Thursday, June 2, 2011

Eve's Art of War

Around the 6th century BC an influential manuscript was written on bamboo slips about warfare in China. As part of the Seven Military Classics, Sun Tzu's Military Strategy, known more widely as the Art of War is the most popular book on strategy of the Seven. Translated roughly over two hundred years ago by a French missionary, the Art of War has made the rounds throughout the West as an influential source of knowledge on military strategy. Since its discovery and subsequent translation, the teachings held within have been sought out and studied by all manner of people, from Napoleon to Nazi High Command to Japanese businessmen during the 80's who engage in “corporate warfare”.

Regarded as China's oldest and most profound volume on military strategy, nothing comes into question more then the man who credited with writing the Art of War, Sun Tzu. Some credit Sun Tzu as actually Sun Wu and the writings the preservation of his stratagem and tactics during the violent Five Dynasties period. Others doubt the existence of the man himself, believing the Art of War to rather be a collection of thoughts from various generals at the time in one comprehensive volume. Regardless of the who, it is the content of the Art of War that continues to make it one of the most important manuscripts studied by scholars and military commanders to date.

So what can a manuscript about warfare in China during the 6th century with swords, horses and chariots teach us about excelling in combat spaceships?

The answer may surprise you.

Planning and Strategy

Sun Tzu says “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.”

In a sense, war is the last resort. A State or entity (in our case corporation or alliance) should only commit to war when you have no other option and only after it has been carefully planned and the ramifications considered. Sun Tzu later goes on to explain that the best-case scenario is not one where one force has annihilated the other, but rather a complete and total subjugation of the opposing force without firing a shot. This will grant the ideal of a complete victory, or one where goals have been met but nothing has been lost. He further explains this ideal should be attained though diplomatic coercion, intercepting and negating enemy plans, removing alliances, and in general upsetting the enemy strategy. If that fails and military action becomes unavoidable, Sun Tzu cautions to fight with the main goal of preservation; and that each campaign should focus on maximum results with minimal losses on both sides.

Ideally, this cerebral approach to warfare is lost on most commanders, who only set out to destroy everything in their path. This often rash behavior is often exactly what gets commanders into trouble, as they rush headlong into situations they cannot win, often based on poor or shoddy intelligence. General Robert E. Lee at the battle of Gettysburg comes to mind. Lee abandoned his initial strategy on some poor intelligence that he did not confirm for himself. After seeing the Union in a superior position, Lee rashly continued the attack when he was clearly at a disadvantage. The end result, as they say, is history.

Sun Tzu states one must ask several questions before determining who will win a conflict. Sun Tzu says:
Which ruler has the Tao? 
Which General has greater ability? 
Who has gained the advantages of Heaven and Earth?
Whose laws and orders are more thoroughly implemented?
Whose forces are stronger?
Whose officers and troops are better trained?
Whose rewards and punishments are clearer?
From these I will know victory and defeat.
By Tao he means literally “the way” or translated in its use as the will of the people. This is a very important lesson that can easily be be missed. Sun Tzu says “The Tao causes people to be fully in accord with the ruler. Thus they will die with him; they will live with him and not fear danger.” To put it simply, Sun Tzu is talking about the battle of the homefront. This is not winning or losing a battle fought with swords or doomsday weapons but rather winning or losing a war with words and images usually over time. It is the war for the hearts and minds of the people that support the war effort. In short, if you don't have that support, the war is already lost. Think back to the Vietnam war. The US was fighting a losing war yet winning until the people back home started seeing the images coming back. Without the support of the people, the US tanked quickly. But Sun Tzu refers to not just the homefront, but the hearts and minds of the troops as well. If they don't believe in you, they won't fight for you either.

To the Eve Commander, this lesson should be taken to heart. If you don't have the hearts and minds of the people, if they are not willing to support the war effort 100%, then you have already lost before the battle lines have even been drawn. In our case, “the people” includes not just those paying for the war effort, but the people fighting in the war themselves. If the army does not believe it can win, it simply will not fight effectively.

Heaven and Earth as Sun Tzu refers to is actually weather and weather conditions (Heaven) and terrain (Earth). While in Eve we are not affected by the weather, we have a different kind of terrain which I will get into later.

When Sun Tzu speaks about laws and orders he is talking about the structure of command, regiments, communication, scouting and logistics. Having an effective communication system and strict chain of command increases military efficiency, and through these and effective fighting force is achieved.

Throughout Art of War, Sun Tzu stresses the importance that war should not be the first option unless the state has been threatened. Furthermore generals need to know fear of being considered a coward, haste, anger and hatred should never be the basis of decision making. An army (or in our case, fleet) should never be mobilized or rashly thrown into a battle or engagement.

If it is not advantageous, do not move. If objectives can not be attained, do not employ the army. Unless endangered do not engage in warfare. The ruler cannot mobilize the army out of personal anger. The general can not engage in battle because of personal frustration. When it is advantageous, move; when not advantageous, stop. Anger can revert to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy, but a vanquished state cannot be revived, the dead cannot be brought back to life.

Now in our case, we had an advantage that Sun Tzu never considered. In EVE Online, we are immortal. Maybe not totally immortal, but destroying our ship and podding us only puts us in another ship eventually maybe back into battle depending on how far away our clone is. However what this does is grants the enemy time while you reship and join the fight again. Unless you are podded in the very system you have your clone in, the time you are gone is one less target and less dps/logistics/ecm/whatever the enemy has to deal with until you rejoin. So while a vanquished state can eventually be revived in EVE, it is not a quick manner nor is it effective. And each death gives the enemy the advantage.

Sun Tzu refers to the time of antiquity where armies made themselves undefeatable in order to wait for the opposing force to make a mistake so they could capitalize on it. Sun Tzu says “Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy.”

With these factors in mind, Sun Tzu said “The victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle. The vanquished army fights first, and then seeks victory.” Basically, know what your objective is, figure out how you can attain it, and go forth.

Intelligence and Spies

Sun Tzu said:

One who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.

Thus the importance of intelligence and intelligence gathering comes into play. Sun Tzu believes in a simple strategy. Though the manipulation of the enemy and his forces, a weak point will inevitably be found. At that point a commander can then apply maximum force, creating an easy victory.

For Sun Tzu, this is a two pronged attack. The army must do its job of luring the enemy into terrible positions with the prospect of some phantom gain. The enemy must think you are weak when you are not. They must believe you are strong when nothing could be further from the truth. By continuing to move them, you cause them to be weary and tired. If you keep them in one place you cause them to be bored and rash. Attack them in more then one place and you cause them to rush about trying to defend. Put forth a tenacious defense and you cause them to question their leaders.

In order to cause the enemy to come of their own volition, extend some apparent profit. In order to prevent the enemy from coming forth, show them the potential harm.

Thus if the enemy is rested you can tire him; if he is well fed you can make him hungry; if he is at rest you can move him. Go forth to positions to which he must race. Race forth where he does not expect it.

To ensure taking the objective in an attack, strike positions that are undefended. To be certain of an impregnable defense, secure positions that the enemy will not attack.
Thus when someone excels in attacking, the enemy does not know where to mount his defense; when someone excels at defense, the enemy does not know where to attack.

The second prong in this attack is through the use of spies. Sun Tzu is a big proponent of spies, and considers them paramount to any strategy in securing the safety of the state. For those of us who have played EVE, we know that spies are a daily occurrence. Sun Tzu believes there are five types of spies to be employed:

Local Spies – employ people from the local district
Internal Spies – employ their people who hold government positions
Double Agents – employ the enemy's spies
Expendable Spies – are employed to spread disinformation outside the state. Provide our expendable spies with false information and have them leak it to enemy agents.
Living Spies – return with their reports.

Of the five types of spies, it is the double agents that Sun Tzu feels are the most important. Sun Tzu says:

You must search for enemy agents who have come to spy on us. Tempt them with profits, instruct and retain them. Thus double agents can be obtained and employed. Through knowledge gained from them, you can recruit both local and internal spies. Through knowledge gained from them, the expendable spy can spread his falsehoods, can be used to misinform the enemy. Though knowledge gained from them, our living spies can be employed as times require.

No one has ever does this better then the British during World War II. Through their double agent, they were able to keep tabs on not only what was going on in Germany, but capture and turn each additional spy that managed to make it on the shores of Great Britain. Through that network, the British were able to misinform the Germans as well as have an early warning system that proved an effective tool throughout the war.

By using spies and scouts, a commander can know exactly what the enemy is preparing and how to defend against it. Though strict secrecy and self-control, the army will be able to confuse the enemy into making mistakes. And through both, a general will know how to seize victory and strike a decisive blow.

Employing the Army

In one of the more famous lines in Art of War, Sun Tzu says:

Warfare is the Way (Tao) of deception. Thus although you are capable, display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When you objective is nearby, make it appear distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.

Display profits to entice them. Create disorder in their forces and take them.
If they are substantial, prepare for them; if they are strong, avoid them.
If they are angry, perturb them; be deferential to foster their arrogance.
If they are rested, force them to exert themselves.
If they are united, cause them to be separated.
Attack where they are unprepared.
Go forth where they will not expect it.

Deceit and deception as Sun Tzu preaches is not an art, but more a means to an end. War as it is fought should be considered in a constant state of deception by showing false appearances and numbers, while spreading misinformation through spies. If done correctly, the enemy won't know where to attack and when; all while increasing the chances of committing a deadly error that can be exploited.

Thus the need for double agents. Through double agents a leader will be able to amass some expendable spies and through them spread disinformation. Expendable spies are exactly that, expendable. Once used, chances are good the enemy will kill or remove said spy. Even if they do not, that spy should be considered “burned” and his services no longer necessary.

In order to protect against spies in his own army, Sun Tzu states that a general never reveal his plans to anyone, even his own troops:

It is essential for a general to be tranquil and obscure, upright and self-disciplined, and able to stupify the eyes and ears of his officers and troops, keeping them ignorant. He alters the management of affairs and changes his strategies to keep other people from recognizing them. He shifts his position and traverses indirect routes to keep other people from being able to anticipate him.

Thus, the deception practiced in warfare cuts both ways, once toward the enemy and once towards his own officers and troops. By following this principle a general can cut down on the information the enemy can obtain by not only enemy scouts but enemy spies as well. This is important because it outlines another Sun Tzu principle in deploying the army intelligently:

The location where we will engage the enemy must not become known to them. If it is not known, then the positions that they must prepare to defend will be numerous. If the positions the enemy prepares to defend are numerous, then the forces we engage will be few.

June 6th, 1944. D-Day. The largest land invasion in history. The Allies invaded German controlled France on five beaches near Normandy. The Germans knew that if the Allies wished to invade France, there were only a few suitable landing spots from which to launch an invasion. The Allies played a bit of slight-of-hand by using the British spy network to make the Germans think they were invading anywhere but Normandy. Up until the actual invasion, the utmost secrecy was attained to be sure the Germans had no idea the attack was coming on Normandy.

The Germans on the other hand where stretched out along the coast thanks to Hitler's Directive 51. The Normandy beaches were fiercely defended, but the invasion would have gone terribly awry had the Germans known where the Allies were making their stand. As such, the beaches at Normandy where not as heavily defended as the other potential landing zones the Germans were sure the Allies were going to use.

While deploying the army, Sun Tzu recommends the following:

In general, the strategy for employing the military is this: If your strength is ten times theirs, surround them; if five, then attack them; if double, then divide your forces [flank them]. If you are equal in strength to the enemy, you can engage him. If fewer, you can circumvent him. If outmatched, you can avoid him.

Again, this touches on Sun Tzu's principle of doing battle just for the sake of doing battle only serves your enemy. In order to make a difference, the army must be intelligently deployed only when the objective can be accomplished. Doing battle just for the sake of doing battle not only gives victory to your enemy, but bolsters his troops moral while lowering your own.

Furthermore, the makeup of the army or fleet is just as important as when to engage:

In general, commanding a large number of is like commanding a few. It is a question of dividing up the numbers. Fighting with a large number is like fighting with a few. It is a question of configuration and designation.

Terrain comes into play often during a reading of Art of War. Sun Tzu was a master at trying to use the terrain to his advantage at all times. Terrain plays a large part in terrestrial war, but in EVE we don't have to worry about it. Or do we?

Sun Tzu describes 5 different types of terrain. Entrapping terrain, focal terrain, isolated terrain, encircled terrain, and fatal terrain. While they can describe a mass of land, they also can be used in EVE online for sectors of space, particularly around gates.

Entrapping terrain is terrain that an army can become easily blocked. A good EVE example of this would be dual gate systems, or systems with only two gates. A fleet in that system only has 2 ways to leave the system, thus it would be easy for a more numerous enemy to blockade them to prevent them from moving through. Sun Tzu says, “Do not camp on entrapping terrain.” or in other words, do not base out of twin gate systems.

Focal terrain is generally what Sun Tzu considers the intersection of major roadways. In the case of EVE it would be systems that a vast multitude of gates that allow many different ways for a fleet to go. Sun Tzu says, “Unite with your allies on focal terrain.” By staging your fleet in one of these major roadway intersections you not only make it easy for your allies to get to you, but also allow for many different paths to get to where the fleet needs to go; thus preventing the enemy from boxing you in like they could on entrapping terrain while your numbers are small.

Isolated terrain is any terrain that strands an army and prevents them from moving. An example of this would be a strip of land that allows for access to the mainland at low tide, but at high tide the strip of land is inaccessible. A good EVE example of this kind of terrain would be wormhole space. Wormholes are linked by random wormholes, and while a system will always have one wormhole, that wormhole can and will close. If attacking an enemy in a neighboring hole, be aware of that returning hole's status. If it closes, your fleet will be stranded either on one side or the other. Sun Tzu says “Do not remain on isolated terrain.” or in other words keep moving through it without stopping.

Sun Tzu says “Make strategic plans for encircled terrain.” Encircled terrain in EVE would be the opposite of entrapping terrain. In other words, terrain in which you can easily surround the enemy. Try to lure the enemy into a difficult position where they can be easily surrounded and you can destroy them.

Fatal terrain or deadly ground as Sun Tzu refers to it is terrain from which there is no return. Sun Tzu says, “On fatal terrain you must do battle.” Deadly ground is actually a state of mind and circumstance rather then a landmass. A good example of fatal terrain would be taking a fleet deep into enemy territory. Once the options for escape become non-existent, the fleet would be on deadly ground. This causes men to fight all the harder for their very survival because they have no other choice. And because they have no other choice their minds are clearer, their hands steadier, and their will to survive stronger. A good example of this is the 300 Spartans in the Thermopylae pass against the Persian army. On the third day after realizing they had been surrounded, the Spartans knew they were not going to survive and as such, fought the hardest they had fought in the previous two days.

The Art of War is a masterpiece of military strategy. The contents have been used the world over throughout history in battle. It contains some very basic to advanced techniques to approaching war that should be heeded as often as possible. To me it is amazing that a work written so long ago would be relevant today, even with all the technological advances in war, far beyond what even Sun Tzu would have imagined. If you haven't read it, I suggest you take the time and do so. If you have, take a moment and read it again.


  1. Incredibly insightful post my man!

  2. Good read as always. The thing I wanted to comment on:
    'To me it is amazing that a work written so long ago would be relevant today, even with all the technological advances in war, far beyond what even Sun Tzu would have imagined.'

    Whether clashing swords, pulling trigers or writing sourcecodes, the facilitator of warfare is still the same being with the same instinct: human. The tools have changed, the souls have not.

    So, yeah, much of any ancient stuff is still so relevant becasue we people are essentially the same bastards we were back then, aren't we?

  3. How can the ruler have the Tao, without letting his secrets be known to his people and his enemies?

    If a corporation in nullsec wants to take out their neighbor, then to achieve this, according to Sun Tzu, they must have the Tao, or backing of their membership, how can they attain this without revealing their plans to the enemy?