USFS Fire Suppression: Foundational Doctrine
The Future of Fire Service Training and Education
USMC Doctrine: Warfighting
U.S. Marine Corps
The Theory of War
object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and the means
can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.” 
—Carl von Clausewitz
lies in the defense; the possibility of victory in the attack. One
defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.”
won by slaughter and manoeuver. The greater the general, the more
he contributes in manoeuver, the less he demands in slaughter.”
Having arrived at a common view of the nature
of war, we proceed to develop from it a theory of war. Our theory of war
will in turn be the foundation for the way we prepare for and wage war.
WAR AS AN ACT OF POLICY
War is an extension of both policy and politics with the addition of
military force.4 Policy and politics are related but not synonymous, and
it is important to understand war in both contexts. Politics refers to
the distribution of power through dynamic interaction, both cooperative
and competitive, while policy refers to the conscious objectives established
within the political process. The policy aims that are the motive for
any group in war should also be the foremost determinants of its conduct.
The single most important thought to understand about our theory is that
war must serve policy.
As the policy aims of war may vary from resistance against aggression
to the unconditional surrender of an enemy government, so should the application
of violence vary in accordance with those aims. Of course, we may also
have to adjust our policy objectives to accommodate our chosen means.
This means that we must not establish goals outside our capabilities.
It is important to recognize that many political problems cannot be solved
by military means. Some can, but rarely as
anticipated. War tends to take its own course as it unfolds. We should
recognize that war is not an inanimate instrument, but an animate force
which may likely have unintended consequences that may change the political
To say that war is an extension of politics and policy is not to say
that war is strictly a political phenomenon: It also contains social,
cultural, psychological, and other elements. These can also exert a strong
influence on the conduct of war as well as on war’s usefulness for
solving political problems.
When the policy motive of war is extreme, such as the destruction of
an enemy government, then war’s natural military tendency toward
destruction will coincide with the political aim, and there will tend
to be few political restrictions on the military conduct of war. On the
other hand, the more limited the policy motive, the more the military
tendency toward destruction may be at variance with that motive, and the
more likely political considerations will restrict the application of
military force.5 Commanders must recognize that since military action
must serve policy, these political restrictions on military action may
be perfectly correct. At the same time, military leaders have a responsibility
to advise the political leadership when the limitations imposed on military
action jeopardize the military’s ability to accomplish its assigned
There are two ways to use military force to impose our will on an enemy.
The first is to make the enemy helpless to resist us by physically destroying
his military capabilities. The aim is the elimination, permanent or temporary,
of the enemy’s military power. This has historically been called
a strategy of annihilation, although it does not necessarily require the
physical annihilation of all military forces. Instead, it requires the
en-emy’s incapacitation as a viable military threat, and thus can
also be called a strategy of incapacitation.6 We use force in this way
when we seek an unlimited political objective, such as the overthrow of
the enemy leadership. We may also use this strategy in pursuit of more
limited political objectives if we believe the enemy will continue to
resist as long as any means to do so remain.
The second approach is to convince the enemy that accepting our terms
will be less painful than continuing to resist. This is a strategy of
erosion, using military force to erode the enemy leadership’s will.7
In such a strategy, we use military force to raise the costs of resistance
higher than the enemy is willing to pay. We use force in this manner in
pursuit of limited political goals that we believe the enemy leadership
will ultimately be willing to accept.
MEANS IN WAR
At the highest level, war involves the use of all the elements of power
that one political group can bring to bear against another. These include,
for example, economic, diplomatic, military, and psychological forces.
Our primary concern is with the use of military force. Nevertheless, while
we focus on the use of military force, we must not consider it in isolation
from the other elements of national power. The use of military force may
take any number of forms from the mere deployment of forces as a demonstration
of resolve to the enforcement of a negotiated truce to general warfare
with sophisticated weaponry.
THE SPECTRUM OF CONFLICT
Conflict can take a wide range of forms constituting a spectrum which
reflects the magnitude of violence involved. At one end of the spectrum
are those actions referred to as military operations other than war in
which the application of military power is usually restrained and selective.
Military operations other than war encompass the use of a broad range
of military capabilities to deter war, resolve conflict, promote peace,
and support civil authorities. At the other end of the spectrum is general
war, a large-scale, sustained combat operation such as global conflict
between major powers. Where on the spectrum to place a particular conflict
depends on several factors. Among them are policy objectives, available
military means, national will, and density of fighting forces or combat
power on the battlefield. In general, the greater this density, the more
intense the conflict. Each conflict is not uniformly intense. As a result,
we may witness relatively intense actions within a military operation
other than war or relatively quiet sectors or phases in a major regional
conflict or general war.
Military operations other than war and small wars are more probable than
a major regional conflict or general war. Many political groups simply
do not possess the military means to wage war at the high end of the spectrum.
Many who fight a technologically or numerically superior enemy may choose
to fight in a way that does not justify the enemy’s full use of
that superiority. Unless actual survival is at stake, political groups
are generally unwilling to accept the risks associated with general war.
However, a conflict’s intensity may change over time. Belligerents
may escalate the level of violence if the original means do not achieve
the desired results. Similarly, wars may actually de-escalate over time;
for example, after an initial pulse of intense violence, the belligerents
may continue to fight on a lesser level, unable to sustain the initial
level of intensity.
The Marine Corps, as the nation’s force-in-readiness, must have
the versatility and flexibility to deal with a situation at any intensity
across the entire spectrum of conflict. This is a greater challenge than
it may appear: Military operations other than war and small wars are not
simply lesser forms of general war. A modern military force capable of
waging a war against a large conventional force may find itself ill-prepared
for a “small” war against a lightly equipped guerrilla force.
LEVELS OF WAR
Activities in war take place at several interrelated levels which form
a hierarchy. These levels are the strategic, operational, and tactical.
(See figure 1.)
The highest level is the strategic level.8 Activities at the strategic
level focus directly on policy objectives. Strategy applies to peace as
well as war. We distinguish between national strategy, which coordinates
and focuses all the elements of national power to attain the policy objectives,9
and military strategy, which is the application of military force to secure
the policy objectives.10 Military strategy thus is subordinate to national
strategy. Military strategy can be thought of as the art of winning wars
and securing peace. Strategy involves establishing goals, assigning forces,
providing assets, and imposing conditions on the use of force in theaters
of war. Strategy derived from political and policy objectives must be
clearly understood to be the sole authoritative basis for all operations.
The lowest level is the tactical level.11 Tactics refers to the concepts
and methods used to accomplish a particular mission
Figure 1. The Levels of War.
in either combat or other military operations. In war, tactics focuses
on the application of combat power to defeat an enemy force in combat
at a particular time and place. In noncombat situations, tactics may include
the schemes and methods by which we perform other missions, such as enforcing
order and maintaining security during peacekeeping op- erations. We normally
think of tactics in terms of combat, and
in this context tactics can be thought of as the art and science of winning
engagements and battles. It includes the use of firepower and maneuver,
the integration of different arms, and the immediate exploitation of success
to defeat the enemy. Included within the tactical level of war is the
performance of combat service support functions such as resupply or maintenance.
The tactical level also includes the technical application of combat power,
which consists of those techniques and procedures for accomplishing specific
tasks within a tactical action. These include the call for fire, techniques
of fire, the operation of weapons and equipment, and tactical movement
techniques. There is a certain overlap between tactics and techniques.
We make the point only to draw the distinction between tactics, which
requires judgment and creativity, and techniques and procedures, which
generally involves repetitive routine.
The operational level of war links the strategic and tactical levels.
It is the use of tactical results to attain strategic objectives.12 The
operational level includes deciding when, where, and under what conditions
to engage the enemy in bat-tle—and when, where, and under what conditions
to refuse battle in support of higher aims. Actions at this level imply
a broader dimension of time and space than actions at the tactical level.
As strategy deals with winning wars and tactics with winning battles and
engagements, the operational level of war is the art and science of winning
campaigns. Its means are tactical results, and its ends are the established
The distinctions between levels of war are rarely clearly delineated
in practice. They are to some extent only a matter of scope and scale.
Usually there is some amount of overlap as a single commander may have
responsibilities at more than one level. As shown in figure 1, the overlap
may be slight. This will likely be the case in large-scale, conventional
conflicts involving large military formations and multiple theaters. In
such cases, there are fairly distinct strategic, operational, and tactical
domains, and most commanders will find their activities focused at one
level or another. However, in other cases, the levels of war may compress
so that there is significant overlap, as shown in figure 2. Especially
in either a nuclear war or a military operation other than war, a single
commander may operate at two or even three levels simultaneously. In a
nuclear war, strategic decisions about the direction of the war and tactical
decisions about the employment
Figure 2. The Levels of War Compressed.
of weapons are essentially one and the same. In a military operation
other than war, even a small-unit leader, for example, may find that “tactical”
actions have direct strategic implications.
INITIATIVE AND RESPONSE
All actions in war, regardless of the level, are based upon either taking
the initiative or reacting in response to the opponent. By taking the
initiative, we dictate the terms of the conflict and force the enemy to
meet us on our terms. The initiative allows us to pursue some positive
aim even if only to preempt an enemy initiative. It is through the initiative
that we seek to impose our will on the enemy. The initiative is clearly
the preferred form of action because only through the initiative can we
ultimately impose our will on the enemy. At least one party to a conflict
must take the initiative for without the desire to impose upon the other,
there would be no conflict. The second party to a conflict must respond
for without the desire to resist, there again would be no conflict. If
we cannot take the initiative and the enemy does, we are compelled to
respond in order to counteract the enemy’s attempts. The response
generally has a negative aim, that of negating—blocking or counterattacking—the
enemy’s inten- tions. Like a counterpunch in boxing, the response
often has as its object seizing the initiative from the opponent.
The flux of war is a product of the continuous interaction between initiative
and response. We can imagine a conflict in which both belligerents try
to take the initiative simultane-ously—as in a meeting engagement,
for example. After the initial clash, one of them will gain the upper
hand, and the other will be compelled to respond—at least until
able to wrestle the initiative away from the other. Actions in war more
or less reflect the constant imperative to seize and maintain the initiative.
This discussion leads to a related pair of concepts: the offense and
defense. The offense contributes striking power. We normally associate
the offense with initiative: The most obvious way to seize and maintain
the initiative is to strike first and keep striking. The defense, on the
other hand, contributes resisting power, the ability to preserve and protect
ourselves. The defense generally has a negative aim, that of resisting
the enemy’s will.
The defense tends to be the more efficient form of war-fare—meaning
that it tends to expend less energy—which is not the same as saying
the defense is inherently the stronger form of warfare. The relative advantages
and disadvantages of offense and defense are situationally dependent.
Because we typically think of the defense as waiting for the enemy to
strike, we often associate the defense with response rather than initiative.
This is not necessarily true. We do not necessarily assume the defensive
only out of weakness. For example, the defense may confer the initiative
if the enemy is compelled to attack into the strength of our defense.
Under such conditions, we may have the positive aim of destroying the
enemy. Similarly, a defender waiting in ambush may have the initiative
if the enemy can be brought into the trap. The defense may be another
way of striking at the enemy.
While opposing forms, the offense and defense are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, they cannot exist separately. For example, the defense cannot
be purely passive resistance. An effective defense must assume an offensive
character, striking at the moment of the enemy’s greatest vulnerability.
As Clausewitz wrote, the defense is “not a simple shield, but a
shield made up of well-directed blows.”13 The truly decisive element
of the defense is the counterattack. Thus, the offense is an integral
component of the concept of the defense.
Similarly, the defense is an essential component of the offense. The
offense cannot sustain itself indefinitely. At some times and places,
it becomes necessary to halt the offense to replenish, and the defense
automatically takes over. Furthermore, the requirement to concentrate
forces for the offensive often necessitates assuming the defensive elsewhere.
Therefore, out of necessity, we must include defensive considerations
as part of our concept of the offense.
This brings us to the concept of the culminating point,14 without which
our understanding of the relationship between the offense and defense
would be incomplete. Not only can
the offense not sustain itself indefinitely, but also it generally grows
weaker as it advances. Certain moral factors, such as morale or boldness,
may increase with a successful attack, but these very often cannot compensate
for the physical losses involved in sustaining an advance in the face
of resistance. We advance at a cost in lives, fuel, ammunition, and physical
and sometimes moral strength, and so the attack becomes weaker over time.
Enemy resistance, of course, is a major factor in the dissipation of strength.
Eventually, we reach the culminating point at which we can no longer sustain
the attack and must revert to the defense. It is precisely at this point
that the defensive element of the offense is most vulnerable to the offensive
element of the defense, the counterattack.
We conclude that there exists no clear division between the offense and
defense. Our theory of war should not attempt to impose one artificially.
The offense and defense exist simultaneously as necessary components of
each other, and the transition from one to the other is fluid and continuous.
These relationships between initiative and response, offense and defense,
exist simultaneously at the various levels of war. We may seize the initiative
locally as part of a larger respon-se—in a limited counterattack,
for example. Likewise, we may employ a tactical defense as part of an
offensive campaign, availing ourselves of the advantages of the defense
tactically while pursuing an operational offensive aim.
STYLES OF WARFARE
Styles in warfare can be described by their place on a spectrum of attrition
and maneuver.15 Warfare by attrition pursues victory through the cumulative
destruction of the enemy’s material assets by superior firepower.
It is a direct approach to the conduct of war that sees war as a straightforward
test of strength and a matter principally of force ratios. An enemy is
seen as a collection of targets to be engaged and destroyed systematically.
Enemy concentrations are sought out as the most worthwhile targets. The
logical conclusion of attrition warfare is the eventual physical destruction
of the enemy’s entire arsenal, although the expectation is that
the enemy will surrender or disengage before this happens out of unwillingness
to bear the rising cost. The focus is on the efficient application of
fires, leading to a highly proceduralized approach to war. Technical proficiency—especially
in weapons employment—matters more than cunning or creativity.
Attrition warfare may recognize maneuver as an important component but
sees its purpose as merely to allow us to bring our fires more efficiently
to bear on the enemy. The attritionist tends to gauge progress in quantitative
terms: battle damage assessments, “body counts,” and terrain
captured. Results are generally proportionate to efforts; greater expenditures
net greater results—that is, greater attrition. The desire for volume
and accuracy of fire tends to lead toward centralized control, just as
the emphasis on efficiency tends to lead to an
inward focus on procedures and techniques. Success depends on an overall
superiority in attritional capacity—that is, the ability to inflict
and absorb attrition. The greatest necessity for success is numerical
and material superiority. At the national level, war becomes as much an
industrial as a military problem. Historically, nations and militaries
that perceived they were numerically and technologically superior have
often adopted warfare by attrition.
Pure attrition warfare does not exist in practice, but examples of warfare
with a high attrition content are plentiful: the operations of both sides
on the Western Front of the First World War; the French defensive tactics
and operations against the Germans in May 1940; the Allied campaign in
Italy in 1943-1944; Eisenhower’s broad-front offensive in Europe
after Normandy in 1944; U.S. operations in Korea after 1950; and most
U.S. operations in the Vietnam War.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is warfare by maneuver which stems
from a desire to circumvent a problem and attack it from a position of
advantage rather than meet it straight on. Rather than pursuing the cumulative
destruction of every component in the enemy arsenal, the goal is to attack
the enemy “system”—to incapacitate the enemy systemically.
Enemy components may remain untouched but cannot function as part of a
cohesive whole. Rather than being viewed as desirable targets, enemy concentrations
are generally avoided as enemy strengths. Instead of attacking enemy strength,
the goal is the application of our strength against selected enemy weakness
in order to maximize advantage. This tack requires the ability to identify
and exploit such weakness. Success depends not so much on the efficient
performance of procedures and techniques, but on understanding the specific
characteristics of the enemy system. Maneuver relies on speed and surprise
for without either we cannot concentrate strength against enemy weakness.
Tempo is itself a weapon—often the most important. Success by maneuver—unlike
attrition—is often disproportionate to the effort made. However,
for exactly the same reasons, maneuver incompetently applied carries with
it a greater chance for catastrophic failure. With attrition, potential
losses tend to be proportionate to risks incurred.
Firepower and attrition are essential elements of warfare by maneuver.
In fact, at the critical point, where strength has been focused against
enemy vulnerability, attrition may be extreme and may involve the outright
annihilation of enemy elements. Nonetheless, the object of such local
attrition is not merely to contribute incrementally to the overall wearing
down of the entire enemy force, but to eliminate a key element which incapacitates
the enemy systemically.
Like attrition warfare, maneuver warfare does not exist in its theoretically
pure form. Examples of warfare with a high enough maneuver content that
they can be considered maneuver warfare include Allenby’s decisive
campaign against the Turks in Palestine in 1918; German Blitzkrieg operations
of 1939-1941, most notably the invasion of France in 1940; the failed
Allied landing at Anzio in 1944, which was an effort to avoid the attrition
battles of the Italian theater; Patton’s breakout from the Normandy
beachhead in late 1944; MacArthur’s Inchon campaign in 1950; and
III Marine Amphibious Force’s combined action program in Vietnam
which attacked the Viet Cong by eliminating their essential popular support
base through the pacification of rural villages.
All warfare involves both maneuver and attrition in some mix. The predominant
style depends on a variety of factors, not least of which are our own
capabilities and the nature of the enemy. Marine Corps doctrine today
is based principally on warfare by maneuver, as we will see in the fourth
chapter, “The Conduct of War.”
Combat power is the total destructive force we can bring to bear on our
enemy at a given time.16 Some factors in combat power are quite tangible
and easily measured such as superior numbers, which Clausewitz called
“the most common element in victory.”17 Some may be less easily
measured such as the effects of maneuver, tempo, or surprise; the advantages
conferred by geography or climate; the relative strengths of the offense
and defense; or the relative merits of striking the enemy in the front,
flanks, or rear. Some may be wholly
intangible such as morale, fighting spirit, perseverance, or the effects
It is not our intent to try to list or categorize all the various components
of combat power, to index their relative values, or to describe their
combinations and variations; each combination is unique and temporary.
Nor is it even desirable to be able to do so, since this would lead us
to a formulaic approach to war. Our intent is merely to make the point
that combat power is the situationally dependent and unique product of
a variety of physical, moral, and mental factors.
SPEED AND FOCUS
Of all the consistent patterns we can discern in war, there are two concepts
of universal significance in generating combat power: speed and focus.
Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed
over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly.18
Speed over distance, or space, is the ability to move rapidly. Both forms
are genuine sources of combat power. In other words, speed is a weapon.
In war, it is relative speed that matters rather than absolute speed.
Superior speed allows us to seize the initiative and dictate the terms
of action, forcing the enemy to react to us. Speed provides security.
It is a prerequisite for maneuver and for surprise. Moreover, speed is
necessary in order to concentrate superior strength at the decisive time
Since it is relative speed that matters, it follows that we should take
all measures to improve our own speed while degrading our enemy’s.
However, experience shows that we cannot sustain a high rate of speed
indefinitely. As a result, a pattern develops: fast, slow, fast again.
A competitive rhythm develops in combat with each belligerent trying to
generate speed when it is advantageous.
Focus is the convergence of effects in time and space on some objective.
It is the generation of superior combat power at a particular time and
place. Focus may achieve decisive local superiority for a numerically
inferior force. The willingness to focus at the decisive place and time
necessitates strict economy and the acceptance of risk elsewhere and at
other times. To devote means to unnecessary efforts or excessive means
to necessary secondary efforts violates the principle of focus and is
counterproductive to the true objective. Focus applies not only to the
conduct of war but also to the preparation for war.
Since war is fluid and opportunities are fleeting, focus applies to time
as well as to space. We must focus effects not only at the decisive location
but also at the decisive moment.
We achieve focus through cooperation toward the accomplishment of the
common purpose. This applies to all elements of the force, and involves
the coordination of ground combat, aviation, and combat service support
The combination of speed and focus adds “punch” or “shock
effect” to our actions. It follows that we should strike with the
greatest possible combination of speed and focus.
SURPRISE AND BOLDNESS
Two additional concepts are particularly useful in generating combat
power: surprise and boldness.
By surprise we mean a state of disorientation resulting from an unexpected
event that degrades the enemy’s ability to resist. We achieve surprise
by striking the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which the
enemy is unprepared. It is not essential that we take the enemy unaware,
but only that awareness came too late to react effectively. The desire
for surprise is “more or less basic to all operations, for without
it superiority at the decisive point is hardly conceivable.”19 While
a necessary precondition of superiority, surprise is also a genuine source
of combat power in its own right because of its psychological effect.
Surprise can decisively affect the outcome of combat far beyond the physical
means at hand.
The advantage gained by surprise depends on the degree of disorientation
and the enemy’s ability to adjust and recover. Surprise, if sufficiently
harsh, can lead to shock, the total, if temporary, inability to react.
Surprise is based on speed, stealth, ambiguity, and deception. It often
means doing the more difficult thing—taking a circuitous direction
of attack, for example—in the hope that the enemy will not expect
it. In fact, this is the genesis of maneuver—to circumvent the enemy’s
strength to strike at a weakness.
While the element of surprise is often of decisive importance, we must
realize that it is difficult to achieve and easy to lose. Its advantages
are only temporary and must be quickly exploited. Friction, a dominant
attribute of war, is the constant enemy of surprise. We must also recognize
that while surprise is always desirable, the ability to achieve it does
not depend solely on our own efforts. Surprise is not what we do; it is
the enemy’s reaction to what we do. It depends at least as much
on our enemy’s susceptibility to surprise—his expectations
and preparedness. Our ability to achieve surprise thus rests on our ability
to appreciate and then exploit our enemy’s expectations. Therefore,
while surprise can be decisive, it is risky to depend on it alone for
the margin of victory.
There are three basic ways to go about achieving surprise. The first
is through deception—to convince the enemy we are going to do something
other than what we are really going to do in order to induce him to act
in a manner prejudicial to his own interests. The intent is to give the
enemy a clear picture of the situation, but the wrong picture. The second
way is through ambiguity—to act in such a way that the enemy does
not know what to expect. Because he does not know what to expect, he must
prepare for numerous possibilities and cannot prepare adequately for any
one. The third is through stealth— to deny the enemy any knowledge
of impending action. The enemy is not deceived or confused as to our intentions
but is completely ignorant of them. Of the three, deception generally
offers the greatest effects but is most difficult to achieve.
Boldness is a source of combat power in much the same way that surprise
is. Boldness is the characteristic of unhes- itatingly exploiting the
natural uncertainty of war to pursue major results rather than marginal
ones. According to Clausewitz, boldness “must be granted a certain
power over and above successful calculations involving space, time, and
magnitude of forces, for wherever it is superior, it will take advantage
of its opponent’s weakness. In other words, it is a genuinely creative
force.”20 Boldness is superior to timidity in every instance although
boldness does not always equate to immediate aggressive action. A nervy,
calculating patience that allows the enemy to commit himself irrevocably
before we strike him can also be a form of boldness. Boldness is based
on strong situation awareness: We weigh the situation, then act. In other
words, boldness must be tempered with judgment lest it border on recklessness.
There is a close connection between surprise and boldness. The willingness
to accept risks often necessary to achieve surprise reflects boldness.
Likewise, boldness contributes to achieving surprise. After we weigh the
situation, to take half measures diminishes the effects of surprise.
CENTERS OF GRAVITY AND CRITICAL VULNERABILITIES
It is not enough simply to generate superior combat power. We can easily
conceive of superior combat power dissipated over several unrelated efforts
or concentrated on some inconsequential object. To win, we must focus
combat power toward a decisive aim. There are two related concepts that
help us to think about this: centers of gravity and critical vulnerabilities.
Each belligerent is not a unitary force, but a complex system consisting
of numerous physical, moral, and mental components as well as the relationships
among them. The combination of these factors determines each belligerent’s
unique character. Some of these factors are more important than others.
Some may contribute only marginally to the belligerent’s power,
and their loss would not cause significant damage. Others may be fundamental
sources of capability.
We ask ourselves: Which factors are critical to the enemy? Which can
the enemy not do without? Which, if eliminated, will bend him most quickly
to our will? These are centers of gravity.21 Depending on the situation,
centers of gravity may be intangible characteristics such as resolve or
morale. They may be capabilities such as armored forces or aviation strength.
They may be localities such as a critical piece of terrain that anchors
an entire defensive system. They may be the relationship between two or
more components of the system such as the cooperation between two arms,
the relations in an alliance, or the junction of two forces. In short,
centers of gravity are any important sources of strength. If they are
friendly centers of gravity, we want to protect them, and if they are
enemy centers of gravity, we want to take them away.
We want to attack the source of enemy strength, but we do not want to
attack directly into that strength. We obviously stand a better chance
of success by concentrating our strength against some relative enemy weakness.
So we also ask ourselves: Where is the enemy vulnerable? In battlefield
terms, this means that we should generally avoid his front, where his
attention is focused and he is strongest, and seek out his flanks and
rear, where he does not expect us and where we can also cause the greatest
psychological damage. We should also strike at a moment in time when he
Of all the vulnerabilities we might choose to exploit, some are more
critical to the enemy than others. Some may contribute significantly to
the enemy’s downfall while others may lead only to minimal gains.
Therefore, we should focus our efforts against a critical vulnerability,
a vulnerability that, if exploited, will do the most significant damage
to the enemy’s ability to resist us.
We should try to understand the enemy system in terms of a relatively
few centers of gravity or critical vulnerabilities because this allows
us to focus our own efforts. The more we can narrow it down, the more
easily we can focus. However, we should recognize that most enemy systems
will not have a single center of gravity on which everything else depends,
or if they do, that center of gravity will be well protected. It will
often be necessary to attack several lesser centers of gravity or critical
vulnerabilities simultaneously or in sequence to have the desired effect.
Center of gravity and critical vulnerability are complementary concepts.
The former looks at the problem of how to attack the enemy system from
the perspective of seeking a source of strength, the latter from the perspective
of seeking weakness. A critical vulnerability is a pathway to attacking
a center of gravity. Both have the same underlying purpose: to target
our actions in such a way as to have the greatest effect on the enemy.
CREATING AND EXPLOITING OPPORTUNITY
This discussion leads us to a corollary thought: the importance of creating
and exploiting opportunity. In all cases, the commander must be prepared
to react to the unexpected and to exploit opportunities created by conditions
which develop from the initial action. When identification of enemy critical
vulnerabilities is particularly difficult, the commander may have no choice
but to exploit any and all vulnerabilities until action uncovers a decisive
opportunity. As the opposing wills interact, they create various fleeting
opportunities for either foe. Such opportunities are often born of the
fog and friction that is natural in war. They may be the result of our
own actions, enemy mistakes, or even chance. By exploiting opportunities,
we create in increasing numbers more opportunities for exploitation. It
is often the ability and the willingness to ruthlessly exploit these opportunities
that generate decisive results. The ability to take advantage of opportunity
is a function of speed, flexibility, boldness, and initiative.
The theory of war we have described provides the foundation for the discussion
of the conduct of war in the final chapter. All acts of war are political
acts, and so the conduct of war must be made to support the aims of policy.
War takes place at several levels simultaneously, from the strategic direction
of the overall war effort to the tactical application of combat power
in battle. At the highest level, war involves the use of all the elements
of political power, of which military force is just one. Action in war,
at all levels, is the result of the interplay between initiative and response
with the object being to seize and maintain the initiative. All warfare
is based on concepts such as speed, focus, surprise, and boldness. Success
in war depends on the ability to direct our efforts against criti- cal
vulnerabilities or centers of gravity and to recognize and exploit fleeting
opportunities. As we will discuss, the warfighting doctrine we derive
from our theory is one based on maneuver.
continue reading—Chapter 3. Preparing for War >>>
Notes — The Theory of War
1. Clausewitz, p. 87.
2. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. S. B. Griffith (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 85. Like On War, The
Art of War should be on every Marine officer’s list of essential
reading. Short and simple to read, The Art of War is every
bit as valuable today as when it was written about 400 B.C..
3. Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis, vol. 2 (New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923) p. 5. The passage continues: “Nearly
all battles which are regarded as masterpieces of the military art,
from which have been derived the foundation of states and the fame of
commanders, have been battles of manoeuvre in which the enemy has found
himself defeated by some novel expedient or device, some queer, swift,
unexpected thrust or stratagem. In many battles the losses of the victors
have been small. There is required for the composition of a great commander
not only massive common sense and reasoning power, not only imagination,
but also an element of legerdemain, an original and sinister touch,
which leaves the enemy puzzled as well as beaten. It is because military
leaders are credited with gifts of this order which enable them to ensure
victory and save slaughter that their profession is held in such high
honour . . .
“There are many kinds of manoeuvre in war, some only of which
take place upon the battlefield. There are manouevres far to the flank
or rear. There are manoeuvres in time, in diplomacy, in mechanics, in
psychology; all of which are removed from the battlefield, but react
often decisively upon it, and the object of all is to find easier ways,
other than sheer slaughter, of achieving the main purpose.”
4. Clausewitz, pp. 69 and 87. It is important to recognize that military
force does not replace the other elements of national power but supplements
them. Clausewitz’ most complete expression of this famous idea
is found on page 605: “We maintain . . . that war is simply a
continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.
We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’
because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend
political intercourse or change it into something entirely different.”
5. Ibid., pp. 87–88.
6. The term annihilation implies for many the absolute physical
destruction of all the enemy’s troops and equipment. This is rarely
achieved and seldom necessary. Incapacitation, on the other hand, is
literally what we mean to convey: the destruction of the enemy’s
military capacity to resist. See Hans Delbrück, History of
the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History, trans.
Walter J. Renfroe, Jr., especially vol. 4, chap. IV (Westport, CT: Greenwood
7. Strategy of erosion is known as strategy of attrition
in classical military theory. The concepts are the same. We use the
term erosion to avoid confusion with the tactical concept of attrition
warfare. See Delbrück, especially vol. 4, chap. IV.
8. Strategic level of war: “The level of war
at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines
national or multinational (alliance or coalition) security objectives
and guidance, and develops and uses national resources to accomplish
these objectives. Activities at this level establish national and multinational
military objectives; sequence initiatives; define limits and assess
risks for the use of military and other instruments of national power;
develop global plans or theater war plans to achieve those objectives;
and provide military forces and other capabilities in accordance with
strategic plans.” (Joint Pub 1-02)
9. National strategy, also referred to as grand strategy:
“The art and science of developing and using the political, economic,
and psychological powers of a nation, together with its armed forces,
during peace and war, to secure national objectives.” (Joint Pub
10. Military strategy: “The art and science
of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of
national policy by the application of force or the threat of force.”
(Joint Pub 1-02)
11. Tactical level of war: “The level of war
at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish
military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. Activities
at this level focus on the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat
elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to achieve combat
objectives.” (Joint Pub 1-02)
12. Operational level of war: “The level of
war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted,
and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or
areas of operations. Activities at this level link tactics and strategy
by establishing operational objectives needed to accomplish the strategic
objectives, sequencing events to achieve the operational objectives,
initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain
these events. These activities imply a broader dimension of time or
space than do tactics; they ensure the logistic and administrative support
of tactical forces, and provide the means by which tactical successes
are exploited to achieve strategic objectives.” (Joint Pub 1-02)
13. Clausewitz, p. 357.
14. Ibid., p. 528.
15. For an excellent discussion of the attrition-maneuver spectrum
and additional historical examples of attrition and maneuver, see Edward
N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge,
MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987) pp. 91–112.
16. Combat power: “The total means of destructive
and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation, can apply against
the opponent at a given time.” (Joint Pub 1-02)
17. Clausewitz, p. 194.
18. Tempo is often associated with a mental process known variously
as the “decision cycle,” “OODA loop,” or “Boyd
cycle” after John Boyd who pioneered the concept in his lecture,
“The Patterns of Conflict.” Boyd identified a four-step
mental process: observation, orientation, decision, and action. Boyd
theorized that each party to a conflict first observes the situation.
On the basis of the observation, he orients; that is, he makes an estimate
of the situation. On the basis of the orientation, he makes a decision.
Finally, he implements the decision—he acts. Because his action
has created a new situation, the process begins anew. Boyd argued that
the party who consistently completes the cycle faster gains an advantage
that increases with each cycle. His enemy’s reactions become increasingly
slower by comparison and therefore less effective until, finally, he
is overcome by events. “A Discourse on Winning and Losing: The
Patterns of Conflict,” unpublished lecture notes and diagrams,
19. Clausewitz, p. 198.
20. Ibid, p. 190.
21. See Clausewitz, pp. 485 and 595–596. Centers of gravity:
“Those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which
a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or
will to fight.” (Joint Pub 1-02)
continue reading—Chapter 3. Preparing for War >>>