Basic Concepts

War Fighting

There are many places where you could go to learn about the weapons and tactics employed in real wars, in an attempt to create futuristic analogues for the purpose of science fiction writing. However, on a more fundamental level there are a number of universal strategic war-fighting concepts which could be applied to war-fighting in any era, from the time of Alexander the Great to the present and future.

Keep Your Eye On The Goal

The first step in any military action is to define objectives. If objectives are clearly defined and prioritized, realistic, and chosen for maximum effect against the enemy's strategic centre of gravity, then its chances of success are high. If, on the other hand, objectives are muddled, impossible, self-contradictory, or misguided, then it may well be doomed to failure regardless of the brilliance of its commanders or the skill and tenacity of its soldiers.

A prominent historical example would be the US Vietnam War, where the goal was to prevent the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, but military forces attempted to do so by treating it like a conventional army and destroying its military forces and support infrastructure. Many military victories were won in open battle, but the insurgency was not weakened despite years of attrition, and US forces were compelled to withdraw when their homeland population grew weary of the human and financial cost of the war. In short, objectives were misdirected because the insurgency was a socio-political movement, and hence it was only invigorated by US actions that incited anger and resentment. In other words, the strategic centre of gravity of the movement was psychological rather than military.

Another historical example was the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, where there was considerable confusion about the prioritizing of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad as targets. Worse yet, the overall objectives were numerous and worked against each other: Hitler wanted Russian material resources, but he also wanted to exterminate Bolsheviks, Slavs, and Jews. These objectives could not be mutually maintained without some compromise: the seizure of Russian resources was made far more difficult by the campaign to brutalize Slavs and Bolsheviks, which sapped time and created hatred and resistance movements. And when Stalingrad became a hotly contested battleground, Hitler decided to change his objectives in mid-stream, and make Stalingrad a top priority target for no apparent reason other than stubbornness and pride. Strategic missteps like this led to the campaign ultimately being a disastrous failure, as the eventual Russian counter-attack drove Hitler's forces all the way back to Berlin.

The lesson of history is clear: military operations which fail to maintain a clear, realistic, and well-directed objective will fail to achieve strategic objectives at best, and lead to utter catastrophe at worst. In science fiction, the most well-known example of failing to maintain an objective would have to be Emperor Palpatine's spectacular mistake in the Battle of Endor, where his objective was to destroy the Rebellion by forcing a decisive engagement. He also wanted Luke Skywalker as a new apprentice, but he did not appear to prioritize these two goals properly, thus risking the major objective for the sake of the minor one. Tactics and strategies were chosen for maximum psychological effect on Skywalker, not for maximum effectiveness against the Rebels. In the end, the major objective was lost, along with the minor objective.

Concentrate Your Forces

The principle of force concentration applies from the smallest scale to the largest. The earliest man-made weapons employed this principle at its most basic level: using a sharpened spear-tip to apply maximum physical force to the smallest possible point. On a larger scale, if a medieval general became aware of two weaker enemy armies attempting to link up into a superior combined army, his logical course of action would be to either retreat from this combined force or aggressively move to attack one of them before it could rendezvous with the other one. This would allow him to concentrate many against few. And at the national scale with which strategists concern themselves, the principle of force concentration could mean anything from assassinating an enemy leader to besieging his capital city. But in all cases, the basic principle is the same: bringing overwhelming force to bear against localized points of enemy weakness.

Pitched battle is not the only possible application of the principle of force concentration. If the enemy has a critical weakness in his psychology, then the principle of force concentration means that you would apply overwhelming force to that point of weakness instead. Gandhi put this concept into action by attacking the psychology of the occupying British people rather than their military forces, with displays of martyrdom and “passive resistance”. In other words, he concentrated his human resources against the enemy's strategic centre of gravity in a non-military fashion, in order to achieve the same strategic goal which he could have tried (and failed) to accomplish through conventional military action. Alternatively, in a war of attrition, the enemy's industrial capability may be his most important target, so Allied forces in World War 2 devoted enormous resources toward punishing bombing campaigns against enemy factories, bridges, shipyards, etc.

In science fiction, the principle of strategic concentration of forces is not often shown well. While it is common to see small forces being attacked by much larger forces, it is usually not depicted as the result of strategic decisions or trade-offs. Instead, it is almost invariably depicted as the result of the enemy simply having such a large surplus of military power that he will inevitably appear at any battle with a significant advantage. Where you do often see force concentration in science fiction is in areas such as assassinations, espionage, or diplomacy. In fact, the use of diplomacy (usually combined with an espionage coup) often causes antagonist forces to back down at the last moment in Star Trek, thus (conveniently) preventing wars just in time to end an episode.

Seize the Initiative

Sun Tzu once said that invincibility lies in defense, but the possibility of victory is in offense. In other words, you may use a strong defense to stave off defeat, but you must attack in order to achieve victory. Napoleon was an exemplar in this regard: his campaigns were characterized by bold slashing thrusts to strike enemy targets, cut off avenues of retreat, or isolate armies. Another example was the defeat of Hannibal of Carthage. The Romans were unable to defeat Hannibal by defending the Italian peninsula against his roving attacks, but they were able to seize the initiative when they attacked his home city of Carthage, thus forcing him to return home to defend it.

The act of attacking an enemy takes the initiative from him, by reducing his freedom of action. To use a boxing analogy, if I throw a punch at your head, this reduces your freedom of action. You have little choice but to alter your movements and plans in order to avoid the punch or limit its damage. Therefore, he who seizes the initiative forces the enemy to react defensively to his movements, thus limiting his ability to create and implement offensive plans of his own. Hence the popular saying: “the best defense is a good offense”.

Of course, this does not mean that you should attack constantly or neglect your own defenses. Reckless application of this principle could be disastrous; one would obviously wait for a good opportunity, meaning that one possesses the resources to launch a successful attack which would force the enemy to change his plans. If the attack is a mere nuisance, then the enemy would not have to change his plans to compensate, and you would be vulnerable while your forces are committed. Returning to the Russian example, they simply could not attack during the initial stages of the Nazi invasion in 1941, so their defensive efforts for the first year performed the function of buying time until they could finally amass enough military power to launch powerful counterattacks.

In fiction, it is a matter of dramatic convention that the enemy almost always has the initiative. Enemies calmly implement sinister plans and commit terrible atrocities while heroes desperately scurry about, reacting to those plans by trying to thwart them or limit their consequences. This actually illustrates the value of seizing the initiative; in fiction the hero is often more powerful or energetic than the enemy (he often needs to be), but is nevertheless forced onto the defensive by the enemy's initiative. Typically, the hero is victorious anyway (usually due to some fantastic good luck and/or a grievous error on the part of the enemy), but the importance of seizing the initiative is still clear.

Use the Element of Surprise

This is virtually self-explanatory, and it mostly has to do with speed and information control. Specifically, the ability to surprise the enemy depends greatly on your information gathering being superior to his information gathering, and upon your ability to move quickly and stealthily. The more quickly and stealthily you can move, the more likely he will be unable to gather information on your attack or be unable to react in time. The more (accurate and useful) information you have, the less likely that you will be surprised. Speed is almost important in terms of your ability to quickly deal out damage. The greatest advantage of surprise is in the early moments.

The best known example of the element of surprise is probably the infamous Pearl Harbour attack of 1941, when the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, devastating the American Pacific fleet and inflicting thousands of casualties. What is not as well known is that once the American sailors overcame their initial shock and disorientation, they were able to stiffen their defense, and the second wave of the Japanese attack suffered twice as many casualties as the first wave, despite the great destruction already wreaked upon the base and its defenders. This example illustrates both the value of surprise and the importance of doing as much damage as possible quickly, before the enemy can regroup.

Not every surprise need be as dramatic as Pearl Harbour, where the defenders were completely unsuspecting. Any ambush is also an example of the element of surprise; the targets may be battle-ready but they will not be expecting the abrupt increase in tempo or the attack from unexpected directions. An ancient example comes at the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal's centre fell back, but his left and right wing remained in place. The Romans recklessly chased the retreating centre until it stopped fleeing, at which point they were surprised to find that they were surrounded on three sides. They were eventually surrounded completely, and the entire Roman army was virtually annihilated. This catastrophe stands as one of the worst single-day battlefield losses of all time, and might have forced any other nation to the negotiating table. However, the Romans were too stubborn for that, so they simply raised another army and continued to fight. This kind of obstinacy should not be counted upon; apart from Russia, it is difficult to think of other nations which would behave this way.

Other forms of surprise involve a combatant simply misjudging the severity of his situation; as one of Murphy's Laws of Combat states, "the enemy diversion you're ignoring is actually the main attack". Also, unexpected qualitative abilities can surprise the enemy. During the Iraq War of 1991, Iraqi soldiers were shocked and demoralized by the unexpected effectiveness of high-tech American weapons and superior American training and tactics, not to mention the unexpected ineffectiveness of their own weapons (inferior Iraqi-made shells were virtually useless against American tank armour).

In science fiction, the element of surprise is a very widely used plot point. In fact, the majority of combat actions in science fiction seem to involve one side or the other possessing the element of surprise. Captain James T. Kirk was caught completely by surprise when fired upon at close range in “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan” (albeit largely due to his own incompetence) and his ship was heavily damaged. He was able to survive only by surprising Khan in turn, with an unexpected technical trick. The Rebel fleet was caught by surprise when lured into a trap at Endor in “Star Wars Episode 6: Return of the Jedi”, leading to the loss of many ships, although they recovered the initiative when Han Solo's covert team succeeded in its sabotage mission (also thanks to the element of surprise). The Black Star was caught by surprise when it chased Captain Sheridan's crippled vessel into a prepared space in “Babylon 5: In The Beginning”, and was completely destroyed by impromptu nuclear mines. The Colonial fleet was taken by surprise when the Cylons attacked during a peace treaty negotiation in “Battlestar Galactica”, and as a result it was mostly destroyed.

Maintain your Morale

All of the great military writers of the past have written extensively on the importance of morale. It is often said to be the most important element of all, and for good reason: you can hardly win a battle if your troops fervently wish to desert, flee, or surrender to the enemy, or if their reflexes and co-ordination are severely degraded by fatigue. Severely demoralized units can eventually become combat-ineffective. Morale is affected by a great many factors. A professional army generally has greater morale than a conscript army. An army which believes in its cause has greater morale than an army which fights solely because it is ordered to. A fresh army has greater morale than a tired army. An army which has taken light casualties will have greater morale than an army which has taken heavy casualties. A well-trained army has greater morale than a poorly trained army. A well-equipped army has greater morale than a poorly equipped army. A well-fed army has greater morale than a starving army. Army units which are frequently rotated away from the front will have higher morale than army units which remain on the front constantly. The mere presence of heavy units such as tanks can increase morale. Suppression of enemy propaganda can increase morale.

Ancient examples of poor morale leading to defeat are legion. Ancient armies depended heavily on formations and pre-planned tactics. Without radios and other modern communication devices, it was very difficult to co-ordinate complex maneuvers, alter plans in mid-stream, or even inform unit commanders of how well the battle is going. As a result, battles tended to be dominated by doctrine, and any unexpected development could be devastating to morale. After all, a soldier in one particular unit might have little or no idea how well the battle is going. Alexander the Great took advantage of this regularly, by changing his tactics and doing the unexpected. The chaos and confusion of battle and the limited availability of information meant that simply seeing an enemy unit where they were not supposed to be (eg- on your flank, or behind you) could instantly induce panic, and cause soldiers to break ranks and flee. This could easily become contagious and spread throughout the army, so that it becomes a full-scale rout.

The most well-known recent example of poor morale causing a military defeat is the Vietnam War. The soldiers had muddled objectives and poor top-level leadership, they were largely conscripts, they did not necessarily believe in the cause, the environment was extremely taxing, and they knew the war was increasingly unpopular back home. Nevertheless, despite all of these morale problems, they generally performed well enough on the battlefield to defeat the enemy whenever they encountered him. But homeland morale was a different matter. The American people had been slowly drawn into a protracted war with no clear national interest, they were seeing disturbing news footage from the front, and war fatigue was setting in. In 1968, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive: a co-ordinated multi-pronged surprise attack consisting of many tens of thousands of men. Despite its size and the element of surprise, the Tet Offensive was actually a military failure. The better-trained and better-equipped American forces quickly recovered from the initial surprise and crushed the offensive, while inflicting heavy casualties upon the qualitatively inferior North Vietnamese forces. However, the Tet Offensive came as a devastating shock to the American civilian population, because their political leaders had been boldly predicting that they were on the verge of total victory, and the war portrayed as “winding down”. The resulting public uproar and loss of trust in the political leadership eventually forced the Americans to withdraw their troops from Vietnam. In other words, the deciding factor was the morale of the American people, not the troops. Something similar happened in 1993, when the Mogadishu battle came as a huge shock to an American population which was not paying attention to what they viewed as a trivial side-story. Pictures of the bodies of only two dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets were completely unexpected and caused a huge political uproar, resulting in the withdrawal of American troops from the region.

In science fiction, morale is a sadly underutilized concept, and where it is mentioned, it is often conceived in the most childish possible manner. Entire cultures are said to be “warlike” and thus are presumably willing to “fight to the death”. Armies where soldiers are habitually mistreated or executed for minor infractions of protocol are considered “hardcore” and assumed to be superior in every way, including morale. Constant fighting with no respite seems to have little or no deleterious effect on unit cohesion or effectiveness. Fatigue seems like an entirely superficial concept, manifested only as poor hygiene and irritability, and vanishing the moment battle begins. No matter how horrific a battle is, you will generally not see someone cowering in a hole or curling up into a ball and going catatonic. No exhausted pilot ever falls asleep at the controls of his spacecraft. No operator ever pushes the wrong button or makes the wrong call due to judgement impaired by fatigue. Soldiers never commit suicide, except in some act of heroic sacrifice. Sometimes there may be a logical explanation for this: genetically engineered soldiers like the Republic clonetroopers in “Star Wars” or the Jem'Hadar in “Deep Space Nine” may very well have a radically different response to stress and fatigue than a naturally evolved being, at least until they hit some sort of breaking point. Armies of robots or droids would obviously be immune to morale problems (although they would have their own issue: maintenance problems). However, in most cases the reason is that the writers simply do not understand.

Create Momentum

To be completed


Offense versus Defense

To be completed

Flexibility versus Efficiency

Efficiency is generally considered a good thing (particularly by accountants), but it is often the enemy of flexibility and reliability. A sports team with no backup players is efficient (it is not wasting money on backup player salaries), but it is inflexible. If something unexpected happens (such as an injury), they will be unable to compensate. Similarly, a nuclear power plant with only one emergency shutdown system would be more efficient than a nuclear power plant with four emergency shutdown systems (it would not use money and space for redundant shutdown systems), but it would be less reliable.

An armed force should be like that nuclear power plant: it should ideally have the flexibility to response to all realistic scenarios, and maybe even some slightly unrealistic ones. Of course, scholars might disagree on what constitutes a realistic scenario. Nevertheless, if the armed force is only capable of dealing with a narrow range of projections, it could be defeated by an unexpected development. No one can precisely forecast the future. Disasters might happen, new adversaries might appear, setbacks might occur, plans might not go as well as expected.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unwittingly demonstrated this problem when he planned the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 with maximum efficiency in mind (as one might expect of a successful businessman), and made the mistake of assuming that everything would go according to plan (as one might expect of an imbecile). It did not, and in his single-minded zeal to maximize efficiency, he initially refused to acknowledge the problem and then petulantly dragged his heels on allocating resources to compensate for this unexpected development.

The issue of efficiency versus flexibility does not seem to come up often in science fiction, which is not unexpected since resource limitations are rarely mentioned in general. Armed forces in science fiction seem to either be villains with limitless resources or heroes with no resources. However, villains often foolishly squander their resources or commit them all to a narrow plan of action, with no ability to deal with unexpected developments. Emperor Palpatine, for example, deliberately allowed the Rebels to land a covert team on Endor in Star Wars Episode 6, and he obviously never considered what might happen if that team should actually succeed in its mission. There was absolutely no contingency plan for that possibility (if he had simply ordered large pieces of structural material or equipment welded into the Death Star tunnels before the battle, the Rebels fighters would have crashed and burned, and the Death Star would have survived). A villain who actually does do any contingency planning is typically viewed as an “evil genius”.

Force versus Finesse

To be completed

Ethics versus Effectiveness

To be completed


Warfighting throughout history has been heavily influenced by certain fundamentals: balance of power, prioritization of goals, force concentration, initiative, surprise, morale, and momentum. Planners have been forced to find a balance between opposing ideas: offense versus defense, flexibility versus efficiency, force versus finesse, ethics vs effectiveness. When describing the actions and plans of fictional military adversaries, one would do well to keep these factors in mind. It is all too easy to portray victory in war as a matter of pyrotechnics, clever tricks, moral superiority, or sheer luck. This suits Hollywood convention, but it is facile and does a disservice to the audience, as well as all of the people who have fought in real wars throughout history.

Continue to Weapons of Astronomical Destruction

Jump to: