Small Wars Journal

Grand Tactics and the Modern Battlefield

Sun, 07/16/2023 - 7:32pm

Grand Tactics and the Modern Battlefield

By Justin Baumann



"Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions. He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain." - Sun Tzu [1]

In 1772, French General Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte de Guibert, wrote, Essai général de la Tactique (General Test of Tactics or General Essay on Tactics), which likely contained the first recorded instance of the term “Grand Tactics”. [2] Guibert used his military insight to develop “Guibert columns”, in addition to other advancements in command and control, to help increase the mobility of infantry units just prior to the Napoleonic era. [3] Guibert’s foresight in building the French Army based on the principles in his book helped Napoleon win a significant number of victories throughout the European continent, and the doctrine of this Guibert-designed Grande Armée was instrumental in Napoleon’s early success. [4]

Franco-Swiss military theorist Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, in his book The Art of War (1836), which many American Civil War officers studied at West Point before the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, described grand tactics as “the art of making good combinations preliminary to battles, as well as during their progress. The guiding principle in tactical combinations, as in those of strategy, is to bring the mass of the force in hand against a part of the opposing army, and upon that point the possession of which promises the most important results.” [5]

In the 20th century, famed American military theorist John Boyd described grand tactics as “[Operating] inside [the] adversary’s observation-orientation-decision-action loops, or get inside his mind-time-space, to create a tangle of threatening and/or non-threatening events/efforts as well as repeatedly generate mismatches between those events/efforts [the] adversary observes, or anticipates, and those he must react to, to survive.”  [6]

As the U.S. Army transitions to Great Power Competition (GPC) and Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCOs), [7] it will need to prepare to manage and lead large-scale formations to successfully defeat adversaries if deterrence fails. Major Darfus Johnson said, “Military theorists such as Jomini, recognized that the coherent movement and employment of large self-contained, independent formations were a more complex operation than simple tactics could describe. Furthermore, the actions of these independent formations while important strategically were not always strategically decisive. This situation obviously required delineation between simple tactical action on a small scale to those actions taken by large formations that could prove decisive. Thus, the term grand tactics originated to describe the maneuver and employment of these large formations.” [8]

This article examines the concept of “Grand Tactics” through the lenses of “Operational Art” and “Defeat Mechanisms” to provide the reader with a cursory understanding of these topics and their relationship to modern war. It then describes two combat vignettes, The Battle of Jena-Auerstadt in October 1806 by Napoleon against the Prussians, and the Nagorno-Karabakh War in September 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Finally, this article will discuss the implications these concepts have for modern U.S. Army warfighting doctrine and conclude with a discussion about using grand tactics and new technologies to maximize our army’s capabilities in Mobility, Intelligence, Communications, and Leadership.

Grand Tactics and Defeat Mechanisms

Grand tactics and modern concepts of “Defeat Mechanisms” share many similarities. The Army describes defeat mechanisms in ADP 3-0 Offense and Defense as “a method through which friendly forces accomplish their mission against enemy opposition (ADP 3-0). Tactical forces at all echelons use combinations of the four defeat mechanisms: destroy, dislocate, disintegrate, and isolate. There are also stability mechanisms used in the conduct of stability.” [9]

But there may exist an infinite number of different sets of defeat mechanisms depending on the operating environment, so featuring an exploration of defeat mechanism theory and grand tactics can help us visualize at scale how to define and best employ our forces in modern war as echelons and operations become nebulous during high intensity or large-scale combat operations. School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) founder and retired Brigadier General Wass de Czege himself was a proponent of 3 types of defeat mechanisms: attrition, disintegration, and dislocation. [10] Some authors or readers may disagree with the concept of grand tactics, but by understanding its relation to and employment of defeat mechanisms at the tactical and operational levels, commanders and their staff can design more successful operations across domains. [11]

Grand Tactics and Operational Art

Grand tactics encompasses the defeat mechanisms that exist across the tactical and operational levels of war, while operational art describes the intuition or creative imagination of the commander related to Coup d'œil (pronounced koo de ye) [12] and Fingerspitzengefühl (pronounced finger shpitz en ge fuel), [13] while conducting operations.

Dr. Patrick Sweeney, a former professor at the Naval War College said, “This aspect of operational art [Coup d'œil] is honed through operational experience and the study of military theory and history. Some examples of intuition include sensing the approaching culmination of an enemy or one’s own force, or envisioning an imaginative approach to strike an enemy or to conceal one’s own force’s vulnerability.” [14] We’ll see an example of this from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War later.

Clausewitz himself remarked, “When all is said and done, it really is the commander's coup d'œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.” [15]

But operational art is not to be confused with the operational level of war. Commanders at all levels practice operational art to bridge the gap between tactics and strategy. [16] Major Robert Todd, in his monograph about operational art on the Italian front during World War I said, “Because grand tactics are so similar to operational art there is a danger that the operational commander may pick up the packet of plans containing grand tactics, and use them instead of the packet containing operational art plans to build the span [connecting tactics and strategy].” [17]

Finally, Major Brian Fleming, in his 2011 SAMS monograph, The Hybrid Threat Concept: Contemporary War, Military Planning and the Advent of Unrestricted Operational Art, says that “Doctrinally, Joint Publication 5-0 defines operational art as the ‘Application of creative imagination by commanders and staff supported by their skill, knowledge, and experience to design strategies, campaigns, and major operations and organize and employ military forces. Operational art integrates ends, ways, and means across the levels of war…without operational art, campaigns and operations would be a set of disconnected engagements.’ Metaphorically, operational art relates to an ocean current that directs the movement of water through various configurations and strength. As such, operational art is the bridge between strategy and tactics.” [18]

With the advent of unrestricted operational art, it is important leaders understand the distinction between defeat mechanisms as an alignment of tactical and operational military maneuvers to defeat the enemy, and operational art as a commander’s intuition and cognition on the battlefield. The levels of war and what modern grand tactics encompasses can be seen in figure 1.


Description automatically generated

Figure 1: Levels of War during WWII in the Pacific [19]



Napoleon’s 1806 Campaign Against Prussia

 “Tactical competence can rarely attain victory in the face of operational incompetence, while operational ignorance can squander what tactical hard work has gained.” – Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-2 Campaigning [20]

In the summer of 1806, the French began to build up their forces near the borders of Prussia near Saxony. The Prussian Army at that time had only performed two operations in the previous 45 years and had issues with their promotion system. In response to these moves by France, the Prussians mobilized their forces. They offered an ultimatum to Napoleon hoping for a political solution, but peace was not an option at this point and the Prussian and French armies began planning to meet each other in battle. [21] 

The Battle of Jena-Auerstadt is important to our study of grand tactics because it was a pivotal moment for the development of many doctrinal concepts and theories that U.S. Army doctrine is based on today. Clausewitz himself was captured shortly after the battle [22] and Jomini was a protégé and staff officer during the battle for one of Napoleon’s generals, Marshal Michel Ney. [23] Clausewitz’s mentor and future Prussian Army reformer Gerhard von Scharnhorst was also present at the battle. These men were present to watch Napoleon’s conduct of grand tactics and operational art from both sides of the conflict and they wrote down and studied what they saw. Napoleon’s sweeping victories and mastery of the art of war were synthesized through their writings, experiences, and analysis. This battle provides a good example of many Napoleonic-era grand tactical concepts and movements. [24]

In the early stages of the battle, the French used their superior mobility to outpace and surprise the Prussians to gain a position of advantage. The development of Le Bataillon Carré (pronounced Le buh tai yon Ka rey) or “The Square Battalion” formation, allowed Napoleon to maneuver his forces with much greater speed and responsiveness than his Prussian counterparts which led to their rout. [25] Had it not been for the training and doctrine of The Square Battalion based on Guibert’s contributions, it is unlikely the French would have been skilled enough to “swing to the left” and defeat the Prussians like they did. This superior mobility caught the Prussians off guard. Napoleon was able to use a defeat mechanism combination of mobility, intelligence, communications, and leadership with the help of Le Bataillon Carré to defeat the Prussians. Figure 2 shows Le Bataillon Carré in action as employed by Napoleon leading up to the battle.