Principles of War

The Principles of War are the principles expressing the rules of military thought and actions that serve as the permanent basis for combat doctrine. The application of the Principles of War differs at different levels and for different operations. Their relative importance can be expected to vary from event to event.

The Principles of War are the principles expressing the rules of military thought and actions that serve as the permanent basis for combat doctrine.
The list of principles is a methodological tool that differs from army to army and from era to era. While the principles remain the same, the list morphs according to time and place, with application always dependent on context.

The Principles of War have evolved over a long period of time. The evolution can be categorized into three stages:
  • Pre-BC to Napoleonic war era.
  • Napoleonic era to the end of World War II.
  • Post-World War II era.

Pre-BC to Napoleonic War Era

Kautilya: Two remarkable treatises in the pre-BC era from Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is the oldest treatise known to exist which throws some light on the ancient Indian strategic culture. Kautilya enunciated the following factors involved in planning a campaign:

  • Power in terms of strength of fighting forces, enthusiasm and energy.
  • Place of operation, type of terrain and selection of ground of own choosing.
  • Time of military engagement.
  • Season for marching towards the battleground.
  • When to mobilise different types of forces.
  • The possibility of revolts and rebellions in the rear.
  • Likely losses, expenses, and gains.
  • Likely dangers.

Sun TzuAround 500 BC, Sun Tzu in his book, The Art of War, captured how military operations are influenced by uncontrollable factors. The major guidelines that Sun Tzu used to explain how military operations should be conducted are deception, intelligence, initiative, maneuver, logistics, leadership, and morale. Niccolo Machiavelli: Niccolo Machiavelli published his book, The Art of War, in 1521. Machiavelli puts forth what he calls general rules for military discipline. Some of the conclusions that can be drawn from his rules are: the importance of morale, security, surprise, discipline, need for reserves, know yourself and know your enemy, use of terrain, logistics, intelligence, and objective.

Maurice de Saxe: Maurice de Saxe was one of the most successful and colorful military leaders in Europe. The theory of Saxe is found in his book Reveries, which was published in 1757. Saxe did not present a list of principles, rules or maxims in his work. But in his short book, he provided clear instructions. Saxe placed emphasis on the need for administration, logistics, morale, deception, initiative, leadership and discipline.

Frederick the Great: One man who learned from the theories of Saxe was Frederick the Great. Frederick’s book, Instructions for the Generals, is the theory of a great military commander. Though he offered no list of principles, Frederick’s book does offer maxims for success. The aspects that Frederick the Great stressed in his work are logistics, maneuver, security, cultural awareness, morale, initiative, and leadership.

Napoleonic Era to World War II

Napoleon: The successes of Frederick the Great were dwarfed by the man some call the greatest military leader of all time. Napoleon fought more battles than Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar combined. His methods revolutionized warfare and dominated military thinking for most of the 19th century. The military exploits of Napoleon contributed greatly to the evolution of the Principles of War. Napoleon never wrote his theories of war, but his maxims were recorded and provide some insights to his genius, Napoleon’s maxims clearly illustrate what he thought to be important for victory in war.

Napoleon points to discipline, leadership, momentum, maneuver, mass, firepower, logistics, intelligence, morale, security, initiative, objective and unity of command.

: The most important theorist to interpret the successes of Napoleon was Antoine-Henri Jomini (1779-1869). Jomini perhaps did more for the Principles of War than any theorist before him and he certainly became the catalyst for those who would follow. Jomini, born in Switzerland, joined the French Army under Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon recognised Jomini and, in admiration of his brilliant mind, awarded him with a regular Colonel’s Commission. However, he was denied promotion as a result of the treachery of Berthier, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff and his arch rival. Jomini resigned from the French Army and accepted a commission as full general in the Russian Army under Alexander. He founded the Nicholas Military Academy in Moscow in 1832. Before his death at the age of 90, Jomini wrote 27 volumes on the subject of military history and theory. Jomini wrote a summary of the Art of War. He defined the principles in four maxims:

  • How men should be directed at decisive points against enemy lines of communication while protecting your own.
  • Manoeuvre with strength against enemy weakness.
  • Throw the mass of force onto the enemy’s decisive point.
  • A mass force so it is not only used against the decisive point but at the proper time with the proper amount of force.

Carl von Clausewitz: Carl Von Clausewitz, 1780-1831, a prolific writer on the strategy of the same period, produced On War and The Principles of War. Jomini and Clausewitz disagreed over the question of whether war is a science or an art. Yet, in many aspects, they were in striking agreement with each other. Carl von Clausewitz was outspoken in his arguments against Jomini’s works. Clausewitz viewed Jomini’s theory as being “one-sided” and strove to provide a more complete, well-rounded approach to the theory of warfare through the creation of numerous works. On War achieved widespread acclaim and was probably his greatest work.

However, while Clausewitz is today considered as an outstanding theorist of war, his works are complex and difficult to read, with his true meaning often obscure. In contrast, Jomini’s lucid and prescriptive works, in particular, his exposition of the fundamental Principles of War, have brought both clarity to military planning and operations, and a valuable, well-used framework for the study and teaching of warfare. Clausewitz may be more significant for scholars, but for two centuries, Jomini has proved of more use to practical military professionals.

Ferdinand Foch: Foch struggled with the moral and material factors of war and attempted to explain them by combining the two. Foch’s ideas reflect the work of another great French soldier, Ardant du Pieq, who wrote about the influence of morale and the human element in war. Foch’s ideas are

credited by some historians to be the birth of the modern list of principles. Foch was able to combine the ideas from both sides of the debate over the Principles of War into his theory, which he insisted to first consist of a number of principles. Foch never claimed how many principles there were, but he listed four: economy of force, freedom of action, free disposition of forces, and security.
World War I forced every country to review its doctrine in the light of the costly lessons learned in the war. The Principles of War again became the subject of debate in most major militaries. Great Britain appointed a committee to review the Principles of War and what role they should have in doctrine. The committee was formed in 1919 and among the invited guests to address the committee was J F C Fuller. Fuller urged the committee to consider the inclusion of the principles in the British military doctrine. Fuller definitely influenced the committee on the need to include the principles of
doctrine and perhaps what form they should take.

Principles of War, Great Britain, 1920

In 1920, the British Army published what they claimed to be the “Principles of War.” The eight principles included a title and a brief definition. They closely resembled Fuller’s principles of strategy. The difference was that the list was titled the Principles of War, not of strategy or tactics. The titles of the eight principles were:

  • Maintenance of the Objective.
  • Offensive Action.
  • Surprise.
  • Concentration.
  • Economy of Force.
  • Security
  • Mobility
  • Cooperation.

This was not the origin of the Principles of War, just as Fuller’s article was not the origin, but a definite mutation along their long evolutionary path. It was the emergence of the Principles of War into accepted operational terminology, no longer just in theory, but doctrine. In the years that followed, many militaries, including of the United States, would adopt the Principles of War into doctrine, but it was the British who did it first.

The United States Army published the Principles of War in a doctrine barely a year after the British Army. Like the British Army, the United States Army was also influenced by the work of J F C Fuller. Unlike the British, who expanded on the list of Fuller, the United States adopted Fuller’s list completely, with only one exception: adding the principle of simplicity.

During World War II, one of the most famous leaders in the British Army was Field Marshal Bernard I Montgomery. During the war, Montgomery published several pamphlets for his forces. In one pamphlet, he listed eight Principles of War significantly different from those published at the time. Montgomery introduced air power, administration, and morale to the modern list; he also adopted the principle of simplicity. After the war, Montgomery led the way to change the Principles of War in the British doctrine. The British adopted ten principles which have remained very similar to this day.

Post-World War II Era

In 1949, the Principles of War that were adapted to the US doctrine were:

  • The Objective.
  • Simplicity.
  • Unity of Command.
  • The Offensive.
  • Manoeuvre.
  • Mass.
  • Economy of Forces.
  • Surprise.
  • Security.

Subsequently, the US Army doctrine, Operation Field Manual FM 100 – 5, has been revised number of times. However, the basic Principles of War remain the same. It is by and large true for all the other armed forces of the world.

Analysis of the Present Principles of War

British Defence Doctrine Joint Warfare publication 0-01 (JWP 0-01) dated October 2001 gives the Principles of War as:

  • Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.
  • Maintenance of Morale.
  • Offensive Action.
  • Security.
  • Surprise.
  • Concentration of Force.
  • Economy of Effort.
  • Flexibility.
  • Cooperation.
  • Sustainability.

In 1990, the US military introduced principles for “Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW)” as:

  • Objective.
  • Unity of Effort.
  • Legitimacy.
  • Perseverance.
  • Restraint.
  • Security.

This implied that there is a difference between war operations and other military operations. The US military has since recognised the fallacy of different Principles of War for MOOTW. In the Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States Joint Publications (JP–1) the original nine Principles of War (i.e. Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Manoeuvre, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity) are included and three unique Principles of MOOTW – Restraint, Perseverance, and Legitimacy – have been added. These three additional Principles of War are explained below:

Perseverance: The purpose of perseverance is to ensure the commitment necessary to attain the national strategic end state. The patient, resolute and persistent pursuit of national goals and objectives often is a requirement for success. This will frequently involve diplomatic, economic and informational measures to supplement military efforts.

Legitimacy: The purpose of legitimacy is to develop and maintain the will necessary to attain the national strategic end state. Legitimacy is based on the legality, morality, and rightness of the actions undertaken.

Restraint: The purpose of restraint is to limit collateral damage and prevent the unnecessary use of force. A single act could cause significant military and political consequences; therefore, judicious use of force is necessary. Restraint requires the careful and disciplined balancing of the need for security, the conduct of military operations and the national strategic end state.

Some of the Commonwealth countries have followed the British set of Principles of War. It is interesting to note that the German Army has not laid down any Principles of War. This has been done deliberately by them since they want to avoid the dangers of oversimplification and encapsulation of military concepts and principles. The Germans believe that only by an in-depth and continuing study of war can one develop the judgment to make good decisions in specific situations. They think that no simple set of rules or principles can substitute for a true understanding of the complexity of war. The Germans insist that their officers must develop an in-depth knowledge of military history. They could then apply the knowledge and thought processes developed in that study to the specific inevitably unique situation they faced.