Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, and Naval Warfare

The work of neither Sun Tzu nor Clausewitz is adequate to describe naval warfare except in the most general terms. While it is true that until recent times warfare on both land and sea was largely two dimensional, there are factors at work in naval warfare that defy explanation in either Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. The vagaries of wind and weather played a much greater role in medieval naval warfare than on land. The weather was often a determining factor in whether an engagement happened at all. The naval commander was at the mercy of the weather during the age of sail, something that ground commanders did not have to reckon with.

Of either Sun Tzu or Clausewitz, the writings of Sun Tzu more closely approximate the strategy employed by Elizabeth during her reign. Sun Tzu advocates an indirect approach and matching ones strength against the weakness of the enemy. These are essentially the same principles that Elizabeth I followed in her conflict with Catholic Spain over the throne of England. She consistently sought to maintain English control of her home waters and supported an indirect assault upon the Spain of Philip II through her encouragement of commerce raiding. Even the battle fought against the Spanish armada of 15888 employed the strategy of Sun Tzu in which the smaller faster ships of England were able to devastate the heavy Spanish galleons through speed and firepower. The Spanish were unable to bring use the soldiers aboard their ships and instead had to fight ship to ship against the more heavily gunned English vessels. This is a classic example of Sun Tzu’s principle of “avoid strength, attack weakness”. The English capitalized on their advantages while avoiding the threat of Spanish boarders.

Of the two philosophers, Clausewitz deals best with the possibility of technological change. He acknowledges that technology may be a factor in success or defeat. Clausewitz witnessed the artillery revolution that occurred with the French mastery of gunnery in the eighteenth century and saw the difference in effectiveness between smoothbore and rifled weapons. He was therefore at least conversant with the concept of technological change. Sun Tzu lived at a time when technology was more static and change was not much of an issue. Clausewitz wrote just prior to the industrial age but the first glimmerings of the coming revolution were to be seen and he briefly discusses the effect of weapons on war. Neither author specifically addresses technological change but Clausewitz was more cognizant of the effects that change has on the conduct of war.