J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz?

wylie2America’s unique international position – protected by two oceans with weak neighbors on our borders – has discouraged disciplined study in the fields of strategy and warfare; with no serious foreign threat for most of our history, there was little impetus for such study. Only with the onset of the Cold War, inspired by an enemy that was capable of destroying the nation in a matter of hours, did scholars begin serious research and writing in the field of strategy. Indeed, the 1950s, and 60s are considered the “golden age” of American strategic thought, from which came the works of Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn, Robert Osgood, and many others. In terms of quality, many of these ideas (such as mutually assured destruction, limited war, game theory, “systems analysis”, etc.) were substandard if not outright dangerous. Nevertheless, they continue to have influence on the national security policy of the United States.

Much as a single diamond is sifted from tons of worthless gravel and rock, out of the voluminous writings of America’s strategic “golden age” stands a concise, little-known, and remarkable work: Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. The British writer Colin Gray regards Wylie as one of the best strategic thinkers since Clausewitz, though like all of humanity, he still falls short of the Prussian Master. However, though sublime Clausewitz might be, his work is not exactly light reading, and few military officers and politicians have time for any of it. This fact creates the niche that Wylie skillfully exploits with a book only 94 pages long.

Wylie’s early naval career was with the Asiatic Fleet. The primarily diplomatic and political functions of this force inculcated within Wylie a mode of thinking that differed from most naval officers at the time. Aside from his writings, Wylie is best known for the Combat Information Center, which Wylie conceived of to help ship captains manage the flood of information that new technologies had made available to them. His writing began in the early Cold War period in part to justify the existence of the Navy, which at that time was facing “comparative oblivion” at the hands of strategic airpower enthusiasts.

To formulate his own theory, Wylie starts from four guiding assumptions:

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.

2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie’s most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.

3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves. Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.

4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

From these assumptions, he develops the statement that is the core of his work:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

Related to this is the notion of “equilibrium,” a period in which the war has stalemated, and the “pattern” can be shifted to the advantage of either side. It is in this period of equilibrium that the war is most amenable to critical decisions. For an obvious example, during the Second Punic War, after a period of equilibrium in which Rome refused to engage Hannibal directly, Scipio Africanus shifted the pattern of war to North Africa, forcing Hannibal to abandon Italy and defend Carthage itself, whereupon he was defeated at Zama. In the U.S. Civil War, after the Union had regained equilibrium and Lee’s army was tied down in Virginia by Grant, Sherman shifted the pattern of war and brought a new center of gravity into the heart of the Confederacy itself with his March to the Sea. In World War I, both sides reached an unfortunate equilibrium on the Western front that degenerated into a war of attrition. The landing at Gallipoli was a failed attempt to shift the center of gravity away from the enemy army on the Western front and alter the pattern of war in the allies’ favor.  

Numerous examples can be seen in World War II. In the Pacific, the U.S. regained equilibrium through holding actions near the Solomon islands and finally at the Battle of Midway, followed by the Central Pacific campaign which altered the pattern of war in favor of the U.S. In Europe, the U.S. and Britain repeatedly attempted to shift the “strategic weights” with their campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and even their landing in Normandy. By contrast, once Hitler’s forces in Russia had reached equilibrium with Stalin’s forces, he refused to alter his plan and stubbornly continued with the same failed strategy. 

In the Korean War, the pattern was overwhelmingly in the DPRK’s favor until the situation stabilized around the Pusan perimeter, followed by the spectacular landings at Inchon that completely manipulated the center of gravity against the North. In contrast, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. accepted the pattern of war that was imposed on it by North Vietnam, never attempting to shift the pattern through meaningful action against the North itself. Even had America used more subtle and effective counterinsurgency methods in the South, the initiative would have still belonged to Hanoi. Only an invasion of the North or the complete isolation of the South by fortifying the DMZ and cutting off the Ho Chi Minh trail by invading Laos and Cambodia would have wrenched the strategic weights away from the North. 

By Wylie’s own admission, this theory barrows from Basil Liddell Hart’s “indirect approach.” But Wylie’s idea does not suffer from the same dogma of Liddell Hart’s writings. Liddell Hart regarded any contact with the enemy main body as the ultimate mark of stupidity… he ignored the reality that relational maneuver – which is usually required to carry out the “indirect approach” – is inherently risky; the maneuver could easily fail, leaving the strategist who attempted it in a much weaker and dangerous position. Sometimes, the center of gravity is with the enemy army itself, and there is no way shift the pattern except by destroying the enemy’s forces in battle. Liddell Hart had difficulty reconciling this reality with his theories, but Wylie accounts for it through his notion of equilibrium. If an enemy army is bearing down on your capital city or key industrial centers, there is no viable way to stop it except by defeating it in battle, thus restoring equilibrium and giving the defender the opportunity to modify the pattern of war.

Also notable is Wylie’s observation that strategy comes in two forms: sequential and cumulative. A sequential strategy consists of a series of actions, each depending on the previous one, building up all the way to a decision. All the great land and sea campaigns of history reflect sequential strategies. A cumulative strategy does not achieve decision from individual actions, but rather from the sum-total of these actions. For example, naval blockades and guerrilla warfare. What makes a sequential strategy vulnerable is that it can be interrupted and fall back into equilibrium if a single step is thwarted along the way. In contrast, in a cumulative strategy, individual actions can fail without ruining the entire plan; a few ships might make it through a blockade, but this will not cause the blockade itself to fail; a guerrilla band might be discovered and wiped out, but the effort remains intact as long as other bands remain alive to continue the fight. Cumulative  strategies are vulnerable in that they alone often are not enough to defeat the enemy and achieve control; if at the outset the campaign is not powerful enough, it is unlikely to have decisive effect. However, when both strategies are combined in a single coherent war plan, they place maximum pressure on the enemy and achieve a favorable pattern of war that will compel the enemy and establish control over him. 

But like any strategic theory, “power control” should not be considered a dogmatic prescription for action but rather an aid for conceptual thought. To illustrate this, it is best not to look at past wars in an attempt to extract examples of power control in action, but rather to consider how Wylie’s ideas would manifest themselves in future contingencies. Let’s examine a few hypothetical future wars and see if we can apply Power Control effectively.

U.S. vs China – The most likely flashpoint for a U.S.-China war is a Chinese invasion and/or blockade of Taiwan in an effort to establish Beijing’s sovereignty over the island. With the PRC’s military power based safely on the continent on the western side of the strait, yet within striking distance of Taiwan, U.S. forces are at a marked disadvantage if they attempt to force their way into the Strait of Formosa, where they will come under attack from massive numbers of land-based missiles and aircraft in addition to the many enemy ships and submarines using the islands in the strait as cover from which to launch hypersonic anti-ship missiles against U.S. vessels. This strategy would be conforming to the Chinese pattern of the war. However, Wylie’s ideas immediately suggest a different strategy: First, maintain equilibrium by preventing PRC victory on Taiwan. This will be mostly the responsibility of the Taiwanese military as it resists the invasion. Second, pull the center of gravity into the Indian Ocean – where the U.S. Navy could be used to much better effect, and where the PRC is much weaker – and interdict China’s crucial oil supply (which still must be shipped from Africa and the Middle East, as I discuss here), without which the Chinese economy and the Chinese military will soon come to a screeching halt. If the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) breaks off from Taiwan and enters the Indian Ocean in an attempt to protect its oil supplies, so much the better: it will be in the open, away from air cover, and vulnerable to destruction. Furthermore, we could attack the PRC’s oil pipelines in the west and north of the country to cut off its only other source of petroleum. By cutting off its fuel supply, the U.S. will alter the pattern of war in its favor and impose control upon the enemy. 

U.S. vs North Korea – Totalitarian regimes are prone to very rash decisions. While most analysts assume that regime survival is the ultimate objective for Kim Jong Il, it could happen that during a succession internal regime dynamics pressure the new leader to take action against the Republic of Korea (RoK) as a means to consolidate power; if this were an unthinkable scenario, the U.S. would not continue to base tens of thousands of troops on the peninsula and the RoK would not have such a sophisticated military. In the event of an invasion, RoK forces would need to regain equilibrium by stemming the invasion in the area north and east of Seoul.  Once sufficient reinforcements had arrived, the U.S. and the RoK would take the offensive into the North. Coupled with a maneuver war driving north through the DMZ, the U.S. war plan reportedly includes the possibility of a massive amphibious landing near Wonsan, in the same fashion as MacArthur’s Inchon operation, thus securing the initiative and a favorable pattern of war.

U.S. vs Iran – Any conflict between the U.S. and Iran would probably concern a U.S. attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Applying strategic theories to cases involving such a limited objective highlights well the blunt nature of the military instrument. After all, what is the control that we seek over Iran? Denuclearization? What are the strategic weights and centers of gravity that we need to tamper with in order to create a pattern that can maintain this control? Airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure  perhaps coupled with some form of a blockade or embargo of petroleum products are the obvious instruments, but would this be enough to create a pattern that ensures Iran’s denuclearization? Remember Wylie’s fourth assumption, that the ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with a gun. Due to its own political rhetoric and overstretched forces, the U.S. has all but foreclosed on bringing the threat of landpower to bear against Iran. If Iran regains equilibrium after the airstrikes by continuing with a covert nuclear program, what options are left open to the U.S.? 

Thinking about the Iran case brings up Wylie’s observation that a strategist can regain equilibrium and nullify an enemy’s war simply by modifying one of its guiding assumptions. The example he uses to illustrate this is the neutralization of U.S. strategic air power during the Korean War. For decades, airpower enthusiasts had been promising victory from the air through strategic bombing, but when the time came to deliver on that promise, the opportunity was denied; the PRC accomplished this by not launching air attacks from PRC territory itself. Eager to reciprocate on this voluntary limitation, the U.S. did not extend the war beyond the DPRK. Thus, U.S. strategic airpower, which had been promised to deliver so much, was effectively taken out of the war completely. 

Iran has read the new U.S. administration quite well, and has neutralized the key assumptions guiding its strategy by establishing tight relationships with China, Russia, EU states, and the UN. The U.S. is unlikely to get the international backing it so desires before taking action; Iran has prevented the U.S. from isolating it diplomatically. Perhaps, the U.S. is back in equilibrium with Iran and it should select a new strategy to shift the pattern back in its favor. 

Wylie is no Clausewitz. That’s okay. In any case, searching for a writer that exceeds Clausewitz is likely to be a pointless exercise. But Wylie’s writings provide a useful supplement to Clausewitz in that they bridge the operational focus of On War with the higher political object of war itself. “Power control” is this bridge; it explains how the Clausewitzian disarmament of the enemy can serve the political objective. It is thus an important conceptual tool for strategists tasked with the most difficult mission of all: identifying military objectives that serve the purpose of the war. In an era when the U.S. military has been ordered to “create a thriving democracy” out of an assortment of proto-neolithic tribes, “keep the peace between warring factions,” and “facilitate political reconciliation,” our politicians would do well to read Wylie’s concise little book and remind themselves that, above all, war is about control

(Update: I’ve scanned and uploaded some hand-written notes that I made while reading Wylie’s book. Those that are interested in Wylie’s ideas but do not yet have his book might find them useful.)


40 thoughts on “J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz?

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  23. Nice post. Wylie’s views on “equilibrium” and “sequential and cumulative” types of strategy are Clausewitzian concepts as well, although his use of “center of gravity” seems different from Clausewitz’s concept of it.

    I also think Thomas Schelling’s thoughts on military coercion quite useful and applicable within a larger Clausewitzian framework, although I agree that game theory has its limits in regards to strategic theory.

    • Indeed. Wylie’s “center of gravity” could be approximated as “focal point for the pattern of the war.”

      The reason why I’m critical about some of the strategic concepts that came out of the 50’s and 60’s is because they tend to lose sight of both human nature and the nature of war. Clausewitz reminds us that war has a grammar all its own and that policymakers should not ask the military to do something that is beyond its means. In World War II the U.S. tended to forget that war is a political act in pursuit of a political object, but in the decades afterward we went to the opposite extreme and reduced war to little more than a political signalling exercise.

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    Ok, principal el título J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz?

    no pienso que sea apropiado y en segundo lugar, verdaderamente perdiste tu
    vida en abordar este articulillo?

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