On Grand Strategy

It is said of Hannibal that he won every battle but lost the war. The same has been claimed for other historical conflicts with more or less justification: the American conflict in Vietnam, the campaigns of Gustav Adolf den Store of Sweden, and even that Pyrrhus of Epirus from whose name the very phrase “Pyrrhic victory” comes.

But how is this possible? Is war not, more or less, a succession of battles which creates a metaphoric path over which the winner ascends to eventual victory?

As it happens, it is — and then again, it isn’t.

“Rational decision-making depends on having a full range of rational options from which to choose.”
Robert McNamara, “The Essence of Security”

“Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war; it must therefore give an aim to the whole military action, which must be in accordance with the object of the War…”
Clausewitz, “On War”

In other words, each battle should be planned in such a way as to promote the general direction in which one desires the war to progress. If a fight won’t help, avoid the fight. (Granted, that’s more easily said than done — but on the other hand, what isn’t?) How precisely to avoid a fight falls within the province of tactics, and that’s not what we’re discussing here.

But how does one progress when one doesn’t know the proper direction for victory? Well, there are some general principles one might observe in the pursuit of this, but it’s difficult to create a general pattern that’s useful in every case. On the whole, however, it’s difficult to go wrong following these simple rules:

  • Only fight battles that you will win. — Bear in mind that sometimes it’s enough to simply destroy more (or more mass) of your enemy’s ships than your own. Other times, not so much; if your adversary is dependent on Fireclouds or Lokis, it can be a victory to strike and kill these even if you lose more than he.
  • Only fight battles you can afford to win. — When you’re fighting a battle one-on-one, it’s a simple matter to know how much you can afford to lose. Know your enemy’s strength, and make sure he loses more, proportionally, of that than you do. Remember that, if you have three enemies, you will lose a war of attrition unless you kill three of them for every one of you.
  • Only fight an enemy you need to fight in order to win the war. — It is better to leave a player unfought than to defeat him at too great a cost. Better still is permitting two of your rivals to fight one another, ideally to a draw.
  • Only fight in a location where your advantage is greater than your enemy’s. — Contrary examples are thus: If you fight defending your own starbase, you can instantly repair any damaged ship of yours that survives, which will permit you to use it again next turn. If, on the other hand, you fight against an enemy’s base, you destroy his means of production; this can effectively kill two ships for the price of one — the second merely a ship in potentia, as it were.
  • When you have no hope, the time has come to gamble to make hope. — If your enemy is advancing and you cannot stop him directly, don’t assemble your fleet in his path knowing that it will die without gain. Instead, attack the flanks of his advance. Leave ambushes; move past his fleet into territory he has already conquered. Do something — anything — rather than play directly into your enemy’s hands.
  • When you have nothing to lose, you are free to act in any way you see fit. — There comes a time when a player has no option but to stand and die. This does not necessarily apply to that player’s remaining fleet, however. Spite and generosity are two sides of the same coin here; it’s better to recycle or Land and Disassemble one’s freighters rather than permit the enemy to destroy them, and far better to outright gift them to a rival of the player who is killing you.

The above are fine general rules about how to set up battles and which ones to avoid, but if they don’t give you a clearly defined path to a victorious war, they will not help you avoid the fates of Hannibal or of Pyrrhus. Against an unprepared, thoughtless, or incompetent foe they may be enough, but when fighting against a prepared adversary of high ability and military might, these rules will rarely be enough. And when one is facing an enemy who can dictate where and how battles may be fought, who can strike with tremendous power and facility, who can cripple your production while maintaining a continual advantage against your fleet: at this point, no number of minor victories will be enough to save you — unless they are precisely directed.

The use of these rules, then, and those like them, is that they will endow us with the ability to know not which battles to fight — by the time a battle is in the offing, that choice has already been made — but rather which sorts of battles we should choose to set up, and of these which to accept or decline.

This provides us with a fundamental truth: If we fight without a clear view toward a victory, we’re fighting a losing war regardless of how we fare in battle. Likewise, if we fight with a clear plan that leads us inevitably to a superior position, we are fighting a winning war even if we lose the occasional fight.

“A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning.”
“With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot. How much less chance of victory has one who makes none at all!”
Sun Tzu, “The Art Of War”

In 1954, Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart published his seminal work on military theory, entitled simply “Strategy”. Excessive humility not being foremost among Liddel-Hart’s flaws (nor indeed even visible to the casual observer), he attempted to compress all military experience, both theory and practice, into a single volume, and he uses this as a vehicle to express his theories. These include primarily a declaration of the supremacy of indirect approaches over direct action, but to my mind his most important contribution is in the closing few pages where he defines the line separating strategy from logistics and operational mobility, and grand strategy from strategy.

So what is this ‘grand strategy’? I hear you ask.

When Clausewitz spoke of war as (in a sense) the logical extension of the postulate of the existence of diplomacy, he referred to strategy as practiced not by the general but rather by the sovereign. His principle, later quantified by Liddell Hart, was that a nation’s best interest could sometimes be served by pursuing war in order to achieve a series of specific objectives. When pursuing the war, therefore, the sovereign’s duty is to remember these objectives while directing the generals, and the duty of the generals is to set up and win their battles within the bounds set by the sovereign.

It is of vital import to observe that, in this, the modern authorities all appear to differ here with Sun Tzu, who states, “If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.” It is in examining this apparent dichotomy that Sun Tzu’s emphasis on “The Way” or “Moral Law” as his first rule becomes clear: The general must be aware at all times of the national objectives in order to determine what defines victory.

So grand strategy, therefore, is that quantification of the conditions of victory and the path to the objectives required to achieve it. Strategy, in this sense, is the art of choosing that path in such a way as to make it efficient.

In the Second World War, the Allied leaders determined that Japan could not threaten centers of industry directly without extreme effort, could not conquer capitals and remove nations from the war. As a result, the Allies adopted a Grand Strategy of containment, wherein Japan was to be resisted but fought sparingly, while Germany was to be destroyed absolutely. The eventual development of atomic weaponry was, in the end, incidental; the war was ended through economic means as a result of global force concentration.

In the American Revolution, Washington determined that alliance with France was the sole likely path to victory. As a result, he chose Fabian tactics, opposing with maneuver and low-cost opposition, and selecting only those battles which could be won easily as places to commit his forces. Cowpens was the result of an extreme application of these principles; Trenton was a more straightforward example.

“Security… lies not solely or even primarily in military force, but equally in developing stable patterns of economic and political growth…”
Robert McNamara, “The Essence of Security”

“Fighting without an army is called a duel, and you’ll lose a duel if your enemy comes expecting a war.”
Gerrard, of the Weatherlight

In Planets, we don’t have the limitations faced in real-world warfare. Our ships require fuel, not food; since Colonists don’t need fuel, industrial bases can exist atop scorched earth. Likewise, given the artificial restrictions of the various Build Queues, every world can be set to produce a dreadnought; in the real world, only just so many battleship keels can be laid at any given time, and Switzerland, Mongolia, and the Congo will own none of them.

Generally, victory in Planets is gained by the acquisition of 200 planets (or 250 by a team of 2). Certain races, notably the Privateer and the Rebel, have ships which grant them the potential ability to rush to this end without any requirement for massive industrial development. This result, however, is a major exception to the norm; it’s very rare. Instead, victory most often comes as a direct consequence of industrial superiority.

Each race achieves industrial advantage through different means. Crystals and Privateers can win by denying the enemy hulls while stockpiling their own, playing off the queue against production. Robots can win through minefield control of territory while constructing an overwhelming carrier fleet. Feds and Birds can win through careful manipulation of PBP and repeated tactical engagements in conditions of carefully constructed superiority and force concentration. And so on.

Choosing friends and selecting targets, goals for trade and capture, industrial production strategies: All these are vital, but all are subordinate to grand strategy. In other words, before you try to win, you must know how you can win, and therefore in which manner you intend to win.

Your goal as a Planets commander is to select the grand strategy appropriate to your race and situation. If you choose well, you will have the opportunity to create strategies, practice the art of logistical mobility, and achieve victory through superior tactics. With skill and a little luck, victory will be within your grasp.

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