(Parts of this posting are from my upcoming book “The Techniques of War”, albeit as a very condensed version. Please note that this is NOT a comprehensive view of these two very important concepts).
There exists some confusion regarding the differences between strategy and tactics. Whereas this is understandable when talking to people who are not part of the military, it is frightening to know that there are senior military men who do not know the difference between the two and how they inter-relate to one another.
To fully understand the difference between the two, one needs to understand the meanings of the words, both being derived from the Greek “stratēgos” and “taktikē”.
Strategy is derived from the Greek words “stratos” and “ago”, implying or referring to the leading of, and giving direction to, an army. In modern warfare, the army is led to achieve the political aims of the government it serves. Therefore, a country’s military strategy is an off-shoot of the government’s greater political strategy, known as the Grand or National Strategy.
“Taktikē” is the art of organising and coordinating an army so that it may do battle, using the correct techniques to overcome the enemy. In brief, these techniques – referred to as “tactics” – are relevant to the various phases of warfare.
The above definitions lead one to realise that strategy gives direction and strategic aim to the military and the tactics are the methods or techniques employed to achieve those aims. Furthermore, this implies that strategy is executed at the highest levels of the military whereas tactics permeates downwards to the lower levels such as unit and sub-unit level and even lower.
When a nation’s armed forces are committed to war, the war is fought at three distinct yet inter-related levels. These three levels are:
1. Strategic Level
2. Operational Level
3. Tactical Level
Warfare at the strategic level can be broken down into four distinctive types of strategic warfare. These four types are:
1. Offensive Warfare
2. Defensive Warfare
3. Attrition Warfare
4. Revolutionary Warfare.
Again, the aims and objectives of the different types of strategic warfare are determined by the government’s national policies which are in turn derived from the Government’s National or Grand Strategy. The decision to implement one of the types of strategic warfare is dependent on the perceived threat facing the nation. This threat is determined by a process of collecting information and processing it into intelligence.
Each type of Strategic Warfare can be further broken down into different sub-types of warfare. As an example, Offensive Warfare can be subdivided into either a Distant Strategic Offensive or a Close Strategic Offensive – the type being determined by the proximity of the offensive.
At the Operational Level, usually confined to a specific theatre of operations, the military strategy is accomplished by the setting of operational objectives, within that specific theatre, to meet the military strategy’s goals. Poor planning, non-compliance to doctrine and inadequate tactics can result in failure, thus impacting negatively on the overall military strategy.
The tactical level is that level where the techniques to attain the strategy are implemented by various unit levels such as a division, a brigade, a company or even a section. It is, therefore, at the tactical level that tactics come into play. The tactics employed will be dependent on numerous factors such as the phase of war, the enemy, the terrain, the weather, own forces capabilities, the local population and so forth.
Whereas the principle aim of war is to always achieve victory over the enemy, regardless of the type of warfare, the modern-day war can be viewed as having five main strategic goals:
1. To repulse an aggressive act by the enemy, contain and destroy it.
2. To invade, conquer and destroy an enemy.
3. To seize and exploit the resources of an enemy.
4. To energise foreign policy by means other than diplomacy.
5. To gain favourable public opinion and strengthen national resolve and will.
To achieve these strategic goals, the military will adopt a specific posture in order to accomplish its allocated mission. The posture will thus be determined by the perceived enemy threat and will therefore determine the military’s doctrine and tactics.
The tactics, in turn, are related to the specific phase of warfare that is being implemented. These phases - excluding the intermediate or transitional phases - are:
1. The advance
2. The attack
3. The withdrawal
4. The defence
Sound military strategies will lead to well-developed doctrines, good planning based on sound intelligence and correct application of tactics. It is, however, at the tactical level that the war can be either won or lost.