Principles Of War

15 minutes read.

Since ancient times, military theory tried to define the principles of war, a set of guidelines, both for war strategy and for battle tactics. They are also a useful tool for us in studying and analyzing past wars.

There are somewhat different versions of the principles of war, changing in time and from country to country, and between various theoreticians, but generally speaking, there is little practical difference between the version of Sun Tzu, who lived about 2500 years ago, and the most updated official version of the US Army.
This leads to the further definition of those principles as the timeless principles of war. It's amazing that the principles which were so true in the age of the sword and arrow are still so true in the age of computerized guided weapons.

In a more generalized interpretation, these principles are also true for pre-war military force buildup, and even for civilian business and project management.

The principles of war

Concentration of effort

"Concentrate your forces and their fire" - probably the most important principle. What decides the outcome of wars and battles is usually not the amount of forces you have, but the amount of forces you have where it counts, where the battle is decided. The commander should concentrate his forces, and their fire, and by doing so achieve a decisive local superiority, that will overwhelm the enemy there, break the balance, and allow a breakthrough to victory.

The whole idea of the German Blitzkrieg tactic was to concentrate massive armored forces, and massive close air support, to create an unstoppable rapidly moving "armor fist" that could smash through anything and cause havoc and chaos in the enemy's side, regardless of the enemy's total force.

The naval equivalent of this principle is simply "Don't divide the fleet", which is true both in attack, as was so destructively demonstrated by the German "wolf pack" submarine warfare tactic, and by the convoys tactic which negated it.
Modern air war is where this principle is most evident. When they penetrate enemy airspace to attack, scattered aircraft are easy prey to defenders. But when an entire Air Force takes off and charges as one coordinated force, it's usually an unstoppable overwhelming force.


"Stick to the mission, persist". Military action should have a clearly defined and achievable objective, and all efforts should always be directed to achieving that objective, even despite difficulties and diversions caused by the enemy or other reasons.

A classic example of the devastating results of ignoring this principle is the Battle of Britain. The German Luftwaffe was getting close to achieving its objective of eliminating the British fighter force. An achievement that was essential for making an invasion of England possible. But then, in an emotional response to a bombardment of a German city, Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to shift its effort to bombing London. The result was that the British fighter command was able to recover its strength, win the Battle of Britain, expel the Luftwaffe, and secure Britain as the remaining base of the western front.


"Use your brain, adapt". War and battle are complex, varying, and uncertain environments. That's why battles are so rarely fought as planned. That's why commanders of all ranks should constantly judge the situation and be flexible enough to find the best way to achieve the objective in the changing circumstances. Rigidly following orders, plans, or a doctrine in battle is often fatal.

The fact that until the end of the war the Japanese Navy refused to adopt the convoy tactic to adapt to the threat of American submarines cost them their entire merchant fleet, a loss which resulted in severe shortage in most war materials. The British Navy and Air Force adapted to the German submarine threat with increasing efficiency, survived and even defeated it.


"Be active, always". In battle, sitting still, or even just being predictable, often leaves control of events to the enemy, which simply means that your side is much more likely to lose the battle.

This is true not just for the attacking side. In the battle of Kursk, the defending Russian side was almost hyper-active in constantly intensifying and enhancing their defensive fortifications and readiness for the expected German attack. That's why they won the battle as the German side crashed when it finally attacked.


You simply can't win a war without eventually attacking. That's why armies mark it as a principle. It's simply a derivative of the initiative principle. The German army which attacked Stalingrad was weakened by the horrible bloodshed in Stalingrad, but a large scale flanking attack was required to exploit that. The Russian attack completely encircled the Germans and their allies, resulted in the greatest single defeat in the history of the German military.


Since wisely moving your forces before and during battle is the most common way to take the initiative, it's also marked as a principle. Maneuver is usually the way to produce local superiority which is often a key for victory.

The British victory in the Battle of Britain owes a lot to the Royal Air Force's ability to out-maneuver the Luftwaffe (in operational terms, not in dogfight terms) thanks to its effective use of the new RADAR technology. The British use of RADAR gave them the ability to engage the German formations almost every time they came, and in much greater numbers (concentration of effort) than was possible without RADAR. This technological force multiplier greatly improved their success rate in each engagement, as if they had a much larger Air Force.


"Don't be wasteful, use your forces efficiently" - Make the best effort, not the maximum effort. There's a big difference. In the Russian front, the Russians, and later the Germans, suffered huge unnecessary losses simply by throwing every available unit directly at the enemy or by not allowing it to retreat, with total disregard to whether this is the right way to use these forces. The lack of economy of force is almost a trademark of totalitarian regimes.

Surprise and Deception

The idea is to use secrecy, speed, and deception, to achieve the objective in a way that the enemy will be unable to efficiently resist.

A dramatic example is the allied invasion of France in 1944. It was obvious to allied commanders that despite all their efforts and air power, a swift and massive German armored counter attack could smash their beachhead and throw them back to the sea. To prevent that, a tremendous dual effort of secrecy on one hand and active deception on the other hand, succeeded in misleading the Germans about where and when they where going to attack. The deception effort was so convincing that even after the invasion began, when the Germans obviously knew both the Where and When, they kept their main armor reserves away from the beachhead because they were still convinced that the invasion in Normandy is just a diversion attack to the main invasion which they expected in Calais. When they realized they were wrong it was much too late.

Security and Reserve

A complementary principle to the concentration of effort principle. Don't leave unprotected sectors, and also keep a reserve force to block a breach by the enemy, or to add it to the main attack at the right time and place to achieve a breakthrough. Don't really concentrate everything in one point, because if the enemy will act elsewhere, you're in trouble.

In the battle of Kursk, although the Russians built several lines of defense, one behind the other, the spearhead of the German Panzer attack was still able to break through all of them, but then, after they passed all those lines, the remaining German tanks were engaged by the Russian reserve, a large force of T-34 tanks which engaged them near the small village Prokhorovka and broke the German attack before it could do further damage behind the Russian lines.

In 1944, the Germans had a powerful armored strategic reserve in France. It was obvious that its job is to engage The Allies wherever they will invade and that it was capable of crushing the invasion force before it could be reinforced. A huge allied campaign of deception was performed mainly in order to mislead the Germans about where the invasion will take place. It's main purpose was to ensure that this strategic reserve will not be in Normandy and will not be sent to Normandy to stop the invasion. The deception succeeded, and so was the invasion of Normandy.

The French military in 1940 totally neglected to secure the West flank of France's northern border. In contradiction to their border with Germany which was very heavily fortified, the West flank, in the Ardennes, was very poorly defended by light infantry forces. It was so because the French Generals believed it was impassable (they also believed war was not likely..). They never tested that belief, but others did, including the famous military author B.H Liddell-Hart, who personally tested the Ardennes with his bicycles years before the war. The inevitable result was that in May 1940 the German armor force rushed deep into France through this unsecured section of the border and nothing was there to stop it. German victory in France was very quick and very decisive.


Different forces, especially from the different military branches, should cooperate and coordinate their efforts.

Other examples of good cooperation are when the artillery and air support attack where the ground forces need them to attack, the tanks and infantry protect each other, different ground forces coordinate their attacks, the intelligence provides the needed information when it's needed, fighter escorts and Navy warships are there where and when they're needed, and all forces are properly supplied.

Examples of bad cooperation are when forces are hit by their own air support, artillery fires at empty fields, the infantry is overrun by tanks, the tanks are ambushed by infantry in the woods or in urban areas, encirclement attempts fail, there's plenty of intelligence that doesn't help at all, fighter escorts and warship escorts are so far away when they're urgently needed, the tanks run out of fuel, and supplies are air-dropped right to the hands of the enemy.

The German Blitzkrieg tactic was so successful because it for the first time closely coordinated the efforts of the advancing tanks with the crushing potential of close support aircraft which were assigned to help them. The tactic was simple. The tanks should continue to advance rapidly, in order to keep their momentum and strength in the enemy territory in order to inflict maximum damage. . To achieve that they bypassed strong enemy positions where ever they could. Where they could not bypass the enemy, instead of stopping their advance to engage the enemy, they called for massive air support which rapidly removed the obstacle from the tanks' way. This allowed the Panzers to use their own firepower mainly for destroying light enemy units and Inflict maximum damage, instead of engaging strong enemy points. The result of this cooperation was shocking to the enemy.

Unity of command

A modern version of the cooperation principle. The idea is that to ensure optimal cooperation between the many commanders of all the various units and branches, which naturally have different views of the situation, different tactics and doctrines, and sometimes unrelated or even contradicting orders, is to bring all the units in the area of operations into one chain of command, so that all commanders receive their orders from one source, a supreme commander. This obviously results in better cooperation between the units under his command.

A negative example of the lack of unity of command can be found in the Japanese High Command, where the Japanese army and Navy almost fought two different wars. The army remained focused in its war in China while the Navy was focused in Pacific operations. The result was of course damaging, and so when US Marines occupied islands closer and closer to Japan, millions of Japanese army soldiers were practically stuck in China, unable to save their own country from invasion.

A positive example of unity of command is when Admiral Max Horton, a former submarine captain and commander of the British submarine force, took command of the battle against the German submarines in the North atlantic. Horton demanded and received command authority over all the naval and air units which were involved in anti-submarine warfare, and this allowed him to significantly improve their combined effort, achieve much better results than before, and defeat the U-boats.


"Don't stop, exploit success" - a victory in one battle can sometimes save other battles or even win the war if right after the battle is won, your forces continue to push forward, chase and decimate the retreating enemy forces, instead of giving them time to recover and build a second line of defence.

Dunkirk is perhaps the best example of the result of failing to exploit success by chase. At the peak of their successful Blitzkrieg advance into northern France in mid 1940, the German tanks were stopped, because General von Rundstedt still doubted their potential and tactics and insisted that they should wait for the infantry to catch up with them. The British army in France, as well as French forces, had no chance of survival against the German forces there at that time.

To save them, an immediate naval operation was made to rapidly evacuate them across the British Channel. 338,226 British and French soldiers were successfully evacuated. If the Germans continued their assault without stopping, those 338,226 men, the majority of the British army and a large French force, would have been destroyed or forced to surrender, and the war would have developed very differently.


"Keep it simple". Since battle is so complex and unpredictable, complex plans almost always fail. To succeed, a battle plan must be simple. Simple to understand, simple to execute, and simple to adapt to changes.

The most famous example of a battle plan which failed to achieve its objective because it required too much in order to succeed, even became a language term. "A bridge too far" is now a common language term for "too much", named after the movie about British operation "Market Garden" in September 1944. Operation Market Garden was a daring attempt to advance a long way, across several successive guarded river bridges in one strike, right into Germany. One bridge was not captured and so the heroic attempt failed to achieve its objective.

The principle of simplicity is also true for the design of weapon systems. While German tanks were sensitive to technical failures, needed a lot of maintenance, and were complex to produce, Russian and American tanks were mass-produced and were able to fight a long time with minimal field maintenance.


During all of history, it was too common that proud and aggressive military leaders were too focused with their grand battle plans and with the mission and fighting, that they neglected the plain basic needs of their combat forces, and their unheroic but essential auxiliary units. Typical results were that brave soldiers could not fight effectively because their military failed to properly provide them with (pick your favorite) water, food, fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, proper clothing, proper transportation, technical maintenance, spare parts, communication, proper intelligence gathering, proper intelligence distribution, digging equipment, worthy weapons that kill the target when aimed and fired properly, and the list goes on and on...

Neglecting to provide those brave soldiers with those essential needs is mostly stupid, sometimes even criminal, and many times it meant that the proud leader lost the war and his brave soldiers died, many of them not even by enemy fire, and it could all be prevented if they just did not so stupidly neglect a few basic needs.

The fact that the German army that invaded Russia in the summer of 1941 was so unequipped for the Russian winter, eight full years after Hitler became the dictator of Germany (with a firm intention to invade Russia), and over a century after Napoleon's grand army was decimated by the same Russian winter, was a criminal neglect. It cost the lives of so many thousands of dedicated German soldiers who died because they lacked all types of winter-ready equipment. They lacked not just winter clothing, but a large variety of types of equipment that they needed in order for them and their weapons and vehicles to continue to function in winter as they did in the summer. The only reason they lacked that was the neglect and over-confidence of Adolf Hitler and his top military planners. It cost them the entire war.


The psychological factor. The largest army, the best weapons, and the brightest Generals, are not enough if the soldiers don't believe in what they do, or in their ability to achieve the objective, so much that instead of fighting bravely and decisively they just want to get back to safety as soon as possible anyway possible. Low morale doesn't always means losing the war, but it's a major factor. To ensure high morale, the war objective, or even battle objective, should be perceived a reasonable, achievable, one that the soldiers will identify with, or at least accept.

The series of great successes of Japan's assault in South East Asia between December 1941 and February 1942 eroded the morale of British defenders in the strategically important Singapore to such a level that when they were eventually attacked, they quickly surrendered. General Yamashita who captured Singapore said after the war that his attack was a bluff, a bluff which succeeded. His force was very low on water, ammunition, and fuel, and the Japanese estimated that if the defenders held for one more week, and they could, the Japanese attack would have failed.

A lack of morale in a larger scale was seen in the French military and political leadership in 1940. The German attack was a great victory not just because of the Blitzkrieg tactic and the quality of the German military which was then at its best, but also because of the paralysis and inactivity of the French Generals. They thought there will be no war in their time, they didn't think that kind of modern war was possible, they were not prepared for any scenario other than the one they expected, and therefore they were totally shocked when it came to them at such force. A classic example of being mentally unprepared for war.

Principles of War Summary

Some of the principles of war overlap. Some of them seem to contradict each other. That's because in different situations some principles are more suitable than others. As Sun Tzu said, the wise commander will adapt the principles to the specific situation.

If we try to group those principles into a shorter generic list, this is what we get :

Sea and Air warfare

While in land warfare occupation of land, or specific places, is often more important than the killing of enemy forces, the unique nature of the mediums of sea and air makes killing targets the essence of fighting in those mediums. There are other missions, but essentially, war at sea is mainly sinking enemy ships while protecting yours. And air war is mainly destroying enemy planes and attacking specific ground and sea targets. Advanced technology and professionalism were also always much more crucial in sea and air warfare than in land warfare. Here are some sub-principles for air war, which are an adaptation of the general principles of war to the specific features of air war :

Air Superiority

"Air superiority is the ultimate expression of military power." - Winston Churchill.
"Air superiority is a condition for all operations, at sea, in land, and in the air." - Air Marshal Arthur Tedder.

In order to fully use its war potential, and to deny it from the enemy Air Force, the Air Force should first focus on winning its own war against the enemy Air Force, so that it would then be able to fly quite freely over the theater of operations, and massively attack the targets below.

Killing Targets

"Anyone who fights, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy who dominates the air, is like a primitive warrior who stands against modern forces, with the same limitations and the same chance of success." - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
The Air Force should focus on its ability to rapidly destroy many targets of various types. That's what gives it its decisive strength.

Prioritization, Operational-Strategic warfare

For optimal results, the Air Force should prioritize its target list. More decisive results are usually achieved by attacking strategic and operational targets, rather than tactical targets.

Example: to support the ground forces in stopping an enemy armor attack, attacking the enemy ammunition and fuel convoys that supply the tanks is better than attacking the tanks themselves in the battlefield. Destroying bridges to slow down their advancement to the battlefield is even better, and destroying the enemy's national fuel sources or depots, or the tank industry (in case of a long war), is even better.

Related essays:
Blitzkrieg (10 minutes read)
German Field Marshals (13 minutes read)
World War 2 RADAR (6 minutes read)
The Battle of Stalingrad (12 minutes read)
World War 2 submarines (6 minutes read)
T-34 Tank (4 minutes read)
When did Hitler lose the war ? (7 minutes read)
The Battle of Kursk (8 minutes read)
The Battle of Britain (8 minutes read)
World War 2 Summary (6 minutes read)

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