Oddly enough, 1991 was when this rule was first published, that we are aware of. It was published in the CGSC (Command and General Staff College) Student Text 100-9: Techniques and Procedures for Tactical Decision Making dated July 1991. There may have been work or materials prepared before then that we are not aware of.
The actual statement in that publication is that “Historical experience has shown that a defender has approximately a 50-50 probability of successfully defeating an attacking force approximately three times his equivalent strength.” The publication then goes on to recommend that for planning purposes that they “Therefore, as our start part, we will attempt to defend on each avenue of approach with, roughly, a 1-to-3 force rations expressed as a US unit defending against the next higher level enemy unit. For example, a US battalion would defend against an enemy regiment. There are only tools for the plan. Table 3-2 shows the preferred minimum planning ratios used to initially array forces.” The key here is the words “initially” and “to start with.” When deploying out a force, seeing up a blocking force that may be initially outnumbered three-to-one in an planned deployment does not mean that it will be outmatched in combat power by three-to-one as the battle develops. It is possible to reinforce the unit, provide it with artillery or air support, or withdraw to a more favorable position. So, the guidance that forces should be arrayed one level lower than the expected opposition is not bad guidance, even though one of the arguments made in that 1991 document supporting this is clearly wrong. The problem is that this rule is now repeated in other army documents without fully clarifying that this is just a planning factor for initial dispositions. It is also serving as the basis for charts in manuals and informal casualty estimation and modeling procedures. The army now commonly publishes the following table (from the proposed ATP 5-0.2, 31 July 2019):
Historical minimum planning ratios
Friendly Mission Friendly: Enemy
Hasty defend 1:2.5
Deliberate defend 1:3
Hasty attack 2.5:1
Deliberate attack 3:1
Penetration (lead element) 18:1
This table, as shown by the data leave the impression that you need to have three-to-one odds to attack and that one-to-three odds is sufficient for defense. This would be the wrong impression to give. To claim that it is “historical” gives it more authority than it deserves, as the historical data in fact does not support this table. They are “minimum planning” factors, and that needs to properly stressed.
The bigger problem is that you fight as your train. So, if the officer corps is trained that you need at least a three-to-one force ratio to have a 50% chance of winning, then what kind of war planning and offensive action is now being envisioned? In World War II, the most common attack in our database are those at odds 1.00- to 1.49-to-one and they win 63% of the time. In the post-World War II engagements, the most common attack is done at 0.54- to 0.97-to-1 and the attacker wins 75% of the time (20 cases). So to what reality are we training our officers? Are we training the next generation of George B. McCellans?