top of page

Some musings on Policy, Strategy, Operations, and Tactics


A definition: The deployment of friendly forces and engagement of a part of the enemy forces by them. Usually, with the purpose of causing them harm, and typically, “on the battlefield”.


A definition: The planning and execution of a connected sequence of tactical engagements to further our strategic objectives.


A definition: The planning and implementation of military and supporting measures (warfare) to compel by force a political adversary to adhere to our policy objectives.


Sometimes called “grand strategy”.

The setting of goals for a political entity, typically a sovereign state, vis a vis other potentially rival political entities, and defining the means by which to achieve them. Warfare may be one amongst many different policies, but warfare always involves the use of force to compel an enemy to comply with aspects of our strategic policy against their will.

This does not necessarily have anything to do with the particular size of forces, particular space or specific duration.

Example: Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945

The bombing was a tactical engagement: an aircraft was deployed over a target and destroyed it using a weapon. In itself, it had no more than tactical significance.

This was part of an operation: the 2-pronged use of the power of nuclear weapons via the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The purpose of the operation was to obtain demonstrable “psychological effect against Japan” (in the words of the Targeting Committee) by destroying significant targets quickly. It may be worth noting that, though this operation came at the same time as the destruction from the air of Japan’s homeland cities, the purpose of the operation was slightly different, because the former had the dual purposes of psychological effect and direct destruction of the means of waging war. For the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the purpose was psychological, the destruction was a means to show this. Otherwise, these 2 targets could have been destroyed by conventional air power.

This operation was part of a multi-pronged military strategy against Japan: to reduce drastically the Japanese state’s capability of waging war, so that the home islands could be invaded, and the Japanese government compelled to surrender, as well as to reduce the morale of the population in the hope that the population would compel the Japanese government to surrender, or to convince the Japanese government that further resistance was pointless. In the context of military strategy, the full operation, including the follow-up attack on Nagasaki, were intended to demonstrate to the Japanese high command the futility of continuing to fight.

As part of strategic policy: the purpose was to further demonstrate this futility to the Japanese political leadership, to further the political objective of the unconditional surrender of Japan, and also to influence other states by making “the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released” (again, in the words of the Targeting Committee). Note: strategic policy and military strategy were somewhat intertwined in this context because the Japanese government was also in effect their military leadership.


Clausewitz is key to the change from Policy, Strategy, and Tactics to the fourfold model Strategic Policy, Military Strategy, Operations, and Tactics. The key part is Clausewitz's assertion that "War is the continuation of policy by [or with] other means." Prior to Clausewitz and further thinking during the 19th and 20th centuries, and because governments, particularly monarchs including Napoleon, often combined strategic policy, military strategy and sometimes operations, there was largely this threefold model: Policy, Strategy and Tactics. Strategy - the art of generals - was all about planning, resourcing, organising and manoeuvring your armed forces to bring about tactical successes and thereby defeat the enemy's forces with outcomes that then impinged directly on policy. Tactics was how to beat the enemy on the battlefield. However, Clausewitz's importance is not in inventing "operations" - he didn't. This started to emerge as a concept with the Prussian General Staff in the 19th century, but was not fully fledged until the 20th century, arguably not till after World War 2. Clausewitz's thinking gave an explicit theoretical basis for the linkage between policy and strategy, or more generally, policy and all types of war fighting, including tactics. Each part of war-fighting might be hedged with political restrictions. For example, rules of engagement, Geneva Conventions, whether or not to use terror or counter-terror, and so on, are all political influences.

This conceptual linkage between policy and war fighting helped to divide these 4 concepts. Where policy was previously seen as the province of governments, especially civilian governments, and strategy was previously the province of generals, the emergence of democracies and other styles of government not directly in the military hierarchy gave civilians some control over or at least influence on war fighting. Where governments were military governments of course, the differentiation between policy and war fighting was less distinct; for example, the Japanese government during World War 2 more-or-less equated policy and military strategy.

With this policy and military strategy linkage, civilian politicians had legitimate claim to influence on the direction of warfare at all levels. The skills of the generals in the planning, resourcing, organising and manoeuvring of armies under the direction of policy and an overarching strategy, led to the need for a way to express the concepts of policy, military strategy, and operations separate from classical "strategy". In contrast, monarchs at the start of the 19th century and earlier could lay claim to control the whole of policy and war fighting, through their direct control over the military hierarchy. Examples here include Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Charles XII of Sweden, Henry V, and so on.

In fact, operations have probably always existed, hiding under the cloak of “strategy” or “generalship”, in the sense of “campaigns” or “military strategy implementing a grand strategic policy”. Genghis Khan directed his generals on far-flung operations for defined policy reasons, the generals having independence of command within the restraints of the Khan’s policy. The descriptions of the nature of the levels of war fighting from Policy down to Tactics were not encoded as we would now encode them, but the underlying nature of warfare was similar.

Recent Posts

Search By Tags

Follow Us

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Google+ Social Icon
bottom of page