Note #6. A Response to Paper #4: Situational Awareness, Leadership and Strategy

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Leadership, Strategy
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The first plenary of the US National Defense University’s Asia Policy Assembly today noted the tendency of US grand strategy to react to threats.

We can’t seem to mobilize sufficient political will until after big shocks. Plenary discussants pointed out US vulnerabilities such as extended supply chains and undefended intellectual property. They called for policy makers to support market innovations, diplomatic adroitness, investments in education and defense-related technologies and competencies.

To answer the persistent question of what to do about a reactive US grand strategy, this Note draws insights from Ron Machoian’s insightful Paper #4 paper on re-imagining SA, and applies those ideas to leadership and strategy. 

Situational Awareness

Paper #4 calls for a more comprehensive grasp of the strategic environment given the dynamism of today’s geo-political landscape. Ron points to new ways of modeling human behavior that offer opportunities to grasp the environment more accurately. One example is enhancing what John Boyd modeled as the Orientation phase in a loop of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA). 

To strengthen our grasp of complex threats, Ron cites Mica Endsley’s model applied to decision-making. He describes its critical parts as perception and comprehension of the current state, and projection of the situation’s future state. The latter task is what red teams strive for inside the Orient phase of the OODA loop. Red-teaming (or any role color-teaming) in this sense tries to convey how adversaries are likely to think in terms of Boyd’s (full version) model. See Dave Lyle’s perspective and Micah Zenko’s book

Ron also emphasizes how individuals can improve their SA through training and experience, and learning to anticipate. Drawing from Sun Tzu, he stresses that understanding one’s own preconceptions, not just the adversary’s, is vital to understanding complex situations. Indeed our own lenses can distort what we observe and limit how we orient to a problem. Unless we understand logic errors and biases, for instance, we may unwittingly mirror-image the adversary’s strategy to fit what we intuit or think. Citing Kenneth Booth’s work on strategy and ethnocentrism,, Ron emphasizes the importance of scrutinizing information, knowledge and experience. 

What’s a strategist to do? Specifically, how can we improve our SA by anticipating changes and the emergence of future conditions? 


First, we can avoid fixating on sequential strategies (such as multi-domain operations after diplomacy fails) by learning anticipatory leadership and analysis.

Anticipating alternative futures in the relevant operational and information environment at a strategic level of significance is vital to achieving meaningful success.  

Analysts, planners and operators can practice anticipatory analysis best when leaders empower them with clear intent that defines desired outcomes. Achieving those outcomes through innovation is subject to cultural values, and trust. Consider the impact of LtGen (retired) Paul Van Riper. As red team leader in the wargame Millenium Challenge 2002, he applied an innovative approach of being “in command and out of control.” As is the case with too many successes that defeat status quo paradigms, his success in that exercise seems to have been strangled by bureaucratic interests (see pp 102-119 in

Combined Effects

Second, we need a language of grand strategy with which to design and assess measures of effectiveness that compete at the strategic level of significance. Combined effects can do this as we assess the degree to which interactive effects against complex threats achieve strategic objectives. We also need to assess how a particular instrument of power achieves a desired effect and combinations of desired effects (that will interact). To clarify these points, consider the following question.

How do we describe the interaction of diplomatic persuasion and military coercion, both of which are desired effects? Who is thinking about that combination of effects and how the effects interact with one another as a contested strategy? Beijing leaders evidently are. Look at China’s ongoing PDI (Persuade, Deter, Induce) effect on Taiwan in a broad ops-info (operations-information) environment.

Through a variety of DIMES-wide activities (described for Taiwan and twelve other Chinese case in Beijing’s activities produce the following effects: Persuade Taiwan to reunify and Deter Taiwan from declaring independence. This dual effect exacerbates a domestic dilemma across Taiwan’s politics, splitting pro and anti-unification advocates each presidential election. Beijing Induces that dilemma with military and economic coercion, yielding a PDI effect. What do we do in response? As long as China’s military operations stay below our rather idealistic definition of warfare, we conduct “peacetime” freedom of navigation sorties and encourage regional balancing against China’s aggression. Recall that both US presidential candidates of 2016 called for withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which we did. 

Within such democratic constraints and proper civil-military relations, strategists need to discuss combined effects that can subsume or otherwise out-perform Beijing’s strategy. A similar concept is that of cumulative effects, defined at the Joint Fires School as direct or indirect effects that increase over time. Combined effects are categorically broader and can be cumulative or immediately synergistic. Unfortunately, stove-piped authorities and permissions often place DIMES-wide discussions at a level of responsibility that precludes innovation and prioritizes senior leaders’ attention on other matters.


A practically informed intellectual discussion of situational awareness, leadership and strategy can focus attention on what ought to be done about complex threats and how to do so. My recommendation in the pursuit of strategy superiority is threefold:

(1) Gain and maintain all-domain situational awareness of the ops-info environment relevant to a hierarchy of desired outcomes
(2) Cultivate leadership to empower innovative approaches
(3) Use language that enables whole of government-plus superior combined effects to achieve strategic objectives in contested situations

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

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