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Military strategy refers to the means by which states and other organized groups use force or the threat of force to obtain their objectives. Strategy tends to be broader in perspective than military tactics. Tactics involve the management and maneuver of military units in relation to each other, the enemy, and the terrain, all with the aim of achieving victory in battle.
Strategy and tactics are broadly defined terms that distinguish two levels or aspects of the techniques for applying power, in all of its forms, to resolve conflict. The application of power to secure a desired outcome in direct or imminent contact with an opposing force is the realm of tactics. Strategy is the application of power to obtain a desired outcome from beyond direct contact with an opposing force, and may well involve the decision to resort to direct contact with a foe at the tactical level. While the two concepts are opposite poles on a continuum rather than truly distinct approaches, they have proven useful in understanding many forms of conflict. But strategy and tactics emerged most directly from, and are understood primarily as, concepts for managing political and military struggle.
One of the earliest known students of strategy is still widely studied today. Scholars continue to debate when Sunzi (Sun-tzu) wrote Military Strategy, more widely known in the West as The Art of War, and the exact identity of that Chinese strategist. Whether written by the historical Sun Wu around 512 BCE or by an otherwise unknown author three centuries later, the first great theoretical work on strategy benefited from centuries of Chinese experience and drew upon historical examples to support its conclusions. According to Sunzi, military force was but one component of a government’s power. Once a ruler decided to resort to using that force he was wise to identify a desired outcome and leave pursuit of it to professional military leaders. These dual recognitions, that warfare is but one aspect of political power and that the application of military power calls for special expertise in addition to the actual skills of combat, have been shared by most complex human societies.
Sunzi contended that the decision to go to war was one of the most serious that a leader could face, and that the conduct of warfare required careful planning. The goal of warfare was forcing the enemy into submission, preferably without resorting to actual combat. Diplomacy, negation of the enemy’s own efforts, limiting destruction and risk, and achieving maximum results at minimal cost were all aspects of strategy that both political and military leaders had to keep in mind. Deception, espionage, military preparedness, and combat effectiveness were among the components of strategy that could ultimately be used to maneuver an army into a position of such tactical advantage that any actual combat would be swift and one-sided. The mere threat of such an inevitable defeat could force an enemy into obedience, the height of strategic skill.
When strategy places opposing forces into proximity and both sides remain committed to conflict, tactics come into play. Despite their consistent focus on securing victory over an unwilling foe through the direct application of force, the specifics of tactics varied, and continue to vary, widely with the cultures, technologies, and strategic situations involved. Tribal cultures might rely upon individual combat and improvisation, while more complex societies gradually developed a collective approach to formalized combat procedures. That contrast is vividly depicted in Greek literature, where the battles of Homer’s Iliad, set in the Trojan War (c. 1000 BCE), are fought as a series of loosely coordinated individual combats quite different from the disciplined group methods and maneuvering armies of the Persian Wars (490–479 BCE) that Herodotus describes in The Histories. The armies of the Roman Empire, with their mixtures of infantry, cavalry, primitive artillery, and other specialized troops, carried this trend to an extreme in the ancient world. Flavius Vegitius Renatus (c. 375 CE) describes the complex tactics of the Roman legions through a series of military maxims in Book 3 of De re militari, a work that continues to interest students of the military arts.
Cursory examinations of the development of strategy and tactics after the end of the first millennium CE often focus on the West or employ Western concepts, leaving military scholars of all cultures potentially vulnerable to charges of Eurocentrism. The rest of the world certainly continued to advance the development of strategy and tactics after 1000 CE. Miyamoto Mushashi (1584–1645), for example, described the sword-fighting techniques of Japan’s samurai in the Book of Five Rings. The lessons he provides through the tactics of sword fighting extend into both strategy and Zen philosophy, and are often discussed in the context of modern business techniques. But the developments in Europe during the second millennium CE that expanded its political, diplomatic, and military activities to the global scale also established the dominant conceptions of strategy and tactics.
One explanation for that fact lies in the origins of the Western nation-state, the social and political entity that came to dominate European, and eventually global, affairs by the end of the second millennium. The emergence and growth of nation-states following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 largely depended upon their ability to muster military, diplomatic, and economic power under a central authority in the face of both internal and external opposition and or threats. As a result of that struggle European approaches to strategy and tactics became increasingly sophisticated. The same pressures, together with complex social changes, promoted the growth of military and civilian technology in a synergistic process that drove the continuous development of new approaches to managing conflict.
As Europe’s dynastic struggles transformed into state contests its armies gradually abandoned their feudal structures to become professional organizations equipped with cannon and firearms. This development led to an age of relatively limited warfare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as enormously expensive professional armies adopted rigid tactical systems and a strategy based upon position and maneuver rather than direct engagement. The resulting wars in Europe unwittingly resembled the strategies promoted by Sunzi in China two thousand years earlier, as military and political leaders struggled to win armed contests with minimal loss of life and treasure. The works of the great French military engineer Sebastien Le Prestre, Marshal Vauban (1633–1707) exemplify the era.
Vauban designed an elaborate system of elegantly engineered fortifications to defend France, providing the setting for ponderous wars of maneuver in which tactics became mechanical exercises. Highly disciplined soldiers moved in prescribed patterns even under hostile fire. Military campaigns focused upon the conquest of key locations rather than the subjugation or destruction of the enemy and so became works of logistics and engineering little different from their fortified targets. Recently developed sailing warships equipped with heavy cannon began engaging in elaborately scripted maneuvers, codified in England by the Fighting Instructions of 1691, which limited both the risks and effectiveness of naval engagements as they restricted tactical options.
Many of the limitations of Europe’s tactics and strategies were imposed by the technology of the period, but those limitations did not prevent European nations from successfully applying the power and discipline of their armed forces against less technologically advanced opponents as the West expanded its influence in other regions. The very effectiveness of European arms and techniques, including the political organization of the state, promoted their eventual adoption or assimilation by colonial subjects and opponents alike in forms adapted to local requirements.
At the same time, European expansion inevitably led to resistance, and in most cases that resistance came from small outnumbered and outgunned fighters who could not hope to confront the state on its own terms, hence they took to guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla warfare is an irregular or asymmetrical form of warfare whereby combatants rely on highly mobile hit and run military tactics in the form of ambushes and raids on larger and better equipped but mobile formal armies. In turn, guerrilla warfare is countered with counter-insurgency techniques and warfare. This is a form of warfare and counter warfare that has been employed anywhere that there is an asymmetry between the opposing combatants. In response to such tactics, Europeans, and others, have also learned from the successes and failures that resulted from applying their codified manuals of arms and tactical systems against the warriors of other cultures, increasing the breadth of their formal study of strategy and tactics.
The advent of truly national wars in the wake of the French Revolution expanded the scope of European strategy and restored fluidity to tactical systems on both land and sea, largely due to the influence of France’s Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and Britain’s Horatio Nelson (1758–1805). Industrialization expanded the lethality of the armies and navies employing the new techniques it promoted, and armed forces around the globe struggled to adapt to the rapid changes in warfare. When the American Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) began constructing a theory of maritime power based upon the British experience Japan became one of the first nations to construct a navy accordingly, indicative of the growing dominance of Western approaches to strategy and tactics. But the twentieth century caught all nations unprepared.
Indicators of the horrific potential of industrialized total warfare in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went largely unheeded, and the devastation of World War I (1914–1918) shocked the world when increases in weapons effectiveness and logistical capabilities left the nations of western Europe without effective offensive tactics. Efforts to break the resulting stalemate on the Western Front accelerated the development of weapons such as the airplane, tank, submarine, and poison gas. The war’s aftermath produced a series of arms control agreements and the League of Nations, as world leaders sought to expand diplomatic options and place limits upon military capabilities. But the same period expanded the new concepts of strategic bombing and unrestricted submarine warfare, designed to destroy an enemy’s will and ability to resist by targeting its civilian population, and the mobile, combined-arms warfare that would be implemented by the Germans. Wars had become so complex that a level between the strategic and tactical, the operational, gradually began to enter the military lexicon. The operational level of conflict pursues goals and approaches defined by strategy by orchestrating the elements of power to obtain tactical success, linking the extremes of the strategic–tactical continuum.
World War II (1939–1945) demonstrated this continuum as nations pursued both individual and collective strategies, materialized in operations throughout the world that produced innumerable engagements at the tactical level. As a total war for all involved, every aspect of national power became a tool of strategy that could be harnessed. That concept of national power continued to define many countries’ approach to the Cold War (1945–1991) that followed.
The introduction of nuclear weapons, combined with the growing range and accuracy of missiles, particularly intercontinental missiles, brought a new potential to warfare, and the strategies that nuclear powers developed grew out of the doctrines of strategic bombing. Deterrence through mutually assured destruction became a stated goal of some national policies. Some nations developed nuclear weapons for tactical use, but the immense destructive power of fission, and later fusion, bombs and the difficulty in distinguishing between their tactical and strategic roles has prevented their tactical employment thus far, save for in Japan at the close of World War II. The threat of escalating from conventional non-nuclear to tactical, and then strategic, nuclear warfare played a large part in restricting the Cold War between the coalitions led by the Soviet Union and the United States to indirect military action and other forms of conflict.
Twenty-First Century Outlook
The twenty-first century is presenting notable challenges to the predominant strategic and tactical systems that emerged out of the Western tradition, with their emphasis on state actors, professional militaries, and distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate targets. The end of the Cold War is producing a multipolar world dominated by the split between the beneficiaries and opponents of economic globalization, and tactics and strategies, such as guerrilla warfare, long relegated to the periphery of military and diplomatic conflict are becoming more prominent. It should not be surprising that many of the techniques weak groups are choosing to use in conflicts against the powerful are regarded by their targets as criminal or uncivilized behavior. They are the strategies and tactics that criminals, rebels, and other weak groups have traditionally used to force behavior upon or secure an outcome from a stronger foe.
The resulting struggles between the strong and the weak are defined as asymmetrical warfare. While the use of terror and intimidation, indiscriminate destruction, kidnapping, and suicide attacks are all ancient tactical and strategic options, they pose a serious challenge to security forces and diplomatic systems developed to pursue different strategies. The world’s leading powers will adapt their strategies and tactics to the increased prominence of this formerly marginal threat as they continue to face more conventional means of resolving conflicts.
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