The Strategy Bridge: Linking the Tactical and Operational Battles to the National Interests
POINTER|Vol. 42 No. 2

In this essay, the author contends that in order to effectively achieve its political goals, a state has to strategically bridge its political goals with its military decision planning. He discusses some of these ‘strategy bridges’ employed throughout history and examines case studies of how various wartime figureheads have aligned their states’ overall political goals with its military decision, with varying levels of success. Through these case studies, he notes that military tactical and operational level victories do not necessarily equate to a nation’s political victory.

LTC Eng Cheng Heng


“War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means.”  Clausewitz’s enduring dictum on the use of the military instrument in the service of political goals encapsulates the essence of this essay as it aims to investigate strategy. It is a generally accepted truth that strategy is the bridge linking the political goals (of a state) to the military instrument of statecraft such that its ability to wage war can be brought into the appropriate service of these goals that serve to further and/or sustain national interests. It is also true that the military instrument of statecraft is but one of the larger arsenal of tools that a state has at its disposal to pursue its national interests and accompanying political goals. 

The frequency or the priority with which the military instrument is selected as the tool of choice is dependent on a variety of factors. However, there is no denying that even if it is not wielded, the strength of the military and its availability in the arsenal have a large influence on the effectiveness of the other instruments of statecraft.  It is this ‘centrality’ of the military instrument in relation to political goals that the subject of strategy is important. Correctly conceived strategy enables the efficient use of the military towards these political ends, be it for the purposes of waging war or coercion, while incorrectly conceived strategy makes the outcome of any war or coercion meaningless even if the military wins tactical or operational victories. This articulation of the strategy bridge brings to mind Colin Gray’s view that “The strategist does not strive to win a war tactically. His mission is not to pile up a succession of tactical or even operational level victories. Rather, it is his function to so direct his disparate assets such that their total net effect contributes positively to the securing of whatever it is that policy demands.” 

This essay concurs with Gray’s proposition of the strategist’s role. However, it will qualify that while the accumulation of tactical or operational victories by the strategist might not be critical to the political outcome, the achievement of certain permutations and the quantity of tactical or operational victories are elements of a successful strategy—otherwise there would not be much point in employing the military instrument if there were no intentions of enjoying any shred of success. The caveat is that the impact these victories have must be aligned with the greater political goal(s) that exist at the grand strategic level. Hence, it is also the strategist’s role to monitor the progress of the tactical/operational elements of strategy and their alignment towards the achievement of political goals and adjust the strategy accordingly to sustain the alignment amidst the constant shifts between the tactical/operational and grand strategic levels of strategy. This is the crux of Gray’s point about strategy involving the constant interaction between ideas, through experience and scholarship that shape behaviour in the real world. 


The essay will begin by establishing the construct of the strategy bridge using Edward Luttwak’s Levels of Strategy, Gray’s Dimensions of Strategy and Harry Summer’s Concept of Trinitarian War, derived from Clausewitz’s Trinity before using this construct to illustrate that the strategist’s role also includes the need to monitor the construct of the strategy bridge and adjust for the dynamic nature of the bridge’s components. This would ensure the alignment between the tactical or operational and the grand strategic parts of the bridge. 

Several case studies will be referred to across different time periods in which the nature of war has changed significantly: Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia, Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars, Germany and Japan in World War Two (WWII) and the United States (US) in WWII, Vietnam War and the First and Second Gulf Wars with Iraq. The milestones of the eras that these cases span are the French Revolution, World War Two and the current time period. I will elaborate on the significance of the periods between these milestones subsequently.


Luttwak lays out strategy as comprising of five separate levels in a hierarchical order within the grand strategic level (where the military outcomes are viewed in combination with other aspects of statecraft) being the pinnacle. 8 The four levels subordinate to this, which deal exclusively with the military instrument are, in descending order: the theatre level, operational level, tactical level and technical level. This is not to say however, that the levels interact via a top-down approach, but rather, in a two-way process with the consequences at each level affecting the entire chain in some way, in what Luttwak terms the vertical dimension (across the levels) and the horizontal dimension (within each level). The tactical level concerns actions on the battlefield and the deployment of forces. The operational level links the tactical battles with the theatre strategy and through it, to the larger aims at the grand strategic level.

Gray lists seventeen separate dimensions of strategy with the dimensions grouped into three general categories. People and politics is the first category and it comprises people, society, culture, politics and ethics. The second category is preparation for war. It comprises economics and logistics, organisation, military administration, information and intelligence, strategic theory and doctrine and technology. The final category, war proper comprises military operations, command, geography, adversary and lastly, friction, chance and uncertainty. 

Summers interpreted Clausewitz to mean that strategy is contingent on maintaining the balance of interaction between the triad of the people, the armed forces and the state. 

The strategy bridge is thus constructed with multiple dimensions existing in a hierarchical order of separate levels that revolve around the relationship between the nation (the people), the military (the executors of the use of force) and the government (the political institutions of state). The ultimate aim of the bridge is to link the use of force or threat of it— including making the necessary preparations for war— to the achievement of political goals as defined by the government in order to serve the nation’s interests.


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