04 September 2013

What are tactics and what is strategy?

From dictionary.reference.com:




1.  ( usually used with a singular verb ) the art or science of disposing military or naval forces for battle and maneuvering them in battle.

2.  ( used with a plural verb ) the maneuvers themselves.

3.  ( used with a singular verb ) any mode of procedure for gaining advantage or success.

4.  ( usually used with a singular verb ) Linguistics .

a.  the patterns in which the elements of a given level or stratum in a language may combine to form larger constructions.

b.  the study and description of such patterns.

And from the same source:



noun, plural strat·e·gies.

1.  Also, strategics. the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.

2.  the use or an instance of using this science or art.

3.  skillful use of a stratagem: The salesperson's strategy was to seem always to agree with the customer.

4.  a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result: a strategy for getting ahead in the world.

Using just the dictionary style reference, I would disagree with strategy item #3 example as a salesman is employing a tactic in pursuit of the strategy of a sale.  I'll use die.net to show how a prior generation examined these two words:

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Tactics \Tac"tics\, n. [Gr. ?, pl., and ? (sc. ?, sing., fr. ? fit for ordering or arranging, fr. ?, ?, to put in order, to arrange: cf. F. tactique.]

1. The science and art of disposing military and naval forces in order for battle, and performing military and naval evolutions. It is divided into grand tactics, or the tactics of battles, and elementary tactics, or the tactics of instruction.

2. Hence, any system or method of procedure.

And strategy:

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Strategy \Strat"e*gy\, n. [Gr. ?: cf. F. strat['e]gie. See Stratagem.]

1. The science of military command, or the science of projecting campaigns and directing great military movements; generalship.

2. The use of stratagem or artifice.

Both of these items involve planning, but their scales are very different given the problem to be addressed.  Tactical decisions are typically battlefield decisions with goals set on the battlefield as guided by overall strategy.  Thus an operation to 'take a hill' to divert the enemy and feign an attack in one place so as to distract from the main thrust is a tactical decision of the best way to carry out the larger theater tactical or theater strategic goals.  A theater of war is one that encompasses a number of areas, so that there was a European Theater of Operations in WWII as well as a Pacific Theater of Operations in that same war.  Each Theater of Operations had its own set of goals set by the Theater of Operations Strategic Objective.  Individual battles were tactical instances of utilizing force to achieve the larger set of objectives set in the Theater of Operations.  In the European Theater of Operations there was an over-arching Grand Strategy above the Theater level that required that Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany be defeated. 

At the Theater Level this required a series of operations starting in Africa, to dislodge the Afrikacorps and Italian forces from there so as to remove pressure on British shipping.  For a time that was the only part of the European Theater of War that was operable for the Allies, beyond a basic defense of the UK.  To achieve the end of the Theater Strategy required Theater Tactics on the deployment of troops, their numbers, types, amounts and logistical support without which the operation would have failed and the Theater and Grand Strategy set back.  All of the subsequent battlefield tactical decisions, the stuff you see so many programs about, are all in pursuit of the larger goals.  There are different skill sets and approaches required for these different areas of operation, and one must discriminate between them so as to ascertain just what the strategy is and which tactics are suitable.

And this quote sums up the applicability of strategy and tactics as concepts to diplomacy:

All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.
- Zhou Enlai

That is why the US State Dept. has different areas of responsibility or Theaters of responsibility to it, and what diplomats seek to gain is the advantage for their Nation by finding agreement with other Nations.  It is much, much better if everyone agrees with each other's requirements and things can be done in a peaceful manner because you lose far fewer lives and have a lower cost (perhaps even a mutual cost reduction or net benefit!) via diplomatic agreements than you get via warfare.  In the early days of warfare, when produced items and agriculture were relatively primitive, one could gain great riches by going to war and plundering one's enemies.  Today that is much less the case and mechanized warfare has a high cost to it that goes higher the more sophisticated the equipment comes.  Diplomats, then, are the first wave of troops and commanders you send overseas to see if you can find some agreement amongst Nations: they are the shock troops that employ a set of tactics that do not, typically, involve killing others.  Diplomats are servants to the Grand Strategy of the Nation State, which is set by whoever is put in charge of that stuff, but it is usually an Executive function of a Nation State (although there are exceptions like the Republic of Venice and its Council of Doges).  It is that Grand Strategy that guides the Nation State and it is executed by diplomats and by the military of a Nation that takes into account when diplomacy fails.

Diplomatic failure does not always lead to war as that is situation dependent, so that a minor faux pas with a friendly power is something to snicker at, while the same faux pas with an antagonist might lose you the diplomat, the Embassy and put the Nation State into a war without any preamble to it.  The back-up plan for the first wave of effecting a Grand Strategy is the military might of a Nation.  Failure of diplomacy is not always something a diplomat can do anything about, particularly if a belligerent Nation cuts off diplomatic ties and accepts no behind-the-scenes talks.  At that point, when diplomatic means are refused at all levels, it is the responsibility of the military to pick up the slack and begin preparing for a hostile Nation to go into an active state of hostilities.

Diplomacy is part of a spectrum of warfare and George Washington underscored that point while as President by making all diplomatic efforts part of the War Dept.  Because any minor failure, with even a modest foreign power no matter how distant, might mean disaster for the trade and survival of the young United States, the diplomats all understood the gravity of their situation by going through a military command structure run by the military.

Can mere tactics create strategy?

Yes, it can.  The best case in point is the set of tactics described between WWI and WWII by B.H. Liddel Hart in his book Strategy in which he described how mechanized warfare would work and the necessary change in Strategic approach it required not just in warfare but in the logistics behind warfare.  A series of papers between the World Wars described just how armored and mechanized mobile troop units would create a new style of warfare and that Nation States would need to adjust not only their tactics but their strategies to accommodate this new warfare.  He was not alone in this review of how mechanized mobile armor platforms would change everything about how war was fought (just as the machine gun did for World War I, though very few pre-WWI strategists recognized the importance of this tactical innovation).  World War II and the post-WWII era saw the bulk of those insights come to pass and we now live in a world where the foundational understanding of warfare is mechanized and mobile warfare in all venues of all theaters of operations.

From World War I also came a modernized reprise of chemical weapons attacks done on a large Grand Tactical scale on the Fronts during the war.  Grand Tactical is a set of arms or methodology for deployment of troops and arms that are employed across all Theaters of War.  Chemical and Biological Weapons pre-date the modern era and were used in the siege of castles and the subduing of cities going back to an era that predates riding horses into battle.  This class of weapons only gain the Weapons of Mass Destruction moniker when they can be produced on a scale large enough to turn the tide of war when an enemy has no defenses against it.  As such these tactical devices in the CW and BW areas can only meet the WMD tag when used against those without defenses, but are little different from other mass forms of arms utilizing conventional forms of attack.  Nuclear devices gain the WMD tag by destroying a mass in an instant, and that effect is a large scale one, hence weapon of mass destruction in both size, scope and effectiveness.  CW and BW arms do not meet those criteria of size, scope and effectiveness, even when all the stars are aligned for use of them.  Against the defenseless these sets of conditions are easier to meet, yes, but nature will have her way with them in the way of wind, humidity and a number of other factors that will limit or negate the use of them in a way that nuclear devices are not prone to.  Fallout is an effect of a nuclear device, not the reason you use one, thus how nature moves a cloud of radioactive fallout is secondary to the use of the device itself, while spreading chemical or bio components in a direction of the wind that is not wanted thwarts the primary intent of the weapon, itself.

This now moves us to the present and what President Obama wants, or doesn't want, in regards to Syria.  I'll take a part of a piece by Miriam Elder in BuzzFeed on 01 SEP 2013 on the topic of Strategy and what President Obama wishes to do in Syria:

The results of this mystifying lack of preparedness have been abysmal,” he wrote, calling Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for the strikes “constitutionally sound, but strategically appalling” and suggesting the White House find “an objectives-based strategy.”

Hof struck at what, for those who spend their time thinking about grand strategy and not domestic politics, is the heart of the matter. The administration has consistently separated the goals it hopes to achieve with a military strike — punish Assad, send a warning to similar states, restore U.S. credibility — from the objectives it hopes to achieve politically: to reach a negotiated peace in Syria with Assad no longer at the country’s helm. In terms of strategic planning, the separation of the two is almost a rookie error.

I do understand that Miriam Elder may not be up on the differences between strategy and tactics, as the middle ground of the two realms can be hazy even to those on the inside of the operational spheres in question.  However, with analysis, it is possible to separate what is strategic and what is tactical from her review.

First is the lack of preparedness cited by Frederic Hof, and that is an easy thing to designate as a tactical error.  Being unprepared to enforce a policy decision, which is a part of the overall Strategy of the United States, is a tactical error by a President.  I do agree that seeking the approval of Congress is not just sound, but a necessity so as to gain the necessary funds to supply the military for doing anything with regard to Syria.  And when a President seeks to perform offensive operations that expend logistical supplies, equipment and possibly lives, that means that Congressional approval can show support for the policy decision.

That policy decision is one that drives objectives, and here Mr. Hof states that the strategy is objectives-based.  Objectives are to be driven by strategy from policy, and when those get reversed it demonstrates that you have no policy and no strategy at work.  Thus an 'objectives-based strategy' is no strategy at all as objectives are driven out by strategy.

As seen previously tactics can drive strategy and, perforce, change objectives, but that only comes from the understanding of the change in tactics.  An 'objectives-based strategy' that does not clearly and succinctly say what the larger strategy framework is to drive out those objectives actually is, then gives the appearance of having no larger based strategy at work.

The goals as outlined are multi-fold and deserve some examination to determine if they are just goals or if they are tactical or strategic plans.

First is to 'punish Assad', presumably through military strikes.  Yet this can be achieved through non-military means like has been seen in the case of Iran, Cuba and North Korea, through diplomatic sanctions, seeking to cut off aid in the form of banking to the regime, or through other non-military means.  Indeed, even though Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, a President can go to the other CWC signatories and point out that their lack of action with regards to Saddam Hussein has now led the world into a realm where terrorists are now getting their hands on CWs via the means of civil war.  The goals given in the CWC is to prevent such spread and proliferation from happening and the CWC signatory Nations should have it pointed out to them that they have an obligation to act to their stated Foreign Policy goals that they voluntarily signed up for via diplomatic means.  A much wider array of Nations could be asked to either put up and support what they signed up for, or to walk away from the CWC saying that they cannot support it any more.  If punishing Assad and the Syrian regime is a goal, it is questionable if it is best served by any military strikes by the US without gaining the backing of a treaty group that said they wanted to curb if not end such activities. By pointing out this venue there are also other treaty venues outside of the UN to go through to 'punish Assad' through diplomatic means, and they might actually be effective and save lives, and curb the spread of CWs.  All of this can start with a simple policy statement that the US has no interest in the outcome of the civil war in Syria, but that we deplore the use of WMDs and will seek agreement amongst all those Nations with similar foreign policy goals to start achieving those ends.

When translated to a military level, then, 'punish Assad' is a tactical goal in service to a stated Strategy.  Yet, when it is a 'goal-based strategy' that is effectively saying that the goal is the only thing in the strategy and that there is no larger framework to the goal.  It is a goal in service of itself, which is not just irrational but can have long-term consequences when the aftermath of trying to reach the goal, or failing to do so, happens.  And it will happen once the goal is stated and achieved or not achieved because it has been stated as the goal of the Nation of the United States.

Second is 'send a warning to similar States'.  This can be achieved through multiple means, as well which I outlined in the first goal area: cutting off banking, seizure of accounts, cutting off US trade with such regimes, working with the CWC treaty organization of Nations... all of that done without a single shot fired by the US.  In fact that would be a much clearer warning that the US is fed up with such things than a military attack, as it would be done quickly as part of a stated foreign policy with objectives to stop the proliferation of WMDs at the Nation State level.  Of course that would take actually having that as a policy.  That can only be done by the President as he is the one who creates much of the foreign policy execution and how it is done, without having to go to Congress.

When translated into the military realm this concept of 'sending a warning to similar States' is nebulous.  There are many ways to achieve this when given a military set of conditions and not all of them deal with actually trying to destroy or eliminate the weapons themselves.  As a goal it must have a framework of what is to be achieved, and simply curbing the use of such weapons in Syria can be done by such things as destroying infrastructure, attacking shipping, or dropping lots of small arms to the civilian population with a note on each piece asking nicely if they would 'take care of this tyrant for their own safety' in a way similar to dropping Liberator pistols in occupied France during WWII to help the Underground Resistance there.  That is something that would be guided by conditions and by Congress, if there can be an actual foreign policy statement given to this 'goal' that puts it in service to some larger strategic framework.

The third goal to 'restore US credibility' means that the US has already lost credibility in this case.  That is due to the lack of having a foreign policy that can be stated as a Grand Strategy: there is no Grand Strategy at work to drive out policy and, from that, goals and instances of objectives in service to the Grand Strategy.  Without having a Grand Strategy that can be clearly and succinctly stated, this cannot be achieved.  It does not have to be a great foreign policy statement and the US has gotten away with rather short ones in its history:

- Walk softly and carry a big stick.

- Keeping the worlds worst weapons out of the hands of its worst people.

- Confronting an Evil Empire and calling it to reform.

- Carter Doctrine of Blood for Oil.

- Monroe Doctrine to keep foreign powers from the Western Hemisphere.

You don't need something fancy and convoluted to hang a foreign policy on and, in fact, the shorter and easier it is to remember the better off you are.  Each of these drove policy not only for the Administration that stated them but were an influence on future Administrations and the direction of the Nation as a whole.  The simplest way, then, to restore US credibility is to have a foreign policy that can be clearly stated as a Grand Strategy for the Administration.  That doesn't take ANY military maneuvers and can be accomplished by one man and one man only: the President of the United States.

The political objective that all of this is supposed to tie together is to reach a negotiated peace in Syria and end up with Assad out of power.  That should actually be a foreign policy objective tied to a Grand Strategy.  By trying to make it a political objective, to score 'points' by showing you can 'get something done' which has as its goal bolstering the status of the occupant of the Office.  Without having any real planning on the foreign policy or military side, the result of even achieving this objective is put in doubt as, without any pre-planning for success, others can step in to define it for themselves and actually snatch success away and for themselves.  That would be contrary to the stated objective, and is a result of a lack of any foreign policy to drive out goals and objectives which then puts the entire State Dept. and Dept. of Defense into the picture to help understand what the aftermath of such an objective is before you even attempt to achieve it.  That then creates not just a foreign policy failure but a political failure, as well, plus damages the credibility of the US still more.

In fact going through this entire procedure without a stated Grand Strategy for foreign policy damages the credibility of the US.  One way to not damage the credibility of the US is not to go through this procedure in the first place and have the President understand that some failures have a single father and that for the good of the Nation his personal credibility must be sacrificed. 

Yet he could just figure out a foreign policy Grand Strategy and avoid all this, while using the non-military options to show how that Grand Strategy will play out.

For as much as this President talks, he can't appear to say what his foreign policy Grand Strategy is.  Instead he gives us a few objectives that don't even require a military response, but that is the first thing he goes to.  And that loses him credibility far faster than choosing anything else he could choose.

No good shall ever come of that.

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