On Tactics and Strategy

Many people have heard the terms tactics and strategy but don’t know exactly what the difference is. In fact, there’s even a level in between that most people haven’t heard of, the “operational art”.

Several folks have asked me to explain why some of the armies of the past have fought on the ground they did and why and how they moved. To understand, we need to understand the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of thinking. We’ll also have later posts that explore geography and terrain from the grunts point of view and from the generals point of view.

Dictionary.com defines strategy as it pertains to war in part as:

1. In military usage, a distinction is made between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation’s forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics deals with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat.

That’s a pretty good definition, but what does it mean in the real world? In the Global War on Terror, our strategy has been to attempt to change the political landscape of the Middle East to introduce democracy, removing the impetus for oppressed people to resort to terrorism. We’ve seen tools such as war, diplomacy, trade, intelligence sharing and information operations used to advance this goal. That’s the strategic arena that the Army is working in.

When the decision was made to invade Iraq, that was executed at the operational level of the art of warfare. Decisions about how to defeat the enemy included plans to form a giant pincer movement with a force to the south of Iraq driving north through the Tigris Euphrates River valley, and forces in the north attacking out of Turkey to trap the Iraqi forces and prevent them from fleeing. That’s the operational level at work. In the end, Turkey denied US forces the ability to attack from the north, meaning the attack had to proceed on a single main axis. Military operations at the operational level are influence by factors such as local political climate (see Turkey above), logistics ( you have to be able to supply your forces), and local terrain (the desert is wide open, but there are relatively few routes that are actually passable to vehicles.

The movement of formations to fulfill the operational objective are tactical. As a rule of thumb, anything done by a Corps or below, is tactical. In fact, when you get to the smaller units such as companies, platoons and squads, they tend to fall under the heading of “tactics, techniques and procedures”, or for a “canned” response to a situation that pops up, a “battle drill”.

A prime example of a tactic is the Holding Attack. If you can do a holding attack, you’ve mastered about 90% of tactics. And a holding attack is pretty simple. One unit pins the enemy in place (this is called the “base of fire”) while another moves to attack the enemy in the flank.

In Desert Storm, we saw a massive Holding Attack. The Marines and most of the Arab allied units attacked from Saudi Arabia straight north into Kuwait, pinning the Iraqi Army in place (it’s hard to run when people are shooting at you). While they were pinned in place, the VII Corps of the Army swung wide out to the west in what GEN Schwarzkopf called “The Hail Mary”. In fact, it was just a huge flank attack.

Here’s the elegant thing- much like a Russian matrushka doll, inside this giant holding attack, each unit was making it’s own holding attack. If you look in the south, the Arab allies pinned the frontline Iraqi forces in place while the Marines made a shallow flanking movement to the west to hit the first set of reserves. This “attack inside an attack” can go all the way down to the squad level.

And it doesn’t just work in the attack. A good defense would work the same way, with one element slowing the enemy in a position while a second attack from the flank. The Battle of the Bulge saw this when Patton’s Third Army came north and attacked the souther German flank.

Now you know the basic levels of military theory, and have a firm grasp of tactics. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done, or we’d all be generals. I’m working on giving a lesson or two on terrain soon, just as soon as I can find a map.

18 thoughts on “On Tactics and Strategy”

  1. Xbrad,
    What kind of map do you want? Where? In the US, QQQ’s are available USGS quadrangle maps. I think Labins has them for free. Oops I guess labins is only Florida. you could take the castille de san marco, or Key West. (I do that yearly, the Duvall Crawl)

  2. Actually, I’m looking for something in a JPEG or BMP format that I can draw on. Preferably of western europe. Any good topo map in that format would be nice as well.

  3. Xbrad it keeps eating my link to usgs. The GeoPdf you can add comments to / mark up.

  4. We used to use University of Texas map library when we (Vietnam Veterans Home Page map room) were trying to find maps of areas in which guys operated. Good resource.

    You familiar with the British Area Ambush? We (the Marines I was with as an observer) ran it against one of our wing commanders. Allows those who’ve been ambushed to retreat right into another ambush. No place to run to, no place to hide.

  5. Vmax hooked me up with UT, having technical issues, but we’ll get there.

    We practiced a lot of Area Ambushes in Hawaii. We called it “Pinball”. In it’s own way, it is a holding attack where you let the bad guy do the maneuver for you.

  6. Cranky,
    I love maps and have been lost in the maps they have online there for a few hours now. That is some good stuff.

    I was a little too young for Vietnam, I remember my dad watching the draft numbers on the 11:00pm news, I knew kids that lived in my hood that went and never came back I also knew kids that went to Canada and eventually came back. Kent State happened in my town, that is something you will never forget. Somehow in spite of wearing bell bottoms I turned out ok.

  7. Argent, tactics, and the operational art are pretty much the same everywhere. Terrain and logistics and the time and forces you have available will dictate what you do. If you know what the OTHER guys forces, logistics and timeline are, you can make a pretty good guess what he’s going to do. The trick is to execute your plan and not let him execute his.

    But your choose of words in pretty astute. Good commanders are said to “see the battlefield” even before the battle.

  8. from that ulib TX link, click on the Salzburg map (NL 33-1), and scroll to the right side marginal information.

    i’m thinking you may be browsing for something in the NM 32-xx area? which, of course, aren’t in the catalog listing.

  9. you could, instead, just go to the index map at the top and browse around there until you see somewhere you might have been before..

  10. Defense Mapping Agency, at least I think that’s what they’re called now, had a program called DIMA MUSE. MUSE would overlay different themes over I think it was digital arc raster graphics of 1:50,000 grid maps. I have one CD that is of a section of Korea. There was a Marine mapping platoon at Lejuenne that scanned a 1:50,000 map I had of the Khe Sanh area near the DMZ and gave me a CD. Kind of cool to play with. Even had a hand in helping to bring back four MIA, three Marines and a Corpsman, lost on a patrol that was ambushed by the NVA in May of 1967.

    Maps of Southeast Asia can be found at this link http://www.nexus.net/~911gfx/sea-ao.html. Lots of other maps of Vietnam at http://grunt.space.swri.edu/visit/maps/maps.htm.

    I used Jim’s maps all the time when we would get a request from a Vietnam Vet asking for a map of the AO he was in. Sadly, sometimes the requests were for the location of someplace that a friend, or loved one, was KIA.

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