Disrupt or be Disrupted: the Principles of War by Michael Newman

by Didier Marlier on Thursday December 1st, 2011

In 1988, as a newly commissioned Officer in the British Army, the world of disruption was my context. As a commander of 28 Royal Engineer soldiers (the famous ‘Sappers’) I was a very small, but I like to think important, part of the NATO master plan to defend Western Europe from the Warsaw Pact.

Back in the 1980s, Hundreds of thousands of armoured vehicles, swarms of aircraft and over a million soldiers were positioned either side of the Inner German Border. If the Cold War turned Hot, the Warsaw Pact’s intention was to charge to the Rhine near Frankfurt, whilst simultaneously striking at Antwerp and the Channel ports. Their strategy was not the traditional one of capturing territory; instead, their aim was to limit NATO’s freedom of movement in Germany and prevent us reinforcing. The Soviets saw that rapidly disrupting NATO would be the route to success. NATO in turn, had a strategy to identify the exact timing and location of enemy thrusts and focus its (relatively) limited resources on breaking the armoured attacks before they gained momentum. In the wider arena, Russian submarines were organised to disrupt supply convoys from North America, whilst NATO Air Forces had trained for years to disrupt reinforcements and materiel arriving from Russia.

On the micro scale, the job of my soldiers was to blow up bridges to stop the leading Soviet tank battalions. A good friend was posted to a different Royal Engineer unit whose (semi-suicidal) job was to clear gaps through enemy minefields so our own tanks could counter attack and wreak havoc in their rear areas. The idea of ‘Disrupt, or be Disrupted’ was at the heart of everything we did.

So how were we trained to be effective in such circumstances, and why is it relevant to this blog?

The Enablers Network tag line is “From Disruption to Engagement”. This was chosen in late 2010 as a result of repeated conversations with clients all over the world. They (and we) recognised that the pace of technological and social change, together with the rise of new and very hungry global competitors, meant that disruption was now probable rather than just possible. A proven way to stop yourself falling victim is for you, rather than your competitor, to change the game / playing field / rules. If you innovate or reinvent your own business model, your competitor has to react or suffer. If you keep them reactive by applying constant pressure, you can make them or their product irrelevant. However, to operate with the required speed and agility, you need more than just smart or visionary people at the top. You must be able to engage your whole organisation, helping them to operate in a disruptive environment, and inspiring them to embrace a purposeful spirit of disruption.

The British Army recognises that, by their very nature, operations are unpredictable, ambiguous, complex and disruptive. It therefore does not issue rules for its Commanders; it relies on Principles. It has ten Principles of War.

The Army considers that the Principles of War are; “…enduring, but not immutable, absolute or prescriptive, and provide an appropriate foundation for all military activity. The relative importance of each may vary according to context; their application requires judgment, common sense and intelligent interpretation. Commanders also need to take into account the legitimacy of their actions, based on the legal, moral, political, diplomatic and ethical propriety of the conduct of military forces, once committed.”

The official summaries of the ten principles are listed below. Some will resonate very strongly with business leaders, whilst others have a less obvious but still very important part to play. Rather than try and translate them into business language, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect and create your own meaning.

Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.

A single, unambiguous aim is the keystone of successful military operations. Selection and maintenance of the aim is regarded as the master principle of war.

Maintenance of Morale.

Morale is a positive state of mind derived from inspired political and military leadership, a shared sense of purpose and values, well-being, perceptions of worth and group cohesion.

Offensive Action

Offensive action is the practical way in which a commander seeks to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative.


Security is the provision and maintenance of an operating environment that affords the necessary freedom of action, when and where required, to achieve objectives.


Surprise is the consequence of shock and confusion induced by the deliberate or incidental introduction of the unexpected.

Concentration of Force

Concentration of force involves the decisive, synchronized application of superior fighting power (conceptual, physical, and moral) to realize intended effects, when and where required.

Economy of Effort

Economy of effort is the judicious exploitation of manpower, materiel and time in relation to the achievement of objectives.


Flexibility – the ability to change readily to meet new circumstances – comprises agility, responsiveness, resilience, acuity and adaptability.


Cooperation entails the incorporation of teamwork and a sharing of dangers, burdens, risks and opportunities in every aspect of warfare.


To sustain a force is to generate the means by which its fighting power and freedom of action are maintained.

In a spirit of openness (or perhaps in recognition of the history of Senior Officers leaving laptops full of confidential information on trains), the Ministry of Defence published much of its thinking online in the British Defence Doctrine 2008. An expanded explanation of each of the ten Principles can be found on pages 2-3 to 2-6.

*Thanks to Nick van Heck of Executive Learning Partnership for introducing me to the phrases “Disrupt or be disrupted” and “Make your competitors irrelevant”.

** Thanks also to my Enablers colleagues who have let me bore them with tall stories about my over-ambitious plan to disrupt a threatened invasion of Belize by the Guatemalans. On arrival in the Jungle, I found the existing defence plan to be predictable and, to be honest, a bit boring. With the enthusiasm and naivety that comes with being a 22 year old Second Lieutenant, I redesigned the plan from scratch. My proud presentation of the new concept to my boss did not go as well as I hoped. Apparently, the quantity of explosives that my plan required would have emptied every Army stockpile in Central America. My argument of; “But Sir, one can never have too much plastic explosive”, fell on deaf ears.

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