On "I"nitiative

The concept of "initiative" is a mosaic piece of military theory that has confused many, provoked many discussions - and enabled many men in fancy uniforms to talk much without saying anything.

Discussing the role of "initiative" in military theory was fashionable long before I bothered to blog about anything. This didn't lead to any convincing writing about it reaching my bookdesk, though.
The main point of contention appeared to be (in my eyes) whether "initiative" in itself is valuable or whether it's just randomly associated with both good and bad moves.

Here are some snippets from U.S. doctrine (handy because published in English) about initiative:

When the friendly force has the initiative, it can force the enemy to conduct continuous operations to react to friendly actions and then exploit the effects of continuous operations on the enemy.
Possession of the initiative allows a commander to continually seek vulnerable
spots and shift his decisive operation when opportunities occur.
FM 3-100 actually kind of defines "initiative":

Initiative has both operational and individual components. From an operational perspective, initiative is setting or dictating the terms of action throughout the battle or operation. Initiative implies an offensive
spirit in all operations. To set the terms of battle, commanders eliminate or reduce the number of enemy options. They compel the enemy to conform to friendly operational purposes and tempo [...]. 

From an individual perspective, initiative is the ability to be a selfstarter, to act when there are no clear instructions or when the situation changes. An individual leader with initiative is willing to decide and initiate independent actions when the concept of operations no longer applies or when an unanticipated opportunity leading to the accomplishment of the commander’s intent presents itself [...].

In the offense, initiative involves throwing the enemy off balance with powerful, unexpected strikes. It implies never allowing the enemy to recover from the initial shock of an attack. [...]
In the defense, initiative implies quickly turning the tables on the attacker. It means taking aggressive action to collect information and force the attacker to reveal his intentions. Defenders aim to negate the attacker’s initial advantages, gain freedom of action, and force the enemy to fight on the defender’s terms. [...]
This much-abbreviated quote shows that the doctrine writers were once again confused.
The deleted parts did in great part reveal that "initiative" serves as a justification for the promotion of "mission-type orders". That's not what interests me here, though.
The same goes for the "individual" aspect of this idea of initiative in which being motivated to fight and thinking independently in conjunction supposedly already equals "initiative". In other words: The U.S.Army used one word for two completely different concepts.

At least a few years back "initiative" was one of the five "tenets" of (U.S.) army operations. The attention on it did go so far to assert that
A commander never surrenders the initiative once he gains it.

as if no such thing as the culminating point of attack did ever exist. That shall not be my main focus here, either - no matter how stupid such a generalisation is.

By the way:
FM 3-90 "Tactics" (2001) word search for "initiative": 83 x found
FM 3-100 "Operations" (2001) word search for "initiative": 167 x found

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My definition/interpretation what is usually really meant with "having the initiative" in military writings:

The opposing force is so much occupied with coping with your actions and/or threats that it doesn't mobilise the resources to execute major actions that are more than mere reactions. (1)
This may sound eerily familiar to the first quote above, but there's a major difference in my opinion. U.S.doctrine and as a consequence much anglophone writing (thinking?) about initiative in military theory/arts purports that "initiative" is gained by and a benefit of aggressiveness. Gaining "initiative" is supposedly always about the offence. Even in defence, it's about switching back to offensive action.
It's all quite similar to the typical OODA school of thought.

Well, big institutions like that have a certain claim of legitimacy if they define technical terms. I will thus not argue that they got the definition thing wrong (although they should learn to be more concise!).

Instead, I will argue that they got their doctrine wrong.

Read my definition again, please.


Finished? OK. 
The key difference is that I do not assert that you need offensive action to gain the Initiative (I will write it with "capital "I" as in German in order to signal that I mean my idea of it).

You may just as well gain the Initiative by overstretching the opponent's resources by the multitude of threats that you pose to him.

Chess players know this. You do not really need to attack in order to paralyse an opponent who's weaker in figures. Sometimes all his figures are totally irreplaceable in his defensive scheme because your many options for attacks require him to defend so much.

A historical example would be El Alamein. Rommel had lost the initiative by failing in his last attack - and no amount of attacking would have helped to regain it. Nor did relentless pressing the previous offensive preserve his initiative. Montgomery had the Initiative because he was strong enough. He decided the time, location and direction of the next offensive - Rommel had no say in this any more after he failed to break through at El Alamein.

An opponent does not only need to cope with your actions, but also with your threats. He must not expose himself so much that you can exploit this much. The more threats he needs to counter with his precautions, the less offensive power is left for major moves of his own.

Judging by what I read and heard about it, this means that your opponent loses the initiative once he can barely cope with all the risks/threats (to him) that you create. This is the paralysis and disadvantage that some doctrines want to achieve through initiative.
U.S.Army doctrine is thus in my opinion not only lacking clarity and concise definitions in regard to "initiative", but is also - and this is a bigger problem in practical application - promoting  aggressiveness too much with it.
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There's more to it: You can box your enemy into a corner by keeping him totally occupied with your threats, but what happens if he loses hope to counter your threats with defensive posturing?
He may attack like a cornered, wounded predator. There's no point in waiting till one of the unavoidable gaps is being exploited, right? (2)
This is an insight that aforementioned official writings would not create - because they lack the idea that you could gain initiative by anything else than attack.

S Ortmann

(1) : Clarification: You only have the initiative if you still have the reserve resources to stage a substantial offensive effort.
(2) : This kind of explains the 1944 Ardennes Offensive.


  1. "strike hard, strike fast, maintain tempo" ( that was me) I didn't mean to promote hyper-aggressiveness. Knowing what strategy to use when is important. If attack then attack with zeal, if attack is not working or will not work then use the strategy that will. "strike hard, strike fast, maintain tempo" is suppose to leave the enemy so beaten that he doesn't have enough men to really fight back any more. Like the smaller German force beating the larger French force in your last blog post. By beating so badly the Germans didn't have to worry about them latter, because there wasn't enough of them left to worry about.

  2. Iniative - small scale
    Doing your job without constant supervision.
    Calling fires, redploying, counter attacking without first asking for permission from the Supreme Commander of all allied forces.

    Iniative - big scale
    Acting and forcing the enemy to react to your actions, rather the enemy acting and you reacting to his actions.

    Rommel lost the initiative because he was unable to force Montgomery to dance to his tune, and as you say, no amount of aggression in the short term would change that.
    Had Montgomery failed to go on the offensive, and left Rommel unmolested, Rommel would have, after resupply, been free to act

  3. There's no systemic advantage in forcing the enemy to react and avoiding to react yourself. Remember; defence is ceteris paribus the stronger form of combat.

    The lack of a clear-cut advantage in having the initiative is the key problem that many see in the promotion of initiative as an army tenet. The example of Kharkov '43 shows this as well. You can bend its interpretation to fit the army's idea of initiative in defence, but looked at from the Soviet side it simply means that press an offensive aggressively as advised for maintaining the initiative on the offence is at times foolish.

    To surprise the enemy is ceteris paribus always an advantage, while initiative is not. Its importance has been exaggerated and conditions for gaining the initiative have been overlooked by the doctrine authors.

    A basic tenet / maxim should not be so fallible (this is a fundamental and widespread deficit of maxims).

  4. "There's no systemic advantage in forcing the enemy to react and avoiding to react yourself."

    Of course there is!
    Deny the enemy the time to organise, and you dont fight an organised enemy.

    Taking the iniative doesnt *have* to be big, it has to be worrying,
    Lets say I mount some covert patrols into a previously quiet sector.

    Am I preparing a division level armoured thrust?
    Infantry Infiltration?
    Or am I just messing with your head?
    Well, you can ignore them as a ruse, and risk an armoured breakthrough, or you can deploy extra infantry forces to blunt my patrols.
    Handy if I'm planning an attack, but if its a ruse and you react, well, perhaps you've just denuded the area I wanted to break through.

    Not senseless aggression, but make sure the enemy always has a few problems to solve, make him feel like he's accomplioshing something, when actualy he's running around like a muppet.

    The patrolling in Afghanistan doesnt qualify, it *looks* like we're seizing the iniative, but we arent, its a displacement activity and waste of resources.

  5. There is no systemic advantage unless a reaction is always inferior to an action.

    Legions of documented ill-fated actions and legions of documented successful reactions prove that this cannot be true.

    As a consequence, having the initiative is not always advantageous ceteris paribus. This is strict logic.
    Other cornerstones concepts of military theory such as surprise or agility are always advantageous ceteris paribus.

    That's the reason why "initiative" does not deserve such an elevated standing as for example one of only five "basic army tenets".

  6. Taking the initiative can be done at initial planning stages, selecting a "stage" and logistical tail that maximizes opportunity. Guadalcanal comes to mind. Then again, there are military incidents where it is irrelevant, like, say, Rorke's Drift.