Small Wars Journal

Cognitive Blind-Spots and Dominated Strategies

Wed, 01/06/2021 - 10:22am

Cognitive Blind-Spots and Dominated Strategies

By Amos C. Fox

The United States Army currently has a problem. The face of modern war, and what that portends, are not adequately expressed in concepts and doctrine. The problem is that the US Army’s concepts and doctrine, as part of that of the larger Joint Force, are rife with ideas that are out of step with trends in contemporary armed conflict and projections about future war. To be sure, concept development is currently focused on large-scale combat operations (LSCO) and multi-domain operations (MDO), or joint all-domain operations (JADO), and while lacking an appreciation for applied dominance. All the while, today’s trend line suggests urban warfare, and its reciprocal siege, coupled with great and regional powers competing indirectly through a variety of proxies, are war’s moderating features.

Despite the throng of thoughtful, researched writings and presentations on these areas, the U.S. Army remains indifferent toward these truths. One must only look to U.S. Army doctrine to see the scant, underdeveloped attention given to these realities. Despite being touted as a “new way to fight,” today’s Army operations manual is eerily reminiscent to the conceptual and doctrinal underpinnings of forty years ago.[1] It looks and reads more like something to address a Cold War threat than of today’s strategic and tactical environment.[2] As a consequence, the U.S. Army cultivates cognitive blind spots regarding its understanding about war. These cultivated blind spots set the U.S. Army on a course toward dominated strategies, which is an action or series of actions that contains no possibility of long-term victory over an adversary.[3] 

By side-stepping these truths—the increased urbanization of war and urbanization’s reciprocal siege, coupled with the reality that wars amongst great and regional powers are fought through proxies—the U.S. Army is decreasing its war readiness. To put it another way, by eschewing these truths, the U.S. Army is preparing for the war it wants to fight instead of preparing for the wars it will likely fight. If left unchecked, the U.S. Army’s intransigence puts it on mark for fighting wars with no possibility of long-term victory. 

This paper argues that to guard against dominated strategies, the U.S. Army must fill its cognitive blind spots with informed theories, concepts, and doctrine to overcome these cognitive blind spots. Further, it must iteratively eliminate dominated strategies through careful self-assessment in relation to the strategic environment and potential adversaries, while understanding the character of dominance on the battlefield. This work uses a case study, the initial action between Russia and Chechnya in Grozny during the First Chechen War, to highlight how cognitive blind spots and fighting preference, instead of rational decision-making, and an appreciation of applied dominance, can put an actor on a collision course with a dominated strategy. This work then offers a few recommendations that the U.S. Army should incorporate to avoid finding itself in a similar position to that of the Russian Army on New Year’s Day, 1995.    

First Chechen War, 1994-1996 

In the early 1990s, as the once strong Soviet Union disintegrated, Russia wrestled with volatility across the Caucasus region. In 1993, Chechnya declared independence from Russia.[4] Political and military wrangling between actors boiled over in late 1994 and by December resulted in Russia launching a full-scale campaign to bring Chechnya back to heel.[5] 

Concurrently, conventional Russian land force doctrine, a holdover of Cold War thinking, was focused on open warfare against a peer competitor. Russian doctrine made little mention of urban warfare; specifically, it presented two options for urban combat.[6] If a city was defended, it was to be bypassed. If a city was not defended, it should be hurriedly taken on the march.[7]

Russia’s initial plan to subdue the revolution in Grozny, the Chechen capital, consisted of three phases and was expected to take fifteen days to complete.[8] Prior to entering Grozny the Russians misread the situation, assuming that the city was not heavily invested.[9] In doing so they miscalculated the Chechen’s strategy and the influence of Grozny’s sprawl on operations.[10] Moreover, Russia misunderstood that material superiority does not guaranteed battlefield dominance. As defense analyst Olga Oliker contends, “The Russians faced a very difficult enemy in Chechnya…The Russians had to win and hold territory. The Chechens just had to make doing so sufficiently painful that their enemy would give up the task.”[11] Moreover, they misunderstood that material superiority is not a guarantor of battlefield dominance.

On entering Grozny on December 31, 1994, the Russian campaign plan unraveled at an expeditious rate. Chechen forces, keenly aware of Russian aggregate supremacy, pursued tactical parity by luring the Russians deep into Grozny’s recesses and leveraging the latent strength of the city’s urban terrain to tip the balance of power to their favor.[12] They leveraged raids and ambushes when small offensives made tactical sense. They clung closely to Russian land forces to neutralize Russian artillery and airpower, while also bringing themselves in range to employ anti-armor weapons.[13] In effect, Chechen forces utilized zones of proximal dominance. They divide the battlefield into zones in which they could achieve local overmatch against the dislocated and desynchronized Russian land forces.[14]

The impact was felt almost immediately. Within the first hours of fighting in Grozny, Chechen forces destroyed 13 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers from Russia’s 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade (MRB).[15] Russian forces lost hundreds of soldiers during the battle’s opening salvo, and within days the 131st MRB was completely destroyed.[16] By the end of January 1995, the 131st MRB lost 20 of its 26 tanks, 102 of its 120 armored personnel carriers, and all six of its anti-aircraft guns.[17] The 131stMRB’s destruction was so thorough that not even its commander, Colonel Ivan Savin, nor the majority of its staff were spared.[18]

The 131st MRB was not the only Russian unit pulverized in Grozny. The 506th Motorized Rifle Regiment, supporting the 131st MRB in Grozny, lost over a quarter of its personnel.[19] By the end of January 1995 Russian losses exceeded over 5,000.[20] Conversely, the battle imposed a deleterious impact on the Chechen civil population, reducing the city’s inhabitants from 400,000 at the beginning of hostilities to 140,000 by April 1995.[21]

The First Chechen War followed a similar pattern for the next eighteen months. Two additional, albeit smaller, sieges of Grozny occurred before Russia ceded victory to the Chechens.[22] In March 1996, Chechen forces conducted a rapid three days siege of Grozny, which presaged the war's final battle.[23] In August 1996, a final Chechen siege served as the coup de grâce, as Chechen forces encircled all remaining Russian units in the city and bled them to the point that Russian president Boris Yeltsin came to terms with the Chechen separatist movement.[24] 

In retrospect, Russia clearly played a dominated strategy in the First Chechen War. Its doctrine and training were aligned against one problem set—large scale combat operations against a peer competitor—while it was involved in an entirely different problem. Further, it appears that Russia assumed that it’s numerical and material superiority would directly correspond to tactical domination over the inferior Chechens; that the battles were merely formality and that victory was certain.

Highlighting this point, defense analysts Lester Grau and Dodge Billingsley note that, “During the first war, the Russians preferred contiguous lines and predictable, methodological advances. This led to a series of bloody frontal attacks against defending forces in urban terrain.”[25] Russian forces were ready for the fight that they wanted but not the war in which they were likely to find themselves. Russia, wedded to its preferred, but feckless cognitions and doctrine, invited disaster during the opening phase of the First Chechen War, which set its ultimate defeat in motion. From the outset, Russia shackled itself to the corpse of a dominated strategy because it prepared for the war it wanted but fought another. Russia’s misstep into a dominated strategy and the Chechen’s use of zones of proximal dominance are instructive because they should result in self-reflection. 

Ruminations on Circumventing Dominated Strategies

Dominated strategies provides a useful analytical tool to assess the U.S. Army’s pursuit of readiness. Dominated strategies in war tend to come about when an actor is environmentally unaware or unwilling to accept the character of the environment in which they are operating. Dominated strategies are also the consequence of an actor blinded by hubris and the belief in infallibility of their own narratives, concepts, and doctrine at the expense of reality.  

Dominated strategies can be identified and avoided through thoughtful analysis and self-reflection, or a process known as iterative elimination.[26] Iterative elimination is the cyclical process of assessing a competitive environment, assessing rational and irrational options available to all sides within that competition space, rendering judgment about which decisions an adversary will make to improve its position.[27]

Once those factors have been calculated, an actor makes a cogent decision to maximize payoff within the context of that decision-cycle, but also as it relates to the strategic competition space. This process is also referred to as employing a rational strategy.[28]   

Moving forward with rational strategy formulation, the argument can be made that the U.S. Army’s approach to combat readiness is irrational. It is irrational because it evades facts, while advancing fanciful, unfounded concepts. The fact remains that urban warfare, sieges, and great and regional powers competition fought through proxies are the most germane features of today’s wars that will carry into the future. Meanwhile, concepts like LSCO and JADO resemble the Russian’s insistence on fighting the First Chechen War the way they wanted, instead of preparing for the war that they could foresee.[29] The following portion of this paper provides a few recommendations for improving readiness and avoiding dominated strategies.

Reforms to Improve Readiness and Avoid Dominated Strategies

British scholar, Michael Howard offers supportive thoughts when pondering the path forward. He contends that war is a distinct and repetitive method of behavior and therefore it can be a useful analytical tool to study war and forecast the future of war.[30] Further, historian John Lewis Gaddis contends that basic requirement of theory is to account for reality.[31] With Howard and Gaddis as back drops, serious reflection should seek to understand and answer following questions:

  • Are we winning the wars in which we are engaged? Why, or why not?
  • What are the contours of today’s wars?
  • Do existing concepts and doctrine result in victory on today’s battlefield?
  • Do existing concepts and doctrine effectively align with today’s wars? Or are we assuming risk and making do with our existing concepts and doctrine?
  • Does existing concepts and doctrine cover the environments and types of war in which we will fight in the future?
  • What are the contours of the wars of tomorrow?
  • Does concept development and force structure support the contours of future war?

With these questions in mind, the U.S. Army must move away from narratives and instead focus on honesty about the wars in which it is engaged. Narratives generate cognitive gaps and blind spots. These gaps and blind spots facilitate moving down the path toward dominated strategies because they do not provide rudder to the direction in which mental and physical preparation require. Instead, narrative, a story one is either trying to sell to others or themselves, are intended to hide the truth and in doing so, create an alternative reality that is more aesthetic of digestible. Honesty, on the other hand, better allows those engaged in an environment navigate that situation’s nuance and challenges. Proxy wars are a prime example of this situation. Euphemisms like by, with, and through indicate a proxy war. However, the U.S. Army makes scant mention of proxy war in its doctrine. Honesty, not narrative or euphemism, will support improved concept development and doctrine, thereby providing the warfighter and headquarters operative the conceptual software and tools for training to truly build readiness. 

Next, urban warfare, explicably linked with proxy warfare, gets a bit more traction in the U.S. Army’s doctrine.[32] However, existing writing on urban warfare often falls short detailing the reciprocal relationship between an urban defense and a siege (Figure 1). To be sure, the Russo-Ukrainian War’s defining battles at Donetsk Airport and Debal’tseve were both sieges. Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war, coupled with the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve, resulted in sieges in Aleppo, Raqqa, Kobani, Deir ez-Zor, Ghouta, and Mosul, Iraq. While further to the east, and at roughly the same time, the U.S.-Philippines’ battle against the Islamic State resulted in a six-month siege of the city of Marawi.[33] In each of these cases, the constriction of an actor into the urban area reciprocated a siege to overcome that tactic. The razing of Grozny in the Second Chechen War (August 1999-April 2009) is another example of this dynamic in modern war.[34]

Blind 1

Figure 1: Layered Defense-Siege Dynamic


Honest software–theories, concepts, and doctrine–is needed to overcome those cognitive gaps. Furthermore, force structure assessments in relation to factual environmental threat assessments are needed. This will assist in providing purpose-built forces, instead of continually falling back on historically aligned and built forces.

Failure to think clearly about existing and future challenges in war and warfighting can result in the development of solutions looking for a problem to solve, instead of problem-oriented solutions.

Applied Dominance – Zones of Proximal Dominance

            Misconceptions of dominance also lead to dominant strategies, or B.H. Liddell Hart posits, “The most virile nation might not be able to withstand another, inferior to it in all natural quantities, if the latter had some decisively superior technical appliance.”[35] Russia’s misadventure in Grozny in 1994-1996 highlights that misunderstanding dominance can be ruinous. Despite employing a dominated strategy, Russia possessed the ability in materiel, men, and purpose, to dominate the much weaker Chechen forces.

In the case of the Chechens, their superior technical appliance was the ability to diffuse Russian dominance through Grozny’s urban terrain and to advantageously manipulate time in relation to the disposition of Russian force in the city. To put it another way, the Chechens dislocated Russian forces, thus compelling Russia into a dominated strategy.

Before forces converge with one another, dominance is just a theorized assertion based on correlation of forces and information regarding resources. Realized dominance does not manifest until two forces encounter one another. The key point being that despite materiel largesse, dominance is not assured. Moving dominance from intangible data on a spreadsheet or mission analysis brief to the tangible realm of utility requires an applied practice of dominance.

            Dominance results in an adversary changing their intended plan, giving up, breaking contact, or the destruction of an adversary. This is the result of the cumulative effect of applied resources over time in relation to an adversary. Next, dominance is provisional and dependent on conditions to flourish. Specifically, dominance requires the balance between internal resource equilibrium and resource overmatch in relation to an adversary. It follows that dominance is momentary, delicate, and disposed to shock and surprise.[36] Moving a step further, the character of dominance reveals a proportional relationship between resource expenditure and one’s ability to obtain or retrain dominance. Therefore, the greater the expenditure of resources, the less likely it is one can obtain or retain dominance in relation to an adversary.[37]

If charted on a graph, the X-axis holds the scale of dominance. Parity is the x-axis’ midrange point. Dominating is on the far end of the continuum, while dominated is on the close end of the spectrum. Parity is the threshold through which an actor must pass through to navigate between being dominant and being dominated. That transition can be momentary, or it can take an extensive amount of time, which manifests as a stalemate. Parity is the danger zone for each actor because it is the area in which resource expenditure can bankrupt one’s capabilities (see Figure 2). 

blind 2

Figure 2: Scale of Relative Dominance

Resource expenditure is the variable accounted for on the graph’s y-axis. Simply speaking, the graph measures resource expenditure from low to high. This simple measurement accounts for the depletion of on-hand stocks, an actor’s capacity to backfill depletion of on-hand stock, and the destruction of personnel and equipment in a fight.

Tying this concept back to the case study, as Russian land forces such the 131st MRB moved further into Grozny’s recesses, they were dislocated, negating the ability to fully bring to bear their capabilities. Then as the Chechens attacked, Russian resources were depleted at a rate that exceeded the dislocated Russians ability to resupply, synchronize, and apply in a coordinated manner against the Chechens to obtain overmatch. Russian forces teetered between parity and dominated, before wholeheartedly sliding into the dominated end of the dominance spectrum.

Taking dominance to its logical conclusion, dominance is not assured. As a result, it must not be hand-waved away as a given for a stronger actor. It must be accounted for in an applied sense. Applied dominance, or zones of proximal dominance (ZoPD), is a tool by which dominance can be measured, planned, and forecasted. That is not to say this concept is a panacea. Nevertheless, ZoPD provides a method to overcome the hand-waved approach often used when analyzing relative combat power and correlation of forces. Thus, ZoPDs assist in bypassing dominated strategies.

For starters, dominance radiates from a power source or base of power. As one moves from the away from that base of power, the ability to dominate weakens in proportion to the resources, activities, and enemy opposition. An equation is useful tool to help actualize applied dominance. Dominance (D) equals an actors resources (Re) plus time (Ti), divided by an opponent’s action (En) plus one’s ability to sustain itself (Su): D=Re+Ti÷En+Su. Next, attempts to obtain dominance must be directionally projected, or projected into a domain, creating zones of proximal dominance.

ZoPD are useful when reflecting on Chechnya’s handling of the Russian’s in Grozny. Chechen military leaders, steeped in the understanding latent Russian power, used a combination of urban terrain and tactics to dislocate Russian power, command and control, sustainment, and reserves. In doing so, Chechen forces broke the Russia’s ability to project power in a cohesive way against the Chechens, consequently denying Russia’s ability to obtain zonal domination. On the other hand, with potential Russian power scattered, small bands of Chechen soldiers and fighters were able to achieve small pockets of dominance over disparate and bewildered Russian units. As oil tends to coalesce when added to water, those small pockets of Chechen dominance coalesced into a zone of proximal dominance over Russian forces in Grozny.

Tying ZoPD and cognitive blind spots back to the avoidance of dominated strategies, a series of verities should be considered.[38]

  1. Self-preservation is every actor’s baseline goal. As a result, actors will leverage rational strategies to avoid putting themselves in an existential crisis.
  2. All actors operate within an open-system. That system seems order and will reallocate assets to maintain stasis during armed conflict.
  3. As rational actors avoiding existential crisis, an actor will kill off elements of their system when sustaining those elements becomes harmful of deadly to the maintenance of the system.
  4. Dominance is a matter of perception; true dominance is the result of one actor’s open-system being able to sustain material overmatch in relation to an adversary.
  5. Dominance is often irrelevant; especially when it is disconnected from the strategic of policy objective. 
  6. If an actor assesses that the cost of direct confrontation will exceed its willingness or ability to sustain, yet it chooses to still battle that opponent, it will do so in ways that dislocate the opponent’s strength, drive the competition toward parity, and offsets its down destruction (See Figure 3).
blind 3

Figure 3: Correlation of Strength to Form of Warfare



             To conclude, putting the cart of preference ahead of the horse of necessity often leads to an actor engaging in a plan that has no chance of long-term victory. Game theorists call this playing a dominated strategy. Instead, actors must seek rational strategies by iteratively eliminating dominated strategies through informed, open analysis and self-reflection.[39]

            The U.S. is willfully evading a number of truths about modern war, thus disposing itself to dominated strategies. Preference and narrative supplant reality in Army concept development and doctrine. Concepts such as LSCO and MDO (JADO), based more on lofty assumptions and less about facts, hold a higher place in the U.S. Army’s thinking than do the bloody realities of urban warfare, its complimentary siege, and the innumerable proxy wars littering the globe.

            Furthermore, misunderstanding dominance quickly puts one on path toward ruin. Dominance does not equate to latent resource supremacy. Dominance requires an applied approach to create zones of proximal dominance that radiate from a power source. Dominance must be achieved and then maintained. It is resource intensive and affected by an adversary’s strategy. Thinking of dominance in this way will help avoid hubristic mental models of thinking about dominance, which will also help guide the U.S. Army away from potential dominated strategies.

            Russia’s 131st MRB is a cautionary tale. It demonstrates how an institution that puts the cart of preference ahead of the horse of necessity, about how prioritizing how one wants to fight ahead of how one will need to fight, can be deleterious for the soldiers on the battlefield. Death and survival; defeat and victory are what is at stake when cognitive blinds spots permeate an actor’s field of view and when an actor gambles with dominated strategies.    




[1] Jen Judson and Todd South, “The New Way to Fight: US Army Unveils Field Manual 3-0,” Defense News, October 10, 2017,

[2] Field Manual 100-5, Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1977),; Field Manual 3-0, Operations (Washington, D.C.” Department of the Army, 2017).

[3] Joel Watson, Strategy: An Introduction to Game Theory (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015), 67-70.

[4] Stasys Knezys and Romanas Sedickas, The War in Chechnya (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 99.

[5] Little Green Men: A Primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014, (Fort Bragg, NC: United States Special Operations Command, 2016), 11.

[6] Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000, Lessons from Urban Combat (Monterey, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001), 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 9-10.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Javier Romero, “Eternal War: Chechnya, 1994-2009,” Modern War, 40, March-April 2019, 10-12.

[11] Oliker, 85.

[12] Knezys and Sedickas, 93-98.

[13] Dodge Billingsley and Lester Grau, Fangs of the Lone Wolf: Chechen Tactics in the Russian-Chechen Wars, 1994-2009 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Offices, 2012), 171.

[14] Oliker, 19.

[15] Knezys and Sedickas, 99.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Oliker, 50.

[20] Arkady Babchenko, “The Savagery of War: A Soldier Looks Back at Chechnya,” Independent, November 10, 2007, accessed September 8, 2019,

[21] Steven Erlanger, “In Fallen Chechen Capital, Medical Care Is in Ruins, New York Times, April 9, 1995,

[22] Billingsley and Grau, 3.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Grau and Dodge, 171.

[26] Ivan Pastine, Tuvana Pastine, and Tom Humberstone, Game Theory: A Graphic Guide (London: Icon Books, 2017), 18-19.

[27] Myerson, 90-91.

[28] Watson, 69-70.

[29] Oliker, 84-86.

[30] Michael Howard, The Causes of War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 193-195.

[31] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 71.

[32] The Modern War Institute’s John Spencer has produced volumes on urban warfare. Spencer also hosts a podcast, Urban Warfare Project, which does an excellent job discussing that aspect of warfare.

[33] Amos Fox, “The Reemergence of the Siege: An Assessment of Trends in Modern Land Warfare,” Institute of Land Warfare, Landpower Essay No 18-2, June 2018.

[34] Andrew Higgins, “The War That Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later,” New York Times, December 10, 2019,

[35] B.H. Liddell Hart, The Revolution in Warfare (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1947), 37.

[36] Amos Fox, “Getting Multi-Domain Operations Right: Two Critical Flaws in the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Operations Concepts,” Land Warfare Paper 133, Association of the United States Army, (June 2020), 2-3.

[37] Ibid.

[38] These principles are an amalgamated extract from the author’s previously cited work, Getting Multi-Domain Operations Right, p. 9.

[39] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 17.

About the Author(s)

Amos C. Fox is a Lieutenant Colonel  in the US Army. He is a graduate from the School of Advanced Military Studies, Ball State University, and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. He is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Reading. He is also an associate editor at the Wavell Room and the Deputy Director for Development with the Irregular Warfare Initiative.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 8:01am

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