The man behind the Schlieffen plan and his strategic vision


Alfred Graf von Schlieffen

Schlieffen’s strategic vision was dominated by his conviction that a bold, swift, offensive attack on France using a wide outflanking manoeuvre would be the only solution to breaking Germany’s geopolitical encirclement.  France would have to be beaten quickly before Russia could fully mobilise and attack in the east.  Schlieffen’s work as Chief of the General Staff focused almost single-mindedly on this particular strategy, from building up the armed forces, through technological advancement to staff officer training, with the aim of preparing for a possible pre-emptive strike in the early 1900s.  Schlieffen’s strategic views owe in part to the works of firstly Clausewitz, and also in more practical terms to the elder Moltke, whom he succeeded as Chief of the General Staff.  However, it is interesting to note that despite Citino’s claim that German strategy shows continuity on the strategic and operational level from the age of Bismarck to that of Ludendorff and even to Hitler, Schlieffen’s strategic planning deviates from his predecessors somewhat.  His arrival at these views must also, in part, be due to his particular character and position, aloof and withdrawn from political and diplomatic circles, he no doubt suffered in the key areas of ‘statecraft’ as he considered his own role to be concerned mainly with the tactical and operational levels.  Schlieffen’s work is characterised out of necessity by the geopolitical and technological developments and limitations of his time.  In summary, the bold manoeuvre style of war planning for which Schlieffen is so famous was influenced mainly by the specific problems encountered by Germany as a newly powerful state in the centre of Europe, as well as the growing diplomatic developments bringing Germany’s enemies closer together.  Schlieffen devised a solution to this particular problem, however his numerous and notable omissions for example in the areas of politics and logistics, led to his ‘plan’ being eventually altered and discredited in its final form.

It is important to place Schlieffen’s strategic vision in the context of his peers’.  Rothenberg makes it clear that “Schlieffen’s strategic practices, if not his basic concepts, were a break in continuity from Clausewitz and Moltke”.  The main principles of Schlieffen’s strategic views were as follows: offensive, maneuver, mass, and economy of force, put to use with the aim of outflanking and destroying the enemy forces.  In addition to this, Schlieffen greatly underestimated Clausewitz’s insistence on friction, or the ‘fog of war’.  The elder Moltke in particular designed his command system with this in mind, reasoning that “no plan survives contact with the enemy’s main body” (Citino), resulting in his flexible ‘Auftragstaktik’, or mission tactics.  In sharp contrast, Schlieffen’s strategic planning has been labelled as manoeuvre á priori, reducing the reliance on army commanders’ own initiative in favour of a strictly pre-determined course of events.

Schlieffen maintained that new technologies such as the telegraph enabled the commander to act as a “modern Alexander” (in his own words) and as such, localised initiative had no place in ‘modern’ warfare.  Returning to overall strategy, it is clear that Schlieffen favoured a more daring offensive manoeuvre than either Moltke or Waldersee had contemplated.  His predecessors, likewise aware of the danger of a two-front war, had favoured defensive-offensive operations, basically advancing to pre-determined defensible lines and holding them until diplomacy could bring the war to an acceptable conclusion.  Although by 1888 the elder Moltke had turned to France as the more immediately dangerous opponent, and decided to split Germany’s previously balanced forces more heavily on the western side, his proposed deployment of troops to France was nowhere near the scale of Schlieffen’s.  This was an age in which there were, according to Rothenberg, “mounting odds against offensive warfare”, in addition to technological advancement, one had now to also consider national morale, social stability, and economic resources, as was shown to devastating effect during the American Civil War.  Schlieffen however, focusing almost exclusively on military capabilities, argued instead that while a direct offensive would result in static warfare, Germany’s best and perhaps only chance at victory in a two-fronted war would be to employ a swift, broad outflanking manoeuvre in the West to overpower France before turning to her eastern enemies.


A simplified image of the Schlieffen Plan

It has been suggested that Schlieffen’s own personal characteristics were important in development of his strategic vision.  Rather than, as with the elder Moltke, having a broader sense of the political and diplomatic levels of strategy, Schlieffen chose to concentrate on the military objective almost in isolation to other, related areas.  Annika Mombauer suggests that the role of Chief of the General Staff changed with each ‘Chief’s’ personality, and how far each was able to interact with above all the Kaiser.  Considering Moltke the Younger’s friendly relationship with Wilhelm II, it can be seen how closer interaction between the military and government was achieved in this period compared to Schlieffen’s comparative isolation.  With this in mind, Schlieffen regarded his role requirements as Chief of the General Staff as “planning, improving combat doctrine and capabilities” (Rothenberg); he did not try to influence German policy in any way, perhaps due to his predecessor Waldersee’s dismissal because of a policy disagreement with the Kaiser.

Wilhelm II and his General Staff

This disregard for political influence is crucial to an understanding of Schlieffen’s strategic planning, if only because of the main reason that the violation of the neutrality of Belgium was key to his invasion of France, something that the Ministry of War and the Chancellor were only made fully aware of in December 1912.  Mombauer comments that, “the General Staff cultivated the secrecy that Schlieffen had initiated.”  This ‘secrecy’ was not necessarily a creation of Schlieffen’s, the German state allowed its army a great deal of independence in comparison with the other European powers, and this was compounded by the divisive nature of the various ministries.  Schlieffen was under no obligation, for example, to share elements of his planning with the foreign ministry, and as Rothenberg claims “the division of jurisdictions resulted in a serious, possibly fatal, overreliance on military schemes alone”.  It is therefore evident that Schlieffen’s strategic views, with few political limitations imposed within the planning process, were prone to a degree of unrealistic optimism.  Hew Strachan cites politics as the main issue with Schlieffen’s ‘plan’, commenting that “its besetting sin was its political naivety”.

Yet political issues were not the only omissions in Schlieffen’s planning.  Another notable neglected area, according to Gordon Martel, was that of logistics, presumably due to Schlieffen’s rejection of the idea of protracted war.  He did not consult the public or private sectors, or even the related government ministry about possible economic war planning, and chose to favour improvisation of operational supply once within France.  It was only under the younger Moltke that economic mobilisation was considered.  Schlieffen’s personal interests and opinions were therefore extremely important in shaping his strategic planning.  Colin Gray outlines ideal strategic aims, stating that “strategy is neither policy nor armed combat; rather it is the bridge between them. […] The strategist must relate military power (strategic effect) to the goals of policy.”  It is therefore of vital importance to remember Clausewitz’s insistence that “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means”, when undertaking strategic planning.  Although Schlieffen was no doubt familiar with Clausewitz’s theories, as were the great majority of his contemporaries, it seems that he adopted only the instruction that “[strategic planning] determines when, where and with what forces an engagement is to be fought”, choosing to prioritise these more operationally focused tasks.


Europe pre-WWI

Another contributing factor to consider when analysing Schlieffen’s views is geopolitics.  As Gray states, “the problems and opportunities posed by the newly united Germany’s central location in Europe dominated the structure of German strategic planning from 1871 until 1914.”  The German ‘fear’ of encirclement by Schlieffen’s time was well established, with the elder Moltke and Bismarck having considered a war against multiple enemies as early as 1870, although they largely turned to diplomacy to avert any imminent crises.  The threat of future war led to concerns that Germany, without superior numerical force, could not hope to win an attritional war on two fronts and would have to seek decisive battle at the outset.  These views no doubt influenced Schlieffen, and as stated above, he responded to the situation with a different strategic plan to Moltke.  Although they both agreed that Germany’s geo-strategic position demanded “operations culminating in a battle of annihilation” (Rothenberg), Schlieffen’s solution was bolder and contained more risk.  It was recognised that once in motion, military plans were difficult, maybe impossible, to change, and although some have claimed that Schlieffen’s manoeuvre in its original form would have actually defeated France, it was deemed too dangerous by the younger Moltke, who rightly or wrongly altered the deployment of troops, reducing the huge difference in strength between the left and right wings (Mombauer, 2005).

Another criticism of Schlieffen was his reluctance to change his plans in response to external events or developments.  Although in response to Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war and the Revolution of 1905 Schlieffen downgraded a possible eastern attack and assigned 75% of full strength to the Verdun-Lille line, he failed to consider changes in the light of the Balkan crises of 1908-9 and 1912, or in response to rapid Russian military recovery.  Schlieffen’s strategic views therefore were heavily influenced by the geopolitical restraints imposed on Germany, leading him to create a plan to break out of the ‘encirclement’.

In summary, it may be argued that Schlieffen arrived at his strategic views due to a combination of interpretation of earlier theories and strategies; his personal working style and inter-personal relationships; and finally the wider geo-political context in which he had to base his work.  Schlieffen was an ‘exponent of strategic envelopment’ and believed that outflanking manoeuvres could negate numerical superiority, and moreover prevent a war of attrition through one decisive campaign.  His command style also favoured inflexible commands rather than directions in warfare, and as Rothenberg states, “he was a specialist who favoured concrete calculations over abstract speculations”.  His personality shows through at various points of this analysis, highlighting his reluctance to co-operate with government ministries and his conscious exclusion of non-military matters from General Staff work, as well as his estrangement from the Kaiser, leading to his replacement in 1906.  As a final point to consider, moving away from the comparisons of Schlieffen to other German commanders, Rothenberg has likened Schlieffen’s boldness and decisive application of manoeuvre to Napoleon’s method of seeking prompt decision by engaging and destroying the enemy force.  Although the debate on the existence of a formative ‘plan’ written by Schlieffen rages on, his strategic views are clear and whether potentially successful or not, have certainly influenced manoeuvre strategy ever since.

The author would like to acknowledge this article’s dependence on only a few sources, and would welcome any comments with further or newer research/information.


Lessons from the Falklands applied to the South China Sea


Guest piece written by Alex Calvo, MA student at the University of Birmingham, specialising in WWII.

Tuesday 2nd October marks the beginning of UoB’s War Studies seminar programme, weekly seminars by guest speakers on a wide range of topics.  Fittingly, this year’s programme begins with an anniversary piece on “2 PARA Falklands – 30 Years On”, by Colonel (Ret’d) David Benest.

At first glance this topic seems to be of most benefit to those in the history and military spheres, however I would argue that this lecture would also be of interest to students pursuing degrees in other fields.  There are a number of strong reasons why students interested in international relations, geopolitics and defence and security, particularly in relation to East Asia, should pay attention to lessons learned in the Falklands conflict.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the successful liberation of the Falkland Islands after their invasion and brief occupation.  It is therefore an excellent occasion not only to thank the troops who took part in Operation Corporate, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but also to reflect on some of the lessons from the war both at the military and at the political-diplomatic levels.  Although relatively short, the conflict was complex in many ways and even today there is ample scope for further research.

Flag left behind by 2 Para after the battle for Goose Green

As students of war we are not only interested in the past, although that by itself is often a powerful motivation to pursue our discipline, we are also keen to identify lessons to prevent, or if necessary to prevail in, future conflicts.  In the words of Mahan, “the great warrior must study history”. Although no two actual or potential conflicts are identical and as a result comparison and analysis must be approached with caution, the study of past wars provides a solid foundation to interpret current and future conflicts.

This brings us to East Asia, a region far away from the South Atlantic but which has this summer been regularly on the news due to a number of incidents and a high degree of tension, which at present shows no sign of abating.


The question I would like to address is as follows:  Are there any areas in which the study of the 1982 Falklands War may help us shed some light on the current developments in East Asia?  The following three points show instances where lessons from the Falklands may be applied to current events.

1.- The dangers of appeasement.  In the 1970s, successive British administrations sought to negotiate with Argentina while coercing the islanders to admit closer links with that country.  The Shackleton report, which made clear that the economy of the Falklands could thrive if some key investments took place, went unheeded.  In addition to this, many islanders were deprived of full British citizenship and it was announced that the only permanent naval presence, HMS Endurance, would be withdrawn.  Buenos Aires took all of this as a sign of diminished interest and evidence of weakness.  It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the original code name for the invasion was “Goa”.

In the case of the Senkaku Islands, successive Japanese governments have banned their own citizens not only from settling on the land but even from visiting.  Calls to build basic infrastructure such as lighthouses and fishermen’s shelters have also been rejected.  This year Tokyo Governor Ishihara proposed to buy three of the islets from their private owner in a bid to develop them, but the national government preempted his move and purchased them.  However, their proposed policy of keeping the islands undeveloped in an attempt to appease Chinese popular opinion, backfired.  Beijing viewed this deliberate inaction as a sign of weakness, and a wave of popular unrest has followed.

2.- The key role of other powers. In the case of the Falklands, the Argentine decision to invade rested significantly on the assumption that Washington would press London not to react.  Similarly in East Asia one of the key issues being considered by Beijing is Washington’s reaction to a shooting war in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, a landing on Taiwan or a blockade of the islands.  In the South Atlantic, the United Kingdom had Chile as an ally, whereas in East Asia most countries are at odds with China, including India, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Security and defence alliances among maritime democracies are gradually becoming stronger but they still suffer, in the cases of New Delhi and Tokyo, from the failure of these two countries to conclude a civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

3.- The growing significance of asymmetric maritime warfare. Although it was HMS Sheffield and Atlantic Conveyor, both sunk by air-launched Exocet missiles, which attracted the most attention at the time and remain widely known, the case of HMS Glamorgan, hit by an Exocet fired from the shore, provides us with a powerful reminder of the scope for small, mobile, camouflaged vehicle-mounted cruise missiles.  Although the enemy improvised its launch from a fixed position, current technology makes it easy to deploy these systems in a way which makes it difficult to detect and destroy them.  As Taiwan becomes increasingly unable to keep up with Chinese military modernisation, a number of experts are advising Taipei not to try to compete head on with Beijing but rather to develop systems able to withstand a massive initial air attack.  These systems would ‘survive to fight another day’ and would be capable of inflicting significant damage on an invading or blockading force while awaiting the anticipated international response.


It is therefore clear that there are parallels between the two situations, and it is important to bear these in mind when looking at Japan, Taiwan and China’s options in the coming months.  Another piece relating to the topic by Alex will also be published in the next week.


Why the comparison of AirLand Battle with Blitzkrieg is flawed.

By Z.C. Vince @zcvince on Twitter

AirLand Battle was a doctrinal concept developed as part of the US army’s FM 100-5 Operations 1982in response to the Cold War and the challenges of the anticipated Central European clash between the large-scale mechanised conventional armies of the USA and her allies and the USSR and Warsaw Pact

The 1982 Field Manual was centred on Cold War operations

countries.  As such, this doctrine was relatively short lived, having replaced the post-Vietnam War ‘Active Defense’ policy in 1982 but being swiftly superseded in 1993 by a post-Cold War field manual aimed more specifically at non-conventional and low-intensity conflicts.  In contrast, Blitzkrieg was not doctrinal at least in any official sense, being a “German phenomenon based on the traditions and heritage of German military history”(Citino, 2004).  Although AirLand Battle shares common characteristics with Blitzkrieg, it must be stressed that the Blitzkrieg campaigns for example in Poland, France and the Soviet Union were essentially pre-emptive strikes against poorly prepared opponents.  In 1982 the US army was seeking an alternative to the positional and therefore highly attritional style of warfare they had prepared for in previous field manuals, a situation similar to that of the Red Army facing the Wehrmacht after the Battle of Stalingrad.  Because of this, AirLand Battle instead owes more, ironically, to the Soviet doctrinal concept of Deep Battle/Operations, with both focusing on the importance of manoeuvre, attacking in depth and immobilising the enemy.

The rapid outflanking manoeuvre style of warfare which has become

An example of Frederick the Great’s manoeuvring at Leuthen.

known as Blitzkrieg is rooted in Prusso-German military history, going as far back as Frederick the Great’s victories at Rossbach and Leuthen (Citino, 2005), through von Moltke the Elder’s demonstrations of the battle of encirclement or Kesselschlacht in 1866 and 1870, and on to von Schlieffen’s theories of strategic envelopment, culminating in the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, prior to the First World War.  Citino argues that while Blitzkrieg itself was not a formalised doctrine, it was based on three “classical doctrinal traditions”.  These were as follows: flexible doctrine of command, or Auftragstaktik (the ‘mission command’ of today); a focus on operational-level warfare, either campaigns of position or of movement; and an avoidance of Einseitigkeit or one-sidedness, resulting in a broader reliance on combined arms rather than the supremacy of one arm over the others.

AirLand Battle did share these characteristics with Blitzkrieg.  FM 100-5 Operations 1982 stated that, “electronic warfare, vulnerability of command and control facilities and mobile combat will demand initiative in subordinate commanders”.  This move away from a static, attritional style of warfare to a focus on manoeuvre and high tempo operations required a higher standard of training and leadership (Lock-Pullan, 2005) similar to von Moltke’s nineteenth century expansion of the Prussian General Staff in part to deal with independent convergent manoeuvres such as his use of concentric exterior lines before the battle of Sadowa.  In the case of AirLand Battle and modern communications technology, ‘mission-type’ orders required “unambiguous political aims to be outlined prior to engagement”, so that subordinate commanders could react with initiative whilst remaining in accordance with the standard ‘intent’ toward the enemy.  It is clear that lower-level resourcefulness was a key point to AirLand Battle, with the doctrine stating that “decentralization converts initiative into agility, allowing rapid reaction to capture fleeting opportunities”.

This more fluid style of command owed partly to the shift in focus to the operational level of war from the tactically-oriented attritional ‘Active Defense’ doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982shows great divergence from its 1976 counterpart in that instead of advocating frontal assaults aimed at the enemy’s leading formations, it favours operational manoeuvre and attacks on critical enemy units from “unexpected directions”.  The rejection of tactically focused doctrine is shown by the great emphasis on the simultaneous and rapid use of firepower and manoeuvre.  Finally, parallels with Blitzkrieg may be made with

Close air support with Stuka dive bombers was the key to Nazi combined operations.

regard to the use of combined arms.  Just as in the inter-war period Germany emphasised the role of armoured and mechanised forces to be used in conjunction with air power, AirLand Battle doctrine emphasises the role of ‘integrated battle’, comprising joint operations, combined arms and the potential usage of chemical and tactical nuclear weapons.  Acknowledging that in modern war elements of the armed forces can rarely act truly independently, AirLand Battle requires manoeuvre, synchronisation and firepower to all be integrated in pursuit of the ‘political’ aim.

The most widely known example of AirLand Battle doctrine in practice was Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Although the Iraqis possessed conventional, mechanised forces, they were a fraction of the scale of the Soviet forces against which AirLand Battle doctrine was fundamentally aimed.  The annexation of Kuwait by Iraq presented a singular opportunity to “test […] how well the forces created and trained to fight the Third World War would have performed”.

The ‘Highway of Death’ is a popular depiction of US air superiority during Gulf War I

Badsey goes so far as to suggest that in the Gulf War, the US forces were “disregarding the small point that the enemy was actually Iraq [and not the USSR, for example]”, showing just how crucial victory was to an America ‘haunted’ by Vietnam.  The keys to victory in the Gulf War were combined and co-ordinated assaults in depth, operational manoeuvre and deception.  A large contributor to the coalition victory in the Gulf War was the air superiority enjoyed by America and her allies, Cordesman and Wagner give the ratio of 3.6:1 in aircraft in favour of the coalition.  This clear air superiority allowed a level of deception of the enemy that was invaluable to the overall campaign, as the coalition was able to move 255,000 soldiers plus vehicles up to 300 miles to the west, “one of the most complicated force deployments in history”.  What followed on ‘G-Day’ was the beginning of a double envelopment of Iraqi forces by VII and XVIII corps with close air support and attack helicopters, meeting sporadic and relatively easily overwhelmed opposition.  Air power played an important role in Desert Storm, with 1,997 air strikes carried out in direct support of the ground troops, reducing casualties and depriving any Iraqi attempts at counterattacking and representing the superiority of allied combined arms operations.

Desert Storm may be compared with Case White, the Nazi invasion of Poland, as an example of operational manoeuvre aimed at an inferior opponent.  The Wehrmacht deployed in two widely separate army groups advancing respectively from Pomerania and Silesia, and East Prussia and Slovakia, thus trapping most of the Polish army in a textbook Kesselschlacht or ‘cauldron’ battle.  Similarly to with Desert Storm, air power played a large role, the German ‘Close Battle Division’ of 160 Stuka dive-bombers facilitating the destruction of the Modlin fortification outside Warsaw and speeding up the ground advance.  The superior operational mobility of the Wehrmacht, coupled with lower-level initiative and swift, brief orders enabled the Germans to exploit advantages as well as wheeling 180 degrees “effortlessly” twice in one week and change direction as necessary.  In this direct comparison with an example of successfully applied Blitzkrieg ‘principles’, it is clear that there are similarities between Blitzkrieg and AirLand Battle, not least the use of combined arms, mission-style command systems, the supremacy of operational manoeuvre and use of technology.  In this sense, AirLand Battle was a ‘hi-tech’ version of Blitzkrieg.

Despite this, it must be remembered that AirLand Battle doctrine was created during the Cold War for the main purpose of directing the US army in large-scale conventional warfare against the Soviet Union.  Assessing whether Operation Desert Storm was an example of Blitzkrieg does not necessarily correspond to Blitzkrieg’s relationship to AirLand Battle as a doctrine.  FM 100-5/1982stated that “the US army will face an enemy who expects to sustain rapid movement during the offense and who will probably use every weapon at his disposal”.

The mighty Soviet Union was the US’ assumed opponent for AirLand Battle

Having outlined the characteristics of the Gulf War, it is clear that the Iraqi force did not fit this description, and this is why it is the US army’s attitude toward Soviet Russia that is of most importance when assessing AirLand Battle as a doctrine.

The Soviet field regulation of 1936 summarises ‘Deep Battle’ theory as follows: “tanks, artillery, aviation, and mechanized units in large scale use provide the option of simultaneously attacking the entire depth of the enemy battle formation with the objective isolating, encircling, and destroying the enemy”.  As a direct comparison, FM 100-5/1982 states that, “the AirLand Battle will be dominated by the force that retains the initiative and, with deep attack and decisive maneuver, destroys its opponent’s abilities to fight and to organize in depth”.  The similarities between the two are clearly evident, both focusing on the role of operational art, the use of combined, mechanised arms and perhaps most importantly the ‘deep’ attack.  The Soviet emphasis on the operational level of war emerged in response to the failures during the First World War and focused on the need for consecutive series of operations in order to prevent losing the initiative and provoking an enemy counterattack.  In addition, the realisation that echeloned attacks were required in order to exploit any breakthroughs in the enemy line resulted in the formation of operational-manoeuvre groups whose task was to carry out such exploitation and carry the attack throughout the operational depth of the opposition (Kagan, 1997).  Eventual Soviet application of these theories to operations on the Eastern Front in 1944-45 earned the USSR successes and a reputation for operational excellence which the Americans sought to emulate in the 1980s.

The four key tenets of AirLand Battle were Initiative, Depth, Agility and Synchronisation.  Depth, of course, is central to Deep Battle theory; agility and initiative too were pivotal to the fourth stage of Deep Battle: Exploitation.  Synchronisation, the use of combined arms and the planning of consecutive staggered operations, is characteristic of both the Red Army in 1944 and the coalition forces in the Gulf War.  One particular area in which AirLand Battle built upon its Soviet counterpart was in the area of mission-style command.  Although initiative was encouraged in the Red Army, it was made clear in PU-36 that superior officers had to be consulted before action.  In this respect at least, the Prusso-German tradition of Auftragstaktik triumphed over Soviet methodology.

To conclude, AirLand Battle was a product of its time, a direct response to the Soviet threat of conventional warfare on a hitherto unseen scale.  The doctrine which was developed in 1982 “owed a huge debt to the Soviets” and there are clear parallels to be seen with regard to the use of combined arms, operational manoeuvre, attacking in depth, and exploiting breakthroughs.  Blitzkrieg in contrast was an opportunistically applied operational method which saw success in Poland, France and the early stages of Barbarossa, but which ultimately failed to comprehensively destroy Germany’s opponents in depth, something which Deep Battle, and subsequently AirLand Battle, focused heavily on.

The problem with Assad’s aerial strategy…

Assad this week.


With attack helicopters and Russian fighter jets plummeting to the ground around Syria, it could be suggested that President Assad’s air campaign is faltering. In June, Defence IQ published an article called ‘What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?’ Three months on we ask: what has changed – and why?…

Three months ago Syria was denied a shipment of Russian MI-35 attack helicopters, which was a significant blow to the regime.

As suggested in the original article:

If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground.

The failure to obtain new hardware has meant that Assad has been relying on an increasingly decrepit armoury. A tweet from FSA leader, Riad al Assad, said:

Reports coming in saying 50% of Assad’s hind attack helicopters may be grounded due to lack of spare parts loyal pilots and poor maintenance.

This will be of concern to President Assad. His strategy has only occasionally launched air strikes from fixed-wing jets, but instead tends to rely on helicopters for air strikes in urban areas.

The most recent images of a helicopter being shot down will do nothing to inspire confidence in his strategy.

When fighting in COIN operations, losing control of the skies has historically marked the beginning of the end for many governments against insurgent forces, from Afghanistan to Libya. Whilst it would be bold to suggest that President Assad no longer has an aerial advantage, it is becoming apparent that he is losing his monopoly in aerial supremacy.

There are several explanations for why this could be, they are as follows::

The kit

The equipment that the Syrian army has is poorly maintained and out of date, thus making them prone to malfunction. For example, the MiG Jet that the regime claims crashed due to a technical fault rather than the skill or will of the enemy. Speaking of which…

The will of the enemy

The capabilities that the FSA have may be underestimated. As with any force that has employed guerrilla methods, the insurgent will find a weakness and then exploit it with any and all available resources. There is an obvious corollary between the growth and variety of the insurgent’s resources, and the vulnerabilities the enemy faces.

For the FSA, a significant boost to their armoury has been the introduction of (admittedly, crude but nonetheless dangerous) SA-7 anti-aircraft systems. These are handheld, heat-seeking SAMs developed during the cold war and are a genesis of the Stinger launchers used by American forces.

Social media

How can social media impact upon COIN aerial strategy? The answer is not obvious – Facebook can not shoot down a jet (…yet). However, what social media does provide is a platform to influence, convince and indoctrinate on a level previously impossible.

The FSA have learnt from other insurgent campaigns around the world and are using social media to shape the battlefield. Take Hezbollah for example; its media campaign has seen them even producing their own TV channel. In a similar way, the FSA are using platforms such as YouTube to broadcast anything that may be of strategic advantage, which is then amplified as it spreads to a global audience.

Therefore, regardless of whether or not you are cynical of the videos of jets and helicopters being ‘shot down’, their presence on global media platforms gives the impression that the Assad regime is weakening, whilst the FSA is becoming stronger and more capable. The impact that this has is not restricted to our living rooms, but has a direct impact on the battlefield, causing fear and doubt to spread. Logic would dictate that if a regime cannot maintain its instruments of control it will inevitably crumble. This is why presenting these instruments as inadequate is of such importance.


An alternative reason for why President Assad’s air force looks vulnerable may be because he is attempting to conserve the most valuable air warfare assets in case of a foreign intervention. If true, this decision resides in the grey space between the bold and the foolhardy. If operations in Libya are anything to go by then it is unlikely that trying to preserve some of his better, yet still old kit, will make much of a difference in preventing no-fly zones being implemented.  More than half of the planes are understood to be 30-year-old MiG-21s and MiG-23s; only 40 or so MiG-29s can be described as modern. More valuable is his ground-to-air assets that overshadow those of Gaddafi and have since caused hesitation among NATO forces where intervention is concerned. But how long can these be preserved from the rebel mob – or indeed kept in operation by a dwindling ground force?

What seems apparent from these points is that President Assad lacks the resources and the nous to implement an effective aerial COIN strategy; he and his leaders have B-grade equipment and are not using it to optimal capability. This equipment and those operating it are bending under the pressure, leading inevitably to mistakes and defections. There are certainly smarter ways to use airpower for COIN.

Many commentators agree that the Assad regime will fall eventually, with the dissection of the state now beyond the point of no return. That prediction should be taken with a degree of pessimism; with the removal of President Assad, he will of course leave behind a power vacuum. And those who fill that gap may not be as opposed to using chemical weapons as Assad has so far been.

In a recent Defence IQ article, James Farwell discusses this issue in more depth:

Potential loss of control over WMDs may pose a threat, considering the terror groups that would like to get their hands on them. Col. Riad al-As’ad, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, says al-Qaeda is not operating in Syria. But al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly ordered followers to infiltrate the Syrian opposition. Sunni radicals associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda, have urged fighters to go to Syria. And one should not doubt al-Qaeda’s determination to acquire WMDs – Osama bin Laden once professed that acquiring chemical or nuclear weapons is “a religious duty.”

WMDs could be smuggled into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank or elsewhere. In the past, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have all attempted to acquire chemical or biological weapons. In a sign of precisely how destabilizing some view this threat, Israeli officials have warned that Syria transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah would constitute a declaration of war.

The introduction of rogue chemical weapons would indeed be a game changer, and would have a huge impact on the likelihood of a quick resolution.

The use of such weapons will not bring the war to an abrupt end, but will instead expand into a far more lethal and long-term conflict. If we take Iraq as an example; the consequences of Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War 1980 to August 1988 are still being felt today. In fact, lest we forget, the fear that Saddam possessed WMDs was premise for invasion by US and allied forces in 2003. Arguably, the lack of evidence post-invasion of these assets has in itself limited the strategic options now available in the Syria scenario.

While Assad may be slipping from power, he is still holding cards tightly to his chest. Whether he tips his hand or the rebels call his bluff remains a waiting game

France: Out of the frying pan and into…Syria?

France’s new President François Hollande recently announced that French troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, one year earlier than initially planned. Until recently, Hollande has remained relatively mooted in terms of his overall defence policy. His election was won on the arguably more urgent economic crisis than it was for his stance on getting soldiers out of the desert.

Despite this, the most divisive issue confronting him is perhaps now not the Eurozone debate, but instead responding to the heightening atrocities in Syria.  Some commentators have suggested that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cynical move to enable him to justify intervention in Syria. Whether this is the route that should be taken is as much a bone of contention for all French citizens as it is for their new head of state. What is known is that real action, be it political, economic or military-led, must be carried out quickly as each day sees new reports emerge of fatalities.

A point asserted by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is that he will call on the UN Security Council to make mediator Kofi Annan’s Syria peace plan mandatory. This would be achieved through the implementation of the UN’s Chapter Seven provision, which permits the use of force.

The type of support the French could provide has not been disclosed, but what is likely is that – as in Libya – France could support the intervention through attempted air dominance, beginning with electronic strikes to disable the ground-to-air defences Syria currently holds in its deck.

As we know, air power played the deciding role in Libya. In the words of Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the NATO operations in Libya, “the use of attack helicopters [provided] the NATO operation with additional flexibility to track and engage pro-Gadhafi forces who deliberately [targeted] civilians and [attempted] to hide in populated areas.”

As mentioned in my previous article on the subject, attack helicopters provide a level of accuracy and firepower not necessarily possible with high flying, high speed fighter jets. Of course, Assad has just lost out on several new units of the Russian Mi-35 owing to NATO’s stance on arms coming into the country.

While Syria is obviously a different conflict it is not known just how much NATO’s aerial tactics would need to re-adapt between last year’s mission and this new theoretical intervention. We hear time and again that Syria is not simply a stone’s throw from Libya, but that it instead presents a more genuine risk of loss of life among troops. Would Hollande roll the die so early into his career given the impact that such publicity has on the home front? Would his left-wing supporters back the exchange of one conflict for another? And would France’s significant Muslim population (now 10 per cent of the total) see him as an aggressive dabbler in the affairs of the Middle East, or as a saviour of the downtrodden?

Air Assets and Spec Ops

The industry will be playing close attention to developments in Syria and the use of attack helicopters, EW capabilities, fast jets and early warning systems. Several different rotary wing platforms, for example, could already be lined up: the British with their Apaches, the French with the Eurocopter Tigers or Aérospatiale Gazelles, and the Italian’s Agusta A129 Mangustas – all itching to again prove their worth.

There is also the new kid on the block – Turkey’s home-grown T129, based on the Agusta A129 Mangusta, which could see Syria as the ideal testing ground to advertise its capabilities to the defence market. The Turkish Army could also bag vital operational lessons, which those with an eye on Kurdish relations would be wise to consider.

While speculation remains over how to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal, one thing that is known is that intervening nations will do all they can to avoid ground engagement beyond Special Force operations, so as to wage a more covert, low-risk and impersonal fight. As strategic analyst James Farwell has mentioned recently, it is thought by some that French COS task forces may already be working their way through Syria’s streets.

Hollande need only look to his US counterpart to see just how a left-leaning leader can indeed operate an aggressive campaign without coming across as a hawk to his supporters at home.

What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?

The cargo ship supposedly transporting attack helicopters to Syria has returned to Russia.Russian-made attack helicopter

MV Alaed had no option but to turn back after its insurance was withdrawn by The Standard Club in London.

The withdrawal was made as the ship reached 50 miles off Scotland’s north coast, preventing it from sailing until it could secure new cover.

Foreign Secretary William Hague discouraged anyone from attempting to provide arms to the Syrian government during the civil crisis.

“We’ve had discussions with Russia about that specifically and I’m pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back apparently towards Russia.”

Riad al Assad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, tweeted mockingly that Russia is acting like the Soviet Union during the cold war: “Breaking news #Syria Russian cargo vessel carrying arms and attack helicopters has started its journey back to the USSR”.

The attack helicopters being mentioned could be a variant of the Mil Mi-35, the export version of the Mi-24. The Brazilian air force has recently bought twelve Mi-35’s as part of its modernisation programme.

The Brazilian government uses the Mi-35 for a number of roles; air policing, border security and counter-narcotics operations.

If it is true that the Syrian government are trying to get hold of Attack Helicopters it reveals a lot about how they view the conflict panning out over the coming weeks.

One Mi-35 costs roughly $25 million (£15.9 million). So the procurement of several of these helicopters is no small investment by the Syrian government. It suggests that the current strategy being used is not entirely effective and that the Free Syrian army are using insurgent tactics that have been successful in other conflicts. From this, it could be inferred that the Syrian government is preparing for a protracted war.

However, questions are being asked of whether Assad’s forces can maintain pressure on the rebels when their resources are being restricted by embargo. If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground. The psychological edge alone could have been decisive.

The Attack Helicopter

The attack helicopter has demonstrated its suitability to counter-insurgency and urban warfare across the world. In Libya the British use of the Apache provided significantly enhanced aerial precision compared to fighter jets. Its manoeuvrability means it can pursue units trying to intermingle with the civilian population.

The Russians have used the attack helicopter to some effect in their conflict with Chechen insurgents. The Karmov KA50 accompanied by an Mi-24 (the domestic model of the Mi-35) destroyed a warehouse full of ammunition belonging to Chechen insurgents. Additionally, in the forest covered mountain area to the south of the village of Tsentoroj, KA-50s were involved in the discovery and destruction of a fortified camp of insurgents.

The Turkish government has also realised the importance of the attack helicopter and have produced their own, designated the T129 (and could be leveraged in the ongoing tensions with the bordering Kurdish population.)

Although these are different conflicts in different environments there are similarities in the tactics that insurgents use. From the Vietcong, to Brazil (where factions of Hezbollah have been known to operate shoulder to shoulder with FARC insurgents), to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similarities can be drawn.

One of the key tactical and strategic elements outlined by the Mao Zedong, the forefather of modern guerrilla warfare is that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Considering that Assad does have a strong support base despite also having a strong opposition, differentiating friend from foe could prove to be a huge challenge for Syrian commanders, should rebels seek to exploit their ability to merge into the crowd.

Unfortunately for the Syrian government, if it has been unable to secure helicopter support for both combat and urban surveillance, its counter strategy may already be sporting a large hole.

Defence IQ will publish a full report within the next few days on Attack Helicopter assets worldwide, which will be found on the International Close Air Support download centre.

What was in the crate?

The MI-35

  • The helicopter has six suspension weapon units on the wingtips.
  • It is equipped with a YakB four-barrelled, 12.7mm, built-in, flexibly mounted machine gun, which has a firing rate of 4,000-4,500 rounds a minute
  • It can also carry the longer-range Ataka anti-tank missile system with a maximum range of 8km.
  • It can also be armed with rockets and grenade launchers.
  • There is the option of fitting it with countermeasures that include infrared jammer, radar warner and flare dispensers.
  • Maximum payload 2,400KG
  • Air speed, km/h: maximum 320, cruising 280
  • Range, km 450
  • Powerplant 2 x TV3-117VMA turboshafts
  • Crew: 2

Stats and image courtesy of

The role of geography in strategic culture

This article is adapted from an essay set for first year War Studies students. Enjoy…

The theory that geography affects a state’s strategic culture means that it is inherently linked to politics. Clausewitz suggests that “war is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means” and thus “the plan for the war results directly from the political conditions of the two belligerent states, as well as from their relations to other powers.”   This concept has led to the development of Geopolitics, which is concerned with how geographical factors of territory, population, strategic location, and natural resources, affect the relations between different states and their struggle for world supremacy. Although Clausewitz touched upon the idea of geopolitical strategy it was not until Halford J. Mackinder in his article titled “The Geographical Pivot of History” that geography began to grow in importance in influencing a state’s strategic culture. However, have Mackinder’s theories been proven to be correct, both in history and in the modern world? Can a theory produced over a century ago still hold much credence in a world that has seen a huge amount change? This article will examine how geography and in particular Mackinder’s thoughts have affected national strategic cultures in the twentieth century with particular emphasis on Russian and American strategy and how these have been influenced by technological, economic and ideological elements.

Map illustrating Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’ thesis.

Mackinder’s best known and perhaps most influential work is on the concept of the ‘Heartland’ and his hypothesis that “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World”  The ‘Heartland’ that Mackinder refers to can be defined as the land mass that roughly encompasses Eurasia, from Eastern Europe, Russia through to Central Asia.  Whilst the ‘World-Island’ includes the remainder of Asia and Africa along with the ‘Heartland’. The Heartland excludes Africa and parts of Asia due to “its girdle of broad natural defences” which consist of an “ice-clad Polar Sea, forested and rugged Lenaland, and Central Asiatic mountain and arid tableland.” Making it “the greatest natural fortress on earth”  therefore cutting it off from these areas.

Mackinder’s theory stems from his belief that “Every civilised nation is related in two ways to the land which it occupies… [that] may be roughly indexed under the terms economic and strategic.”  He contended that maritime powers have historically benefited more from their geographic location because their sea frontage provided them with greater strategic security and allowed them to trade on a far larger scale than land powers were capable of.  The British Empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is an excellent illustration of a state exploiting their natural geographic strengths to develop a power base capable of projecting their force on a global scale as well as be the centre for world trade. In essence British political, military and economic strategies were reflections of Britain’s island geography. But, according to Mackinder the era of maritime supremacy over land powers was coming to an end and that in the future land power would determine the world powers. This was due the development of land transportation, in particular the train meant that a land power could now fully exploit the resources it possessed. This would provide it with the strength to defeat a sea power and then direct there vast resources towards the production of a powerful navy capable of defeating the rimland maritime powers of Britain, Japan and the United States of America.

However, some commentators disagree with Mackinder and see flaws in his argument. One flaw that has been suggested is that Mackinder assumes that superior resources and their deployment to the creation of a large armed force will result in victory.  This therefore implies that wars will be won by attrition and so consequently the larger of the belligerents will inevitably succeed and will apply their strategy accordingly. Critics of this have argued that this is not the case, Edward Luttwak contests that “those who view themselves as materially weak… will adjust their priorities to the vulnerabilities they see in others.”  This strategy known as “relational manoeuvre,” which looks not to destroy the entire substance of the enemy, but rather to “incapacitate by systematic disruption – whether the system is the command structure… their mode of warfare and combat array… or even an actual technical system (the deception of a radar, as opposed to its brute force jamming or outright physical destruction).”  An example of a state having a strategic culture based on achieving victory through relational manoeuvre is Israel and its “emphasis on a high-tempo style of conflict with an emphasis on armoured attacks”  that resulted in successive victories for the Israelis over their larger Arab opponents.

It has been argued that although the Israeli model provides an example of the successful use of relational manoeuvre it cannot, however, be applied to the heartland. This is because it does not account for its geographic and strategic location. The failure of relational manoeuvre with regards to the heartland can be seen by how the Nazis were defeated in Russia despite developing a strategic culture that had been successful through the rest of Europe. The Nazis Blitzkrieg strategies were designed to negate their numerical inferiority with tactics that relied upon “surprise, speed, and overwhelming and dynamic force at the chosen point of contact.”

Yet, in Russia the Nazis strategy betrayed a significant flaw in relational manoeuvre as an effective counter the Heartland being “the greatest natural fortress on earth” . The Blitzkrieg strategy failed in Russia due to the nation’s geography which provided it with an open gateway of such sheer breadth that it compelled the Nazis “to make a broad deployment of his manpower.”  Rather than concentrate it as was necessary for the Blitzkrieg to succeed. Moreover, the size and scale of Russia meant that it was able to have defence in depth, enabling them to “swap space for time” , allowing them to absorb the early onslaught of the German invasion forcing them to remain in Russia through into the freezing winter that they were not prepared for whilst also providing the Soviets with the time to have their Five Year Plans fully mobilized to effectively counter. Thus it could be suggested that the foundations of the Soviet strategic culture was a product of the geography it found itself in. With good organization and the ability to effectively exploit the lands resources Soviet Russia had made the heartland into a near impregnable fortress that was “for the first time in history manned by a garrison sufficient in both number and quality… [to] rank as the greatest land power on the globe” . According to Mackinder’s theory that who rules the heartland will rule the world, the realization of the heartlands potential by the Soviets meant world domination was now a reality that could be achieved.

Many critics feel that Mackinder was fundamentally wrong to believe that the heartland was genuinely capable of world domination. These critics are concerned with Mackinder’s failure to recognise the strategic importance of the Rimland and the Offshore Islands. The Rimland is defined by Nicholas Spykman as being the outskirts of Europe, the Middle East, and the East Asia-Pacific Rim region. While he defines the Offshore Islands as consisting of North and South America, Britain Japan and Australia.  Spykman held that “the Rimland is more important than the heartland” and claimed that “who controls the rimland controls Eurasia.”  This consequently implies that they are capable of preventing the heartland from gaining world domination even if it is not capable of taking the heartland. Certainly Spykman has a point, the United States of America, which has vast resources of its own was capable of preventing the USSR in the heartland from achieving world domination. The Americans achieved this through the use of a number of different strategies, with perhaps the most significant being the policy of containment. This is where the United States attempted “prevent the USSR gaining the resources needed to become fully equal if not more powerful than the U.S.”  The policy can be seen through the Americans use of military (such as in Korean and Vietnam Wars) an economic (such as the Marshal Plan) coercion.

Although American and Soviet strategy was influenced by the works of Mackinder and Spykman it was not the true driving force behind their strategies. The determining factor was structural. It was caused by “competition and friction between the systems of the two superpowers.”  And was amplified by the opposing aggressive and expansionist ideologies that they adopted. The line of reasoning behind this is that if both states are defensible ‘fortresses’ that provide security to their citizens why do they need to expand and act aggressively? Let us take the example of another fortress nation, albeit significantly smaller. Switzerland is a nation that has been surrounded by warring states for much of its history, yet for much of this time it has remained an independent and autonomous state. This is because it is near impossible to invade due to its geographic location in the heart of the Alps, therefore surrounding it by mountains. This has historically been very difficult terrain for an invading army to take. Despite having the security of knowing that their homeland is not threatened the Swiss have not attempted to provoke a war and have “chosen to remain neutral.”  Even when technology capable of threatening Swiss territory like that which became available in World War Two the Swiss did not chose an aggressive stance or chose to ally themselves with another state, rather they remained neutral.  This strategy has evidently worked for Switzerland since they remain an independent state that has kept their own traditions, beliefs and culture.

This therefore begs the question as to why America and Russia chose such aggressive stances towards one and other? The answer originates with the paradox that “the growth of American power did not lead to a greater sense of assuredness, but rather to an enlargement of the range of perceived threats.” Thus the “Soviets were not a threat because of their actions but because they existed”  which in turn led to the “Russians basing their strategy around the Americans” creating a vicious circle escalating to the Cold War.

In conclusion geography certainly plays a fundamental role in the developing of national strategic cultures. However, geography is not the sole determining factor, rather it is a synthesis of several other elements that interact and impact upon one and other, most notably technology, economics and ideology. This can be seen from how economics affects the quality of technology available, whilst technology can also improve the economic situation of a state, as trains did in facilitating the ability of a state to fully exploit its resources, highlighting the link between economics and geography. In addition economic capabilities limit the scale of the strategies states can employ, demonstrating how these are inter-related and should not be considered in isolation. Strategic cultures particularly in the twentieth century are products of the unique characteristics and ideology of a state and their relations to other states. These are defined by a multitude of different facets which include but are not exclusively products of the theories produced by Mackinder and Spykman. They are but one part of an array of different factors that when combined mould a states ideology which in turn governs its strategic culture.

Does the Guerilla trade space for time?

This is adapted from an war studies essay from a Second Year War Studies student.

It considers one specific facet of how guerrillas fight a protracted war.

Does the guerrilla trades space for time?

The concept of the guerrilla trading space for time can be considered slightly misleading, it is perhaps more apt to suggest that the guerrilla ‘loans’ space rather than ‘trades’ it. This is because to the Guerrilla the enemy only owns the land on which its soldiers stand. Further to this they believe that possession of territory is dictated by “political control of the population rather than military advance.”  Nevertheless the basic principle remains that space is used to generate more time in order to further conduct a guerrilla campaign. The theory can be seen prior to 1945 in the actions of T.E Lawrence in the Arab Revolt 1916-18 and discussed later in 1938 by Mao Zedong with regards to the Chinese Civil War. It was later adopted and adapted by strategists against the US forces and her allies in the Vietnam War and later in Afghanistan against Soviet Russia and more recently NATO forces. In essence it is a protracted war, whereby victory is achieved by not losing – “their objective in waging war is not necessarily to militarily defeat their larger, more powerful enemy, but impose a cost upon them that they will not want – or be able – to bear.”  However, there have been attempts to fight a guerrilla war using an alternate strategy based upon using speed and to an extent possession of territory. This is exhibited by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and later Regis Debray with the theory of the ‘foco’ which deviates from Maoist principles in consolidating and gaining power before entering into war, rather it promotes aggressive military action that will inspire popular support.

To understand the relationship the guerrilla has with space and time then one must look prior to 1945 to T.E Lawrence, who put into practice and codified many of the principles of guerrilla warfare during the Arab Revolt 1916-18. Although guerrilla insurgencies had occurred prior to the revolt it was Lawrence who established much of the philosophical foundations to facilitate such a strategy. He recognised the advantage geography gave him over the militarily superior Turkish forces, “space [was] greater than the power of armies.”  Noting that because the Turks did not have the manpower to control the entire land the Arabs could use their virtues of mobility to use the “silent threat of the vast unknown desert”  as a weapon. He links this to the philosophical and psychological elements required for success, “suppose we were… an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without a front or back… Our Kingdom lay in each man’s mind.”  This is essentially stating that in a guerrilla campaign winning the minds of the populace will ultimately lead to victory and possession of territory.

The other important character in the development of guerrilla strategy is Mao Zedong and the three stages of protracted warfare that he developed. He wrote that “the first stage covers the enemy’s strategic offensive and our strategic defensive. The second will be the enemy’s strategic consolidation and our preparation for the counteroffensive. The third stage will be the period of our strategic counteroffensive and the enemy’s strategic retreat.” With regards to the enemy this means that they will move from “superiority to parity and the inferiority and [will go from] the offensive to the safeguarding of their gains and then to retreat.”   It is the second stage, which will be dominated by guerrilla warfare, meaning it is the most important in the protracted war since it is here that the nation will move from weakness to strength, enabling advancement to the third stage to destroy the enemy.

With this doctrine in place, Mao set to developing tactical guidelines that make transition through the three stages possible. Perhaps the most famous of these is the dictum “Fight when you can win, move away when you can’t win.”  This demonstrates how time and space are intrinsically linked to the guerrilla. Retreating from contact and relinquishing territory means the guerrilla can continue to sap the strength of enemy. Thus over time the enemy becomes weaker and the dynamic shifts to the guerrilla having military superiority. When this happens the insurgent moves to stage three and turns to conventional warfare to deal the final blow and defeat the enemy. Mao’s influence can be seen in Vietnam where American documentation shows this tactic is used by the Viet Cong, “When  faced  with  a  superior  force  the  Viet  Cong  normally  attempt to  break  contact  and  withdraw.” , this could not more perfectly reflect Mao’s dictum.

However, one criticism that could be directed at Mao is that he states “premature regularization is strictly prohibited.”  This though restricts the flexibility and fluidity of the guerrilla since it means that premature change equals the sacrifice of time and space and consequently failure. Conversely, it could be argued that being too conservative and delaying longer than necessary before advancing to the next stage is equally as damaging. It can prevent the guerrilla from using their initiative and taking advantage of a situation. The guerrilla movement in Cuba and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s concept of the ‘foco’ was an attempt to establish an alternate to Mao and premature regularization. Unlike Mao who believed in using time to gain popular support Guevara was of the opinion that the guerrilla could generate support through aggressive revolutionary action ‘It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist; the insurrection can create them.’  However, it would be dangerous to deduce from Cuban experience how to conduct a guerrilla war in other countries. Cuba can be seen as an exception where popular discontent was already very widespread, allowing such a strategy to be used. In Bolivia, Che Guevara attempted to use the same strategy, but he failed to recognise that discontent was not so extensive and was subsequently defeated.

This is not to say that Mao was correct in his belief on premature regularization. In the Vietnam War, the Tet offensive in 1968 was a turning point for the Vietnamese, bringing to light the weakness in Mao’s model. The offensive was an attempt to progress to conventional warfare but turned into a costly venture for the North Vietnamese, captured documents revealed “incomparable losses in manpower and equipment.”  This could have been disastrous and led to defeat for the North Vietnamese, but it did not. A revision of Mao’s doctrine enabled the Vietnamese to continue, instead of capitulating as would be assumed by Maoist theory. The Vietnamese reverted back to guerrilla tactics in order to maintain their existence. Showing that there can be fluidity between stages and premature advancement does not equal defeat.

The reason this was possible was because the Vietnamese leadership, under Ho Chi Mihn and General Giap recognised and used the philosophical and psychological features discussed by T.E Lawrence. They understood that this was a war of the minds, not of land, per se. Hence Colonel Tu’s response to Colonel Summers’ comment “you know you never defeated us in battle” with “that may be true but it is also irrelevant.”  This shows the difference between American and Vietnamese strategic cultures. The Americans perceived warfare through the Clausewitzian spectrum that “war is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means” , meaning that military success leads to political success. Whereas the Vietnamese took the opposite view, political victory is not dependant on military success but on psychological victory. It means that with the support of the populace they can continue a protracted war until the enemy submits. Time is the insurgent’s friend, but only if they have the necessary support, and use guerrilla tactics that can provide this vital time. As Lawrence stated if you are an ‘idea’ you are ‘intangible’. As long as the idea exists the guerrilla is not losing. This can be enough to bring victory, for time will defeat the enemy who cannot suffer the burden of war for as long as the insurgent.

Similar experiences in fluidity through the stages can be seen in Afghanistan, past and present. Insurgents in Afghanistan have demonstrated on two separate conflicts how to trade space for time. First in their struggle against Soviet Russia, 1979-1989 and currently the United States and her NATO allies, 2001- Date. When Russia invaded in 1979 the mujahedeen took to the mountains, leaving vast areas of territory to the Soviets. From here they used their intimate knowledge of the terrain to launch ambushes and raids on Soviet forces until eventually Russian political resolve broke and troops were withdrawn. In the current conflict, the Taliban are illustrating how guerrillas use time and space to achieve political victory despite being ousted from power in 2001. In spite of this, the Taliban, supported by the infamous al-Qaeda retreated to the mountains and into Pakistan, as has recently been brought to light with the discovery of Osama Bin Laden in the country.  From here they were able to re-consolidate their power and train new insurgents in the safety of knowing that NATO forces would not cross the border into Pakistan. With this security the insurgents have been able to launch a new campaign to regain power which is still being fought to date. Thus by relinquishing control of Afghanistan the Taliban have been able to remain as a political force. This strategy can be seen in other similar conflicts such as Algeria where the ALN were able to retreat to Tunisia, where they “organized and trained their men with impunity, safe from French counter-attacks.”

However, there are also examples of guerrillas using space for time without losing territory, per se. In the Vietnam War the Viet Cong used a tactic known as the ‘bear hug’, which aimed to prevent the Americans bringing down air and artillery fire on them. An example of this can be seen in from the observations of the 173d Airborne Brigade, “After contact was made with a VC battalion in well prepared positions, US forces were pulled back to allow friendly air and artillery fires to be placed on the forward VC positions. VC forces, utilizing a “hugging tactic,” left their positions and followed the US Forces to reduce effectiveness of friendly supporting fires.”  This is a divergence from typical guerrilla tactics, who were advised to “[hasten] to a place where there are no enemy troops” in order to “[get] out of difficult situations.”  This illustrates how the guerrilla can use both have territory and bide themselves more time since it can help dictate what the enemy can and cannot do. This though, is an exception, historically the guerrilla will retreat in the face of superior force.

In conclusion the guerrilla does trade space (in a physical sense) for time, by relinquishing territory the guerrilla is able to survive. But military domination of land is inconsequential since this is not how the guerrilla perceives possession. Possession of land is determined by the populace who live there, for it is they who will determine who is eventually victorious. With the support of the population the guerrilla is able to prosecute the war indefinitely, without it they face defeat, as shown in Bolivia. Space and time are weapons and this is best exemplified in the Vietnam and Afghan conflicts, where fluidity has ensured their survival and has resulted in Vietnamese victory and the continued resistance by the Taliban against NATO forces. The key reason for trading space for time is to keep the ‘idea’ alive, not the soldier, for time is a greater weapon. Trading space for time has been a widespread strategy of the guerrilla and it has certainly proved more effective for them to be patient, having more potential for success than the aggressive stance promoted by Che Guevara.