Tactics Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Military units preparing for and in battle are governed by the overall strategy of the campaign.


Military units preparing for and in battle are governed by the overall Strategy;vs. tactics[tactics]strategy of the campaign. All component elements of a military force in a campaign maneuver fight within an operational plan. At the sharp end (in contact with the enemy), all personnel use tactics to achieve their aim–in movement around the battlefield, in defense, and in attack.TacticsTactics


To a great extent, tactics have always been influenced by the technology available at the time. From rock to rifle to rocket, tactics have evolved to use what is available to inflict the most damage on the enemy while preserving lives on the user’s side. The evolution of battlefield weapons and their increasing range and power have affected tactics directly. Another significant factor in tactics is mobility: Both defenders and attackers need to be able to move freely about the battlefield; failure to maintain freedom of movement can easily lead to defeat.

History of TacticsAncient World

Tactics are governed by weapons to a large extent, and the range and firepower of those weapons. In the period of early warfare, available weapons were limited in range to below the total range of vision. This meant that anyone out of range of bow or catapult was safe to move. Tactics developed to bring the enemy within range by maneuver and speed of deployment.

Weapons available Infantryin the pre-firearm period included the sword, bow and arrow, spear, javelin, lance, and siege engines. Men en masse on foot moved slowly and were difficult to maneuver once a battle had begun. Cavalry;beginningsThe answer was to mount some men on horses, giving them a greater speed on the battlefield and a greater range on reconnaissance.

Cavalry became, as training and tactics improved, the masters of the shock effect. Horses and horse ridingHorses could be trained and could attack en masse, and a cavalry charge was very effective in breaking the ranks of defending infantry. Initially the defenses against cavalry were limited to spear, pike, and bow; it was the Archers and archerybow that finally began the decline of cavalry, for well-trained archers were capable of breaking up a cavalry charge long before it reached the defender’s front line.

For the defender, one of the best protections was Fortificationswalling and towers, the castle, keep, fortified town, or house. Tactically the defender has the advantage in that he has internal lines of communication (and therefore freedom of movement), and the static defenses of thick walls and towers often defeated the attacker. Here, however, technical developments led to the invention and development of Siege enginessiege engines of considerable power, capable of slowly but finally demolishing even the thickest walls. Other tactical methods of defeating the wall including mining underneath it.

The art of Static defensesstatic defenses reached its peak with the detailed designs of Vauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deVauban, Sébastien Le Prestre deSébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), although the very last such constructions were seen as late as the twentieth century in the Maginot lineMaginot line (named after André Maginot, 1877-1932) in eastern France and similar defensive works.

Medieval World

The arrival of Firearms;tactical impactfirearms on the battlefield further limited the effect of Cavalrycavalry, although initially the range and firepower of these early weapons were limited, and musketeers were normally protected from cavalry by pikemen, who stood to their front.

The first military firearms were designed perhaps more to frighten the horses than to have killing effect. Both handheld and heavier weapons were developed, and Cannonscannons served well to reduce static defenses. The rate of fire, accuracy, and general effect of the weapons was limited, but technology made great strides in improving the characteristics of these equipments.

Tactics throughout the ages have always been crucial in determining how much damage each side can do to the other in battle. The side with the most soldiers and the best weapons could normally be expected to prevail, but there are occasions when small groups that were better armed and equipped were able to inflict disproportionate damage on much larger forces. The use by the British army of Machine gunsmachine guns in nineteenth century colonial warfare and the Spencer rifleSpencer rifle (invented by Christian Spencer in 1860) in the American Civil War are examples of this.

Modern World

In the nineteenth century, changes to Firearms;modernfirearms began to create a need for changes in tactics. Firearms became more effective. The rate of fire was increased, accuracy improved, and the arrival of the Rifle;breech-loadingBreech-loading weapons[Breech loading weapons]breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and quick-fire cannon would affect tactics more rapidly than had been seen before.

Breech-loading rifles meant that no longer did infantry have to stand to fire; earlier muzzle-loaded weapons had to be reloaded with the soldier standing up. The ability to reload lying down meant that infantry were less obvious on the battlefield and hence better protected against enemy cannon fire. Defenders began to dig into the ground to lower their silhouettes and to protect themselves even more, and attacking infantry had to move toward the enemy across ground that was covered by the defenders’ fire.

The Cannons;quick-fireQuick-fire cannon[Quick fire cannon]cannon on the battlefield had, for a long time, been limited in effect by its lack of maneuverability, but manufacturing techniques slowly overcame this problem and guns were soon able to keep up with the cavalry by being horse-drawn on highly mobile and stable carriages. Breech-loading methods improved the rate of fire, higher standards of manufacture increased accuracy, and the cannon became the field gun with considerable effect upon bodies of troops present on the battlefield.

The invention of the Machine gunsmachine gun spelled the end of massed troop formations, although this was not fully understood in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Units with machine guns issued to them often failed to use them, despite the obvious advantage of a high rate of sustainable fire, still preferring to fight battles with verve and élan rather than brains.

World World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];tacticsWar I (1914-1918) saw the technology of war show how utterly ruthless it could be against masses of men. No matter how great the attacker’s superiority in numbers, machine guns, artillery, and Barbed wirebarbed wire spelled the end of millions of lives. The problem for the tacticians of this war was that technology had supplied weapons of defense that were far superior to the weapons of attack. In most cases, the attackers were armed simply with rifle and bayonet and were faced by increasing numbers of defending machine guns, deep belts of barbed wire, and artillery defense plans that left the attackers dead and dying in front of the defending trenches.

Trenches Trench warfare;World War I[World War 01]in World War I were redolent of the earlier wall defenses of the Middle Ages and earlier. Siege warfare;World War I[World War 01]Siege warfare existed between the two sides on the western front, and although major attacks were made, they failed in the main in the first three years of the war because the defender had the advantage, although it must also be recognized that the more senior officers on both sides (particularly the British commander, Field Haig, DouglasHaig, DouglasMarshal Douglas Haig, Viscount Dawick) were still convinced of the value of Cavalry;World War I[World War 01]cavalry (against machine guns, barbed wire, and guns) to make the breakthrough and develop the attack into a rout. This was simply impossible. What was needed was a breakthrough weapon.

That weapon was the Tankstank. Invented by the British, and much promoted by Churchill, Winston S.Churchill, Winston S.Winston Spencer Churchill, the tank was seen to be capable of breaking through the enemy defenses unscathed, and accompanied by infantry, to lead the breakthrough into the enemy gun lines and rear, whereby victory would be won. However, technology here lacked the ability to provide sufficiently reliable tanks, and the defenders soon realized that they could fight against tanks. Nonetheless, the idea bore eventual fruit and led to the infantry-tank warfare of World War II.

Once more, tactics were to undergo changes to incorporate the new tanks and the very new concept of Air forces;World War II[World War 02]air power. The Germans demonstrated their new tactics in Poland, Denmark, Holland, and France in 1939 and 1940, and it seemed that there was no real answer to BlitzkriegBlitzkrieg. The combination of infantry, tanks, artillery, and aircraft caused a remarkable effect on the battlefield. The Empty battlefield“empty battlefield” of World War I became even more essential in this war for the reason that movement, concentrations of troops, and defensive positions were all vulnerable to air attack, shelling, or an infantry tank attack combined with supporting weapons.

The pace of tactics had changed dramatically; no longer did battles proceed at the pace of the infantry but rather at the speed of the Motor vehiclesmotor vehicle (and later, with the arrival of Paratroopersparatroops and Vertical envelopment“vertical envelopment,” at the speed of the aircraft). The need for rapidity of movement now became paramount, and Infantry;moderninfantry, to keep up with the tanks, had to be carried in trucks–or, better still, in armored personnel carriers, a concept of Sir Liddell Hart, Basil HenryLiddell Hart, Basil HenryBasil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970) and Major General Fuller, J. F. C.Fuller, J. F. C.John F. C. Fuller (1878-1966), completely adopted by the Germans, especially Colonel General Guderian, HeinzGuderian, HeinzHeinz Guderian (1888-1954). Artillery also needed to move faster, and so was towed or even self-propelled in semiarmored vehicles.

Tank TanksAntitank weaponsbattles were fought tank against tank, but by the side of this was a developing ability for the infantry to destroy tanks themselves with easily movable antitank guns and, later in the war, man-portable “fire and throw-away” antitank weapons, as well as the Bazookas“bazooka” and similar weapons. Tanks were becoming hunted as well as hunters.

In the air, enormous strides were made in developing weapons to make air-ground cooperation a reality. Initially air support was provided by, for example, the Junkers Ju87 Stuka dive-bomberStuka dive-bomber. In the course of the war, rocket-firing aircraft could knock tanks out, and even strategic bombers were used (sometimes not very effectively) to aid ground troops.

Modern tactics are a combination of the well-tried and -tested fire and movement technique (some men fire at the enemy, while the others move forward tactically) and a mobility that is fundamental to gaining surprise on the battlefield. The delivery of troops unexpectedly on the battlefield was always a great contributor to success; paratroops were used for this purpose, but nowadays air-landed troops (from aircraft or helicopter) can often tip the scales in favor of the side using them (whether as attacker or defender).

Infantry Infantry;modernare now almost invisible on the battlefield, whether moving or in defensive positions; night as cover has disappeared with the appearance of light-intensification and infrared equipment, and tanks can engage the enemy by heat signature alone. Artillery can deliver devastating, concentrated fire, which will totally demoralize any defender.

In the air, target identification sometimes remains a problem, but the delivery capability and capacity are tremendous, and one aircraft can drop a payload of immense value to the troops on the ground. Airlifting troops both to make an assault and to put “boots on the ground” can proceed so quickly that rapid buildups of troops are possible in a very short time.

Tactics seem to have developed out of all recognition, but in fact they remain the same: to engage the enemy on the battlefield and to defeat him. If anything, tactics are very personal to soldiers, because if the tactics are effective they will kill the enemy; if not, then they will be killed. Only the technology has changed, meaning that Speed (tactical)speed is now of the ultimate essence: speed of movement, rate of firepower, speed in gaining and using intelligence, speed in reacting to enemy threat. On the ground, however, it all comes down to getting into such a position that defeat of the enemy can be achieved. When it comes down to the basic level, it is the soldier on the ground who counts, and if the tactics are faulty or the training deficient, then soldiers will die.Tactics

Books and Articles
  • Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. Considered perhaps the greatest work on the theory of warfare, Clausewitz’s treatise not only is classic but also remains current. The paperback edition of this translation offers a useful index.
  • Drury, Ian. The Civil War Military Machine: Weapons and Tactics of the Union and Confederate Armed Forces. New York: Smithmark, 1993. The first Civil War book to focus on small arms (handguns and rifles), field and siege artillery, naval ordinance, and ships. More than four hundred color illustrations show Union and Confederate weapons, battles, landscapes, forts, and naval vessels, many in cross section.
  • Eady, H. G. Historical Illustrations to Field Service Regulations. Vol. 2. London: Sifton Praed, 1927. Although difficult to locate, an invaluable resource.
  • Gaulle, Charles de. The Army of the Future. Foreword by Walter Millis. London: Hutchinson, 1940. A translation of de Gaulle’s Vers l’armée de métier (1934), in which the French general advocated the creation of a mechanized, professional army.
  • Haughton, Andrew. Training, Tactics, and Leadership in the Confederate Army of Tennessee: Seeds of Failure. Cass Series–Military History and Policy 5. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2000. Focuses on the South’s army structure, from officers to privates, and their daily military lives during the Civil War.
  • O’Sullivan, Patrick. Terrain and Tactics. Contributions in Military Studies 115. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. Discusses military tactics in the light of geographical concepts, a field known as military geography. O’Sullivan considers many different geographic settings and how they pose advantages and disadvantages, including a survey of the geography of war from 1945 through guerrilla and insugency tactics of the late twentieth century.
  • Samuels, Martin. Doctrine and Dogma: German and British Infantry Tactics in the First World War. Contributions in Military Studies 121. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. Describes German and British infantry tactics, training, and leadership during World War I. Especially interesting for its comparison of the two nations’ value systems and their reflection in military practice and achievement. Of particular interest to military historians and professional officers.
  • Steiger, Rudolf. Armour Tactics in the Second World War: Panzer Army Campaigns of 1939-41 in German War Diaries. New York: Berg, 1991. Primary documents form the basis for this description of World War II tank tactics, with particular emphasis on Operation Barbarossa, based on the files of the Germans’ second Panzer Army.
  • Sun-tzu. The Illustrated Art of War. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. This ancient work is still read and consulted for its timeless insights, and it formed the basis of several of Mao Zedong’s twentieth century military theories.



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