Anthony Cordesman’s Enduring Approach to Strategy Analysis

When great minds depart, it is best to remember them through the lessons they passed on. I can think of no better way to remember my coauthor, mentor, and friend—Anthony Cordesman—than to write about some of his most enduring ideas and what they mean for the art and science of strategic analysis. Over the past two years many of these lessons were not shared through hot takes on social media or pundit-skewed shouting matches on TV. Rather, they were usually lessons imparted over a cup of coffee at 7 a.m. before anyone else came into the office as he shared stories about his adventures (and misadventures) in strategy. Three stand out.

  1. Make WUV Not War

Cordesman loved to tell stories about wargames, campaign analysis, and other large strategic analysis efforts gone wrong over the last 60 years. One of his favorites was to discuss how difficult it was to calculate relative combat power, including nuclear exchanges, with models that were often based on the weighted unit value (WUV) of individual weapon systems. In other words, can one estimate the power of a nuclear blast as the summation of individual Springfield rifles? He did not think so. Yet this method was common for decades during the Cold War, and Cordesman found the WUV model particularly concerning for how it skewed the ability of analysts to assess military balances and force posture. He loved to grin and say “make WUV not war”—a common reframe of the analytical community at the time. Cordesman knew the value of objectively measuring strategy but was always mindful of the difficulty of quantifying power.

Good strategic analysis boils down to the logic and clarity of its assumptions. It is easy to make bad models, even when some are useful, and easier still to lie with a convenient case study or historical analogy—something he often referred to as analysis reduced to ritual. Cordesman took pride in pointing out these flaws and using them as a point of departure to ask critical policy questions. This trait came from experience. One morning he told me his instincts to challenge assumptions were a byproduct of growing up in Chicago—where politics were never completely straightforward—and from a formative experience working on a team of analysts tasked with cataloguing the end of the Vietnam War.

  1. Net Assessments Don’t Suck

Like many of the greats of his generation, Cordesman did multiple projects with the Office of Net Assessment in the Department of Defense. Over the years, he saw a utility in zooming out to assess macro trends beyond combat power models or narrow facts and figures that tend to get trapped in the noise of the moment. He liked longitudinal and comparative datasets that allowed him to explore how power and influence, often exercised through strategies both good and bad, changed over the course of years, if not decades. He viewed net assessment not as alchemy but more as a form of inquiry that would have been at home in the Annales School of historiography, charting how institutions, states, and entire regional and global systems evolve through interactions over time. For Cordesman net assessments were a way of charting how these larger forces shaped decision-making and the start—not the end—of a public dialogue about strategy. The analyst who tries to assess a military balance without knowing what factors shaped combat effectiveness, and second order, the larger economic and social currents structuring political decisionmaking was bound to simply count tanks.

And Cordesman did not count tanks. Over the years both in and out of government he advocated for net assessment while applying the art to everything from studying China to regional perspectives on the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. He often combined these macro insights with travel and “being there.” I have never met someone who has visited as many war zones as Cordesman. It seemed every other cup of coffee we shared would bring up a memory of walking around the frontline during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s or bad PowerPoint presentations in Afghanistan 20 years later. 

In one of his last net assessments Cordesman wrote, “numbers are no substitute for thought and analyzing all the relevant factors shaping a key trend and comparison, but imagination, politics, ideology, and rhetoric are no substitute for numbers.” This quote captures how best to approach using long-term trends—including good old-fashioned charts and tables—to analyze strategy. A good graph tells a story about change over time and serves as a foundation for thought experiments about identifying possible competitive advantages central to strategic analysis.

  1. Got a Question? Read the Budget

Cordesman was convinced that a major shortcoming of modern strategic analysis was the fact that most people have forgotten—or never learned—how to read a defense budget. He believed that budgets were more important than speeches because they showed the larger trade-offs and tensions behind the scenes in any administration. Budgets showed the imperfections of strategy, often highlighting the gap between the promised theory of victory and a messier reality. Over the years he grew concerned that this gap was widening with budget submissions more often than not reflecting service priorities instead of serving as a blueprint for tying together “plans, programs, and budgets . . . by major mission and strategic goal.”

Honoring Cordesman Means Increasing the Rigor of Public Debates about Strategy

The best way to remember someone is to reflect on the lessons they shared, and the best way to honor them is to embody what made them truly special and extend their major contributions. In honoring Anthony Cordesman, everyone in the defense community should work harder to ensure they add depth and rigor to strategic analysis. Cordesman once told me he came to D.C. as McNamara’s gopher. He was hardworking to the end and never substituted deep insights for a collection of hot takes or sound bites. He did not chase headlines. He looked for deep structural forces shaping hard strategic choices. And most important, he did it all in the public eye, mindful of the importance of an open, vibrant marketplace of ideas that connected free people with elected leaders and serving officials. Hard times call for open debate about strategy.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program