Strategy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Simply stated, military strategy is the planning, coordination, and implementation of a set of actions, or tactics, that are aimed at defeating the enemy in an individual engagement or in a war as a whole.


Simply stated, military strategy is the planning, coordination, and implementation of a set of Tactics;vs. strategy[strategy]actions, or tactics, that are aimed at defeating the enemy in an individual engagement or in a war as a whole. Although many have written on the topic since then, it might have best been broken down in 1838 by the French general Jomini, Antoine-Henri deJomini, Antoine-Henri deAntoine-Henri de Jomini:

Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations. . . . Strategy decides where to act; Logisticslogistics brings the troops to this point; grand tactics decides the manner of execution and the employment of the troops.StrategyStrategy

Of course, within that definition, endless permutations are possible and, indeed, probable.


An understanding of tactics is essential for anyone seeking to develop a comprehensive evaluation of why wars have been won and lost. Germany;strategy in World War IIFor example, if one seeks to understand why the Nazis lost World War II when they seemed to have achieved such a stunning victory so early in the war, a look at Hitler, AdolfHitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler’s war strategy, and specifically his fascination with waging war against the Soviet Union;World War II[World War 02]Soviet Union, is absolutely crucial. In the modern world, military strategy may not be the only factor in determining the outcome of a conflict, but it remains a vital field of inquiry by generals and historians alike.

History of TacticsAncient World

Although wars have been fought dating to ancient times, one of the most influential early codifications of the principles of military strategy was written around 500 b.c.e. by the Chinese philosopher Art of War, The (Sunzi) SunziSunzi (Sun Tzu) in his Sunzi Bingfa (c. fifth-third century b.c.e. ; The Art of War, 1910). In this masterwork, Sunzi developed thirteen principles of military strategy, devoting a chapter to each. These included calculations, doing battle, planning attacks, formation, force, army maneuvers, ground formation, fire attacks, and using spies. His ideas have influenced many throughout the world and still are read today.

In the West, military strategies developed along with the rise and fall of civilizations over the millennia. Though the ancient Sumerians and Greeks developed strategies to defeat their enemies, the development of strategies reached a high point with the Macedonian leaders Philip II of MacedonPhilip II of Macedon[Philip 02 of Macedon]Philip II (382-336 b.c.e.) and his son Alexander the GreatAlexander the Great;strategiesAlexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.). Philip II tactically utilized infantry and cavalry together to weaken his foes and, in concert with large-scale planning and long-distance communication, expanded his empire. Using a large-scale strategy that employed both warfare and diplomacy, Philip was able to unite most of the city-states of Greece in his League of CorinthLeague of Corinth. Picking up where his father left off, Alexander took his father’s tactical and strategic innovations and employed them on an even larger scale, dominating much of the known world during his brief lifetime, expanding the Macedonian EmpireMacedonian Empire by driving northward into Europe, southward into Egypt, and eastward, conquering the entire Persian Empire. Alexander employed surprise, meticulous planning, and effective communication as a means of implementing his strategies.

The Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca;strategyHannibal (247-182 b.c.e.) is generally considered to have been both a brilliant tactician and a supreme strategist. Facing the Romans in the Second Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.), Hannibal developed a victorious strategy that can be seen not only in such battles as the one at Cunnae, Battle of (216 b.c.e.)Cunnae (216 b.c.e.), but also, in a larger sense, in his complete reorganization of the Roman Army to deal with the forces and strategies that he innovated. Luring the Romans into engagements in terrains where he knew his forces had an advantage, Hannibal came closer than anyone else in the ancient world to conquering Rome. Eventually, however, the Roman general Fabius Maximus, QuintusFabius Maximus, QuintusQuintus Fabius Maximus employed his own strategy, specifically designed to wear Hannibal down gradually by cutting off his supply lines, engaging him only in small skirmishes that diverted his attention, and avoiding a direct conflict with his powerful army.

The Roman emperor Caesar, Julius;strategyJulius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) was the first Roman to combine civil and military power, so that he could implement his strategic vision with both the political and military arms of the Roman government. Following a war of conquest through Italy that consolidated his power, turning the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, Caesar executed his brilliant conquest of Gaul, not only cutting off his opponents’ military supply lines but also patiently waiting until they had exhausted their water supply. Fear of Roman power was implemented ruthlessly as a strategy, as he often cut off the heads of surviving opposing soldiers as a warning to others not to rebel against Rome.

Medieval World

During the seventh century c.e., it was the Islamic expansionIslamic world that was expanding, and that expansion was largely directed by the Prophet MuḥammadMuḥammad (the Prophet)[Muhammad]Muḥammad’s greatest general, Khālid ibn al-WalīdKhālid ibn al-Walīd[Khalid ibn al Walid]Walīd, Khālid ibn al-[Walid, Khalid ibn al]Khālid ibn al-Walīd (died 642 c.e.). After honing his strategies in helping Muḥammad expand his new religion throughout the Arabian Peninsula, Walīd oversaw the invasion and conquest of both the Persian Empire and the Roman province of Syria within three years. Seeking to fight against many smaller foes before they could unite into a large army, Walīd defeated tribes seeking to escape the Muslim hegemony. Planning attacks from multiple sides while making sure that there were no enemies on his own flanks and marching his own forces through inhospitable deserts that his foes thought he could not, he completed the conquest of Persia in 633 c.e. and of Roman Syria the following year.

The early medieval period was a low point in the application of strategy in Europe, as the Feudalismfeudal system gradually dominated, with its emphasis on defense, castles, and sieges. However, to the east, the MongolsMongol leader Genghis KhanGenghis Khan (Mongol king)Genghis Khan (c. 1155 or 1162-1227) employed psychological strategies of terrorizing his opponents into submission. By implementing a Scorched-earth strategy[scorched earth strategy]scorched-earth policy along with mounted archers and cavalry, Genghis conquered Arab, Persian, European, and Asian armies with his highly mobile forces and revolutionized warfare with the rapidity of his movement. Using terror and biological means to subdue fortified cities, successor khans kept order through terror as well.

New technologies such as the Longbowlongbow and Gunpowdergunpowder inevitably changed the character of European warfare during the late medieval period, but if there was one person who truly bridged the medieval and modern periods, it was Gustavus II AdolphusGustavus II Adolphus (king of Sweden)[Gustavus 02]Gustavus II Adolphus (1594-1632) of Sweden. In the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);growth of armiesThirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Gustavus pioneered strategies that led to victories over the forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Maintaining infantry and cavalry with mobile artillery and logistics in coordinated attacks, Gustavus used Nationalismnationalism and a Armies;standingstanding army to create and expand the Swedish EmpireSwedish Empire into the third largest nation in Europe, behind only Spain and Russia. Like Genghis Khan, he used Maneuverabilitymaneuverability to create a very aggressive military strategy that downplayed defense and overcame the stagnant and static medieval fortifications and other defense strategies, utilizing the new firepower of carbines and artillery to great effect.

Modern World

During one of the first wars of the modern era, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Frederick II the GreatFrederick II the Great[Frederick 02]Frederick II of Prussia (Frederick “the Great,” 1712-1786) began the transformation of war based on small-scale engagements to one based on large, expansive strategies that required massive logistical support and a highly disciplined, maneuverable army. Employing the basic tenets of modern warfare, the concentration of forces at a weak point along the lines of his opponent, Frederick used artillery to soften the lines in advance of his assault. Pressing his attack in order to exhaust his opponents and fighting off multiple opponents by keeping his forces extremely mobile within his own interior areas, Frederick employed strategies that took advantage of his knowledge of the terrain and the best ways to exploit it to create weak points in his opponents’ forces.

However “great” Frederick was, his legacy, and most others’, pales in comparison to the giant of military strategy in the early modern world, Napoleon INapoleon I (Bonaparte)[Napoleon 01]Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Despite the growth in the size of armies because of the implementation of conscription, Napoleon was able to implement high maneuverability to achieve a strategy of Scorched-earth strategy[scorched earth strategy]scorched earth and terrorized civilian populations. The mobility of Napoleon’s forces allowed him to dictate the order of battle, where his opponent would be enticed to strike, and how to find his opponents’ weakest points to win the battle. Cutting his opponents’ supply and communication lines sped their defeat. Warfare based on lines of soldiers was shown to be ineffective in the face of Napoleon’s cavalry surrounding the lines, cutting them off from their reserves. With the judicious use of mobile forces in strategic locations, Napoleon was routinely able to defeat much larger, linear forces. Perhaps no greater compliment can be paid to Napoleon’s strategies than to note that they inspired the rise of the study of military strategies, which saw the first two modern masterworks of military strategy, Clausewitz, Carl vonClausewitz, Carl vonOn War (Clausewitz) Carl von Clausewitz’s Vom Krieg (1832; On War, 1873) and Jomini, Antoine-Henri deJomini, Antoine-Henri de Treatise on Grand Military Operations (Jomini) Jomini’s Traité des grandes opérations militaires (1805, 5 volumes; Treatise on Grand Military Operations, 1865).

Napoleon also influenced later military strategists during the American Civil War (1861-1865), such as Union generals Grant, Ulysses S.Grant, Ulysses S.Ulysses S. Grant and Sherman, William TecumsehSherman, William TecumsehWilliam Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate generals Lee, Robert E.Lee, Robert E.Robert E. Lee and Jackson, Thomas “Stonewall”Jackson, Thomas “Stonewall”Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, advances in technology meant that the weapons of war were much more efficient and could fire much more rapidly, necessitating larger-scale strategies that could be implemented only by the political leaders of the belligerent nations. The impact of communications technologies, such as the Telegraphtelegraph, allowed political leaders to work more directly with military commanders. Working with the Union’s political leaders, Grant and Sherman used Scorched-earth strategy[scorched earth strategy]scorched-earth strategies and highly mobile forces, along with naval blockades and the destruction of supply and communication lines, to surround Lee’s forces and bring about the end of the war.

If the technological changes of the nineteenth century revolutionized military strategy, by the early twentieth century consistent change in military technology would continue to transform strategies with each and every large conflict. At the beginning of World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];strategyWorld War I (1914-1918), the forces implemented strategies learned from the conflicts of the late nineteenth century, only to be overwhelmed by the large artillery pieces developed. This necessitated the retreat of forces on both sides into trenches, which would characterize the rest of the conflict. World War II would see the addition of the elements of powerful tanks and airpower, resulting in massive tactical and strategic, and eventually atomic, bombing, again necessitating massive changes to war strategies. However, a return to an emphasis on mobility and concentration of forces accompanied the new technologies. The unified Germany;World War I[World War 01]German forces WehrmachtWehrmacht (Nazi German forces)(Wehrmacht), acting under Hitler’s directives, implemented BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg (literally, “lightning war”), a sudden, surprise attack of overwhelming force, often employing coordinated air and ground forces–which proved to be an extremely effective offensive strategy. Fortunately, Hitler’s fixation on the conquest of the Soviet Union proved to be his undoing.

With the hesitancy of the United States and the Soviet Union to engage directly during the Cold War (1945-1991), for the latter half of the twentieth century warfare took a less technological turn, as exemplified by the conflict in Vietnam from the 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. Despite massive technological superiority, Guerrilla warfareguerrilla warfare caused the United States to employ a series of unsuccessful strategies, causing frustration not only among soldiers but among the American public as well. Guerrilla warfare dominated many of the small-scale conflicts of the last half of the century, especially in locations where the landscape lent itself to easy concealment.

Technology came to the fore once again with the two Gulf Wars of the 1990’s and 2000’s. The use of so-called smart bombs and the massive implementation of the Surge strategy (Iraq)“surge” in Iraq–a significant influx of “boots on the ground”–led to military superiority in Iraq, although the lessons of Vietnam continue to be taught, in that indirect, small-scale engagements by a force committed to a conflict by ideology or religion can keep a large, technologically advanced force off its stride, extending a conflict until the superior force, or the nation behind it, tires of the conflict and withdraws.

The counterstrategies employed by Insurgenciesinsurgents and ideologically driven guerrillas have fallen under the rubric of Terrorism“terrorism,” which expands the war from the arena of the battlefield to all areas of daily life, in a strategy that employs any tactic necessary–from the hijacking of civilian airlines to their use as projectile bombs to car-bombings of hotels and cafés to Suicide bombingssuicide bombings–to wage psychological as well as ideological war. The strategies of terrorism encroach on the entire fabric of a society by diverting that society’s resources to long-term (not just temporary) counterstrategies involving heightened security in order to ensure safety in transportation, trade, and other economic and civic infrastructures. Time will tell if a military strategy is ever developed to overcome a small-scale, guerrilla army that wages a war on ideological grounds.Strategy

Books and Articles
  • Bose, Partha. Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy Lessons from the Great Empire Builder. New York: Gotham, 2003. Uses historical episodes from the life and conquests of Alexander the Great to illustrate his mastery of strategy on a large scale.
  • Chaliand, Gérard, ed. The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Assembles a collection of writings on the strategic aspects of warfare from across the ages, including writings from modern times as well as from ancient Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
  • Collins, John M. Military Strategy: Principles, Practices, and Historical Perspectives. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2001. Uses historical examples to demonstrate how different war strategies have worked in the past in order to predict how they may work in the future.
  • Gartner, Scott Sigmund. Strategic Assessment in War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Looking at the wars of the twentieth century, analyzes how armies implement their strategies and adjust them in response to their opponents’ strategies.
  • Gray, Colin S. Modern Strategy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Examines the evolution of military strategies over the course of the twentieth century to illustrate that strategy is ever changing.
  • Liddell Hart, B. H. Strategy. 2d rev. ed. New York: Plume, 1991. One of the classic works on strategy, written by one of the foremost military strategists of the twentieth century, Liddell Hart’s famous “indirect strategy” emphasized mobility and lightning warfare, with the implementation of a massive, decisive force in order to win the war quickly.
  • Luttwak, Edward N. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002. Also centering on the “indirect strategy,” Luttwak looks at the strategic relationship between war and peace, noting how war strategy depends not only on what the opponent does but also on what is politically feasible with the general public.
  • Marston, Daniel, and Carter Malkasian, eds. Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. New York: Osprey, 2008. Presents a history of major conflicts, from British action in Ireland during the 1910’s to the Iraq War of the 2000’s, where strategy proved key in determining the victor.
  • Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Revised from its original 1943 publication, this collection presents twenty-eight essays, from some of the foremost military historians, on the topic of strategy.



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