Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 3  /  

Strategy and the role of the enemy

Strategy and the role of the enemy Strategy and the role of the enemy
To cite this article: Randall, Peter, S., “Strategy and the role of the enemy,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 3, spring 2015, pages 28-32.

© Phillipe444 | – View From A Chopper In Afghanistan Photo

The role (as opposed to the simple presence) of the enemy in strategy is one that is often overlooked by strategic studies, and yet it should be a central component of strategic analysis. Strategic thinking is greatly concerned with the introspective consideration of one’s own ends, ways, and means. This is definitely a necessary component of strategic analysis, and should remain so: greater sophistication however, can only be achieved if the trinity of ends, ways, and means are considered with relation to the enemy, as strategy is necessarily adversarial. To lose sight of the enemy, both literally and figuratively, can be fatal. As Colin S. Gray stated: “Often, indeed, polities appear genuinely to forget that strategy must have value in adversarial terms.”[i] This failure to recognise the enemy, taken in the context of defence planning, leads to situations whereby the practice of strategy is more compromised than usual, due to the inability to adapt to the actions of a specific enemy. Flawed appreciation of the enemy is not merely a semantic issue, but has real-world implications for military practitioners. In the UK at the recent Iraq Inquiry, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely revealed that the refusal to recognise the situation in post-invasion Iraq as an insurgency influenced the approach to combating it, compromising the effectiveness of the Coalition’s response.[ii]

The enemy as definitional necessity

In war, adversarial actors attempt to achieve their policy goals, and ends, by utilising the means which they have at their disposal in different ways. As war is adversarial, it follows that the ends of these opposing actors are not compatible with each other at the outset of the conflict, as otherwise there would be no need for the resort to violence. Thus, the enemy must be viewed in strategy as an actor seeking to deny one the achievement of one’s ends, and an actor with ends which one must seek to deny, as these are incompatible with one’s own ends. With regards to ways and means, these are what the enemy seeks to employ in order to deny one’s ends, and also to achieve his own; additionally the enemy may well seek to deny one access to means, and to prevent one from operating in preferred ways. As such, the rationale of the ends one actually desires from a conflict, the ways in which one is able to achieve these ends, and the means one has at one’s disposal to use in these ways, are in a constant state of alteration as a result of the presence of the enemy, and thus require strategy to be a constant activity.

As Carl von Clausewitz related, war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.[iii] Without an enemy there can be no duel; ends can be achieved without opposition in a walkover. Therefore, the enemy is a necessary component for the conduct of strategy: the strategist must direct strategies of which he conceives against the enemy. Without the possibility of adversarial elements there can be no need for strategy, or the strategist: ends can simply be achieved as a matter of policy, without the requirement for the employment of strategic ways and military means. To simplify, without an enemy there can be no strategy. The existence of an actor which has ends incompatible with those that one wishes to achieve is the precursor for the activity of strategy.

In war the enemy is the principle source of friction. While other sources of friction – the weather, disease, logistical weakness – are plentiful, and may even be introduced by oneself, the enemy is exceptional for being the only source of friction that actively seeks to increase the difficultly one suffers. As Helmuth von Moltke the Elder famously stated: “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”[iv] As discussed previously, the enemy seeks to deny freedom of action and to obstruct the achievement of one’s ends. Any action the enemy takes necessarily acts to increase friction, as any action that advances the enemy’s pursuit of his ends is antithetical. Thus, the simple act of having an enemy is a source of friction. One can, at least, rest assured that the enemy suffers the same issues. In addition, the enemy may sensibly actively seek to cause friction. For example, through attempts at deception the enemy can cause us to believe windmills are giants and to tilt quixotically at them. In the Operation Allied Force, the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, the Yugoslavian Forces were able to exploit the fact that the desire for no NATO casualties forced the operation of aircraft from great height, and employed simple deception methods in order to induce the use of expensive ordnance against dummy targets. NATO therefore suffered friction as a result of concerted enemy efforts. In order to achieve success in warfare it is a necessary activity to attempt to increase the friction suffered by one’s enemy. Increasing the friction suffered by the enemy allows one to make things more difficult for him, enhancing the possibility of successful action.

Forgetting to consider the character of the enemy can be fatal to strategy. Just as every conflict has its own character, so does every enemy. Different enemies present different challenges, different ends, different rationalities to conceive of these ends and differing levels of commitment to these ends; different strategic ways in which they can operate, and different strategic cultures. These dictate what ways they will operate in; the different means at their disposal and their different abilities to generate means. The strategist cannot assume that there will be any similarities between one enemy and another, no matter how superficially similar they may appear: strategy must be tailor-made to the specific enemy faced in order to best allow the achievement of ends in the face of an enemy that seeks to deny this. For the occupation of Iraq, it was assumed by the British Army that methods it had perfected and employed for the maintenance of peace in Northern Ireland would transfer to southern Iraq. This assumption failed to consider a multiplicity of differences, including those of the character of the enemy, and caused difficulties for the British.[v]

The enemy and considerations for ends

War can be conceived of as a conflict between two incompatible policy ends. The aim, therefore, is for one side to engineer a situation in which the other accepts the ends of his adversary – the Clausewitzian imposition of will. The enemy, therefore, is a key factor when considering one’s ends: not only does the enemy seek to prevent the achievement of one’s ends; he also has ends of his own, incompatible with one’s own, which he seeks to impose. The enemy presents, therefore, an existential crisis to one’s policy ends, as without altering the enemy’s will one’s ends cannot be achieved, and if the enemy is able to achieve alteration in one’s will, one faces the imposition of undesirable ends as promoted by the enemy.

Strategy cannot, however, merely be an activity for wartime, but must take place in anticipation of war. If ends can be conceived that cannot be achieved without the compliance of another actor, then it may be necessary for the strategist to conceive of strategic ways in which military means may be utilised to attain these ends. Looking at the recent crisis in Crimea, Russia and its Crimean allies had to conceive of strategic ways by which they may achieve their ends. That the government of Ukraine de facto accepted the imposition of Russian will does not detract from the pro-Russian strategy. Indeed, just as Sun Tzu stated “the highest excellence is to subdue the enemy without fighting at all”[vi] , the ability to conceive of a strategy by which one achieves one’s ends and is not opposed by an enemy, in spite of his opposing ends, is a demonstration of exceptional strategic planning. Nonetheless, these strategies must be conceived of with the assumption that actors holding opposing ends will act to deny one’s ends.

How then, is the strategist to engineer a situation by which one is able to achieve one’s policy ends, at the expense of the enemy’s? Two ways present themselves: firstly, to alter the enemy’s ends through use of strategic ways and military means; secondly, to alter one’s own ends to make their imposition more acceptable to the enemy. The first way is the classic rationale of the activity of war, as by doing so it is hoped that the application of strategic ways and military means will cause the enemy to alter its ends in order to bring him in line with our own. A classic example of this can be seen in Operation Allied Force, through which NATO hoped to bring the Yugoslav ends (the continued territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and the defeat of the Kosovo Liberation Army) in line with NATO’s (Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo, introduction of United Nations peacekeepers and the enforcement of the Rambouillet Accords). Ultimately, this method of achieving one’s policy is the most desirable once war has begun, as it promises the greatest possible benefit, which is the achievement of one’s initial ends, and the denial of the enemy’s.

The imposition of one’s will upon the enemy has an implicit basis that the enemy will behave as desired, and not seek to revise the status quo introduced by victory. As Clausewitz reminded us, however, “the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final.”[vii] Given that one’s ends had been incompatible with those of the enemy, how is it possible to engineer a situation whereby a competitor’s ends can be made compatible with those articulated by the victor, not just for the immediate period, but for the long-term? The answer is that this is largely impossible. Unaltered ends – ends that are not changed to a position more conciliatory to those of the enemy – may require a situation whereby the enemy is defeated militarily, and therefore has no choice but to accept the imposition of will. Thus, while the enemy has to conform to ends incompatible with his own, it is not necessary that he accept these, and may seek to revise the status quo when the opportunity offers itself. The most obvious case is that of the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919 that concluded the First World War: the ends imposed by the Allies served to create a political atmosphere within defeated Germany whereby political parties that sought to revise the status quo were brought to the fore, eventually causing war to break out again in 1939. A more recent example would be that of South Ossetia. In the 1991-1992 South Ossetia War the Georgian state was forced to accept the de facto independence of South Ossetia. This peace was not acceptable to Mikheil Saakashvili’s Georgian government, and in 2008 it was believed that the time was ripe to revise the status quo and bring South Ossetia back under the control of Tbilisi, as had been done in 2004 in Adjara.

Dealing with the second, the attempt is made to alter the enemy’s cost-benefit analysis so that he views the benefits of accepting the imposition of will as greater than the costs thereof, or the benefits of continuing to refuse the imposition of will as less than the costs that could be imposed upon him. The achievement of one’s ends through their alteration can often be seen in the resolution of civil wars: in the Kivu Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), for example, a 2009 Peace Agreement between the government of the DRC and the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) was achieved through the alteration of both sides’ ends. The government of the DRC agreed to accept the CNDP as a legitimate political party in return for the cessation of the conflict, whereas it previously sought the defeat and end of the CNDP as a functioning actor. The CNDP agreed to accept the government of the DRC as legitimate and to incorporate its armed forces into the Armed Forces of the DRC and Congolese National Police in return for its recognition as a legitimate political party, whereas previously it had sought a separate existence in order (ostensibly) to protect the Tutsi population of the eastern regions of the DRC, as well as to take advantage of weak government control in the eastern regions, and to control and exploit the mineral wealth thereof. This method of achieving one’s ends at the expense of the enemy’s is obviously less desirable, as it requires the compromise of one’s ends, and is a tacit recognition that one cannot or is not willing to achieve one’s ends with the ways and means acceptable and available for use; a sign of weakness, which may compromise one’s negotiating position.

While altered ends may be acceptable to both sides, there may remain factions that find these altered ends unacceptable, as they had originally sought the unaltered ends, and may seek recourse to strategic ways and military means in order to continue seeking said ends. In the Kivu Conflict, the 2009 Peace Agreement left factions within the CNDP dissatisfied with the altered ends that had been achieved, and so they split off, forming Mouvement du 23-Mars (M23), continuing to apply strategic ways and military means in order to achieve its ends in contrast to those supported by the Peace Agreement. What this means for the strategist is twofold: first, that he should attempt to conceive of ways that will achieve his ends not just immediately, but also for the long-term, as far as this is possible; second, that he should not view the achievement of ends as the ends of strategy, as the enemy remains a potential enemy in the future, as he may likely seek to revise the status quo created by the imposition of will.

Ends can, and do, change during the conduct of conflict requiring strategy to be a constant activity. As the role of the strategist is to conceive of ways in which he can deliver the desired ends through application of the means at his disposal, when ends undergo alteration so must strategic ways. Ways which were first conceived of in order to deliver the original ends may become incompatible with the ends now oriented, or, if still compatible, may not now be the optimal ways to deliver the ends now desired.

The enemy and considerations for ways

The achievement of ends is carried out through the conception of strategic ways which allow the use of military means for said ends. As Lukas Milevski has stated, “The strategist’s first logical step is to control his opposite’s freedom of action.”[viii] By doing so, one reduces the ways available for the enemy to achieve his ends. By denying an enemy actor the use of certain strategic ways, he is left to resort to strategic ways that are possibly less ideal, compromising his ability to achieve his ends. Denial of strategic ways is an ideal situation, as forcing the adoption of sub-optimal strategic ways increases the risks undertaken by one’s enemy, increasing the chance that he will be unsuccessful, and have one’s will opposed upon him.

It logically follows that this denial of strategic ways is what the enemy seeks to do unto oneself. Just like in chess(another simile favoured by Clausewitz)[ix] , one must conceive not only of strategic ways which allow one to deny an enemy freedom of action, one must think some moves ahead, and deny the enemy the ability to reduce one’s own ways. In doing so, one maintains freedom of action and access to the most desirable ways for the achievement of one’s own ends. By neglecting to anticipate the enemy’s ways, one is left open to attack, and faces the prospect of having strategic ways denied, forcing one to adopt sub-optimal ways and reducing one’s freedom of action.

Just as with ends, the conduct of war has an altering affect upon the strategic ways available to oneself. Ways previously available may be denied, physically, legally or practically. New ways may become available. Existing ways which were previously less optimal may become more optimal, or most optimal. For example, advances in the technology of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) over the last decade have increased the plausibility of conducting the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan with greater utilisation of RPA, rather than relying on personnel to insert themselves into physically endangering situations. The conduct of war also changes the ways that are available to the enemy. As a result, with ways undergoing constant evolution, so too must the strategy which seeks to wed these strategic ways to the policy ends. This creates a role for the strategist, who, as the enemy affects one’s own ways, and as one affects his ways, must conceive of new and different ways in which he can achieve his ends.

The enemy and considerations for means

The final element of the strategic trinity is military means. Whereas the central aspects of means, these being tactics in battle, do not have a physical form, by necessity they must make use of physical resources. These can often become targeted by the enemy, as he seeks to deny one access to resources, or the freedom of action to use said resources. When one targets an enemy’s military means, it is done so in order to reduce the strategic ways available to him, and also to reduce his resolve to achieve his aims – the assumption being that the enemy’s centre of gravity is located within the military means at his disposal.

When strategists consider their approach toward the enemy, they must consider how their means relate to those of their enemies. Military means can only have value in their relation to those of others: through consideration of the relative strengths and weaknesses of one’s means as opposed to those of the enemy, the strategist is able to make evaluations of both how to best utilise his military means in order to best achieve strategic effect; and also what means the enemy has at his disposal should suggest to the strategist ways in which the enemy will most likely deploy these against him.

The military means one has at one’s disposal, and those of the enemy, are crucial not only when considering the strategic ways in which they may be employed, but also the policy ends which can be achieved through their use. The question is not simply “Can I use my means in ways which will achieve my policy goals?”, but is increased in complexity by the role of the enemy. The logic introduced by the enemy requires that the military means are employed in ways which allow the achievement of aims in the face of an enemy who seeks to deny the achievement of one’s aims; and that the military means can be employed in ways which also deny the enemy from achieving his own ends. If the ends one has are unachievable, or become so as a result of the interference of the enemy, through the means at one’s disposal. Then the requirement is that different ends are identified that fit with the means available.

As means contain the physical resources available to an actor, and these are necessarily finite, their use cannot help but to affect said means. This has a knock-on effect on the strategic ways that can be used, and the policy ends that can be achieved through these strategic ways. This is as Edward N. Luttwak has stated: “Force, on the other hand, is just that: if directed to one purpose, it cannot simultaneously be directed at another, and if used, it is ipso facto consumed.”[x] It is possible to go further than Luttwak does, and state that the conception of strategic ways affects means: certain strategic ways demand certain means be generated; their generation means that the resources expended cannot be used for other strategic ways. As a result, the generation and use of military means has a necessary narrowing affect on the ways in which they can be used. The enemy is naturally a key factor in the exploitation of the finite nature of resources, principally through their destruction. By directing force against one’s resources, the enemy can therefore ensure that these are unavailable, and affect the strategic ways that are available, forcing the resort to strategic ways less desired. The strategist must, therefore, do the same, and conceive of ways in which he might deny the enemy means, be it through the direct destruction of his resources, or impeding the ability of the enemy to employ his means.

The enemy as a tool for learning

The strategist can use the enemy as a tool for learning. Just as the strategies one devises are unavoidably affected by one’s own assumptions, so are the enemy’s. As a result, observation of the enemy’s ways can offer the opportunity to learn about the enemy’s assumptions. As the first logical step is to deny ways, it is possible to gauge the enemy’s assumptions regarding one’s ways. For example, if one’s enemy seeks to deny air control, then one can identify that the enemy assumes that air control is an important way in which one might force him to submit to the imposition of one’s will, and that it therefore presents a great threat to his ability to impose his will; or that he assumes that one’s will is somewhat dependent on having air control, and that to deny air control will enhance his ability to impose his will. This should therefore prompt the strategist to re-evaluate ways. If the enemy’s actions can reveal his assumptions about what strategic ways he fears or values, the strategist should seek to exploit these in order to better achieve one’s ends.

The ability to learn about the enemy’s assumptions is incalculably valuable to the strategist. Previous to its interaction with the enemy, all strategy is generated with only the introspective view able to be taken. This is necessarily limiting as assumptions do not necessarily encapsulate any objective truth, and may in fact produce detrimental strategies. The enemy provides an extrospective perspective, previously unavailable to the strategist, who can now utilise this in order to generate new strategies based upon what is learned from the enemy. As Scott Sigmund Gartner has said: “The battlefield provides leaders with information that helps them assess their strategies.”[xi] One should not think of the battlefield merely as a setting for internal actors to generate information, but also as a setting where one can study the enemy, thus deriving information from the actor one seeks to deny. This does come with a caveat, obvious but worth recognition: any attempt made to identify the enemy’s assumptions will unavoidably be affected by the assumptions one holds about the enemy himself and the nature and character of war, not to mention the incomplete perspective that one can generate. Thus, there will be natural limitations to the strategic effect that can be generated through learning about the enemy’s assumptions. Nevertheless, while with its limits, the enemy is an often overlooked source that can be utilised for strategy-making.

Even aside from the action of and against the enemy causing changes in ends, ways and means on both sides of a conflict, the existence of the enemy forces strategy to undergo change. A moderately intelligent actor should be able to learn from his enemy and adapt his strategy to best counter and defeat said enemy. The reverse of this is that there should be a recognition that one’s enemy is also a moderately intelligent actor, and that engagement with said enemy provides him with experience of our strategic approach, and therefore the ability to refine his own strategy in order to better conceive of ways in which he may counter one’s strategy and impose his will. Additionally, not only are current enemies able to learn from ways that one employs, but future enemies will also be taking note of these ways. It is, therefore, necessary for strategy to undergo constant development and alteration: in order to learn lessons from the enemies’ ways and to adapt to counter these. In addition, it is necessary to prevent both the current enemy and potential ones from being able to learn anything of permanent use from one’s own application of ways.


The enemy is a crucial, yet often overlooked, element of strategy. This is not, and cannot be acceptable, as the enemy is a necessary element for war, and therefore strategy. As strategy is relational, it is necessary that the strategist consider one’s own ends, ways and means with reference to those of the enemy. To do so is to create the conditions which best allow for the creation of strategies which will allow the imposition of one’s will upon the enemy: the ultimate goal of strategy.

In addition, the enemy presents a source of learning for the intelligent strategist. By observing the enemy, one can attempt to understand his assumptions about oneself, and the nature of war. This can be exploited, and so the strategist gains opportunity from the consideration of the enemy. Additionally, the extrospective perspective that the enemy is able to provide on one’s own strategy, in stark contrast to the introspective one that necessarily dominates strategy-making, is invaluable.

As strategy is contextual, no strategy can be effective without explicit consideration of the enemy. No two enemies are the same (though some may be more the same than others!), and so no two strategies should be the same. To fail to consider the enemy can prove detrimental, as one can become deluded and attempt to ‘template’ strategies without regard to the context in which one finds oneself.

Furthermore, the existence of the enemy, or the potential for actors to oppose one’s ends and therefore act as an enemy, necessitates the constant conduct of strategy, especially in wartime as the enemy affects the policy ends one can achieve, the strategic ways in which one can achieve said ends, and the military means that can be applied in said ways. Additionally, just as one may learn from the enemy, it should be recognised that the enemy is in turn learning from oneself, and so strategies must be evolving in order to take on board what is learned, and prevent the enemy from learning anything too useful for use against oneself.

In summation, the enemy in strategy is not just a necessary evil, only existing to be defeated, but an incredibly important factor in the activity of shaping strategy. To consider the enemy is to enhance one’s strategic effect, while to ignore the enemy is detrimental and harmful.


[i] Colin S. Gray. Strategy and Defence Planning: Meeting the Challenge of Uncertainty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 58
[ii] John Kiszely, testimony given to Iraq Inquiry, 14 December 2009,, accessed 3 September 2014, 9.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (New York: Everyman’s Library 1993), 83
[iv] Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings. Daniel J. Hughes, ed. and trans., and Harry Bell trans. (New York: Presidio 1993), 92
[v] See James K. Wither. “Basra’s not Belfast: the British Army, ‘Small Wars’ and Iraq” Small Wars and Insurgencies 20/3-4 (September-December 2009), 611-635
[vi] Sun-Tzu. The Art of Warfare. Roger Ames, ed. and trans. (New York: Random House 1993), 111
[vii] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (New York: Everyman’s Library 1993), 89
[viii] Lukas Milevski. “Whence Derives Predictability in Strategy?” Infinity Journal 2/4 (Fall 2012), 4
[ix] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (New York: Everyman’s Library 1993), 653
[x] Edward N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press 1976), 33
[xi] Scott Sigmund Gartner. Strategic Assessment in War. (Yale: Yale University Press 1997), 163