Dupuy’s Verities: The Inefficiency of Combat

The “Mud March” of the Union Army of the Potomac, January 1863.

The twelfth of Trevor Dupuy’s Timeless Verities of Combat is:

Combat activities are always slower, less productive, and less efficient than anticipated.

From Understanding War (1987):

This is the phenomenon that Clausewitz called “friction in war.” Friction is largely due to the disruptive, suppressive, and dispersal effects of firepower upon an aggregation of people. This pace of actual combat operations will be much slower than the progress of field tests and training exercises, even highly realistic ones. Tests and exercises are not truly realistic portrayals of combat, because they lack the element of fear in a lethal environment, present only in real combat. Allowances must be made in planning and execution for the effects of friction, including mistakes, breakdowns, and confusion.

While Clausewitz asserted that the effects of friction on the battlefield could not be measured because they were largely due to chance, Dupuy believed that its influence could, in fact, be gauged and quantified. He identified at least two distinct combat phenomena he thought reflected measurable effects of friction: the differences in casualty rates between large and small sized forces, and diminishing returns from adding extra combat power beyond a certain point in battle. He also believed much more research would be necessary to fully understand and account for this.

Dupuy was skeptical of the accuracy of combat models that failed to account for this interaction between operational and human factors on the battlefield. He was particularly doubtful about approaches that started by calculating the outcomes of combat between individual small-sized units or weapons platforms based on the Lanchester equations or “physics-based” estimates, then used these as inputs for brigade and division-level-battles, the results of which in turn were used as the basis for determining the consequences of theater-level campaigns. He thought that such models, known as “bottom up,” hierarchical, or aggregated concepts (and the prevailing approach to campaign combat modeling in the U.S.), would be incapable of accurately capturing and simulating the effects of friction.

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