2011/10/24

On the Central Quest of Military Art and Theory:

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The pursuit of the decisive, "unfair" (net) advantage over the enemy.

Many recipes have been developed over time for the accumulation of such an advantage. Clausewitz developed the military Schwerpunkt, Erfurth wrote a book about surprise, v.Schlieffen became fixated on encirclement battles and especially Cannae, ancient writers such as Vegetius already wrote about training, strategems and rules of thumb (Master Tzu).
It's been also a classic approach to overpower an enemy with superior numbers. This took in modern times the shape of overpowering the enemy with superior military budgets during peacetime and superior industrial output during wartime.
The modern approach is typically a combination of almost all known ones, epitomised in doctrine manuals and organised training.

The central theme in almost all of these ways is to seek victory/success before (or even without) a fight. You strive for being the almost safe winner of a battle before you go to battle. All else would be negligent.

This is where the previous post kicks in; it's important to draw a strong line between small contacts with the enemy and the big battles.

The focus is usually on the big battle; popular military history is especially fixated on battles.

That is disconcerting, especially in regard to military theory development, for battles should be among the least interesting episodes of a skilful campaign. Battles should be pretty much decided prior to their initiation. The real challenge is ahead of a battle.

By the time a battle would be accepted, the enemy should be so much disadvantaged that he better withdraws and accepts a pursuit (a common occurrence in turning movements and 18th century army-manoeuvring campaigns). The withdrawal and pursuit -albeit no easy thing for either party- were in many historical wars the really big affairs. The losses of an army after its ranks were broken were usually much bigger than during battle itself. There were exceptions (such as Greek inter-Polis warfare, Pacific Island battles, 1st World War), of course.

The only thing that's better than to pursue an enemy without needing to break his force in battle first is to encircle him. Thus the aforementioned Cannae fixation of German military during the 2nd and 3rd Reiche.

The focus should be -today as ever - on the accumulation of a decisive net advantage. Later on, this advantage has to be realised.

This is a bit analogue to seeing the value of your stocks rising; you also need to sell them at some point in order to cash in. Stocks rising in itself is of no value.

The accumulation of a decisive net advantage may happen through diplomacy, force building, reconnaissance, ruses, skirmishing, positioning and many other known components of military art and theory.
The realisation (exploitation) of the advantage require battle, pursuit or -best of all- peace negotiations. A political move will be the ultimate realisation of the accumulated net advantage, of course.
Yes, I'm that much a Clausewitzian.


Some readers may be tempted to think that all this is trivial; it isn't. It's helpful to look at war this way.

For example, activity that in itself has a poor record (such as reconnaissance with high attrition) can be fine, even necessary. This is part of the reason why a truly attritionist mindset is very problematic. Such a mindset would usually label such activity as wrong.

So basically this post addresses the decades-old anglophone debate between 'maneuver'-oriented and 'attrition'-oriented schools of military theory. That distinction is simply not as helpful as the distinction between "accumulating a net advantage" and "realising the net advantage". This addresses only those people who aren't overburdened by 4-word titles instead of 1-word ones, of course.


Just in case of doubt; my two concepts are of course not phases with a discrete succession. They do overlap each other. They're constructs to help a more clear and more purpose-focused thinking about military art and theory.


S Ortmann

P.S.: I'd be proud if I could say that I developed this clarity of thought (which I think it is) before skirmish and scouting tactics caught my major interest. Sadly, it was the other, not-so-methodological, way around. First I formulated my skirmish theory (largely unpublished), then I formulated this text in support of it.
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6 comments:

  1. Great if you can achieve it, but war doesn't always work out that way.

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  2. Encirclement frequently has great weakness.
    If the enemy army breaks, they can be slaughtered with little loss, we saw that frequently in Barbarossa, when over a million men gave up on multiple occaisions.

    But if they remain in good order, your encirclement looks rather a lot like four little armies against one big army, that might roll and squash one of them. Or at the very least, will dig in and inflict punishing losses as your forced to over run an army thats fighting to the death.
    Although its much harder to sort a "siege" from a an encirclement that holds position, because generaly, thoey hold around siegey objects.

    Best to give them the hope of escape, then they can be ran down when they run for it.

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  3. Phil Ridderhof30 October 2011 00:50

    Great post. As you point out (and Clausewitz), its after the battle that the real one-sided casaulties occur--and its the pursuit after the battle that is the most difficult to execute.

    In my opinion, planning for exploitation and pursuit is usually inadequate. We put so much emphasis, and resources into planning for simple victory, or in warding off defeat, that we are more unprepared for success, espeically unplanned success, then we are for setbacks.

    In terms of gaining "net advantage", one of the better conceptual descriptions of this is in William McRaven's book "Spec Ops". McRaven wrote this as a Commander in the US Navy. now he is the Commander of all US Special Operations Forces. he posits that raids work because attackers attain a period of relative superiority on the objective (through stealth, surprise, overwhelming force at the point of attack). Within this period, which is finite, they acheive their objective and withdrawal prior to the odds going against them.

    Phil Ridderhof

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  4. phil
    rarely do we intend to inflict casualties now, we kill what must be killed to win, and break c4 to avoid mass slaughter of the pbi.

    In what modern war have escapees reformed and fought again as soldiers (not insurgents).
    If a tank crew want to park in the open, i'm happy to air drop them busfare home and bomb the tank :)

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  5. Paraphrasing "Old Fritz" (not related to Frozen Fritz) on maneuvering: If you have to wage a battle something went very wrong.

    Probably true in the chessboard wars of the Baroque, but not so much since Napoleon. The physical destruction of the enemy on the battle field as prerequisite to conquer and secure his lands. See WW2 and the resulting Soviet and U.S. Empires - neither would have been possible with the Axis powers simply pushed behind their starting positions of the late 1930's but basically retaining their warfighting ability.

    And the sharper the contrast between the enemies (racial, cultural, religious, &c) the more destruction and the less maneuver.

    Btw, the "net advantage" is a dangerous game. Leads to a perpetual state of war, since everything counts towards that net advantage (Economy, technology, access to resources, &c). But yes! That's our reality.

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  6. Look at Leipzig 1813, the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars: Napoleon's enemies had stacked the deck against him diplomatically and then they attempted an encirclement. They had done their homework well and acquired a decisive net advantage prior to the battle.
    Similar: Sedan 1870.

    Normandy 1944: Delayed till 1944 because force build-up and air campaign hadn't made enough progress (not gained enough net advantage) prior to early 1944.
    Kuwait 1991; long and thorough alliance-building and force build-up in order to gain an overwhelming net advantage.

    Numerous operational withdrawals of forces facing possible encirclement during WW2 showed how net advantage had been accumulated and the inferior party refused to take a stand against such odds, preferring the hazards of withdrawal.

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