A Discussion on Strategy vs. Tactics

In last night’s debate, the issue of the distinction between tactics and strategy arose during an exchange. McCain attacked Obama’s description of the surge as a tactic.

OBAMA: They have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.

MCCAIN: I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.

Many people do not properly understand the difference between the two, and it is a crucial difference.

There are four levels of warfighting- Policy, Strategy, Operations, and Tactics. Strategy is the marriage between the political ends and the military means. Tactics, to give a boiled-down definition, is what is done when in combative contact with the enemy- the manuevers, attacks, timing, etc. To elucidate with an historical example – In WWII, the policy was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. One of the strategies to achieve that policy was to knock out the German industrial capacity through aerial bombing runs. There were many operations, or organized collections of missions, meant to ensure that the bombing strategy was successful. The tactics involved in the operations include the decision to bomb at night, non-evasive flying to increase the accuracy of the bombing, and dogfighting manuevers by the fighter escorts.

Returning to the debate at hand, I believe Obama does know the difference, but in his statement during the debate, he was simply wrong. America’s policy is a stable, democratic Iraq, the Surge and Clear-Hold-Build are strategies to achieve the policy, Operation Sinbad was among the many operations in support of the strategies, and the tactics include the various ways to advance on a city, to clear a house, and to detect mines.

Joe Klein is also wrong, writing in Time,

As for McCain’s remark about Obama not knowing the difference between a tactic and a strategy-McCain was wrong. The counterinsurgency methods introduced by David Petraeus in Iraq were a tactical change, a new means to achieve Bush’s same strategic end of a stable, unified Iraq.

Absolutely not. Klein could use a refresher in basic security terminology.

Readers interested in this discussion would appreciate The Augean Stables’ post on Richard Bett’s article, “Is Strategy Even Possible”.

7 Responses to A Discussion on Strategy vs. Tactics

  1. Alcuin says:

    As I am sure Richard knows, above Strategy in Operational Analysis, there is Doctrine. This has to be developed well in advance of any operation and informs everything, particularly Rules of Engagement. The capture of the British sailors by the Iranians highlighted and the subsequent ludicrous publicity highlighted how badly British commanders and politicians understood the importance of doctrine. In contradistinction, a remark by Admiral Cunningham at the Battle of Crete illustrated how well he understood: “It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.”

  2. Rich Rostrom says:

    One thing should be understood:

    Policy/Strategy/Operations/Tactics is not a hierarchy. To a certain degree, they can be orthogonal.

    For instance, while “tactical decisions” are made in battle by individual fighters and small-unit leaders, “tactics” are the fighting methods used across the conflict, and decisions about tactics may be made at the highest levels. The decision to adopt a particular tactic may be a strategy.

  3. Richard says:

    Rich, I think you’re confusing terminologies.
    Tactics universally refer to tactical methods, that is, methods used on the ground to achieve immediate goals.
    The Petraeus doctrine would be correctly called a strategy as it takes broad themes and weaves them together. The intermesh between strategy and tactics is at the operational level, where the goals of the strategy are to be met by a planned application of tactics in response to the scenario in question.
    The decision to adopt particular tacts is not a strategy but a decision within the operational development of a strategy.
    You don’t seem to understand the “operational”.

  4. [...] in which the player reenacts historical battles.  For the rest of us, hre’s some help from Augean Stables: Many people do not properly understand the difference between the two, and it is a crucial [...]

  5. JGN says:

    Read Obama’s quote carefully. My understanding is that he’s not talking about the military when he uses “tactic”. Rather, he’s talking about the Bush administration’s use of the surge as a POLITICAL tactic. Read in this way, the use is absolutely correct.

  6. sulummajemi says:

    Hello.
    :)

    Martha Louise, who is the only daughter of King Harald and Queen Sonja, gave up the title of ‘royal highness’ upon her 2002 marriage to writer Ari, and has a reputation for not standing on ceremony.
    Bye.

  7. Pablo k. Ramos says:

    This is such a complex subject. In establishing the boundaries between concepts such as Policy, Strategy, Operations and Tactics, one can tend to over-explain one of the concepts, and as a result the definition begins to overlap the next. I believe that Lazar makes a mistake in this post when he defines those four levels for WW2. I explain:

    Read his excellent description of the four below, and then I’ll tell you where I think his mistake is:

    “In WWII, the policy was the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. One of the strategies to achieve that policy was to knock out the German industrial capacity through aerial bombing runs. There were many operations, or organized collections of missions, meant to ensure that the bombing strategy was successful. The tactics involved in the operations include the decision to bomb at night, non-evasive flying to increase the accuracy of the bombing, and dogfighting manuevers by the fighter escorts.”

    Policy: “The inconditional surrender of Germany” – Correct, imho.

    Strategy: (and there would be many, of course. the whole thing branches out):
    “One of the strategies to achieve that policy was to knock out the German industrial capacity through aerial bombing runs.” – Wrong.

    He was correct to say that a strategy was to destroy Germany’s industrial capacity. Full Stop. That IS a Strategy. an IDEA to WIN. He errs, in my humble opinion, when he adds “…through aerial bombing runs”. THAT, the HOW, is an operational goal, although it could be seen as tactical, if the challenge at hand doesn’t require four levels, but just three.

    Once a strategy is decided upon (the What to do to succeed), then the operational or tactical elements enter: the How?

    How do we destroy Germany’s industrial capacity?

    Operation 1: Aerial Bomb Runs
    Operation 2: Employ civilian resistance to sabotage and dynamite key industrial targets.
    Operation 3: Through comando missions, such as those employed by the British in Norway
    Operation 4: Through an allied flying missile such as the V2

    Each Operation, if approved, would have a set of tactics, highly fluid and adaptable. such as the ones he mentions (night bombing, day-light bombing, fighter support, etc)

    Regards,

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