Copies of 'Fighting by Minutes' are available to borrow from the Defence Library Service on the DPN.

To the planner time is all; to the strategist timing is everything[1]

Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Robert Leonhard deduces that ‘time is increasingly becoming [war’s] critical dimension’. Fighting by Minutes: Time and the art of war expands this deduction. In a simple, yet compelling narrative, Colonel Leonhard articulates a framework for military practitioners to consider when thinking about tactics. Understanding this framework is important. Therefore, Fighting by Minutes is recommended for leaders and staff serving in tactical headquarters or those preparing for, or assuming, command at combat team level and above.

This review abbreviates Colonel Leonhard’s framework into a practical checklist for employment by today’s military leaders and planners. This checklist is designed to complement a thorough consideration of Colonel Leonard’s work.

Colonel Leonard commences Fighting by Minutes with a simple comparison: for learner drivers when following another car, instead of calculating speed x car lengths for driver safety, the learner driver simply remains two seconds behind the car in front. Therefore, the learner driver considers the task of driving in terms of time rather than space. The thesis of Fighting in Minutes is that the ‘most effective way to perceive, interpret and plan military operations is in terms of time, not space’. Instead of considering war as simply a ‘three-dimensional box: length, width and height – Leonhard adds ‘the fourth dimension – time’.

Fighting by Minutes examines two phases of fighting in seeking asymmetric advantage over enemies. Leonhard emphasises the importance of ‘commanders understanding the two phases of fighting...and recognising what phase they are in and how best to combine and integrate the phases for best effect’. These phases are:

  1. the protective phase – a force array when the enemy is strong, for example a holding or fixing force.
  2. the dislocating phase – a force array when is enemy is weaker, for example a mobile or striking force.

The remainder of this review examines Colonel Leonhard’s ideas of:

  1. three primary movement activities;
  2. four temporal characteristics of war; and,
  3. the anatomy of surprise – delaying detection and hastening contact.

Three Primary Movement Activities

General JFC Fuller noted ‘there are three essentials in fighting – namely, how to guard, how to hit and how to move’.[2] Fighting by Minutes describes these three primary movement activities, and dynamic trade-offs, in warfare as:

  • Move – a change of position.
  • Strike – employment of weapons to attack the enemy.
  • Protect – a military unit protecting itself.

Generally, an army pairs capabilities from the three primary movement activities which, in turn, favour particular styles of fighting, including:

  • Move and Protect – positional theory, where striking an enemy is implied.
  • Move and Strike – manoeuvre theory, protection is sacrificed and implicitly accomplished.
  • Strike and Protect – interchangeability theory, where firepower is substituted for manoeuvre.

Leonhard describes the relationship between the three primary movement activities:

  • The trained commander should be able to observe an enemy attacking [striking] and immediately understand that the enemy’s ability to move and protect is diminished, and
  • a force encountered in maximum protective posture…cannot move or strike without first reducing its security, and
  • when a unit is moving…it is poorly disposed to strike or protect.

Finally, a fourth dynamic, leadership, represents the key function of command balancing the three primary movement activities.

Four Temporal Characteristics of War

According to Colonel Leonhard, ‘the temporal characteristics of war define the limits to both political and military power’. Leonhard’s approach is that time can be: first, observed; second, measured; third, manipulated. For Leonhard, warfare has at least four temporal characteristics – duration, frequency, sequence and opportunity:

1. Duration – wars have a beginning and end; both are often not well defined. Long wars are costly, unpredictable, deviate from original intentions, change tactics and doctrine, and can change governments. In contrast, short wars reflect pre-war plans, apply existing doctrine, and usually result in the ‘victor content with the status quo, while the loser casts about for a change’.Therefore, commanders and planners must ‘master the causes of duration in war and learn to manipulate them to advantage’. Clausewitz notes that ‘both belligerents need time; the question is…which of the two can expect to derive special advantages from it’.[3] Fighting in Minutes articulates fives causes of duration in war:

  • Objective – which can be physically distant (e.g. German invasion of Russia, 1941) or politically distant (e.g. forcing a new ideology on a population).
  • Friction – does not ‘just make actions in war more difficult; it also makes them longer’. Friction is reduced through excellent training, practical doctrine, appropriate and accurate information flows and a unified chain of command enabling timely decisions, actions and resource delivery.
  • Opposition – enemies remain elusive because ‘warfare involves many complex variables that serve to obscure the nature of the disparity between opponents’. Clausewitz explains that the ‘very nature of war impedes the simultaneous concentration of all forces’.[4]
  • Incompetence – The ‘most frequent causality of mistakes in warfare is time’. Leonhard argues that ‘war, like chess, is a game of mistakes, a game that is more often a matter of someone losing than someone winning’.
  • Number of participants – Geoffrey Blainey observes that the ‘length of a war is affected by the number of participating states’. In short, the greater the number of participating states and available resources the longer a war’s duration.[5]

2. Frequency – a pace in war at which things happen or the ‘number of significant military events per unit of time’. As a general rule, the ‘greater the frequency in war, the shorter the war’. This is because each ‘military event’ is a ‘dynamic occurrence in which one army inflicts damage on the other’. In turn, each ‘event’ results in the ‘loss of strength or capability on one or both sides of the conflict’ bringing the ‘combatants closer to [culmination and] conflict termination’. Military doctrines are ‘written, trained and assimilated into an armed force based on a common, tacitly agreed upon, concept of frequency.’ Frequency ‘lies at the foundation of doctrine, training, organisation, equipment, leader development, tactics, campaigns and strategy’ because when ‘revolutionary changes occur in warfare, most of the time it is because there has been a change in frequency at some level – a change in how fast or slow things happen’.

3. Sequence – the order of future events. The imperative of a commander is to seize the initiative and ‘relentlessly act against the enemy, without interruption, until the objective is reached’. A commander must ‘grasp the number of likely and significant events and their causative relationships’. To achieve this, a commander, enabled by staff, must ‘perceive and predict discrete events in war, properly adjudge their relationship, and then sequence them to best effect to accomplish a mission’ while ‘continually considering branches and sequels to their current endeavours'. Sequencing is a ‘dynamic and interactive contest for time’. Sequencing enabling disciplined initiative ‘makes the difference between victory and defeat’. A victorious battle ‘cannot be evaluated the moment it is concluded, but only after subsequent events [or branches and sequels] unfold’. Through the understanding of sequence, successful commanders contrive to achieve simultaneous control of both their own force’s and the enemy’s actions. In articulating sequencing and seizing the initiative, Colonel Leonhard acknowledges that, in the violence, chance, friction and uncertainty of war, an aggressor may not be clearly defined; an objective may not be unitary, clearly stated or universally accepted; and, categories of actions may rapidly coalesce, merge or blur. Despite these limitations, Leonhard articulates that in defence sequencing relies upon two activities: preparation and opposition. In attack, sequencing relies upon preparation and movement:

  • Preparation consists of ‘all activity that does not result in movement toward or away from the objective’. That is, ‘planning, writing and disseminating orders, resupplying, conducting reconnaissance, marshalling troops and equipment, recovering casualties, repairing equipment, consolidating defence and resting’. Preparation relies upon quality (thoroughness and accuracy), pace (faster rates of preparation) and timing (continuous, rapid and high-quality preparation). The ‘greater the preparation, the better a commander can control the sequence of future events’.
  • Movement consists of ‘all activity resulting in a change in the distance between a force and the objective’. Opposed movement is described as engagement, unopposed movement as movement ceases when the objective is obtained, the conflict stops or changes its nature or the attacking force culminates through opposition, inadequate preparation or friction.
  • Opposition in war requires the ‘defender to deny the sequence an aggressor had planned’. This is achieved in three ways through: (1) strength of opposition; (2) counter-preparation activities such as spoiling attacks, deception, counter-reconnaissance, counter-attack, counter-battery fires, patrolling, ambushing and information actions; and, (3) shifting the initiative from the aggressor to the defender.

4. Opportunity – a time sensitive decision point that, properly exploited, results in trade-offs in other capabilities. As noted by General Douglas A. MacArthur, ‘the history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: too late’.[6] Leonhard states that ‘good decisions are not the goal in military operations’ in order to ‘exploit opportunity in war, a commander must make a good and timely decision’. As noted in the earlier description of friction, for an army to ‘exploit opportunity in war’ it requires excellent training, practical doctrine, appropriate and accurate information flows and a unified chain of command enabling timely decisions, actions and resource delivery. In other words, opportunity is enabled by mission command. Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander, and is summarised as:

  • nurturing mutual trust through empowering agile and adaptive leaders
  • creating a shared understanding
  • articulating clear intent and main effort
  • employing mission orders
  • enabling disciplined initiative
  • accepting prudent risk[7]

The Anatomy of Surprise – Delaying Detection and Hastening Contact

Clausewitz wrote that ‘the two factors that produce surprise are secrecy and speed’.[8] In other words, ‘surprise consists of two distinct, even opposing ideas: the need for stealth (to delay detection) and the need for rapid action (to hasten contact).

Surprise is a ‘condition in which a military force is contacted while in a relative state of unreadiness’. Surprise, therefore, is a ‘temporal phenomenon…it results, either accidently or by design, from a failed time-distance calculation on the part of the surprised force’. Further, Colonel Leonhard states that the ‘principle of surprise subsists through the concept that military forces are perpetually unready’.

For example, a fighter jet spends much of its service on the ground and without a pilot inside. During these times, the fighter jet is waiting, being cleaned, or undergoing repairs, upgrades or servicing. At other times, the fighter jet flies without ammunition, or with an inexperienced crew, with low levels of fuel, in bad weather, or is involved in countless activities other than combat. Yet, when we think about a fighter jet, we almost invariably picture it in one of those few moments when it is ready to fight.

Unreadiness includes military units ‘moving, resting, planning, resupplying, or conducting combinations of these functions, each of which precludes combat readiness’. Therefore, thinking of military forces, especially the enemy, in a natural state of unreadiness is useful for our military leaders and planners.

It is also useful for us to understand that detection of a threat causes a force to prepare. Leonhard states that ‘when a threat is detected, the unit stirs itself and attempts to come to full battle readiness before the threat can harm the unit [or the mission]’.

Commanders aim to detect enemy actions as early as possible so they may enhance unit readiness in preparation for enemy contact. This warning is gained along what Leonhard calls the detection-to-contact line, which explains why military organisations develop training and doctrine for intelligence, camouflage, stealth technologies, electronic signature reduction, reconnaissance, surveillance, infiltration, indirect approaches, sentries, observation posts, security zones, screens, guards and covering forces.

To surprise an enemy, commanders must think in terms of the detection-to-contact line. This line is not a ‘spatial concept, but a temporal one’. The commander who wants to surprise the enemy must attempt to ‘shorten the line by delaying the enemy’s detection of the friendly force for as long as possible’. Once detection occurs, a commander wants to hasten contact with the enemy, which is another way of shortening the detection-to-contact line.

No surprise is where ‘detection of the enemy occurs earlier than required enabling the friendly force to come to full battle readiness’. Colonel Leonhard examines General JFC Fuller’s, and later Richard E Simkin’s, ideas of material surprise and moral surprise. Material surprise occurs when ‘soldiers know the enemy is coming, but they don’t know early enough to prepare completely’. In other words, ‘the enemy knows we are coming, but they do not know in time’. Moral surprise occurs when ‘soldiers are attacked [with overmatching velocity] by an enemy they do not know is near’.

The ‘period of time before an army is ready to fight…[and] the period of time after it is no longer ready to fight’ are known as time-flanks. Leonhard explains these opportunities as pre-emption where a force seeks advantage to ‘turn an army’s time flank’. Leonhard employs ‘time flanks’ to explain hastening contact with an enemy to achieve pre-emption or moral surprise. Hastening contact requires ‘responsive logistics and available reserves’. Pre-emption aims at ‘turning the time flank of an enemy by attacking them either before they are ready or after their efforts culminate’. Tactical success will ‘eventually culminate’ and culmination occurs because of ‘logistical, physical and psychological factors’.

Leonhard notes that ‘pre-emption sacrifices mass (or the concentration of combat power) to purchase time’. Concentration tactics ‘emphasise friendly combined arms concentrations, while pre-emptive tactics emphasise attacking unprepared enemies’. Concentration tactics ‘place the highest priority upon battle readiness, and all other considerations become secondary’. Synchronisation becomes the key word: ‘making sure each component of the combined arms force puts lethal effect on the target area at the same time’.

Pre-emption and concentration exist in a cycle that commanders must recognise. For example, ‘following a successful pre-emptive attack by our forces, if the enemy is capable of further resistance - it will seek to concentrate and defend against our advancing force’ and then… to regain the initiative, an opportunistic enemy will seek to pre-emptively strike back at our forces. The relationship between pre-emption and concentration is never static, and the ‘critical skill’ for commanders and staff is to ‘master the transition points’ between these two aspects of war.


Colonel Leonhard concludes Fighting by Minutes: Time and the art of war stating ‘the single most important quality in a professional military officer is the ability to innovate’. Failure of the officer corps to ‘keep up with change [and innovation] can result in national disaster’. Leonhard’s work seeks to develop commanders with a ‘temporal coup d'œil’ – which translates as a ‘glance that takes in a comprehensive view’. For Leonhard, a temporal coup d'œil enables a commander ‘to manipulate time, to see the enemy array, estimate their intentions, discern their weaknesses, force them into contrary dispositions, and envision how best and quickly to defeat them’.