Aerial Combined Arms

In a previous post, I quoted Jules Hurst’s comparison between the medieval knights of old and modern day fighter pilots. His point was that the future of aerial combat will feature more combined arms. This I agree with; the degree of specialization that will be seen in the future will increase, although our ability to predict what this will be is uncertain. Hurst’s second point, that today’s aerial combat is akin to jousting and jovial knights looking to independently take down foes, I do not agree with at all.

Last night, I watched the History Channel documentary “Dogfights of Desert Storm,” a wonderful summary of several selected dogfights from the first Gulf War (1991, US and coalition vs Iraq), which included:

1. A furball between an unarmed EF-111 and a Mirage F1. Eventually, an F-15C came to the rescue, but the EF-111 crew was apparently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for its actions that day. Ultimately, the F1 hit the ground, and the F-15C got the credit.

2. A complex dogfight between a flight of two F-15Cs against 2 Mig-25s and 2 Mig-29s. This was a hairy affair, with lots of maneuver. The MiG-25s were able to decoy many heat-seeking AIM-9’s, so the AIM-7 radar guided missiles needed to be used to shoot them down.

[As previously reported, an F/A-18F had problems trying to down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter with an AIM-9 missile due to the effectiveness of Russian-made flares and had to resort to an AIM-120 radar-guided missile. Also a strategy from Soviet days, the preference to carry more than one type of seeker types seems to be quite good advice. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has traditionally adhered to the concept of a beyond visual range (BVR) medium range, radar guided missile, the AIM-7 and the AIM-120 successor. This coupled with the short range AIM-9 infrared missile. The gap that this leaves is the long range, infrared guided missile.]

3. A well-run dogfight pitting a flight of four F-15Cs vs. a flight of four F-1s. Of the F-1s, one turned back to base, either for fear, prudence, or mechanical difficulty, it is difficult to say. The three other F-1s were all downed by AIM-7 missiles, fired at beyond visual range. What was noted about this engagement was the patience of the USAF flight leader, who did not immediately lock-on to the F-1s, in order to avoid triggering their radar warning receivers (RWR), and giving up the element of surprise by notifying them of the impending attack.

The statistic given was that 60% of the aerial victories in the entire conflict were from BVR.

The coalition’s triumph was an emphatic boost for current air war strategy. Multiple aircraft with specific roles working on concert to achieve victory. Air war in 1990, as it is today, is a team sport.” Multiple weapons disrupted the Iraqi capability to deal with it. It was information overload. They could not deal with the multiple successive strikes, and the fact that their radars went offline, and their command and control was shut down … jamming … deception – it was like having essentially a ‘war nervous breakdown’. (emphasis added).

Larry Pitts, a USAF F-15C Eagle pilot (retired), said

aerial victory against an enemy airplane was a career highlight for me. It’s something that I’ll never be able to beat, but you know in my mind, I did what any fighter pilot would have done if any enemy fighter had been put in front of him. I relied on my training, I engaged the airplane, protected my wingman as he protected me, and came out of it alive.

One key element in all of the combat recounted by the USAF pilots was the presence of airborne early warning aircraft, at the time the E-3C Sentry. Indeed, this form of combined arms—which is effectively an augmentation of a fighter pilot’s sensors—has been around for a surprisingly long time.

  • In February 1944, the United States Navy (USN), under Project Cadillac, equipped a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber with an airborne radar, and the resulting TBM-3W entered service with the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) mission.
  • In June 1949, a joint program with the USN and USAF resulted in the EC-121 Warning Star, a conversion of a Lockheed L1094 Super Constellation airliner. This aircraft entered service to reinforce the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, across the Arctic in Canada and Alaska to detect and defend against Soviet Air Force bombers flying over the pole. This was also the plane that played the “AWACS” role in Vietnam.
  • In January 1964, the E-2 Hawkeye was introduced into service with the USN, which required a carrier-based AWACS platform.
  • In March 1977, the first E-3 Sentry was delivered to the USAF by Boeing.

Indeed, the chart below illustrates the wide variety of roles and platforms flown by the USAF, in their combined arms operations.

[Source: Command: Modern Air & Naval Operations]

In addition, the USAF just released its FY2019 budget, fresh from budget action in Congress. This had a few surprises, including the planned retirement of both the B-1B and the B-2A in favor of the upcoming B-21 Raider, and continuing to enhance and improve the B-52. This is a very old platform, having been introduced in 1955. This does match a shift in thinking by the USAF, from stating that all of the fourth generation aircraft (non-stealthy) are entirely obsolete, to one in which they continue to play a role, as a follow-up force, perhaps in role of a “distant archer” with stand-off weapons. I previously discussed the Talon Hate pod enabling network communications between the F-22 and F-15C systems.

More on this to come!

Spotted In The New Books Section Of The U.S. Naval Academy Library…

Christopher A. Lawrence, War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2017) 390 pages, $39.95

War by Numbers assesses the nature of conventional warfare through the analysis of historical combat. Christopher A. Lawrence (President and Executive Director of The Dupuy Institute) establishes what we know about conventional combat and why we know it. By demonstrating the impact a variety of factors have on combat he moves such analysis beyond the work of Carl von Clausewitz and into modern data and interpretation.

Using vast data sets, Lawrence examines force ratios, the human factor in case studies from World War II and beyond, the combat value of superior situational awareness, and the effects of dispersion, among other elements. Lawrence challenges existing interpretations of conventional warfare and shows how such combat should be conducted in the future, simultaneously broadening our understanding of what it means to fight wars by the numbers.

The book is available in paperback directly from Potomac Books and in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.

More on Russian Body Counts

Don’t have any resolution on the casualty counts for the fighting on 7 February, but do have a few additional newspaper reports of interest:

  1. The Guardian reposts that the Russian foreign ministry reports that dozens were killed or wounded.
    1. So, if 9 were killed (a figure that is probably the lowest possible count), then you would certainly get to dozens killed or wounded. As this is a conventional fight, I would be tempted to guess a figure of 3 or 4 wounded per killed, vice the 9 or 10 wounded per killed we have been getting from our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (see War by Numbers, Chapter 15: Casualties).
    2. Guardian article is here:
  2. The BBC repeats these claims along with noting that “…at least 131 Russians died in Syria in the first nine months of 2017…”:
  3. Wikipedia does have an article on the subject that is worth looking at, even though its count halts on 3 February:
  4. The original report was that about 100 Syrian soldiers had been killed. I still don’t know if this count of 100+ killed on 7 February is supposed to be all Russians, or a mix of Russians and Syrians. It could be possible there were 9 Russians killed and over 100 people killed. On the other hand, it could also be an inflated casualty count. See:
  5. Some counts have gone as high as 215 Russians killed:

Conclusions: A significant fight happened on 7 February, at least 9 Russians were killed and clearly several dozen wounded. It might have been over 100 killed in the fight, but we cannot find any clear confirmation of that. I am always suspicious of casualty claims, as anyone who has read my book on Kursk may note (and I think I provide plenty of examples in that book of claims that can be proven to be significantly in error).

Russian Army Experiments With Using Tanks For Indirect Fire

Russian Army T-90S main battle tanks. [Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation]

Finnish freelance writer and military blogger Petri Mäkelä spotted an interesting announcement from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation: the Combined-Arms Army of the Western Military District is currently testing the use of main battle tanks for indirect fire at the Pogonovo test range in the Voronezh region.

According to Major General Timur Trubiyenko, First Deputy Commander of the Western Military District Combined-Arms Army, in the course of company exercises, 200 tankers will test a combination of platoon direct and indirect fire tactics against simulated armored, lightly armored, and concealed targets up to 12 kilometers away.

Per Mäkelä, the exercise will involve T-90S main battle tanks using their 2A46 125 mm/L48 smoothbore cannons. According to the Ministry of Defense, more than 1,000 Russian Army soldiers, employing over 100 weapons systems and special equipment items, will participate in the exercises between 19 and 22 February 2018.

Tanks have been used on occasion to deliver indirect fire in World War II and Korea, but it is not a commonly used modern tactic. The use of modern fire control systems, guided rounds, and drone spotters might offer the means to make this more useful.

More Russian Body Counts

Interesting article form the Telegraph: Putin’s shock troops-how Russia’s secret mercenary army came up against the U.S. in Syria

That copy may be behind a paywall…so try this:

A few highlights:

  1. Russian newspapers (which still maintain some independence from the government) have listed the names of 9 Russian’s who died in Syria on 7 February.
    1. This clearly contradicts the foreign ministry claim that 5 were killed.
  2. This is again claimed to be a battalion-sized action (500 Russians)
  3. There are some interesting conspiracy theories offered in the article as to why this Russian unit was sent in to be slaughtered. I am hesitant to explain by conspiracy something that can be explained by incompetence. There is no shortage of incompetence in warfare (or any other human affairs).
  4. Supposedly 3,000 Russians have fought for the Wagner Group in Syria since 2015.
    1. Before 7 February, there were 73 deaths (official figure is 46).
  5. It has been busy. In the last two weeks an Al-Qaeda affiliated rebel group shot down a Russian jet, Kurdish fighters downed a Turkish helicopter, Israel downed an Iranian drone and the Syrian army shot down an Israeli F-16.

This was a direct confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian-paid contractors. During the Vietnam War, some Russians were killed in our bombing of North Vietnam and other operations (16 or more Russians killed). During the Korean War, Russians pilots, posing as North Koreans, engaged in aerial combat with the U.S. aircraft, along with providing AA (around 300 Russians killed total). But I suspect you have to go back to Russian Civil War (1917-1921) to find a major ground action between U.S. and Russian forces. Not sure any of them were of this size.

Related articles: These 5 Proxy Battles Are Making Syria’s Civil War Increasingly Complicated

Russian Body Counts

Aerial Drone Tactics, 2025-2050

[Image: War On The Rocks.]

My previous post outlined the potential advantages and limitations of current and future drone technology. The real utility of drones in future warfare may lie in a tactic that is both quite old and new, swarming. “‘This [drone swarm concept] goes all the way back to the tactics of Attila the Hun,’ says Randall Steeb, senior engineer at the Rand Corporation in the US. ‘A light attack force that can defeat more powerful and sophisticated opponents. They come out of nowhere, attack from all sides and then disappear, over and over.'”

In order to be effective, Mr. Steeb’s concept would require drones to be able to speed away from their adversary, or be able to hide. The Huns are described “as preferring to defeat their enemies by deceit, surprise attacks, and cutting off supplies. The Huns brought large numbers of horses to use as replacements and to give the impression of a larger army on campaign.” Also, prior to problems caused to the Roman Empire by the Huns under Attila (~400 CE), another group of people, the Scythians, used similar tactics much earlier, as mentioned by Herodotus, (~800 BCE). “With great mobility, the Scythians could absorb the attacks of more cumbersome foot soldiers and cavalry, just retreating into the steppes. Such tactics wore down their enemies, making them easier to defeat.” These tactics were also used by the Parthians, resulted in the Roman defeat under Crassis at the Battle of Carrahe, 53 BCE. Clearly, maneuver is as old as warfare itself.

Indeed, others have their own ancient analogies.

Today, fighter pilots approach warfare like a questing medieval knight. They search for opponents with similar capabilities and defeat them by using technologically superior equipment or better application of individual tactics and techniques. For decades, leading air forces nurtured this dynamic by developing expensive, manned air superiority fighters. This will all soon change. Advances in unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) will turn fighter pilots from noble combatants to small-unit leaders and drive the development of new aerial combined arms tactics.

Drone Swarms: A Game Changer?

We can see that the new technologies come along, and they enable a new look at warfare, and often enable a new implementation of ancient tactics. There are some who claim that this changes the game, and indeed may change the fundamental nature of war.

Peter Singer, an expert on future warfare at the New America think-tank, is in no doubt. ‘What we have is a series of technologies that change the game. They’re not science fiction. They raise new questions. What’s possible? What’s proper?’ Mr. Singer is talking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and big-data analytics. Together they will produce systems and weapons with varying degrees of autonomy, from being able to work under human supervision to ‘thinking’ for themselves. The most decisive factor on the battlefield of the future may be the quality of each side’s algorithms. Combat may speed up so much that humans can no longer keep up. Frank Hoffman, a fellow of the National Defense University who coined the term ‘hybrid warfare’, believes that these new technologies have the potential not just to change the character of war but even possibly its supposedly immutable nature as a contest of wills. For the first time, the human factors that have defined success in war, ‘will, fear, decision-making and even the human spark of genius, may be less evident,’ he says.” (emphasis added).

Drones are highly capable, and with increasing autonomy, they themselves may be immune to fear. Technology has been progressing step by step to alter the character of war. Think of the Roman soldier and his personal experience in warfare up close vs. the modern sniper. They each have a different experience in warfare, and fear manifests itself in different ways. Unless we create and deploy full autonomous systems, with no human in or on the loop, there will be an opportunity for fear and confusion by the human mind to creep into martial matters. An indeed, with so much new technology, friction of some sort is almost assured.

I’m not alone in this assessment. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said “You go all the way back to Thucydides who wrote the first history and it was of a war and he said it’s fear and honor and interest and those continue to this day. The fundamental nature of war is unchanging. War is a human social phenomenon.”

Swarming and Information Dominance

Indeed, the notion of the importance of information dominance plays upon one of the most important fundamental aspects of warfare: surprise. There are many synonyms for surprise, one of the most popular these days is situational awareness (SA). In a recent assessment of trends in air-to-air combat for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Dr. John Stillion described the impact of SA.

Aerial combat over the past two decades, though relatively rare, continues to demonstrate the importance of superior SA. The building blocks, however, of superior SA, information acquisition and information denial, seem to be increasingly associated with sensors, signature reduction, and networks. Looking forward, these changes have greatly increased the proportion of BVR [Beyond Visual Range] engagements and likely reduced the utility of traditional fighter aircraft attributes, such as speed and maneuverability, in aerial combat. At the same time, they seem to have increased the importance of other attributes.

Stillion, famous for his RAND briefing on the F-35, proposes an interesting concept of operations for air-to-air combat, centered on larger aircraft with bigger sensor apertures, and subsonic UCAS fighters in the “front line.” He’s got a good video to illustrate how this concept would work against an adversary.

[I]t is important to acknowledge that all of the foregoing discussion is based on certain assumptions plus analysis of past trends, and the future of aerial combat might continue to belong to fast, agile aircraft. The alternative vision of future aerial combat presented in Chapter 5 relies heavily on robust LoS [Line of Sight] data links to enable widely distributed aircraft to efficiently share information and act in concert to achieve superior SA and combat effectiveness. Should the links be degraded or denied, the concept put forward here would be difficult or impossible to implement.

Therefore, in the near term, one of the most important capabilities to enable is a secure battle network. This will be required for remotely piloted and autonomous system alike, and this will be the foundation of information dominance – the acquisition of information for use by friendly forces, and the denial of information to an adversary.

Russian Body Counts

I found this article from Reuters to be particularly interesting: Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded

A few key points:

1. The clash was on 7 February near Khusham in Deir al-Zor province in Syria.

2. Last week 300 Russian contractors may have been killed or wounded in Syria.

   a. That would be 100 killed and 200 wounded according to one rumor.

   b. Or at least 80 killed

   c. Or 5 killed according to Russian officials.

3. It is probably more than 5.

   a. The wounded men have been sent to 4 Russian military hospitals.

   b. There were more than 50 patients at one hospital.

   c. There were three planeloads of injured fighters flown to Moscow.

   d. One ward contained 8 patients.

4. The unit was 550 men and there are only about 200 who were not casualties according to one source.

5. They were “contractors” employed by the “Wagner Group.” These guys:


Related article: Russia: 5 citizens probably killed by U.S. strike

Air Power and Drones, 2025-2050

[Credit: Financial Times]

In the recently issued 2018 National Defense Strategy, the United States acknowledged that “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the Department [of Defense], and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future.”

The strategy statement lists technologies that will be focused upon:

The drive to develop new technologies is relentless, expanding to more actors with lower barriers of entry, and moving at accelerating speed. New technologies include advanced computing, “big data” analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics, directed energy, hypersonics, and biotechnology— the very technologies that ensure we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future… The Department will invest broadly in military application of autonomy, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, including rapid application of commercial breakthroughs, to gain competitive military advantages.” (emphasis added).

Autonomy, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning…these are all related to the concept of “drone swarms.” TDI has reported previously on the idea of drone swarms on land. There is indeed promise in many domains of warfare for such technology. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the future of warfare, Mr Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argued that “America should apply new technologies to four main areas of warfare: undersea, strike, air and electromagnetic.”

Drones have certainly transformed the way that the U.S. wages war from the air. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) innovated, deployed and fired weapons from drones first against the Taliban in Afghanistan, less than one month after the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. homeland. Most drones today are airborne, partly because it is generally easier to navigate in the air than it is on the land, due to fewer obstacles and more uniform and predictable terrain. The same is largely true of the oceans, at least the blue water parts.

Aerial Drones and Artificial Intelligence

It is important to note that the drones in active use today by the U.S. military are actually remotely piloted Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). With the ability to fire missiles since 2001, one could argue that these crossed the threshold into Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), but nonetheless, they have a pilot—typically a U.S. Air Force (USAF) member, who would very much like to be flying an F-16, rather than sitting in a shipping container in the desert somewhere safe, piloting a UAV in a distant theater of war.

Given these morale challenges, work on autonomy is clearly underway. Let’s look at a forecast from The Economist, which follows the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in both the commercial and military realms.

A distinction needs to be made between “narrow” AI, which allows a machine to carry out a specific task much better than a human could, and “general” AI, which has far broader applications. Narrow AI is already in wide use for civilian tasks such as search and translation, spam filters, autonomous vehicles, high-frequency stock trading and chess-playing computers… General AI may still be at least 20 years off. A general AI machine should be able to carry out almost any intellectual task that a human is capable of.” (emphasis added)

Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. military (or others) will not field a fully automated drone, capable of prosecuting a battle without human assistance, until roughly 2038. This means that in the meantime, a human will be somewhere “in” or “on” the loop, making at least some of the decisions, especially those involving deadly force.

[Credit: The Economist]

Future Aerial Drone Roles and Missions

The CIA’s initial generation of UAVs was armed in an ad-hoc fashion; further innovation was spurred by the drive to seek out and destroy the 9/11 perpetrators. These early vehicles were designed for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) missions. In this role, drones have some big advantages over manned aircraft, including the ability to loiter for long periods. They are not quick, not very maneuverable, and as such are suited to operations in permissive airspace.

The development of UCAVs has allowed their integration into strike (air-to-ground) and air superiority (air-to-air) missions in contested airspace. UCAV strike missions could target and destroy land and sea nodes in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) networks in an attempt to establish “information dominance.” They might also be targeted against assets like surface to air missiles and radars, part of an adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability.

Given the sophistication of Russian and Chinese A2/AD networks and air forces, some focus should be placed upon developing more capable and advanced drones required to defeat these challenges. One example comes from Kratos, a drone maker, and reported on in Popular Science.

Concept art for Mako combat drone. Based on the existing BQM-167 aerial target, this drone can maneuver at forces that could kill a human pilot [Image courtesy of Kratos/Popular Science]

The Mako drone pictured above has much higher performance than some other visions of future drone swarms, which look more like paper airplanes. Given their size and numbers, they might be difficult to shoot down entirely, and this might be able to operate reasonably well within contested airspace. But, they’re not well suited for air-to-air combat, as they will not have the weapons or the speed necessary to engage with current manned aircraft in use with potential enemy air forces. Left unchecked, an adversary’s current fighters and bombers could easily avoid these types of drones and prosecute their own attacks on vital systems, installations and facilities.

The real utility of drones may lie in the unique tactic for which they are suited, swarming. More on that in my next post.

Attrition In Future Land Combat

Soldiers with Battery C, 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division maneuver their Paladins through Hohenfels Training Area, Oct. 26. Photo Credit: Capt. John Farmer, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav

[This post was originally published on June 9, 2017]

Last autumn, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley asserted that “we are on the cusp of a fundamental change in the character of warfare, and specifically ground warfare. It will be highly lethal, very highly lethal, unlike anything our Army has experienced, at least since World War II.” He made these comments while describing the Army’s evolving Multi-Domain Battle concept for waging future combat against peer or near-peer adversaries.

How lethal will combat on future battlefields be? Forecasting the future is, of course, an undertaking fraught with uncertainties. Milley’s comments undoubtedly reflect the Army’s best guesses about the likely impact of new weapons systems of greater lethality and accuracy, as well as improved capabilities for acquiring targets. Many observers have been closely watching the use of such weapons on the battlefield in the Ukraine. The spectacular success of the Zelenopillya rocket strike in 2014 was a convincing display of the lethality of long-range precision strike capabilities.

It is possible that ground combat attrition in the future between peer or near-peer combatants may be comparable to the U.S. experience in World War II (although there were considerable differences between the experiences of the various belligerents). Combat losses could be heavier. It certainly seems likely that they would be higher than those experienced by U.S. forces in recent counterinsurgency operations.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Defense Department has demonstrated a tenuous understanding of the phenomenon of combat attrition. Despite wildly inaccurate estimates for combat losses in the 1991 Gulf War, only modest effort has been made since then to improve understanding of the relationship between combat and casualties. The U.S. Army currently does not have either an approved tool or a formal methodology for casualty estimation.

Historical Trends in Combat Attrition

Trevor Dupuy did a great deal of historical research on attrition in combat. He found several trends that had strong enough empirical backing that he deemed them to be verities. He detailed his conclusions in Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat (1987) and Attrition: Forecasting Battle Casualties and Equipment Losses in Modern War (1995).

Dupuy documented a clear relationship over time between increasing weapon lethality, greater battlefield dispersion, and declining casualty rates in conventional combat. Even as weapons became more lethal, greater dispersal in frontage and depth among ground forces led daily personnel loss rates in battle to decrease.

The average daily battle casualty rate in combat has been declining since 1600 as a consequence. Since battlefield weapons continue to increase in lethality and troops continue to disperse in response, it seems logical to presume the trend in loss rates continues to decline, although this may not necessarily be the case. There were two instances in the 19th century where daily battle casualty rates increased—during the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War—before declining again. Dupuy noted that combat casualty rates in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War remained roughly the same as those in World War II (1939-45), almost thirty years earlier. Further research is needed to determine if average daily personnel loss rates have indeed continued to decrease into the 21st century.

Dupuy also discovered that, as with battle outcomes, casualty rates are influenced by the circumstantial variables of combat. Posture, weather, terrain, season, time of day, surprise, fatigue, level of fortification, and “all out” efforts affect loss rates. (The combat loss rates of armored vehicles, artillery, and other other weapons systems are directly related to personnel loss rates, and are affected by many of the same factors.) Consequently, yet counterintuitively, he could find no direct relationship between numerical force ratios and combat casualty rates. Combat power ratios which take into account the circumstances of combat do affect casualty rates; forces with greater combat power inflict higher rates of casualties than less powerful forces do.

Winning forces suffer lower rates of combat losses than losing forces do, whether attacking or defending. (It should be noted that there is a difference between combat loss rates and numbers of losses. Depending on the circumstances, Dupuy found that the numerical losses of the winning and losing forces may often be similar, even if the winner’s casualty rate is lower.)

Dupuy’s research confirmed the fact that the combat loss rates of smaller forces is higher than that of larger forces. This is in part due to the fact that smaller forces have a larger proportion of their troops exposed to enemy weapons; combat casualties tend to concentrated in the forward-deployed combat and combat support elements. Dupuy also surmised that Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s concept of friction plays a role in this. The complexity of interactions between increasing numbers of troops and weapons simply diminishes the lethal effects of weapons systems on real world battlefields.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, higher quality forces (that better manage the ambient effects of friction in combat) inflict casualties at higher rates than those with less effectiveness. This can be seen clearly in the disparities in casualties between German and Soviet forces during World War II, Israeli and Arab combatants in 1973, and U.S. and coalition forces and the Iraqis in 1991 and 2003.

Combat Loss Rates on Future Battlefields

What do Dupuy’s combat attrition verities imply about casualties in future battles? As a baseline, he found that the average daily combat casualty rate in Western Europe during World War II for divisional-level engagements was 1-2% for winning forces and 2-3% for losing ones. For a divisional slice of 15,000 personnel, this meant daily combat losses of 150-450 troops, concentrated in the maneuver battalions (The ratio of wounded to killed in modern combat has been found to be consistently about 4:1. 20% are killed in action; the other 80% include mortally wounded/wounded in action, missing, and captured).

It seems reasonable to conclude that future battlefields will be less densely occupied. Brigades, battalions, and companies will be fighting in spaces formerly filled with armies, corps, and divisions. Fewer troops mean fewer overall casualties, but the daily casualty rates of individual smaller units may well exceed those of WWII divisions. Smaller forces experience significant variation in daily casualties, but Dupuy established average daily rates for them as shown below.

For example, based on Dupuy’s methodology, the average daily loss rate unmodified by combat variables for brigade combat teams would be 1.8% per day, battalions would be 8% per day, and companies 21% per day. For a brigade of 4,500, that would result in 81 battle casualties per day, a battalion of 800 would suffer 64 casualties, and a company of 120 would lose 27 troops. These rates would then be modified by the circumstances of each particular engagement.

Several factors could push daily casualty rates down. Milley envisions that U.S. units engaged in an anti-access/area denial environment will be constantly moving. A low density, highly mobile battlefield with fluid lines would be expected to reduce casualty rates for all sides. High mobility might also limit opportunities for infantry assaults and close quarters combat. The high operational tempo will be exhausting, according to Milley. This could also lower loss rates, as the casualty inflicting capabilities of combat units decline with each successive day in battle.

It is not immediately clear how cyberwarfare and information operations might influence casualty rates. One combat variable they might directly impact would be surprise. Dupuy identified surprise as one of the most potent combat power multipliers. A surprised force suffers a higher casualty rate and surprisers enjoy lower loss rates. Russian combat doctrine emphasizes using cyber and information operations to achieve it and forces with degraded situational awareness are highly susceptible to it. As Zelenopillya demonstrated, surprise attacks with modern weapons can be devastating.

Some factors could push combat loss rates up. Long-range precision weapons could expose greater numbers of troops to enemy fires, which would drive casualties up among combat support and combat service support elements. Casualty rates historically drop during night time hours, although modern night-vision technology and persistent drone reconnaissance might will likely enable continuous night and day battle, which could result in higher losses.

Drawing solid conclusions is difficult but the question of future battlefield attrition is far too important not to be studied with greater urgency. Current policy debates over whether or not the draft should be reinstated and the proper size and distribution of manpower in active and reserve components of the Army hinge on getting this right. The trend away from mass on the battlefield means that there may not be a large margin of error should future combat forces suffer higher combat casualties than expected.

FY2018-FY2019 Defense Budget

I gather we finally have a defense budget in place and it runs through September 2019 (there is no requirement to pass a budget for only one year). It is an $80 billion boost above spending caps for this year and $85 billion above spending caps for FY2019. This is a total of $165 billion above spending caps. The U.S. defense budget was already at least $35 billion over the spending cap. The budget request for FY2107 was initially $583 billion. I gather the budget for FY2018 is the BCA Budget Cap figure of $549 + $80  = $629 billion. Don’t quote me on this.



I did note that Senator Rand Paul in his brief filibuster speech last night said that we were involved in seven wars. Of the top of my head, I only count six:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Iraq
  3. Syria
  4. Libya
  5. Somalia
  6. “Trans-Sahara” (Mali and Niger)

Makes me wonder which war I am missing (perhaps he is counting Yemen).

Also of note was that we ended up halting a battalion-sized attack in Syria by the Syrian government. See:

A few highlights:

  1. More than 100 Syrian soldiers are claimed to have been killed.
    1. Syrians claim they lost 7 killed and 27 injured.
    2. One SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) member was injured.
  2. The Syrian attack included 122mm Howitzers, multiple launch rocket systems, T-55 and T-72 tanks.
  3. U.S. responded with Air Force AC-130 gunships, F-15s, F-22s, Army Apache gunships, Marine Corps artillery, HIMARS (our Katusha) and MQ-9 drones.