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Military Decision Making

An important factor which differentiates a truly great organization from the others is decision making. Optimum decisions can chart the course of history and take the ‘run of the mill’ stories towards spectacular success. There are multiple decision making theories as propounded by psychologists, management gurus, diplomats and economists. The decision making theories delve into the human mind and study the response of the human mind to alternate choices. Military decision making is a unique and distinct exercise and cannot be bracketed in any one or more of the decision making theories and techniques. However, a few theories from other domains come close to explaining the conundrum of military decision making, especially the realm of apex level strategic military decisions.

Constructivism in Decision Making

The primary rationale behind the constructive approach is applying past knowledge in the present context, in order to solve problems and arrive at decisions. New knowledge is built on past knowledge by a process of association and application. It is similar to adding one brick at a time to construct a wall. The individual constructs are all relevant to the process. The constructivism approach is widely studied in the fields of education and international relations. True education is a natural process which is carried out spontaneously by a human and is acquired by experiences and interaction with the environment[i]. A real learning process allows a student to experience the environment first hand thereby giving the student reliable and trust worthy knowledge. The learner also creates new knowledge by analysis and synthesis of prior experiences. This process leads to heuristic problem solving, creativity and originality. The process of learning as propounded in constructivism is facilitated in a social environment, in teams and groups. It may be argued that learning would be considerably scaled down in an isolated living environment. Hence over time, members who are part of large, interactive and interrelated groups where members enjoy debate and argument are in a better position to make better decisions, as compared to isolated individuals. It would be prudent to clarify that the process of learning is interdependent, however, the decision making which is facilitated by this learning may be completely individual and independent. Constructivism is also considered relevant in the field of international relations. This new theory which emerged after the cold war worked on the failure of traditional theories of realism and liberalism in explaining the emerging world order. Constructivism implies that decisions in this domain are based on a social construct of reality. Alexander Wendt (1995) offers an excellent example that explains the social construct of reality when he explains that 500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than five North Korean nuclear weapons[ii]. The nuclear weapons by themselves have no meaning unless seen in the social context. Constructivists go beyond material reality by including the effect of ideas and beliefs on world politics. This also implies that reality is always under construction and hence subject to change. The analogies which can be drawn between constructivism and the military environment are significant. Militaries across the world are large social groups where members formulate their views, ideas and thoughts from observation, interaction and communication. It might not be overtly visible but small constructs keep adding on to the members learning over time. Effective team members also ask questions to fill in the gaps between what they know and what they do not. The military environment facilitates informal learning, the key element of constructivism. Hence a military leader would do well to keep all avenues of learning open at all times and also be ready to transfer and apply knowledge from one domain to another.

Economic Theories of Decision Making

The idea of risk, gain, uncertainty, loss and loss aversion, which are vital elements in military decision making is treated in detail in economic theories of decision-making.  The kind of decision with which this body of theory deals with can be explained with an example. Consider a child with Rupees five standing in front of a candy shop. In state A, the child has Rupees five in his hand, in state B he has Rupees three in his hand and a candy worth Rupees two in his pocket, in state C he has no candy but a lucky coupon worth Rupees five in his hand with the potential to give him 50 candies. Economic theories of decision making are all about predicting what state the child will adopt, depending on multiple factors, both internal and external. The first theory is that of riskless choices. The assumptions made in this theory are that the decision maker is an ‘economic man’ i.e., he is a rational person, is infinitely sensitive and has complete information of the options. In this theory, the decision maker is always able to order the choices - hence he/she is always able to choose the best as per his/her visualization. Such kind of simple riskless decisions are seldom made in the military context. More appropriate to the military context is the theory of risky choices. The theory of risky choices is associated with risk and uncertainty. Risk is a measurable quantity while uncertainty is not measureable. For e.g., Rahim is to travel beween Delhi and Agra. He has the option to travel by the longer expressway which has a good safety record or the shorter but accident and heavy traffic prone route through populated areas. Hence there is a perceptible higher risk associated with the shorter route. Uncertainty is applicable to both routes, for instance, Rahim can face a sudden vehicle breakdown in either route. The theory of risky choices suggests that even in such a situation where varied risk and uncertainty is associated with the choices, the economic man Rahim can order his choices as per his perceived utility and desirability. The final choice may seem counterintuitive at times; it is akin to a case where people buy sweets and cakes even while knowing their adverse impact on health. Another economic decision making theory which has similarities to the military decision making process is the theory of games, made famous by Neumann and Morgenstern in the book ‘Theory of Games and Economic Behavior’ in 1944. The fundamental thought in game theory is the presence of an opponent whose actions can influence own decisions. The proponent knows that the opponent has certain options available to him/her. However, the proponent is unsure as to what option will be taken by the opponent. What is sure however is that the option adopted will aim to defeat the proponent. Hence game theory helps in assessing the opponent’s options and making a selection amongst own possible strategies. Game theory is useful in many military decision making challenges of a more quantified or technical variety.

Decision Making in the Military

Decision making in the military could be analysed as a study in contrasts, that between multiple styles, incorporating multiple theories and being taken at multiple levels. An interesting study in contrasts is the difference between strategic military decisions and those taken at other lower echelons. The other study in contrast is between decisions taken in war and those taken in peace but in support of the war. Interestingly, the US Army War College (USAWC) runs a separate program on Strategic Wargaming to prepare students to be strategic leaders or to serve as effective advisors to the senior leadership of the military and the nation. General Colin Powell, while addressing a class of the USAWC in 2005, as the Secretary of State commented that at the apex of an organization, strategic leaders are concerned not only about the internal workings of their organizations, but also of external aspects. Two external factors are critical; firstly assessing and mitigating risk and secondly continuously scanning the environment for a window of opportunity to influence policy decisions.[iii] As opposed to routine decisions, strategic decisions involve both the art of leadership and the science of management. The USAWC recommends a number of models for strategic leaders to examine, of which four models could be identified with distinct similarities to the Indian context.


The Bounded Rationality Model was first presented by Herbert Simon as a counter to the Rational Model, which relied heavily on the economic theory of riskless choices, a concept of the rational man and his ability to make justified choices from within the options available. Simon postulated that the human (irrespective of his/her rationality) is a poor processor of data, the human cannot analyse all options judiciously due to lack of time, knowledge and information and finally, the human cannot visualize all possible alternatives. Hence in reality, a majority of decisions are never optimal, although they seen to be so due to human cognitive limitations. Simon argued that most decisions are simply sufficient and satisfactory, one that is good enough to meet the minimum established criteria.[iv]


The Participative Decision Making Model is a democratic process where all stakeholders are given the chance of consultation and can voice an opinion. However this power to voice an opinion is quite distinct from making the actual decision, which is still a function of the leader. This model is plagued by delays and is expensive. The entire exercise to incorporate stakeholders may be symbolic and could also lead to the stalling of decisions due to hidden agendas of participants. The quality of the decision is dependent on the quality of expertise not the quantity of stakeholders.[v]


Incremental Decision Making and the Science of Muddling Through was first introduced by Charles Lindblom. It defines higher decision making, especially in the public policy space as a series of small incremental steps in response to emerging events and circumstances. It tends to be reactive and decisions are piecemeal in nature. They may address the short term goals but seldom address the long term objectives. The options and means which are considered are seldom comprehensive. This kind of decision making is common in the context of budgeting and planning of defence expenditure.[vi]          


The Garbage Can Model argues that decisions are made on chance, unsystematic interactions of actors and opportunities and the current availability of resources. It argues that organizations are imperfect and inconsistent, rely on trial and error and have whimsical and impulsive decision makers[vii]. It is applicable on organizations where the preferences, processes and decision makers are subject to frequent change. The garbage can refers to a can of solutions which are unnecessary and created for hypothetical and non-existent problems. The garbage can model was created by Michael D. Cohen, James G. March and Johan P. Olsen in 1972[viii].


Some of the models explained above are likely to strike a chord of recognition, as they seem uncannily similar to decision making challenges faced by military leaders across the spectrum. Military decision making by its very nature is not structured and is error prone. It is also a fact that the decision making errors are generally discovered in hindsight and can have enormous implications. Hence, in addition to the knowledge and understanding of the decision making processes, military leaders would do well to identify their own individual styles and proclivity, limitations of each model and apply suitable corrections where necessary.




[i] Constructivism Approach in Decision Making, Vrushali H Rokade, ASM’s International E-Journal of ongoing research in Management and IT, e-ISSN-2320-0065

[ii] www.e-ir.info, Introducing Constructivism in International Relations Theory, Sarina Theys, E-International Relations Students, 23 Feb 2018 accessed on 25 May 2018

[iii] Strategic Decision Making Paradigms: A primer for senior leaders, Charles D Allen, Breena E Coates, George J Woods III, US Army War College, Department of Command, Leadership & Management, Carlisle Barracks, Aug 2012 accessed on 20 May 2018

[iv] Ibid., p.4

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., p.7

[vii] Ibid.,p.10

[viii] The Garbage Can Model of Decision Making, Olga Bugajenko, https://study.com/academy/lesson/the-garbage-can-model-of-decision-making.html accessed on 25 May 2018

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.



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Subhasis Das
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