Human Factors In Warfare: Friction

The Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz identified the concept of friction in warfare in his book On War, published in 1832.

Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war… Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal… Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper… None of [the military machine’s] components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction [and] the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong…

[Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). Book One, Chapter 7, 119-120.]

While recognizing this hugely significant intangible element, Clausewitz also asserted that “[F]riction…brings about effects that cannot be measured, just they are largely due to chance.” Nevertheless, the clearly self-evident nature of friction in warfare subsequently led to the assimilation of the concept into the thinking of most military theorists and practitioners.

Flash forward 140 years or so. While listening to a lecture on combat simulation, Trevor Dupuy had a flash of insight that led him to conclude that it was indeed possible to measure the effects of friction.[1] Based on his work with historical combat data, Dupuy knew that smaller-sized combat forces suffer higher casualty rates than do larger-sized forces. As the diagram at the top demonstrates, this is partly explained by the fact that small units have a much higher proportion of their front line troops exposed to hostile fire than large units.

However, this relationship can account for only a fraction of friction’s total effect. The average exposure of a company of 200 soldiers is about seven times greater than an army group of 100,000. Yet, casualty rates for a company in intensive combat can be up to 70 times greater than that of an army group. This discrepancy clearly shows the influence of another factor at work.

Dupuy hypothesized that this reflected the apparent influence of the relationship between dispersion, deployment, and friction on combat. As friction in combat accumulates through the aggregation of soldiers into larger-sized units, its effects degrade the lethal effects of weapons from their theoretical maximum. Dupuy calculated that friction affects a force of 100,000 ten times more than it does a unit of 200. Being an ambient, human factor on the battlefield, higher quality forces do a better job of managing friction’s effects than do lower quality ones.

After looking at World War II combat casualty data to calculate the effect of friction on combat, Dupuy looked at casualty rates from earlier eras and found a steady correlation, which he believed further validated his hypothesis.

Despite the consistent fit of the data, Dupuy felt that his work was only the beginning of a proper investigation into the phenomenon.

During the periods of actual combat, the lower the level, the closer the loss rates will approach the theoretical lethalities of the weapons in the hands of the opposing combatants. But there will never be a very close relationship of such rates with the theoretical lethalities. War does not consist merely of a number of duels. Duels, in fact, are only a very small—though integral—part of combat. Combat is a complex process involving interaction over time of many men and numerous weapons combined in a great number of different, and differently organized, units. This process cannot be understood completely by considering the theoretical interactions of individual men and weapons. Complete understanding requires knowing how to structure such interactions and fit them together. Learning how to structure these interactions must be based on scientific analysis of real combat data.


[1] This post is based on Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (New York: Paragon House, 1987), Chapter 14.

Deployed Troop Counts

Well, turns out we have a little more deployed troops in Afghanistan than is previously reported. Previously it has been reported to be 8,400. Turns out we have 11,000. This does not include the 3,900 that have been recently authorized to go there.

We also have officially 5,262 in Iraq and 503 in Syria. These figures are low with a couple of thousand more troops in both countries (not sure if that is supposed to a couple of thousand more in each of these two countries).

So potentially we are looking at around 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and may have around 8,000 troops in Iraq and Syria.

Reuters article:



Book Review – Eastern Front 1943

Obviously, anything related to the Battle of Kursk gets my attention. This book review was just emailed to me:

I wonder if Frieser’s book references my book (probably not, as I did not publish until 2015). Anyhow, there is not a review of my Kursk book on the Saber and Scroll website.

That book review is part of very interesting website that has two book review blogs:

Fifth Generation Deterrence

“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy… the FEAR to attack. And so, … the Doomsday machine is terrifying and simple to understand… and completely credible and convincing.” – Dr. Strangelove.

In a previous post, we looked at some aspects of the nuclear balance of power. In this Stpost, we will consider some aspects of conventional deterrence. Ironically, Chris Lawrence was cleaning out a box in his office (posted in this blog), which contained an important article for this debate, “The Case for More Effective, Less Expensive Weapons Systems: What ‘Quality Versus Quantity’ Issue?” by none other than Pierre M. Sprey, available here, published in 1982.

In comparing the F-15 and F-16, Sprey identifies four principal effectiveness characteristics that contribute to victory in air-to-air combat:

  1. Achieving surprise bounces and avoiding being surprised;
  2. Out-numbering the enemy in the air;
  3. Out-maneuvering the enemy to reach firing position (when surprise fails);
  4. Achieving reliable kills within the brief firing opportunities presented by combat.

“Surprise is the first because, in every air war since WWI, somewhere between 65% and 85% of all fighters shot down were unaware of their attacker.” Sprey mentions that the F-16 is superior to the F-15 due to the smaller size, and that fact that it smokes much less, both aspects that are clearly Within-Visual Range (WVR) combat considerations. Further, his discussion of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat is dismissive.

The F-15 has an apparently advantage inasmuch as it carries the Sparrow radar missile. On closer examination, this proves to be little or no advantage: in Vietnam, the Sparrow had a kill rate of .08 to .10, less that one third that of the AIM-9D/G — and the new models of the Sparrow do not appear to have corrected the major reasons for this disappointing performance; even worse, locking-on with the Sparrow destroys surprise because of the distinctive and powerful radar signature involved.

Sprey was right to criticize the performance of the early radar-guided missiles.  From “Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority,” page 10

From 1965 through 1968, during Operation Rolling Thunder, AIM-7 Sparrow missiles succeeded in downing their targets only 8 percent of the time and AIM-9 Sidewinders only 15 percent of the time. Pre-conflict testing indicated expected success rates of 71 and 65 percent respectively. Despite these problems, AAMs offered advantages over guns and accounted for the vast majority of U.S. air-to-air victories throughout the war.

Sprey seemed to miss out of the fact that the radar guided missile that supported BVR air combat was not something in the far distant future, but an evolution of radar and missile technology. Even in the 1980’s, the share of air-to-air combat victories by BVR missiles was on the rise, and since the 1990’s, it has become the most common way to shoot down an enemy aircraft.

In an Aviation Week podcast in July of this year, retired Marine Lt. Col. David Berke (also previously quoted in this blog), and Pierre Sprey debated the F-35. Therein, Sprey offers a formulaic definition of air power, as created by force and effectiveness, with force being a function of cost, reliability, and how often it can fly per day (sortie generation rate?). “To create air power, you have to put a bunch of airplanes in the sky over the enemy. You can’t do it with a tiny hand full, even if they are like unbelievably good. If you send six aircraft to China, they could care less what they are … F-22 deployments are now six aircraft.”

Berke counters with the ideas that he expressed before in his initial conversation with Aviation week (as analyzed in this blog), that information and situational awareness are by far the most important factor in aerial warfare. This stems from the advantage of surprise, which was Sprey’s first criteria in 1982, and remains a critical factor is warfare to this day. This reminds me a bit of Disraeli’s truism of “lies, damn lies and statistics”pick the metrics that tell your story, rather than objectively look at the data.

Critics beyond Mr. Sprey have said that high technology weapons like the F-22 and the F-35 are irrelevant for America’s wars; “the [F-22] was not relevant to the military’s operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya — at least according to then-secretary of defense Robert Gates.” Indeed, according to the Washington Post, “Gates called the $65 billion fleet a ‘niche silver-bullet solution’ to a major aerial war threat that remains distant. … and has promised to urge President Obama to veto the military spending bill if the full Senate retains F-22 funding.”

The current conflict in Syria against ISIS, after the Russian deployment resulted in crowded and contested airspace, as evidenced by a NATO Turkish F-16 shoot down of a Russian Air Force Su-24 (wikipedia), and as reported on this blog. Indeed, ironically for Mr. Sprey’s analysis of the relative values of the AIM-9 vs the AIM-7 missiles, as again reported by this blog,

[T]he U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet locked onto a Su-22 Fitter at a range of 1.5 miles. It fired an AIM-9X heat-seeking Sidewinder missile at it. The Syrian pilot was able to send off flares to draw the missile away from the Su-22. The AIM-9X is not supposed to be so easily distracted. They had to shoot down the Su-22 with a radar guided AMRAAM missile.

For the record the AIM-7 was a direct technical predecessor of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. We can perhaps conclude that having more that one type of weapon is useful, especially as other air power nations are always trying to improve their counter measures, and this incident shows that they can do so effectively. Of course, more observations are necessary for statistical proof, but since air combat is so rare since the end of the Cold War, the opportunity to learn the lesson and improve the AIM-9X should not be squandered.

USAF Air Combat Dominance as Deterrent

Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. – Sun Tzu

The admonition to win without fighting is indeed a timeless principle of warfare, and it is clearly illustrated through this report on the performance of the F-22 in the war against ISIS, over the crowded airspace in Syria, from Aviation Week on June 4th, 2017.  I’ve quoted at length, and applied emphasis.

Shell, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and Raptor squadron commander who spoke on the condition that Aviation Week identify him only by his call sign, and his squadron of stealth F-22 Lockheed Martin Raptors had a critical job to do: de-conflict coalition operations over Syria with an irate Russia.

… one of the most critical missions the F-22 conducts in the skies over Syria, particularly in the weeks following the April 6 Tomahawk strike, is de-confliction between coalition and non-coalition aircraft, says Shell. … the stealth F-22’s ability to evade detection gives it a unique advantage in getting non-coalition players to cooperate, says Shell. 

‘It is easier to bring air dominance to bear if you know where the other aircraft are that you are trying to influence, and they don’t know where you are,’ says Shell. ‘When other airplanes don’t know where you are, their sense of comfort goes down, so they have a tendency to comply more.

… U.S. and non-coalition aircraft were still communicating directly, over an internationally recognized, unsecure frequency often used for emergencies known as ‘Guard,’  says Shell. His F-22s acted as a kind of quarterback, using high-fidelity sensors to determine the positions of all the actors on the battlefield, directing non-coalition aircraft where to fly and asking them over the Guard frequency to move out of the way. 

The Raptors were able to fly in contested areas, in range of surface-to-air missile systems and fighters, without the non-coalition players knowing their exact positions, Shell says. This allowed them to establish air superiority—giving coalition forces freedom of movement in the air and on the ground—and a credible deterrent.

Far from being a silver bullet solution for a distant aerial war, America’s stealth fighters are providing credible deterrence on the front lines today. They have achieved in some cases, the ultimate goal of winning without fighting, by exploiting the advantage of surprise. The right question might be, how many are required for this mission, given the enormous costs of fifth generation fighters? (more on this later).  As a quarterback, the F-22 can support many allied units, as part of a larger team.

Giving credit where it is due, Mr. Sprey has rightly stated in his Aviation Week interview, “cost is part of the force you can bring to bear upon the enemy.”  His mechanism to compute air power in 2017, however, seems to ignore the most important aspect of air power since it first emerged in World War I, surprise.  His dogmatic focus on the lightweight, single purpose air-to-air fighter, which seems to shun even available, proven technology seems clear.

Economics of Warfare 19 – 4

Continuing with a fourth and final posting on the nineteenth lecture from Professor Michael Spagat’s Economics of Warfare course that he gives at Royal Holloway University. It is posted on his blog Wars, Numbers and Human Losses at:

This lecture continues the discussion of terrorism, looking at whether poverty or poor education causes terrorism. The conventional wisdom, supported by a book by Alan Krueger, is that they do not. Dr. Spagat explores this in more depth and the data tends to support this theme, although there are exceptions.

On slide 39, Dr. Spagat leaves us with a gem of a quote. The data he had been looking at was responses to surveys about terrorism. As he notes: “It is one thing to voice support on a survey for terrorism or attacks–it is another matter entirely to strap on explosives and blow oneself up. In other words, suicide bombers have to be really committed individuals.”

He then goes to show Palestinian suicide bombers are generally less impoverished and better educated on average than the population they are drawn from. He sees a similar observation when looking at deceased Hezbollah militants (pages 39-41). This is not surprising if you are familiar with the history of revolutions and insurgencies.

The link to his lecture is here:

Military History In The Digital Era

Volumes of the U.S. Army in World War II official history series published by the U.S. Army Center for Military History [Hewes Library photo]

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has released a draft strategic plan announcing that it will “no longer accept transfers of permanent or temporary records in analog formats and will accept records only in electronic format and with appropriate metadata” by the end of 2022. Given the widespread shift to so-called “paperless” offices across society, this change may not be as drastic as it may seem. Whether this will produce an improvement in record keeping is another question.

Military historians are starting to encounter the impact of electronic records on the preservation and availability of historical documentation of America’s recent conflicts. Adin Dobkin wrote an excellent overview earlier this year on the challenges the U.S Army Center for Military History faces in writing the official histories of the U.S Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army field historians on tight deployment timelines “hoovered up” huge amounts of electronic historical documentation during the conflicts. Now official historians have to sort through enormous amounts of material that is often poorly organized and removed from the context from which it was originally created. Despite the volume of material collected, much of it has little historical value and there are gaps in crucial documentation. Separating the useful wheat from the digital chaff can tedious and time-consuming.

Record keeping the paper age was often much better. As Chris wrote earlier this year, TDI conducted three separate studies on Army records management in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Each of these studies warned that U.S. Army documentation retention standards and practices had degraded significantly. Significant gaps existed in operational records vital to future historians. TDI found that the Army had better records for Red Cloud’s War of 1866-1868 than it did a hundred years later for Vietnam.

TDI is often asked why it tends to focus on the World War II era and earlier for its analytical studies. The answer is pretty simple: those are the most recent conflicts for which relatively complete, primary source historical data is available for the opposing combatants. Unfortunately, the Digital Age is unlikely to change that basic fact.

Anyone Can Be A Historian

In the world of government contracting, it is hard for a contractor to remain working with the government for longer than 3-5 years. Problems happen, people annoy each other, mistakes are made, frictions develop, and pretty soon people start wondering if they could do better with another contactor. So it not unusual to see contractors fall in and out of favor. I have seen it happen repeatedly.

Many years ago a company that was a competitor to Dupuy’s HERO conducted a study. It was well done as they hired one of our employees as their employee and another of our employees as a consultant. They got a follow-on contract. But, this being the government, as is often the case, the follow-on contract came a year or so after the original effort was completed. The original team had move to other projects in the company. As it was, defense budgets were in a period of decline, so the company decided they could conduct the next study using available staff so they could keep them employed. The former HERO employee was not available as he had been assigned to another project, and that project manager did not want to let him go. The consultant was not called back. Instead they took some available engineers who were between contracts and put them on the project. After all, anyone can do history.

Needless to say, the next study was a failure. I was later told by a manager in the government that they would never hire that contractor back. Apparently this work requires enough expertise that we cannot be easily replaced by any bright guy.

Against the Panzers

The book that came out of the A2/D2 Study (Anti-Armor Defense Data Study) was Against the Panzers, by Allyn R. Vannoy and Jay Karamales: Against the Panzers: United States Infantry Versus German Tanks, 1944-1945

The graphics person for of my three books and the images for this website is Jay Karamales. Jay is a multi-talented person whose primary occupation is a programmer. Apparently the challenge of writing a book while working a full-time job was stressful enough (to the point that he started using dispensary quality thc gummies to cope with it) that he never tried it again. Unfortunately, there was never an Against the Panzers II, although I gathered he did some work on it.

For a taste of Mr. Karamales’ book, I recommend you take a look at his article in the TNDM Newsletter: