Poor strategy is expensive, bad strategy can be lethal, while when the stakes include survival, very bad strategy is almost always fatal.[1]

Strategic history can be told as a tale of pathologies of separate efforts by elements that should operate as one in pursuit of common military objectives.[2]

The most compelling pattern visible in modern strategic experience is the widening gyre, the expanding vortex, of war and all its works. [As] complexity [grows] in the trade of war and in the subjects requiring mastery for exploitation by the art of strategy…so warfare is recognised as requiring an approach that is more coherent than mere coordination or synchronisation, and that instead proceeds beyond even the ‘joint’ into the military-cultural realm of true functional interdependence.[3]

– Colin S. Gray

Professor Gray observes that there is ‘no little irony in the fact that military pedagogy in the West often draws absurd distinctions among so-called high-, medium-, and low-intensity conflicts’. For people ‘at the sharp end of war’, there is ‘only one level of intensity, the one that threatens life and limb’.[4]

Strategy ‘should give meaning to the tactical behaviour of the soldiers in the field for their country’.[5] In combat, which ‘lies in the soldier’s personal cost-benefit analysis’, there is a ‘logical connection’ from a soldier placing their ‘life on the line [to their actions] enabling a country’s military strategy’.[6] This means that, at the tactical level, soldiers in combat must remain ‘acutely sensitive to strategic-level concerns’.

The purpose of this review is to summarise, simplify and share Professor Gray’s deep understanding of strategy, providing clarity in how we, as military professionals, define, create and apply strategy in our language, thinking, planning and execution. For ease of consideration, this review is divided into six sections: (1) Professor Colin S. Gray; (2) Defining strategy; (3) The adversary; (4) Employing strategy: Clausewitz & Gray; (5) Defining policy objectives; and, (6) Strategic-tactical interdependencies.

Professor Colin S. Gray

Professor Gray passed away in February 2020. Educated at Oxford and the University of Manchester, Professor Gray worked in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in both government and universities.

He served from 1982 until 1987 in the Reagan administration’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. He taught at the Universities of Hull, Lancaster, and York in the UK, and at the Universities of Toronto and British Columbia in Canada. He retired most recently from the University of Reading. Professor Gray authored 30 books and numerous articles on strategy, arms control, nuclear policy, and geopolitics.[7]

Written in 1999, Modern Strategy, is Professor Gray’s seventeenth book. Published thirty years into his career, Gray describes Modern Strategy as his best effort to share his understanding of strategy.[8]

Defining strategy

Gray defines strategy as ‘the theory and practice of the use, and threat of use, of organised force for political purposes’.[9] He argues that ‘the threat or use of politically motivated force is structural to the human social condition’.[10] Clausewitz writes that theory ‘educates the mind so that useful order can be imposed upon an apparently disorderly universe’.[11] For Gray, ‘theory should educate and guide, rather than seek to direct’.[12]

The master theme of Modern Strategy is Gray’s assertion that ‘there is an essential unity, a fundamental sameness, to all strategic experience in all periods of history, because nothing vital to the nature and function (or purpose) of strategy and war changes’.[13] Gray writes that the ‘nature and function of war and strategy are as permanent as their character and conduct are ever in flux’.[14] He concludes that ‘strategy is strategy, regardless of specific tactical and operational detail’.[15]

For Gray, the intrinsic merit in strategy resides ‘in its role as conductor of the orchestra of military and other assets so that they can be applied economically to serve political objectives’. He contends that strategy ‘transforms tactical performance into strategic effect…[enabling] strategic performance in the service of policy’.[16] Gray explains that policymakers ‘must understand the military instrument that they intend to use’,[17] adding that ‘policy is the master and ends must control means’.[18]

Therefore, the ‘means and ends that strategy balances and directs… are the means and ends connected by the threat or use of the instrument of force’.[19] For Gray, a ‘competent strategist… balances means with ends and understands that lasting success requires the definition of an international order which erstwhile foes find tolerable.’[20]

The adversary

Every tactical or strategic plan ‘succeeds against, not blind nature, but an adversary with whom you conduct a permanent tactical, operational, strategic and political-moral dialogue’.[21] Strategy devised ‘at home’ – ‘nationally, or within a coalition’ – through the ‘workings of a process beset with myriad domestic difficulties, means the enemy is often neglected in deliberations’.[22]

In learning to defeat an adversary, strategy is ‘paradoxical in that what works well today will not work well tomorrow, precisely because it worked well today’.[23] Gray observes that ‘in strategy nothing fails like success, not only because adversaries adapt to your methods, but also because you become unduly persuaded of your [own] genius’.[24]

Even ‘genuine [strategic] genius’ has its limitations in the human characteristics of ‘health, time and focus’. Therefore, as a ‘surrogate for individual strategic genius…war cabinets, general staffs and chiefs of service committees were established’.[25]

Gray explains that against the ‘unexpected behaviour’ of an adversary, ‘even a poor strategist may perform well enough, if the adversary is worse’. Because the ‘practical realm of strategy is a relative one’ – the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy – ‘strictly the need is to do better than the foe… [and in achieving this effect] there is no requirement to perform elegantly’.[26]

Employing strategy: Clausewitz & Gray

Clausewitz writes that ‘strategy is the use of engagements for the object of the war’.[27] Through the ‘use of engagements’, Clausewitz employs ‘all of the relevant instruments of power as threats or action, for the objectives of statecraft’.[28] In concert with Clausewitz, Gray observes that ‘strategy is the use of tacit and explicit threats, as well as of actual battle and campaigns, to advance political purposes’.[29]

War has a grammar, but not a policy logic, of its own.[30] Clausewitz explains that there remains an enduring requirement for policy and strategy to understand both the ‘grammar’ of war, ‘how war works as war… [as] physical conditions and tactical challenges…[and] action wherein people live and die in combat’, and the policy ‘logic’ of war’.[31]

Through the concept of war’s grammar and policy’s logic, Gray emphasises that ‘the threat and use of force is not a self-validating exercise’.[32] He notes that ‘military action has political meaning only through its strategic effect’.[33] For Gray, ‘war is not what strategy is about, any more than is battle. Strategy is about achieving the policy goals that translate as peace with security, whatever those two contestable concepts may mean to particular communities’.[34]

Gray reminds us of the ‘Janus-like nature of war as both a process of violence…and an instrument of policy’.[35] Although ‘war is an act of policy, it is nonetheless war and war has a necessary tactical level that is about fighting’.[36] Gray emphasises that ‘the nature, unlike the character, of war cannot be transformed. If the nature of war is transformed then war ceases to be war…and instead becomes something entirely different’.[37]

Clausewitz states that ‘no one starts a war – or rather, no one in their senses ought to do so – without first being clear in their mind what they intend to achieve by that war and how they intend to conduct it’.[38] For Gray, ‘the essence of strategy must be identified unambiguously... any military activity is essentially tactical. The consequences of all military activity is in the realm of strategy: the clearer that distinction, the better the definition.’[39] As Wayne Hughes observes, ‘strategists plan, tacticians do’.[40]

Military strategy is ‘done’ by tactics and operational art. Tactics are ‘the use of armed force’ and operational art is ‘the use of armed force in campaigns to achieve military and political results’. Strategic ‘performance in war…is generated by the strategic effect of the net costs and gains of the campaigns of which the war consists’.[41] In other words ‘strategy, no matter how apparently brilliant, is moot until somebody does it’.[42]

Gray insists that the ‘unity of strategy and the strategic experience is employed and developed to counter a widespread error… [which is] the tendency to confuse tactics with strategy and, as a consequence, to mistake changes in the character of events with changes in their nature’.[43]

Clausewitz also identifies this opportunity for error, writing ‘war is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case’.[44] Gray assesses that ‘strategy has a complex nature and a function that is unchanging over centuries’, and strategy’s ‘change in form is ever confused with change in kind’.[45]

Gray metaphorically describes strategy as ‘the bridge that relates [or links] military power to political purpose. Strategy, in itself, is neither military power nor political purpose…[and it] is an extraordinarily difficult enterprise primarily because it is a bridging function between [two] unlike elements’.[46] The ‘policymaker wages war, while the military commander fights battles or conducts campaigns; between those realms, through drawing from them both, lies the ‘bridging’ zone of strategy’.[47]

Finally, Gray argues that ‘there are elements common to war and strategy in all periods [of history], in all geographies, and with all technologies…[and between] culturally distinct belligerent polities’.[48] This means, ‘war remains war despite the many different forms that it can assume in distinctive political or technical-tactical contexts’.[49] War remains a gamble in ‘time, geography and technology’.[50]

Clausewitz reflects this view when stating that ‘no other human activity [than war] is so commonly or universally bound up with chance. And through the element of chance, guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war’.[51] Clausewitz concludes ‘everything in strategy is very simple, but it does not mean that everything is very easy’.[52]

Defining policy objectives

Armed forces ‘do not wage war in a political vacuum’.[53] Gray notes, strategy is difficult because it is ‘about the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy’ which means there is ‘an abundance of explanation as to why policy and war often march out of step’.[54] Gray explains that ‘politics produces policy which may require the services of strategy. Force distinguishes the realm of strategy, so organised violence [and] the requirement that the violence be organised for political purposes’ are two key definitions of war.[55]

Policy objectives, in the ‘nexus between politics and war and strategy’, appear ‘historically in four guises’:[56]

  1. Defence planners and military commanders are charged to accomplish objectives beyond the military means available. For example, Germany in World War II.
  1. Policy guidance to the military commander may direct more restraint than the political aim really requires. For example, the Gulf War 1991.
  1. Policy guidance to inform and shape strategy may be missing in action. For example, General Erwin Rommel’s 1941 North Africa campaign.
  1. The politics-war nexus creates objectives that cannot be achieved in military terms. For example, US combat in Vietnam, 1962-1973.

Gray observes that ‘national leaders in peacetime, even generals or admirals in peacetime, can rarely be confident about the probable performance of their military instrument [of force] in war’. Tactical ‘military prowess is easily squandered if battles are ill-chosen, campaigns are wrongly pointed and war is ill-conceived’.[57]

On policy, ‘failure of strategy…does not always flow from neglect of strategy…the problem can lie with policy’. Gray argues ‘a strategist can only orchestrate engagements purposefully for the political objective of the war, if the war has a clear political objective’. Strategic performance, in peace or war, ‘will be harmed if policy is vague, if its objectives are ephemeral…or if it constrains [and] prevents generation of sufficient strategic effect to produce success’.[58]

However, ‘even when policy is plainly at fault, the strategist is not thereby exonerated from responsibility’.[59] In accepting responsibly, a strategist ‘must always be willing to speak truth to policy makers and advise them that their war aims are unduly heroic or overly modest’.[60]

Gray notes that ‘strategy abhors a vacuum… [and] if the strategic function is lacking, strategic effect will be generated by the casual cumulation of tactical and operational outcomes’.[61] However, ‘to be good at fighting is important, but rarely sufficient’.[62] Gray concludes, it is strategically fatal for fighting forces to ‘hope that tactical success somehow would translate as a strategic victory’.[63]

Strategic-tactical interdependencies

Clausewitz wrote, ‘in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole’.[64] Gray attests to the ‘pattern of multiple reciprocal dependencies that interconnect, indeed bind, strategy’s many vital dimensions’.[65] Identifying ‘complex interdependencies underlies the emphatically non-hierarchical concept of strategy’.[66]

Recognising that it is ‘inherently sensible’ to approach policy, strategy, operational art and tactics in a ‘descending hierarchy’, Gray argues that these ‘realms need to be viewed as mutually dependent partners, related essentially horizontally, as well as on a ladder of subordination’.[67] The ‘hierarchal view, with its inevitable implication of a descent from matters of greater to lesser importance, can conceal the interdependencies giving integrity to the whole’.[68]

Emphasising strategic-tactical interdependencies, Gray argues that policy is ‘not an absolute’ or a ‘given’ handed to ‘military commanders on tablets of stone’. Strategic ideas ‘need to be staffed, coordinated, priced and critically reviewed’. [69] Gray writes that ‘just as there is, in practice, a constant dialogue between strategy and tactical performance, as plan meets actions, so there is a constant dialogue between strategic performance and policy demand’. In summary, ‘if troops cannot do it, the policy should not require it’.[70]

Gray describes seventeen ‘broad, pervasive, and interpenetrating dimensions’ that ‘affect all strategic performance fundamentally’ regardless of ‘period, opponents and technology’.[71] These seventeen dimensions are clustered into three categories:

  1. People and Politics: people, society, culture, politics, and ethics.
  1. Preparation for War: economics and logistics, organisation (including defence and force planning), military administration (including recruitment, training and armament), information and intelligence, strategic theory and doctrine, and technology.
  1. War Proper: military operations, command (political and military), geography, friction (including chance and uncertainty), the adversary, and time.[72]

These seventeen dimensions ‘encompass most of what contributes to the making and execution of strategy’.[73] Gray argues that a ‘genuine major weakness in any one of the seventeen dimensions can prove fatal to the whole enterprise of strategy’.[74] Gray concludes that:

Problems of national security cannot be reduced, for example, to correct investment choices among emerging technologies, to operational artistry, to the combat skills of warriors, or to excellence in the science of supplying and moving troops. Each is important, but none reliably can offset serious deficiencies elsewhere.[75]

Politics may seem to be the master; in that it is the only realm that provides meaning to strategy. Alternatively, or perhaps in addition, the influence of people has a strong claim to be the most pervasive element in strategic activity of all kinds.[76]

On the human dimension of strategy, strategy is ‘done’ by tactics; tactics is ‘done’ by combat and support forces; and, the most important element in these interactions is people. Gray advances that ‘policy and strategy will propose, but ultimately it is tactics, which is to say people in combat, which must dispose’.

People matter most, and people differ in their culture, skills, productivity, resilience, fortitude, resourcefulness and personality.[77] As John Keegan notes:

There was nothing about rum in Clausewitz, or about commanding officers having nervous breakdowns, or about one sort of warrior being better than another, or about officers bullying their subordinates. The warrior in Clausewitz was a sort of cipher – a being subject to fear and fatigue and capable of bravery – but faceless, unindividualistic and asocial.[78]

Finally… ‘time’ is undoubtably the least forgiving of error among strategy’s dimensions…[requiring decision makers to assess whether they] advanced too soon, too late, or at the right time.[79]


This review summarises, simplifies and shares Professor Colin S. Gray’s deep understanding of strategy to provide clarity in how we, as military professionals, define, create and apply strategy in our language, thinking, planning and execution.

Divided into six sections, this review examines: (1) Professor Colin S. Gray; (2) Defining strategy; (3) The adversary; (4) Employing strategy: Clausewitz & Gray; (5) Defining policy objectives; and, (6) Strategic-tactical interdependencies.

The master theme of Modern Strategy is Gray’s assertion that ‘there is an essential unity, a fundamental sameness, to all strategic experience in all periods of history, because nothing vital to the nature and function (or purpose) of strategy and war changes’.[80] Gray writes that the ‘nature and function of war and strategy are as permanent as their character and conduct are ever in flux’.[81] He concludes that ‘strategy is strategy, regardless of specific tactical and operational detail’.[82]