Dr Strangelove
13 January 2022

Ways with Means: No End to Military Fixation on Capacities and Capabilities

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Original blog post can be found here:

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.”

ATO-OPP and JPP pursue an epistemological framework where all activities of warfare progress from political or national aspirations down into tactical actions of organized violence arranged in time and space to accomplish said objectives. The desired ‘ends’ are related to ways and means so that commanders and their staffs “balance ends and means, determine ways and orchestrate and direct actions and capabilities…operations management then translates the operations design into action by integrating, coordinating, synchronizing, prioritizing and allocating capabilities across joint functions.”[1] Joint planning itself is defined as “the deliberate process of determining how to implement strategic guidance: how (the ways) to use military capabilities (the means) in time and space to achieve objectives (the ends) within an acceptable level of risk [emphasis original].”[2] The 2020 version of Joint Planning 5–0 has over 300 mentions of ‘capability’, while the NATO doctrine boasts 190 allusions. The associated term ‘capacity’ is far less referenced and done so often in relation to analysis of force projection, range, or movement of tangible warfighters/things. Thus, capability is nested within ‘military means’ while capacity is associated with ‘military tempo’ of action.

NATO-OPP and JPP direct commanders and staffs to frame their understanding of the military problem (or problems) that they see as barriers to reaching strategic goals or objectives by determining and assessing what various key actors might do within a war or security context. We attempt to ‘size up the enemy’ during mission analysis in order to consider what the military, security forces as well as other organized armed groups or rivals can potentially accomplish; this forms the entire rationale for NATO-OPP and JPP analytical optimization where SWOT, COG, stakeholder analysis and other models attempt to assess strengths, weaknesses, abilities, vulnerabilities and so-on. NATO-OPP even pairs the terms together with: “In particular, [each actor’s] capabilities and capacity to use force in time and space with relation to the current order of battle and disposition of the different actors [is required during the ‘evaluation of actors’ step within problem framing].”[3] This analysis is done both for friendly forces (for each proposed course of action) as reduced down into managed phases and conditions expected as well as enemy forces. The significance of these two terms relay metaphoric devices that express deeper theoretical and epistemological positions of NATO and Joint Force framing of warfare. What do we really mean when we employ ‘capability’ and ‘capacity’ through the modern military decision-making approach to warfighting?

The terms ‘capability’ and ‘capacity’ require greater examination as they often are applied (and misapplied) as synonyms to military organizational form and function. While these terms have precise meanings in hard science contexts such as physics or chemistry, they are being used by military organizations in an organizational/behavioral science context for complex warfare. “Capacity” refers to what a person, unit, or organization could accomplish within a standardized, controlled, and stable environment. A capacity is the ability that exists at present and in previously observed (known, stable, anticipated) settings. Often paired with ‘optimum or ideal setting’, a unit’s capacity to execute a particular task or deliver some effect is based upon basic conditions existing so that the known ability and potential for success are correlated. Again, this nests within the Newtonian Style of modern military decision-making, where systematic logic directs a formulaic mode of isolating, reducing, and sequencing tangible/objective things in vertical arrangements of hierarchical understanding and control. Everything of significance must be measurable, and only that which can be measured is of any significance.

A ‘capability’ differs in that it is what the unit (or individual, organization) can do in their routine environment but also improve upon, while ‘performance’ is what they do accomplish within that same routine environment. Units with high or exquisite capacities are expected to have a higher capacity as well as higher expected performances than those with inferior capacities. Capacity refers to general settings and resources, while capability relates to specific ones that also relate to an even higher level of ability that could occur under the right conditions or motivations; they both influence performance. Generic capacity is important, but specific capability is more significant for an organization attempting to execute a challenging activity or mission in an environment that is different. By different, we mean either unstable, unlike past environments where the organization could recognize performance measurements, or an entirely novel environment that the organization has little, or no experience operating in and therefore cannot accurately determine useful capacity expectations.

Capacity building also refers to a unit’s (or individual, organization) ability to absorb and adapt to change in an unstable or evolving context quickly and effectively. Capacity is limited and depending on the rate of assimilation of the unit/person/organization, the task or mission assigned may have too high a demand rate for absorbing change that exceeds a NATO or Joint Force organization’s capacity. This is akin to a funnel receiving too much gasoline as you attempt to fill a lawn mower with fuel or expecting a child to pay attention during a field trip for six hours of lectures about paintings and sculptures. Capability refers to the exquisite skills and abilities of a unit within NATO or Joint Forces required for a particular task or mission. Often, special operations forces or other highly sophisticated (or technologically advanced) system or entities are considered within military planning through this regard. Thus, an organization might have the capacity to change fast enough for a challenging mission, but still lack certain key capabilities that will result in mission failure. Inversely, one might have the key capabilities to accomplish a difficult and complex task, but simply lack the capacity. A snow blower that can remove the snow for a large driveway but lacks sufficient fuel to run long enough to do the job is a simplistic example of this tension.

NATO-OPP and JPP attempt to quantify these notions of capacity and capability assessments through staff analysis during the mission analysis portion which addresses all stakeholders (friendly as well as enemy), while later in the decision-making methodology the staff seeks to self-assess through two more related concepts. ‘Measures of performance’ and ‘measures of effectiveness’ are introduced and relate back to assessments of capacity and capability. Stakeholders are grouped into either formal military forces or similar para-military or security entity that is an extension of a national instrument of state power, or they are categorized into “other organized armed group” or such hostile, neutral, or other actor.[4] The analytic-oriented and centralized hierarchical structured construct illustrated here implies several possible assumptions within the modern military framing for all decision-making in warfare. This inspires strategists and planners to rationalize how they address capabilities and capacities concerning ideally similar opponents, particularly in the establishment and maintenance of state war plans, contingencies, and modern constructs such as ‘great power competition’ amongst top western adversaries.

Even opponents that are known to be non-state actors are still granted state-like capabilities and limits within the same uniform war frame where NATO or some alliance of nations might act against them.[5] Yet the NATO and Joint Force decision-making methodologies grow increasingly inappropriate and insufficient for confronting non-hierarchical, networked, and divergent threats that are increasingly familiar in twenty-first century competition.[6] Few contemporary adversaries whether Westphalian nation-state or non-state actor are willing to play by these war rules;[7] the game has changed regardless of how much technological, analytical, or political capital is invested to retain the older system for organized violence built upon rather mechanistic, linear, and systematic logics of planning. The sequences of NATO-OPP and JPP’s hierarchical, nation-state and geographical (physical domain centric) construct moves from broad, strategic or national-level initial assessments or focus areas down into progressively narrower, limited or analytically optimized priorities. The application of ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ nested within these decision-making methodologies again perpetuates this reductionist, systematic framing of a complex security challenge to a potential disadvantage of the militaries involved.

In this deconstruction of NATO-OPP and JPP, the entire methodologies were not presented in full. Both NATO and Joint Forces Command offer extensive doctrine and supporting documents for such studies. Instead, select components were illustrated in this monograph to show how NATO-OPP and JPP attempt to function for modern military forces. They both employ nearly identical theoretical underpinnings, conceptual models, methodological sequence, as well as doctrinally sanctioned language and shared metaphoric devices that are wedded to one specific way of thinking and acting in war. This demonstrates an orientation toward analytical optimization using a single war paradigm for visualizing and enacting strategic action through tactical and operational activities. There are several potential reasons for this, with a primary one being that nearly all Department of Defense professional military education (PME) sanctions and encourages this war frame for analytic thinking. We have been taught one frame for understanding and acting in war, and through institutionalized rituals, belief systems and rigid training/education, we have little option to think outside of the lines.

Due to clear limitations in available educational alternatives (different theories, sociological paradigms, alternative models, and non-standardized language), many military strategists, planners and staff officers and non-commissioned officers tend to interpret complex security contexts in the same ways, using the same language, often unwittingly employing the same theories and methods iteratively while expecting different results. If we utilize what is ultimately a ‘technical rationalism’ mode of making sense of reality within a military organization, and we project that worldview upon all adversaries (whether they differ or not is irrelevant), our organizations become increasingly unable and unwilling to critically examine how and why our own methods and logic may be insufficient, outdated, or potentially irrelevant to emerging contexts. We are directed to ‘shut up and color’ and even worse, we are conditioned to attempt to color within the lines of our institutional pre-established beliefs regardless of how different or unimagined the emerging security challenge is shaping up to become. The term ‘technical rationalism’ will be explained below so that ideas and methods beyond the modern military decision-making frame might be introduced to challenge the institutional standard.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Ministry of Defence, “AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations (Edition A Version 2),” 1–4.

[2] Joint Publication 5–0: Joint Planning, xi.

[3] Ministry of Defence, “AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations (Edition A Version 2),” 4–10.

[4] Ministry of Defence, 4–9 to 4–17; Joint Publication 5–0: Joint Planning, i–6.

[5] Siniša Malešević, “The Organization of Military Violence in the 21st Century,” Organization 24, no. 4 (2017): 466–68.

[6] Joe Miller et al., “Harnessing David and Goliath: Orthodoxy, Asymmetry, and Competition,” Small Wars Journal, February 2019,; Jeremiah Monk, “Strategic Design for the Complex Realm,” Www.Thestrategybridge.Org, November 28, 2018,; Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania Press, 2008); Hy Rothstein, “Less Is More: The Problematic Future of Irregular Warfare in an Era of Collapsing States,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 2 (2007): 275–94; Clarke-Hill, Li, and Davies, “The Paradox of Co-Operation and Competition in Strategic Alliances: Towards a Multi-Paradigm Approach.”

[7] McFate, The New Rules of War.

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