DIRECT AND INDIRECT STRATEGY

What sort of strategy ought to be applied by contemporary military commanders in pursuing victories in wars? Should indirect strategy serve as the default strategy in modern warfare?

The notion of war as a collective human endeavor that goes beyond the mere conduct of military operations is not novel. More than two thousand years ago, Sun Tzu makes a solid case for war by other means through the promotion of tactics that require the commander to attack the enemy’s weaknesses, avoid his strengths, and above all else, be patient.[1] To the great man, to fight and conquer in all battles is far less desirable as a strategy than to subdue the enemy and break his resistance without fighting.

More recently, Clausewitz wrote that war is “a continuation of politics by other means”, underpinned by three variable and inter-related forces: emotion, chance and politics. These forces in turn correspond to three representative bodies: the character and disposition of the populace, the skill and prowess of the military, and the wisdom and intelligence of the government.[2] Evidently, the conduct of military operations is merely one dimension in the overall conception of war. Many contemporary scholars have argued that over-emphasizing the military instrument over non-military elements risks bringing about an unfavorable outcome in attaining the strategic objectives of a particular conflict. Among them, Andre Beaufre made perhaps the most compelling case that success in modern conflict necessitates the use of other than military means, such as diplomatic, economic and propaganda instruments, in close orchestration with the military thrust. Beaufre coined the term “Indirect Strategy” to describe strategies that rely primarily on methods other than the military victory to obtain the desired political outcome.[3] This is in contrast to what he termed as the “Direct Strategy”, which seeks to obtain a result by using military force as the primary means to impose one’s will on the enemy.

In this essay, I attempt to elaborate the key concepts in Beaufre’s ideas of direct and indirect strategy.

Beaufre views strategy as the sum of an overarching philosophy and an operational concept. According to Beaufre, the aim of strategy is to fulfill policy objectives by making the best use of resources. While the role of policy is to lay down objectives and decide on the type of assets to be assigned to their attainment, strategy determines how these assets can be optimally employed. Strategy is not a single-track approach or a single-defined doctrine. Rather, it is a method of thought, the object, which is to codify events, set them in priority and then chooses the most effective course of action. As such, there will be a unique strategy to fit each situation. Any given strategy may be the best possible in certain circumstances but the worst conceivable in other situations.[4]

Beaufre grouped strategies into two distinct groups: direct and indirect strategy. As I have mentioned earlier, the essential feature of an indirect strategy according to Beaufre is that it seeks to achieve strategic outcomes mainly through non-military means. Military resources may be used in an indirect strategy, but they are complementary and subordinated to the non-military components. In comparison, direct strategies rely to a large extent on the application of military power against the perceived centre(s) of gravity in the conflict to attain the desired political outcome. Beaufre distinguished indirect strategies from indirect approaches; while the former is at the strategic level of war, the latter has a geographical connotation that seeks to redress the balance between the opposing forces in battle through the use of operational maneuver. In other words, the object of the indirect approach is the attainment of military victory, and it therefore falls under the category of direct strategy.[5]

Beaufre provided examples of what he considered direct and indirect strategies. Direct strategies include limited engagements, usually by using conventional military forces in a series of successive actions, or major engagements that result in violent conflict aimed at a decisive military victory. Indirect strategies, on the other hand, encompass strategies like indirect pressure through diplomatic and economic means, direct pressure through political deterrence and military coercion, as well as protracted struggle through low-intensity military conflict.[6]

Beyond his classification of strategies, what is most useful about Beaufre’s conception of strategy is the insight that international conflict in the modern era is increasingly constrained by the limited freedom of action on the part of the protagonists on both sides. Indeed, this is why Beaufre pushed for the recognition of indirect strategy as the default strategy in future conflicts. This is not to say that indirect strategies were never used in the past. Between 1936 and 1939, Germany under Hitler employed the indirect strategy of diplomatic and military coercion effectively to attain its political objectives. But in the era following the end of World War II, the rigid, bipolar international structure coupled with the existence of nuclear weapons and changing social norms marked by a general aversion to war in civilized societies make unlikely the kind of unrestrained, all-out military conflict that involved entire nations and peoples, so much a feature of the two World Wars in the last century. Whereas in the past the winning side in a military contest would reap rich spoils for its martial success, there was every chance that the military option in the modern era would result in a lose-lose proposition or degenerate into an indecisive outcome, with serious and unpredictable consequences for international politics and interstate relations.

This does not mean that wars had become a thing of the past. At the fringes of international politics, military conflicts between small, relatively unimportant states continue to take place so long as they do not affect the overall balance of power. For the major powers, however, the military option had become severely constrained and the resulting consequences almost intolerable.
Beaufre argued that the limited freedom of action applied not only to direct strategy, it also applied to indirect strategy. But unlike direct strategy, indirect strategy is often the only means of assaulting the status quo. Indirect strategy is therefore the art of making best use of this residual freedom of action to gain important and decisive political objectives, despite the fact that military resources that can be employed must in general remain strictly limited.[7] To achieve this, the key is to maximize one’s freedom of action, while minimizing the freedom available to the adversary.[8]

Beaufre further argued that the freedom of action is usually dependent only to a small degree upon those operations undertaken within the geographical area in question (he called this “interior maneuver”). Instead, it will be determined largely by factors outside this area, for instance, international reactions, the enemy’s will to fight and sensitivity to external pressure (he called this “exterior maneuver”).[9] Interior maneuver is often important only insofar as it has a significant impact on exterior maneuver.

In assuring oneself of the maximum freedom of action, exterior maneuver will be primarily psychological in nature, with political, economic, diplomatic and military measures all geared towards the same end. Often, this can only be successful if two conditions are met: firstly, the military power must be sufficiently strong to deter the enemy from reacting by force; secondly, actions must be consistent with and not incoherent with the object of policy.[10] On the other hand, interior maneuver is driven by three variable but interconnected factors: material force, moral force, and time. If the material force is considerably superior to what is available to the adversary, moral pressure becomes less necessary and the operation can be completed in a very short time. Conversely, if the material forces available are small, moral pressure becomes critically important and the goal must be to prolong the operation as much as possible.[11]

To counter indirect strategies, Beaufre proposed the concept of “exterior counter-maneuver”, the creation of the largest possible number of deterrents to supplement the overall nuclear deterrent. The choice of these deterrents must be based on the enemy’s vulnerabilities relative to one’s own strengths and weaknesses, against which decisive offensive actions must be taken in both the physical and psychological domains.[12] To counter the adversary’s interior maneuver, Beaufre stressed the importance of having tactical forces in-theatre to deter “piecemeal” operations. Against the “erosion” strategy, the key is to retain government control and to foil the enemy’s guerrilla strategy through effective and sustainable military actions without the over-commitment of resources.[13]

(1st Lt. Agus Yudhoyono – Singapore, 2006)


[1] Mark John Shy and Thomas Collier, “Revolutionary War” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton Press, 1986), p. 823.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War.  Michael Howard and Peter Paret edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 89.

[3] Andre Beaufre in Gerard Chaliand, ed. The Art of War in World History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 1024.

[4] Andre Beaufre, Introduction to Strategy, (New York: Praeger Inc., 1966), p. 13.

[5] Beaufre in Chaliand, ed. The Art of War in World History, p. 1025.

[6] Beaufre, Introduction to Strategy, p. 26-30.

[7] Beaufre in Chaliand, ed. The Art of War in World History, p. 1025.

[8] Ibid. p. 1025.

[9] Ibid. p. 1026-28.

[10] Ibid. p. 1027.

[11] Ibid. p. 1028.

[12] Ibid. p. 1035-36.

[13] Ibid. p. 1037.

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