Rear Admiral Wylie, Jr.’s Approach to Strategy

By David Hood

In The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, the late Colin Gray recognised J.C. Wylie as being among ten strategists who had profoundly influenced his thinking.

This badge of honor is justified when one reads Wylie’s seminal work Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control.

Originally published in 1967, Wylie’s ‘control school’ theory provides an important lens through which to view strategy.

Military Strategy contains many insights that remain relevant today.

While Wylie credits B.H. Liddell Hart as the inspiration for his theory, parallels can also be drawn to the works of another great strategist: Carl von Clausewitz.

Wylie provides three objectives for Military Strategy: to explain why existing methods of thinking about strategy are inadequate; to explore existing theories and their limitations, and to provide a general theory of strategy as a basis for more orderly and productive strategic thought1

In its original form, the book is under 100 pages in length, plus three short appendices. A postscript written by Wylie two decades later adds 20 pages. Military Strategy is, therefore, a concise work to cover such deep subjects.

Wylie dedicates the majority of his book to the first two objectives as part of an exploration of what he calls the ‘military mind’. He attributes the cause of many strategic problems to each branch of the military teaching its members to think with a single-service focus. The ‘military minds’ of each distinct branch conceive of and speak about strategy differently based on unspoken and often unconscious assumptions.

This causes problems when developing and choosing the optimal strategy in a joint environment because each ‘military mind’ assumes the strategic theory it comprehends is a general theory of strategy applicable in all circumstances, when in fact it is not. Wylie asserts that understanding strategic theories of other branches is crucial for good strategy:

[t]he military minds in too many cases are restricted to the limits of their intuitive thoughts that, after a lifetime of largely technical training, are perhaps somewhat narrower than they might be. A more general theoretical appreciation should give a greater breadth to the vision of the strategist.

The recognised possibilities for action would increase in number […] this limitation to intuitive appreciation of one’s own theory of strategy almost automatically inhibits adequate appreciation of any others […] blocking communication between the practitioners of different theories. One man thinks like a soldier, the next a sailor, and so on […] a more thorough recognition and appreciation of the several patterns of thoughts that make up our military minds would probably produce better strategies.2

As a prelude to developing his theory of strategy, Wylie categorises strategies into two types; sequential and cumulative.3

He argues that sequential strategies – a series of discrete, interdependent sequential steps, often associated with annihilation – are well understood and have predictable outcomes. Cumulative strategies – a collection of independent actions that produce an outcome through their cumulative effect, often associated with attrition – are, however, neither well understood, nor are their outcomes predictable.

Wylie contends that sequential strategies are most typically employed in the land domain and hence shape a soldier’s ‘military mind’, whereas cumulative strategies are often employed in the maritime domain, shaping sailors’ ‘minds’ accordingly.

Wylie is silent on which, if either, strategy is more prevalent in the air domain, perhaps because airpower characteristics such as speed, flexibility and reach mean that airpower is less predisposed to either strategy. Wylie is clear, however, in his assertion that when both kinds of strategies are used together, it is often the strength of the cumulative strategy that is the difference between success and failure; the net effect of the cumulative strategy is greater.4

Wylie does not draw explicit conclusions for the joint warfighting environment. However, if one stitches his concepts together, it becomes clear that a joint approach to strategy will best enable both sequential and cumulative strategies to be employed on the battlefield as two sides of the same strategic coin.

Given the current emphasis on joint approaches, the lesson for the modern strategist is twofold.

First, we should pay more attention to understanding the nature of cumulative strategies and how to employ them alongside sequential strategies.

Second, we should recognise the compounding value of a joint approach to strategy, and that left unchallenged, our ‘military minds’ may prevent us from fully developing such approaches.

Not until chapter seven does Wylie begin to discuss his general theory of strategy. He begins his discussion by stipulating the four basic assumptions that underpin it. Wylie then articulates his general theory of strategy in chapter eight, suggesting that strategy ‘should be some development’ of the following ‘fundamental theme’:

[t]he primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the centre of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.5

Disappointingly, Wylie never explores what development of this theme he had in mind, and the analysis to support his general theory runs only to a few paragraphs.

Nevertheless, Wylie’s theory seems intuitively valid, and perhaps he viewed further substantiation as unnecessary. It also seems plausible that Wylie, as a career naval officer, rather than a strategy intellectual, was broaching new ground such that he had little to offer in the way of theoretical analysis.

In an interview for the Strategy Bridge, Dr Nick Prime, whose PhD analysed Wylie and the control school of strategy, provides some interesting insights into Wylie’s thinking and the context in which he constructed his theory.

Prime recounted that amid the Unification Hearings, which commenced in the late 1940s to explore whether the services should be united into one department, Wylie was horrified that the United States Navy (USN) appeared unable to justify its continuation as a separate service.

Wylie believed that this difficulty stemmed from the USN’s poor understanding of strategy.

In order to form an argument to remain as a separate service, the USN first needed to understand how it contributed to strategy and to do that, a general theory of strategy was needed. Wylie thus began his own construction.

Prime also offered two reasons why Wylie’s theory has gained such little traction since – a fact that Wylie acknowledged himself in his postscript to Military Strategy.

Firstly, Wylie was not a self-promoter.

Second, strategy, as conceived as a theory of power control, was not in step with the established strategic thinking of the time, which was largely based on economic/scientific theories and nuclear strategy, developed by civilian strategists working in RAND.6

Wylie asserted that his general theory of strategy is developed from, and is compatible with, Liddell Hart’s indirect approach theory.7

When reviewed in detail, however, some important areas of Wylie’s theory align well, arguably better, with Clausewitz’s theory of strategy.

For example, Wylie’s view that the purpose of war, and the hence focus of strategy, is power control is closely related to Clausewitz’s concept of war as a duel: ‘[e]ach [protagonist] tries by physical force to compel the other to do his will [to] make him incapable of any further resistance […] War is thus an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will.8

Wylie also uses the concept of centre of gravity in a similar manner to Clausewitz. Both emphasise the importance of targeting the centre(s) of gravity of the enemy to affect the pattern and control the flow of war.

Compare Wylie’s fundamental theme quoted above with the following from On War:

The armed forces of every belligerent […] have a certain unity and, by means of this, cohesion […] There are, therefore, in these armed forces certain centres of gravity, the movement and direction of which decide that of the other points… To recognise these centra gravitatis in the enemy’s military force, to discern their spheres of action is, therefore, one of the principle functions of strategic judgement.9


[One of] the predominant conditions of both parties [in war is] a certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement […] upon which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed.10

Clausewitz goes on to discuss that the centre of gravity can vary depending on the nature of the opponent and that it is not necessarily an element of the military force itself.11

This is also consistent with Wylie’s conception of the centre of gravity. While Liddell Hart also sought to strike an enemy’s centre of gravity, it is notable that he never used this term, and his application was focussed towards non-military objectives; his indirect approach sought expressly to avoid military strongpoints12

Another important difference between Wylie and Liddell Hart is that the former does not emphasise anything equivalent to the latter’s indirect approach, which is central to Liddell Hart’s ideas for prosecuting war.

Wylie accommodates but then transcends Clausewitz’s focus on the destruction of the enemy.

While Clausewitz viewed the destruction of the enemy as of primary importance, Wylie argues that destruction—a typical product of military force—is not necessarily sufficient for, nor even congruent with, achieving the broader political outcomes of war, i.e. strategic victory.13

The difference is explainable as the result of the differing strategic horizons of Clausewitz and Wylie; the former conceived victory on the battlefield as strategic success, whereas the latter addresses a more contemporary context in which strategic activity operates above the military realm.

Wylie’s lesson for the modern strategist is that understanding the relationship between destruction and control is an essential part of strategy.

Destruction is indeed one form of control and should be recognised as such, but it is not a political outcome.

The control necessary to achieve political outcomes is more than just military effects.

And if the political desire to impose a level of control on the adversary cannot be achieved in practice, then strategy fails, i.e. the strategic ends cannot be attained by the available ways and means.

Statistician George Box famously observed that ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful.14

Wylie would agree.

In Military Strategy, he warns us about the service-centric focus of the military mind and its insidious tendency to limit strategic thought to that which we mistakenly think is universally applicable. It follows that the most effective strategists are those who inform themselves of a range of strategic theories that they can subsequently apply selectively and adaptively.

Comparing Wylie’s theory of strategy to that of Clausewitz provides a way to broaden our mental horizon.

Finally, Wylie’s assertion that the two types of strategy, sequential and cumulative, are used to best effect when employed together and as part of a joint strategy, makes Wylie’s general theory of strategy highly relevant today given the focus on the joint approach.

Wylie’s conception of strategy as a theory of power control is essential knowledge for the modern strategist.

Wing Commander David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK) and a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University). Wing Commander Hood is currently Commanding Officer of Air Training and Aviation Commons Systems Program Office (ATACSPO).

This article was published by Central Blue on March 30, 2020.




  1. Ibid., p. 1, 2, 12, 13.
  2. Ibid., p29, 30.
  3. Ibid., pp. 22-5.
  4. Ibid., pp. 25-7, 119, 120.
  5. Ibid., p. 77, 78.
  6. See for example: Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959); Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960); Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).
  7.  Ibid., p. 60, 61..
  8. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (eds.), On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 75.
  9. Ibid., p. 486, 487…
  10. Ibid., p. 596.
  11. Ibid.
  12. B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Second Revised Edition (New York, NY: Fredrick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967), p. 334, 338, 358.
  13. Wylie, Military Strategy, p. 98, 99. 
  14. G.E.P Box and N.R. Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons., 1987), p. 424.