Principles of warfare

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Principles of warfare are the evolved concepts, laws, rules and methods that guide the conduct of combat related activities during conflicts. Throughout history, soldiers, military theorists, political leaders, philosophers, academic scholars, practitioners of international law and human rights advocacy groups have sought to determine fundamental rules for the conduct of warfare. Principles of warfare impact on the health and security of civilian populations in a zone of conflict, human and natural environment, social networks and groups, rural and urban societies, national and international economic relations, political structures and international diplomacy, and the means and methods by which conflicts are brought to conclusion. These approaches have been both prescriptive, stating what activities are forbidden in warfare by law, ethical considerations, or religious beliefs, and descriptive, analyzing the best practices and means by which armed forces can achieve victory.

Prescriptive principles of warfare[edit]

Ancient principles[edit]

The Book of Deuteronomy prescribes how the Israelite army was to fight, including dealing with plunder, enslavement of the enemy women and children and forbidding the destruction of fruit-bearing trees.

Modern principles[edit]

The Hague and Geneva Conventions
See: Hague Conventions, Geneva Conventions

20th century issues
There are several issues where appropriate the laws of land warfare are ambiguous or obsolescent. Among these are the use of private contractors as soldiers or private armies and whether they are mercenaries or not under international conventions.

In addition, several classes of weapons, such as land mines or cluster bombs, have been decried by non-governmental organizations and some governments as inherently inhumane. However, the United States has refused to denounce the use of these weapons. In the case of land mines, the U.S. position is that all U.S.-planted mines are clearly marked and mapped, and that all U.S.-planted mines can be deactivated by remote command. The People's Liberation Army also continues to use land mines.

A third issue is the prisoner status of members of organizations which use methods to terrorise society such as al-Qaeda. The United States interprets the laws of land warfare in such a way as to exclude captives from these organizations from the status of prisoner of war. Other nations and several international organizations believe that the U.S. interpretation is too narrow and can lead to abuse of innocent parties.

Descriptive principles of warfare[edit]

Sun Tzu[edit]

Sun Tzu's The Art of War, written approximately in 400 B.C., listed five basic factors for a commander to consider:

  • The Moral Law, or discipline and unity of command
  • Heaven, or weather factors
  • Earth, or the terrain
  • The Commander;
  • Method and discipline, which included logistics and supply

However, Sun Tzu implied individual initiative as a principle of warfare, stating "According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans."

19th Century Western theoreticians[edit]

Carl von Clausewitz, in his book Vom Kriege (On War) published in 1832, and Antoine Henri Jomini in his book, Precis de l'Art de Guerre, published in 1838, developed theories of warfare based on the concepts and methods used during the Napoleonic Wars. Clausewitz's approach was more theoretical than that of Jomini.

Colonel Ardant du Picq, a French infantry officer who was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, prepared drafts based on his observations of military history which became the book Battle Studies. In it two of Du Picq's observations stand out:

  • Combat is the object, the cause of being, and the supreme manifestation of an army and must be the focus of training, even in peacetime.
  • The human element is more important than theories. War is still more of an art than a science.[1]

Applied Principles of Warfare[edit]

Admiral William S. Sims, who commanded the U.S. Navy's contribution to the British Grand Fleet in World War I, wrote of the U.S. Naval War College:

The college aims to supply principles, not rules, and by training, develop the habit of applying these principles logically, correctly, and rapidly to each situation that may arise.

This habit can be acquired only through considerable practice, hence the numerous problems in strategy and tactics.[2]

Modern NATO principles of warfare[edit]

The British military theorist and historian Major-General J.F.C. Fuller developed a set of eight principles of warfare between 1912 and 1924:

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

In 1994, the U.S. Army's Field Manual 100–5 listed the following basic principles:

  • Objective: Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive and attainable objective. "The ultimate military purpose of war is the destruction of the enemy's armed forces and will to fight."
  • Offensive: Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Even in defense, a military organization is expected to maintain a level of aggressiveness by patrolling and launching limited counter-offensives.
  • Mass: Mass the effects of overwhelming combat power at the decisive place and time.
  • Economy of Force: Employ all combat power available in the most effective way possible; allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.
  • Maneuver: Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power.
  • Unity of Command: For every objective, seek unity of command and unity of effort.
  • Security: Never permit the enemy to acquire unexpected advantage.
  • Surprise: Strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared.
  • Simplicity: Prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.

The British military adds to the above list:

  • Maintenance of Morale
  • Administration.

The Russian doctrine is similar, but includes the concept of Annihilation as well.

According to a United States Government document from 2010 the rules governing targeting in a non-internaltional armed conflict is the international humanitarian law which is commonly known as the laws of war.[3] The United States government stated in an undated Department of Justice White paper entitled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force" that the four fundamental law-of-war principles governing the use of force are necessity, distinction, proportionality and humanity i.e. the avoidance of unnessary suffering.(Page 8 of[4]).[5]

The above-mentioned principles of warfare are very broad, and are tied into military doctrine of the various military services. Doctrine, in turn, suggests but does not dictate strategy and tactics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Du Picq, Ardant. Battle Studies. Translated from the 8th Edition by Col. John N. Greely, Field Artillery, U.S. Army, and Major Robert C. Cotton, General Staff. Available on Project Gutenberg.
  2. ^ Sims, William S. (Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy). "The United States Naval War College." Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute 45:9 [September 1919]. 1485-1493
  3. ^ Acting Attorney General David J. Barron (U.S. States Department of Justice - Office of the Assistant Attorney General) (16 July 2010). "Memorandum for the Attorney General – Re: Applicability of Federal Crime Laws and the Constitution to the Contemplated Lethal Operations Against Shaykh Anwar al-Aulaqi". p. 17. Retrieved 17 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Undated memo entitled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force" by the U.S. Department of Justice" (PDF). NBC News. Retrieved 15 August 2014. 
  5. ^ Isikoff, Michael (4 February 2013). "Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans". NBC News. Retrieved 15 August 2014.