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Posted on Jun 8, 2013 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 085

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland


“War remains an art and, like all arts, whatever its variation, will have its enduring principles.  Many men, skilled either with sword or pen, and sometimes with both, have tried to expound these principles.  I heard them once from a soldier of experience for whom I had a deep and well-founded respect.  Many years ago, as a cadet hoping someday to be an officer, I was poring over the “Principles of War,” listed in the old Field Service Regulations, when the sergeant-major came upon me.  He surveyed me with kindly amusement.  “Don’t bother your head about all them things, me lad,” he said.  “There’s only one principle of war, and that’s this.  Hit the other fellow as quick as you can, where it hurts him the most, when he ain’t lookin’!”  As a recruit, I earned that great man’s reproof often enough; now as an old soldier, I would hope to receive his commendation.  I think I might, for we of the Fourteenth Army held to his “Principle of War.”

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Field Marshal Viscount Slim of Burma

Commander Fourteenth Army (Burma Campaign)

In our last article, we began our short series on the principles of war.  The emphasis in our initial article was two-fold.  First, we attempted to define the principles of war.  We utilized some definitions from the past and from present US Army and British doctrine.  As we discovered, there are some common themes that resonate, but there are also some interesting deviations as well.  Second, we began to address the evolution of the principles of war.  This discussion was focused solely on how the principles evolved within the world (minus the United States).  We highlighted some of the theorists that laid the foundation for what we now know as the principles.  Our analysis concluded with the efforts of JFC Fuller and the British becoming the first country to establish their own principles of war in 1920.

In our concluding article in this mini-series, we have several things we want to achieve.  First, we will look at the evolution of the principles of war within the US Army.  Second, we will provide some ways in which the principles of war are utilized today and how they may benefit you.  Third, we will provide some food for thought in regards to the relevancy of the principles today.  There is a lot to get to in this article; so let’s begin.

The United States and the Principles of War

As we concluded in our last article; the British established their own principles in 1920.  These principles were:

Maintenance of the objective

Offensive action



Economy of force




With the British in the fold, it didn’t take the United States Army long to publish its principles of war.  In 1921, it utilized the beginning pages of its’ Training Regulation 10-5 to publish their first principles of war.  The principles, clearly influenced by the work of Fuller and the British were:

  • The Principle of the Objective
  • The Principle of the Offensive
  • The Principle of Mass (The British used concentration)
  • The Principle  of Economy of Force
  • The Principle  of Movement (The British used mobility)
  • The Principle of Surprise
  • The Principle of Security
  • The Principle  of Cooperation
  • The Principle of Simplicity (The only addition from Fuller’s original list.  Additionally this was not part of the British list)

There were some surprising deletions and verbiage use in the Training Regulation.   First, it did not include definitions for each of the principles.  It is interesting that the first time the Army listed the principles; it did not include their understanding of the principle. In reference to the introduction of the principles; there were some intriguing choices of words in their discussion of the principles.  It stated:

“These principles are immutable.  Their application varies with the situation, the fundamentals of which are time, space or distance, terrain, weather, relative strength, including the physical and disciplinary factors, such as numbers, morale, communication, supply, and armament.  Their proper application constitutes the true measure of military art, and it is the duty of all officers to acquire their true meaning by study, particularly the study of history, by reflection, and by practice, not only in purely military work, but in administration and business operation.  All practical military problems, weather on the map or in the field, will be examined, and critiques thereof will mention the manner of the application of the fixed principle of war.  All active military operations will be planned and executed in accordance with these principles.”

In regards to the driving force in the United States Army on the adoption of the principles; that must be Major Hallmark Erickson.  Erickson was born in Norway and was commissioned during the Spanish-American War.  During World War I, he served as an infantryman and a logistician.  Following the Great War, he was assigned as an instructor at the General Staff College.  It was in this position, in which Erickson began spreading “the gospel” in regards to the virtues of the principles.  Not only did he spread the word with the officers in the classroom, but he had the ear of the Army leadership who determined the content of Training Regulation 10-5.

The release of the principles immediately produced much debate within the Army.  The debate was two-fold.  The first, point of contention was if principles of war should exist in the Army doctrine.  Second, if there was a need for the principles; then what they should consist of.  Fueling the debate were the Army’s schoolhouses.  On one side was the US Army Infantry School.  They were adamant that the principles were not needed or relevant.  On the other side were the US Army Command and General Staff College.  They believed the principles were relevant and utilized them in the classroom (in particular in their study of historical battles).

The Infantry SchoolThe Command and General Staff College


In 1923, the Army published its’ Field Service Regulations.  It appears that the Infantry School won the debate as there was no inclusion of the principles in the manual.  The Army did include a section entitled “Combat, General Principles”.   The section was broke up into subparagraphs addressing the principles.  Interestingly, much of verbiage had a distinct resemblance to the British principles of 1920.


JFC Fuller

In 1926, Fuller himself began to debate his own list.  He now determined there was one law of war (economy of force) and 9 principles of war.  These principles were:

  • Direction
  • Concentration
  • Distribution
  • Determination
  • Surprise
  • Endurance
  • Mobility
  • Offensive Action
  • Security

Fuller’s reexamination of the principles generated much discussion – some favorable to Fuller and some highly critical to his changes.  However, Fuller did not let the criticism shut him down.  Never being shy to draw controversy; he remained undaunted in his quest to dissect anything related to warfare.

After their original publishing in 1921, the principles did not get published in a formal US Army doctrinal manual until 1949.  During that 28 year period, the subject did not go away in discussion.  This was especially true in the schoolhouses.   Again, the chief antagonists were the Infantry School and the Command and General Staff College.

In 1934, the Infantry School published its’ seminal work, Infantry in Battle.  The book was made up of numerous chapters, each focused on a specific theme.  Within each theme, there were many vignettes which highlighted the theme.  Several of the themes had a principles feel such as simplicity, mobility, surprise, and control.  However, there was no discussion of the principles of war specifically.  At the time of the publishing of Infantry in Battle, the Commandant of the Infantry School was George C. Marshall, then Colonel of Infantry.  Marshall was staunch in his view that no rules (principles) of war existed.

General Marshall

 Two years later, in 1936, The Command and General Staff School published its’ “Principles of Strategy”.  The list clearly had a principles of war feel.  It consisted of the following:

  • The Importance of Offensive Action
  • The Importance of Concentration of Combat Power
  • The Importance of Economy of Force
  • The Importance of Mobility
  • The Importance of Surprise
  • The Importance of Security
  • The Importance of Cooperation

During the period 1939-1949, The Command and General Staff School continued to emphasize the principles within its’ curriculum.  In 1939, it released in one of its publications, a principles of war list with definitions of each of the principles.  The list contained:

  • Principle of Security
  • Principle of the Offensive
  • Principle of Superiority
  • Principle of the Unity of Effort
  • Principle of the Common Objective
  • Principle of Simplicity

The Army itself, began to utilize its’ doctrinal manuals to publish variations of the principles of war; without specifically labeling them as the principles of war.  In 1939, it entitled them, “Conduct of War, General Principles”.  Among the general principles were: ultimate objective, concentration, offensive action, unity of effort, surprise, security and simplicity.  In 1941, they changed the name to “Doctrines of Combat”.  It was very similar in content to the 1939 document.

This now brings us to 1949.  After 28 years, the principles of war were officially back into doctrine.  Clearly, the experience in World War II had influenced Army leadership that the principles were relevant.  In the US Army’s keystone manual,   FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations—Operations; the principles were listed and included definitions of each principle.  The list included seven of the principles from the original 1921 list; objective, the offensive, mass, economy of force, surprise, security and simplicity.  There were two differences in the 1949 list.   Movement in 1921 changed to maneuver in 1949 and cooperation changed to unity of command.

In 1954, the US Army published a new version of  FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations—Operations.  As you can surmise from the time period, the manual was heavily influenced by the lessons of the Korean War.  In terms of the principles themselves; they did not change.  What did change were the definitions of each of the principles.  The explanations were far more detailed and you could clearly see how doctrine writers had incorporated the experiences of the Korean War into the principles.  Another interesting aspect of the manual’s treatment of the principles was its’ inclusion of a definition of the principles.  It was a definition which would endure for many years.  It stated:

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.  The degree of application of any specific principle will vary with the situation and the application thereto of sound judgment and tactical sense.”

FM 100-5 was once again published in 1962.  The principles were included in its’ pages.  There was some wordsmithing of the definitions of the principles, but the section on the principles was basically the same as in 1954.

As the Army was in the midst of the Vietnam War, another FM 100-5 was put out to the field in 1968.  The section on the principles did not change at all.  It was identical to the 1962 version.  Things would change in the upcoming years.

After the Vietnam War, there was scrutiny in all areas within the Army.  Included in this analysis was Army doctrine.  As a new version of FM 100-5 was being drafted; the topic of the principles of war was particularly debated.  There were many who were on each side of the fence.  However, there was a bigger crowd on the side who believed the principles need not be included in the keystone manual.  It was felt the principles were embedded in doctrine.  The end result – the principles were no longer highlighted in doctrine.  It did not last long.

In 1978, the Army published FM 100-1–The Army.  There within its’ pages was once again, the principles of war. In terms of verbiage, it was very similar to past versions.  Some principles received a little makeover, but nothing drastic.  A large makeover would take place four years later.

1982 was an important year for doctrine as a whole and the principles of war as well.  The 1982 version of FM 100-5 marked the beginning of AirLand Battle Doctrine.  AirLand Battle was a different mindset in regards in how the Army would fight.  As stated early in the manual it was: “… an approach to fighting intended to develop the full potential of US forces.  Operations based on this doctrine are nonlinear battles which attack enemy forces throughout their depth with fire and maneuver.  They require the coordinated action of all available military forces in pursuit of a single objective.”

AirLand Battle also produced a renewed emphasis on the principles.  For the first time, the principles received their own appendix.  Each of principles (no changes from the past) garnered significant billing in the appendix.  Within the discussion, there was clearly a strategic flavor.  In the past, the focus was at the tactical level of war.  Now, it was a dual focus at the strategic and tactical levels.  The introduction for the appendix was also new and provided a concise synopsis of the principles and the US Army.  It stated:

“The United States Army published its first set of principles of war in a 1921 Army training regulation.  These principles were in large measure drawn from the work of British Major general J.F.C. Fuller, who developed a set of principles of war during World War I to serve as guides for his own army.  In the ensuing years, these original principles of war adopted by our Army have undergone minor revisions and changes, but have essentially stood the tests of analysis, experimentation, and practice.”

The Army released another FM 100-5 in 1986.  This manual took AirLand Battle to the next level.   Perhaps, the most important feature of the manual was that it strived to fill the void between the strategic and tactical levels of war.  Consequently, you find the first manual with a real emphasis on the operational level of war.

In regards to the principles, the emphasis was much the same as 1982.  It included a dedicated appendix, the same introduction, the same principles, but an extended discussion on each of the principles.  The difference, as alluded to earlier, was that the definitions had numerous references to the operational level of war. In the evolution of the principles of war, it was clearly the first time in which all three levels of war were prominently addressed.

It would be seven years later (1993) until the next iteration of FM 100-5 would be published.  In those seven years, much had taken place. This included the end of Cold War, operations in Panama, and Desert Shield/Storm. These events would weigh heavily on the minds of Army leadership and their doctrine writers as they crafted the 1993 edition of FM 100-5.

There were many new concepts in the pages of the new version.  These included chapters focused on force projection and operations other than war.  Additionally, there was increased emphasis on joint and combined operations.  All of these were spurred by the Army’s role in the past seven years.

The principles themselves saw changes in terms of substance and the way they were addressed.  In terms of definitions, they were fine-tuned.  This included abbreviated discussion on each of the principles and verbiage clearly tied to the events of the past seven years.  The placement of the principles was also very different.  Instead of a dedicated appendix for the principles; they were now embedded in chapter 2 entitled, “Fundamentals of Army Operations”.  This chapter also included sections on the tenets of army operations and the dynamics of combat power.

In 2001, the Army published its next capstone manual on operations doctrine.  Instead of utilizing the moniker FM 100-5, it was now FM 3-0 (Operations). The buzzword for the manual was full spectrum operations.  In a nutshell, full spectrum operations were the range of operations Army forces could and would conduct in war and military operations other than war.  These four types of operations were offense, defense, stability and support.

In the 2001 edition, the principles were now located in chapter 4.  In the introduction of the principles it was emphasized that they were relevant to each of the levels of war – strategic, operational, and tactical.  It stated, “The nine principles of war provide general guidance for conducting war and military operations other than war at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.”  The discussion of each principle was pretty substantial.  Additionally, there were many instances where the relationship between specific principles was highlighted.

Following several years of fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Army released its latest edition of FM 3-0 in 2008.  Once again, the principles received their own appendix in the manual.  The introductory paragraph for the principles was perhaps the most comprehensive of any the Army crafted since 1921.  It read:

“The nine principles of war represent the most important nonphysical factors that affect the conduct of operations at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.  The Army published its original principles of war after World War I.  In the following years, the Army adjusted the original principles modestly as they stood the tests of analysis, experimentation, and practice.  The principles of war are not a checklist.  While they are considered in all operations, they do not apply in the same way to every situation.  Rather, they summarize characteristics of successful operations.  Their greatest value lies in the education of the military professional.  Applied to the study of past campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements, the principles of war are powerful analysis tools.”

There was one concluding sentence to this introduction which would have a powerful impact to the principles.  It stated, “Joint doctrine adds three principles of operations to the traditional principles of war.”  Thus, as the appendix was labeled, we now had the Principles of War and Operations.

Prior to each discussion of the principle; a simple sentence was added to assist in articulating the principle.  Below you will find the principles and that sentence:

Objective – Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective.

Offensive – Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

Mass – Concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.

Economy of Force – Allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.

Maneuver – Place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power.

Unity of Command – For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander.

Security – Never permit the enemy to acquire an 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 clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.

The Three Additional Principles of Joint Operations

Perseverance – Ensure the commitment necessary to attain the national strategic end state.

Legitimacy – Develop and maintain the will necessary to attain the national strategic end state.

Restraint – Limit collateral damage and prevent the unnecessary use of force.

Where are we Today?

Since the release of the 2008 version of FM 3-0, much has taken place in regards to doctrine within the Army.  Specifically, the past few years have seen the Army completely rethink the way it approached writing and disseminating doctrine.  The campaign is called Doctrine 2015 and we will address this later in the series.

One subject that was debated was whether the principles would be included in doctrine and if so, where. After much discussion, it was determined the nine principles of war and the three principles of joint operations would be combined and called the joint principles of war.  The joint principles found a home in ADP (Army Doctrine Publication) and ADRP (Army Doctrine Reference Publication) 3-90 – Offense and Defense.  This was published in August 2012. However, the treatment of the joint principles of war was much more subdued than in the past.

As we highlighted earlier, the principles normally occupied their own appendix or received substantial coverage in the Army’s keystone manual (either FM 100-5 or FM 3-0).  This coverage usually included 2-3 paragraphs of discussion on each of the principles.  However, this was not the case in current doctrine.  First, the principles were not included in the Army’s present keystone manual, which would now be ADP/ADRP 3-0.  Second, the addressing of the principles consisted of an introductory paragraph (which you will find below) and a list of the principles to the side of the paragraph.  There was no discussion of any of the principles individually.

“The twelve principles of joint operations defined in JP 3-0 provide general guidance for conducting military operations. They are fundamental truths governing all operations. The principles are built on the enduring bedrock of Army doctrine. First published in America in 1923 as general principles in Field Service Regulations United States Army, the first nine, as principles of war, have stood the tests of time, analysis, experimentation, and practice. 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 what does the future bring for the principles of war in doctrine?  It appears that in the present; it will not command the attention that it did in the past.

Before we leave the principles, let’s touch on two subjects.  First, we will highlight how the principles can be useful to any commander on any battlefield.  Second, we will provide you some questions that may stimulate some thought in you in regards to the principles.

The Value of the Principles

So we have these principles of war, so how can you use them?  Whether you utilize the US Army’s current principles, another country’s or person’s list, or devise your own; there are several ways they can be of benefit.    These include:

1)    Studying and Understanding History.

One way you may use principles is as a way to analyze battles, campaigns and even a war. You can take the principles and determine where one side may have lost because they were lacking in a certain principle (or more).  You may also take the principles and compare where one side may have had an advantage over another.  This advantage may have led to victory.  Again, the principles are simply a tool.

2)    Assisting in Developing Courses of Action.

In our experience, we have seen commanders use the principles as a way of providing guidance to their staff in developing courses of action.  For instance, a commander may discuss each principle or selected principles and tell his staff how he would like to shape the course of action with that principle.  He may use them all or just focus on a few.  Once again, this is a technique that some commanders have used with success.

3)    An Aid in Analyzing and Comparing Courses of Action.

A staff may also use the principles to compare courses of action they have developed when they are assisting the commander in selecting a course of action.  A staff may use all the principles and give advantages to a particular course of action.  Before comparison, they may weight certain principles which they feel are more critical to mission accomplishment.  After comparison, the course of action which has the more advantages in the principles is the one they recommend to the commander.

Another technique may be to just use selected principles along with other determined criteria to analyze and compare courses of action.  Once again, the course of action with the most advantages is the one recommended for implementation.

4)    Understanding the Strengths and Weaknesses of your Plan.

Once a plan is developed and approved, the principles can be of assistance in conducting a quick analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of the plan.   Understanding each of these can enable you to develop contingency plans.  These plans may be to capitalize on these strengths or to have plans set in case these weaknesses are exploited by the enemy.

5)    As an Aid in Evaluating Performance.

In any endeavor related to tactics; it is the wise commander who looks objectively at the performance of his unit.  One way to analyze performance is to utilize the principles.  A commander and his staff can look at an operation/mission and analyze it with the principles (or selected principles).

As you can see from the above, there is certainly some utility in utilizing the principles in any of the above ways.

The Great Debate

The principles are certainly a great subject for debate and as our articles have stressed they have debated for decades.  In regards to relevancy, there are two aspects. First, of course are the principles of war even relevant?  Can we begin to tie success or failure on the battlefield to a list of principles?  That is a good question!  Second, if we can tie this success or failure to principles; then what are the principles we should utilize?  Does technology change the make-up of these principles?  Do these principles vary based on the type of conflict being waged?  Lots to think about and many have!

We hope the past two articles have been informative for you.  Typically, many people throw out the principles of war and have little inkling on their history.  As we have highlighted, the principles did not just materialize.  They evolved through the thoughts of many.

Do you Want More Detail?

Still thirsting for more on the principles? If so, please get a copy of John Alger’s, The Quest for Victory, written in 1982. It was a great source for us in our past articles on the principles.

Our next few articles will focus on operational art.  It is an area in which the US Army did not get its hands around for many years.  We have seemingly always had a fairly good grip on the tactical level of war. As World War II raged, the Army and the Armed Forces as a whole began to understand the strategic level of war.  However, there existed that gap between the tactical and strategic levels.  “Smart Guys” knew that there must a link to tie these two levels together.  It was not until the evolution of AirLand Battle Doctrine in 1986 (taking the next step from 1982) that the US Army keyed on the operational level of war.  Our next articles, will address this evolution and how we prosecute operational war with the tools of operational art.

“The military system ought to rest on good principles that experience has shown to be valid.”

Frederick the Great


1 Comment

  1. The 12 Principles of War–very cool. I will write them down and see which of them I’m able to use in playing my Total War games. ha!

    It did seem to take an awful long time to get to them, though, what with the extended “history of the development of the idea of Principles of War”.

    In some of the lead-up (last month), Sun Tsu was mentioned, but none of his principles were mentioned, such as:

    do not place your camp by a river if you are below a Lock that the enemy could open to flood you

    do not camp in an area prone to flooding (even if no river nearby)

    if you have your enemy surrounded, make sure to leave an *apparent* avenue of escape to prevent him fighting with the strength of desperation, etc.

    I’m sure some don’t really apply to modern, mechanized warfare, and there are probably better, more Timeless and Universal ones I’m forgetting, but you know what I mean, I think.

    There could have been something on the advantages of Terrain (take the high ground!), or weather (IIRC, weather played a big role in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo), or you know, stuff like that…unless, of course, my understanding is lacking and those points are actually part of something other than the PRINCIPLES of war.

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