Military strategy

Military strategy in the Waterloo campaign
Military strategy in the Waterloo campaign

Military strategy is a collective name for planning the conduct of warfare. Derived from the Greek strategos, strategy was seen as the "art of the general". Military strategy deals with the planning and conduct of campaigns, the movement and disposition of forces, and the deception of the enemy. The father of modern strategic study, Carl von Clausewitz, defined military strategy as "the employment of battles to gain the end of war." Military strategy was one of a triumvirate of "arts" or "sciences" that govern the conduct of warfare; the others being tactics, the execution of plans and manœuvering of forces in battle, and logistics, the maintenance of an army.


Fundamentals of military strategy

Strategy and tactics are closely related. Both deal with distance, time and force but strategy is large scale while tactics are small scale. Originally strategy was understood to govern the prelude to a battle while tactics controlled its execution. However, in the world wars of the 20th century, the distinction between manoeuvre and battle, strategy and tactics, became blurred. Tactics that were once the province of a company of cavalry would be applied to a panzer army.

In its purest form, strategy dealt solely with military issues. In earlier societies, a king or political leader was often the same person as the military leader. If he was not, the distance of communication between the political and the military leader was small. But as the need of a professional army grew, the bounds between the politicians and the military came to be recognized. In many cases, it was decided that there was a need for a separation. As French statesman Georges Clemenceau said, "war is too important a business to be left to soldiers." This gave rise to the concept of the grand strategy which encompasses the management of the resources of an entire nation in the conduct of warfare. In the environment of the grand strategy, the military component is largely reduced to operational strategy -- the planning and control of large military units such as corps and divisions. As the size and number of the armies grew and the technology to communicate and control improved, the difference between "military strategy" and "grand strategy" shrank.

Fundamental to grand strategy is the diplomacy through which a nation might forge alliances or pressure another nation into compliance, thereby achieving victory without resorting to combat. Another element of grand strategy is the management of the post-war peace. As Clausewitz stated, a successful military strategy may be a means to an end, but it is not an end in itself. There are numerous examples in history where victory on the battlefield has not translated into long term peace and security.

Strategy (and tactics) must constantly evolve in response to technological advances. A successful strategy from one era tends to remain in favour long after new developments in military weaponry and matériel have rendered it obsolete. World War I, and to a great extent the American Civil War, saw Napoleonic tactics of "offense at all costs" pitted against the defensive power of the trench, machine gun and barbed wire. As a reaction to her WWI experience, France entered World War II with a purely defensive doctrine, epitomised by the "impregnable" Maginot Line, but only to be completely avoided in the German blitzkrieg.

"Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances." Sun Tzu

Principles of military strategy

Main article: Principles of military strategy

Many military strategists have attempted to encapsulate a successful strategy in a set of principles. Sun Tzu defined 13 principles in his The Art of War while Napoleon listed 115 maxims. American Civil War General Nathan Bedford Forrest required only one: "get there furstest with the mostest". The fundamental concepts common to most lists of principles are:

  1. The Objective
  2. Offense
  3. Cooperation
  4. Concentration (Mass)
  5. Economy
  6. Manœuvre
  7. Surprise
  8. Security
  9. Simplicity

Some strategists assert that adhering to the fundamental principles guarantees victory while others claim war is unpredictable and the general must be flexible in formulating a strategy. Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke expressed strategy as a system of "ad hoc expedients" by which a general must take action while under pressure. These underlying principles of strategy have survived relatively unscathed as the technology of warfare has developed.

Development of military strategy

Early military strategy

The principles of military strategy can be found as far back as 500 BC in the works of Sun Tzu and earlier in Spartan thinking. The campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Cćsar and Genghis Khan demonstrate strategic planning and movement. In 1520 Niccolò Machiavelli's Dell'arte della guerra (Art of War) dealt with the relationship between civil and military matters and the formation of the grand strategy. In the Thirty Years War, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden demonstrated advanced operational strategy that led to victories in Holy Roman Empire area.

It was not until the 18th century that military strategy was subjected to serious study. In the Seven Years War (1756-1763), Frederick the Great improvised a "strategy of exhaustion" to hold off his opponents and conserve his Prussian forces. Assailed from all sides by France, Austria, Russia and Sweden, Frederick exploited his central position which enabled him to move his army along interior lines and concentrate against one opponent at a time. Unable to achieve victory, he was able to stave off defeat until a diplomatic solution was reached. Frederick's "victory" led to great significance being placed on "geometric strategy" which emphasised lines of manoeuvre, awareness of terrain and possession of critical strongpoints.

Napoleonic strategy

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed revolutionised military strategy. The impact of this period was still to be felt in the American Civil War and the early phases of World War I. With the advent of cheap small arms and the rise of the drafted citizen soldier, armies grew rapidly in size to become massed formations. This necessitated dividing the army first into divisions and later into corps. Along with divisions came divisional artillery; light-weight, mobile and with great range and firepower. The rigid formations of pikemen and musketeers firing massed volleys gave way to light infantry fighting in skirmish lines.

Napoleon I of France took advantage of these developments to pursue a brutally effective "strategy of annihilation" that cared little for the mathematical perfection of the geometric strategy. Napoleon invariably sought to achieve decision in battle, with the sole aim of utterly destroying his opponent, usually achieving success through superior manouevre. As ruler and general he dealt with the grand strategy as well as the operational strategy, making use of political and economic measures. Napoleon was ultimately defeated when his opponents adopted the strategies that he had perfected.

Napoleon's practical strategic triumphs inspired a whole new field of study into military strategy. The two most significant students of his work were Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian with a background in philosophy, and Antoine-Henri Jomini, who had been one of Napoleon's staff officers. Clausewitz's On War has become the bible of strategy, dealing with political, as well as military, leadership. His most famous assertion being:

"War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of policy carried out by other means."

Clausewitz dismissed "geometry" as a significant factor in strategy, believing instead in the Napoleonic concept of victory through battle and destruction of the opposing force, at any cost. However, he also recognised that limited warfare could influence policy by wearing down the opposition through a "strategy of attrition".

In contrast to Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini dealt mainly with operational strategy, planning & intelligence, the conduct of the campaign, and "generalship" rather than "statesmanship". He proposed that victory could be achieved by occupying the enemy's territory rather than destroying his army. As such, geometric considerations were prominent in his theory of strategy. Jomini's two basic principles of strategy were to concentrate against fractions of the enemy force at a time and to strike at the most decisive objective.

One notable exception to Napoleon's strategy of annihilation and a precursor to trench warfare were the Lines of Torres Vedras during the Peninsular campaign. French Armies lived off the land and when they were confronted by a line of fortifications which they could not out flank, they were unable to continue the advance and were forced to retreat once they had consumed all the provisions of the region in front of the lines.

The Peninsular campaign was notable for the development of another method of warfare which went largely unnoticed at the time, but would become far more common in the 20th century. That was the aid and encouragement the British gave to the Spanish guerrillas who forced the French to squander most of the assets of their Iberian army in protecting the army's line of communications. This was a very cost effective move for the British, because it cost far less to aid Spanish insurgents than it did to equip and pay regular British army units to engage the same number of French troops. As the British army could be correspondingly smaller it was able to supply its troops by sea and land without having to live off the land as was the norm at the time. Further, because they did not have to forage they did not antagonise the locals and so did not have to garrison their lines of communications to the same extent as the French did. So the strategy of aiding their Spanish civilian allies in their guerrilla war benefited the British in many ways, not all of which were immediately obvious.

Strategy in the industrial age

The evolution of military strategy continued in the American Civil War (1861-65). The practice of strategy was advanced by generals such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, all of whom had been influenced by the feats of Napoleon (Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was said to have carried a book of Napoleon's maxims with him). However, the adherence to the Napoleonic principles in the face of technological advances such as the long-range infantry rifle generally led to disastrous consequences. The time and space in which war was waged changed as well. Railroads enabled swift movement of large forces but the manoeuvring was constrained to narrow, vulnerable corridors. Steam power and ironclads changed transport and combat at sea.

There was still room for triumphs of strategy of manoeuver such as Sherman's March to the Sea in 1864, but these depended upon an enemy's willingness to not entrench. Towards the end of the war, especially in defense of static targets as in the battles of Cold Harbor and Vicksburg, trenches between both sides grew to a World War I scale. Many of the lessons of the American Civil War were forgotten when in wars like the Austro-Prussian War or the Franco-Prussian War, when manoeuver won the day.

In the period preceding World War I, two of the most influential strategists were the Prussian generals, Helmuth von Moltke and Alfred von Schlieffen. Under Moltke the Prussian army achieved victory in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the latter campaign being widely regarded as a classic example of the conception and execution of military strategy. In addition to exploiting railroads and highways for manoeuvre, Moltke harnessed the telegraph for control of large armies. He recognised the increasing need to delegate control to subordinate commanders and to issue directives rather than specific orders.

Moltke is most remembered as a strategist for his belief in the need for flexibility and that no plan, however well prepared, can be guaranteed to survive beyond the first encounter with the enemy.

Field Marshal Schlieffen succeeded Moltke and directed German planning in the lead up to World War I. He advocated the "strategy of annihilation" but was faced by a war on two fronts against numerically superior opposition. The strategy he formulated was the Schlieffen Plan, defending in the east while concentrating for a decisive victory in the west, after which the Germans would go on to the offensive in the east. Influenced by Hannibal's success at the Battle of Cannae, Schlieffen planned for a single great battle of encirclement, thereby annihilating his enemy.

Another German strategist of the period was Hans Delbrück who expanded on Clausewitz's concept of "limited warfare" to produce a theory on the "strategy of exhaustion". His theory defied popular military thinking of the time, which was strongly in favour victory in battle, yet World War I would soon demonstrate the flaws of a mindless "strategy of annihilation".

At a time when industrialisation was reaping major advances in naval technology, one American strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, almost single-handedly brought the field of naval strategy up to date. Influenced by Jomini's principles of strategy, he saw that in the coming wars, where economic strategy could be as important as military strategy, control of the sea granted the power to control the trade and resources needed to wage war. Mahan pushed the concept of the "big navy" and an expansionist view where defence was achieved by controlling the sea approaches rather than fortifying the coast. His theories contributed to the naval arms race between 1898 and 1914.

Strategy in World War I

At the start of World War I strategy was dominated by the offensive thinking that had been in vogue since 1870, despite the more recent experiences of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), where the machine gun demonstrated its defensive capabilities. By the end of 1914, the Western Front was a stalemate and all ability to manoeuver strategically was lost. The combatants resorted to a "strategy of attrition". The German battle at Verdun, the British on the Somme and at Passchendaele were among the first widescale battles intended to wear down the enemy. Attrition was time-consuming so the duration of World War I battles often stretched to weeks and months. The problem with attrition was that the use of fortified defenses in depth generally required a ratio of ten attackers to one defender for any reasonable chance of victory. The ability of the defender to move troops using interior lines prevented the possibility of breakthrough.

On other fronts, there was still room for the use of strategy of manouever. The Germans executed a perfect battle of annihilation against the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg (1914). Britain and France launched the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign, combining naval power and an amphibious landing, in an effort to aid their Russian ally and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The Palestine campaign was dominated by cavalry and the British achieved two breakthrough victories at Gaza (1917) and Megiddo (1918). Colonel T.E. Lawrence and other British officers led Arab irregulars on a guerilla campaign against the Ottomans, using strategy and tactics developed during the Boer Wars.

World War I saw armies on a scale never before experienced. The British, who had always relied on a strong navy and a small regular army, underwent rapid expansion that outpaced the training of generals and staff officers able to handle the strategic planning of such a mammoth force. Technological advances also had a huge influence on strategy: aerial reconnaissance, artillery techniques, poison gas, the automobile and tank, telephone and radio telegraphy.

More so than in previous wars, military strategy in World War I was directed by the grand strategy of a coalition of nations; the Entente on one side and the Central Powers on the other. Society and economy were mobilised for total war. Attacks on each enemies' economies included Britain's use of a naval blockade and Germany employing submarine warfare against merchant shipping.

Unity of command became a question when the various nation states began coordinating assaults and defenses. The Entente eventually settled under Field Marshal Foch. The Germans generally led the Central Powers, though German authority diminished and lines of command became confused at the end of the war.

World War I ended when the ability of the German soldiers to fight became so diminished that Germany asked for peace conditions. The exhausted German military was defeated during the battle of Amiens (8-11 August 1918) and the German homefront entered general revolt over a lack of food and destruction of the economy. Victory for the Entente was, however, assured by that point. It was only a matter of time before the tank reintroduced manouever as a viable strategy.

Strategy Development Between World Wars

In the years following World War I, two of the technologies that had been introduced during that conflict, the aircraft and the tank, became the subject of strategic study.

The leading theorist of air power was Italian general Giulio Douhet who believed that future wars would be won or lost in the air. The air force would carry the offensive and the role of the ground forces would be defensive only. Douhet's doctrine of strategic bombing meant striking at the enemy's heartland -- his cities, industry and communications. Air power would thereby reduce his willingness and capacity to fight.

British general J. F. C. Fuller, architect of the first great tank battle at Cambrai, and his contemporary, B. H. Liddell Hart, were amongst the most prominent advocates of mechanization and motorization of the army. They saw that the armoured fighting vehicle demonstrated firepower, mobility and protection. It would negate the static defences of the trench and machine gun and restore the strategic principles of manoeuvre and offense.

The innovative German General Heinz Guderian further developed Fuller's and Liddell Hart's ideas to create the groundbreaking blitzkrieg tactics that were used by Germany against Poland in 1939 and later against France in 1940. France, still used to stationary World War I strategies, was completely surprised and summarily overwhelmed by Guderian's Panzer Corps.

Technological change has had both an enormous effect on strategy, and little effect on leadership. The use of telegraph and later radio, along with improved transport, has enabled the rapid movement of large numbers of men. However, the amount of men that one officer can effectively control has, if anything, declined. The increases in the size of the armies has led to an increase in the number of officers.

Strategy in World War II

During the World War II, led by British intelligence forces, the allied forces developed and deployed sophisticated ruses, strategic deception, designed to mislead Axis planners resulting in ineffective actions.

Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and other heads of state met at several conferences to prioritize strategies such as Europe first.

Further reading

  • Thaddeus Holt, Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War, Simon and Schuster, June, 2004, hardcover, 1184 pages, ISBN 0743250427

To be completed

Cold War Strategy

The Cold War was the first time period dominated by the threat of total world annihilation through the use of nuclear weapons, a policy known as mutual assured destruction. As a consequence it was also a war in which attacks were not exchanged between the two main rivals, the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, the war was fought through proxies. The battle-grounds were everywhere the superpowers weren't. Instead of mainly being confined to Europe or the Pacific, the entire world was the battlefield, with countries rather than armies acting as main players. The only constant rule was that troops of the Soviet Union and the United States could not overtly fight with each other.

The difference between tactics, strategy and grand strategy began to melt during the Cold War as command and communication technologies improved to a greater extent, in first world armed forces. The third world armed forces controlled by the two superpowers found that grand strategy, strategy and tactics, if anything, moved further apart as the command of the armies fell under the control of super power leaders.

American cold warriors like Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall quickly recognized that the key to victory was the economic defeat of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had adopted a defensive posture following the end of World War II, with the United States and its strong navy quickly finding that it had to aggressively defend much of the world from the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism. It was one of many seeming contradictions in the logic of strategy.

Strategies during the Cold War also dealt with nuclear attack and retaliation. The United States maintained a policy of limited first strike throughout the Cold War. In the event of a Soviet attack on the Western Front, resulting in a breakthrough, the United States would use tactical nuclear weapons to stop the attack. The Soviet Union responded by adopting a policy of no first use, involving massive retaliation resulting in mutual assured destruction. So, if the Warsaw Pact attacked using conventional weapons, NATO would use tactical nukes. The Soviet Union would respond with an all out nuclear attack, resulting in a similar attack from the United States, with all the consequences the exchange would entail. This did not happen. The United States continues to maintain a policy of limited first strike to the present (June 2004).

Military strategy in the Waterloo campaign
Military strategy in the Waterloo campaign

Post Cold War Strategy

Strategy in the post Cold War has come to be defined by the hyperpower status of the United States.

It is increasingly relying on advanced technology to minimize casualties and improve efficiency. The technological quantum leaps brought by the Digital Revolution are essential for this strategy. See: Network-centric warfare.

Military strategists

See also

Some military strategies:

Other concepts related to military strategy:

Military strategists

See also

Some military strategies:

Other concepts related to military strategy:


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