Luttwak’s Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace

Some years ago I reviewed Edward N. Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire and its Byzantine Empire sequel. In-between these two books, Luttwak published a theoretical rather than purely historical work entitled Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1987; revised and enlarged edition 2001).

Here Luttwak attempts to define the multiple layers of strategy in a general sense, both military and diplomatic, using modern-world examples of actual conflict or at least well-understood Cold War scenarios. The book is just as excellent as the two previously reviewed, and should be read by anyone interested in the subject. In the following I’ll give a brief outline of Luttwak’s thesis, including a selected few of his numerous examples.

What is Strategy?

The term “strategy” is rather amorphous but Luttwak uses it here in a very specific way: planning actions against adversaries that deliberately attempt to counter them. This distinguishes strategy from general technical problem-solving where the only “adversaries” are laws of nature, and in particular leads to paradoxical situations where the technically optimal solution may be strategically inferior, due to being too easily countered.

In his own words, starting from the end: “General André Beaufre’s succinct definition, normative but based on the descriptive, is congruent with my own purpose in this book: “l’art de la dialectique des volontes employant la force pour resoudre leur conflict” (the art of the dialectics of wills that use power to resolve their conflicts).” [Appendix A, p.269] “My purpose has been to uncover the workings of the paradoxical logic in its five levels and two dimensions, offering a general theory of strategy in the process.” [p.258]

Now back to the beginning, to explain what this means: “As a vision of strategy emerged out of the shadows of words read, problems investigated, and warlike events actually experienced, I found that its content was not the prosaic stuff of platitudes, but instead paradox, irony, and contradiction. Moreover, the logic of strategy seemed to unfold in two dimensions: the “horizontal” contentions of adversaries who seek to oppose, deflect, and reverse each other’s moves – and that is what makes strategy paradoxical; and the “vertical” interplay of the different levels of conflict, technical, tactical, and operational, and higher – among which there is no natural harmony.” [Preface, p.xii] Luttwak’s “large claim” is that “the entire realm of strategy is pervaded by a paradoxical logic very different from the ordinary “linear” logic by which we live in all other spheres of life. […] Therefore it tends to reward paradoxical conduct while defeating straightforwardly logical action, yielding results that are ironical or even lethally damaging.” [p.2]

A very simple example: “it is only in war that a bad road can be good precisely because it is bad and may therefore be less strongly defended or even left unguarded by the enemy.” [p.3] Another example is surprise in war: “not merely one advantage among many, such as material superiority or a better initial position, but rather the suspension, if only brief, if only partial, of the entire predicament of strategy. Against a nonreacting enemy or, more realistically, within the limits of time and space of the surprise actually achieved, the conduct of war becomes mere administration, as simple in its total reality as each one of its elements seems to be simple in theory.” [p.4] Of course those stratagems themselves have a cost: advancing by worse roads, achieving surprise by cover of night, etc. always puts additional strain on troops and logistics. “At the limit, surprise could in theory be best achieved by acting in a manner so completely paradoxical as to be utterly self-defeating.” [p.7] If the bulk of one’s forces is engaged in a diversion, the enemy might very well be diverted, only to easily defeat the small fraction of forces actually left ready to fight.

Many more theoretical and practical examples follow in this introductory chapter, but as I have no intention to reproduce the entire book here, let’s jump forward to the discussion of the vertical and horizontal levels of strategy.

Five Levels of Strategy

“Strategy… has two different dimensions: the vertical dimension of the different levels that interact with one another; and the horizontal dimension in which the dynamic logic of action and reaction [i.e. by the enemy] unfolds within each level.” [p.90] The fifth level missing from the list below would be grand strategy, to be discussed later.

  • The Technical Level. Which weapons should be deployed in the first place? During the Cold War, for example, should NATO have fielded anti-tank missile infantry or tank battalions? “The cost-adjusted effectiveness of the missile is categorically superior to that of the armored vehicle […] ($51,200 worth of missile will destroy a $2 million tank).” [p.96] But in reality, the opposite decision is usually made as there is a tendency to favor the most costly and advanced solutions, even if they offer little improvement over older and cheaper weapons. Hitler’s obsession with the biggest possible tanks and pointless V rockets comes to mind [p.98].
  • The Tactical Level. Here the actual usage scenario of weapons comes into play. The potential Cold War battlefields in Germany feature many wooded hills and vales as well as uncertain weather, allowing protection for missile teams – but also opportunities for Soviet tanks to appear suddenly in front of them. Will the missile teams stand and fight rather than cowering in terror? Can they even ensure a minimum firing distance? Here the quality of tactical leadership comes into play, and unless it is excellent our efficient missile teams are suddenly worthless. “That is why estimates of military balances that stop at the technical level are so systematically misleading: by comparing lists of weapons side by side, with seductive precision they exclude from the comparison the greater part of the whole.” [p.105]
  • The Operational Level. At this level “we encounter for the first time the struggle between the directing minds on both sides. […] Where single types of forces and their specific tactics […] no longer determine outcomes by themselves, because other types of forces and other types of tactics are also involved, we have ascended to the operational level.” [p.112f] The operational level focuses on relational maneuvers which are necessary when mere attrition cannot win a war. That means avoiding enemy strengths while applying pressure to his weaknesses. Unlike attrition which is high-cost but can be mathematically calculated and fail “gracefully” (just drop more bombs etc.), maneuver is a low-cost gamble that can result in either quick victory or catastrophic failure. Quality matters: “relational maneuver imposes irreducible standards, so that quantity cannot substitute for quality as freely as in attrition warfare.” [p.116] A standard example for successful operational warfare would be the German Blitzkrieg in early WW2.
  • The Theater Level I: Military Options and Political Choices. Here, “some specific territory is the very object of the struggle.” Whatever it is, it “must form a reasonably self-contained space rather than just one part of a larger whole.” [p.138] In WW2 such a theater would be the entire Western front of Germany. “By the usual paradox of strategy, the Maginot line failed to protect France because it was oversuccessful. […] The Maginot line, deemed impassable at both the tactical and operational levels, was countered at the level of theater strategy:” namely by successful operational warfare through the unfortified Belgian Ardennes instead. [p.144]
  • The Theater Level II: Offense and Defense. “By the usual reversal of the logic, only those who already have a safe margin of superiority can afford the cautious broad advance, while those already at risk must accept yet more risk [by narrow breakthrough advances] to have any chance of success at all.” [p.147] On the defensive part, there is a spectrum between fully elastic defense (ceding much territory to the enemy while preparing for a counter-attack), defense in depth (selectively defending islands of resistance – the strategy of the late Roman Empire), and a fully preclusive frontal defense. The Cold War scenario for West Germany was one where this question was never resolved: total frontal defense was impossible, and the other options would surrender virtually all of West Germany to Soviet forces. [p.151] Luttwak here adds some interesting sections on guerilla warfare which sadly are too long to relate.
  • The Theater Level III: Interdiction and Surprise Attack. This covers “an active defense, whereby a theater is defended by launching an immediate counteroffensive, without any defensive fighting at all.” [p.158] An extreme case in point: Israel in 1973, a country with no defensive depth to speak of that could not possibly survive otherwise. On the other extreme, Russia had such great defensive depth that it was virtually unconquerable but also, before the Soviet Union, unable to bring any significant well-supplied forces to its Western front. [p.158ff] Luttwak now discusses air interdiction, bombing, and raiding supplies which once again is beyond the scope of this post.

Non-Strategies: Naval, Air, Nuclear

This is perhaps the most intriguing chapter. No doubt all of these forces have some influence but Luttwak argues they are never decisive, except against greatly inferior opponents. First, on Britain’s naval doctrine: “But the real cause of Britain’s naval supremacy was the success of its foreign policy in preserving a balance of power in Europe. By intervening to oppose any great power or coalition that seemed on the verge of dominating continental Europe, the British ensured continued strife. That forced the continental powers to keep large armies, which in turn prevented them from keeping large navies as well. […] We can therefore recognize that successful sea power was the result of a successful strategy, rather than its cause. […] Had the British neglected diplomacy and subsidies in a straightforward attempt to achieve superiority at sea by outbuilding all seafaring continental rivals […] British resources would have been insufficient to compete with all the seafaring talent of a united Western Europe.” [p.173] As for nuclear weapons, there was a great initial reluctance to use them after the two Japanese drops, and later the Soviet Union acquired so many that their use was out of the question anyway, and so indeed was any serious direct military confrontation. Their strategic effect was to prevent outright global war – probably good for mankind, but not a strategic victory.

The case against strategic air power is quite simple: the stronger air power became, the stronger air defense became. Bombers required increasingly stronger escorts: “Virtual attrition – the diversion of resources from positive action to self-protection – can be more costly than actual attrition in lost offensive effectiveness.” [p.203] Against enemies who had any means of resistance at all, the result was close to a zero-sum game, especially since indiscriminate bombing has only a small chance of destroying enemy troops or critical infrastructure. However, the 1991 Gulf war brought a “Renaissance of Strategic Air Power:” “the fighting unfolded without the ebb and flow of alternate fortunes that mark any serious war because of the immediate success of the historically unprecedent “decapitation” offensive” [p.188] that quickly destroyed Iraq’s AA defense and centralized command communications – but that was largely due to precision-guided weapons, not traditional mass bombardment [p.190ff]. Guided bombs are for now unbeaten, but as always a clever adversary might yet develop countermeasures.

Grand Strategy

Here “the interactions of the lower, military levels yield final results within the broad setting of international politics, in further interactions with the nonmilitary relations of states: the formal exchanges of diplomacy, the public communications of propaganda, secret operations, the perceptions of others formed by intelligence, and all economic transactions of more than purely private significance.” Grand strategy “may be seen as a confluence of the military interactions that flow up and down level by level, forming strategy’s “vertical” dimension, with the varied external relations among states forming strategy’s “horizontal” dimension.” [p.209] “Brilliant victories at the technical, tactical, operational, or theater-strategic level, or for that matter diplomatic blunders, may have the opposite effect or even remain without consequence in the confluence of grand strategy.” [p.211]

There is the curious case of arms control: “Eventually, as the process continues and all verifiable weapons are duly subjected to effective limitations, all developmental and production resources will have been diverted to the acquisition of weapons that cannot be verified for one reason or another, which therefore cannot be the subject of limitations. At that point, the competition in arms would continue. But arms control would have come to an end, annihilated by its own success, just like the perfect antitank weapon that would cause the disappearance of tanks from all battlefields, or the army that advances so far that it marches to its own self-destruction.” [p.216]

“Armed Suasion” is Luttwak’s term for what is commonly called deterrence because he does not believe that any sheer volume of weapons causes deterrence. “It is not the keeping of armed strength that generates armed suasion but the response of others to their own perceptions of that armed strength. It is the result of decisions they make, shaped by their calculations and emotions, which inevitably reflect entire worldviews, including opinions of the armed strength before them, visions of the likelihood and circumstances of combat, and estimates of the willingness to use force for or against them.” [p.218f] Ultimately, “combat outcome will be influenced by all the unpredictables of time, space, and circumstance.” [p.219] Mere propaganda is a major factor here: Mussolini’s strength prior to WW2 was as overestimated as the Soviet Union’s prior to 1962. [p.221] “More generally, we have already seen how nuclear dissuasion was circumvented on a global scale by indirect and deniable forms of aggression, both covert-political and paramilitary, both bloodless and very bloody indeed.” [p.223] “Thus the triumph of nuclear dissuasion was paradoxically evident in non-nuclear violence.” [p.224]

Finally, Luttwak discusses “Harmony and Disharmony in War.” Here disharmony means at it most extreme that a weapon is “technically inefficient, tactically inadequate, of slight operational value, and ineffective at the level of theater strategy,” therefore also useless at the level of grand strategy and armed suasion. One perfect counter-example is the humble bayonet, “by finally allowing all foot soldiers to be equipped with firearms.” Until the end of the 17th century musketeers had to be protected by pikemen against cavalry charges. “The bayonet was readily adopted because it required so little innovation — it was fully compatible with existing tactics and operational methods, as well as with the established regimental organization.” [p.234] On the level of grand strategy, one of the most famous examples of disharmony is the failure of the WW2 Axis. “Actually all those military struggles in the “vertical” dimension that dominated the outcome of the fighting in North Africa were themselves dominated by Hitler’s utter failure of statecraft in the horizontal dimension. Because his entire conduct united the strongest industrial powers in the world against Germany, Italy, and their distant Japanese ally, the defeat of Germany was virtually certain in spite of any number of battlefield victories.” [p.239f]

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