The great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz was very clear about the resort to arms being a continuation of politics by other means, but he was more elusive about conflict outcomes. Because of factors like "friction" (a range that includes obstructions arising from bad weather and poor field coordination) and "the fog of war" (basically insufficient or inaccurate information), Clausewitz argued that chance reigned supreme, that the outcome of war was like "a game of cards." Yes, he thought that the genius of a great captain could overcome some of these problems. But later in On War he argued that contending sides, increasingly armed with the same sorts of weapons, would lead to an era in which sheer numerical advantage would determine war outcomes.
Nowhere in his work did Clausewitz see conflict as primarily posing a design challenge -- a puzzle to be solved about what kind of force to build. Nor have other great thinkers about war focused on design solutions. From Clausewitz's contemporary and rival, the Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, to modern strategists like B.H. Liddell Hart, the central aim has been to cultivate "genius" through mastery of a particular set of principles thought to govern war outcomes. For all the thousands of pages written about how to win wars, there are but few hints of the need for "design thinking."
Yet if one considers the long history of armed conflict from the standpoint of design, it is apparent that questions about how to arm one's forces, and how to exploit an enemy's technological points of vulnerability, have always been of crucial importance. In his Histories, for example, Herodotus lingers over the debate among the Athenians about whether to build a navy to fend off the threat from Persia, and what kind of ships to build. The Greeks decide to craft a fleet of small, maneuverable vessels, and to lure the Persians with their larger ships into a fight in narrow waters. The ensuing victory over the invaders from the East at Salamis was a striking affirmation of the power of design thinking.
Later, the Romans showed a deep appreciation for taking a design approach in the long struggle with Carthage. When they first went to sea, the Romans simply tried to imitate Carthaginian technology and tactics. Results were poor, as the hard-fighting Romans had limitations as sailors. But they soon found a design solution: the corvus, or "crow," a grappling device that allowed them to fix a Carthaginian vessel in place and board it. Rome soon had command of the sea, a factor that would prove decisive.
And so it goes throughout history. Design factors are almost always there, playing decisive roles. The British victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 is all about design, as the ships of the Navy Royal (its name in the 16th century) and the "sea dog" privateers were both more maneuverable and more capable of firing at the enemy from standoff range. Gustavus Adolphus, in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), skillfully blended pikemen, musketeers, and light, mobile artillery in new ways, changing the course of a long and indecisive struggle and bringing Sweden onstage as a great power.
In the 19th century, there were some interesting insights into the design process, suggesting that it was not simply governed by technical advances. Abraham Lincoln, for example, understood that the railroad, which enabled the movement of massive forces over great distances, and the telegraph, which allowed coordination of their operations, implied a wholly different strategy from the one that his senior generals wanted. Where Union military leaders preferred to follow the Jominian principle of massing forces in one place, Lincoln insisted that the new technology overturned this principle, allowing instead a "cordon offense" striking at the South from several points simultaneously. After years of costly defeats, Lincoln finally found a general, U.S. Grant, who was willing to embrace his design for victory. The war was soon won.