The Timeless Verities of Combat

Understanding WarJames Jay Carafano, historian and Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation, recently issued a call for the U.S. defense community to back off debates over “the latest doctrinal flavor of the month” and return to a focus on the classic principles of war. “Most modern military doctrine should be scrapped,” Carafano wrote. “The Pentagon would be far better served if our military thinkers got back to the basics and taught the principles of war—and little more.”

The principles of war are a list of basic concepts of warfare distilled from the writings of mostly Western military leaders and theorists that had become commonly accepted by the late 18th century, more or less. They vary in number depending on who’s list is consulted, but U.S. Army doctrine currently recognizes nine: Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.

In 1987, Trevor N. Dupuy published what he termed “the timeless verities of combat.” These were a list of thirteen “unchanging operational features or concepts” based upon his previous twenty-five years of empirical research into a fundamental aspect of warfare, the nature of combat. He did not intend for these verities to substitute for the principles of war, but did believe that they were related to them. Dupuy asserted that the verities “describe certain fundamental and important aspects of warfare, which, despite constant changes in the implements of war, are almost unchanging because of war’s human component.”[1]

Trevor N. Dupuy’s Timeless Verities of Combat

  1. Offensive action is essential to positive combat results.
  2. Defensive strength is greater than offensive strength.
  3. Defensive posture is necessary when successful offense is impossible.
  4. Flank and rear attack is more likely to succeed than frontal attack.
  5. Initiative permits application of preponderant combat power.
  6. Defender’s chances of success are directly proportional to fortification strength.
  7. An attacker willing to pay the price can always penetrate the strongest defenses.
  8. Successful defense requires depth and reserves.
  9. Superior Combat Power Always Wins.
  10. Surprise substantially enhances combat power.
  11. Firepower kills, disrupts, suppresses, and causes dispersion.
  12. Combat activities are always slower, less productive, and less efficient than anticipated.
  13. Combat is too complex to be described in a single, simple aphorism.

Each of these concepts will be explored further in future posts.


[1] Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (New York : Paragon House, 1987), pp. 1-8.

Assessing the 1990-1991 Gulf War Forecasts

WargamesA number of forecasts of potential U.S. casualties in a war to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait appeared in the media in the autumn of 1990. The question of the human costs became a political issue for the administration of George H. W. Bush and influenced strategic and military decision-making.

Almost immediately following President Bush’s decision to commit U.S. forces to the Middle East in August 1990, speculation appeared in the media about what a war between Iraq and a U.S.-led international coalition might entail. In early September, U.S. News & World Report reported “that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council estimated that the United States would lose between 20,000 and 30,000 dead and wounded soldiers in a Gulf war.” The Bush administration declined official comment on these figures at the time, but the media indicated that they were derived from Defense Department computer models used to wargame possible conflict scenarios.[1] The numbers shocked the American public and became unofficial benchmarks in subsequent public discussion and debate.

A Defense Department wargame exploring U.S. options in Iraq had taken place on 25 August, the results of which allegedly led to “major changes” in military planning.[2] Although linking the wargame and the reported casualty estimate is circumstantial, the cited figures were very much in line with other contemporary U.S. military casualty estimates. A U.S. Army Personnel Command [PERSCOM] document that informed U.S. Central Command [USCENTCOM] troop replacement planning, likely based on pre-crisis plans for the defense of Saudi Arabia against possible Iraqi invasion, anticipated “about 40,000” total losses.[3]

These early estimates were very likely to have been based on a concept plan involving a frontal attack on Iraqi forces in Kuwait using a single U.S. Army corps and a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force. In part due to concern about potential casualties from this course of action, the Bush administration approved USCENTCOM commander General Norman Schwarzkopf’s preferred concept for a flanking offensive using two U.S. Army corps and additional Marine forces.[4] Despite major reinforcements and a more imaginative battle plan, USCENTCOM medical personnel reportedly briefed Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell in December 1990 that they were anticipating 20,000 casualties, including 7,000 killed in action.[5] Even as late as mid-February 1991, PERSCOM was forecasting 20,000 U.S. casualties in the first five days of combat.[6]

The reported U.S. government casualty estimates prompted various public analysts to offer their own public forecasts. One anonymous “retired general” was quoted as saying “Everyone wants to have the number…Everyone wants to be able to say ‘he’s right or he’s wrong, or this is the way it will go, or this is the way it won’t go, or better yet, the senator or the higher-ranking official is wrong because so-and-so says that the number is this and such.’”[7]

Trevor Dupuy’s forecast was among the first to be cited by the media[8], and he presented it before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in December.

Other prominent public estimates were offered by political scientists Barry Posen and John J. Mearshimer, and military analyst Joshua Epstein. In November, Posen projected that the Coalition would initiate an air offensive that would quickly gain air superiority, followed by a frontal ground attack lasting approximately 20 days incurring 4,000 (with 1,000 dead) to 10,000 (worst case) casualties. He used the historical casualty rates experienced by Allied forces in Normandy in 1944 and the Israelis in 1967 and 1973 as a rough baseline for his prediction.[9]

Epstein’s prediction in December was similar to Posen’s. Coalition forces would begin with a campaign to obtain control of the air, followed by a ground attack that would succeed within 15-21 days, incurring between 3,000 and 16,000 U.S. casualties, with 1,049-4,136 killed. Like Dupuy, Epstein derived his forecast from a combat model, the Adaptive Dynamic Model.[10]

On the eve of the beginning of the air campaign in January 1991, Mearshimer estimated that Coalition forces would defeat the Iraqis in a week or less and that U.S. forces would suffer fewer than 1,000 killed in combat. Mearshimer’s forecast was based on a qualitative analysis of Coalition and Iraqi forces as opposed to a quantitative one. Although like everyone else he failed to foresee the extended air campaign and believed that successful air/land breakthrough battles in the heart of the Iraqi defenses would minimize casualties, he did fairly evaluate the disparity in quality between Coalition and Iraqi combat forces.[11]

In the aftermath of the rapid defeat of Iraqi forces in Kuwait, the media duly noted the singular accuracy of Mearshimer’s prediction.[12] The relatively disappointing performance of the quantitative models, especially the ones used by the Defense Department, punctuated debates within the U.S. military operations research community over the state of combat modeling. Dubbed “the base of sand problem” by RAND analysts Paul Davis and Donald Blumenthal, serious questions were raised about the accuracy and validity of the methodologies and constructs that underpinned the models.[13] Twenty-five years later, many of these questions remain unaddressed. Some of these will be explored in future posts.


[1] “Potential War Casualties Put at 100,000; Gulf crisis: Fewer U.S. troops would be killed or wounded than Iraq soldiers, military experts predict,” Reuters, 5 September 1990; Benjamin Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory,” Washington Post, 20 January 1991

[2] Brian Shellum, A Chronology of Defense Intelligence in the Gulf War: A Research Aid for Analysts (Washington, D.C.: DIA History Office, 1997), p. 20

[3] John Brinkerhoff and Theodore Silva, The United States Army Reserve in Operation Desert Storm: Personnel Services Support (Alexandria, VA: ANDRULIS Research Corporation, 1995), p. 9, cited in Brian L. Hollandsworth, “Personnel Replacement Operations during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield” Master’s Thesis (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2015), p. 15

[4] Richard M. Swain, “Lucky War”: Third Army in Desert Storm (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, 1994)

[5] Bob Woodward, The Commanders (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991)

[6] Swain, “Lucky War”, p. 205

[7] Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory”

[8] “Potential War Casualties Put at 100,000,” Reuters

[9] Barry R. Posen, “Political Objectives and Military Options in the Persian Gulf,” Defense and Arms Control Studies Working Paper, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, November 1990)

[10] Joshua M. Epstein, “War with Iraq: What Price Victory?” Briefing Paper, Brookings Institution, December 1990, cited in Michael O’Hanlon, “Estimating Casualties in a War to Overthrow Saddam,” Orbis, Winter 2003; Weiser, “Computer Simulations Attempting to Predict the Price of Victory”

[11] John. J. Mearshimer, “A War the U.S. Can Win—Decisively,” Chicago Tribune, 15 January 1991

[12] Mike Royko, “Most Experts Really Blew It This Time,” Chicago Tribune, 28 February 1991

[13] Paul K. Davis and Donald Blumenthal, “The Base of Sand Problem: A White Paper on the State of Military Combat Modeling” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991)

The Military Budget Wars Are Headed Back to the Future

When I mused over how much new strategic debates are sounding like old Cold War strategic debates, I really had no idea. The U.S. national security debate really is going Back to the Future.  Mark Perry has an article in POLITICO exploring arguments being advanced by some U.S. Army leaders in support of requests for increased defense budget funding, and the criticism they have drawn.

In early April, a panel comprised of several senior Army officer testified before a Senate Armed Service subcommittee on modernization.

[They] delivered a grim warning about the future of the U.S. armed forces: Unless the Army budget was increased, allowing both for more men and more materiel, members of the panel said, the United States was in danger of being “outranged and outgunned” in the next war and, in particular, in a confrontation with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s military, the panel averred, had outstripped the U.S. in modern weapons capabilities. And the Army’s shrinking size meant that “the Army of the future will be too small to secure the nation.”

These assertions are, predictably, being questioned by, also predictably, some in the other armed services. Perry cites the response of an unnamed “senior Pentagon officer.”

“This is the ‘Chicken-Little, sky-is-falling’ set in the Army,” the senior Pentagon officer said. “These guys want us to believe the Russians are 10 feet tall. There’s a simpler explanation: The Army is looking for a purpose, and a bigger chunk of the budget. And the best way to get that is to paint the Russians as being able to land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. What a crock.”

Perry boils the debate down to what it is really about.

The fight over the Army panel’s testimony is the latest example of a deepening feud in the military community over how to respond to shrinking budget numbers. At issue is the military’s strategic future: Facing cuts, will the Army opt to modernize its weapons’ arsenal, or defer modernization in favor of increased numbers of soldiers? On April 5, the Army’s top brass made its choice clear: It wants to do both, and Russia’s the reason.

Perry’s walk through the various arguments is worth reading in full, but he accurately characterizes the debate as something more than an ecumenical disagreement among the usual Pentagon suspects.

The argument over numbers and capabilities might strike some Americans as exotic, but the debate is much more fundamental—with enormous political implications. “You know, which would you rather have—a high-speed rail system, or another brigade in Poland? Because that’s what this is really all about. The debate is about money, and there simply isn’t enough to go around,” the Pentagon officer told me. “Which is not to mention the other question, which is even more important: How many British soldiers do you think want to die for Estonia? And if they don’t want to, why should we?”

Those looking for a sober, factual debate over the facts and the implications of these issues are likely to be disappointed in the current election year atmosphere. It will also be interesting to see if strategic analysts will offer more than chum for the waters and warmed over versions of old arguments.

Human Factors in Warfare: Quantifying Morale

Radio broadcast, 1943. Copyprint. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (150)

My colleague Chris Lawrence has taken me to task with regard to my last post on the topic of morale. I asserted that Trevor Dupuy’s claim that human factors influenced the outcome of combat was controversial. Chris pointed out that it was, in fact, Col Dupuy’s claims that 1) human factors in combat could be measured and quantified; and 2) that quantified human factors should be incorporated into combat models, that were really the sources of controversy.

Chris is indisputably correct about that. In my defense, I chose the wording I used in my post deliberately to weasel around an apparently problematic contradiction. While Col Dupuy did indeed believe that human factors in combat could be quantified, he was dubious about the prospect of individually quantifying some of those specific factors, including morale. Since my post was primarily about Dr. Fennell’s work on morale, I side-stepped that issue. Well, today I am going to wade on in.

Col Dupuy first addressed the quantification of human factors in combat in his book Numbers, Predictions & War, published in 1979. His original combat model, the Quantified Judgment Model (QJM), incorporated 73 different variable elements and parameters, including 11 he defined as intangible. By intangible, he meant variables “which are – at least for the present – impossible to quantify with confidence, either because they are essentially qualitative in nature, or because for some other reason they currently defy precise delineation or measurement.”[1] He also believed that “some (such as logistics) may lend themselves to assessment indirectly through the measurement of their effects.”[2]

He divided those intangible variables into three categories[3]:

Sometimes calculable

Probably calculable; not yet calculated

Intangible; probably individually incalculable

  • Combat effectiveness
  • Logistics
  • Leadership
  • Training/experience
  • Initiative
  • Morale
  • Time
  • Space
  • Momentum
  • Intelligence
  • Technology

With regard to leadership, training, and morale, Col Dupuy asserted that

These subjective qualities are almost impossible to assess in absolute terms with complete objectivity. However, the relative capabilities of the opposing leaders in terms of skill, nerve, and determination can probably have more influence on the outcome of a battle than any of the other qualitative variables of combat— if there is a substantial difference in the qualities of leadership of the opposing sides. The same is true, probably to a somewhat lesser extent, if there are substantial differences in the state of training or of combat experience of the two sides, and if there are great differences in their respective states of morale. Accordingly, where solid historical information warrants, these three variables can be given mathematical weights, either individually, or in relationship with the other elements of combat effectiveness, on the basis of professional military judgment, but (under the present “state of the art”) this weighting process is bound to be highly subjective.[4]

Col Dupuy included morale as an independent variable in the QJM’s combat power formula and offered a table of suggested values [5]. However, he did not explain in any detail how to assess morale or apply it in the QJM.

QJM-TNDM Morale Table

As I quoted in my last post, as of 1987, Col Dupuy continued to contend ambivalently that “even though it may not be easily defined and can probably never be quantified, troop morale is very real and can be very important as a contributor to victory or defeat.” He never resolved this seeming contradiction in his writings, but as with several of the intangible variables he identified, he did acknowledge the potential for defining and quantifying some of them. Dr. Fennell’s demonstration of a strong correlation between morale level and rates of sickness, battle exhaustion, desertion, absence without leave and self-inflicted wounds suggests, at least in the British Second Army in northwest Europe in 1944-45, a potential methodology for quantifying morale which could allow its impact to be measured indirectly in much the same manner Col Dupuy measured combat effectiveness. Whether or not the notion of doing so remains controversial will be interesting to see.


[1.] Trevor N. Dupuy, Numbers, Predictions & War: Using History To Evaluate Combat Factors And Predict The Outcome Of Battles (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1979), p. 36

[2] ibid., p. 37.

[3] ibid., p. 33.

[4] ibid., p. 37-38.

[5] ibid., p. 231.

Human Factors in Warfare: Measuring Morale

Figure One: Second Army, Weekly Admissions per 1,000 to General Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations for Sickness, Battle Exhaustion and SIW, 11 June 1944 to 5 May 1945. Morale scale equivalents are presented on the right hand Y-axis. (Dr. Jonathan Fennell)

Figure One: Second Army, Weekly Admissions per 1,000 to General Hospitals and Casualty Clearing Stations for Sickness, Battle Exhaustion and SIW, 11 June 1944 to 5 May 1945. Morale scale equivalents are presented on the right hand Y-axis. (Dr. Jonathan Fennell)

One of Trevor Dupuy’s more important and controversial contributions to a theory of combat was the assertion that outcomes were dictated in part by behavioral factors, i.e. the human element. Among the influential human factors he identified were leadership, training, experience, and manpower quality. He also recognized the importance of morale.

Morale is an ephemeral quality of military forces and is certainly intangible. Yet even though it may not be easily defined and can probably never be quantified, troop morale is very real and can be very important as a contributor to victory or defeat. The significance of morale is probably inversely proportional to the quality of troops. A well-trained, well-led, cohesive force of veterans will fight well and effectively even if morale is low… Yet for ordinary armies, poor morale can contribute to defeat.[1]

Dr. Jonathan Fennell of the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London recently set out to determine if there were ways of measuring morale by looking at the combat experiences of the British Army in World War II. Fennell proposed

that the concept of morale has no place in a critical analysis of the past unless it is clearly differentiated from definitions associated solely or primarily with mood or cohesion and the group. Instead, for morale to have explanatory value, particularly in a combat environment, a functional conceptualisation is proposed, which, while not excluding the role of mood or group cohesion, focuses its meaning and relevance on motivation and the willingness to act in a manner required by an authority or institution.

Fennell constructed a multi-dimensional model of morale

By drawing on studies made across the social sciences and on primary archival evidence from the British and Commonwealth Army’s experiences in North Africa in the Second World War… It suggests that morale can best be understood as emerging from the subtle interdependencies and interrelationships of the many factors known to affect military means.

Fennell tested his methodology by developing a weekly morale score using bi-weekly censorship summaries of letters and correspondence from members of the British Second Army in the Northwest Europe Campaign in 1944-45.

These summaries proved a useful source to describe and ‘quantify’ levels of morale (through the use of a numerical morale scale). Where morale was described as ‘excellent’, it was awarded a score of 3. ‘High’ morale was given a score of 2 and ‘good’ morale was scored 1. ‘Satisfactory’ morale was given a score of 0 (neither positive or negative). Morale described as ‘severely tried’ was scored -1, while ‘low’ and ‘very low’ morale were scored -2 and -3 respectively.

He then correlated these scores with weekly statistics compiled by the British Second Army and 21st Army Group on rates of sickness, battle exhaustion, desertion, absence without leave (AWOL) and self-inflicted wounds (SIW).

The results of the correlation analysis showed that the tabulated rates (the combined rate of sickness, battle exhaustion, desertion, AWOL and SIW) had an extremely strong negative correlation with morale (-0.949, P<0.001), i.e. when morale was high, sickness rates etc. were low, and when morale was low, sickness rates etc. were high. This is a remarkably strong relationship and shows that these factors when taken together can be used as a quantitative method to assess levels of morale, at the very least for the Army and campaign under discussion.

The results are shown on the graph above. According to Fennell,

This analysis of morale supports the conclusions of much of the recent historiography on the British Army in Northwest Europe; morale was a necessary component of combat effectiveness (morale in Second Army was broadly speaking high throughout the victorious campaign); however, morale was not a sufficient explanation for Second Army’s successes and failures on the battlefield. For example, morale would appear to have been at its highest before and during Operation ‘Market Garden’. But ‘Market Garden’ was a failure. It is likely, as John Buckley has argued, that ‘Market Garden’ was a conceptual failure rather than a morale one. Morale would also appear to have been mostly high during operations in the Low Countries and Germany, but these operations were beset with setbacks and delays.

Fennell further explored the relationship between morale and combat performance, and combat performance and strategy, in his contribution to Anthony King, ed., Frontline: Combat and Cohesion in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). An earlier version of his chapter can be found here.


[1] Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding Defeat: How To Recover From Loss In Battle To Gain Victory In War (New York: Paragon House, 1990), p. 67

First Guards Tank Army

The map from 1976 in Shawn Woodford’s last post had two formations close to my heart, the First Tank Army (later renamed the First Guards Tank Army) and the Sixth Guards Army. The First Guards Tank Army is the formation going through the Fulda Gap. The Sixth Guards Army is to its left. Both formations played prominent roles in my Kursk book.

Also….Russia has brought back the First Guards Tank Army. It was disbanded in 1998 and re-activated in November 2014. See my previous blog post: