Paper #37. The Strategy Cuboid: Elements, Dimensions, and Targets in the Global Information Environment

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D, Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Cyber, Security, Strategy
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The need for a comprehensive approach to strategy that’s relevant to the global information environment is made clear by recent cyber and information attacks. The Solar Winds and Hafnium attacks from US data centers occurred in a context of persistent disinformation campaigns (Russia, China). Yet the US cyber, info ops and law enforcement communities have developed separately. Calling for more integration, US Cyber Command commander General Paul Nakasone recently described our threat environment in terms of a gap in political-legal authorities to protect the nation.[0]

Attacks on the US are more than cyber attacks using (leasing) US infrastructure to attack that infrastructure in the cyber domain. Attacks are also information and narrative warfare about the meaning of information. While our democracy politicizes the choices between collective security and individual privacy, a strategy cuboid can highlight how to fashion a comprehensive approach to strategy.

Effects in the cyber domain or any other (land, maritime, air, space), are ultimately information effects that combine in ways well beyond “deterrence” or “defense.” Besides the politically palatable deterrence and defense, strategic effects include compel, coerce, induce, secure, persuade and dissuade.

Combined-effects strategy consists of three basic sets of choices: three elements, three dimensions, and two targets. From these basics, we can construct multi-faceted strategies.

Elements of Strategy

The basic elements of strategy are ends, ways and means. All of them should be adjustable so as to craft holistic, agile and asymmetric advantages.

Ends are the goals, priorities, objectives and effects that provide a strategy its purpose or why.

Means are the resources, instruments, tools and ideas — the what that brings about the desired ends.

Ways are concepts of operations that describe how means will be applied.

Together, these elements provide a flexible, interdependent process that can be proactive and adaptive. In addition to these elements, the strategist must make decisions in three dynamic dimensions. 

 Dimensions of Strategy

The dimensions of strategy may be broadly defined as: “profound qualities or features.”[1] 

There are three dimensions, usefully conceptualized as spectra. Each spectrum is a blend of its ideal endpoints:

  1. psychological—————physical
  2. confrontational—————cooperative
  3. preventive—————causative

This definition of dimension is broader than those found in military doctrines that focus on the first spectrum.[2] A dimension is also broader than a domain defined as where military operations take place.[3]  Any domain consists of “maneuver space“[4] filled with all sorts of actors that have access to all sorts of weapons. We need our definition of dimensions to be broader than our definition of domains to account for realities such as: (a) the use of military-grade weapons being used against law enforcement while law enforcement is banned from using the same weapons; and (b) the use of more-than-military weapons in a military domain. Dimensions of strategy reveal what can be weaponized even if our domain policies prohibit such.

Answering three questions can help create a three-dimensional strategy that combines different types of effects:

  • How Cognitive, Moral, Perceptual and Material is the Strategy?
  • How Confrontational and Cooperative is the Strategy?
  • What Should the Strategy Cause and Prevent, and When/For How Long?

How Cognitive, Moral, Perceptual and Material is the Strategy?  

The psychological – physical spectrum describes strategy in terms of how cognitive or material it is or should be.

A psychological strategy involves reasoning and perception, while a physical strategy also involves perception, but of material substance. Neuroscience, for instance, combines both and because it does, provides unique insights (such as neuro-imaging) to predicting behavior.[5] 

To the extent that ends, ways or means can be sensed without psychological constructs, a strategy is physical. Most data, however, is not raw or pure, but mixed with quantitative-qualitative data and constructed information.

Both data and information are subject to biases.[6] Examples include indicators of strength, vulnerabilities and influence. The meanings of such data and information come less from precise measurement than from selected metrics. Metrics import other data sources and analytic techniques that can cook the raw data.

The bottom line is that data sensors and information processors are critical interfaces to be interpreted and assessed, rather than taken at digital face value. If we consider ends, ways and means that work psychologically as well as physically, we will be more likely to develop and anticipate strategies that fit more situations.      

How Confrontational and Cooperative is the Strategy?

The confrontational – cooperative spectrum describes strategic competition among ends, ways and means in terms of how contentious the relationships are.

Competition that is confrontational disputes ends, ways or means. Examples include illegitimate ends such as land-grabs, and unacceptable ways & means such as inhumane rules of engagement.

Cooperation is not necessarily total either, as in an “unfair” end-result, such as defense industry workers losing jobs. Even when the rules regarding ways and means are agreed upon, cooperation can break down, as in free trade among workers of unequal productivity.

Blends of confrontation and cooperation among “frenemies” are common. Such coop-frontational competition often applies to asymmetric relationships as each side exploits differences in strengths and weaknesses.

The confrontation – cooperation spectrum provides a more realistic dimension of strategy than “war” or “peace” and a spectrum of “conflict” (read, armed), both of which presume either one state or the other. In reality there is peace – war and conflictual – non-conflictual competition. Political restraints and constraints influence the degree to which a strategist is permitted to craft confrontational and cooperative ends, ways and means.

What Should the Strategy Cause and What to Prevent, and When/For How Long?

This foremost question of strategy is broader and more precise than Carl von Clausewitz’s supreme question of what to achieve and how to conduct a particular war.[7] Our focus is broader because we consider any confrontational or cooperative competition, not just war defined in terms of violence (plus chance and reason).[8] 

Strategists need to specify preventive and causative ends, even though these can change, because the ends also compete against opponents’ ends. Superior ends can subsume those of competitors if they are sustainable and contextual. The preventive – causative spectrum describes contextual conditions of ends, ways and means in terms of purpose and time.

As in the other dimensions of strategy, the preventive – causative spectrum blends opposite attributes. For instance, the Chinese concept of wei shi (威慑) combines “protect-deter” and “attack-coerce.” Russian concepts of deterrence combines sderzhivanie (restraint) and ustrashenie (intimidation) in both peacetime and wartime.  Competition is not inherently non-conflictual. 

Targets of Strategy

Equipped with an awareness of the elements and dimensions of strategy, a strategist tries to influence two types of targets: will and capability. As in previous posts on this website, our JMark Services’ Information Environment Advanced Analysis course breaks down will and and capability into several key components. These must be analyzed to suit particular targets.

Will Components: expectations, interpersonal relations, routines, justifications

As a target to influence, the will of an actor is more uncertain than capability. The components of will—expected costs and benefits, interpersonal relations, routines or patterns, and institutional or ideological justifications—are difficult to assess. There are many more.[9] These also involve intuitive and deliberate thinking (System 1 and System 2).[10]

When we think in terms of holistic combinations of these components, opportunities to influence may be apparent that otherwise would not. An actor’s expected outcomes of costs and benefits may be conditioned by justifications from institutional priorities, ideological values or narratives. Another actor may be prone to interpersonal pressure points or routinization from patterns. These considerations can lead to an individual’s sources of power or observations that inform wants or raise fears. The point is to try to influence will, rather than concede that arena to an opponent.

Capability Components: information, expertise, resources, location

 Capability components are more straight-forward. They tend to make it to commanders’ assessment charts even if will components are more influential and persistent. Yet, removing a capability can affect will, and will is a cognitive capability.

The components of capability—information and data, acquired expertise, material and human resources, and physical or virtual location—are interrelated. Information regarding an actor is affected by location, as contexts and networks are different. The expertise of an actor influences the quality of personnel or economic resources. As in the components of will, these components are intended to expand thinking about how to influence types of capability across circumstances.   

Will and Capability

We can relate will and capability components to each other as well, since they are deconstructions anyway. Both may be thought of as attributes of sentient actors (includes artificial intelligence, AI) and environmental conditions (micro or macro). Actors may be subjects of action and objects of being acted upon. Environmental conditions are surroundings defined by connectivity, not just proximity. Relevant actors may be near, far, physical, or virtual.

This diversity matters when it comes to discerning, detecting and develop relationships that influence and are influenced by will and capability. The basic logic, or “line of effect,” that a strategist strives to project upon on targets is: use means in ways to influence will and capability in order to achieve ends. The targets are not passive prey. They also target others as they try to impose their desired ends. 

Integrating and Aligning Elements, Dimensions, and Targeting

We can visualize basic relationships among the elements, dimensions, and targets of strategy via a 3x6x2 cuboid: 

The six colored cubes illustrate just one possible combination of elements, dimensions, and targeting. There are 32 total possibilities. An example of a strategy that fits the selections depicted above is: cause pro-democracy demonstrations and prevent control of disputed territory via cooperative means to influence will, confrontational ways to influence will, physical means to influence capability, and psychological ways to influence capability. What about activities to make this happen?

The respective activities could include: 

            a. Provide connectivity for dissidents

            b. Conduct freedom of navigation operations

            c. Increase cultural exchanges

            d. Criticize human rights abuses

            e. Deploy missile defense and stealth strike in receptive allied countries

            f. Counter state propaganda with widespread media messaging

These activities need to be aligned to set and orchestrate relative priorities. One hierarchy of effort that works to align disparate activities is that of joint military doctrine:

  • Activities: function, mission, or action(s)
  • Effects: physical or behavioral state of a system that results from an action or another effect
  • Objectives: clearly defined, decisive and attainable goals (of effective operations)
  • End-state: conditions that define the achievement of objectives
  • Strategic Priorities: long-term, essential interests

The basic logic of this strategic alignment is: design activities which create effects for attaining objectives that achieve end-state conditions in support of strategic priorities. 

Lines of Effect

There are an inexhaustible variety of activities, or means, that influence will and capability. For illustrative purposes, we will use one example of means for each combination of psychological-physical ways and preventive-causative ends in the strategy cuboid. This approach yields 16 basic “ways” (how different means target will or capability differently) to create preventive and causative “ends.”[11] The “means” are represented by the first-word verbs (cooperative strategies are italicized; confrontational strategies are normal case): 

  • Intimidate the will in order to deter
  • Intimidate the will in order to compel
  • Assure the will in order to dissuade
  • Assure the will in order to persuade
  • Punish the will in order to defend
  • Punish the will in order to coerce
  • Demonstrate will to secure
  • Demonstrate will in order to induce
  • Neutralize capability in order to deter
  • Neutralize capability in order to compel
  • Enhance capability in order to dissuade
  • Enhance capability in order to persuade
  • Deny capability in order to defend
  • Deny capability in order to coerce
  • Exercise capability in order to secure
  • Exercise capability in order to induce

There are many more nuanced means and ways that can influence will and capability. Drawing from unconventional and conventional warfare communities, common concepts to influence a target‘s will, include: subvert, exhaust, divert, confuse, and mislead. Concepts that target capability include: flank, encircle, isolate, attrit, and annihilate.

A strategist should consider any of these means and ways to target will or capability in order to produce a first-order effect with subsequent or simultaneous nth-order effects. For instance, a diversion to effect an encirclement, or an isolation maneuver to exhaust the target’s strength, need to be thought through in terms of the agility to change ends, ways and means.

Bottom Line for Strategists

In a complex information environment, we need to understand how effective strategy exploits features and targets. This strategy cuboid is an attempt to visualize key interrelationships resulting from the explosion of weaponized tools available to sentient actors.

With the development of AI, multi-dimensional strategy will be critical to preserving human control in a competitive world.


[0]“Nakasone Warns Adversaries Hack Unseen in US,” Breaking Defense, 25 March 2021, https://breakingdefense.com/2021/03/nakasone-warns-adversaries-hack-unseen-in-us/.

[1] This definition of dimension is consistent with the meanings of dimension as a measurement, part, feature, and way of considering a thing or situation that has an effect on how you think about it. Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/dimension.

[2] For instance Dutch military doctrine defines a dimension as “a sphere in which effects are observed…physical, virtual, and cognitive dimensions.” Klaudia Klonowska and Frank Bekkers, Behavior-Oriented Operations in the Military Context: Enhancing Capabilities to Understand and Anticipate Human Behavior, The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, February 2021, https://hcss.nl/sites/default/files/files/reports/Behavior-Oriented%20Operations%20%28March%208th%29.pdf.

[3]Such as the “tools and weapons” of technology in the broadly insightful book: Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age, Penguin Press, 2019.

[4] Such as “maneuver space” in Jeffrey Reilly’s definition of a domain: “Critical macro maneuver space whose access or control is vital to the freedom of action and superiority required by the mission.” https://othjournal.com/2018/04/13/oth-video-beyond-the-theory-a-framework-for-multi-domain-operations/.

[5] A “brain-as-predictor” approach treats neural activation, structure and connectivity as independent variables in that predict outcomes as dependent variables: Eliot T. Berkman and Emily B. Falk, “Beyond Brain-Mapping: Using Neural Measures to Predict Real-World Outcomes,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, February 2013, pp. 45-50, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3903296/.

[6] Complementary quantitative and qualitative data are needed to combine sensor data with social constructs: Jörg Müller, Sergi Fàbregues and María José Romano, Using Sensors in Organizational Research: Clarifying Rationales and Validation Challenges for Mixed Methods, Frontiers in Psychology, 10: 1188,     https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6543914/

[7] “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test [how wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them] the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.” The inserted brackets refer to the previous sentence. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 88-89.

[8] Ibid, p. 89.

[9]An exhaustive study of will that includes 18 overlapping considerations may be found in Wayne Michael Hall, The Power of Will in International Conflict: How to Think Critically in Complex Environments, Praeger Security International, 2018, pp. 50-53.

[10] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

[11]There are 16 other possible combinations in the cuboid: psychological-physical means and ends (8); and preventive-causative means and ways (8). These distinctions can develop more options. 

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

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