The Armchair Strategist

What the Terms Mean

by Mike McGlothlin

The "war on terrorists of global reach" continues, although in a less obvious mode. It now appears that ever increasing numbers of foreign troops will be required to reestablish basic order over the Afghanistan hinterlands, until a military and police force loyal to the interim government can be selected, trained, and equipped. It seems likely that more US troops will probably be deployed there, even if they do not comprise the primary elements. There may very well be tough fighting ahead against the bandits that have crawled back out and there has been ominous and destabilizing cross border shenanigans in western Afghanistan, instigated by the ayatollahs of the Islamic "Republic" of Iran. And of course, the big new campaign ahead for Saddam is being given low visibility by the administration. Given the noises made about the poor al-Qaeda "unlawful combatants" in Cuba (see entry below regarding Enemy Prisoners of War), the administration is probably nervous about being too forceful regarding the Hitler of the Middle East. All in all, not really much to discuss at the moment.

One of the difficulties in understanding the war properly is that, as in any specialized area, the defense establishment has its own peculiar and special language consisting of jargon and acronyms. And all too often the former becomes the latter. In addition to this, the media assigned to cover the conflict, (reporting from the comfort of the Pentagon briefing room), are unfamiliar with this special language, being trained in general journalism at college and not having any first hand experience, or special knowledge of, or apparently, any interest in, the area they are "covering." Consequently, the breathless and imprecise misuse of terms such as "strategy" and "center-of-gravity" does not clarify the news for the reader or viewer, but rather obscures what the government is doing. Context cannot always provide the inference necessary to correctly understand the specific meaning intended, and this is compounded by the fact that the defense establishment uses words with vernacular meanings in special ways with special connotations. For example, on the evening news, one might hear the anchor (or "presenter" if you are watching the BBC) use the terms "alliance" and "coalition" to transmit the same meaning, that of the group of nations who are united in fighting the terrorists. However, when Secretary of State Colin Powell uses the two terms, they have very different and precise meanings. "Alliance" is two or more nations joined by formal treaties to some "broad, long term objective," while a "coalition" is a short term "ad hoc" group of nations united for "common action." Hence, NATO is an alliance, while the U.S. and Pakistan form a "coalition."

Below are selected definitions of terms the reader is likely to encounter in the next few months, and getting a good handle on them, or at least knowing where to find them, will certainly help to better understand what is happening. All the terms are taken, virtually without exception or modification, from the Department of Defenses "Joint Doctrine Encyclopedia," dated 16 July, 1997. If you have any questions, please email me. Other terms can be viewed at:

A WORD OF CAUTION: When the reader hears these same terms used by journalists, they almost certainly are not used as defined below. When an American military officer uses the terms, it is intended to mean what is defined below. When a civilian government official, such as Donald Rumsfeld uses the terms, god only knows what it is intended to mean.

TERMS used by the United States Defense Establishment.

Air Defense: All defensive measures designed to destroy attacking enemy aircraft or missiles in the Earth's envelope of atmosphere, or to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of such attack.

Alliance: An alliance is the result of formal agreements (i.e., treaties) between two or more nations for broad, long-term objectives which further the common interests of the members.

Antiterrorism: Defensive measures used to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to terrorist acts, to include limited response and containment by local military forces. Also called AT.

Area of Operations: An operational area defined by the joint force commander for land and naval forces. Areas of operation do not typically encompass the entire operational area of the joint force commander, but should be large enough for component commanders to accomplish their missions and protect their forces.

Asymmetric (warfare): Attacks using the strength of the force against the weakness of the enemy's forces.

Battle Damage Assessment (BDA): The timely and accurate estimate of damage resulting from the application of military force, either lethal or non-lethal, against a predetermined objective.

Biological Agent: A microorganism that cause disease in personnel, plants, or animals or causes the deterioration of material.

Campaign: A series of related military operations aimed at accomplishing a strategic or operational objective within a given time and space.

Centers of gravity: Those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight.

CINC: Military Commander in Chief of a named force.

Close Air Support: Air action by fixed and rotary wing aircraft against hostile targets which are in close proximity to friendly forces and which requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those [friendly] forces. Also called CAS.

Coalition: An ad hoc arrangement between two or more nations for common action.

Combat: Battle, active operations.

Combatant Command: A unified or specified command with a broad continuing mission under a single commander established and so designated by the President, through the SECDEF and with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the JCS.

Combating terrorism: Actions, including antiterrorism and counterterrorism, taken to oppose terrorism throughout the entire threat spectrum.

Doctrine: Fundamental principles by which the military forces or elements thereof guide their actions in support of national objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.

Economy of Force [principle of war]: The purpose of the economy of force is to allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts.

Enemy Prisoner of War: A detained person as defined in Articles 4 and 5 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoner of War of August 12, 1949. In particular, one who, while engaged in combat under orders of his or her government, is captured by the armed forces of the enemy. As such, he or she is entitled to the combatant's privilege of immunity from the municipal law of the capturing state for warlike acts which do not amount to breaches of the law of armed conflict. For example, a POW may be, but is not limited to, any person belonging to one of the following categories who has fallen into the power of the enemy: a member of the armed forces, organized militia, or volunteer corps; a person who accompanies the armed forces without actually being a member thereof; a member of a merchant marine or civilian aircraft crew not qualifying for more favorable treatment; or individuals who, on the approach of the enemy, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces.

Friction, change and uncertainty: These still characterize battle. Their cumulative effect comprises "the fog of war." Friction is such factors as weather, the enemy, and excessive rivalries.

Joint: Combination of one or more branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Law of War: That part of international law that regulates the conduct of armed hostilities. Also called the law of armed conflict. [Treatment of Combatants:] During armed conflict, treatment of combatants is governed by the law of war and relevant host nation and domestic laws. Enemy personnel acting in accordance with the law of war will be accorded enemy prisoner of war (EPW) status. All enemy combatants will be accorded the protection of the law of war and will be treated in a manner consistent with EPW status until an Article 5 tribunal makes a determination of the merits of the claim to EPW status.

Counterterrorism: Offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, and respond to terrorism. Provides response measures that include preemptive, retaliatory, and rescue operations.

Linear and Non-linear Operations: Linearity refers primarily to the conduct of operations along lines of operations [see below] with identified forward line of own troops (the "front" lines). Non-linear operations tend to be conducted from selected bases of operations (ashore or afloat), but without clearly defined lines of operations.

Lines of Communications: All the routes, land, water, and air, which connect an operating military force with a base of operations and along which supplies and military forces move. Also called LOC.

Line of Operations: Lines which define the directional orientation of the force in time and space in relation to the enemy. They connect the force with its base of operations and its objectives.

Littoral: The littoral area contains two parts, first is the seaward area from the open ocean to the shore, and second is the landward area inland from the shore that can be supported and defended directly from the sea.

Logistics: The science of planning and carrying out the movement and maintenance of forces.

Maneuver [principle of war]: The purpose of maneuver is to place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power.

Mass [principle of war]: The purpose of mass is to concentrate the effects of combat power at the place and time to achieve decisive results.

Mass casualty: Any large number of casualties produced in a relatively short period of time, usually the result of a single incident such as a military aircraft accident, hurricane, flood, earthquake, or armed attack that exceeds the local logistical support capabilities.

Materiel: All items excluding real property, necessary to equip, operate, maintain, and support military activities without distinction as to its application for administrative or combat purposes.

Military Operations Other Than War: Operations that encompass the use of military capabilities across the range of military operations short of war. These actions can be applied to complement any combination of the other instruments of national power and occur before, during, and after war. Also called MOOTW.

Mission: The task, together with the purpose, that clearly indicates the action to be taken and the reason therefor. 2. In common usage, especially when applied to lower military units, a duty assigned to an individual or unit; a task. 3. The dispatching of one or more aircraft to accomplish one particular task.

Multinational Operations: A collective team to describe military actions conducted by forces of two or more nations, typically organized within the structure of a coalition or alliance.

National Command Authorities: The President and the Secretary of Defense or their duly deputized alternates or successors.

National Military Strategy: The art and science of distributing and applying military power to attain national objectives in peace and war.

National Security: A collective term encompassing both national defense and foreign relations of the United States. Specifically, the condition provided by: a. a military or defense advantage over any foreign nation or group of nations, or b. a favorable foreign relations position, or c. a defense posture capable of successfully resisting hostile or destructive action from within or without, overt or covert.

National Security Strategy: The art and science of developing, applying, and coordination the instruments of national power (diplomatic, economic, military, and informational) to achieve objectives that contribute to national security. Also called national strategy or grand strategy.

Objective [principle of war]: The purpose of the objective is to direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective. The objective of combat operations is the destruction of the enemy armed forces' capabilities and will to fight. The objective of an operation other than war might be more difficult to define; nonetheless, it too must be clear from the beginning. Objectives must directly, quickly, and economically contribute to the purpose of the operation. Each operation must contribute to strategic objectives. Avoid actions that do not contribute directly to achieving the objective.

Objective {tactical}: The physical object of the action taken, e.g., a definite tactical feature, the seizure and/or holding of which is essential to the commanders plan.

Offensive: The purpose of an offensive action is to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

Operational Art: The employment of military forces to attain strategic and/or operational objectives through the design, organization, integration, and conduct of strategies, campaigns, major operations, and battles. Operational art translates the joint force commander's strategy into operational design, and, ultimately, tactical action, by integrating the key activities at all levels of war.

Operational Level of War: The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or areas of operations. Activities at this level link tactics and strategy by establishing operational objectives needed to accomplish the strategic objectives, sequencing events to achieve the operational objectives, initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain these events. These activities imply a broader dimension of time or space than do tactics; they ensure the logistic and administrative support of tactical forces, and provide the means by which tactical successes are exploited to achieve strategic objectives. [The operational level links the tactical employment of forces to the strategic objectives.]

Operation Order: A directive issued by a commander to subordinate commanders for the purpose of effecting the coordinated execution of an operation. Also called OPORD.

Operations Security: A process of identifying critical information and subsequently analyzing friendly actions attendant to military operations and other activities to: a. Identify those actions that can be observed by adversary intelligence system. b. Determine indicators hostile intelligence systems might obtain that could be interpreted or pieced together to derive critical information in time to be useful to adversaries. c. Select and execute measures that eliminate or reduce to an acceptable level the vulnerabilities of friendly actions to adversary exploitation. Also called OPSEC.

Peacekeeping: Military operations undertaken with the consent of all major parties to a dispute, designed to monitor and facilitate implementation of an agreement (ceasefire, truce, or other such agreement) and support diplomatic efforts to reach a long term political settlement.

Peacemaking: The process of diplomacy, mediation, negotiation, or other forms of peaceful settlements that arranges an end to a dispute, and resolved issues that led to it.

Peace Operations: A broad term that encompasses peacekeeping operations and peace enforcement operations conducted in support of diplomatic efforts to establish and maintain peace.

Principles of War: The principles of war represent the best efforts of military thinkers to identify those aspects of warfare that are universally true and relevant. The principles of war currently adopted by the Armed Forces of the United States are objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. The principle of war guide warfighting at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. They are the enduring bedrock of US military doctrine.

Rules of Engagement: Directive issued by competent military authority which delineate the circumstances and limitations under which United States forces will initiate and/or continue combat engagement with other forces encountered. Also called ROE.

Sabotage: An act or acts with intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of a country by willfully injuring or destroying, or attempting to injure or destroy, any national defense or war material, premises or utilities, to include human and natural resources.

Simplicity [principle of war]: The purpose of simplicity is to prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.

Security: Measures taken by a military unit, an activity, or installation to protect itself against all acts designed to, or which may, impair its effectiveness. 2. A condition that results from the establishment and maintenance of protective measures that ensure a state of inviolability from hostile acts or influences. 3. With respect to classified matter, it is the condition that prevents unauthorized persons from having access to official information that is safeguarded in the interests of national security.

Security [principle of war]: The purpose of security is to never permit the enemy to acquire unexpected advantage; protecting the force increases friendly combat power and preserves freedom of action.

Special Forces: [US Army] forces organized, trained, and equipped specifically to conduct special operations. Special forces have five primary missions: unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, direct action, special reconnaissance, and counterterrorism. Counterterrorism is a special mission for specially organized, trained, and equipped special forces units designated in theater contingency plans. Also called SF.

Special Operations: Operations conducted by specially organized, trained, and equipped military and paramilitary forces to achieve military, political, economic, or psychological objectives by unconventional military means in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive areas. These operations are conducted during peacetime competition, conflict, and war, independently or in coordination with operations of conventional, non-special operations forces. Political-military considerations frequently shape special operations, requiring clandestine, covert, or low visibility techniques and oversight at the national level. Special operations differ from conventional operations in degree of physical and political risk, operational techniques, mode of employment, independence from friendly support, and dependence on detailed operational intelligence and indigenous assets. Also called SO.

Special Operations Forces: (Army) Rangers, SOA Aviation, Civil Affairs, PSYOP, Special Mission Units, SOCCORDs (permanent staff at CORPS), SOF support units.

Strategic Level of War: The level of war at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) security objectives and guidance, and develops and uses national resources to accomplish these objectives. Activities at this level establish national and multinational military objectives; sequence initiatives; define limits and assess risks for the use of military and other instruments of national power; develop global plans or theater war plans to achieve these objectives; and provide military forces and other capabilities in accordance with strategic plans.

Strategy: The art and science of developing and using political, economic, psychological, and military forces as necessary during peace and war, to afford the maximum support to policies, in order to increase the probabilities and favorable consequences of victory and to lessen the chances of defeat. [Strategy is the art and science of developing and employing armed forces and other instruments of national power in a synchronized fashion to secure national and multinational objectives.]

Surprise [principle of war]: The purpose of surprise is to strike the enemy at a time and place or in a manner for which it is unprepared.

Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Actions: symmetric engagements are battles between similar forces where superior correlation of forces and technological advantage are important to ensure victory and minimize losses. Examples of symmetric conflict are land versus land (Meuse-Argonne in World War I); sea versus sea (the Battle of Jutland in World War I); air versus air (the Battle of Britain in World War II). Asymmetric engagements are battles between dissimilar forces. These engagements can be extremely lethal, especially if the force being attacked is not ready to defend itself against the threat. An example is air versus land (such as the air attack of land targets in the Korean War).

Tactical Level of War: The level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. Activities at this level focus on the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to achieve combat objectives. Tactics is the employment of units in combat. It includes the ordered arrangement and maneuver of units in relation to each other and/or to the enemy in order to use their full potential. An engagement is normally short in duration and fought between small forces, such as individual aircraft in air-to-air combat. Engagements include a wide variety of actions between opposing forces in the air, on and under the sea, or on land. A battle consists of a set of related engagements. Battles typically last longer; involve larger forces such as fleets, armies, and air forces; and could affect the course of a campaign.

Terrorism: The calculated use of violence or threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.

Theater of Operations: A sub-area within a theater of war defined by the geographic combatant commander required to conduct or support specific combat operations. Different theaters of operations within the same theater of war will normally be geographically separate and focused on different enemy forces. Theaters of operations are usually of significant size, allowing for operations over extended periods of time.

Theater of War: Defined by the National Command Authorities or the geographic combatant commander, the area of air, land, and water that is, or may become, directly involved in the conduct of the war. A theater of war does not normally encompass the geographic combatant commander's entire area of responsibility and may contain more than one theater of operations.

Unconventional Warfare: A broad spectrum of military and paramilitary operations, normally of long duration, predominantly conducted by indigenous or surrogate forces who are organized, trained, equipped, supported, and directed in varying degrees by an external source. It includes guerrilla warfare and other direct offensive, low visibility, covert, or clandestine operations, as well as the indirect activities of subversion, sabotage, intelligence activities, and evasion and escape. Also called UW.

Unity of Command [principle of war]: The purpose of unity of command is to ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander for every objective. Unity of command means that all forces operate under a single commander with the requisite authority to direct all forces employed in pursuit of a common purpose. Unity of effort, however, requires coordination and cooperation among all forces toward a commonly recognized objective, although they are not necessarily part of the same command structure. In multinational and interagency operations, unity of command may not be possible, but the requirement for unity of effort becomes paramount. Unity of effort--coordination through cooperation and common interests--is an essential complement to unity of command.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: A powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semiballistic vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles are not considered unmanned aerial vehicles. Also called UAV.

War: When other instruments of national power (diplomatic, economic, and informational) are unable or inappropriate to achieve national objectives or protect national interests, the US national leadership may decide to conduct large-scale, sustained combat operations to achieve national objectives or protect national interests, placing the US in a wartime state. In such cases, the goal is to win as quickly and with as few casualties as possible, achieving national objectives and concluding hostilities on terms favorable to the US and its multinational partners.

Weapons of mass destruction: In arms control usage, weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people. Can be nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, but excludes the means of transporting or propelling the weapon where such means is a separable and divisible part of the weapon.