Strategic advantage in a competitive age: Definitions, dynamics and implications

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What is the issue?

The world today is characterised by intensifying strategic competition. Many national policy and strategy documents draw attention to the notion of great power competition and the pursuit of strategic advantage. This includes the UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy which provides a vision for using all levers of power to help boost UK security, prosperity and influence. However, there is no commonly agreed definition or theory of strategic advantage to guide strategy making and decisions about concept, capability or force development.

How did we help?

To address this gap, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) commissioned RAND Europe to conduct a study to build a revised definition and theory of strategic advantage. This involved developing a series of case studies exploring the types of advantage held by different actors historically, the ways in which advantage has been gained and/or lost, and the ways in which the actors have sought to maintain and exploit advantage in practice. A wider review of the latest thinking on strategy making, in combination with a series of workshops with officials, academics and experts, helped to build a revised understanding of strategic advantage.

What did we find?

Our findings suggest that a position of strategic advantage is one "in which an actor is more likely than others (whether hostile or friendly) to achieve their objectives in a given contest, crisis or conflict, having influenced the dynamics of competition in their favour and maximised the relevance of their own areas of asymmetric advantage across all levers of power."

In addition, we found that a position of overall strategic advantage is:

  • comprised of individual strands of advantage or disadvantage, relating to all available levers of power;
  • time- and context-dependent, but can be 'future-proofed' to hedge and mitigate the risk of being overtaken by a competitor;
  • relative to both adversaries and friendly actors, given competition represents a broad continuum of relations;
  • best integrated into a grand strategic vision, and coherent with its underpinning theory of strategic success, recognising that 'advantage' is not an end in and of itself;
  • not a guarantor of success given the enduring role of chance, 'fog' and friction.