Targeting Clausewitzian Judgments: Fusing Precision and Accuracy to Strategy and Tactics

Just as no war can take place without an enemy, there can be no war without targets. Considering the enemy, as a whole, a target, while true, borders on tautology. Instead, we subdivide the enemy into many individual parts against which we act. However, selecting these targets requires accurate strategic vision and precise tactical acumen. Carl von Clausewitz, in his tome On War, details, “[War] is not a field of stalks which, without any regard to the particular form of each stalk, will be mowed better or worse, according as the mowing instrument is good or bad; but large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.”[1]

“[War] is not a field of stalks which, without any regard to the particular form of each stalk, will be mowed better or worse, according as the mowing instrument is good or bad; but large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.”

“[War] is not a field of stalks which, without any regard to the particular form of each stalk, will be mowed better or worse, according as the mowing instrument is good or bad; but large trees, to which the axe must be laid with judgment, according to the particular form and inclination of each separate trunk.”

Targeting should not be determined by the means—the mowing instrument—we use. Rather, it ought to be characterized by the judgment we use to select the target against which we intend to strike. Clausewitz prescribes balancing a nuanced appreciation of the enemy with a necessary faith in means. Fusing the scientific concepts of precision and accuracy to the Clausewitzian concepts of tactics and strategy produces such a method with which to judge the efficacy of targeting.

Choosing a combat is the Clausewitzian notion of targeting—a derivative of his definition of war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”[2] Clausewitz emphasizes, “the combat is the real warlike activity,” continuing, “combat means fighting” where “destruction or conquest of the enemy is the object.”[3] Targeting—choosing a combat—is just picking which fight to fight. Specifically, it is the selection of a certain object, from among other possible objects, with the intention to use, or the threat to use, force against it.[4] Moreover, contained within the idea of “the combat” is both the notion of tactics as “the formation and conduct of these single combats,” and strategy as “the combination of them with one another; with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”[5] Tactics determines the force, strategy provides the intention, and politics ought to dictate the selection.

Yet, Clausewitzian combats beg the question: a target must be assumed, but how to choose one? Rupert Smith, in The Utility of Force, explains that “it is not possible to have a strategy until there is an opponent.”[6] While the enemy supplies the raison d’être for fighting, politics—articulated as policy—provides direction for the tactical force and guidance for the strategic intention. Targeting is the unification of selection and intention that, as Joint Targeting explains, “links the desired effects to actions and tasks.”[7] Hence, choosing a target—targeting—is the manifestation of the instrumentalization of force, the politics of war. It is indicative of our belief in the value of destroying or controlling a certain something of the enemy. Yet, it is not just the belief that this destruction or control will produce certain desired effects, but also the conviction that we are capable of executing such actions and tasks for political purposes.

Targeting is the unification of selection and intention that...“links the desired effects to actions and tasks.”

This is faith that our tactical capabilities can (and will) achieve our strategic desires. Smith coins this as “the utility of force.” Efficacy becomes just a consequence of utility. Efficacy is not an abstract end-state, but a metric. Targeting effectively entails determining appropriate targets. According to Smith, “to apply force with utility implies an understanding of the context in which one is acting, a clear definition of the result to be achieved, an identification of the point or target to which the force is being applied—and…an understanding of the nature of the force being applied.”[8] Smith requires a command of the means employed, the ends intended, the context in which the events unfold, and the actual target. Nonetheless, these stipulations—means, ends, context, and target—are only satisfied after choosing the target. Here a target is merely identified, not selected. Without the appropriate choice, the resulting utility is null, or possibly adverse. Effective targeting requires an accurate target based on a nuanced comprehension of the enemy and the appropriate application of force. Crucially, the target is assumed to be the appropriate one.[9]

In Joint Publication 3-60, Appendix D, “Assessment Levels and Measures,” Joint Targeting, attempts to establish such an assessment model. Joint Publication 3-60 distinguishes between operationally “doing things right,” and strategically “doing the right things.”[10] But these concepts no more help us judge efficacy than a stated intent to "target all the bad guys." Both fundamentally rely on a value judgment, a subjective distinction about what is or is not right. Instead, integrating precision and accuracy into our targeting calculus decreases the subjectivity inherent in determining the efficacy of targeting. Such Clausewitzian judgments entail selecting enough targets with sufficient strategic accuracy in order to destroy or control the enemy with the necessary tactical precision.

But what do we mean by an accurate target? To answer this, we must first define the concepts of accuracy and precision. Consider the figure.[11] Imagine throwing four darts at a dartboard. In case one, all four darts are erratically spread across the board. This is neither accurate, nor precise. In case two, all four darts cluster to the left hand side of the board. This is not accurate, but it is precise; if only the direction of the aim were better, then it would have been both accurate and precise. In case three, the darts surround the bulls-eye, but without the consistency of case two. This is accurate, but not precise. In case four, all four darts hit within the bulls-eye demonstrating consistency in hitting the desired target. This is both precise and accurate. Precision determines whether we struck that at which we aimed. While accuracy identifies whether what we intended to strike is what we ought to have. Using precision and accuracy, we can evaluate our targeting capability.

Precision measures repeatability...gauges whether we can expect to execute our desired action at our aim point. Notice how the object—the target—is conspicuously absent.

Precision and accuracy evaluate the quality of the transition from targeting to action, from picking a fight to executing the knockout blow. They are tools with which to judge Clausewitzian appropriateness: a judgment about whether the use of force against a particular object is consistent with the desired ends. Precision measures repeatability, which can be thought of as the overlap between aim and action. The intended force is executed where we aimed. Essentially, precision gauges whether we can expect to execute our desired action at our aim point. Notice how the object—the target—is conspicuously absent. We are only concerned that the intended force is applied where we aimed. However, accuracy is more complicated. Accuracy is concerned with the truth of the action, but what is the truth of targeting? Targeting truth is more than just hitting the target, just as there is more to winning a war than the physical destruction of the enemy. John D. Caputo, in Truth: Philosophy in Transit, elaborates, “Truth is not a matter of presuppositonlessness but of having the right presuppositions and avoiding the wrong ones.”[12] To understand this, we can split the idea of targeting accuracy into two kinds. Did we hit the given object? Exactness. Ought we have hit the object? Appropriateness. Only appropriateness addresses the presuppositions that are necessary for targeting truth. Or, in Clausewitzian terms: Can we hit at which we aim? Tactical precision. Ought we have hit that object? Strategic accuracy.

Let us now define tactical precision and strategic accuracy.[13]Precision tends to be a tactical consideration due to its tie to aiming. Paul Virilio, in War and Cinema, deconstructs the etymology of aiming as “a way of technically aligning ocular perception along an imaginary axis that used to be known in French as the ‘faith line’ (ligne de foi).”[14] Employing weapons—from precision-guided munitions, attack vectors in cyber warfare, frequency and power in electronic warfare, or even a rifle—summons confidence just by and through their use. It is the expectation of repeatable action that is a manifestation of the faith we place in our means to strike at our desired and intended aim. Tactical precision merges confident aiming with the means to strike various objects, but without judgment of their appropriateness. Strategic accuracy considers the instrumental value of targeting a certain object within the broader context of the conflict.

While Joint Publication 3-60’s strategically “doing the right things” is akin to our conception of strategic accuracy, operationally “doing things right” fails to present a way to evaluate how?[15] What Joint Targeting misses is that operationally “doing things right” requires precision at the tactical level. What does “doing things right” look like? Being able to tactically execute—repeatability of action at an aimpoint—what is required to do just that thing. But whether that thing was right—a subjective value judgment—can only be determined from the strategic level. If I sight in on target, but due to friction or fatigue or fog or foibles cannot execute at that aim point, then it is not possible to purposively do the right thing.[16] Strategic accuracy must presuppose tactical precision.[17] Doing the right things is doing things right, and this is only possible if and when we execute tactics precisely.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki from Koyagi-jima (Hiromichi Matsuda | Wikimedia)

While we must be able to reliably strike at which we aim, Fred Charles Iklé in his cautionary book, Every War Must End, appreciates that leaders “debate the timing of a crucial decision without ever discussing whether or not the move should be made at all.”[18] This is why Joint Targeting emphasizes, “Target development and selection are based on the…desired end state rather than on the available ways and means to achieve [it].”[19] We must not let our desire and bias for action—targeting just because we are capable—to overshadow the need to question, before, during, and after, whether the target remains appropriate. Clausewitz demands, “The question, then, for every assailant to ask himself is, If I am successful in the battle, what is the first use I shall make of the victory? The object to be gained, as indicated by the answer to this question, shows the natural direction for his blow.”[20]

How well we can answer Clausewitz’s catechism indicates the quality of our strategic accuracy, of the appropriateness of destroying this target as opposed to that target. Strategic accuracy is imperative—and by extension so is tactical precision—in order to apply any element of force effectively.

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, a Featured Contributor to The Strategy Bridge, and an associate member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: An airstrike against ISIS on December 1 2015 in Iraq. (YouTube/CJTF OIR)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Colonel J.J. Graham (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004): 101.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] This transcendence from object to objective only occurs with the identification of the target. [Many thanks to Rich Ganske for this observation and relation to J.F.C. Fuller’s conception.]

[5] Ibid., 70. [Italics original.]

[6] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2006): 210. [Italics mine.]

[7] Joint Chiefs of Staff, JP 3-60, Joint Targeting, (2013): viii.

[8] Smith, 6.

[9] I use ‘appropriate’, rather than ‘right’ (a moral claim) or ‘correct’ (an epistemic claim), because it is a claim for instrumental (Clausewitzian) efficacy.

[10] JP 3-60: D-3.

[11] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Accuracy Versus Precision,” last modified December 2007,

[12] John D. Caputo, Truth: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin Books, 2013): 204.

[13] It is possible to consider strategic precision and tactical accuracy. Strategic precision judges the consistency with which a commander can issues orders that are followed as intended by judging the validity of commander’s intent. While tactical accuracy considers whether we hit the object that we were told to hit. Although important, for this article we can pass over them.

[14] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989): 3. This ligne de foi is just theoretical boresighting.⁠

[15] I would go so far as to argue since there is no operational level of war the difference between “doing things right” and “doing the right things” is merely linguistic, a difference where the value judgment operates. What is presented in JP 3-60 is merely the concept of strategic accuracy without the necessary bedrock of tactical precision.

[16] Of course, there are many happy accidents, but winning a battle, let alone a war, cannot be founded on such luck.

[17] This might seem to present contradictions because precision and accuracy are independent values, while strategy and tactics are necessarily interdependent. Perhaps, a better phrasing of what I’ve been calling strategic accuracy is purely strategic appropriateness, but to highlight the difference and our common perspective, I will stick with this naming convention.

[18] Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005): 98.

[19] JP 3-60, ix.

[20] Clausewitz, 626.