This article is also on CivFanatics and that's where the discussions are.
There is always much confusion about the terms strategy and tactics. In addition, much of what is called strategy is often really logistics, so how does it all work? What do these words mean? In exploring these terms we’ll also have to consider a new term: Grand strategy.
In many situations there is a lot of overlap between the meanings of these four terms, but that doesn't mean that you can use them willy-nilly and not be laughed at.
This article is going to explore these terms and dip into episodes in history that I hope help to clarify the points. Although we’ll occasionally dip into the world of Civilization the distinctions are just as applicable to any other war-game or even to real-world international politics, warmongering, troop movements or business.
In the real world the highest level of control is known as Grand strategy. Grand strategy has to do with the political motivations for a given course of action. Grand strategy these days is called politics and is carried out by national leaders. In game terms and at the highest level this is how we want to win the game, but it also goes down to directing a particular war—what are our objectives in this war?
Grand strategy is maybe the hardest part of the game to master as there is so little help that you can get about various situations. As a consequence there is very little written about it in strategy guides for Civilization. Because every game is different, every game demands a different Grand strategy.
We all know that sometimes it is best to attack our weakest neighbour and sometimes it is best to team up with other nations to attack the strongest. Which is best in a given situation depends on many factors: comparative technology; the locations of borders and troops; the location of potential allies and enemies; how the nations feel about us and each other; what sort of victory we are trying for and so on.
Grand strategy involves weighing all of these factors and more to make a final decision. Do we attack the weak Romans or the strong Greeks or do we have to wait for a new technology before we can actually do either?
In August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. As in all things of a grand strategic nature there were both simple and complex reasons for his choice. What we’re going to look at here is the direct consequences on this in terms of the difference between Grand Strategy and Strategy.
The first action was the passing of United Nations Resolution 660. This demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait. The following Resolution 661 imposed economic sanctions on Iraq. During the rest of 1990 a large coalition of nations put together first of all a defence of Saudi Arabia which was also being threatened by Iraq (Operation Desert Shield) and then in January 1991 an invasion to retake Kuwait (Operation Desert Storm).
The United Nations directed the Grand strategy in this war. In considering what courses of actions were open to it the UN Security Council had to weigh factors such as what tools it could use (sanctions, use of military force); how any actions would affect other countries (what was the position of the Arab League and Yemen in particular); what might Iraq do next (it still owed Saudi Arabia money from the Iraq-Iran war during the preceding decade); and not least important what might the post-war effects be if military action was taken.
In looking at that list you’ll see that many of these are factors have direct game analogues and they are also the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself when planning your courses of action. Deep as these issues are when playing the computer they are even harder to weigh when playing humans: Humans are both more capricious and more honorable than the AI.
As Clausewitz said:
War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of policy carried out by other means.
At some point political machinations will spill over into bloodshed, but never forget that there must be a solid reason for going to war and just as importantly, know before you start when you will end.
In ancient China during the Spring and Autumn Period there was a profound change in the way that wars were fought. The destruction of the Zhou capital by barbarians in 722 BCE lead to a power vacuum that was filled by the rise of Hegemons. The period is interesting for a number of different reasons including the times when some of the most famous Chinese intellectuals like Confucius and Lao Tse (the founder of Taoism) where writing. There were also the first great thinkers of strategy who wrote books that still survive today, the most famous of which is Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
Even more important than these military texts was the development of the professional general. At the start of this period the relatively small battles that occurred where directed by the Kings (and later the Hegemons) who also exercised political control. By the end the battlefield was controlled by professional, full-time soldiers.
It was this development of professional military leaders that allowed the development of effective battle strategy as now the generals could spend all of their time studying and training for war without the distractions of also ruling their state.
In respect of the Art of War, we have: firstly, Measurement; secondly, Estimation of quantity; thirdly, Calculation; fourthly, Balancing of chances; fifthly, Victory
Strategy necessarily encompasses the thinking that you do before you deploy any troops.
In 1485 CE in Europe there was still the single leader who would be in charge politically and also lead the warriors on the battlefield. A good example of this is in the Battle of Bosworth Field¹ [1This features in Shakespeare's Richard III with the lovely "A horse, a horse! My Kingdom for a horse!" line uttered by Richard.] between Richard III and Henry IV of England. Richard's battle strategy was very simple—he wanted to engage Henry in one-to-one mortal combat and win. If he could do that his position as King would be secure. This made Henry's strategy equally simple. All he had to do was to keep out of Richard's way.
It isn't clear whether Richard would have beaten Henry in a fair fight as the chance never arose. Henry's troops cut Richard down whilst he was trying to get through them.
Richard committed himself to a charge against Henry's forces probably a little too late. If he had done so whilst Henry was still trying to line his forces up it might have worked. Might have…
In 1815 the Tsar of Russia turned to the Duke of Wellington and said “It is for you to save the world again”. Napoleon Bonaparte had just escaped from Elba and was going to try to retake his position of Emperor of France.
Both men lined their troops up on either side of a valley with Napoleon taking on his strategy of advancing at all costs. Wellington new however that the Prussians where nearby and re-grouping (after a battle a few days earlier) and he needed to keep the French locked in combat until they arrived.
Napoleon Bonaparte was certainly a military genius. The battlefield strategies that he developed where influential into the early 20th Century (although maybe they shouldn’t have been). At this time there was a clear distinction between strategy and tactics with strategy being the plan before the battle started.
Communications where slow and error prone with only very simple signalling available. Even worse, as the size of the battles had increased massively over the previous centuries it was now the case that many of the protagonists couldn’t even see all of their own forces let alone those of their enemy.
By World War I battlefield mobility was in such a sorry mess and communications had improved so much that by then the Generals where nowhere near the fighting and strategy had been reduced to deciding when and where to launch an offensive. Napoleon’s strategy of offence at all costs was being followed although it should have already been obvious from the American Civil War what would happen to infantry attacking machine gun emplacements. It took the bloody trench warfare of the first years of World War I to really drive the point home.
It wasn’t until tanks were invented that mobility was put back into war, but with the development of effective radio this also lead to a blurring of the old distinctions between strategy and tactics in World War II.
Whilst bloody murder was being conducted in and between the trenches in World War I a new combat arena had been opened using the brand new technology of powered flight.
Hauptman Oswald Boelcke wrote the most famous air combat tactics manual in 1916, the Dicta-Boelcke. This comprised a set of simple rules that an aviator should follow to maximise his chance of returning home in one piece and minimising the same for his opponent. These tactics are still taught to air combat pilots today. Examples of the tactics include “If possible, keep the sun behind you,” and “In any type of attack, it is essential to go for your opponent from behind.”
These tactical rules distinguish themselves from strategy in that they don’t consider the why or wherefore of the battle, but try to give the best chance that every encounter should be decided in the tactic user’s favour without evaluating the situation. It is this tactical element that the special training a SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team addresses (although their choice of which tactics to employ in a given situation is clearly strategic).
Tactics that we may employ in Civilization might include front assaults, flanking or surrounding enemy units. The success of the tactic depends heavily on it being used in the right circumstance as they tend to be highly situational.
A cavalry charge against a thin line of riflemen may well succeed, but against even a couple of machine-gunner will almost certainly be suicide. Replace the horse with a tank and the tactic becomes viable again.
In ancient societies there was only grand strategy and tactics. Battle field strategy wasn’t understood at all and inter-tribe warfare consisted of melée, or pitched battle with the two groups meeting and fighting. Whoever is left standing (or hasn't run off) wins.
The Icelandic Egils Saga by Snorri Sturluson is full of stories of this kind. Families feuding with each other and heroic battles. Other sagas describe family life and feuding and the politics of early Icelandic society. Each homestead its own political entity, but tied into larger communities of shifting alliances often through ties of blood and bloodletting² [2Grand strategy revolved around politics at the Thing, a precursor to parliaments and often consisted of new blood ties through marriage.].
As battles got bigger it became increasingly important to have some sort of control over the proceedings. If there are just twenty warriors on each side then there isn't much that you can do with the fight on a strategic level (other than make sure you occupy the high ground). When battles started to be between thousands of warriors then you don't want everybody running around and doing their own thing (as many Viking precursors found to their cost when fighting Romans).
The Romans managed to win major battles against much larger forces not only through good generals (and Julius Caesar was one of the best), but also due to their impressive discipline. The battlefield formations that they employed were clearly tactical, whilst the movement and positioning of these formations and also which formation to use in a given situation during a battle was strategic.
It was these tactical formations that the generals could employ with an understanding of when they were effective that made them such formidable foes.
A common quote is “Amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics” and pithy as it is it will only help us if we truly understand the implications. When outlining your strategy for a great battle you will want to call upon certain resources. In Civilization these resources are generally the fighting units, but don't forget the pure logistical units of aircraft carriers and transport shipping. You will need numbers of certain types of attack unit, you may wish to support them with artillery and later you are going to need defensive units to hold your takings. Logistics is the part of your planning that informs you what order to build the units and how to move them so everybody arrives at the right place when they’re needed.
Crucially it tells you when you can advance and when you must hold back. Tanks charging off into enemy are liable to be destroyed if they leave their reinforcements behind. Sometimes the logistics dictate when you may move.
At the start of World War II Hitler was way ahead of nearly every other military commander in his understanding of the changes in strategy afforded by tanks and air-power. His use of Blitzkrieg in his early campaigns had succeeded in delivering all the objectives he had set his armies.
On December 18th 1940 Hitler ordered his commanders to prepare an invasion of Russia which was to be started in secret to surprise the Soviet troops. This despite having earlier signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin before the start of hostilities in Poland in 1939.
Having learnt something from Napoleon’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia he knew that he would need to meet his objectives during the summer months. His previous successes in using Blitzkrieg against other objectives no doubt gave him the confidence that he could secure the targeted territories during the summer months of 1941.
The plan was a highly optimistic one, but the first few weeks of the campaign seemed to bear it out in early success. When the invasion started on June 22nd, 1941 the Russian troops were under orders not to engage Axis troops and not to be provoked by them. This effectively stopped many units from engaging in time. A later order from Moscow to stand and fight further hampered Russian efforts as the Axis troops were able to encircle Russian hold-outs who were not allowed to retreat and re-organise.
There was however a fatal flaw in the planning for the operation. Operation Barbarossa was the largest ever war theatre involving combined troops of nearly ten million men, yet despite this German factories had only been operating single shifts to manufacture equipment. The severe lack in transport meant that the invasion started with about 625,000 horses being used to move everything from field kitchens to artillery. The Axis troops were also to find that most of the Russian roads where impassable after rains and that there weren’t enough trains to transport them (which used a different gauge and so couldn’t use German rolling stock).
Added to this the troops had only been issued with enough supplies (mostly of fuel and ammunition) for a short campaign and had not been given winter uniforms.
Given the choice between ammunition and food for his forces Hitler of course chose the munitions. His troops were reduced to stuffing newspapers into their summer uniforms to keep warm during the bitter Russian winter and to eating their horses. The thin treads on the Panzers wasn’t suited to mud and the tanks often got stuck. A lack of greases and oils that were able to withstand -40°C temperatures meant that the grease had to be chipped off breeches in order to load shells into guns.
It took the Russian forces until October to start to regroup effectively after their early losses and until December to win their first decisive victory in turning the troops threatening Moscow back.
Even if the Axis troops had met no resistance it seems unlikely that they could have held supply lines open over more than 1,600 km and they just didn’t have the supplies needed. The logistics failure had started after Führer Directive 21 ordered Operation Barbarossa and continued throughout. The failure of the Axis troops in Russia marked a turning point in Germany’s fortunes and eventually led to its defeat.
Modern armies have learnt that the logistics command must be at the same level as the strategic command. Peace time operations of supply and preparation are ultimately responsible for making sure that the equipment needed is present in sufficient quantities. If your front-line gets bogged down then sometimes you have to reconsider your objectives, and sometimes your front-line moving too fast is an equally big disaster.
When planning a war we cannot ignore any level of grand strategy, strategy, tactics or logistics. We need to know who we're going to attack and we need a good reason for it, a clear objective. We need to decide how we are going to achieve that objective, what order to take cities, which cities to leave alone. We need to understand the troops and the numbers that we are up against; what they can do and what ours can do. We also have to have a plan that gets them where they're needed in a timely manner that doesn't leave our lines weak elsewhere or our front-lines exposed.
In short, every level needs to inform the others. We cannot simply do a top-down analysis as then we may come up with a plan we cannot execute. We shouldn't do a bottom-up battle plan because then we will find ourselves fighting the wrong enemy at the wrong time just through opportunism.
Operation Overlord, the Allied landings at Normandy in World War II gives us a good platform to see how the different levels worked together.
The Grand strategic decision was made in 1942 when Britain and United States promised the USSR that they would open a new front on continental Europe. At that time the Eastern Front was the only European battleground left and the USSR was suffering badly. It was hoped that a second front would relieve some of this pressure³ [3Heeringas over at CivFanatics points out that by the time they got around to doing the invasion the USSR was winning on the Eastern Front. Suddenly it became much more important to try to contain them (a pre-cursor the Cold War).].
Two strategies were proposed. Churchill wanted to use irregulars (resistance troops) throughout most of Europe with a main thrust coming from the Mediterranean through Austria and into Germany. The US on the other hand wanted to take the shortest route to Germany from the strongest Allied power-base (which at the time was Britain). The Americans got their way⁴ [4This may have been just as well. Churchill's last Mediterranean campaign at Gallipoli in World War I was a total disaster.].
The choice of attacking Hitler to his west was therefore made for grand strategic reasons. The choice of a Channel landing was made for strategic reasons, but the choice of landing site would be mainly from tactical and logistical considerations. The main tactical reason was that the Canadians had shown in 1942 at Dieppe that taking a fortified harbour town by direct frontal assault was difficult, so a decision was made to land at suitable beaches.
The main logistical input to the strategic considerations had to do with air support. The Allied fighter aircraft based in Britain had very limited range thus limiting the part of the continental coast that could be covered. Geography then further limited the possible sites to just two: The Pas de Calais and Normandy. Pas de Calais was closer and was the obvious choice.
A strategic decision was made that a fake landing expedition would be mounted in Kent to threaten Pas de Calais and the real invasion would be launched in secret at Normandy. This strategy was heavily influenced by tactical concerns—the German high command knew that Pas de Calais was the best landing site and it was therefore heavily fortified.
As any long time player of Civilization knows the most demanding logistical exercises are naval invasions. Given infinite ships that can move across the widest straits in no time it would be easy, but in the real world you never have an infinite number of ships available and they’re always slow.
The Allies in World War II certainly had a logistical problem when they were planning the Normandy invasions: 47 divisions (about 140,000 men); 6,000 ships (including 4,000 landing craft, and 130 warships for bombardment); 12,000 aircraft and 5,000 tons of bombs. And it wasn’t just the initial invasion force.
After the invasion the men had to eat, get new ammunition and later be relieved (after five days there were over 325,000 men in Normandy). Tanks drink a lot of fuel. Trucks are much faster for moving infantry units about than making them walk but then the trucks needed to get there and they need fuel and spare parts too. Back in England, before any of this can happen though the munitions, trucks, tanks and parts all had to be manufactured, shipped to the coast and put on boats. All of this had to happen at the right time or the invasion would fail. This logistical exercise took a lot more manpower and time to plan and then to administer than the strategic considerations did.
The tactics employed on the day included the bombing of the main defences, the para-trooping of special infantry units in behind enemy lines to try to take out major armaments and gliders to put men and equipment behind enemy lines.
The terms looked at here can almost be seen to be a continuum. There is often no clear line between grand strategy and strategy; between strategy and tactics; and between all of them and logistics. Some examples we can point to are clearly one or another, but many are more ambiguous. Despite that an understanding of what the terms mean will help us in our analysis, planning and execution.
When trying to decide what we’re going to do we have to think about all of these things together. A top down plan must also be accompanied by a bottom up analysis of your capability to execute it.