Re-Thinking Time in Warfare

Time is a fundamental dimension of warfare. Time dictates, controls, creates and limits both the objective realities we face in the battlefield, and our subjective experiences of it. Our understanding of time influences our understanding of risks, opportunities, possibilities, victories and losses, both as individuals and as organisations and nations. 

Author: Dr Ziya Meral


For the military planner, the importance of ‘timing’ in operational art is clear: the execution of an operation, its duration, scope, logistics and support are all based on imperatives of timing. Just as with ‘friction’, time plays an important factor in operational outcomes. A smaller and unorganised force might gain a competitive and defensive edge over a much more capable military just by the timing of its movements, positioning and aggression. As Clausewitz noted “both belligerents need time: the question is which of the two can expect to derive special advantages from it.” 

Timing is a decisive factor at the strategic level too. The political decision to intervene and deploy and demonstrate force within a timeframe might not be possible for forces to deliver on the ground, and military demands for ‘more time’ might not be possible at the political level. Thus, a weaker adversary with ‘more time’ might, and often does, outmanoeuvre a stronger invading military and render a large-scale manoeuvre and short-term operational achievements pointless in the long run. 

So, we do know a lot about ‘timing’ on operations and in military and political conversations, while often assuming that we understand ‘time’ in today’s realities. The problem with well-known insights is that we reify them, building our understanding on them as givens that do not need reflection, rethinking and reconfiguration. Few things are as dangerous as assumptions that remain unexamined as the world changes. 

A philosophical treatise on time is bound to go beyond my own scholarly capacity and the attention of the reader of this short article. But, a lot of the assumptions we make on time, as an objective and never-changing reference in our lives can be questioned and thrown into the air with myriad of theories in physics, as well as philosophy, psychology and neuroscience. These affect how we conceptualise the very idea of time, as well as how we seek to measure it and how we experience it. All of that is shaped by your location in history, geography, language and the culture you were born in to, the education system and the professional socialisation processes that you have gone through, as well as your age, physical capabilities and psychological outlook. 

Think about it this way: What if your adversary’s world-view is based on a different conception of time, that is not linear, it provides different meanings to sequence, and victory and the loss of a battle or war, whether they ended or should be acted on? How do you fight with an enemy and achieve the desired effects if they do not see ‘here and now’ as the reference point and do not follow the ‘rational’ calculations you assume your actions should lead them to? 

Take how our well entrenched Western perceptions of time, both as individuals and as organisations, weaken how we see our roles, careers, relationships, partnerships, deployments, operations and calculations. It has become an easy jibe to say political career cycles impact the decisions of policy makers, but military career cycles also do, and shape what we see as ‘urgent’ or not, possible or not, meaningful or not. How about how we see the legacy of history in today’s world, and find it mind-blowing that many others in the world, even in our countries, speak of history as they do today and take social, political, and even military actions based on perceived or actual historical grievances? 

Those questions about us and our potential adversaries hint at all-too-human processes: open-ended, subjective, complex, dynamic and full of weaknesses that can be exploited or strengths that can be played on. Time is not fixed. Our measurements and perceptions of it and our relationships to it are far from static. Within that, time itself emerges as an area of conflict, a flank, a dimension, a domain, not just as a competitive edge or weakness in our well-established operationalisation of timing. 

Today’s technological leaps have only added more layers to the meaning and place of time in our day-to-day lives, and to our defence and security challenges. One can imagine a list of ways that time itself can be operationalised – from deception to psychological warfare, and technological interruptions to disorient and stop and slow an adversary. But one can also easily see how opening our taken-for-granted understanding of time to questions and various different perspectives can enrich the analysis of conflicts and adversaries, and our own planning, our strategic and operational thinking and the outcomes that are possible. It is high time to reflect on time in today’s warfare in a more coherent and wholistic approach. 

This work is strictly the view of the author, not the British Army and Ministry of Defence.