HomeOwl In the Olive TreeOwl_View

Military Means and Political Ends

By Erik Gartzke and Jon R. Lindsay


Guns versus Guns
The portfolio of military options available to policymakers and commanders today is large and growing. U.S. military power increasingly relies on a many different types of platforms and capabilities from different services. Threats to U.S. military dominance are becoming more complex as well. As the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy asserts, “State and non-state actors place the safety of the American people and the Nation’s economic vitality at risk by exploiting vulnerabilities across the land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains.”

Just as there are many different types of military capabilities and threats, there are also many different types of political objectives. Most national leaders would like their coercive threats to be believed, their military forces to be victorious, their security policies to be affordable, and the risk of war to be minimized. These are all worthy and desirable goals. However, they generally cannot be achieved simultaneously, or to the same extent. Politics is full of difficult tradeoffs.

The concept of “cross-domain deterrence,” helps us to understand the relationship between military means and political ends more clearly. Different specialized military capabilities have comparative advantages and disadvantages for different strategic ends. This means that choices about military force structure are politically consequential. In addition to the traditional tradeoff between “guns versus butter,” therefore, politicians also have to worry about “guns versus guns.”

Winning, Warning, and Watching
War may be “politics by other means” in the venerable Clausewitzian formula, but military means can be used for different political ends. Traditionally, military forces have been used in two very different ways. Most obviously, military capabilities can be used for conquest or defense. War is a way of forcibly redistributing rights, resources, or other benefits. Yet military capabilities can also be used to convey information about political interests or resolve. The deployment or mobilization of military forces enables one state to signal to another that it cares about an issue enough to fight for it. Strategies of coercion or deterrence use military power in this informational sense, as contrasted with distributional strategies of attack and defense.

More simply, military power can be used for “winning” or “warning.” Yet there is also a third important strategic function of military forces. They might be used not just to signal information, but also to gather information. Our colleague Ryder McKeown suggests the term “watching” to differentiate intelligence activities from “winning” and “warning.” Intelligence capabilities enable an actor to watch, wait, and potentially interfere covertly to gain some kind of political or economic advantage.

Recent technological innovation in intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR)—especially in the space and cyber domains—underscores the importance of “watching.” The ability to gather information discretely or covertly also implies the ability to manipulate information or deceive. The rise of cyber conflict as a major national security concern highlights the renewed importance of intelligence and deception in global politics.

These different objectives entail different priorities for military power. “Winning” strategies depend on having capabilities that maximize military power. “Warning” strategies depend on having capabilities that maximize credibility and political influence. “Watching” strategies, in turn, depend on having capabilities that minimize cost or maximize efficiency. Intelligence enables a state to do more with less, or to gain some distributional benefit without the costs and risks of war or deterrence. States that prioritize political stability over all else, moreover, might eschew the use of military capabilities altogether, thereby sacrificing power, credibility, and efficiency for some reduction of risk.

Different Means for Different Ends
Choices about military force structure have consequences for grand strategy and, given their budgetary expense, alternative domestic priorities. We find that different types of military forces in the land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains, as well as nuclear weapons, are specialized for different political strategies. To put it in economic terms, military forces are specific assets rather than politically fungible capabilities.

Capabilities that offer advantages in speed and maneuver, such as air and naval fleets that can deliver long-range precision fires, enhance the effectiveness of warfighting (winning) strategies. The same mobility that enhances warfighting also has the potential to improve the coverage of coercive (warning) strategies. However, this benefit comes at the price of reduced credibility by making it easier to abandon commitments.

Military capabilities that offer advantages in mass—masses of troops or mass destruction—enhance the credibility of coercive (warning) strategies including deterrence. For the same reason, however, they are liabilities for efficiency (watching) since they require the actor to absorb considerable cost or risk of punishment.

Domains that offer advantages for information—intelligence and communication infrastructure in space and cyberspace—enhance the efficiency of strategies that seek political-military benefits at vastly reduced cost and risk. Yet secrecy and deception are usually incompatible with credible communication and strategic signaling.

For instance, land deployments provide allies with a more credible signal of commitment for extended deterrence policies than other kinds of forces. Larger navies enable a state to project power farther from its shores and gain more diplomatic influence, but they also increase the risk of conflict or deterrence failure. Air forces, particularly unmanned drones, similarly, can improve power projection, but they provide little signal of resolve since they risk little. Cyber operations, which depend on deception, are not very useful for deterrence, even as the prospect of punishment in other domains can be used to deter cyber operations. Most worrisome, the combination of domains can sometimes be counterproductive, as when the deception of the cyber domain undermines the transparency of nuclear deterrence.

The proliferation of domains and complex interactions across them are both increasing the practical difficulty of strategy and creating new demand for theoretical concepts to guide it. Our attempt at disaggregation of ends and means is not the final word, to be sure. Yet even a modest improvement in conceptualizing the coercive strengths and weaknesses of different technologies may prove useful for both theory and practice.

Associated Reading
Gartzke, Erik. 2019. Blood and Robots: How Remotely Piloted Vehicles and Related Technologies Affect the Politics of Violence. Journal of Strategic Studies.
Gartzke, Erik, and Koji Kagatani. 2017. Being There: U.S. Troop Deployments, Force Posture and Alliance Reliability.
Gartzke, Erik, and Jon R. Lindsay. 2020. The Influence of Seapower on Politics: Domain- and Platform-Specific Attributes of Material Capabilities. Security Studies (Forthcoming).
Gartzke, Erik, and Jon R. Lindsay. 2017. Thermonuclear Cyberwar. Journal of Cybersecurity 3(1): 37-48.
Gartzke, Erik, and Jon R. Lindsay. 2015. Weaving Tangled Webs: Offense, Defense, and Deception in Cyberspace. Security Studies 24(2): 316-348.
Lindsay, Jon R. 2015. Tipping the Scales: The Attribution Problem and the Feasibility of Deterrence against Cyber Attack. Journal of Cybersecurity 1(1): 53-67.
Lindsay, Jon R., and Erik Gartzke, eds. 2019. Cross-Domain Deterrence: Strategy in an Era of Complexity. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lindsay, Jon R., and Erik Gartzke. 2020. Politics by Many Other Means: The Comparative Strategic Advantages of Operational Domains. Journal of Strategic Studies.

Erik Gartzke is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego and Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS).
Jon R. Lindsay is Assistant Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Associated Minerva Project
Deterring Complex Threats: The Effects of Asymmetry, Interdependence, and Multi-polarity on International Strategy

Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research

Nota Bene
Content appearing from Minerva-funded researchers—be it the sharing of their scientific findings or the Owl in the Olive Tree blog posts—does not constitute Department of Defense policy or endorsement by the Department of Defense.