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Principle Duality: S-O-M-E Principles and Pitfalls New Planners and Strategists Should Know

  • Published
  • By Maj. Simon K. Mace


History is a cruel tutor. It hammers a lesson into our minds so sternly that no one dares to mention the many exceptions that must be allowed. Yet as soon as we have learned that lesson – and ignored its exceptions – history punishes us for not following another rule that posits the very opposite.

                                                Fred Charles Iklé



The history of humankind is rife with conflict.[1] Historians seek to understand and retell the most accurate stories of past events. Because military history and military theory are massive bodies of literature, some theorists sought to distill theory to concise, widely applicable principles of war. Principles are key ideas, essential factors, and broadly applied considerations.[2] Principles of war, then, are key ideas and essential factors that provide strategists and planners with rules of thumb for planning. Theorist John C. Slessor postulated that militaries could not plan for every possible contingency, so theory and principles existed to be applied in situations as they arise.[3] Strategists and military planners are the people tasked with applying theory and principles. Unfortunately, the bridge between theory and application is precarious, seemingly overflowing with opportunities to misstep. B. H. Liddell Hart famously observed that in war, every problem and every principle is a duality.[4] The duality Liddell Hart perceived was rooted in the application of principles. How terrifying to think that principles – the very tools provided to bridge the gap between theory and application – become pitfalls when applied without consideration for context or when taken to extremes. If new planners and strategists hope to effectively bridge theory and practice, they need to understand the purpose of and duality of principles of war.

With new planners and strategists in mind, this paper provides four principles of war – namely, the principles of speed, objective, mass, and economy of force. To make the principles (and this paper) memorable, the principles are listed, not in order of importance, but rather as a pneumonic that spells out the word s-o-m-e. In terms of structure, the following paragraphs present both the positive aspect of each principle and how each principle becomes a potential pitfall. The first principle-pitfall pairing new planners and strategists should understand is speed.

Speed as a Principle

Speed provides the foundation for gaining and maintaining the initiative, which, in turn, robs the enemy of time to plan and act, improving the probability of victory.[5] Evaluation of a wide swath of history indicates that speed and initiative provided a far better alternative than waiting for the enemy to decide where, when, and how to attack.[6] For example, as far back as the historical Shang period in ancient China, speed was a primary principle in employing forces and driving the evolution of tactics.[7] Three thousand years later, J. F. C. Fuller proposed that speed was also important because it synergized with principles of war like offensive and surprise.[8] In World War II (WWII), Germany’s high-speed, mechanized Blitzkrieg warfare taught Western Europe the lesson of speed again.[9] Moving faster than the adversary historically provides at least an initial advantage. However, initiative is only one aspect of speed. Keeping Fred C. Iklé’s quote in mind, planners and strategists must cautiously apply the principle of speed to strategies and operations because speed alone is reckless.

Speed as a Pitfall

A failure to temper speed with synchronization and timing renders speed a pitfall. For example, Giulio Douhet postulated that aircraft speed and maneuverability would allow bombers to overfly the front lines and enemy defenses seemingly uncontested. The First World War (WWI) taught Douhet the potential importance of speed in air warfare, but Douhet missed the sine wave of technological evolution and countermeasures. Adversaries develop countermeasures to any technologies that result in a military advantage. In turn, countermeasures either decrease or mitigate the technological advantage until the technology evolves further or a newer, more revolutionary technology emerges. For example, the countermeasures against bomber aircraft evolved first as pursuit aircraft and then as networks of spotlights and flak weapons. While neither of these countermeasures was devastating, the cumulative effects of pursuit aircraft and flak weapons slowly attritted bomber forces, thus imposing costs and decreasing the effectiveness and efficiency of bombing operations in WWII.

In WWII the Anglo-American air forces intended for the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) to degrade German industrial capacity and morale.[10] While they did achieve some effects, the resulting independent air operations employed thousands of bombers to strike targets that the Allied ground forces could not possibly reach. In a sense, prioritizing strategic strike over synchronization divided the effectiveness of Allied air-land battle. Most airpower historians, with Philips Payson O’Brien as a lone notable exception, assessed the CBO as a failure.[11] As Slessor explained, forces that seize the initiative should be synchronized in terms of time and objective.[12] Regarding timing, planners and strategists must understand that any given war or battle is constantly in flux. As a result, military planning cannot be static. Planners and strategists must consider the objectives they choose relative to the speed at which combat moves. Slessor wrote, “The whole art of air warfare is first the capacity to select the correct objective at the time, namely that on which attack is likely to be decisive.”[13] Sometimes, value is derived not just from what is attacked or how it is attacked but when it is attacked. Even when faced with heavy bomber losses from flak and pursuit aircraft, those who adopted Douhet’s conception of air war failed to consider that airpower’s strength might not be speed for speed’s sake. The new lesson from history since WWII is that speed has a dual nature. Speed is important for gaining the initiative, but militaries can achieve greater success when forces are synchronized in terms of time and objective.

Objective as a Principle

Circa 1911, Julian Corbett introduced the ideas of major strategy (or grand strategy) and minor strategy (or operational strategy). Major strategy involved selecting the political objective, selecting which means to use, and determining the relative functions of military forces.[14] Minor strategy focused on selecting objectives and directing the force assigned for the operation.[15] A century later, Joint Publication 3-0 practically copies Corbett’s minor strategy verbiage to explain the principle of objective: “The purpose of specifying the objective is to direct military action toward a clearly defined and achievable goal.”[16] Objectives provide the framework for planners and strategists to link military and non-military means to actions. Objectives are so crucial that some theorists have used objectives to define military services. For example, Slessor stated that air operations' primary objective is “to secure freedom of action for our close-cooperation aircraft over the battle area.”[17] Similarly, Corbett postulated, “the objective of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.”[18] Objective is an important principle, but unfortunately, like speed, it may also become a pitfall.

Objective as a Pitfall

Clausewitz and Liddell Hart both explained that nations do not wage war for war’s sake but rather to pursue policy objectives.[19] For this reason, the military objective is always a means to a political end.[20] If the military exists to bring about a nation’s policy objectives, the pitfall of objectives manifests when military objectives cannot or do not support the nation’s greater policy objectives. Unfortunately, this means two circumstances might wreak havoc on this subordination of military objectives. First, militaries are doomed to fail when the policy objective cannot be obtained by military means. Second, militaries will struggle with effectiveness when the military objectives are not aligned with the greater policy objective. The US-Vietnam War is perhaps the most famous example of meeting these disastrous criteria. From the beginning of the Vietnam War to its dissatisfying end, US leadership failed to set a policy objective that might be achieved by military means. As a result, the military means could never link to a desired political objective.[21] The new objective-related lesson from the Vietnam War is that military objectives must support national-level policy. For those looking to the future, the best military advice may be to recommend the use an instrument other than the military. Unfortunately, while military planners and strategists need to be aware of this objective-related pitfall, they often will not have the authority to choose which instrument of power will be used. Having explained the principle of objective and its pitfalls, the next principle to address is mass.

 Mass as a Principle

Military theorists as early as 95 BCE taught the lesson that providing more assets or forces against a given objective increases the probability of overwhelming or overmatching the adversary.[22] In World War I (WWI), the Germans made mass a defining principle for their new air force, the Luftwaffe.[23] Shortly after WWI, J. F. C. Fuller perceived mass as concentrating the appropriately sized force at the right time and place.[24] Nearly a century later, Joint Publication (JP) 3-0 states, “The purpose of mass is to concentrate the effects of combat power at the most advantageous place and time to produce results.”[25] At first glance, the definitions are practically the same, both demonstrating the relationship between speed (timing), objective (place), and mass (concentration). When forces are brought together, they should be synchronized and concentrated on achieving the objective. Since combat focuses on winning engagements, comparatively greater mass is one of the most compelling principles in war. Despite the apparent advantages mass provides, insight into the duality of mass made theorists such as Julian Corbett anxious about elevating mass (or concentration) to the status of a principle of war.[26]

Mass as a Pitfall

Planners and strategists should seek to apply mass only when achieving objectives because massed (or concentrated) forces are vulnerable, especially when unprepared for immediate combat. Defaulting to mass or always keeping forces massed is a pitfall. The land, sea, and air domains each provide examples of how defaulting to mass could potentially result in disaster. First, relative to the land domain, ground forces are most vulnerable when massed at the end of their supply lines, especially at the end of a long, single supply line.[27] Focused attacks on a long, single ground line of communication can cut-off supplies and prevent retreat, rendering a ground force isolated and ineffective – a perilous situation for that ground force.

Second, massed but immobile groups of maritime vessels at sea were as vulnerable as troops at the end of a supply line. Naval forces needed to mass relative to specific objectives and times; in most other circumstances, it was safer for naval assets to be dispersed. As a result of this insight, Corbett postulated that dispersion rather than mass should be the default disposition for ships; however, keeping the requirement for mass in mind, ships should only be dispersed far enough so that they can quickly mass at objectives in the operating area.[28] Dispersing in this manner made the fleet less vulnerable but also served to deceive the enemy, making the fleet seem weak even when it was strong.[29] In the sea domain, mass and dispersion balance each other. Mass to achieve objectives, but otherwise, it is safer to disperse. A similar relationship between mass and dispersion affects airpower.

Third, when aircraft are massed on the ground, they are practically worthless because they are not actively objectives. Ironically, the times when aircraft are massed on the ground are also when aircraft are most vulnerable. Based on aircraft vulnerability while grounded, Slessor proposed dispersing air bases and scattering stored, parked, or taxiing aircraft.[30] Aircraft, thanks to their speed and maneuverability, can mass en route to objectives. While dispersing air bases and aircraft on the ground makes aircraft less vulnerable to attack, it introduces extra distance and inefficiency when massing aircraft against an objective.[31] Slessor’s concerns about efficiency introduce the next principle, economy of force.

Economy of Force as a Principle

According to JP 3-0, “the purpose of an economy of force is to expend minimum essential combat power (lethal and nonlethal) on secondary efforts to allocate the maximum possible combat power on primary efforts.”[32] Based on this definition, one might extrapolate three related perspectives of economy of force. From the first perspective, economy of force involves using the least amount of required force to achieve an effect or reach an objective. In essence, at the tactical level, forces should not use 2,000-pound bombs to strike a target that might be destroyed by a 250-pound bomb; one should save the big bombs for larger or less vulnerable targets. The second view of economy of force is related to operational level mass and objective. Because militaries have limited resources, they should husband their forces, allocating forces for the most pressing and vital objectives rather than for less critical tasks. Finally, as explained by Fuller, the third perspective involves the economy of motion; militaries should only move their forces around as necessary because movement is expensive and increases the strain on maintenance forces.[33] Each of these views on economy of force are important; however, for planners and strategists, they each have inherent risks.

Economy of Force as a Pitfall

Economy of force is desirable until its costs (in terms of objectives) are greater than its efficiency (in terms of resources). This is true at every level of war. If efforts to calculate and employ the smallest effective weapon or smallest effective force fail, restriking a target or retaking an objective will require additional assets, weapons, and forces. Striking a target a second time makes the strike asset more vulnerable to defensive countermeasures; retaking an objective makes the new attacking force vulnerable to a counter-attack. This also means that economy of force has a relationship with mass. Inadequate mass results in inefficiencies, which defy the principle of economy of force. If the spirit of efficiency results in inadequate mass, forces may fail to achieve operational and strategic objectives. Losing an operational or strategic objective in the name of efficiency is not palatable considering the stakes of military operations are typically high.

Assuming successful tactical or operational results, economy of force makes sense at the operational and tactical levels of war, but at the strategic level, the value of economy of force is unclear. Efficiency operates in subservience to greater strategic and operational objectives. In the first Gulf War, it was not efficient to dedicate the entire 1st Cavalry Division to an operational head-fake in southern Iraq; however, this deception pulled Iraqi forces away from the primary US assault in Western Iraq.[34] Though inefficient, operational deception disconnected Saddam Hussein from the primary US invasion threat. Intentional inefficiency led to victory. Liddell Hart proposed, “In strategy, the longest way round is often the shortest way home.”[35] One interpretation of this statement is that the military instrument tends to be quite direct, and choosing other instruments, although they may take time to achieve effects, could decrease the need for military force. Military forces and operations are most efficient when they are not employed. Counter-intuitively, while strategic indirect approaches may lead to victory, going the longest way around in military operations is not synonymous with economy of force. Efficient employment and maneuver are attractive due to cost savings, but efficiency matters little to the loser.


Through the 1800s and 1900s, theorists like Corbett, Douhet, Fuller, Liddell Hart, Mahan, and Slessor sought to distill warfare into simple principles that planners, strategists, and even common soldiers could understand and apply. Liddell Hart identified that every principle has a dual nature, so principles become pitfalls when taken to extremes or applied as absolutes. However, understanding that principles become pitfalls helps new staff officers avoid relearning lessons from history. S-o-m-e timeless principles and pitfalls new planners and strategists should know are the principles of speed, objective, mass, and economy of force. Speed is a critical principle of war, but speed must be tempered by synchronization and timing. Objective provides military forces with focal points, but military objectives need to be achievable and linked to political objectives. Mass can provide a numerical advantage, but planners and strategists should mass forces deliberately on objectives at times when and places where they are not vulnerable; otherwise, dispersion is safer. Finally, economy of force is only economical when the forces, weapons, and efficient maneuvers achieve objectives, so economy of force remains principally subservient to mass and objective. Equipped with the knowledge of s-o-m-e principles of war and their potential duality, new planners and strategists might more safely cross the perilous bridge between theory and applying principles of war in real-world contexts.

Major Simon Mace
Maj Simon “Boomer” Mace is a career Air Force intelligence officer (14N). He recently completed Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) and is now a student at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). When he isn’t leading the US Air Force’s greatest Airmen, Simon enjoys hiking, playing guitar, and spending time with his wife and sons.


[1.]. I wish to thank Dr. Robert Hutchinson, Major Megan Biles, Major Dante “Inferno” Earle, Major Ryan “Cosmo” Kerns, and Chief Master Sergeant (retired) Susan Mace for their thoughtful comments and review of my thesis, idea consistency, and grammar. All errors found herein are my own.

[2.]. Department of the Army, ADP 3-0: Operations (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, July 2019), 2-1. Accessed 10 August 2022,

[3.]. John C. Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 31.

[4.]. B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991), 329.

[5.]. John Shy, “Jomini” in Peter Paret, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy; From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 168.

[6.]. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2019), 113.

[7]. Ralph D. Sawyer, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993), 3.

[8.]. J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War (Berkshire, UK: Books Express Publishing, 2012), 277.

[9.]. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 222.

[10.]. Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 193-215.

[11.]. Phillips Payson O'Brien, How the War Was Won (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 1, 16.

[12.]. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, 61.

[13.]. Ibid., 82-83.

[14.]. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 308.

[15.]. Ibid., 308-309.

[16.]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication (JP) 3-0: Joint Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense, 18 June 2022), A-1.

[17.]. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, 14.

[18.]. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, xxix, 91.

[19.]. Clausewitz, On War, 206; Liddell Hart, Strategy, 338.

[20.]. Ibid.

[21.]. Fred C. Iklé, Every War Must End (New York, NY: Columbia University Press: 2005), xx.

[22.]. Sawyer, Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, 142.

[23.]. James S. Corum, The Luftwaffe: Creating the Operational Air War, 1918-1940 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997), 48.

[24.]. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, 264.

[25.]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-0, A-2.

[26.]. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, xxx.

[27.]. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, 209-210.

[28.]. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, xxx.

[29.]. Ibid., 152.

[30.]. Slessor, Air Power and Armies, 56-57.

[31]. Ibid., 59.

[32.]. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-0, A-2.

[33.]. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, 325-326.

[34.]. Jeffrey E. Phillips and Robyn M. Gregory, America’s First Team in the Gulf (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1993).

[35.]. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 5.

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