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Lessons of the Fabian Strategy: History, Application, and the China – United States Competition

Updated: Apr 13

By Monte Erfourth

Strategy Central – March 7, 2024



INTRODUCTION

During the second war between Rome and the North African city-state of Carthage, the general and dictator Quintus Fabius used a strategy of delaying and avoiding battles against the Carthaginian army commanded by Hannibal. Rome's forces were inferior to Carthage's, so Fabius chose not to risk his men in battles against the battle-hardened enemy. Instead, he kept his army nearby, posing a threat while refusing combat. This strategy worked because the Roman army was fighting on their home ground while Hannibal had to travel from Spain, over the Alps, and into Italy. By avoiding battles and remaining in the field for long periods, Hannibal's army was weakened, while Roman forces had an "inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men."[1] This proved to be effective, and ultimately, the balance of power tipped in favor of the Roman defenders, even without major combat.



The Fabian strategy, also known as the strategy of exhaustion, is a tactic employed by the weaker belligerent in a conflict. This strategy involves avoiding decisive engagements and instead using hit-and-run, guerrilla-like tactics to harass the stronger side's overextended lines of communication. The goal is to prolong the hostilities beyond the moral and political commitment of the stronger side, forcing them to take action they cannot win. The weaker side aims to wear down the stronger side through attrition, eroding the will to continue the fight and waver before any real considerations are in doubt.

For the Fabian strategy to be successful, it is crucial to accurately predict the sustainability of the conflict. The weaker side must be able to endure a carefully calculated marathon, while the stronger side's domestic circumstances necessitate a sprint. By prolonging the conflict and avoiding decisive battles, the weaker side aims to exhaust the stronger side's resources and willpower, ultimately leading to their victory.

The weaker side relies on guerrilla-like tactics and hit-and-run maneuvers to disrupt the stronger side's operations and undermine their morale. By avoiding direct confrontations, the weaker side seeks to exploit the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the stronger side, gradually eroding their ability to sustain the conflict.

The Roman Commander Fabius understood he had an inferior force relative to Hannibal. His delays and not giving Hannibal the direct attack he wanted muted risk while promising eventual victory. This strategy is available to the strong as well as the weak. The stronger yet patient contender can cling to the weaker one, slowly grinding them down. Such an approach compels the weaker contender to either back down or expend resources it cannot spare.  In short, the highly preferred “pitched battle” is not always the best choice to defeat a strong enemy.

While the Fabian strategy has historical significance and has been employed in various conflicts throughout history, its effectiveness depends on the conflict's specific circumstances and the opposing forces' capabilities. It requires careful planning, patience, and the ability to exploit the weaknesses of the stronger side.[2]  A closer look at the struggle between Fabius and Hannibal reveals how the strategy was approached during the Punic wars.

 

FABIAN AND HANNIBAL

The great Carthaginian General Hannibal Barca came to thoroughly frighten the Romans. Hannibal repeatedly displayed his military genius, leaving the Romans with little choice but to find a new strategy to defeat him. 

During the Punic Wars, Rome was repeatedly defeated on the battlefield by Hannibal, who was considered one of the greatest military strategists of the ancient world. Hannibal's military brilliance allowed him to take over town after town in Italy and convert many of the tribes who had alliances with Rome to his side, growing his army. The Romans, who were used to being the superpower in the region, believed that they could defeat Hannibal in open battle as they had done with other enemies in the past. However, at the Battle of Trebbia in 218 BC, the Roman army of about 40,000 soldiers was encircled. Over 20,000 were killed, marking one of the most devastating defeats in Roman history. Despite the famous tale of Hannibal's African elephants, his military genius ultimately led to his repeated victories over Roman legions.[3]

Following the battle, many Gallic tribes recognized the danger and joined Hannibal, thereby increasing the size of his army. The situation didn't improve for Rome in the following year, 217 BC, as Hannibal marched south and executed one of the most remarkable ambushes in history at Lake Trasimene. In this attack, he targeted an army of 25,000 Romans, killing 15,000 and capturing almost all of the rest. This defeat caused panic in Rome, as the city had never experienced such a threat. While the legions were killed in the thes of thousands, the mere presence of Hannibal’s army posed an existential threat to Rome itself. During emergencies, the Romans used a six-month office of Dictatorship that would place supreme control over all political and military decisions. They elected Quintus Fabius Maximus as Dictator for the sole purpose of stopping Hannibal. Fabius's strength was his awareness of his army's weakness. Fabius realized he was against one of the most exceptional generals in history. Rome would certainly lose in an open-field, set-piece battle, which was how almost every ancient battle was fought.[4]

Fabius, the Dictator, set about avoiding a direct fight with Hannibal. He would harass Hannibal’s force, engage in skirmishes when it favored his forces, disrupt his supply lines, and burn all the crops that Hannibal’s army was advancing to. He sent out scouting parties to know where the bulk of Hannibal’s forces were at all times so they could be avoided and block resupply ports that Hannibal’s army relied on.On the political front, the Romans disliked Fabius’ approach. They believed that Romans should never back down from a fight. As a result, they gave him the nickname "Cunctator," which means "the delayer."[5] Fabius’ political opponent, Marcus Minucius Rufus, served as his “Master of the Horse,” or military commander. Minucius, like everyone else, was eager to engage in battle and called Fabius a coward for delaying. Unfortunately, Minucius had the support of the Tribune of the Plebs, who was the only authority not under the dictator's command.

Fabius couldn't do anything to stop Minucius from attacking Hannibal. To resolve the issue, Fabius split the army into two parts: one under Minucius's command and the other under his own command. As Fabius had predicted, Minucius immediately attacked Hannibal, but he was lured into a trap and would have been defeated if Fabius had not intervened and saved the day. After this event, Minucius accepted Fabius's strategy.

One person totally understood the strategy: Hannibal himself. Hannibal knew he was in a foreign territory, had no supply lines, and depended on success to keep his allies. Hannibal understood Fabius’s strategy was the right one to defeat him and worried about its success.

Avoiding a fight was not always possible, as Fabius and his strategy were deeply unpopular with politicians, and several military commanders.  Having wintered near Hannibal’s army, come spring, the Roman generals thought they had a chance to destroy Hannibal.  The Battle of Cannae, fought in 216 BC, is a testament to Hannibal's military genius and the dangers of underestimating an adept opponent. Despite being significantly outnumbered, Hannibal managed to encircle and decimate the Roman forces through a combination of tactical innovation, understanding of the terrain, and the element of surprise. This battle is often cited as one of the most extraordinary military maneuvers and a devastating defeat for Rome, with the loss of up to 50,000 soldiers, a significant portion of the Roman army, and many senators.



This catastrophic loss plunged Rome into a state of panic, fearing Hannibal's next move could be towards the city itself.[6] The aftermath of Cannae was a turning point for Roman military strategy. The initial disdain for Fabius's cautious tactics transformed into widespread acceptance as the dire situation underscored the need for prudence over the pursuit of immediate glory. Fabius's approach of avoiding large-scale engagements, harassing the enemy through smaller skirmishes, and cutting off supplies became the blueprint for Rome's eventual success. It demonstrated a strategic patience and resilience that allowed Rome to recover from its losses, rebuild its forces, and adapt to the Carthaginian threat.

Despite not winning any major battles in the conventional sense, Fabius's triumph and recognition as one of Rome's greatest heroes highlight the Roman ability to evolve and recognize the value of strategic defense, patience, and indirect methods of engaging with a formidable enemy. After nearly fifteen years of fighting in Italy and no strategic or political gains, Hannibal was recalled to Carthage to direct the defense of his homeland against a Roman invasion under Scipio Africanus. This period in Roman history underscores the importance of adaptability in leadership and strategy in the face of adversity, lessons that remain relevant in both military and non-military contexts today.

 

THE FABIAN STRATEGY APPLIED THROUGHOUT HISTORY

The wisdom of Fabius, applying strategic patience, has left an indelible mark on history. His tactics have been emulated and studied for centuries, proving that sometimes the most effective approach is to bide your time and strike only when it is right for you. Fabius's lessons are a testament to the power of patience and strategy and will inspire leaders for generations to come. Examples of the Fabian strategy are legion.

During the American Revolution, General Nathaniel Greene implemented a pivotal approach known as the "Southern Strategy," which fundamentally shifted the dynamics of the conflict against the British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis. Recognizing the Continental Army's limitations in direct combat against the well-trained and equipped British, Greene opted for a strategy emphasizing attrition, guerrilla warfare, and strategic retreats rather than head-on confrontations. This approach involved leveraging guerrilla tactics, including hit-and-run attacks and harassment of British supply lines, to disrupt and demoralize the enemy, while avoiding costly battles that could deplete his forces.

Greene's strategic retreats were calculated to preserve his army's strength, drawing the British into protracted engagements in unfamiliar and hostile territories, thereby stretching their supply lines and exacerbating their logistical challenges. This method of warfare aimed to gradually wear down the British forces, exploiting their physical, mental, and logistical vulnerabilities over time. Furthermore, Greene's coordination with other Patriot leaders and forces, such as the militias led by Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, enhanced the effectiveness of this resistance, creating a unified front that significantly pressured the British.

The Southern Strategy's impact on the American Revolution was profound, marking a turning point in the war by forcing the British to allocate considerable resources to the Southern colonies, thereby diluting their strength across the broader theater of war. This strategic approach not only prolonged the conflict, allowing the American forces to maintain momentum but also contributed significantly to the exhaustion and eventual defeat of the British forces. Greene's innovative use of unconventional tactics and his strategic acumen were instrumental in demonstrating the power of adaptive leadership and collaboration in overcoming a seemingly superior adversary.

Similarly, from 1812 to 1814, the Russian Empire and the French Empire, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, fought an epic war. The Russian army, facing a stronger and more experienced adversary, employed the Fabian strategy of avoiding head-on battles and instead focused on attrition. Through strategic retreats and guerrilla tactics, the Russians were able to outsmart and outlast the French army. This war demonstrated the effectiveness of this strategy in defeating a powerful enemy.

By retreating, the Russians stretched Napoleon's supply lines, forcing his troops deeper into Russian territory, where they were exposed to the harsh winter conditions. The lack of supplies and the vastness of the Russian landscape made it challenging for the French army to keep up with the Russian forces, who were more accustomed to the harsh conditions and were able to use them to their advantage.

The constant retreats and lack of decisive engagements frustrated Napoleon and his soldiers, who were eager for a decisive victory. The Fabian strategy employed by the Russians against Napoleon is a classic example of how guerrilla forces can effectively combat superior forces. By avoiding direct confrontations and focusing on attrition, guerrilla forces can exploit the weaknesses of their opponents and use unconventional tactics to gain an advantage. This strategy requires patience, discipline, and a deep understanding of the terrain and the enemy's capabilities.[7]

T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) learned to adopt guerrilla techniques during WWI, fighting with free Saudi forces.  As a scholar before the war, Lawrence had been very impressed with Clausewitz's theory. However, during his campaigns in the Middle East, he found more relevance in the desert from the works of Marshal de Saxe. Lawrence's experiences with real warfare freed him "from the metaphysical spell of Clausewitz," and he "could now appreciate Saxe's practical point of view."[8]  Much like Marshal de Saxe, Lawrence realized that battle is only a means of war, not an end. Saxe fought several battles, all victories. Unlike Napoleon and his heirs were inclined, Saxe did not fight battles for battle's sake.



Lawrence had received instructions in 1917 to attack the Turkish garrison at Medina.  Lawrence had a small force, and all other direct attacks on Medina failed.  Lawrence developed a plan based on Marshal Saxe’s ideas. He conducted raids on the Turkish railway and ultimately in the near bloodless capture of the important strategic port city of Aqaba. Lawrence's capture of Aqaba in 1917 marked a pivotal moment for the Allies on the Egyptian front during World War I. This strategic victory, where Lawrence and his small band of fighters seized Aqaba from the Ottoman Empire with minimal casualties—losing just one man out of 50, in stark contrast to the British army's previous losses of 3,000 men in failed attempts—had significant implications. It not only secured a vital supply route for the British and their Arab allies but also eliminated the threat that the Ottoman garrison in Medina posed to the Suez Canal and the British forces in Palestine. The success at Aqaba showcased the power of irregular warfare and the importance of intelligence and local knowledge in warfare, boosting Allied morale and significantly contributing to the broader campaign in the Middle East.[9]

During WWII, Chinese Communist forces utilized a Fabian Strategy against the Japanese. Mao Zedong emphasized using guerrilla warfare, mobile operations, and a protracted conflict to counter the superior Japanese forces.

Mao recognized that China faced significant political, military, and economic disadvantages compared to the more advanced Japanese. He believed a protracted war, taking advantage of China's vast territory, abundant resources, and complex terrain, would favor the Chinese resistance. Mao's strategic assessment led him to advocate for a hybrid strategy that combined guerrilla warfare, mobile operations, and political objectives.

The North Vietnamese also used this tactic against the Americans. Surprisingly, the North Vietnamese didn't win many significant battles. In fact, the famous Tet Offensive resulted in a major defeat for them on the battlefield. However, it was a shock to the American civilian perception that the United States was soundly defeating the North Vietnamese.  This turned public opinion against the war and brought significant pressure for an American withdrawal. The North Vietnamese had the advantage of time and being in their homeland, and like Fabius, they could wear down the Americans until they eventually withdrew.

The Fabian strategy is a powerful approach that can be applied beyond the realm of warfare. By embracing patience and self-control, this strategy has enabled countless individuals to succeed personally and professionally. The key is to know your enemy and the strategy they pursue and recognize if you can stay the course and persist in your efforts until you eventually wear down a foe and they quit. If this suits a country's situation, then pursuing a Fabian strategy will likely lead to success.


PRESENT DAY EXAMPLE: CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES

In a modern-day example, China and the United States are locked in the classic great power competition, with the United States being the largest power and China being the largest rising power. Both are advancing their interests while defending interests from encroachment by other national powers. 

China is implementing a Fabian strategy against the United States, while the United States attempts to contain China. China utilizes a blend of techniques to subtly undermine the United States' dominance, influence, and leverage while expanding its own below red lines that might provoke an attack. This approach aligns with ancient military strategist Sun Tzu's philosophy of "winning without fighting," focusing on indirect methods to achieve its goals. Central to this strategy are incremental advances, where Chinese officials methodically expand their sphere of influence in Asia, enhancing their power without direct clashes with the United States. Economic attraction plays a crucial role, with China using its vast economy as a magnet to discourage neighboring countries from opposing its influence, effectively making resistance seem futile. Furthermore, China is keen on reassuring its neighbors by promoting a narrative of a peaceful rise, aiming to mitigate any collective opposition to its ascent.

The strategy also entails a long-term vision, acknowledging that supplanting the United States as the dominant power in the region will take time and strategic finesse. A key obstacle is the fundamental divergence of interests between China and the United States, which limits the potential for a deep-seated entente despite opportunities for limited cooperation on specific issues. The ideological disparities between the two nations further complicate efforts to align their interests more closely. Importantly, China's Fabian strategy is not confined to military maneuvers; it encompasses economic, diplomatic, and technological dimensions. Through this multi-faceted approach, China aims to gradually extend its influence and diminish the United States' position, aspiring to achieve its ambitious long-term goals without resorting to direct military engagement.

Delay suits Beijing’s purposes. Time is on its side. It holds the advantage of numbers in the Pacific—an advantage that will only grow. Ultimately it can avail itself of the military option without undue risk, should it see the need for a definite end to the competition with the United States. Simply having that option will transform the dynamics across the East China Sea. However, whether Chinese leaders have the patience to prosecute a Fabian strategy of the strong remains to be seen. Self-mastery was the key determinant of Roman strategy. Rome needed a Fabius, a general impervious to the lust for renown that impels so many great captains. Rather than seek a decisive battle, he was content to shadow the enemy army, awaiting ideal circumstances to strike.[10]

Going to war does not necessarily favor the United States, despite its well-established belief and competence in the “pitched battle” as the surest way to achieve conflict resolution and interest fulfillment.  The distances involved in supporting U.S. logistics and the A2/AD protections China enjoys create significant challenges.  Additionally, Chinese and U.S. maritime and air forces are perfectly situated with interior lines to maintain control of the Pacific region’s maritime routes.  China is economically situated to pressure the United States’ network of allies and partners. 

 

STRATBOT ANALYSIS ON U.S. RESPONSE TO CHINA’S FABIAN STRATEGY

When queried, StratBot recommended the following strategic approach for the United States to counter China’s Fabian Strategy within the first island chain:

https://www.strategycentral.io/stratbot:  To effectively contain China within the first island chain while advancing its interests and avoiding direct confrontation, the United States could consider adopting a multifaceted strategy. Here are some strategic considerations that the United States could consider:

  • Enhancing Deterrence: The United States should strengthen its military presence and capabilities within the first island chain to deter Chinese aggression. This could involve increasing the deployment of naval assets, such as submarines and surface ships, and enhancing air and missile defense systems. Additionally, conducting joint military exercises with regional allies and partners can demonstrate a unified front and enhance deterrence.

  • Building Alliances and Partnerships: The United States should prioritize building and strengthening alliances and partnerships with countries within the first island chain. This includes deepening defense cooperation, conducting joint patrols, and sharing intelligence to enhance regional security. By fostering strong relationships, the United States can create a network of like-minded countries that collectively deter Chinese expansionism.

  • Economic Engagement: The United States should leverage its economic influence to promote regional stability and prosperity. This could involve expanding trade relationships, encouraging investment, and supporting infrastructure development projects. By promoting economic interdependence, the United States can create incentives for countries within the first island chain to align their interests.

  • Information and Influence Operations: The United States should invest in information and influence operations to shape the narrative and counter Chinese propaganda. This includes countering disinformation, promoting democratic values, and highlighting the benefits of a rules-based international order. By effectively communicating its message, the United States can undermine Chinese attempts to gain regional influence and support.

  • Cybersecurity and Technology: The United States should prioritize cybersecurity and technological advancements to protect its interests and maintain a competitive edge. This includes investing in research and development, promoting innovation, and enhancing cybersecurity capabilities. By staying at the forefront of technological advancements, the United States can maintain its strategic advantage and deter potential aggression.

Can this approach defeat a Fabian strategy?  It would be useful to use wargaming to test these two strategies and then weigh the results against data collected on the effects of U.S. deterrence.  StratBot’s response is a bit too general but does capture much of the essence of the major “muscle movements” the United States is currently using in its approach to China.

In addition to testing its strategy, the United States should prepare its Pacific logistics staging efforts and conduct special operations to deter, deny, and defeat China’s asymmetric attacks against the United States, its interests, its allies/partners, and its infrastructure.  Strategy Central will explore building risk management tools with StratBot, and we will ask for your help in exploring the value of this kind of tool.  Stay tuned.


 

[3] Paul Erdkamp. Polybius, Livy, and the Fabian Strategy. Ancient Society. Vol.23, pp. 127-144. (1992).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Davis Clonts. A Dilemma of War: The Decisive Force Vs. Fabian Strategy. University of Denver. February, 1999.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Can China Learn from Rome? – The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2012/11/can-china-learn-from-rome/

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