While preparing a conference talk on situational awareness (SA) in the international environment, I was struck by the higher-order outcomes term implies for those who study its application.
Even as a career military pilot, where SA is part of the professional vocabulary, the same rich depth was often diluted in common use.
This realization prompted my consideration of what SA might mean in the context of modern strategy. In this paper, I contend that the concept of SA, in its more complex meaning, should assume a salient role in the philosophy of the strategic process.
The effort to build and sustain a comprehensive grasp of the strategic environment is fundamental to strategy-making in today’s dynamic geo-political landscape. If the environment is understood, the “ends” of the strategic process are enhanced with amplified likelihood of success; if not understood at this level, the strategic process is limited or even obscured, and the chances for success diminish. Discussion of the higher-level process implied by the concept of situational awareness will help us understand the challenges of the former condition—that of strategy done well.
Scholars define situational awareness in many appealing variations. As a starting point here, SA is an accurate grasp of a dynamic environment at any moment in time. This definition sounds straightforward enough on initial consideration – understanding what is going on around you, those people, things and influences that are creating the environment, and with timely accuracy, weighting their relevance to the desired outcome. But the term has taken on a more nuanced meaning, not only in the vernacular of military aviation, the field of its apparent original use, but more recently within the academies of human behavior and performance studies. The refined model presented by scholarship in these fields provides a meaningful reference for SA’s translation to the strategic environment.
The concept of situational awareness likely took shape within military aviation as early as the First World War. By the mid-1970’s, the concept had matured and U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, an experienced fighter pilot, was presenting his venerable OODA Loop model to American military audiences. As most in this forum are aware, the OODA Loop, defined by Boyd as an iterative Observe-Orient-Decide-Act cycle, illustrates the decision-making and action process in a manner that emphasizes the better-informed protagonist as the likely victor in an engagement. The theory being that a pilot, or actor in any competitive task, who is better prepared to grasp the environment, and then decisively act on that orientation more rapidly than an adversary, is the odds-on favorite. Boyd’s model was presented as a cycle, repeating in revision until the adversary is overwhelmed and defeated. The orientation phase creates the foundation for success – it is where the discerning actor makes sense of the observed environment around him. Not coincidentally, it is the orientation phase also where the concept of situational awareness primarily resides.
There was so much more to Boyd’s thesis than my coarse summary above. Boyd’s presentations consisted of hundreds of slides, complete with supporting physical theories. But for the purposes of this paper, it is the emphasis on grasping an environment accurately, in all of its complexity, and then translating this grasp to timely decision-making that supports further discussion. The OODA loop has been applied to many realms beyond the battlefield more recently, including business management and even the legal courtroom. Boyd advocated its application to each level of military conflict, including the strategic. His OODA loop illustrates the concept that is readily identifiable today as situational awareness, in all its nuanced meaning.
Mica Endsley, former USAF chief scientist and a leading researcher on the subject, offers a model of SA applied to dynamic decision-making and cognitive behavior in complex, interactive environments. In my description of Endsley’s model, SA is influenced directly by several factors and conditions that she organizes as abilities, experiences and training. These factors, amplified by the actor’s goals and objectives, and importantly also focused or distorted by the actor’s preconceptions and expectations, work within the environment to create situational awareness (Endlsey, 1995).
The actor’s SA takes one of three forms, depending on its level of acuity: perception of the current situation, comprehension of the current situation, or at the highest level, projection of the situation’s future state. Endsley points out that the actor does not necessarily progress through these levels in linear fashion, the level of SA achieved in any particular context is determined by the aggregate application of abilities, experiences and training (Endlsey, 1995). A practitioner who achieves a higher level of SA, also grasps and benefits from the lower level(s). Thus, one who comprehends also perceives, and so on. Like Boyd’s own model, this awareness takes place within a recurring feedback loop that informs further iterations as the actor seeks refined outcomes according to a changing environment. Although Endsley’s model lacks the same temporal emphasis that Boyd places in the tactical environment, it offers the most meaningful translation to this discussion of strategy.
To be sure, my simplistic description of Endsley’s work begins with my own purpose in mind. However, its application here offers several valuable prompts for consideration. First, input to SA is variable, and in concert with the environment, determines the level of awareness achieved. The deliberate investment in preparation—those abilities, experiences, and training that are brought to the endeavor—in large part, correlates to the outcome. Also, notice that the first two levels of SA, perception and comprehension, may not indicate the best possible decisions and subsequent actions. Projection, the highest level in Endlsey’s model, inherently carries with it an ability to anticipate the environment’s “future state,” the greatest advantage in competitive position. Projection is the ability to envision or anticipate third-order effects that often defy the simplicity of linear reaction. It is much like the chess master’s trained ability to “see” the board several moves from the moment of decision; or, appropriately for this forum, it is the Clausewitzian coup d’oeil, the great commander’s inner eye, that is able to see the field develop before it is evident to others.
Endsley’s model also emphasizes that goal-directed processing focuses an actor’s attention and so influences interpretation of perceived information. This result is unavoidable since the strategist, by definition, has “ends” already in mind. However, if predetermined focus is not understood as a potentially limiting factor and accommodated, it also can have deleterious effects. This point underlines an important age-old tenet of strategy: Sun Tzu applied a contemporary proverb when he implored practitioners to “know oneself as one knows one’s enemy” [paraphrased]. Preconceptions of not only the adversary and the environment, but also of oneself and one’s allies can easily cloud the strategist’s art if not recognized, acknowledged, and accommodated.
Endsley posits the actor’s disposition as a salient influence on SA via myriad preconceptions and expectations that each brings to an event. People, she noted, are “active participants in the development of their own SA, based on how they direct their attention, communicate with team mates, and manipulated their tools to search for desired information” (Endsley, 2015). Kenneth Booth similarly warned of this propensity in Strategy and Ethnocentrism, a cornerstone in the literature of the strategic culture field: “There is a strong tendency for the image of the enemy to be moulded to fit the strategy every bit as much as the strategy is adapted to the behavior of the enemy” (Booth, 27). If we add to this premise, quite reasonably, the image of the environment as well as that of the enemy, then it certainly follows that the strategist’s own culture-bound framework can cloud both observation and orientation, creating images that manipulate, dilute or even deny the evidence and so weaken the strategist’s SA. The strategist must recognize this propensity, and work to overcome the tendency as part of the process to build and sustain strong strategic awareness.
In this translation of SA to the strategic environment, I accept as self-evident the premise that SA encompasses much of what Boyd presented as the OODA Loop’s “orient” phase – the distillation of an observed, complex environment into viable, weighted alternatives for the decision-making phase. This correlation is more than tantalizing fodder for an esoteric blog discussion. If we accept SA as an updated characterization of Boyd’s orientation phase, we posit it as the keystone in a dynamic process that prompts decisions and related actions.
In strategy then, SA demands a highly complex and demanding interpretation of the environment with an accompanying cycle of analysis, self-reflection and nearly constant revision that incorporates even the subtlest shifts in the landscape. This statement, of course, is not a new or particularly audacious claim to those familiar with strategic process. However, conceptualizing SA as a strategic concept helps illustrate the undertaking’s high demands, and highlights our own preconceived perspectives as potentially delimiting factors. In strategy, efforts may be weakened by the very disposition and experiences we bring to the table. The making of good strategy, the way we achieve policy goals via the coherent application of means, cannot be the realm of singular perspective. Instead, it must be the result of broader consideration, whereby so many alternatives are measured by objective consultation with those most knowledgeable of the landscape.
Booth’s work on strategy and ethnocentrism exposed cultural challenges to the strategic process. A culturally structured context is not only present in one’s observation of the environment, but also in the very experiences, abilities and training brought to the field. An ethnocentric conformity, build on a variety of factors and influences, shapes the strategist’s intellect in so many ways that are not easily recognized and even less easily overcome. With no small irony, Booth asserted that strategists may very well be “professional ethnocentrics,” produced by and committed to a particular disposition by their encultured undertaking (Booth, 28). Booth concludes that strategists are perhaps never more surprised than when an adversary acts in a manner that is incompatible with predisposed expectations, seemingly defying comfortable misconception by their behavior (Booth, 114).
Strategists, as human actors, bring with them a worldview defined by their own experiences, values and perspectives, even as the best among them seek objective clarity. Earlier in this essay, “preconceptions” were noted as a primary input to SA. Endsley gave preconceptions, closely accompanied by “expectations,” a central role in the SA process, noting that they “direct attention and interpret information” (Endsley, 1995). In the strategic environment, these preconceptions ground our SA in a particular perspective that often is framed by identified goals and objectives. Perspective is likely to emphasize preferences considered more viable within a given cultural milieu. As the strategic OODA Loop progresses, weighted preferences influence decisions that in turn move actions.
Preferences, according to Alistair Johnston, are culturally derived pathways that map strategic perspectives – the bedrock of what he termed “process rationality” (Johnston, 34). Within process rationality, a particular strategic actor or group is guided toward alternative courses seen to be more appealing when viewed through a cultural lens. Similarly, Johnston offers “limited rationality” as a descriptive characterization of how culture-bound perspectives can simplify an actor’s worldview, missing the nuance present in a particular environment and finding instead, what is “expected.” The strategist also adapts experiences, history, myths and values to those preferences, offering yet another inroad to influences other than objective clarity (Johnston, 34). Thus, culturally bound perspectives make their way into the strategic calculus in manners that can distort and amplify awareness.
The strategist’s environment is heavily colored by the foggy intersection of competing factors that complicate the endeavor – those brought to the field by oneself, one’s allies, and of course, one’s adversaries. This blunt realization compels an understanding of strategic orientation as a highly demanding task that challenges even the most sophisticated protagonists. The making of good strategy is fraught with inroads for misconception and potential error.
Strong SA is the fusion of information, knowledge and experiences. Information, often more tangible, is perhaps best represented here as the “observed” in Boyd’s loop; while the cognitive grasp (that in Endsley’s model separates comprehension from mere perception, and further, projection from comprehension) often remains intangible. This fusion of information with knowledge and experience is how the actor makes sense of the environment – it is informed, critical, holistic analysis that progresses toward synthesis. The strength or weakness of this effort is what determines the relative advantage derived from the resultant decisions and actions. In effect, it determines when strategy is done well … or done poorly.
This paper has advocated the application of situational awareness to the making of strategy, scaffolding the argument via the OODA Loop and Mica Endsley’s SA model. If this brief discussion has convinced anyone in the forum that SA has a conceptual application to strategy, it undoubtedly still begs the “so what?” question of relevance. I believe the answer resides in the implication of the concept itself. As already noted, SA’s complexity demands much of the strategist. If this assertion is anything more than abstract drivel, it is a plea to reemphasize strategic thought as an expansive field that requires the studied ability to discern purpose and meaning from a mosaic of influences.
We can accept outright, I believe, that the strategist’s craft is serious business. Much depends on the realization of vital interests. It follows logically that achieving and sustaining SA in the strategic environment is an endeavor worthy of great investment. After all, it is strong SA that gains and holds the competitive “high-ground” that orients success. However, in the 21st century, this is perhaps a more daunting task than ever before.
For the strategist truly to become “situationally aware” in the modern environment means building and sustaining an understanding of a vast landscape – not only the geography, the economy, and the proximate political issues at play, but also potential social levers, resources (in all their forms), myriad capabilities, proficiencies, opportunities, vulnerabilities, historical experiences, values, religious and spiritual practices and meanings, organizational and policy constructs, traditions, public myths and so on – and each of these to a highly demanding depth. In a networked world, the strategic environment increasingly defies physical and intellectual boundaries. Actors in diverse circumstances exercise reach and influence that were only a dream for even the great powers just decades ago. The modern strategist’s problem is compounded beyond the scope of any singular perspective, defined field or binary transaction. Boyd encouraged a complete intellectual deconstruction of the surveyed environment, followed by creative synthesis to construct a newly coherent reality from analyzed parts. He warned that “unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies” would emerge in combination to upset any tendency toward the practitioner’s contentment (Boyd, 1976). If this caution was true in the second half of the last century, then certainly it is amplified today with menacing urgency.
When leaders and their advisors consider strategic lines of effort and identify alternative courses of action, they must understand and consider influences that may not be determinative but nonetheless can weight preferences that imply behaviors. Are alternatives subjected to the necessary rigor that warrants claim to SA (in Boyd’s terms, “deconstruction and creation”)? Are interim conclusions scrutinized for tenuous preconceptions that may compromise the strategic calculus? Without deliberate effort to consider the environment in all its splendid complications, strategies may remain mired at the level of perception, tethered to culture-bound expectations that inhibit comprehension and outright prevent reaching anticipation.
SA in the strategist’s craft demands orientation at the highest levels. Like the chess master, a strategist must anticipate the environment’s third-order dynamics. The gift of prescience is actually no gift at all. Instead, anticipation is an exhausting facility that is honed and developed only by rigorous preparation, comprehensive study, and meaningful experience. Simply put, good strategy defies both the dilettante and the ideologue. An old adage remarks something to the effect that a game of chess between two antagonists who know little about the game may be entertaining, but really is not chess at all. Much the same is true about strategy, and the result is decidedly less entertaining. The preceding two decades offer cases that, if not failures outright, seemingly did not benefit from the clarity of strong comprehension, and lacked claim to any manner of anticipation.
When the strategist’s craft is imagined in this light, it reminds us of the immense challenge involved. Colin Gray warns that, “in his command performance, the strategist strives to cope well enough with multi-layered complexity” (Gray, 194). True in any era or circumstances, but the breadth and nuance demanded of today’s strategist and decision-maker can be downright unnerving, making even “well enough” a task for only the most stalwart. The contemporary effort to build and sustain SA at a level that can orient strategic decisions toward success is more challenging than ever—the potential for actions founded on degraded SA is not only real but alarming.
I believe this subject suggests questions on how we address today’s academic and professional curricula in strategic and security studies. Are developing strategists asked to consider the evolving character of relationships and even of conflict itself from a variety of perspectives that compete with preconceived theories and ideological convictions? Christian Brose, former national security advisor to Senator John McCain, contends that we are in the midst of a “revolution in thinking” about how we engage adversaries. If our institutions are meeting this demand, adapting to the revolution around us with necessary foresight and creativity, then it seems curious that modern strategies have brought only haphazard success, and even that at great cost in treasure and honor. Is it simply that our own strategy, however well oriented, collides destructively with that of a determined adversary? If that is the case, rather than negating this discussion, it strengthens the importance of such questions, begging reimagined strategies to compete in an evolving landscape.
Perhaps we are not producing and rewarding practitioners who are prepared and resourced to think advantageously at the higher levels of SA. Just as damningly, perhaps our national security systems do not encourage and leverage broadly conceptualized strategic thought. Of course, there are cells in many organizations and agencies that are charged to consider strategic challenges with creative intellect. The catch phrase “outside-the box” has become standard fare among senior leaders speaking from the podium at defense-oriented symposiums. Are the ideas that emanate from such offices really influencing decision-makers, or do they fall prey to conventional systems that incentivize shallow orientation to validate preconceived outcomes? Perhaps too-often we remain anchored to perception, attempting to digest a complex world via one-page briefings that rarely move beyond executive summary. If so, I fear that our “bottom-line-up-front” may only preface an elegy that laments our weakened situational awareness. I welcome comments and hope this post encourages further discussion.
Booth, Kenneth. Strategy and Ethnocentrism. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979.
Boyd, John R. “Deconstruction and Creation.” 3 Sept 1976. US Army Command and General Staff College.
Brose, Christian. “The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future.” Foreign Affairs 8, no. 3 (2019): 122-34.
Endsley, Micah. “Situation Awareness Misconceptions and Misunderstandings.” Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making 9, no. 4 (2015): 4-32.
_____. “Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems.” Human Factors 37, no. 1 (1995): 32-64.
Gray, Colin. Perspectives on Strategy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Johnston, Alastair Iain. “Thinking about Strategic Culture.” International Security 19, no. 4 (1995): 32-64.