TDI Friday Read: Mike Spagat’s Economics of Warfare Lectures & Commentaries

Below is an aggregated list of links to Dr. Michael Spagat‘s E3320: Economics of Warfare lecture series at the Royal Holloway University of London, and Chris Lawrence’s commentary on each. Spagat is a professor of economics and the course addresses quantitative research on war.

The aim of the course is to:

Introduce students to the main facts about conflict. Apply theoretical and empirical economic tools to the study of conflict. Give students an appreciation of the main questions at the research frontier in the economic analysis of conflict. Draw some policy conclusions on how the international community should deal with conflict. Study data issues that arise when analysing conflict.
Mike’s Lecture Chris’s Commentary
Economics of Warfare 1 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 2 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 3 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 4 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 5 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 6 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 7 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 8 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 9 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 10 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 11 Commentary 1

Commentary 2

Economics of Warfare 12 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 13 Commentary 1

Commentary 2

Commentary 3

Economics of Warfare 14 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 15 Commentary 1

Commentary 2

Economics of Warfare 16 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 17 Commentary 1

Commentary 2

Commentary 3

Economics of Warfare 18 Commentary
Economics of Warfare 19 Commentary 1

Commentary 2

Commentary 3

Commentary 4

Economics of Warfare 20 Commentary

A Return To Big Guns In Future Naval Warfare?

The first shot of the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) electromagnetic railgun, conducted at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division in Virginia on 17 November 2016. [ONR’s Official YouTube Page]

Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reported last month that the U.S Navy Office of Naval Research (ONR) had achieved a breakthrough in capacitor design which is an important step forward in facilitating the use of electromagnetic railguns in future warships. The new capacitors are compact yet capable of delivering 20 megajoule bursts of electricity. ONR plans to increase this to 32 megajoules by next year.

Railguns use such bursts of energy to power powerful electromagnets capable of accelerating projectiles to hypersonic speeds. ONR’s goal is to produce railguns capable of firing 10 rounds per minute to a range of 100 miles.

The Navy initiated railgun development in 2005, intending to mount them on the new Zumwalt class destroyers. Since then, the production run of Zumwalts was cut from 32 to three. With the railguns still under development, the Navy has mounted 155mm cannons on them in the meantime.

Development of the railgun and a suitable naval powerplant continues. While the Zumwalts can generate 78 megajoules of energy and the Navy’s current railgun design only needs 25 to fire, the Navy still wants advanced capacitors capable of powering 150-killowatt lasers for drone defense, and new generations of radars and electronic warfare systems as well.

While railguns are huge improvement over chemical powered naval guns, there are still doubts about their effectiveness in combat compared to guided anti-ship missiles. Railgun projectiles are currently unguided and the Navy’s existing design is less powerful than the 1,000 pound warhead on the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).

The U.S. Navy remains committed to railgun development nevertheless. For one idea of the role railguns and the U.S.S. Zumwalt might play in a future war, take a look at P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which came out in 2015.

No Russian Chemical Weapons

Russia is claiming that it has destroyed all of its chemical weapons (I gather that there is no reason to doubt this, this has been going on for a while). The U.S has destroyed most its weapons, with complete elimination planned for 2023.


Human Factors In Warfare: Interaction Of Variable Factors

The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April to 25 May 1915 by Richard Jack [Canadian War Museum]

Trevor Dupuy thought that it was possible to identify and quantify the effects of some individual moral and behavioral (i.e. human) factors on combat. He also believed that many of these factors interacted with each other and with environmental and operational (i.e. physical) variables in combat as well, although parsing and quantifying these effects was a good deal more difficult. Among the combat phenomena he considered to be the result of interaction with human factors were:

Dupuy was critical of combat models and simulations that failed to address these relationships. The prevailing approach to the design of combat modeling used by the U.S. Department of Defense is known as the aggregated, hierarchical, or “bottom-up” construct. Bottom-up models generally use the Lanchester equations, or some variation on them, to calculate combat outcomes between individual soldiers, tanks, airplanes, and ships. These results are then used as inputs for models representing warfare at the brigade/division level, the outputs of which are then fed into theater-level simulations. Many in the American military operations research community believe bottom-up models to be the most realistic method of modeling combat.

Dupuy criticized this approach for many reasons (including the inability of the Lanchester equations to accurately replicate real-world combat outcomes), but mainly because it failed to represent human factors and their interactions with other combat variables.

It is almost undeniable that there must be some interaction among and within the effects of physical as well as behavioral variable factors. I know of no way of measuring this. One thing that is reasonably certain is that the use of the bottom-up approach to model design and development cannot capture such interactions. (Most models in use today are bottom-up models, built up from one-on-one weapons interactions to many-on-many.) Presumably these interactions are captured in a top-down model derived from historical experience, of which there is at least one in existence [by which, Dupuy meant his own].

Dupuy was convinced that any model of combat that failed to incorporate human factors would invariably be inaccurate, which put him at odds with much of the American operations research community.

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]

While this unresolved debate went dormant some time ago, bottom-up models became the simulations of choice in Defense Department campaign planning and analysis. It should be noted, however, that the Defense Department disbanded its campaign-level modeling capabilities in 2011 because the use of the simulations in strategic analysis was criticized as “slow, manpower-intensive, opaque, difficult to explain because of its dependence on complex models, inflexible, and weak in dealing with uncertainty.”


[1] Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (New York: Paragon House, 1987), p. 195.

Used Kursk Books

Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka: is selling off its used copies of the Kursk book at $118.80. This is the first time I have seen them selling the book for below $200. They have eight “used-acceptable” books at 118.80. Another seller has a “used-acceptable” for $114.82. has six “used-good” for $120.04, seven “used-very good” for $121.28, and three “used-like new” for $122.51.

Kind of mystified how ended up with 24 used books.

Secretary of the Army, take 3

On 19 July 2017 Mark Thomas Esper was nominated to be the new Secretary of the Army. This is the third nomination for this position, as the first two nominees, Vincent Viola and Mark E. Green, withdrew. Not sure when Congress will review and approve this nomination. I am guessing it won’t happen in September. The acting Secretary of the Army is Ryan McCarthy (approved as Undersecretary of the Army in August 2017).

Mr. Esper’s background:

  1. Graduate of USMA (West Point) in 1986 with a BS in Engineering.
  2. Masters degree from Harvard in 1995.
  3. PhD from GWU in 2008.
  4. Served as in infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division during the Gulf War (1990-1991).
  5. Over ten years of active duty (1986-1996?). I gather still in the Army Reserve as a Lt. Colonel.
  6. Chief of Staff of the Heritage Foundation, 1996-1998.
  7. Senior staffer for Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, 1998-2002.
  8. Policy Director House Armed Services Committee, 2001-2202.
  9. Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy, 2002-2004.
  10. Director of National Security Affairs for U.S. Senate, 2004-2006.
  11. Executive Vice President at Aerospace Industries Association, 2006-2007.
  12. National Policy Director for Senator Fred Thompson’s 2008 Presidential campaign, 2007-2008.
  13. Executive Vice President of the Global Intellectual Property Center, and Vice President for Europe and Eurasia at U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2008-2010.
  14. Vice President of Government Relations at Raytheon, 2010 to present.

Wikipedia article:

Human Factors In Warfare: Diminishing Returns In Combat

[Jan Spousta; Wikimedia Commons]

One of the basic problems facing military commanders at all levels is deciding how to allocate available forces to accomplish desired objectives. A guiding concept in this sort of decision-making is economy of force, one of the fundamental and enduring principles of war. As defined in the 1954 edition of U.S. Army Field Manual FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations (which Trevor Dupuy believed contained the best listing of the principles):

Economy of Force

Minimum essential means must be employed at points other than that of decision. To devote means to unnecessary secondary efforts or to employ excessive means on required secondary efforts is to violate the principle of both mass and the objective. Limited attacks, the defensive, deception, or even retrograde action are used in noncritical areas to achieve mass in the critical area.

How do leaders determine the appropriate means for accomplishing a particular mission? The risk of failing to assign too few forces to a critical task is self-evident, but is it possible to allocate too many? Determining the appropriate means in battle has historically involved subjective calculations by commanders and their staff advisors of the relative combat power of friendly and enemy forces. Most often, it entails a rudimentary numerical comparison of numbers of troops and weapons and estimates of the influence of environmental and operational factors. An exemplar of this is the so-called “3-1 rule,” which holds that an attacking force must achieve a three to one superiority in order to defeat a defending force.

Through detailed analysis of combat data from World War II and the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, Dupuy determined that combat appears subject to a law of diminishing returns and that it is indeed possible to over-allocate forces to a mission.[1] By comparing the theoretical outcomes of combat engagements with the actual results, Dupuy discovered that a force with a combat power advantage greater than double that of its adversary seldom achieved proportionally better results than a 2-1 advantage. A combat power superiority of 3 or 4 to 1 rarely yielded additional benefit when measured in terms of casualty rates, ground gained or lost, and mission accomplishment.

Dupuy also found that attackers sometimes gained marginal benefits from combat power advantages greater than 2-1, though less proportionally and economically than the numbers of forces would suggest. Defenders, however, received no benefit at all from a combat power advantage beyond 2-1.

Two human factors contributed to this apparent force limitation, Dupuy believed, Clausewitzian friction and breakpoints. As described in a previous post, friction accumulates on the battlefield through the innumerable human interactions between soldiers, degrading combat performance. This phenomenon increases as the number of soldiers increases.

A breakpoint represents a change of combat posture by a unit on the battlefield, for example, from attack to defense, or from defense to withdrawal. A voluntary breakpoint occurs due to mission accomplishment or a commander’s order. An involuntary breakpoint happens when a unit spontaneously ceases an attack, withdraws without orders, or breaks and routs. Involuntary breakpoints occur for a variety of reasons (though contrary to popular wisdom, seldom due to casualties). Soldiers are not automatons and will rarely fight to the death.

As Dupuy summarized,

It is obvious that the law of diminishing returns applies to combat. The old military adage that the greater the superiority the better, is not necessarily true. In the interests of economy of force, it appears to be unnecessary, and not really cost-effective, to build up a combat power superiority greater than two-to-one. (Note that this is not the same as a numerical superiority of two-to-one.)[2] Of course, to take advantage of this phenomenon, it is essential that a commander be satisfied that he has a reliable basis for calculating relative combat power. This requires an ability to understand and use “combat multipliers” with greater precision than permitted by U.S. Army doctrine today.[3] [Emphasis added.]


[1] This section is drawn from Trevor N. Dupuy, Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (New York: Paragon House, 1987), Chapter 11.

[2] This relates to Dupuy’s foundational conception of combat power, which is clearly defined and explained in Understanding War, Chapter 8.

[3] Dupuy, Understanding War, p. 139.

Economics of Warfare 20


This is the twentieth 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. The lecture presents four studies. Of those, one study (Krueger) makes the argument that they do not (see pages 4-5), while three of the studies (Enders and Hoover, de Mesquita, and Benmelech) find a limited association (see pages 6-14, 15 and page 21 ). Some of these other three studies have to work pretty hard to make their point. One is left to conclude that while poverty may have some impact on degree of terrorism and recruitment of terrorists, it is probably not the main or determining factor. We probably need to look elsewhere for the root causes.

The link to his lecture is here:


“So Fricking Stupid”: Muddling Through Strategic Insolvency

As I have mentioned before, the United States faces a crisis of “strategic insolvency” with regard to the imbalance between its foreign and military policy commitments and the resources it has allocated to meet them. Rather than addressing the problem directly, the nation’s political leadership appears to be opting to “muddle through” instead by maintaining the policy and budgetary status quo. A case in point is the 2017 Fiscal Year budget, which should have been approved last year. Instead Congress passed a series of continuing resolutions (CRs) that keeps funding at existing levels while its members try to come to an agreement.

That part is not working out so well. Representative Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), earlier this week warned that the congressional budget process is headed for “a complete meltdown” in December, Sidney J. Freedberg, Jr. reported in Defense One. The likely outcome, according to Smith, will be another year-long CR in place of a budget. Smith vented that this would constitute “borderline legislative malpractice, particularly for the Department of Defense.”

Smith finds himself in bipartisan agreement with HASC chairman Mac Thornberry and Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain that ongoing CRs and the restrictions of sequestration have contributed to training and maintenance shortfalls that resulted in multiple accidents—including two U.S. Navy ship collisions—that have killed 42 American servicemembers this summer.

As Freedberg explained,

What’s the budget train wreck, according to Smith? The strong Republican majority in the House has passed a defense bill that goes $72 billion over the maximum allowed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. That would trigger the automatic cuts called sequestration unless the BCA is amended, as it has been in the past. But the slim GOP majority in the Senate needs Democratic votes to amend the BCA, and the Dems won’t deal unless non-defense spending rises as much as defense – which is anathema to Republican hardliners in the House.

“Do you understand just how fricking stupid that is?” a clearly frustrated Smith asked rhetorically. A possible alternative would be to shift the extra defense spending into Overseas Contingency Operation funding, which is not subject to the BCA, as has been done before. Smith derided this option as “a fiscal sleight of hand [that] would be bad governance and ‘hypocritical.’”

Just as politics have gridlocked budget negotiations, so to it prevents flexibility in managing the existing defense budget. Smith believes a lot of money could be freed up by closing domestic military bases deemed unnecessary by the Defense Department and canceling some controversial nuclear weapons programs, but such choices would be politically contentious, to say the least.

The fundamental problem may be simpler: no one knows how much money is really needed to properly fund current strategic plans.

One briefer from the Pentagon’s influential and secretive Office of Net Assessment told Smith that “we do not have the money to fund the strategy that we put in place in 2012,” the congressman recalled. “And I said, ‘how much would you need?’…. He had no idea.”

And the muddling through continues.