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Posted on May 10, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 084 – Principles of War

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“Every art has its rules and maxims.  One must study them: theory facilitates practice.  The lifetime of one man is not enough to enable him to acquire perfect knowledge and experience.  Theory helps to supplement it, it provides a youth with premature experience and makes him skillful through the mistakes of others.”

Frederick the Great

In our last article, we tackled the subject of targeting.  We know we didn’t make anybody an expert, but we hope we did provide you a good background on a critical area.  Within our treatment, we focused on the following: 1) Discussed how the mindset of targeting has changed since the Global War on Terror began.  2) Defined the targeting principles.  3) Addressed the effects a commander may want to achieve with his targeting.  4) Laid out the types of targeting.  5) Discussed the D3A Targeting methodology.  and  6) Addressed the F3EAD targeting methodology.  With this background, we can address targeting far more in upcoming articles.


When we were looking at upcoming subjects to address, we were surprised we had not truly dissected the principles of war.  In fact, we had to check our prior articles again (now up to 84 – thanks to our dedicated readers out there), just to make sure.  Our recheck confirmed the principles of war had not been discussed.  These next couple months we will address this omission by focusing on these principles.  In our first article our objectives are: 1) To define the principles of war (easier said than done!).  2) To dissect the evolution of the principles – a world view.  Next month we will look at the following: 1) The history of the principles – a United States Army view.  2) The relevancy of the principles.  3) The value of the principles for you.  4) The future of the principles.   There is a lot to get to in these next several months; so let’s begin.

What are the Principles of War?

As addressed earlier, the principles are difficult to define.  The reason being is that there are no agreed upon principles of war in the world today.  Not only do various militaries in the world have different principles; but there are some professional militaries that do not even acknowledge the principles of war.  In fact, within the US Army there has always been debate as to the overall validity of the principles and the composition of the principles.

With that said, let’s provide some examples of what others from the past, and today, consider as a definition for the principles of war.

Japanese Theory:
“The principles of war are the basic principles of combat in order to obtain victory and the fundamental rules that, to some degree, embody those principles. These are theories and are derived from many military histories.  In other words, the principles of war are theories formed dialectically from accumulated reasoning and corroborative evidence, and they are continually evolving with the passage of time.”

British Defence Doctrine 2011:
“Principles of War guide commanders and their staffs in the planning and conduct of warfare. They are enduring, but not immutable, absolute or prescriptive, and provide an appropriate foundation for all military activity. The relative importance of each may vary according to context; their application requires judgement, common sense and intelligent interpretation. Commanders also need to take into account the legitimacy of their actions, based on the legal, moral, political, diplomatic and ethical propriety of the conduct of military forces, once committed.”

Department of the Army Field Manual FM 100-5
Field Service Regulations and Service February 1962:

“The principles of war are fundamental truths governing the prosecution of war.  Their proper application is essential to the exercise of command and to successful conduct of military operations.  These principles are interrelated and, dependent on the circumstances, may tend to reinforce one another or be in conflict.  Consequently, the degree of application of any specific principle will vary with the situation.”

Department of the Army–Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-90 Offense and Defense
Aug 2012

Definition for the Principles of Joint Operations:
“The twelve principles of joint operations defined in JP (Joint Publication) 3-0 provide general guidance for conducting military operations. They are fundamental truths governing all operations. They are not a checklist, and their degree of application varies with the situation. Blind adherence to these principles does not guarantee success, but each deviation may increase the risk of failure. The principles of joint operations lend rigor and focus to the purely creative aspects of tactics and provide a crucial link between pure theory and actual application.”

So where does this leave us?  Well, obviously right to debate.  Perhaps, after these articles you will have some personal clarity.

What the Principles of War Aren’t

Perhaps, just importantly we should address what the principles are not.  Consider these:

  • They are not prescriptive.
  • They are not a fool proof formula.
  • They are not a recipe for success on the battlefield.
  • They can’t be used as a checklist that you follow.

So now that everyone is perplexed, let’s look at how the principles of war as we know them today in United States Army were formed.  We will begin with how they eventually became the British Army Principles of War in 1920.  It was these principles and the earlier work of JFC Fuller which greatly influenced the United States Army publishing their principles in 1921.  Next month, we will continue with how the Unite States established theirs and the changes since then.

The Evolution of the Principles of War (A World View)
As in most things, there is debate on how the principles of war originated.  As in most areas tied to warfare, the name Sun Tzu arises.  Does his legendary The Art of War contain a list that practitioners should follow to assist in victory?  No.  It does contain many entries which are addressed as the principles of warfare.  However, in our translation you cannot take these a group of fundamental truths.

Sun Tzu

The Art of War consists of dozens of statements of wisdom and genius within the book which commanders should take heed.  However, an overriding theme of Sun Tzu is that there are no definitive principles or rules that must be adhered to.  Every situation is different and because of this no fixed rules apply.

So if not Sun Tzu; then who?  Well, the principles of war as we know them today; did not just materialize in the mind of one theorist or student of war.  As the years have gone by; many  have contributed to what we know in the United States Army as the principles of war.  Let’s look at how we got to where we are today.

Contributors in Some Form
Since two sides began fighting, people have opined on what facilitated victory on the battlefield. As the years went by, theorists and military leaders developed their own rules, axioms,  maxims, truisms, fundamentals and just random thoughts on what would lead one side to victory over its’ opponent.  As each came and went, he influenced others.  Let’s discuss some of these who put in their two cents in (some even more) were:

  • Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (Vegetius for short) was a writer, historian and theorist during the late Roman Empire.  In his volume, The Military Institutions of the Romans, he penned his military fundamentals.  These fundamentals heavily influenced those who followed.

“It is the nature of war that what is beneficial to you is detrimental to the enemy and what is of service to him always hurts you. It is therefore a maxim never to do, or to omit doing, anything as a consequence of his actions, but to consult invariably your own interest only. And you depart from this interest whenever you imitate such measures as he pursues for his benefit. For the same reason it would be wrong for him to follow such steps as you take for your advantage.


  • Niccolo Machiavelli was a man of many talents who lived in Italy from 1469 to 1527.  Among his many acclaimed works was The Art of War published in 1521.  Within its’ pages, he addresses his general rules for military discipline.

“To know how to recognize an opportunity in war, and take it, benefits you more than anything else.”


  • Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750) was German born and later was Marshal General of France.  Although de Saxe did not generate any formal list; he clearly generated discussion on if there truly existed a principles of war.  This debate came from the superb Mes Reveries (My Musings).  In it, he may have provided mixed signals on his thoughts on the principles.  However, these signals clearly sparked debate.

“It is not big armies that win battles, it is the good ones.”

Maurice de Saxe

  • Frederick the Great (1712-1786) is obviously well known for his exploits on the battlefield, on the throne, and with the pen. In his Instructions for His Generals he offered his maxims for success.  His writings would spur the work of others in developing what we today as the principles of war.

“Everything which the enemy least expects will succeed the best.”

Frederick the Great

  • To many who have studied the evolution of the principles, Welsh officer Henry Lloyd (1720-1783) was the father of the principles.  Lloyd, who was heavily influenced by Frederick the Great; did not develop a single list of principles.  However, in various documents he listed three rules for firepower (shown below), three principles for determining camp locations, and three axioms tied to lines of operation.  Based on Lloyd’s work, the groundwork was set for the development of a singular list of the principles.  However, it would still take years for it to come to fruition.

Lloyd’s Rules Concerning Firepower

  1. Since the greatest silence is necessary, the battalion commander alone should be allowed to speak.
  2. A regiment or a battalion marching toward the enemy must never break its line unless they are forces by the nature of the terrain.
  3. The first rank must never kneel to give the third ease of firing because it is dangerous before the enemy; moreover, repetition of this movement tires the soldiers and makes them useless.
  • You would think Napoleon (1769-1821) would be in the mix somewhere; and he is.  His volume of maxims has been read by military leaders throughout the world for decades.  The maxims are not a finite list of principles of war.  However, there are several themes highlighted in the maxims which clearly influenced the eventual principles.  These themes include the importance of discipline, leadership, momentum, maneuver, mass, firepower, logistics, intelligence, morale, security, initiative, objective and unity of command (which he dubbed as the most important).

Maxim V.

“All wars should be governed by certain principles, for every war should have a definite object, and be conducted according to the rules of art.”


  • Baron de Jomini (1779-1869) although he may not intended to; had a huge impact on the development of the principles.  Being a prolific writer, Jomini’s thoughts have been interpreted various ways.  At one end, he states: “War in its ensemble is not a science, but an art.” This would lead you to believe he did not espouse that principles existed.  However, he did produce some general principles to the art of war.  Many say, he did not intend them as a checklist to follow.  Yet, many took it as such.  Nevertheless, it all added to great debate in Europe which would last for years.

“The fundamental principle, upon which every military combination rests, is to operate with the greatest mass of forces, a combined effort, upon a decisive point.”


  • Any talk of theory must include Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).  However, Carl’s contributions are perhaps, greatly overstated and misinterpreted.  Clausewitz did not feel a particular set of rules or principles existed.  However, there are those who say his influence is all over the British principles released in 1920.  On the other hand, those scholars of On War and the works of Clausewitz say he would never dictate a list of principles. As always, when it comes to Clausewitz there are two schools of thought.

“These principles, though the result of long thought and continuous study of the history of war, have nonetheless been drawn up hastily, and thus will not stand severe criticism in regard to form.”

Carl von Clausewitz

  • French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch(1851-1929) was deeply involved in the debate of the principles.  In the early 1900s, he published what many believe was the first modern list of the principles of war (although he did not say it was all encompassing).  He listed the following:
    • The principle of economy of force
    • The principle of freedom of action
    • The principle of free disposition of forces
    • The principle of security, etc. (It is that etc. which lead you to believe the list was not all encompassing.


With World War I on the horizon; the principles of war would begin to take shape.  This now leads us to the contributions of John Frederick Charles (J F C) Fuller. As a brief introduction, Fuller (1878-1966) was an officer in the British Army and noted military historian, theorist, and strategist.  He is known as one of the first vocal advocates of the virtues of mechanized warfare.  He also was continually thinking about how warfare would look in the future.  However, for the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the contributions to the principles of war.


In the early years of World War I, Fuller published an article detailing the problems the British Army was having in executing operations on the battlefield.  It was published in February 1916 in the Journal of the Royal United Service Institution.  It was entitled, “The Principles of War, with Reference to the Campaigns of 1914-1915.”  He broke up his principles into two categories (strategic and tactical).  Thus, he did not have one singular list of principles.  Under strategic he listed the following (they will have a familiar look to them):

  • Objective
  • Offensive
  • Mass
  • Econ of force
  • Movement
  • Surprise
  • Security
  • Cooperation

Under tactical he listed:

  • Demoralization
  • Endurance
  • Shock

Throughout the War, these principles were essentially out there; but there was not much intellectual discourse regarding them.  Clearly, there were other issues at hand that consumed the energy of countries and theorists.  This would all change at the conclusion of the Great War.

In 1919, England formed a committee to revise their Field Service Regulations based on the events of World War I.  Fuller knowing members of committee; asked them if they would consider adding his principles to the Regulation.  Fuller addressed the committee and the members then determined if the principles should be added and if so, what should the final list look like.

The committee decided they should include principles to their doctrine and made some changes to Fuller’s original list of strategic principles (The tactical principles did not make the cut).  In 1920, they published the Field Service Regulation and the principles of war were a part of the regulation.  For the first time in history, a country had adopted an all encompassing list of the principles of war list.  It was entitled:   Principles of War, Great Britain, 1920.  The principles and their definitions were:

Maintenance of the objective – In every operation of war an objective is essential; without it there can be no definite plan or coordination of effort.  The ultimate military objective in war is the destruction of the enemy’s forces on the battlefield, and this objective must always be held in view.

Offensive action – Victory can only be won as a result of offensive action.

Surprise – Surprise is the most effective and powerful weapon in war. Whether in attack or defence the first thought of a commander should be to outwit his adversary.  All measures should therefore be taken, and every means employed to attain this end.

Concentration – Concentration of superior force, moral, and material, at the decisive time and place, and its ruthless employment in the battle are the achievement of success.

Economy of force – To economize strength while compelling a dissipation of that of the enemy must be the constant aim of every commander.  This involves the correct distribution and employment of all resources in order to develop their striking power to the utmost.

Security – The security of a force and its communications is the first responsibility of a commander.  To guard against surprise; to prevent the enemy from obtaining information; to dispose his covering troops as to allow his main forces to move and rest undisturbed; these are the considerations which must govern his actions in obtaining security.  A force adequately protected retains its liberty of action and preserves its fighting efficiency against the day of battle.

Mobility – Mobility implies flexibility and the power to maneuver and act with rapidity, and is the chief means of inflicting surprise.  Rapidity of movement for the battle should, therefore, be limited only by physical endurance and the means of transportation available.

Cooperation – Only by effective co-operation can the component parts of the fighting forces of a nation develop fully their inherent power, and act efficiently towards success.

The World now had its’ first list of the principles of war.  It did not take long for the United States to follow suit.

With this article we wanted to achieve a few things.  First, there is no consensus out there as to what is the definition of the principles of war and what do they consist of.  Second, the principles of war as we know them today did not just materialize.  It was clearly a long evolution with many contributors to this evolution.  We think it is a fascinating topic.  We hope you feel the same!

In our next article, we will discuss the evolution of the principles within the United States Army.  In addition, we will delve into a few questions that should be fairly thought-provoking for all.  These include:  1) What is the relevancy of the principles?  2) What value do the principles have for you?  3) Do the principles need to be adapted?   We’re sure there must be a great deal of opinions out there.