Evaluation of the Art of War vs. Modern Day Air Warfare

December 10, 2020 by Essay Writer


History witnesses that, science is a process of continuous improvement and technology erodes and becomes obsolete with the passage of time, but a work of genius is always universal. The power of mind is such that a man, who was living in caves a few hundred years ago, is now planning to build colonies on moon and beyond. So one thinks that, is there any parity between the mental capabilities of Stone Age generation and the space generation. Same question arises when we compare the ancient military strategists and modern military strategists. To argue on this question I shall take up the fabulous work of Sun Tzu, the first strategist known in history with written military strategies in the shape of “The Art of War”, and see its applicability in the modern day Air warfare.

The aim of this paper is to highlight salient features of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ and validate his ideas and strategies in comparison to modern day air warfare.


Briefly touching upon the biography of Sun Tzu, he was a Chinese general who gave his military strategies around two and a half thousand years ago. He was also known as ‘Sun Wu’ and ‘Sun Zi’. In Chinese language “Sun Tzu” means “Master Sun”. Born in fifth century BC, he was a native of the northern state of Ch’i of ancient China. His date of death is not known, however, it is estimated that he died before the year 473 BC. In fact very little is known about his personal life. He belonged to a family with a rich military background; his father and grandfather were also generals. This gave his mind an impetus and he thoroughly studied and researched different aspects of war. His vision and intellect made his name immortal in the field of military, as he is remembered in the history for his magnificent inscriptions on ‘The Art of war’, which has been accepted as the bible of warfare since centuries. Presently his book is used as a text or reference book in a number of military academies, research institutes, and business enterprises around the world.

Sun Tzu’s Doctrine

Sun Tzu’s work is universal in nature. He said, “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”. Sun Tzu also said, “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life or death, a road to survival or to ruin. Hence it is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied”. This speaks volumes about his foresight and vision about the art of warfare. Unlike other ancient doctrines, his work does not focus on specific tactics, techniques or weapon systems; on the other hand it can be updated in all ages, with changing technology. Some of the basic tenants of the “The Art of War” are:-

  • To prepare adequate defenses to repel any attack,
  • To seek ways to defeat the enemy without engaging him in battle,
  • Follow the enemy situation in order to decide on battle.

Sun Tzu’s saying that ‘art of war is of vital importance to the state’ is true even today, as the nations still engage in war to resolve their issues which they are unable to solve through political means. So in order to maintain the sovereignty and safeguard the frontiers, a nation has to give vital importance to the art of war. Also, in today’s air warfare defense is of most vital importance, both active and passive. No country without adequate defense will be able to stand against any invader. Even the strongest air forces in the world with the most potent offensive capabilities give equal importance to their defense. Almost all the nations in the world keep track of their enemies (or potential enemies) and build up their forces accordingly. This is done to maintain the balance of power so that war stays as the last resort for resolving the political issues.


Stratagem is something unique to Sun Tzu. It is a concept which is not found in the western theory of war. To Sun Tzu violence in war was a means of the last resort. He says, “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy is not so profitable”. Sun Tzu also said, “The skilful leader subdues the enemy troops without fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them, he overthrows their kingdom without any lengthy operations in the field…..With his forces intact his triumph will be complete.” He says that this is the method of attacking by stratagem.

In the modern air forces, with the invention of precision weapons, long range aircraft and missiles, and satellite guidance, it has been made possible to pin point and attack only those targets which are relevant and militarily important. Thus the economic, industrial and residential sectors can be easily secluded from war. Hence the outcome of war, while capturing any country, stays profitable.

Sun Tzu’s Impact on Conduct of War

Sun Tzu’s ideas have a profound impact on the conduct of war – ancient or modern, and air warfare is no exception. He implemented his ideas himself in various battles and those are still applicable to the present era. His Ideas could be organized in seven categories.

Doctrine:- About doctrine, Sun Tzu said that every state must have a military doctrine of her own in order to defend itself from external aggression. Sun Tzu rightly says, “It is a doctrine of war not to assume that the enemy will not come, but rather to rely on readiness to meet him; not to presume that he will not attack, but rather to make one’s self invincible”.

In this era, every nation with a credible force, not only has their military doctrine but also have their respective army, air force and naval doctrines. Especially after the invention of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), no nation possessing these weapons is considered responsible without a comprehensive and elaborate doctrine.

Strategy:- Sun Tzu was a strong advocate of formulation and maintenance of strategy. He dictates that :-

  • “when the enemy concentrates, prepare against him, where he is strong avoid him”.
  • “Anger his general and confuse him. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance so that he may be misled”.
  • “Keep your enemy under strain and wear him down”.
  • “When he is united, divide him by spreading suspicion”.
  • “Attack him where he is unprepared, go forth when he does not expect you”.

In modern day, to fight all wars a nation has to devise a strategy so as to be prepared for war all the time. A force with unique characteristics, like air force can not prepare and engage in war, without a well defined and well rehearsed strategies. These strategies have to be prepared and defined for all levels of warfare.

Operations:- According to Sun Tzu, “Victory is the main object in war. If it is delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed, when troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted”. Thus the emphasis on the fact that operations should have specific aims. Speaking on waging war Sun Tzu talks about :-

  • Operational preparedness,
  • Swiftness of operations,
  • Speed, and
  • emphasizes that operations should have specific aims.

The points given above can be easily characterized as essentials of a modern day air force. All air forces in the world rely on their peace time preparedness, so that their operations can be conducted in a harmonious manner in order to achieve their aims at the earliest.

Tactics:- Sun Tzu talks about the use of forces in different numbers through varied tactics. Dilating on this he says :-

  • When ten to enemy’s one surround him.
  • When five times his strength attack him.
  • If double his strength divide him.
  • If equally matched you may engage him.
  • But if weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing.
  • And if unequal, be capable of eluding him.

In war, tactics and numbers matter a lot. Especially in air warfare special tactics may be employed to counter a numerically superior air force, similarly more number of aircraft may be employed to counter a technologically superior air force. Hence importance of tactics and numbers matter a lot in air warfare.

Deception:- Although deception may be regarded as tactics, but Sun Tzu attaches great importance to it and says that all warfare is based on deception therefore

Deception is the hallmark of politics and war even today. It is said that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. No nation or military will ever reveal their cards until it is mandatory to achieve their preset goals. In air warfare, fake strikes, false radio transmissions, electronic warfare and passive defense etc, is used to deceive the enemy. An air force which cannot effectively counter these, suffers a significant setback.

Limited War:- Sun Tzu is in favor of limited and short war and does not profess long protracted wars. He writes, “When the army engages in protracted campaigns, the resources of the state will not suffice”.

Air warfare is meant to shorten the duration of war because of its inherent characteristics – height, speed and reach. Due to this the ancient wars, which used to last for decades, has now been reduced in modern times to days. Air force besides being the most potent force is also the most expensive force of all. Hence any prolonged war will be a major drain on the economic resources of a country.

Victory:- Sun Tzu says, “War demands victory, not prolonged operations”, and therefore, “the general who understands war, is the master of the peoples fate and arbiter of the nation”. According to Sun Tzu, victory in war can be predicted by the following five circumstances:-

Sun Tzu’s guidelines to predict the outcome of war can be readily applied to air warfare as well. In order to win a war, an air force must posses situational awareness at all levels of war, identification of center of gravity, flexibility, concentration of forces, economy of force, coordination, unified command, maintenance of morale, discipline and good leadership. It can be accurately said that an air force possessing these attributes will be a winner against an adversary who does not have these qualities.

Contemporary Examples

I will now validate Sun Tzu’s ideas and doctrine to modern air warfare with contemporary examples. For this purpose I shall discuss some military encounters to highlight applicability of his philosophies to modern warfare.

Pearl Harbor: – Sun Tzu wrote, “When the enemy speaks in the humble tone, he continues his preparations and will advance”. On 7December 1941, at 1 pm Japanese diplomats were to arrive in USA for peace talks in the Pacific. At approximately the same hour the Japanese started bombing on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had used Sun Tzu’s deception tactics but simultaneously violated his basic strategy i.e., “When you are ignorant of the enemy but you know yourself, the chances of winning or losing the battle are equal”. The Japanese overestimated themselves and knew far less about the American potential and response. Thus skies witnessed the most devastating war causalities in history, when USA equaled the score by attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Vietnam:- Sun Tzu sees war as being the matter of deception and the attainment of psychological dominance. In Vietnam it was hot, dark and wet, the language was strange and the foe was not easily distinguishable from friend. During the Tet Offensive Vietnamese learnt that American public was unwilling to tolerate large number of body bags coming home, whereas Vietnamese themselves were ready to accept that in order to achieve independence. This was a psychological turning point and hence ensured the American evacuation from Vietnam. General Giap, the leader of North Vietnamese forces, together with Ho Chi Minh was main architect of victory over the Americans, as they used the deception tactics of Sun Tzu to achieve their goals against an enemy who had used all sort of force against them, including air force.

Soviet-Afghan War:- In the Soviet-Afghan war the Soviets were unfamiliar with the Afghan terrain and they under estimated the will of their opponent. The Afghans knew their country well and displayed guerilla warfare tactics much similar to Sun Tzu’s teaching against an enemy which was equipped with superior weapons but having poor knowledge about the terrain. The result was withdrawal of the soviet forces and ultimately collapse of the Soviet infrastructure.


Based on all the arguments stated earlier it can be easily said that Sun Tzu, the pioneer of the ageless principles, enjoys the reputation of being the oldest strategist. Though ages have passed but the theme and principles laid by the great strategist are practical, and hence applicable in the present day warfare especially air warfare. The strategies described by the Sun Tzu are as much relevant today as they were two thousand five hundred years ago and its applicability is not only limited to ground, air or sea warfare, rather it’s applicable in almost all aspects of human interaction with each other.

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