In this article Marius Bester discusses the development
and history of tactics from the earliest times to the present day. The
second part follows in the next issue.
Military strategy and tactics are essential to the conduct of warfare. Broadly stated, strategy is the planning, coordination, and general direction of military operations to meet overall political and military objectives. Tactics implement strategy by short-term decisions on the movement of troops and employment of weapons on the field of battle.
The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz
put it another way: "Tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy
is the art of using battles to win the war."
Strategy and tactics, however, have been viewed
differently in almost every era of history. The change in the meaning of
these terms over time has been basically one of scope as the nature of
war and society has changed and as technology has changed.
Strategy, for example, literally means "the art
of the general" (from the Greek strategos) and originally signified the
purely military planning of a campaign. Thus until the 17th and 18th centuries
strategy included to varying degrees such problems as fortification, manoeuver,
and supply. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, with the rise of mass
ideologies, vast conscript armies, global alliances, and rapid technological
change, military strategy became difficult to distinguish from national
policy or "grand strategy," that is, the proper planning and utilization
of the entire resources of a society--military, technological, economic,
and political. The change in the scope and meaning of tactics over time
has been largely due to enormous changes in technology.
Tactics have always been difficult - and have
become increasingly difficult- to distinguish in reality from strategy
because the two are so interdependent. (Indeed, in the 20th century, tactics
have been termed operational strategy.) Strategy is limited by what tactics
are possible; given the size, training, and morale of forces, type and
number of weapons available, terrain, weather, and quality and location
of enemy forces, the tactics to be used are dependent on strategic considerations.
Strategic and Tactical Principles of Warfare
Military commanders and theorists throughout
history have formulated what they considered to be the most important strategic
and tactical principles of war. Napoleon I, for example, had one hundred
and fifteen such principles. The Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest
had but one: "Get there first with the most men."
Some of the most commonly cited principles are
the objective, the offensive, surprise, security, unity of command, economy
of force, mass, and maneuver. Most are interdependent.
Military forces, whether large-scale or small-scale,
must have a clear objective that is followed despite possible distractions.
Only offensive operations seizing and exploiting the initiative however,
will allow the choice of objectives; the offense also greatly increases
the possibility of surprise (stealth and deception) and security (protection
against being surprised or losing the possibility of surprising the enemy).
Unity of command, or cooperation, is essential
to the pursuit of objectives, the ability to use all forces effectively
(economy of force), and the concentration of superior force at a critical
Maneuver consists of the various ways in which
troops can be deployed and moved to obtain offensive, mass, and surprise.
A famous example that illustrates most of these principles occurred during
World War II when the Allied forces eventually agreed on the objective
of defeating Germany first with a direct offensive against the European
continent. Under a combined command headed by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,
they effectively massed their forces in England, deceived Germany regarding
the point of invasion, collected intelligence on the disposition of German
forces, and set the vast manoeuver called Operation Overlord into motion.
Unthinking rigid attention to a principle of
war, however, can be unfortunate. In the face of two Japanese naval forces,
Adm. William J. Halsey's decision at Leyte Gulf not to divide the fleet
(the principle of mass) led to the pitting of the entire enormous American
naval force against a decoy Japanese fleet. Division of the fleet (manoeuver)
would still have left Halsey superior to both Japanese forces.
Strategic and Tactical Maneuvers
Classification of actual military types of manoeuvres
and their variations have long been a part of military science. New technology
and weapons have not drastically altered some of the classical types of
offensive manoeuver: penetration, envelopment, defensive-offensive manoeuvres,
and turning movements.
The penetration one of the oldest manoeuvres
is a main attack that attempts to pierce the enemy line while secondary
attacks up and down the enemy line prevent the freeing of the enemy reserves.
A favourite manoeuver of the duke of Marlborough (early 18th century),
it was also used by Gen. Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein (1942).
The envelopment is a manoeuver in which a secondary attack attempts to hold the enemy's center while one (single envelopment, or both flanks double envelopment) of the enemy are attacked or overlapped in a push to the enemy's rear in order to threaten the enemy's communications and line of retreat. This forces the enemy to fight in several directions and possibly be destroyed in position. New variations include vertical envelopments (Airborne troops or airmobile troops) and amphibious envelopments. Noted single envelopments were accomplished by Alexander the Great at Arbela (or Gaugamela, 331 BC), Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville (1863), and Erwin Rommel at Gazala (1942; leading to the capture of Tobruk); famous double envelopments include those of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC), the American Revolutionary War Battle of Cowpens (1781), and the destruction of the 7th German Army at the Falaise Gap (1944).
Defensive-offensive manoeuvres include attack
from a strong defensive position after the attacking enemy has been sapped
in strength, as in two battles of the Hundred Years' War, Crecy (1346)
and Agincourt (1415), or feigned withdrawals that attempt to lure the enemy
out of position as performed by William the Conqueror at the Battle of
Hastings (1066) and by Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).
Turning manoeuvres are indirect approaches that
attempt to swing wide around an enemy's flank to so threaten an enemy's
supply and communication lines that the enemy is forced to abandon a strong
position or be cut off and encircled. Napoleon was a master of the turning
movement, using it many times between 1796 and 1812. Robert E. Lee used
the manoeuver at the Second Battle of Bull Run (1862); the German drive
to the French coast in 1940 was another example.
The Historical and Theoretical Development of Strategy and Tactics
The historical roots of strategy and tactics
date back to the origins of human warfare and the development of large-scale
government and empire. The dense tactical infantry formation of overlapping
shields called the phalanx, for example, existed in an early form in ancient
Sumer (c.3000 BC).
The development of strategy and tactics parallels
to some extent the growth, spread, and clash of civilizations; technological
discoveries and refinements; and the evolution of modern state power, ideology,
Early Strategy and Tactics
The Mediterranean basin saw the dawn of modern
military strategy and tactics. It was under such leaders as Philip II (382-336
BC) and Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) of Macedonia and Hannibal (247-183
BC) of Carthage that the first great strides were made in military science.
Philip combined infantry, cavalry, and primitive artillery into a trained,
organized, and manoeuvrable fighting force backed up by engineers and a
rudimentary signalling system. His son Alexander became an accomplished
strategist and tactician with his concern for planning, keeping open lines
of communication and supply, security, relentless pursuit of foes, and
the use of surprise. Hannibal was a supreme tactician whose crushing victories
taught the Romans that the flexible attack tactics of their legions needed
to be supplemented by unity of command and an improved cavalry.
The Romans eventually replaced their citizen-soldiers
with a paid professional army whose training, equipment, skill at fortification,
road building, and siege warfare became legendary. The Byzantine emperors
studied Roman strategy and tactics and wrote some of the first essays on
The Middle Ages saw a decline in the study and
application of strategy - with the exception of the great Mongol conqueror
Medieval tactics began with an emphasis on defensive
fortifications, siegecraft, and armoured cavalry. The introduction, however,
of such new developments as the crossbow, longbow, halberd, pike, and,
above all, gunpowder began to revolutionize the conduct of war.