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Military tactics is the collective name for methods of engaging and defeating an enemy in a specific battle. It thus differs from strategy, which decides the overall objectives, and operational art (also called theater strategy), which arranges the placement and timing of battle. The goal of tactics is to prevent the enemy from continuing to fight, which can be done by kinetic means that physically destroy him, nonkinetic means that interfere with his morale or communications, or indirect means that prevent him from being resupplied.

Through time, military tactics have changed much under the influence of philosophy and technology. This article will describe the historical development of military tactics and the theory and execution of tactics, and give a brief summary of different types of tactics used in warfare and how they are executed.

The tactics used in a particular situation can depend on circumstances such as terrain, weather, weaponry, organization and the enemy. The basic idea of tactics though, is two armies trying to destroy each other on the battlefield yet at the same time trying not to be destroyed as well. Tactics can rely on force or guile. If the two armies facing each other are of equal strength, both force and guile might be required to prevail. [1]

Specialized tactics exist for many situations, from situations as small as securing a room to large-scale operations such as establishing air superiority in aircraft carrier battles. Today, military tactics are employed on all levels of command, from individual and group up to entire armed forces. Indeed, the units used in warfare have always been a reflection of current military tactics, and their size and composition have varied accordingly. Common military tactics include frontal assaults, attempts to flank the enemy, keeping troops in reserve and the use of ambushes. Often deception in the form of camouflage, or misdirection using decoys, are used to confuse the enemy.

Alternative terminology

One of the problems of the term "tactics" is that it encompasses a very wide range of levels of conflict. In land warfare, tactics extends from 25,000 soldier divisions to 3 soldier fire teams.

The term "grand tactics" sometimes is used for the larger levels, when the commander is maneuvering substantial units, not individual soldiers or ships.

Historical Development

The word tactics originates from the Greek word taxis, meaning order, arrangement or disposition. [2] The Greek historian Xenophon derived the term tactica, which meant the art of drawing up soldiers in array. Tactica, an early 10th-century handbook, dealt with formations and how to fight battles. English encyclopedist John Harris used the term "Tacticks" which he described as "the Art of Disposing any Number of Men into a proposed form of Battle." Up until the 19th century, much of military tactics was confined to battlefield tactics, concerned with maneuvering units in battle in open terrain. In current military thought, tactics is the operational application of forces to a situation. This is different from military strategy, which is more concerned with long-term results.

Tribal and ancient tactics

Sumerian phalanx, c. 2500 BC. A block of foot soldiers, standing shield-to-shield and presenting spears, advances in a dense mass typical of the phalanx. From the Stele of the Vultures, limestone bas-relief, c. 2500 BC. In the Louvre, Paris.

Warfare began to change dramatically with the development of the first city-states and empires. The first organized armies began to develop in Mesopotamia and it helped form the first empire in the region, that of the Sumerian's. The weapons of the era were primarily bows and spears, but these were still deadly instruments of war. A common and impressive tactic that began in this era was the phalanx. It consisted of of packing troops together in dense, massive blocks. This sacrificed mobility, flexibility, and the possibility of concealment to maximize striking power and gain mutual protection. In Greek armies 8-rank formations were the most common, but formations 16 and even 50 ranks deep have been recorded. The phalanx typically employed short-range weapons such as the sword, spear, and pike.

The chariot was invented in the 3rd millennium BC and the very first chariots were apparently too slow and cumbersome to actually serve in battle. In about 2000 BC chariots appeared in the Western Steppe, Mesopotamia, Turkey, and Syria and soon spread all over the world. The chariot's greatest advantage was its speed and this made it able to drive in circles around the phalanx and rain arrows on foot soldiers. The Hittiite style chariot, a Middle Eastern heavy chariot, was used to charge an enemy line and crash through the enemy infantry using the heavy weight of the chariot. [3] A perfect example of this tactic was used at the Battle of Kadesh. [4] The chariot still had it's drawbacks though, being unsuitable for difficult terrain and making inefficient use of manpower. The chariot had a crew of two or three men yet only one actually controlled the weapons and attacked the enemy.

After chariots, cavalry was soon developed and became much more efficient than its predecessor. Asian tribes of nomads were the first to use cavalry and was usually used to scout out the enemy and then pursuing them. [5] Though infantry continued to remain the main fighting force in West, the Mongols brought about the threat of light cavalry which relied on archery. Equipped with light armor, these men were unable to hold terrain. Instead, these light cavalry employed extremely mobile "swarming" tactics which involved riding in circles around the enemy and showering the opposing foot soldiers with arrows. This threat brought about the development of heavy armored cavalry which was first adopted by the Parthian Empire. These cataphracts [6] were heavily armored, and armed with a spear or a lance and a bow. [7] The heavy cavalry fought together with heavy infantry and made the difference in many battles, yet it could not replace heavy infantry as the main fighting force.

Western medieval tactics

The introduction of firearms

From Waterloo to the Bulge

Modern Warfare Tactics


For more information, see: Reconnaissance.
Reconnaissance photographs, such as this one of Soviet missile installations, played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Reconnaissance is the military term for methods of gathering information about an enemy. It is often referred to as recce or recon depending on the role. The associated verb is reconnoiter. Examples of reconnaissance include patrolling by troops, ships, submarines, or aircraft, or by setting up covert observation posts. Reconnaissance may also be carried out by satellites or unmanned aircraft.

Reconnaissance seeks to find a range of information about an enemy. This includes their locations, numbers, and intentions. Thus reconnaissance is a fundamental tactic which helps to build an intelligence picture.


Patrolling is a military tactic. Small groups or individual units are deployed from a larger formation to achieve a specific objective and then return. The tactic of patrolling may be applied to ground troops, armored units, naval units, and combat aircraft. The duration of a patrol will vary from a few hours to several weeks depending on the nature of the objective and the type of units involved.

There are several different types of patrol each with a different objective. The most common is to collect intelligence by carrying out a reconnaissance patrol. Such a patrol may try to remain covert and observe an enemy without themselves being detected. Other reconnaissance patrols are overt, especially those that interact with the civilian population.

  • A fighting patrol is a group with sufficient size (usually platoon or company) and resources to raid or ambush a specific enemy. It primarily differs from an attack in that it is not the aim to hold ground.
  • A clearing patrol is a brief patrol around a newly occupied defensive position in order to ensure that the immediate area is secure.

A number of patrols may be deployed to "screen" a large area. This type of patrol is used by armored formations in desert theatres, and also by ground troops operating in urban areas.

Special reconnaissance

For more information, see: Special reconnaissance.

Special reconnaissance is conducted deep behind enemy lines, by highly trained personnel whose presence should not become known to the enemy. Their goal may be limited to information gathering, or involve the control of artillery and air fires, especially with precision guided munitions.

Offensive Tactics


For more information, see: ambush.

An ambush is a long established military tactic in which an ambushing force uses concealment to attack an enemy that passes its position. Ambushers strike from concealed positions such as among dense underbrush or behind hilltops. The tactic is generally used to gather intelligence or to establish control over an area.

Frontal Assault

369th Infantry Regiment charging in France during World War I.

The military tactic of frontal assault is a direct, hostile movement of forces towards enemy forces in a large number, in an attempt to overwhelm the enemy. This is often referred to as a "suicide strike," because it is often a commander's last resort when he has run out of strategies.

Before the 19th century, a frontal assault against a line could be effective when conducted by horse cavalry. However, as the accuracy and range of firearms increased, this procedure proved increasingly suicidal. This style of combat was used heavily in the American Civil War, for example. The type of militaries used as well as the terrain lended themselves to direct frontal assault, and most of the battles of the Civil War were fought in this manner. Frontal assaults were also the cause of massive casualties in the trench warfare of World War One. In many cases, frontal assaults were made by thousands of men towards trenches defended by machine gun emplacements, with predictable and tragic results.

The pincer movement (double envelopment) is a basic element of military strategy which has been used, to some extent, in nearly every war. The maneuver is mostly self-explanatory; the flanks of the opponent are attacked simultaneously in a pinching motion after the opponent has advanced towards the center of an army which is responding by moving its outside forces to the enemy's flanks, in order to surround it. At the same time, a second layer of pincers attacks on the more extreme flanks, so as to prevent any attempts to reinforce the target unit.

Most infantry combat, on every scale, is based in some fashion on this military tactic and it is commonly used by aircraft as well. It was vaguely described in Sun Tzu's The Art of War, but he argued that it was best to allow the enemy a path to escape, as he felt the target army would fight with more ferocity when completely surrounded. However, the pincer is commonly employed in modern warfare.


Infantry besieging Jerusalem during the First Crusade.

Sieges are as old as warfare itself, with towns in the Middle East from the dawn of civilization having city walls. There are a number of tales of sieges in ancient sources, such as the siege of Jericho in the Old Testament or the siege of Troy described by Homer in the Iliad. An astonishing number and variety of sieges formed the core of Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul.

The universal method for defending against siege is the use of fortifications, principally walls and ditches, and a sufficient supply of food and water. In the European Middle Ages, virtually all large cities had city walls -- Dubrovnik in Dalmatia is an impressive and well-preserved example -- and more important cities had citadels, forts or castles. Great effort was expended to ensure a good water supply inside the city in case of siege. In some cases, long tunnels were constructed to carry water into the city. Complex systems of underground tunnels were used for storage and communications in medieval cities like Tábor in Bohemia, and in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In modern times, trenches have replaced walls, and bunkers have replaced castles.

The significance of the classical siege has been declining since the great Swedish white-elephant fortification of Karlsborg was completed in 1869. One single fortified stronghold, whatever the scale (Karlsborg was conceived as a reserve capital for Sweden), was no longer decisive. Whole cities have increasingly come under siege, fortified or not (eg Leningrad), and even, using blockades and the related "low-impact" attritional weapon of sanctions, whole countries (for instance, Cuba, Libya and Iraq).


Circumvallation is a standard military tactic of siege used in ancient and modern warfare. It describes the process of the attacking army building a line of fortifications around the besieged city facing towards the city (to protect themselves from sorties by its defenders and to enhance the blockade) and also the resulting fortifications (known as 'lines of circumvallation'). Lines of circumvallation generally consist of earth ramparts and entrenchments that encircle the besieged city. The line of circumvallation can be used as a base for launching assaults against the besieged city or for constructing further earthworks nearer the city.

In cases where the besieging army is threatened by a field army allied to the city, the besieging army may construct a second line of fortifications between themselves and the outside enemy parallel to the lines of circumvallation, known as 'lines of contravallation'. This envelopes the city in a double line of fortifications and doubly protects the besiegers. In turn, the besiegers may find themselves besieged within their lines of circumvallation and contravallation.

The circumvallation and contravallation tactic has the advantage of making it possible to redirect troops from the siege (now reinforced by the first wall of fortifications) to the defense of the besieging army itself. A siege is a prolonged military assault and blockade on a city or fortress with the intent of conquering by force or attrition. A siege occurs when an attacking army encounters a city or fortress that refuses to surrender and cannot be taken by a frontal assault. Sieges usually involve surrounding the target and blocking the provision of supplies, typically coupled with artillery bombardment, sapping and mining to reduce fortifications.

Sieges in Modern Warfare

Mainly as a result of the increasing firepower (such as machine guns) available to defensive forces, First World War trench warfare briefly revived a form of siege warfare. Although siege warfare had moved out from an urban setting because city walls had become ineffective against modern weapons, trench warfare was nonetheless able to utilize many of the techniques of siege warfare in its prosecution (sapping, mining, barrage and, of course, attrition) but on a much larger scale and on a greatly extended front. The development of the armored tank at the end of World War I swung the pendulum back in favor of maneuver.

The Blitzkrieg of the Second World War showed, however, that fixed fortifications are easily defeated by maneuver instead of frontal assault or long sieges. Battles that would have taken weeks of siege could now be avoided with the careful application of air power (such as the German paratrooper capture of Fort Eban, Belgium, early in World War II). The most important sieges of the Second World War were on the Eastern Front where bloody urban warfare marked the battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad. In these battles, the ruins of an urban landscape proved to be as effective obstacles to an advancing army as any fortifications.

The battles of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and Khe Sanh (1968) possessed siege-like characteristics. In both cases, the Vietnamese Communists were able to cut off the opposing army by capturing the surrounding rugged terrain. At Dien Bien Phu, the French were unable to use air power to overcome the siege and were defeated. But at Khe Sanh a mere 14 years later, advances in air power allowed the United States to overcome the siege and win the battle.

Three-dimensional tactics of air assault, battlefield air interdiction, close air support and large-scale air resupply can neutralize a siege or a positional defense.


Napoleon observed that the moral is to the physical as three to one. It is a basic military doctrine to achieve psychological dominance over the enemy, inducing a sense of futility to one's action. Establishing dominance can range from a show of force, to constant harassment fire that leaves him with no rest, to frequent aggressive patrolling making him distrust his security, to massive attack.

For more information, see: Iraq War.
NASA Landsat 7 image of Baghdad, April 2, 2003. The dark streaks are smoke from oil well fires set in an attempt to hinder attacking air forces. A perfect example of shock and awe tactics.

In the late 20th century, the goal became explicit, combining kinetic action (i.e., the application or threat of force) with information operations including psychological warfare and interference with communications. [8]

In the closing days of the twentieth century American military planners believed that the US had virtual military supremacy over any potential adversary. Looking ahead, however, it was believed that the military would be required to maintain the same level of supremacy with fewer resources, greater constraints, and an increased tempo of operations. The concept of Rapid Dominance was proposed as one way to achieve these goals. It is intended reduce an adversary's understanding, ability, and will to respond to an attack; to create sufficient "shock and awe" to render the enemy impotent. Methods of inducing "shock and awe" can include direct force applied to command and control centers, selective denial of information and dissemination of disinformation, overwhelming combat force, and rapidity of action. Disrupting information flow and decision, as described by John Boyd in the OODA loop, is critical.

The development of precision guided munitions is one enabling technology for the doctrine of Rapid Dominance.

"Shock and awe" in the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Shock and Awe has been referred to as the official strategy of the 2003 Iraq War, and was widely talked about in the press in the weeks leading up to the opening of action. During this time the concept of shock and awe was not well explained by the press, which generally described it as simply being a larger version of the air campaign, Operation DESERT STORM, carried out in the 1991 Gulf War. Shock and awe is a military doctrine that calls for attempting to directly influence your adversary's will, perception, and understanding of events by inducing a state of Shock and Awe. It is not intended to replace the traditional military aim of destroying the adversary's military capability, but instead to integrate that destruction into a larger suite of actions intended to produce the psychological effect of "breaking the enemy's will to fight". The term was first coined by the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Opinion as to its success there remains divided as of early 2003. The expectation that most Iraqi forces would capitulate after the shock and awe campaign appeared to have been discredited when, during the second week of the invasion, coalition forces met stiff resistance from irregular infantry units in many cities of southern Iraq. However, the complete collapse of organized Iraqi resistance one week later countervails this. A military-historical consensus is thus not likely to be achieved until later, when Iraqi soldiers and officers can be interviewed and the impact of America's fighting doctrine on their actions be better ascertained.

The campaign was, in keeping with the doctrine, aimed almost entirely at a limited set of command and control targets, a number of them in downtown Baghdad. When the air campaign opened, these targets were all hit within a period of about 15 minutes, and follow-up raids continued around the clock. In particular, key members of the Iraqi leadership were targeted.

The United States claimed that the attacks greatly interfered with the Iraqi ability to command and control troops. The complete collapse of Iraqi forces during the third week of the invasion, plus the lack of serious resistance preceding the fall of Baghdad lends ostensible credence to this view. More compelling support is found in a preliminary interview [9] of Iraqi soldiers. Specifically:

  • The accuracy and ubiquity of coalition bombing adversely impacted Iraqi morale: "This affected the morale of the soldiers, because they were hiding and thought nobody could find them. Some soldiers left their positions and ran away... Most of the commanders were sure it was through spies, because it was impossible to find through satellite or aircraft." And: "This affected the morale of the troops. The Iraqi will to fight was broken outside Baghdad."
  • The "thunder run" of U.S. tanks through southern Baghdad after the U.S capture of Saddam International Airport had its intended psychological effect: "It was a very big shock. Everyone was surprised that a military force could pass through all the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces surrounding the presidential palaces, and everyone became afraid."
  • The Iraqi army's command and control structures were effectively targeted: "In the end, when U.S. troops entered Baghdad, everything was messed up. There were no orders. We didn't know where the commanders went. We didn't know what to do. So everyone just went home."


Some have compared the doctrine of "Rapid Dominance" with the doctrine of blitzkrieg, first widely used in World War II. There are similarities in terms of the tempo of actions, but key differences in the way the ends are achieved.

Blitzkrieg is based on the idea of massing the entirety of an army's mobile forces at a single point in front of the enemy, breaking through due to the local superiority, and then running to the rear areas to cut off the front lines. Executed properly, a blitzkrieg will happen so fast that the enemy will have little idea what is going on. Attempts to set up a coherent defense or counterattack are difficult to organize, by the time one is ready the battle is already behind you.

Rapid Dominance, on the other hand, is based on a direct and furious attack on the command headquarters, both at the armed forces central commands, as well as the unit headquarters closer to the front. The aim is to cut off the troops from information and command, as opposed to supplies.

So both strategies do attempt to confuse the enemy fighting force to the point of inaction, but this is where the similarities end. In one case the target is commanders, the other supplies. Another difference is where the battle takes place, one in the air hundreds of kilometers from the enemy front lines, the other at and just behind the front lines on the ground.

The magnitude of "shock and awe" that the Rapid Dominance doctrine seeks to impose is the (non-nuclear) equivalent of the impact that some claim the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese at the end of World War II. Edney, et al., wrote, "The Japanese were prepared for suicidal resistance until both nuclear bombs were used."

Ullman maintains that the impact of those weapons was sufficient to change both the attitude of the average Japanese citizen and the outlook of the Empire's leadership through this condition of shock and awe, that they were stunned by the destructive power carried by a single airplane, which produced a state of awe and the inability to resist. This view remains controversial, however, and is criticized for ignoring other major factors and being over-simplified.

It has been pointed out that Japan was defeated only at the end of a long and bloody war and that the Japanese decision to surrender was motivated not only by the atomic bomb but also by the collapse of Japanese armies in Manchuria. In addition, it has been pointed out that the Japanese surrender was greatly facilitated by the belief that the Allies would spare the Emperor of Japan upon surrender.

Carpet bombing / Strategic bombing

Some critics have even accused the Shock and Awe strategy of being a repackaging of carpet bombing. Carpet bombing deliberately targets dispersed targets with massive numbers of "dumb" bombs, and is effectively a long distance artillery. World War II British policy was to deliberately target civilian centers in order to destroy homes, thereby reducing Germany's industrial output as workers were displaced.

Rapid Dominance is not similar to carpet bombing. It has very specific targets, ones that are attacked with precision guided weapons. Other military analysts find the comparison of modern precision weapons to the indiscriminate high-altitude bombing of sixty years ago to be absurd, and ridicule the idea that the US would have any problem establishing air superiority.

Comparison with the Air-Land Doctrine of the 1991 Gulf War

There has also been confusion between the doctrine of shock and awe and the doctrine of air-land battle used in the 1991 Gulf War. In contrast to shock and awe, in air-land battle, the focus of the bombing are command and control units rather than supply lines and military units deep in the rear. Furthermore, air-land battle focuses on destroying military units and supply rather than shocking them psychologically. Finally, air-land doctrine involves a long period of bombing rather than a short period as with shock and awe.

Defensive Tactics

Scorched earth

Scorched earth is a military tactic which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy whilst withdrawing from an area. The name refers to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources. The practice may be carried out by an army in enemy territory, or by an army in its own home territory. An example of the latter occurred in World War II when the Soviet Red Army salted their own lands as the Nazis forced them to retreat back through it, preventing the Nazis from growing crops on it. This example also illustrates another important aspect to consider about scorched earth tactics: when the Soviets reclaimed the territory, they were equally unable to use it.

Booby Traps

In warfare, a boobytrap is an antipersonnel device, such as a land mine or grenade, placed in building or in a noncombat area that has a psychological draw for enemy soldiers. A booby trap is distinguished from a land mine by the fact that it is an improvised weapon, perhaps made from an artillery shell, or a grenade, or a quantity of high explosives, whereas a land mine is manufactured for its specific purpose. A booby trap may be buried in the manner common with land mines, or not, though as a rule it is concealed in some fashion, and set to be detonated by means of pressure or a trip wire.

During World War II retreating British and Canadian soldiers in France in 1940 made booby traps from artillery and mortar shells, burying them in roads behind them as they retreated, or hanging them from trees concealed by the leaves and rigged with tripwires concealed in the grass around the tree. Scales in warehouses and factories were rigged with explosives. Allied soldiers securing an area would be tempted to step upon the scale to compare their weight with that of their compatriots, and would thus perish.

During the Vietnam War, motorcycles were rigged with explosives and abandoned. Soldiers would be tempted to ride the motorcycle and thus trigger the explosives. As well, Viet Cong soldiers would rig Rubber Band Grenades and place them in huts that Americans would likely torch. Another popular booby trap is the Grenade in a Can trap. This involves a primed grenade in a container and a string attached, sometimes with the grenade's fuse mechanism modified to give a much shorter delay than the four to seven seconds typical with grenade fuses. The Viet Cong soldiers primarily used these on doors and attached them to tripwires on jungle paths.

During the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Palestinian fighters used booby traps widely. The largest use of booby traps was in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield where a large number of explosive devices were planted. The Palestinian fighters had made their own preparations. Booby traps had been laid in the streets of both the camp and the town, ready to be triggered if an Israeli foot soldier or vehicle snagged a tripwire. Some of the bombs were huge -- as much as 250 lb (110 kg) of explosives, compared with the 25 lb (11 kg) a typical suicide bomber uses. On Day 2 of the battle, when the town had been secured but the fight in the camp was just beginning, an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer rolled along a three-quarter-mile (1.2 km) stretch of the main street to clear booby traps. An Israeli engineering-corps officer logged 124 separate explosions set off by the vehicle, which was undamaged. In the camp, the explosive charges were even more densely packed, and tunnels had been dug between houses so that Palestinian fighters could move around without exposing themselves on the street. [10]


  1. "Tactics". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online
  2. Online Etymology Dictionary, tactics. [1]
  3. The Chariot in Egypt Retrieved 2007-06-10
  4. Battle of Kadesh Retrieved 2007-06-10
  5. Cavalry History
  6. From the Greek word for "mail-clad" [2]
  7. History of Iran, Parthian Army. Iran Chamber Society. Retrieved 2007-06-11
  8. Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade (1996), Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, National Defense University Press
  9. Washington Post April 27, 2003 article
  10. Battle of Jenin. (Time Magazine, May 13, 2002).

This article contains contents from http://www.militaryspot.com/tactical.htm under the GNU Free Documentation License.