Artur Brzeskot: Military strategy and conventional deterrence

What do military strategy and conventional deterrence have common? It seems to me that these both things are directly related to the matter of how a nation’s armed forces are employed to achieve specific battlefield goals. Therefore we say exactly about military strategy. From strategic perspective all decision makers want to determine how their armed forces are going to be used on the battlefield. They are concern with getting to know probable outcomes when the attacking forces meet the defending forces. Thus decision makers attempt to project primarily the nature of the war. Does the plan of attack – or defense  – the proposed strategy, promise success at a reasonable cost? In sum, such cogitations are fundamental questions of the decision-making process.

In a sense military strategy help us to understand deterrence failures and successes. Thus, all decision makers stand in the face of choice three distinct and narrowly defined strategies: a) the attrition; b) the blitzkrieg; and c) the limited aims strategies. We have to realize that each has different implications for deterrence. If we consider a definition of military strategy at the most general level, an attacker can pursue either limited or unlimited military goals. In more concrete terms, unlimited military objectives can mean total defeat of the opponent’s military forces. However, we should note that unlimited war may not be define as total war. We might accept the cornerstone of total war is unconditional surrender. In other words, we can say that the attacker is pursuing unlimited political objectives.

This situation took place during World War II when the Great Alliance defeated the Axis Powers – Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945. On the other hand it is possible for a state to disarm an opponent completely on the battlefield and not to seek unconditional surrender. In contrast to the first example in 1967 the Israelis decisively defeated the Egyptian military forces (Six Days War), but were well aware that they would not be able to impose political terms on Egypt. Another kind of military strategy is pursuit of a limited objective. It requires the attacker to seize a portion of the opponent’s territory. Of course, a capture is well done when the attacker defeat some of enemy’s forces. However, the principal aim is to conquer territory, not to defeat the opponent’s army. The difference between limited and unlimited goals is clearly reflected in the writings Carl von Clausewitz, Liddell Hart, Giulio Douhet and other military strategists.

If we are going to achieve a specific goal, as an attacker, we have to know how employ our forces so as to do it the best. If an attacker’s goal is to defeat the opponent decisively, an attacker can choose between the attrition and blitzkrieg strategies. In other words, by the attrition strategy, the attacker seeks to defeat his opponent by engaging a lot of battles of annihilation – or set-piece battles. The ultimate success depends on wearing the defense down until resistance is no longer possible. On the other hand, the blitzkrieg, base on the mobility and speed inherent in an armored force to defeat an opponent decisively and to avoid a series of bloody battles.

The massive victories achieved by Germany in the early years of World War II for example: Poland 1939; France 1940; Balkans 1941 … etc. and nearly three decades later by Israel in the Middle East, present that an opponent can be disarmed without numerous battles of annihilation. In my opinion, on the modern battlefield, the blitzkrieg strategy is still the ideal tool for achieving a quick victory at a low cost. In this sense deterrence is likely to fail when a potential attacker considers that he can start a successful blitzkrieg. On the other hand, the attrition strategy can render at best a delayed success at a high cost, but also may very well fail to bring a decisive victory. In this context we can claim that deterrence is greatly strengthened when a potential attacker foresees war as a series of set-piece battlefields.

We try to consider theoretically an armed conflict in which military aims are limited. In this situation an attacker attempts to analyze the best strategy for seizing a slice of the opponent’s territory. It suggests us that neither the attrition nor the blitzkrieg strategies are an optimal choice. Although it is possible to use those strategies, the attacker is very unlikely to do so. Instead he will rely largely on surprise. Why is it? Because the aim is to strike before the victim can mobilize his defenses. This nearly ideal strategy, which is named the limited aims strategy, it gives importance to minimizing contact with the defender If the attacker is able to achieve surprise. We can assume generally that this strategy is likely to be successful and also not very costly.

The blitzkrieg and the attrition strategies are invariably riskier because they are almost always employed in pursuit of a more ambitious objective and because they both involve directly engaging the defender’s forces. From this perspective an attacker has three options. The first two the blitzkrieg and attrition strategies might be used when the aim is to inflict a decisive defeat on the enemy. With the limited aims strategy, on the other hand, the attacker seeks to capture some portion of opponent’s territory.

If we want to theorize generally base on these above definitions we can claim that Putin’s move to seize the peninsula Crimea in 2014 is to be matched to the pattern of the limited aims strategy. First, Russia did not have to concentrate much resources before military action – the invasion had rather a low cost. Second, Russia obtain the effect of a surprise minimizing the contact with the defender. Third, Russian Army is not going to defeat completely Ukraine’s armed forces and to seek unconditional surrender. Fourth, Russia succeed in capturing some portion of Ukraine’s territory and achieving specific political aims, that is to prevent Ukraine’s access to the European Union and NATO. If we analyze wider political factors Russia’s preponderance in this conflict is much more than Ukraine.

In reality, each military strategy has different implications for deterrence. So, likelihood an operation of the latter is connected not only with the defender’s correct choice, but it also depends on which strategy the potential attacker is considering.


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Polish version: Militarna strategia a konwencjonalne odstraszanie