selected function of the target; an EMP generates voltage/current to destroy or damage electronics; a viral story stirs emotions in a target audience, which leverages statecraft, and so on. The best sniper, bombing, EMP, narrative, and diplomacy depend on your target’s vulnerabilities and what you intend to cause or prevent. Success demands better strategy, strategy that outcompetes an adversary with respect to significant results. Such as undermining a hostile narrative and building an integrated coercive presence in disputed territory.

Tactics employ and arrange forces in relation to other “forces,” but the best advantage is the most significant one, not necessarily the most immediate.

Force — An aggregation of military personnel, weapon systems, equipment, and necessary support, or combination thereof. 2. A major subdivision of a fleet. (JP 1).

This definition is too narrow.

The IE is replete with more-than-military forces. “Force” is more than lethal or kinetic energy. Causative force can physically coerce and induce, and psychologically compel and persuade. Preventive forces can physically defend and secure, and psychologically deter and dissuade.

When tactics engage, combatants use any available means and ways to gain advantage. Tactics create relationships and exploit ideas, such as a target’s expectations. They can have strategic significance or zero significance with respect to the hierarchy of results. A soldier clearing a building can perform that tactic perfectly, but fail to advance strategic priorities it’s the wrong building or wrong time.

Likewise, depending on the context, failing to remove or protect a corrupt relative of a host country leader can undermine common strategic priorities. Such decisions are political, requiring a whole of government effort. Our strategy needs to speak this language relevant to glocal (global and local) contexts. We cannot compete against ruthless adversaries with only military tactics unless we are prepared to destroy targets and that destruction secures the strategic priority. Our efforts need to be DIMES-wide, bigger than “M.”

Operation — A sequence of tactical actions with a common purpose or unifying theme. (JP 1) 2. A military action or the carrying out of a strategic, operational, tactical, service, training, or administrative military mission. (JP 3-0)

This definition is ambiguous when there is no assessable definition of “tactical” in US joint military doctrine. Instead, we have circular definitions such as: “tactical intelligence — Intelligence required for the planning and conduct of tactical operations. See also intelligence. (JP 2-01.2).” The definition is also inaccurate because tactical actions may be simultaneous, not just sequential.

Since tactical intel is defined by tactical ops, and there is no falsifiable definition of “tactical,” the term has no assessable meaning. “Tactical” usually reinforces a warrior identity, such as, marines master the tactical…“strategic” is an insult…a desk warrior. “Fight to win” needs to mean winning in the context of a hierarchy of effort.

Strategy — 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. (JP 3-0)

This definition does not recognize strategy as a process of ends, ways, and means. Instead, the definition says to employ instruments of national power to achieve objectives defined in geographic and state-centered terms: theater, national, and multinational. But this definition does not compete to win, for two reasons.

First, instruments of power are more than national. Private power is influential, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink network that enables Ukraine to resist Putin’s invasion. Another example is Intel Corporation, a decade ahead of US Cyber Command R&D.

Second, objectives are greater than our doctrinal definition permits. “Theater” objectives are geographically defined, which omits global objectives. “National and/or multi-national objectives” exclude transnational organizations that must deal with: Chinese Communist Party demanding foreign companies divulge data, EU demanding protection of individuals’ information, and US administrations alternating between CCP and EU-style demands.

Now let’s consider DoD definitions of tactical, operational, and strategic. You would think these describe the characteristics of a tactic, operation, and strategy. They do not. Why?

Tactical, Operational, and Strategic

There is no official DoD definition of tactical, operational, or strategic. Like “information” before the latest JP 3-04 finally defined that term, doctrine describes tactical/operational/strategic this, and tactical/operational/strategic that. As mentioned earlier for tactical, these terms define themselves. So, how can we assess tactical/operational/strategic progress or regress when there are no falsifiable definitions? We can’t. Like a religion, we are supposed to just believe in what we do.

As a result, elected officials debate what forces to fund and authorize for what purposes, but without any scientifically-grounded method to disprove the defense budget. That is, test our assumptive tactics, operations, and strategies against specific goals, rather than do what we do: perform operations exquisitely and claim victory by changing our goals to fit what we did.

What we can do is align our tactics, operations, and strategies in a hierarchy of effort. If we say tactical refers to tactics, operational refers to operations, and strategic refers to strategy, that works in the IE. However, to regard tactical, operational, and strategic as levels of war or levels of significance is too restrictive. The IE permits tactics conducted by any unit using any range or yield of weapon to be strategically significant or not. The interconnection of causes and effects is multi-level and all-domain.

3. Combine Effects and Influence

We need to align and redefine the key terms in our language of strategy to organize activities, effects, objectives, end states, and strategic priorities for multi-domain all-effects advantage. The combined effect strategy and influence model specifies what to prevent and cause, how to cooperate and confront, and when to use psychological and physical ends, ways, and means. We can do this if we have a hierarchy of effort and expand our strategy language to make our efforts holistically competitive in the IE.

To paraphrase Sunzi and Clausewitz, we need strategy broad enough to produce inexhaustible combinations of sharp swords, in context:

  • There are no more than ‘surprise’ and ‘straightforward’ operations, yet in combination, they produce inexhaustible possibilities.
  • Sooner or later, someone will come along with a sharp sword and cut off our arms.



Author: ICSL admin

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