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Do Classical Strategic Theories Apply In Contemporary Warfare?

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Published: Thu, 04 May 2017

This essay will prove that the classical strategic theories still apply in contemporary warfare. Due to the short nature of this essay only two classical theorists will be used to prove that they are still relevant to contemporary warfare, the two theorists selected are Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. These two theorists are considered to be two of the three most prominent of all the classical strategic theorists [1] . To assess what is classed as Contemporary warfare, this will be considered in the context of 21st Century warfare, focussing on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since Clausewitz and Sun Tzu wrote their theories on warfare, there has been a massive change in how wars have been fought. Warfare is considered to of changed most remarkably since 1648. Warfare was considered to be in its first generation, during 1648 – 1860’s, when wars were considered to be run by nation-states. The second generation is considered to be typified by World War 1, where technology had improved weapon production and weapon effectiveness and warfare moved towards attrition through firepower and towards trench warfare. Third generation warfare is typified by warfare during World War 2, where manoeuvre warfare was used to create a non-linear battlefield to strike around the linear defences. In all of the first three generations of warfare, wars were considered to be state run, however with modern warfare third generation warfare has now morphed into its fourth generation, where non-state actors have started to rise and have taken part in war fighting, in particularly in irregular and asymmetrical conflicts, and nation-states have lost the monopoly on war fighting [2] .

This change in to the fourth generation of warfare has been driven by various factors. One such driver has been the increase in globalisation, which has allowed the non-state actors to gain power and influence around the globe. Another factor has been the increase use of technology, which has changed the speed and lethality of warfare significantly [3] , this technology was not known by either Clausewitz or Sun Tzu.

This essay will cover the historical context and understanding of the individual theories, including covering the key ideas and principles with both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, the perceived problems with Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and Modern Warfare before looking at some examples of both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu’s theories in use.

Prior to analysing both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and comparing them to contemporary warfare an explanation of the key principles and ideas of both should be explained.

Clausewitz’s key principles are considered to be; firstly, to conquer and destroy the armed power of the enemy, through the principle of concentration of force; secondly, to take possession of the enemies material and other sources of strength and finally to gain public opinion. He also set out 4 rules that should be followed to enable his 3 key principles to be carried out. These rules are; firstly, use you entire force, with the utmost energy; secondly, concentrate your power as much as possible at your selected point, taking a disadvantage elsewhere if required, to increase your chance of success at a decisive point; thirdly, he states not to waste time and to act decisively and finally to act on your success with the utmost energy. A final key part to Clausewitz’s theory was his concept of trinity, which is often described as a relationship between the government, the army and the people [4] , but at a more basic level, that Clausewitz initially used, it is represented as a trinity between ‘violence, chance and politics’ [5] or ‘(i) passion, hatred and enmity, (ii) the playoff chance and probability and (iii) war’s subordination to rational policy’ [6] .

Sun Tzu’s key principles are considered to be; firstly, to attack the enemy’s plans; secondly, attack the enemy’s alliances and thirdly, attack the enemy’s army. Michael Handel states that Sun Tzu’s theory analyses the same factors as Clausewitz [7] , however he takes a higher operational and strategic view of the factors, rather than that espoused by Clausewitz who uses a tactical or lower operational level view of warfare.

Both theories have their differences and similarities. They hold similar views on the primacy of politics in war, the importance of numerical superiority and the folly of not securing victory as quick as possible. [8] However the theories differ, mainly, when it comes to the use of intelligence, the possibility of a bloodless victory and the use of surprise or deception(Sun Tzu), and the concept of friction or ‘fog of war’ (Clausewitz).

There are many critics of the classical theorists and their relevance to modern warfare. The main argument that is used in declaring classical theorists obsolete and outdated is that they don’t apply to insurgent warfare and that classical theories are focused on wars between states. Fleming identifies several critics [9] , these being William S. Lind, Martin van Creveld and Mary Kaldor. Fleming states that their main premises are the decline of the state and the state’s interaction in International Relations [10] (i.e. the reduction in war as a means to a political end). This assumption is incorrect due to the increase in use of technology, the digital information age and globalisation. It is now possible for non-state actors to acquire knowledge, equipment and instruments necessary to wage war [11] , recruit and train their members to similar levels of that exhibited by nation-states. It also allows them to demonstrate influence and power similar to that of nation-states as well. For example, Al Qaeda can transmit their ideologies and recruit new members, via the internet and satellite television, to its ranks as easily as coalition partners can recruit new military personnel within their own countries. Therefore, in the case of Clausewitz’s theory, and the assumption that his theory is focussed only on state warfare, then it is possible to link the likes of Al Qaeda to be on a par with nation-states. Therefore Clausewitz’s theory is as applicable to applicable to modern warfare and irregular and asymmetric warfare, as seen in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is also proposed that with the advent of the information age and the increased use of technology, Clausewitz’s concept of friction, or ‘the fog of war’ has been removed from warfare. Proponents of this reason state that a new strategic theory is required to cover warfare in the information age. [12] However you only need to discuss the spread of technology, ‘stealth, precision weapons and information technology’ [13] , with military personnel deployed on operations to realise that ‘friction’ or ‘fog of war’ still exists. It is not uncommon for technology to break, for it to lose power or communication links to be severed at vital moments causing disruption and problems at all levels.

Finally, the arguments against the use of classical theories and their application in modern warfare is considered to be flawed as there is no evidence that the growth or spread of precision weapons or technology has affected the fundamental nature of war. [14] Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz aimed to highlight the unchanging nature of war and the political dimension of human nature. [15] It is not contested that the complexity of modern warfare has increased with the advent and spread of technology, however the fundamental nature of war as the continuation of politics by other means has not changed.

Clausewitz’s principles, as discussed earlier, are still relevant to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was captured, was based on Clausewitz’s theory of ‘Centre of Gravity’. Critics state that the coalition assessment that capturing Osama bin Laden would end the war has proven that Clausewitz’s theory about Centres of Gravity is incorrect and therefore outdated. However it should be noted that operations in Afghanistan are focused on defeating the Taliban, rather than Al Qaeda, the organisation formerly headed up by Osama bin Laden. This means that other centres of gravity need to be identified that will affect the Taliban rather than Al Qaeda. Another of Clausewitz’s principles is the concept of concentration of force. It can be said that this has not been embraced in 21st Century Warfare, [16] however when the use of technology is taken in to account then, it is easily identified that superior firepower, though the concentration of force concept, is being carried out in Afghanistan. This concentration of force was through the use of Close Air Support, Attack Helicopters and Special Forces operations.

Clausewitz’s final principle of gaining public opinion has been used throughout operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, though interaction with the public in host countries, but that of coalition’s home countries. In Afghanistan the use of Shura’s prior to and during operations, to ensure that the local public are aware of what is planned and what is likely to happen has meant that local public opinion is on the side of the coalition forces rather than the Taliban.

Stretton [17] provides further proof that that a Clausewitzian approach is still relevant to modern warfare. He identifies 6 components, which are used to Preparing the Battlespace; these are Understanding, Information, Capability, Will, Cohesion and Decision Making. [18] He also suggests 5 inter-related Responses to the War on Terrorism; these responses are Detect, Defend, Destroy, Disrupt and Deter. [19] 

As part of the Preparing the Battlespace, the Understanding component highlights a requirement for a clear understanding of what the aim of the war is and what political objectives are sought. As Clausewitz observes ‘The first, the supreme…judgement that a statesman and commander have to establish…the kind of war which they are embarking…’. [20] The Will and Cohesion components [21] are also clearly a Clausewitzian concept as they fit with Clausewitz’s concept of ‘The Trinity of War’ and the need to balance out the three legs or points of the triangle.

As part of the Responses to the War, the application of the 5 responses will require a Clausewitzian mindset, due to the concept of Friction or Fog of War, with likely breakdowns in intelligence flows, weather and unexpected discovery of terrorist cells, [22] being possible examples. The lead instigating this mindset must be carried out by commanders at all levels in theatre and in home countries.

Sun Tzu’s principles are still relevant in today’s operational and strategic context. Smith [23] shows that with the change over in command in Afghanistan, in 2009, General McChrystal, proposed a new approach to operations in Afghanistan. General McChrystal set out a new operational imperative that ‘gaining and maintaining… ..the will and support of the population’ [24] was paramount. McChrystal also instigated the rule that all house entries where to be conducted by Afghan National Army, this is seen as embodying Sun Tzu’s idea of ‘winning in the dark’. [25] 

During operations in Iraq in 2008, British forces, in support of, Iraqi Army forces, carried out ‘Operation Charge of the Knights’. This operation was designed to drive out the Mahdi Army milita out of Basra and to restore order to the city. After a period of fighting and a cease fire, the operation was successful. This sort of operation can be compared to Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘achievement of limited warfare through full spectrum warfare’. [26] 

Stretton also indicates where Sun Tzu’s theory stands the test of time with modern warfare. As part of his Intelligence component, he highlights this being an important part in Sun Tzu’s theory due to Sun Tzu’s intelligence concept. [27] Utilising this concept is key in carrying out any strategy, whether it is at the tactical, operational or strategic level. Knowing what the enemy is likely to do is as important today as it has been throughout history. Technology has given us the ability to pass this information and intelligence down to the lowest level as quick as possible, but it has not replaced the need for intelligence collection, collation and understanding. The Cohesion concept also shows a direct link to Sun Tzu’s key principles in that the second priority in attacking your enemy is to disrupt or attack his alliances. [28] It also benefits from governments and alliances setting clear objectives. [29] When clear guidance and aims are set then all parties know what is expected of them, this ties in with Sun Tzu’s concept that the General are assistants to the nation, and they receive orders to prepare for war from the civilian government. [30] 

As part of the Responses to War, the Defence concept is again tied tightly to Sun Tzu’s concept that ‘Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in attack’. [31] Stretton also highlights that it is also linked with Sun Tzu’s concept to ‘bypass what he defends, hit him where he does not expect you’. [32] The Disrupt [33] response is also linked to Sun Tzu’s theory through the use of attacking the enemy’s alliances and plans, even if this means to attack pre-emptively.

In conclusion, the selected two classical theories have been shown to be as relevant today as they were when they were written. The use of tactics based on Sun Tzu and Clausewitz’s theories have both been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The critics of classical theories provide several arguments for making these theories obsolete, however it is believed that the both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are still relevant as they have focused on illuminating the portions of human nature of warfare and that they were mainly concerned with the unchanging nature of war and the political dimension of human nature. [34] 

Both theorists also highlight the political nature of warfare, and though the current operations are not between two nation states, but rather between a coalition of states and a non-state actor there are obvious political links, even if they have been based, initially, on national security reasons or for political reasons.

As a final thought it should be noted, that there is two sides to using classical theories in modern warfare. There is a distinct possibility of these theories being used by our enemies to identify our weakness and for them to exploit any perceived weakness.

No single classical theorist can provide a clear direction for waging war

Stretton.. The longevity of the Classical Military Theorists has been attributed to the underlying continuance of human nature and the increasing complexity of modern warfare that demands order by adherence to prinicples and concepts


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