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Meanderings on Strategy – Sun-tzu, Slessor and Liddell Hart By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.







A generous world view where we can set an example to new and old friends

Not surprisingly, I find myself in agreement with all the above points but here and now it is those that relate to future defence that are most relevant.

Intelligence they say is no barrier to stupidity and I am bound to be concerned that whatever emerges from the upcoming Integrated Defence, Security and Foreign Policy Review process should have been fully led by strategy rather than cost. Of course, while strategy will likely play a part, I err on the side of caution fearing that whatever the messaging, strategy will not have led the argument. 

Perhaps the best known and still very appropriate of Sun-tzu’s writings comes in the form of his statement “If you know the enemy and know yourself; you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle”.

I myself was ‘made’ to read the writings of Sun-tzu just as I also was also made, in this case by the late Air Chief Marshal Sir Ruthven Wade, to read and study the works of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, the late Sir John Slessor. I have to say that I have never regretted one single moment spent in studying the writings of both. Whilst the word ‘deterrence’ was not exactly new and was arguably a doctrine practiced by the Royal Air Force between the wars, it was John Slessor who gave the word a rather different meaning and indeed, who preached the need for army/air co-operation in his great work ‘Air Power and Armies’.  

Having retired from the Royal Air Force in 1952 at Chief of the Air Staff (he had joined the Royal Flying Corp in 1915 and moved across to the now independent Royal Air Force on its foundation in 1918) Slessor published what would become another seminal work, Strategy for the West’ in which he laid out his views for the conduct of the ‘Cold War’ – another must read in my view. Slessor died in 1979 and as far as I am aware, the only former serving senior Royal Air Force officer to write on air power strategy. I suspect that these days it would be frowned on for a retired senior military officer to write specifically on ‘strategy’ as opposed to ‘history’ and personal recollections.        

Although I would have to admit to not having read all of Liddell Hart’s extensive output and may disagree some of his views, these too should also be required reading for all those that make decisions relating to defence but that of course is a forlorn hope. I would also love to believe that in whatever ambition emerges from the integrated review process that we really are within it envisaging the art of the possible.

Talking of history, it was Frederick the Great who said ‘Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments”. Diplomacy is something that the rest of the world used to look up to Britain but that I fear is no longer the case. Diplomacy can often be seen as an act of enhancing power but if I look at the political leaders that we have today and I observe them tearing up agreement, I fear the worst.    

CHW (London – 10th September 2020)        

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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