Vive L’Evolution: The next chapter in campaigning

“The lessons of the last few years have demonstrated, perhaps above all else, that ‘Concentration of Force’, in the physical sense at least, is profoundly unwise. Almost all of the developing theories of warfare currently espouse dispersion as a central tenet.”


FOR the first few thousand years of military campaigning the formula was relatively simple. The protagonists would manoeuvre, in space and season, keeping the whole of their force concentrated for security (one would not wish to have the army diminished or defeated in detail) and for ease of logistics. Reconnaissance of all sorts, from diplomats and spies to cavalry screens, would seek out objectives, which generally came in two kinds: geographical points of advantage, from river crossings to enemy capital cities; and/or the enemy’s army in the field, or force-in-being. Once an objective was identified and decided upon the already-concentrated army would be applied to it in the hope that, through superior tactics, a decisive engagement would be fought and the enemy brought to terms.

In the event that the engagement was not sufficiently decisive to bring the enemy to terms, the campaign would continue in the same vein until either it reached a clear conclusion in favour of one side or the other or, through individual or mutual exhaustion with the lack of resolution, it was called off. This is, of course, a trite over-simplification, but it has merit (and can, incidentally, be applied pretty much at sea as it can be on land). Throughout this era the Principle of War ‘Concentration of Force’, in the physical sense, was a constant – both during the campaign manoeuvre stages and during the decisive engagements.

This formula, broadly, can be applied to warfare up until the French Revolutionary (and the Napoleonic) wars, but not thereafter. The revolution in France threatened the entire governance system of Europe, and especially the monarchies. France, instead of being able to campaign in the normal manner, as described above, thus found herself surrounded by enemies on all sides – Austria and Prussia to the fore, but Russia, Spain, the various German and Italian states, and, of course, Britain not far behind. From the battle of Valmy in 1792 (in which the French Revolutionary Army defeated a combined army of Prussians and Austrians), Revolutionary, and thereafter Napoleonic, France forged, out of necessity, a new way of military campaigning. The threat from multiple sources simultaneously required the forming of not just one single campaigning army in the traditional manner, but of several – thus the development of the corps system. Furthermore, these corps (mini campaigning armies) needed to be distributed across the breadth of France’s threatened flanks – not in one single theatre. And, finally, once a single Main Effort was identified (either because the threat from that direction was most pressing, or the enemy at that point was most vulnerable, or both), those dispersed mini armies needed to be concentrated rapidly, over large distances, to generate both overwhelming combat power and, with good management, operational dislocation of an enemy as French mini armies arrived at decisive engagements from multiple points of the compass.

The large size of the concentrated French Grande Armee, along with the slow pace of conventional logistics, also meant that a new approach to logistics was developed by the French, living, as much as possible, off the land to allow military campaign manoeuvre at speed and scale. “March divided, fight united!” Since this development in military campaigning, the Principal of War ‘Concentration of Force’ has been applied to the notion of concentrating force (or forces) for maximum effect only at the points of decisive engagement, regardless of the dispersion required by the circumstances of the time. The definition of ‘Concentration of Force’ has thus remained broadly a constant since the 1800s, with minor evolutions, in meaning the decisive, synchronised application of superior fighting power to realise intended effects, when and where required. In different guises, this version of campaigning has thus served military theorists and practitioners reasonably well – until now.

The lessons of the last few years have demonstrated, perhaps above all else, that ‘Concentration of Force’, in the physical sense at least, is profoundly unwise. Almost all of the developing theories of warfare currently espouse dispersion as a central tenet. The most recent edition of UK Defence Doctrine has changed this principle of war to ‘Concentration of Effect’. That is a welcome change.

The 21st century battlespace is one characterised by the tools of multiple effects, be they kinetic, virtual, cyber, electromagnetic, cognitive, multi-domain, integrated, or whatever. And it is also characterised by one in which physical forces need to be kept ‘un-concentrated’ even (perhaps, newly, especially) during the decisive engagements. The military mindset would be better served by the notion of ‘Concentration of Effects’ than the ambiguity offered by the notion of concentrating force (be that with the implications of concentrating violence and coercion alone, without other means, or the implications of concentrating forces in the physical sense). 

We are therefore witnessing another genuinely radical evolution in the notion of military campaigning, one which might require the sort of rethinking that generated so much debate 200 years ago. But debate is not enough. This radically different notion must change the tactics, training and tools of warfare.

AUTHOR: Maj Gen (retd) Dr Andrew Sharpe, Director CHACR.