On Tactics

July 30, 2018
Posted by: Gregory Gilbert

by B.A. Friedman

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. – Sun Tzu III.3

As the dust settles upon the American involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the more thoughtful participants are now gathering their ideas about contemporary warfare in a comprehensive effort to learn from recent as well as past mistakes. The need is obvious but the future waypoints are less clear. B.A. Friedman’s On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle is one such offering which is determined to be a game-changer in the study of tactical theory and the role of tactics versus strategy in modern warfare.
On Tactics is a thinking man’s summary of the underlying principles of Western tactical level ground combat. (Friedman’s use of sexist language is even somewhat jarring to this old fashioned reviewer – it really should have been edited out). This book is essentially a well-reasoned discussion of the Principles of War coupled with an alternative scheme of Tactical Tenets. Friedman explains how the Principles of War can only ever offer guidelines for developing a soldier’s tactical knowledge and education, and that they should never be seen as a list of principles to be memorised by rote-learning that will always lead to victory in battle. Unfortunately he then offers his own list of nine Tactical Tenets in a convenient list. Much of what Friedman says is logical. The importance of deception, surprise, confusion and shock, i.e. the Mental Tenets, follows directly from the experiences of the US in the early 21st Century. As does the one Moral Tenet – moral cohesion. Friedman’s four Physical Tenets, manoeuver, mass, firepower and tempo, have been discussed since ancient times and, although exact wording and definitions have changed over time, they remain important tactical considerations. Just a word of warning however, the modern interpretation of these principals/tenets may have little to do with historical usage. For example mass as used in historical examples before the First World War has little to do with the contemporary view of mass – a dense column of infantry used to represent the tactical advantage of mass, but today such a body of troops is nothing more than a rich firepower target.
Many of the other discussions in On Tactics, including those in the six Appendices, are valuable as thought bubbles. For example Friedman examines The Operational Level of War, the Centre of Gravity, Conventional vs Guerrilla Warfare, Training and Education, as well as the Principles of Planning. That I would generally agree with most of Friedman’s conclusions is probably a better reflection of the ideas published in professional journals and commonly discussed in doctrinal development circles within many Western armed forces over the last twenty years or so. As with much of this debate within the narrow confines of the military, many of the historical examples are stretched to conform with the products of common military training and education programmes – and may not necessarily support the stated outcomes. In accordance with this inherent prejudice, some might suggest common doctrinal approach, a number of Friedman’s historical examples are spurious – as such they do not prove or disprove his theories.
At the end of the day however we need to determine whether On Tactics is really a definitive work or not. I believe that Friedman remains confined within his own military dogma and thus ultimately fails to achieve what he sets out to achieve – a major contribution to the overarching theory of tactics for the Joint and single-service junior ranking leadership. I personally doubt that it is even possible to achieve such an outcome as a unified theory of tactics. For instance much of the application of sea power involves the use of constabulary and diplomatic operations in addition to blockade, protection of merchant shipping, sea lift, pre-positioning, and deterrents. Such activities involve numerous non-conflict activities or tactics, so in many ways sea power is as much about achieving missions without the use of force as it is fighting battles at sea or from the sea. It may require at least three such theories of tactics, one for each of the main environments – land, sea and air.
To explain, we need to recognise that the soldier’s perspective is not always true – land warfare is not always the key military force in a modern joint campaign. When Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War he essentially focused on a ground war and ignored sea power and maritime warfare completely. For more than 100 years sea and air power have not been mere auxiliaries to the land campaign. They have been major arbitrators of conflicts spread across the world. Friedman fails to understand that there is also a sailor’s perspective and an airman’s perspective and that any definitive tactical theory needs to identify and articulate these perspectives – let alone the cyber warrior’s, electronic warfare and/or information warrior’s perspectives. In the 21st Century we must accept that sea power can be the key military force in a joint campaign. Equally, if not more so, air power can be the key military force in a joint campaign.
That is not to suggest that the Principles of War should not apply to navies or air forces, rather they are as relevant to operations in the sea and air environments as they are to the land. The difference is that from the sea power or air power perspective they have their own historical examples and interpretation. Now the anthropologist within me needs to raise his head above water. There is another fundamental assumption that continues to underpin much of Western tactical thinking and that is the lack of understanding about non-state warfare. Much work was done on the anthropology of warfare in the 1960s and early 1970s which demonstrated that non-state or pre-state warfare was fundamentally different from state on state warfare. Clausewitz clearly thought in terms of state versus state war and the majority of Western military commentators continue to think along the same lines. Friedman is one more who follows this school of thought – for him guerrilla warfare tactics are the same as regular warfare tactics on a smaller scale. Historically and from a social anthropology perspective non-state warfare differs significantly from state warfare – its organisation is simplified as every person is a potential warrior and there are no military units as such only leaders and followers. Non-state warfare has historically had much different objectives and definitions of success/victory than state vs state warfare. After fighting for almost twenty years against non-state fighters it would seem reasonable that the Western militaries would have given priority to the modern study of the anthropology of warfare in an effort to better understand the theory of tactics from the perspective of our most dangerous enemies. Once again such work remains on the periphery and is largely ignored by modern studies on war. It is my belief that a paradigm shift is long overdue.
On Tactics is a well written work on the theory of ground tactics. Unfortunately it offers more versions of the same old Principles of War just in a contemporary form. The audience of military doctrine developers who suffer from group-think will appreciate its contents. Anyone looking for a revolutionary challenge to the Western approach to war, or for a comprehensive book on tactics that includes naval and air tactics, will need to look elsewhere.

Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
Courtesy of the
Australian Naval Institute