Is 'Art of War’ relevant to maritime strategy?

Sun Tzu (535 BC), a general under the Emperor He Lu of Wu State in China, wrote 'The Art of War' in 490 BC. It has been in print in different languages around the world since 1882 AD and studied by militaries as well as political, diplomatic, business and intellectual circles. Sun Tzu’s views are debated, researched, included in doctrinal thoughts and developed forces. Napoleon used Sun Tzu’s thoughts to conquer most of Europe.

James Clavel, a translator of the book in English, was moved by its inner thoughts. He believed that if military and political leaders in the US studied this work of the genius, “Vietnam could not have happened as it happened; we would have not lost the war in Korea (we lost because we did not achieve victory)…. and, in all probability World Wars I and II would have been avoided – certainly they would not have been waged as they were waged…”

It is widely acknowledged that this book is one of the most influential works in kinds and degrees in military studies on land warfare. But I found Sun Tzu’s views have relevance to maritime strategy although not referred in the studies on maritime warfare. Examination of naval events in light of Sun Tzu’s philosophy reveals its relevance to maritime strategy and naval warfare.

Strategy and philosophy

“Strategy generally denotes the design and implementation of a plan for the coordinated employment of resources with the aim of attaining assigned objectives. Strategy links the objectives with the means to achieve such objectives in peace and war.” (MDE: Military and Defense Encyclopedia)

Warfare, Sun Tzu described as ‘art’. Clausewitz described, “… the art of war is the art of using given means in combat.” The art is applied drawing on science, which is drawing on knowledge. 'The Art of War' imparts philosophical education for the orchestration of means to achieve military objective toward a political end. Philosophy is “…the critical examination of the grounds for fundamental beliefs and analysis of the basic concepts employed in the expression of such beliefs. Philosophical inquiry is a central element in the intellectual history of many historical civilizations (Britannica).”

'The Art of War' gives insight into the basic tenets of conducting wars. Strategy grows on those basics and modified with the changes in the ambient factors of peace and war.

Components of maritime strategy

Maritime strategy has three constituents – objective, obtaining the means and principles governing the application of means. Maritime strategy is about organising, protecting, managing and securing the movements of national logistics over the oceans in peace and war where political, economic, technological, social, psychological and national logistical and military factors are components of warfare.

There are two fundamental divisions in the maritime strategy, non-military and military. Non-military features are population, politics, ocean trade, technology, economy, maritime area, oceanography and maritime infrastructure. These are also the sources of military means in naval strategy focusing on securing the interest in the use of the sea. Non-military and military components of the strategy succeed through mutual support.

'The Art of War' and components of maritime strategy

Resource is the single most important component of maritime strategy and contributory to its development and application. Resources of the state have a limit to spare for its forces. Economy of resources is critically important for sustainable force transformation and providing sustenance to operations.

War costs a nation hugely. “He who wishes to fight must first count on the cost.” “In joining the battle, seek quick victory ….There has never been a state that has benefitted from an extended war.” “…. If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.” These philosophies of Sun Tzu indicate interdependent relation among national resource, logistical strength and the balance of power. History also reveals that, “… victory went to the power best able to produce and organize materials and manpower for war.”

During the WW-II, the US built and operated 67,952 ships (1940-1945). It had 1,099 ships and craft on 30 June 1940. Japan had 451 ships and 332 sank during the course of the war and could not make good the losses.

Balance of power

Achieving maritime objective through the employment of military means demands favourable balance of power. “Factors in the art of warfare are: First: calculations; second, quantities; thirst, logistics; fourth, the balance of power; and fifth, the possibility of victory. Calculations are based on terrain, estimates of available quantities of goods are based on these calculations, logistical strength is based on the estimates of available quantities of goods, the balance power is based on logistical strength, and the possibility of victory is based on the balance of power.”

The Falklands War in 1982 showed how UK’s consideration for balance of power impacted its preparation for war. The terrain of the Falklands War is referred to as “the fall of the land, the proximate distances, difficulty of passage, the degree of openness, and the viability of the land for deploying troops”; was quite unfavourable to UK leading to huge preparations to draw the balance of power in favour. Keeping the balance in favour demanded superior application of combat power. It was both superior concentration and application of combat resources that made the difference in the Falklands War, the Pacific during WW II and Arab-Israel Wars.

Offence and defence

According to Sun Tzu the possibility of victory lies in attack. While emphasizing attack, he did not ignore defence. “Being invincible lies with defense, the vulnerability of the enemy comes with the attack.” Offensive and defensive actions have complimentary roles. “… Attack is the secret of defence, defence is the planning of an attack.” “In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack – the direct and indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of manoeuvres.”

Nagumo’s ignorance of defence during the attack of Midway on 7 June 1942 was fatal mistake. After the first air attack he concentrated more on offensive actions. Nagumo rearmed his torpedo bombers for ground attack, which were kept in defence against US surface ships. When Spruance’s carriers were sighted, Nagumo could not launch immediate strike. Rather, Spruance’s torpedo bombers caught Nagumo’s carriers with ground bombers on deck and returning aircraft from midway in the air. Further, evasion tactics enforced on Nagumo’s forces by US torpedo bombers prevented him from launching air craft on deck and also prevented him from recovering returning aircraft running out of fuel.

Excellence in warfare

Winning a war is generally viewed as the highest excellence. Sun Tzu gave a different view, “…to win a hundred victories in a hundred battle is not the highest excellence; the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy’s army without fighting at all.” The expression has relevance to maritime strategy. Between 1945 and 1995, “there has been one real naval war, half a dozen one-sided naval contributions to operations on land and more than 200 political applications of limited naval force.” ‘Political application of limited naval force’ achieved political objectives more than recourse to war. This is the “highest excellence” Sun Tzu stated.

Strategic advantage

Maritime history has many accounts of gaining strategic advantage through intelligent combination of ways and means. “For gaining strategic advantage (shih) in battle, there are no more than “surprise” and “straightforward” operations, yet in combination, they produce inexhaustible possibilities.” The strategic advantage Japan gained through its surprising action against the US on 7 December 1941 was short lived, yet, expanded Japanese influence over the South Pacific rapidly. Then, US forces surprise and straightforward operations across the Pacific resulted in Japan’s capitulation. The Indian Navy’s innovative attack on Karachi Harbor in December 1971 is another example of surprise and straight forward operation.

Speed in naval warfare

According to Sun Tzu, “War is such that the supreme consideration is speed”, meaning the total speed of means of war. Admiral Clark attached great importance to speed for different components of Sea Power 21. The concept should be viewed in whole system perspective. A ship’s speed should be viewed as the total speed of whole system aboard. A Task Force’s speed should be looked at similar perspective. During the Gulf War 1991, US’ success in transporting 8.3 trillion kilogram war material in five months 13,680 kilometer away from the mainland and subsequent quick victory is credited to total speed.

Economy of effort and resource

“… the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers; and the worst to attack walled cities.” This is about prioritizing target and weighing relative benefit of targeting. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nagumo’s refusal to attack the Harbour’s repair facilities and fuel installations was a critical mistake. The third wave would have destroyed Pearl as a base. In the battle of Coral Sea (4-8 May 1942), Admiral Nimitz left the invasion of Tulagi and Louisiade unopposed but targeted Japanese landing on Port Moresby that could isolate Australia. The battled ended in confusion with loss on either side but Nimitz could foil Japanese landing.

Mobility: Value in naval warfare

Sun Tzu greatly stresses on mobility. Naval forces without mobility are ineffective and inefficient. Mobility assures maneuverability in tactics. The concept of mobility extends beyond the physical movement of forces. Add fire power. It is speed and mobility multiplier. Mobility also includes communications. “Without reliable communication throughout the chain of command, firepower and speed of movement mean little” (Milan Vego).

Simplicity and flexibility

Simplicity and flexibility are essential attributes of maritime strategy and also the principles of wars. Plans to achieve objectives must be simple and flexible. Knowledge of the following five essentials for victory together with factors on ‘Making Assessments’ can produce simple and flexible maritime strategy. Sun Tzu says he will win:

a. who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

b. who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

c. whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

d. who prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared (surprise).

e. who has military capacity and is not interfered with by sovereign.

Initiative in naval warfare

Initiative is the key to achieve objectives. It originates from knowing one’s self and the enemy. “… what enables the wise sovereign and good General to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” Foreknowledge includes enemy’s military strategic information, national character, economy, political resolve/vulnerability. Prior to Pearl Harbor Disaster, Rear Admiral Kimmel asked his Fleet Intelligence Officer about the location of Japanese carriers. The officer replied that he did not know. And the consequence of not knowing the enemy was horrendous. Subsequent foreknowledge of the Japanese forces enabled Nimitz to maintain the initiative and take the lead in the Pacific during the WW-II.

Examination of the contemporary maritime history revealed that The Art of War despite being Sun Tzu’s soldiering experience, its relevance extends beyond land warfare into maritime warfare. Its study can contribute invaluably to educate naval commanders in force development and also formulating and materializing maritime strategy.

The fundamental concept for the US Navy’s operational effectiveness - Sea Strike, Sea Shield and Sea Basing are found to be the expanded transformation of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on attack, defence and operational mobility contributed by evolutionary changes in international politics, national interests and technological advancements.

* Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy. He can be reached at [email protected]

(This article is the revised version of the original article published in the Headmark, Journal of Australian Naval Institute, in March 2008.)