This is a response to a prompt from my Joint Professional Military Education (JPME). Here I explore the operational factors of war space, time, and force.
The operational factors of warfare are the factors of space, time, and force that a commander must balance in order to accomplish an objective such that he or she can progress towards the overall desired end state. The three factors are commonly at odds with each other, which requires a commander to analyze risks and make creative decisions.
In any operation, the balance of factors manifests itself when a commander questions how he or she will achieve the objective. Say an Army Officer needs to capture a city. The officer is required to assess the relative powers of force that he commands against that of the city. How can he best employ his troops? A midnight raid? Does he need to ask for more soldiers first? Should he lay siege with artillery for a few days? Or weeks? The factor of time inevitably must be balanced. Wars can last for years or days. How quickly must the city be captured in order to progress the overall strategy? If time is of severe constraint, the officer may have fewer options when it comes to force employment. Considerations of space may compound the constraint or possibly open up new opportunities. Does the battalion need to march for days over rough terrain before the objective is in sight? Can he receive support from air assets or naval vessels and move the force that way? Can the city provide a temporary base of operations once captured?
A classic example from antiquity which demonstrates the difficulty in balancing force, space, and time is the Battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and the invading Persians. The factor of force was a major consideration as 7000 Greeks marched against a much larger Persian Army. This force imbalanced required the Greek commanders to seek their defensive stand at the mountain pass of Thermopylae, which allowed them to resist for seven days until the factor of space ultimately became their undoing as the Persian army outflanked the Greeks using a small shepherd's path divulged by a local resident. Knowing their time was short, the Greek commanders retreated but left the rear guard of the famous 300 to fight to the death. The Greeks lost Athens, but bought enough time to restructure their overall strategy around Salamis, changing the space factor from land to sea in the process and ultimately driving the Persians out of Europe. The fluid imbalance among force, space, and time in the Battle of Thermopylae shows how proper understanding of these factors can result in extreme advantage or disadvantage for commanders on both sides of the objective.