Strategy and Combat Effectiveness


In my last post, I explored the relationship between the performance of British Second Army in Northwest Europe, 1944 to 1945, and three variables – levels of morale, the weight of firepower used, and the operational level approach employed. The blog concluded that there was a weak correlation between these variables and metrics that could be associated with success in battle. Instead, I argued that victory depended on the ability of individuals and units at every level of the military organisation to balance means available (be they material, tactical or morale) with the objectives and ends at hand. This interactive, dynamic process required a nuanced, flexible, and, dare I say it, a ‘strategic’, approach to combat performance.

Further consideration, therefore, of the relationship between combat performance and strategy might be worthwhile.

The challenge of devising a successful strategy to achieve a goal dominates military theory and practice. Strategy was the central and unifying theme of Clausewitz’s On War. The great man defined strategy as the ‘use of the engagement for the purpose of the war’. More recently, Colin Gray defined strategy as ‘the use that is made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy’, while Liddell Hart described strategy as ‘the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy’. Thus, it appears clear that the relationship between military means and policy objectives (or ends) is at the heart of the strategic process. Military decision makers have constantly to align their means to coincide with policy; vice versa, policy makers have to create policy in line with the available means.

To achieve policy by use of violent means, a belligerent has typically to match his effort against what Clausewitz referred to as an enemy’s ‘power of resistance’. This he expressed as ‘the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will’. To put it another way, all belligerents in a conflict engage with strategy and attempt to balance ends with means. Military means are a product of the interplay between the material capability to fight and the will to fight (morale, as defined in a previous post). When a belligerent can no longer continue to fight, because their material strength has been whittled away through attrition, or they are no longer willing to fight, and they desert or surrender en masse, that belligerent must eventually, by engaging in the strategic process, also alter policy (ends must reflect means). Victory ensues when a belligerent comes to the conclusion that they no longer have the means, either physical or psychological, or both, to resist the will of the enemy and they alter policy (to for example surrender or enter negotiations for a cease fire).

While strategy, in the current dominant usage, focuses on making war useable by the state, so that it can use force to fulfill its political objectives, it can also be used in the sense that one might have a ‘strategy’ to cross the fireswept zone and capture, for example, a pill box on the other side of a field. Militaries tend to refer to this type of activity as ‘tactics’ or ‘drill’. However, ‘tactics’ or ‘drill’, it can be argued, represent nothing more than formalised pre-packaged strategy. They provide junior leaders with ready-made solutions to balance ends and means in oft-repeated military scenarios. Strategy, understood as a process appears, therefore, to play a key role, in different guises, at different levels of military activity and may be understood to increase in complexity as one climbs the levels of war. Strategy at the tactical level can almost always be formalised in drill. Strategy at the operational level can be formalised in operational doctrine. However, at the military strategic, grand strategic or political levels, strategy becomes so complex and contingent that it is beyond formalisation or doctrine and becomes truly the art of the military or political genius.

Thus, it is fair to argue that decision makers at all levels in war have to act strategically (balance ends with means). As the strategies devised by political leaders and senior officers influence the goals and objectives and means available to those below them, strategy cascades in an interactive fashion from the top of the state apparatus to the activities of junior officers on the front line. In turn, the effectiveness of strategies employed by junior officers feed back up the levels of war, impacting on the goals and means of more senior officers and politicians.

We begin to see, therefore, the inadequacies in ‘narratives’ that explain combat performance as the product mainly of one element of strategy (morale, firepower or tactics), rather than the emergent outcome of a complex multidimensional process. Strategy can, and perhaps should be understood as an iterative multi-level decision-making continuum where decisions on means and ends at each level can affect decisions on means and ends at all other levels. While all-encompassing theories that focus on one or two variables to explain combat effectiveness may be attractive, the challenge for scholars trying to search for patterns is to recognise complexity and embrace its challenges rather than shy away from it in the search for simplicity. Indeed empiricism demands such a scholarly approach.

These ideas are explored further in my recent chapter in Anthony King’s new edited collection, Frontline: Combat and Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). An earlier version of the chapter can also be found online here.

Image: British Firefly tank patrolling the Meuse near Namur, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

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