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Swift and Decisive – An Anachronistic Ideal?

 

As the famous quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War goes, “rapidity is the essence of war” (兵之情主速), and while the original context behind this adage was more tactical in nature, advocating the use of rapid manoeuvres to dislocate the enemy, it is also reflective of one of the most desired outcomes in war – a swift and decisive victory.

In the same military treatise, Sun Tzu strongly admonished against carelessly resorting to war, highlighting the great strain it places on the state. By extension, if there must be war, it should be kept as brief as possible. Of course, defining an ideal duration is subjective, but the point is that the benefits to be gained through war diminish with time. This is especially true for small states, which have relatively humbler means compared to their larger counterparts. Indeed, this practical reality is reflected in the mission statement of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) which articulates clearly its intent to achieve a swift and decisive victory in the event of war.

Yet, recent conflicts such as the ongoing Russian-Ukraine War and the latest Israel-Hamas war highlight significant challenges toward attaining this strategic ideal. The former will soon enter its third year with no clear end in sight while the latter continues to witness fierce fighting in the Gaza strip more than two months since the commencement of Operation Iron Swords, Israel’s military response to Hamas’ 7 October surprise attack. To put this in context, the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, two of Israel’s most significant military campaigns since independence, did not last more than a month combined. Is the notion of a swift and decisive victory then still feasible in the context of modern warfare, or is it an unattainable ideal?

Keeping Wars Short

The appeal for states to resolve military conflicts expediently is understandable given the costly nature of war today in terms of both men and material. For example, the latest estimated military losses suffered by Ukraine since February 2022 in its ongoing war with Russia range from between 25,000 to 70,000 dead – a staggering number for a military that by the best estimates started out with only about 196,000 active personnel and 900,000 in reserve. This does not even factor in the number of wounded and war material lost. Then there is the collateral damage, with many Ukrainian cities destroyed in the fighting and millions of citizens displaced. Ukraine’s economy has likewise suffered because of the war, with its gross domestic product (GDP) falling by 29.1% in just the first year.

For smaller states, such costs would be simply unsustainable and there is thus even greater impetus to attain a conclusive military outcome in the shortest period possible. With relatively scarcer resources and a lack of strategic depth inherent to having a smaller physical size, entanglements in prolonged campaigns or costly wars of attrition are far from ideal. Victories in such conflicts are pyrrhic at best while defeat can be fatal to the state’s long-term vitality, leaving it vulnerable to the predations of opportunistic aggressors.

Furthermore, the political nature of modern warfare means that the longer a war lasts, the more difficult it is to sustain public and international support, forcing policy makers to settle for a compromised and possibly disadvantageous peace. Already, there are calls for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war, bearing in mind that it would likely mean surrendering much of the territory it has thus far lost. Worryingly, such calls have been accompanied by a dangerous faltering of the external military aid that is so essential to Ukraine’s war effort.

Similarly, the calls for Israel to rein it its ongoing offensive in Gaza are becoming increasingly vociferous despite its desire to seek a more decisive outcome in the field. This is why Israel’s strategic doctrine has historically favoured speedy operations and short wars, noting the possibility of intervention by both regional and external powers, and mounting political pressure to scale back military action, as the fighting drags on.

The Opening Bout

This then places significant emphasis on the opening phases of any military campaign. Like a boxer that seeks to knock out his opponent in the first bout, the extent by which the adversary’s ability to resist can be significantly degraded or destroyed within that short window of opportunity can become the decisive factor in determining victory or defeat. In the Six-Day War for example, the Israeli Air Force was able to knock out the Egyptian Air Force in the opening hours of the campaign through Operation Focus – a surprise attack launched against multiple Egyptian airfields using a series of coordinated airstrikes – putting in place the conditions favourable toward a short and successful ground campaign.

Banking on such an outcome however represents a significant gamble. The failure of Germany’s Schlieffen Planin the First World War, a strategy designed to swiftly knock out France in the war’s opening phases, forced it into a long and costly war of attrition on two fronts that it so desperately hoped to avoid. Similarly, Japan’s inability to decisively destroy the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 despite the stunning tactical success of its surprise attack meant that it would eventually be ground into defeat by the superior American war machine. Whether by failure in execution or design, the inability to land the early knockout blow inevitably brings about the dreaded prospect of a long fight.

A New Norm?

The biggest challenge toward a swift and decisive victory is however the changing character of war. The past two decades have seen an increased prevalence of irregular warfare, a form of warfare that has traditionally been characterised by its protracted nature. Often adopted by asymmetrically weaker actors, the intent is not to seek out decisive battle but rather to wear down adversaries over time. Indeed, several non-state actors that adopt this approach, such as Hamas and the recently defeated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have largely decentralised structures and highly dispersed networks which allow them to survive individual military setbacks and continue to operate, albeit in a reduced state. This also makes it difficult to identify and target their centres of gravity, if one even exists.

This situation is not helped as war expands into new arenas of conflict such as the information and cyber domains. The ambiguous and clandestine nature of operations typical to these domains muddles the already murky strategic waters even further. By granting the aggressor a certain degree of plausible deniability, the target’s ability to act pre-emptively is curtailed, thus removing the short window of opportunity usually available at the start to achieve a decisive military outcome. In Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea for example, informational and cyber tools were used extensively to facilitate the takeover before Ukraine could even formulate a coordinated response.

Sprint or Marathon?

This ultimately begs the question of what kind of war should states prepare for? If the swift and decisive victory is indeed an elusive ideal, it might arguably make more sense to prepare for the long war at the start. Israel, for example adapted its strategic doctrine in the early 2000s to embrace a more protracted form of military engagement colloquially known as ‘mowing the grass’. This was in response to the rise of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah as its main security threats, all non-state actors that favoured an irregular approach to war. While individual military operations were still designed to be short, the objectives sought less a decisive victory than a controlled degradation of these organisations’ combat capabilities. The assumption here was that such operations would be a regular occurrence given the difficulty of eliminating such non-state actors.

While Israel’s ‘mowing the grass’ approach has rightfully had its critics, not least due to its emphasis on the use of military force in lieu of a long-term political solution, the reality of wars increasingly being long and protracted nonetheless remains. The danger is when militaries prepare only for a sprint when there is the likelihood of a marathon. Looking beyond the logistical and training requirements needed to sustain a longer engagement, it is ironically the very notion that a swift and decisive victory is the norm that diminishes the psychological resilience needed to last the distance. Such an expectation potentially breeds casualty aversion, forcing the military to overly prioritise options such as airpower that promise quick and clean results but which may be inadequate for the task at hand. It also shapes the public appetite around a concept of war that does not reflect its reality, increasing the likelihood for it to falter when events do not unfold as planned.

Ultimately, the swift and decisive victory is a strategic aspiration that may well work in the best of conditions, but should not be taken for granted. Going back to Sun Tzu’s earlier counsel, the real lesson is that prudence should be exercised in managing expectations in war. Because war should not be entered into lightly, the worst thing that can happen is if it is waged under the wrong premises. As Sun Tzu reminds us, war is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

 

Ian Li

Ian Li is an associate research fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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