Strategic thought experiments

Thinking past consensus for gain

What if we had to defend the entire US with a few dozen special forces troops armed only with crossbows and three Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons?

Crazy, right? But still, what if? Would America instantly become more aggressive? Would we turn those few assets into land-based versions of the current nuclear “triad,” roving in such a way as to preserve the capability no matter what adversary sought to co-opt the teams?

I can remember daydreaming in class several years ago and having that strange thought pop into my head. I didn’t know what to do with it at first, but then I gave in and started to think through what it might mean. It helped to simplify and clarify some ideas that are often a little too complex to contemplate.

Thought experiments are common in physics. Albert Einstein’s Wikipedia page on his thought experiments is almost as long as his personal entry. Isaac Newton used a cannonball atop a mountain to describe motion. Physicists dig thought experiments. 

Strategists, not so much.

They’re nearly non-existant in strategic documents. Perhaps because they’re considered fiction while a strategy is supposed to be non-fiction.

Yet, that can’t be the case, can it? What is a strategy if not a story of future success?

Sure, there must be anchor points well-wedded to reality. But we can’t know what the future is and so we’re making up our vision of it with reasoned conjecture. Strategy’s a hypothesis.

And, as Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis once wrote, “What-if questions are the root of strategic thinking.” 

Strategists benefit immensely from both free-wheeling thinking on the front end, and the kind of thought experiments those What-ifs can kick-start. 

Let’s let rip with a few What-ifs:

  • What if the US liquidated 650 of its 800 overseas bases?

  • What if the US military was reduced in size equal to the combined strength of the next two largest militaries in the world (i.e., the British navy’s “two-power standard” of the late-19th century)?

  • What if the US military abolished service academies? Or the government demanded the Ivy League send at least one percent of their undergraduates into military service?

  • What if the US made military service mandatory, with exemptions for other types of service? 

  • What if the US nationalized much of Silicon Valley?

  • What if US national security was collectivized with the other Five Eyes (UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), each country committed to a minimum annual mandatory expenditure, proportional service-levels relative to population, and a command structure—an Alliance of Democracies—reminiscent of the old Imperial General Staff. The countries would agree to collaborate and fight under the same flag, down the lowest tactical level, for common gains. (Some would undoubtedly smear this as second-wind imperialism. More reasonable parties would see it as a smart way of pooling defense resources in a world where the democratization of violence has driven attack costs to near nil while defense assets are scarce and getting scarcer.) 

  • What if the US cut defense in half and doubled the pay of all continuing service members, forcing cuts in quantity in favor of quality.

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These are all related to my own experiences in national security. There’s nothing sepcial about them, other than a few wild ideas that might lead to a few thought experiments, in the general area of reducing defense expenditure. I chose that as a theme because as US national debt has recently gone way up to approach World War II levels, defense expenditures will certainly be driven down in coming years.  

When defense spending went down during the Eiesenhower administration, we saw a theory of national defense predicated on “massive retaliation.” With fewer folks in uniform, we leaned into aggressive nuclear deterrence. (Sounds a little like a few guys with some nukes, right?)

My sense is strategists don’t use thought experiements nearly enough. Most prefer to sketch out a simple, single story about how marching forward to success. The reality is we live in a world with multiple paths forward.

What-ifs and thought experiments are tools that can be used to stretch strategic thinking.

And they should.

*Editor’s Note: What do you think? Really, what do you think? Comments and critiques are welcome here. If you enjoyed this, please flick it on to anyone you think might find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention matters!

All the very best & see you next week, Matt