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Ramses II at Kadesh.jpgGustavus Adolphus at the Battle at Breitenfeld.jpgM1A1 abrams front.jpg Military history


Military strategy is a policy implemented by military organizations to pursue desired strategic goals.[1] Derived from the Greek strategos, strategy when it appeared in use during the 18th century[2], was seen in its narrow sense as the "art of the general"[3], 'the art of arrangement' of troops.[4] 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." B. H. Liddell Hart's definition put less emphasis on battles, defining strategy as "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy".[5] Hence, both gave the pre-eminence to political aims over military goals.



Military strategy is the planning and execution of the contest between groups of armed adversaries. It involves each opponent's diplomatic, informational, military, and economic resources wielded against the other's resources to gain supremacy or reduce the opponent's will to fight, developed through the precepts of military science.[6] Strategy, which is a subdiscipline of warfare and of foreign policy, is a principal tool to secure national interests. It is larger in perspective than military tactics, which involves the disposition and maneuver of units on a particular sea or battlefield,[7] but less broad than grand strategy, which is the overarching strategy of the largest of organizations such as the nation state, confederation, or international alliance.


Military strategy in the 19th century was still viewed as one of a trivium of "arts" or "sciences" that govern the conduct of warfare; the others being tactics, the execution of plans and maneuvering of forces in battle, and logistics, the maintenance of an army. The view had prevailed since the Roman times, and the borderline between strategy and tactics at this time was blurred, and sometimes categorization of a decision is a matter of almost personal opinion. Carnot, during the French Revolutionary Wars thought it simply involved concentration of troops.[8]

Strategy and tactics are closely related and exist on the same continuum. Both deal with distance, time and force but strategy is large scale, can endure through years, and is societal while tactics are small scale and involve the disposition of fewer elements enduring hours to weeks. 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 maneuver and battle, strategy and tactics, expanded with the capacity of technology and transit. Tactics that were once the province of a company of cavalry would be applied to a panzer army.

It is often said that the art of strategies defines the goals to achieve in a military campaign, while tactics defines the methods to achieve these goals. Strategic goals could be "We want to conquer area X", or "We want to stop country Y's expansion in world trade in commodity Z"; while tactical decisions range from a general statement, e.g. "We're going to do this by a naval invasion of the North of country X", "We're going to blockade the ports of country Y", to a more specific "C Platoon will attack while D platoon provides fire cover".

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, security or tranquility.


Military stratagem in the Maneuver against the Romans by Cimbri and Teutons circa 100 B.C.

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 had only one: "to git thar furst with the most men" or "to get there first with the most men".[9] The concepts given as essential in the United States Army's United States Army Field Manual (FM-3-0) of Military Operations (sections 4-32 to 4-39) are[10]:

  1. Objective (Direct every military operation towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective)
  2. Offensive (Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative)
  3. Mass (Concentrate combat power at the decisive place and time)
  4. Economy of Force (Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts)
  5. Maneuver (Place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power)
  6. Unity of Command (For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander)
  7. Security (Never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage)
  8. Surprise (Strike the enemy at a time, at a place, or in a manner for which he is unprepared)
  9. Simplicity (Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding)

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.

Strategy (and tactics) must constantly evolve in response to technological advances. A successful strategy from one era tends to remain in favor 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 World War I experience, France entered World War II with a purely defensive doctrine, epitomized by the "impregnable" Maginot Line, but only to be completely circumvented by the German blitzkrieg.


Fortifications form a crucial component of military strategy. Shown here is the Chittorgarh Fort in Rajasthan, India.

Early military strategy

The principles of military strategy can be found as far back as 500 BC in the works of Sun Tzu and Chanakya. The campaigns of Alexander the Great, Chandragupta Maurya, Hannibal, Qin Shi Huang, Julius Cæsar, Zhuge Liang, Khalid ibn al-Walid and specially Cyrus II demonstrate strategic planning and movement. Mahan describes in the preface to The Influence of Sea Power upon History how the Romans used their sea power to effectively block the sea lines of communication of Hannibal with Carthage; and so via a maritime strategy achieved Hannibal's removal from Italy, despite never beating him there with their legions.

Early strategies included the strategy of annihilation, exhaustion, attrition warfare, scorched earth action, blockade, guerilla campaign, deception and feint. Ingenuity and adeptness was limited only by imagination, accord, and technology. Strategists continually exploited ever-advancing technology.

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 Europe. In the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), Frederick the Great improvised a "strategy of exhaustion" (see Attrition warfare) 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 emphasized lines of manoeuvre, awareness of terrain and possession of critical strongpoints.

Genghis Khan and the Mongols

Mongol Empire in 1227 at Genghis Khan's death

As a counterpoint to European developments in the strategic art, the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan provides a useful example. Genghis' successes, and those of his successors, were based upon manoeuvre and terror. The point of Genghis' strategic assault was nothing less than the psychology of the opposing population. By a steady and meticulous implementation of this strategy, Genghis and his descendants were able to conquer most of Eurasia. The building blocks of Genghis' army and his strategy were his tribal levies of mounted archers, scorched earth-style methods, and (just as important) the vast horse-herds of Mongolia. Each archer had at least one extra horse; (it was an average five horses per man) thus the entire army could move with incredible rapidity. Moreover since horse milk and horse blood were the staples of the Mongolian diet, Genghis' horse-herds functioned not just as his means of movement but also as his logistical sustainment. All other necessities would be foraged and plundered. Khan's marauders also brought with them mobile shelters, concubines, butchers, and cooks. Through maneuver and continuous assault, Chinese, Persian, Arab and Eastern European armies could be stressed until they broke, and then were annihilated in pursuit.

Compared to the armies of Genghis, all other armies were heavy and comparatively immobile. It was not until well into the 20th century that any army was able to match the rapidity of deployment of Genghis' armies. When confronted with a fortified city, the Mongol imperatives of maneuver and speed required that it be quickly subdued. Here the fear engendered by the awful reputation of the Mongolians helped intimidate and subdue.

So too did primitive biological warfare. A trebuchet or other type of ballista weapon would be used to launch dead animals and corpses into a barricaded city, spreading disease and death among the inhabitants, such as the Black Plague. If a particular town or city displeased the Mongolian Khan, everyone in the city would be killed to set an example for all other cities. This was early psychological warfare.

Note that of the above list of strategic terms, even this elementary summary indicates that the Mongols strategy was directed towards an objective (that schwerpunkt (main focus) being nothing less than the psychology of the opposing population) achieved through the offensive; the offensive was characterized by concentration of forces, manoeuvre, surprise and simplicity.

Napoleonic strategy

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed revolutionized 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 cannon 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" (see scorched earth) that terrorized the populace and 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 manoeuvre. As ruler and general he dealt with the grand strategy as well as the operational strategy, making use of political and economic measures.

Napoleon in Berlin (Meynier). After defeating Prussian forces at Jena, the French Army entered Berlin on 27 October 1806

While not the originator of the methods he used, Napoleon very effectively combined the relatively superior maneuver and battle stages into one event. Before this, General Officers had considered this approach to battle as separate events. However, Napoleon used the maneuver to battle to dictate how and where the battle would progress. The Battle of Austerlitz was a perfect example of this maneuver. Napoleon withdrew from a strong position to draw his opponent forward and tempt him into a flank attack, weakening his center. This allowed the French army to split the allied army and gain victory.

Napoleon used two primary strategies for the approach to battle. His "Manoeuvre De Derrière" (move onto the rear) was intended to place the French Army across the enemy's lines of communications. This forced the opponent to either march to battle with Napoleon or attempt to find an escape route around the army. By placing his army into the rear, his opponent's supplies and communications would be cut. This had a negative effect on enemy morale. Once joined, the battle would be one in which his opponent could not afford defeat. This also allowed Napoleon to select multiple battle angles into a battle site. Initially, the lack of force concentration helped with foraging for food and sought to confuse the enemy as to his real location and intentions. This strategy, along with the use of forced marches created a morale bonus that played heavily in his favor.

The "indirect" approach into battle also allowed Napoleon to mess around with the linear formations used by the allied armies. As the battle progressed, the enemy committed their reserves to stabilize the situation, Napoleon would suddenly release the flanking formation to attack the enemy. His opponents, being suddenly confronted with a new threat and with little reserves, had no choice but to weaken the area closest to the flanking formation and draw up a battle line at a right angle in an attempt to stop this new threat. Once this had occurred, Napoleon would mass his reserves at the hinge of that right angle and launch a heavy attack to break the lines. The rupture in the enemy lines allowed Napoleon's cavalry to flank both lines and roll them up leaving his opponent no choice but to surrender or flee.

The second strategy used by Napoleon I of France when confronted with two or more enemy armies was the use of the central position. This allowed Napoleon to drive a wedge to separate the enemy armies. He would then use part of his force to mask one army while the larger portion overwhelmed and defeated the second army quickly. He would then march on the second army leaving a portion to pursue the first army and repeat the operations. This was designed to achieve the highest concentration of men into the primary battle while limiting the enemy's ability to reinforce the critical battle. The central position had a weakness in that the full power of the pursuit of the enemy could not be achieved because the second army needed attention.

So overall the preferred method of attack was the flank march to cross the enemy's logistics. Napoleon used the central position strategy during the Battle of Waterloo

Map of the Waterloo campaign
18th century musketeers from Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford, 18 June 1815


Napoleon masked Wellington and massed against the Prussian army, and then after the Battle of Ligny was won, Napoleon attempted to do the same to the Allied/British army located just to the south of Waterloo. His subordinate was unable to mask the defeated Prussian army, who reinforced the Waterloo battle in time to defeat Napoleon and end his domination of Europe.

It can be said that the Prussian Army under Blücher used the "maneuver de derrière" against Napoleon who was suddenly placed in a position of reacting to a new enemy threat.

Napoleon's practical strategic triumphs, repeatedly leading smaller forces to defeat larger ones, inspired a whole new field of study into military strategy. In particular, his opponents were keen to develop a body of knowledge in this area to allow them to counteract a masterful individual with a highly competent group of officers, a General Staff. 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.

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 to harass the French behind their lines which led them 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 or 'small war' benefited the British in many ways, not all of which were immediately obvious.

Clausewitz and Jomini

Clausewitz's On War has become the respected reference for 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 an insignificant 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 recognized 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 and 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. Clausewitz and Jomini are required reading for today's military professional officer.[11]

Strategy in the industrial age, 1860s-1900s

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 Tecumseh 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 breechloader rifles and minie ball guns generally led to disastrous consequences for both the Union and Confederate forces and populace. 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. Newly invented telegraph enabled more rapid communication between armies and their headquarters capitals. Combat was still usually waged by opposing divisions with skirmish lines on rural battlefields, violent naval engagements by cannon-armed sailing or steam-powered vessels, and assault on military forces defending a town.

There was still room for triumphs for the strategy of manoeuvre such as Sherman's March to the Sea in 1864, but these depended upon an enemy's unwillingness to 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, manoeuvre 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 also exploited 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 of 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 maneuver 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 wide-scale 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, or a level of artillery support which was simply not feasible until late 1917, for any reasonable chance of victory. The ability of the defender to move troops using interior lines prevented the possibility of fully exploiting any breakthrough with the level of technology then attainable.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of strategy in World War I was the difference among the British between the "Western" viewpoint (held by Field Marshal Haig) and the "Eastern"; the former being that all effort should be directed against the German Army, the latter that more useful work could be done by attacking Germany's allies. The term "Knocking away the props" was used, perhaps as an unfortunate consequence of the fact that all of Germany's allies lay south of (i.e. 'beneath') her on the map. Apologists and defenders of the Western viewpoint make the valid point that Germany's allies were more than once rescued from disaster or rendered capable of holding their own or making substantial gains by the provision of German troops, arms or military advisers, whereas those allies did not at any time provide a similar function for Germany. That is, it was Germany which was the prop, and her allies (particularly Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary) did not suffer significant reverses until Germany's ability to come to their aid was grossly impaired.

On other fronts, there was still room for the use of strategy of maneuver. The Germans executed a perfect battle of annihilation against the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg (1914). In 1915 Britain and France launched the well-intentioned but poorly conceived and ultimately fruitless 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, which flourished in the local terrain, 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 guerrilla 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, were forced to undertake a rapid expansion of the army. This outpaced the rate of training of generals and staff officers able to handle such a mammoth force, and overwhelmed the ability of British industry to equip it with the necessary weapons and adequate high-quality munitions until late in the war. Technological advances also had a huge influence on strategy: aerial reconnaissance, artillery techniques, poison gas, the automobile and tank (though the latter was, even at the end of the war, still in its infancy), 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 mobilized for total war. Attacks on the enemy's economy 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. Under the pressure of horrendously destructive German attacks beginning on March 21, 1918, the Entente eventually settled under Field Marshal Ferdinand 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 strategy was dominated by the "Spirit of the Offensive" where generals resorted almost to mysticism in terms of a soldier's personal "attitude" in order to break the stalemate, this led to nothing but bloody slaughter as troops in close ranks charged machineguns. Each side developed an alternate thesis. The British under Winston Churchill developed tank warfare with which they eventually won the war. The Germans developed a "doctrine of autonomy" the forerunner of both blitzkrieg and modern infantry tactics using groups of Stormtroopers who would advance in small mutually covering groups from cover to cover with "autonomy" to exploit any weakness they discovered in enemy defenses. Almost all the blitzkrieg commanders of World War II, particularly Erwin Rommel were stormtroopers in World War I. After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk Germany launched and almost succeeded in a final offensive, however the new tactics of autonomy revealed a weakness in terms of overall coordination and direction. The March offensive, intended to drive a wedge between the French and British armies, turn on the latter and destroy it, lost direction and became driven by its territorial gains, its original purpose neglected.

World War I ended when the ability of the German army to fight became so diminished that Germany asked for peace conditions. The German military, exhausted by the efforts of the March offensives and dispirited by their failure, was first seriously 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 almost assured by that point, and the fact of Germany's military impotence was driven home in the following hundred days. In this time, the Entente reversed the gains the Germans had made in the first part of the year, and the British Army (spearheaded by the Canadians and Australians) finally broke the Hindenburg defensive system.

Though his methods are questioned, Britain's Field Marshal Haig was ultimately proved correct in his grand strategic vision: "We cannot hope to win until we have defeated the German Army." By the end of the war, the best German troops were dead and the remainder were under continuous pressure on all parts of the Western Front, a consequence in part of an almost endless supply of fresh American reinforcements (which the Germans were unable to match) and in part of industry at last supplying the weakened Entente armies with the firepower to replace the men they lacked (whilst Germany wanted for all sorts of materials thanks to the naval blockade). Interior lines thus became meaningless as Germany had nothing more to offer its allies. The props eventually fell, but only because they were themselves no longer supported.

The role of the tank in World War I strategy is often poorly understood. Its supporters saw it as the weapon of victory, and many observers since have accused the high commands (especially the British) of shortsightedness in this matter, particularly in view of what tanks have achieved since. Nevertheless, the World War I tank's limitations, imposed by the limits of contemporary engineering technology, have to be borne in mind. They were slow (men could run, and frequently walk, faster); vulnerable (to artillery) due to their size, clumsiness and inability to carry armour against anything but rifle and machine gun ammunition; extremely uncomfortable (conditions inside them often incapacitating crews with engine fumes and heat, and driving some mad with noise); and often despicably unreliable (frequently failing to make it to their targets due to engine or track failures). This was the factor behind the seemingly mindless retention of large bodies of cavalry, which even in 1918, with armies incompletely mechanised, were still the only armed force capable of moving significantly faster than an infantryman on foot. It was not until the relevant technology (in engineering and communications) matured between the wars that the tank and the airplane could be forged into the co-ordinated force needed to truly restore manoeuvre to warfare.

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. At this time the idea of the aircraft carrier and its capabilities also started to change thinking in those countries with large fleets, but no-where as much as in Japan. The UK and USA seem to have seen the carrier as a defensive weapon and their designs mirrored this, the Japanese Imperial navy seem to have developed a new offensive strategy based around the power projection these made possible.

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 in Britain. In Germany, study groups were set up by Hans von Seeckt, commander of the Reichwehr Truppenamt, for 57 areas of strategy and tactics to learn from World War I and to adapt strategy to avoid the stalemate and then defeat they had suffered. All seem to have seen the strategic shock value of mobility and the new possibilities made possible by motorised forces. Both saw that the armoured fighting vehicle demonstrated firepower, mobility and protection. The Germans seem to have seen more clearly the need to make all branches of the Army as mobile as possible to maximise the results of this strategy. It would negate the static defences of the trench and machine gun and restore the strategic principles of manoeuvre and offense. Nevertheless, it was the British Army which was the only[citation needed] one truly mechanised at the beginning of the Second World War, the Germans still relying on horse traction for a portion of their artillery.

The innovative German Major (later General) Heinz Guderian developed the motorised part of this strategy as the head of one of the Truppenamt groups and may have incorporated Fuller's and Liddell Hart's ideas to amplify the groundbreaking Blitzkrieg effect that was seen used by Germany against Poland in 1939 and later against France in 1940. France, still committed to stationary World War I strategies, was completely surprised and summarily overwhelmed by Germany's mobile combined arms doctrine and Guderian's Panzer Corps.

Technological change had an enormous effect on strategy, but little effect on leadership. The use of telegraph and later radio, along with improved transport, enabled the rapid movement of large numbers of men. One of Germany's key enablers in mobile warfare was the use of radios, where these were put into every tank. However, the number of men that one officer could effectively control had, if anything, declined. The increases in the size of the armies led to an increase in the number of officers. Although the officer ranks in the US Army did swell, in the German army the ratio of officers to total men remained steady. See Van Creveld's "Fighting Power" for more on this topic.

Strategy in World War II

German strategy

The German strategies of World War II were almost exclusively designed or condoned by Adolf Hitler himself. The initial successes of his unconventional and aggressive strategies, both military and political (e.g. Czechoslovakia, Poland, France), combined with the mythical attributes ascribed to him ("Führerprinzip"), led to wide support for his leadership, both among the German population and the traditional military.

The main point of Hitler's strategy was the accumulation of Lebensraum ("Living space") for the Germanic (or so-called Aryan) race. Citing the Treaty of Versailles suffocating indemnities and exploiting the public anxieties of the 1930s economic hardships, he asserted that the German borders were too contained to secure their appropriate position in the geo-political world relations, and that he needed territories similar to the (British and French) colonies to secure enough economic resources to assure Germany's position as a major power. Furthermore, the current population of these territories justifiably ought to be enslaved, migrated, or exterminated, and re-populated by Germanic settlers. He felt that these areas could best be secured in the East (Poland, Ukraine, Russia) because he thought the races populating these territories were inferior. Abroad, he made deceptive promises to potential spoilers (Chamberlain, U.K.) and made treaties with fascist and imperial cohort nations (Italy, Spain, Japan.)

The intended strategy to achieve these goals was a series of relatively short wars, employing blitzkrieg (lightning attack) tactics, to defeat one opponent at a time, and thus securing more land step by step. These wars were to be intertwined with periods of peace, or stalemate, when the German army could re-supply and accumulate force for the next war. The initial success of this strategy (the re-militarization of the Saarland, the Austrian Anschluss (annexation), and the occupation in two stages of Czechoslovakia) stifled opposition and gave Hitler great prestige.

Hitler didn't realize that the turning point had come with the invasion of Poland. Both France and Britain had hesitated to get involved in a war so soon after WWI, but after observing the fate of Czechoslovakia, they signed a treaty promising aid to Poland if it was attacked by Germany. Consequently, they declared war when Germany invaded anyway.

In the later years of the war, Hitler's strategy became more and more based on paranoia, intuition, flawed logic, and unrealistic assumptions. However, the strength of his terrible hold on domestic policy remained so strong, that his authority was not questioned, any challenge was quickly suppressed. Later, he ordered continued bombing of Britain and the uneconomical prosecution of the Eastern front efforts despite the strategic costs and failures. In the final stages of the war, his actions and orders had turned into the rambling of a madman rather than any attempt to conduct a coherent strategy.

Anglo-American strategy

Confronted with the rise of Hitler's power on the continent, and fearing a change in the balance of power, the British gradually turned to a fierce opposition and finally a war declaration over the invasion of Poland. Britain wasn't prepared for war, especially on land, and the initial years were a series of defeats, as they got thrown off the European continent everywhere (France, Norway, Greece). After air superiority over the Channel was secured in the battle of Britain, and the anti-submarine weapons were perfected to win the battle of the Atlantic, Britain itself was not threatened anymore. Strategic plans could turn to the offensive, especially with the USA leaning more and more to a war with Germany.

After the United States entered the war, Europe (as opposed to the Pacific) was chosen as the prime theater of operations by the formulation of the "Germany first" principle at the Arcadia Conference. However, their land armies wouldn't be capable of invading the mainland of Europe for years, even as Stalin pleaded for this to alleviate pressure on the Russian front. Instead, the Allies decided to take an indirect approach by invading Europe from the South. After cleansing North Africa of Axis forces (the invasion of French North-Africa and El Alamein), Sicily and southern Italy were invaded, effectively knocking Italy out of the war. Given that the terrain circumstances in this area were unviable to turn this route into the main thrust on Germany itself, the main purpose of these operations weren't mainly territorial, but focused on tying up as many German forces in southern Europe as possible, thereby thinning the garrison forces in France, where the main Allied force was still planned to invade.

In the air war, superiority was gained fairly early. After that, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign against Germany. After initial emphasis on economic targets (factories, infrastructure, etc), the Allies turned more and more towards terror bombing of German cities.

Soviet strategy

Early Soviet strategy intended to postpone entry into the war for as long as possible. While the purging of the Red Army officer corps had been conducted to strengthen the party's hold of the army and thus the state, the consequences led to severe disappointments when the army was shown as unfit to conduct any kind of serious war in Poland, the Finnish winter war and the establishment of Soviet rule in the Baltic republics. With the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Joseph Stalin believed he had accomplished a position of superiority over the warring sides.

The Barbarossa campaign of 1941 came as a complete surprise to the Soviets. Nevertheless, they reacted swiftly, particularly in the civilian aspect. As the army was being defeated and gave ground at an amazing speed, a gigantic operation was staged to move the economic capacity from the Western areas that were about to be overrun, to Eastern regions that were out of reach for the Germans, like the Ural. Entire factories, including their labour force, were simply moved out of reach from the Germans, and what couldn't be taken was destroyed ("Scorched earth"). Thus, even though huge territories were captured by the Germans, the production potential of the Soviet economy was not correspondingly harmed, and the factories shifted to mass production of military equipment quickly, soon outproducing the German economy.

After achieving numerical superiority, the Soviets were still qualitatively inferior. To compensate for this, they emphasized gaining an even larger quantitative edge. The later offensive Soviet campaigns all saw a massive employment of manpower, often resulting in extremely bloody battles. It wasn't unusual that Soviet "victories" inflicted far larger casualties on themselves than on the Germans. However, the total national manpower pool was so much larger than the German one, that this still led to success.

Japanese strategy

Japanese World War II strategy was driven by two factors: the desire to expand their territories on the mainland of Asia (China and Manchuria), and the need to secure the supply of raw resources that they didn't have themselves, particularly oil. Since their quest after the former (conquest of Chinese provinces) endangered the latter (an oil boycott by the USA and its Allies), the Japanese government saw no other option than to conquer the oil sources in South-East Asia. Since these were controlled by American allies, war with the USA was also inevitable; and given that fact, they decided it would be best to deal a big blow to them first. This was executed in the Pearl Harbor strike, crippling the American battle fleet.

Japan hoped that it would take America so long to rebuild, that by the time they were back in force in the Pacific, they would consider the new balance of power a "fait accompli", and barter for peace. They had underestimated the psychological effect of the Pearl Harbor strike; the USA wouldn't negotiate with an enemy that had struck them in this way. Even though South-East Asia was quickly conquered (Philippines, Indochina, Malaysia(formerly known as Malaya), Dutch East Indies, the early sea battles in the Pacific were tied. After the vital aircraft carrier force was destroyed in the Battle of Midway, the Japanese had to revert to a stiff defense that they kept up for three years after that.

American strategy

Since the American economic force was much larger than the Japanese, even considering their effort in the European theatre, the numerical inferior US forces remaining in the area after Pearl Harbor weren't afraid to battle the Japanese; they knew they could replace battle losses faster than the Japanese. In several aircraft carrier battles, the initiative was taken from the Japanese, and after the Battle of Midway, the Japanese navy was rendered helpless, effectively giving the Americans the possibility to sail wherever they wanted.

As the Japanese offensive died down in the second half of 1942, the Americans saw themselves confronted with an endless amount of fortified garrisons on small islands in the ocean. They decided on a strategy of "island hopping", leaving the strongest garrisons alone, just cutting their supply, and securing bases of operation on the lightly defended isles instead. They kept up this strategy until they were in the Japanese waters themselves, allowing the aerial bombing of the Japanese mainland.

Australian strategy

Australia's historical ties with Britain meant that with the commencement of World War II her armies were sent overseas to contribute to battles in Europe. Fear from the north was so understated that at the outbreak of open warfare with Japan, Australia itself was extremely vulnerable to invasion (possible invasion plans were considered by the Japanese high command). Australia's policy became based entirely on domestic defense following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and British assets in the South Pacific. Defying strong British opposition, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin recalled most troops from the European conflict for the defense of the nation.

Australia's defensive doctrine saw a fierce campaign being fought along the Kokoda track in New Guinea, which was the first land defeat upon the Japanese in the Pacific Theatre. This policy sought to further stretch Japanese supply lines, preventing the invasion of the Australian mainland until the arrival of fresh American troops and the return of seasoned Australian soldiers from Europe. This can be seen as a variant of the war of attrition strategy, where the defender - out of necessity - had to hold the aggressor at a semi-static defensive line, rather than falling back in the face of superior numbers. This method is in stark contrast to the Russian scorched earth policy against Napoleon in 1812, where the defenders yielded home territory in favour of avoiding open battle. In both cases the lack of supplies was successful in blunting the assaults, following exhaustive defensive efforts.

Cold War strategy

The strategy of the Cold War was that of containment and it was a generation dominated by the threat of total world annihilation through the use of nuclear weapons. Deterrence was a part of containment via retributive intimidation from the risk of mutually 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. 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. Military strategy involved bipolar powers with global actors who could strke an opponent with nationally debilitating destruction in a matter of minutes from land, air, and sea.

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 an aggressive posture of Communist expansionism 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.

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 view from Moscow was to adapt to the prevailing changes in the NATO strategic policies that are divided by periods as:

  • Strategy of massive retaliation (1950s) (Russian: стратегия массированного возмездия)
  • Strategy of flexible reaction (1960s) (Russian: стратегия гибкого реагирования)
  • Strategies of realistic threat and containment (1970s) (Russian: стратегия реалистического устрашения или сдерживания)
  • Strategy of direct confrontation (1980s) (Russian: стратегия прямого противоборства) one of the elements of which became the new highly effective high-precision targeting weapons.
  • Strategic Defense Initiative (also known as "Star Wars") during its 1980s development (Russian: стратегическая оборонная инициатива – СОИ) which became a core part of the strategic doctrine based on Defense containment.

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, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (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 (November 2008).

Post Cold War strategy

Curent major military alliances

Strategy in the post Cold War is characterized by a number of potent powers in a multipolar array[13] and has come to be defined by the hyperpower status of the United States.[14]

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

The gap in strategy today (from a western viewpoint) is in what the Americans call "asymmetric warfare": the battle against guerrilla forces by conventional national armed forces. The classical strategic triumvirate of politics/military/populace is very weak against protracted warfare of paramilitary forces such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah, ETA, and Al-Qaeda. The ability of conventional forces to deliver utility (effect) from their hugely powerful forces is largely nullified by the difficulties of distinguishing and separating combatants from the civilian populace in whose company they hide. The use of the military by the politicians to police areas seen as bases for these guerrillas leads to them becoming targets themselves which eventually undermines the support of the populace from whom they come and whose values they represent.

The primary effect of insurgent elements upon conventional force strategy is realized in the two-fold exploitation of the inherent violence of military operations. Conventional armies face political attrition for each action they take. Insurgent forces can cause harm and create chaos, whereby the conventional army suffers a loss of confidence and esteem; or they can drive the conventional elements into an attack which further exacerbates the civilian condition.

The militaries of today are largely set up to fight the 'last war' and hence have huge armoured and conventionally configured infantry formations backed up by air-forces and navies designed to support or prepare for these forces.[15] Many are today deployed against guerrilla-style opponents where their strengths cannot be used to effect. The mass formations of Industrial War are often seen as much less effective than the unconventional forces that these organisations also possess. The new opponents operate at a local level whereas Industrial armed forces work at a much higher 'theatre' level. The nervous system of these new opponents is largely political rather than military hierarchical and adapted to the local supporting populace who hide them. The centre provides the political idea and driving logic perhaps with overall direction and some funding. Local groups decide their own plans, raise much of their own funds and may be more or less aligned to the centre's aims. Defeat of forces when revealed does not disable this type of organisation, many modern attack strategies will tend to increase the power of the group they are intended to weaken. A new more political strategy is perhaps more appropriate here with military backing. Such a strategy has been illustrated in the war between the IRA an adoption and codification is unclear.


An extra issue concerning asymmetric warfare concerns the nature of some paramilitary organizations which are involved in guerrilla military actions, but which are not traditional organizations with a central authority defining their military and political strategies. These organizations (such as Al-Qaeda) may exist as a sparse network of groups lacking central coordination, making then extremely difficult to confront following standard strategic approaches. This new field of strategic thinking is tackled by what is now defined as Netwar.[citation needed]

See also

Examples of military strategies
Related topics



  1. ^ pp.163, Gartner
  2. ^ p.25, Carpenter
  3. ^ p.11, Matloff
  4. ^ p.235, Wilden
  5. ^ Liddell Hart, B. H. Strategy London:Faber, 1967 (2nd rev ed.) p.321
  6. ^ US Army War College.
  7. ^ US Army Field Manual and FM 3-0
  8. ^ p.638, Chaliand
  9. ^ Catton. Bruce (1971). The Civil War. American Heritage Press, New York. Library of Congress Number: 77-119671. 
  10. ^ US Army FM 3-0 "Operations"
  11. ^ See U.S. Army War College and Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, U.K.
  12. ^ Pupkov, et al. Weapons of anti-missile defense of Russia
  13. ^ Foreign Policy
  14. ^ The term was coined by French politician Hubert Vérdine. See:International Herald Tribune, "To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a 'Hyperpower'," February 5, 1999.
  15. ^ The Utility of Force, General Sir Rupert Smith, Allen Lane, London, 2005, ISBN 0-7139-9836-9


  • Gartner, Scott Sigmund, Strategic Assessment in War, Yale University Press, 1999
  • Matloff, Maurice, (ed.), American Military History: 1775-1902, volume 1, Combined Books, 1996
  • Chaliand, Gérard, The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age, University of California Press, 1994
  • Wilden, Anthony, Man and Woman, War and Peace: The Strategist's Companion, Routledge, 1987
  • Carpenter, Stanley D. M., Military Leadership in the British Civil Wars, 1642-1651: The Genius of This Age, Routledge, 2005
  • The US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute publishes several dozen papers and books yearly focusing on current and future military strategy and policy, national security, and global and regional strategic issues. Most publications are relevant to the International strategic community, both academically and militarily. All are freely available to the public in PDF format. The organization was founded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower after World War II.

Further reading

Simple English

Military Strategy is a policy used by armed forces to get the wanted strategic results. These strategies vary from culture to culture, nation to nation, and commander to commander. Carl von Clausewitz is considered the creator of modern military strategy.


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