Russian Invasions – update 1

Well, it appears that the U.S. and Russia will hold “security talks” on Jan. 10, 12 and 13. See:

I noted in my original post post four possibilities. The last one listed was “4. Or the build up may be the message (most likely option).”

Russian Invasions | Mystics & Statistics (

It does appear that the build up got Russia the attention they wanted. We shall see what comes out of these talks. Suspect they will be more symbolic than substantive.


Russian Invasions

My son was texting me today about the threat Russia appears to be posing towards Ukraine. Glad he is paying attention. According to an article he read, the Russians have gathered 175,000 troops on the border and 10 days of supply.

Now, according to Wikipedia (which is usually drawn from IISS) the Ukrainian Armed Forces has 255,000 active personnel and 900,000 in reserve as of 2021. In 2016 there were 169,000 personnel in the ground forces: with two armored brigades, 13 mechanized brigades, eight air assault brigades, two mountain warfare brigades, five airmobile brigades and seven rocket and artillery brigades. In 2016 the Air Force had 36,300 personnel, the Navy had 6,500 personnel and the Special Forces had 4,000. I gather these forces have expanded since 2016.

So, it does not look like Russia is planning on marching to Kiev, especially with 10 days of supply. They are probably not even considering creating a land bridge to Crimea.

So what might they be considering:

1. Help the local governments in rebellion take the rest of Donetsk and Lugansk.
2. Replace the local governments in Donetsk and Lugansk with their own governance (possibly in anticipation of formally annexing these two areas).
3. Make violent border demonstrations.
4. Or the build up may be the message (most likely option).

I gather Russia really does not want Ukraine to join NATO. I am not sure that build ups at the border make that point. In fact, it may reinforce Ukraine’s desire to join NATO. On the other hand, invading Donetsk or Lugansk or the rest of Ukraine certainly works against that goal.

Of course the real question is not whether Ukraine wants to join NATO, I gather that is a given. The real question is NATO willing to take on the responsibility of defending Ukraine, especially with two provinces in open revolt and two entities (Crimea and Sevastopol) annexed by Russia. So far, I gather no one significant has made a clear statement on that subject one way or the other. Ukrainian’s NATO membership appears to be in permanent limbo, which I gather that is what Russia prefers. The build up may be for the sake of signaling that it should stay that way. 

One last note: the price of oil is below $70 a barrel (Brent Crude was at 69.92). Last I checked (it was a couple of years ago), Russia needed the price of oil to be at $80 or higher to balance their budget. It was there a month ago, now it is not. Running significant deficits may limit their willingness to explore military options. Perhaps the easiest way to constrain Russian adventurism is to keep the price of oil down.

Congressional Research Report on Uses of Armed Forces

I have recently been perusing the Congressional Research Report on Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2019, updated July 17, 2019. It is here:

I do have some real heartburn with this report. For example, for the period from 1950-1959 they report six incidents of the use of U.S. armed forces. They are Korean War (1950-53), Formosa (1950-55), China (1954-55), Egypt (1956), Lebanon (1958) and The Caribbean (1959-1960). No Vietnam.

On 23 October 1954 President Eisenhower offered military aid to Vietnamese tin-pot dictator Prime Minister Diem. From 1957 through 1959 the United States had around 700 troops deployed to Vietnam. In 1957 we suffered our first casualties in 1959 lost our first two soldiers in Vietnam. Yet their first listing for Vietnam starts in 1964.

It does appears that the report uses very different standards over reporting for instances from decade to decade. For example, from 1950-1959 they report six uses of U.S. armed forces abroad, while in 2000-2019 they report 108. Many of the type of instances they report later in their list do not appear to be reported in the previous decades.

For example, the last instance listed on page 45 is the signature of a “defense-cooperation agreement” with Lithuania for 2019. Yet, the list does not record the United States joining NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), which eventually grew to 29 members (including Lithuania). It is clear that we have signed dozens of these types of agreements from 1945-1979, and yet they are not listed back then, but are now being listed in 2019.

In another extreme example, they only have three instance reports for Vietnam, one covering 1964-1973 and two reports for 1975. Yet they have 32 instances for Bosnia from 1993-2006.

It is clear that different standards and levels of research are being used for events in the last few decades on that list than are used for events in the first few decades.

It appears that the list over time has been updated with considerable detail over the last couple of decades without a corresponding backdating to make sure that the listing is reporting the same type of events in the same detail from 1945-1979. Therefore, one cannot directly compare the number of instances from previous decades to the more recent decades because they are based upon a different standard and detail of reporting.

Around 2000, the report also appears to start listing the instances in more detail, and in 2014, they start footnoting the source for each of their listings. So the report is clearly expanding in scope and improving in detail, but this means that it cannot and should not be used for comparisons over time. Still, the absence of major events like the involvement of the United States armed forces in Vietnam before 1964 is a major shortfall. It is clear that this report needs to be properly updated for past events.

As this is the tax payer funded, government supervised Congressional Research Service report, I really do expect better from them.

What is the Level of U.S. Commitment to NATO?

The United States spends 3.2% of its GDP on defense (SIPRI 2019) or 3.57% in 2017 according the Secretary General’s Annual Report (2017). All the other 28 countries in NATO spend less than that. Only three or four NATO members spend more than 2% (Greece at 2.36%, UK at 2.12%, Estonia at 2.08%). There is a little confusion in these figures, for NATO records France at 1.79% for 2017 while SIPRI in 2019 has France at 2.3%). Germany spends 1.24% (1.2% according to SIPRI). Canada, which has a GDP almost as large as Russia spends 0.9% (SIPRI) or 1.29% (NATO). Russia spends 4.3% (SIPRI).

But the United States had multiple commitments around the world, and many of these have nothing to do with NATO (which is…the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). In fact, there is a geographic definition in their charter. Of course, the notable exception here is Afghanistan, where most nations sent troops as part of a NATO force there.

Not all of the U.S. forces are in Europe. For example, we have two maneuver brigades in NATO (Germany and Italy). We have 13 divisions in the U.S. Army and USMC (usually three maneuver brigades per division). Therefore, is U.S. ground commitment to NATO roughly 2/42nds of our ground forces? Or should we include all those units in Texas and Colorado and elsewhere who can be moved to Europe on short notice (I hope they can move…haven’t checked on that recently)?

So, for example, the U.S. forces in Korea are not a NATO asset. The Second Infantry Division has its division headquarters, its Combat Aviation Brigade, its sustainment Brigade, and an independent Field Artillery Brigade based in Korea, but its two maneuver brigades (both Stryker Brigades) are in Washington state. In 2015 we deactivated the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team and instead rotate a brigade from other divisions to Korea for nine month tours (3rd ABCT, 1st Armored Division is there now). The 3rd Marine Division HQ is in Okinawa. It is almost certainly not a NATO asset. Also, it is effectively only two brigades (the Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade of only one MEU and the 3rd and 4th Marine Regiments). So are we really looking at 37/42nds of our ground forces committed to NATO?

The same goes with the Air Force which only has the Third Air Force in Europe with three fighter wings and three other flying wings. The U.S. Air Force as of 2015 had 57 active duty flying wings. So, is only 6/57th of the Air Force in Europe? Planes are quick to move. A lot could be moved there quickly, and we maintain multiple airfields.

The navy has only one fleet (the Sixth Fleet) that regularly operates in the north Atlantic with one carrier and one carrier that regularly operates in the Mediterranean. We have six numbered fleets (one is a cyber command), 11 carriers and 9 Marine amphibious assault ships (which are about the size of most other peoples’ carriers). Usually about two of those carriers and Marine amphibious assault ships are operating in and around Europe, although it is easy to move ships about. Still, between Korea, the Pacific, the Persian Gulf, not everything is available for Europe.

So clearly we are not spending 3.2% of our GDP on NATO. We do have some other commitments in the world (Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Niger, etc.). As certainly more than 2/3rds of our army, air force and navy can be committed to Europe on short-notice then we can argue we are above 2% of GDP.

So, What Would We Do with 120,000 Troops in the Middle East?

Parade of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps tank transporters, 21 September 2012

The New York Times reported yesterday that DOD (Department of Defense) has assembled a plan to move as many as 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East. The article is here:

A few quotes (bolding in mine):

  1. “…last Thursday, Acting Defense secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East….
  2. “…should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.”
  3. “They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.”
  4. “More than a half-dozen American national security officers….agreed to discuss them with the The New York Times….”

Now, this really cannot be an invasion force for Iran. Iran is a country of 82 million people with an armed force of over 500,000. Of that force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps makes up 120,000 (about 100,000 in their ground forces) while the Iranian Army consist of 350,000. They also have a 37,000 person air force, 18,000 person navy and 15,000 air defense force. Their army budget is 2 trillion, which is about 0.3 percent of what we spend. All this data is from Wikipedia.

We occupied Iraq in 2003 with an initial invasion force of 75,000 U. S. ground troops, and that ended up not going too well. Iraq had a population of 24 million at the time. Also, Tehran is a long way from the Persian Gulf. Assuming we have learned something in the interim, this probably means we would be looking for an invasion force of several hundred thousand. So, this is probably not an invasion force.

I assume a significant portion of this force is air and naval.

We did previously intervene in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” between Iran and Iraq. These two nations had been at war since 1980. It is estimated that during their “Tanker War” (1984-1988) 430 civilian sailors were killed. The U.S. became involved on 23 July 1987 with Operation Earnest Will. This operation, which including escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf, led to a U.S. build up of over 30 warships. The biggest loss of American life was an incident that occurred before the tanker escort operation was declared when on 17 May 1987 an Iraqi (not Iranian) F-1 Mirage plane accidently fired two Exocet missiles at the USS Stark, with 37 sailors killed and 21 wounded. The U.S. also lost 2 U.S. Marines killed during Operation Praying Mantis on 18 April 1988 and 10 U.S. Navy wounded on 14 April 1988 (from the USS Samuel B. Roberts hitting a mine). U.S. ships were fired upon, struck mines or took other military actions on July 24 1987, September 22-26, October 10, October 15, October 18, April 14, April 18, July 3 and July 14 1988. There were at least 18 U.S. civilian seamen injured by (Iranian) mines.

During Operation Praying Mantis Iran lost the frigate Sahand (45 crew killed), a gunboat (11 crew killed) and 3 speedboats. They also lost 5 killed in a U.S. raid on Iran Ajr on 22 September 1987 and three other Iranian boats were sunk shortly afterwards. There were some other losses, but I have not tracked them all.

Then there was the USS Vincennes which on 3 July 1988 sunk two Iranian gunboats and then accidently shot down Iran Air Flight 655 for the loss of 290 civilians.

Toward An American Approach To Proxy Warfare

U.S.-supported Philippine guerilla fighters led the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Luzon during World War II. [Warfare History Network]

U.S. Army Major Amos Fox has recently published the first two of a set of three articles examining nature of proxy warfare in the early 21st century and suggests some ideas for how the U.S. might better conduct it.

In “In Pursuit of a General Theory of Proxy Warfare,” published in February 2019 by the The Institute of Land Warfare at the Association of the U.S. Army, and “Time, Power, and Principal-Agent Problems: Why the U.S. Army is Ill-Suited for Proxy Warfare Hotspots,” published in the March-April 2019 edition of Military Review, Fox argues,

Proxy environments dominate modern war… It is not just a Russian, Iranian or American approach to war, but one in which many nations and polities engage. However, the U.S. Army lacks a paradigm for proxy warfare, which disrupts its ability to understand the environment or develop useful tactics, operations and strategies for those environments.

His examination of the basic elements of proxy warfare leads him to conclude that “it is dominated by a principal actor dynamic, power relationships and the tyranny of time.” From this premise, Fox outlines two basic models of proxy warfare: exploitative and transactional.

The exploitative model…is characterized by a proxy force being completely dependent on its principal for survival… [It] is usually the result of a stronger actor looking for a tool—a proxy force—to pursue an objective. As a result, the proxy is only as useful to the principal as its ability to make progress toward the principal’s ends. Once the principal’s ends have been achieved or the proxy is unable to maintain momentum toward the principal’s ends, then the principal discontinues the relationship or distances itself from the proxy.

The transactional model is…more often like a business deal. An exchange of services and goods that benefits all parties—defeat of a mutual threat, training of the agent’s force, foreign military sales and finance—is at the heart of the transactional model. However, this model is a paradox because the proxy is the powerbroker in the relationship. In many cases, the proxy government is independent but looking for assistance in defeating an adversary; it is not interested in political or military subjugation by the principal. Moreover, the proxy possesses the power in the relationship because its association with the principal is wholly transactional…the clock starts ticking on the duration of the bond as soon as the first combined shot is fired. As a result, as the common goal is gradually achieved, the agent’s interest in the principal recedes at a comparable rate.

With this concept in hand, Fox makes that case that

[T]he U.S. Army is ill-suited for warfare in the proxy environment because it mismanages the fixed time and the finite power it possesses over a proxy force in pursuit of waning mutual interests. Fundamentally, the salient features of proxy environments—available time, power over a proxy force, and mutual interests—are fleeting due to the fact that proxy relationships are transactional in nature; they are marriages of convenience in which a given force works through another in pursuit of provisionally aligned political or military ends… In order to better position itself to succeed in the proxy environment, the U.S. Army must clearly understand the background and components of proxy warfare.

These two articles provide an excellent basis for a wider discussion for thinking about and shaping not just a more coherent U.S. Army doctrine, but a common policy/strategic/operational framework for understanding and successfully operating in the proxy warfare environments that will only loom larger in 21st century international affairs. It will be interesting to see how Fox’s third article rounds out his discussion.

Active Defense, Forward Defense, and A2/AD in Eastern Europe

The current military and anti-access/area denial situation in Eastern Europe. [Map and overlay derived from situation map by Thomas C. Thielen (@noclador); and Ian Williams, “The Russia – NATO A2AD Environment,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, published January 3, 2017, last modified November 29, 2018,]

In an article published by West Point’s Modern War Institute last month, The US Army is Wrong on Future War,” Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox and Adam Taliaferro laid out a detailed argument that current and near-future political, strategic, and operational realities augur against the Army’s current doctrinal conceptualization for Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).

[T]he US Army is mistakenly structuring for offensive clashes of mass and scale reminiscent of 1944 while competitors like Russia and China have adapted to twenty-first-century reality. This new paradigm—which favors fait accompli acquisitions, projection from sovereign sanctuary, and indirect proxy wars—combines incremental military actions with weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence…

These factors suggest, cumulatively, that the advantage in military confrontation between great powers has decisively shifted to those that combine strategic offense with tactical defense.

As a consequence, the authors suggested that “the US Army should recognize the evolved character of modern warfare and embrace strategies that establish forward positions of advantage in contested areas like Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. This means reorganizing its current maneuver-centric structure into a fires-dominant force with robust capacity to defend in depth.”

Forward Defense, Active Defense, and AirLand Battle

To illustrate their thinking, Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro invoked a specific historical example:

This strategic realignment should begin with adopting an approach more reminiscent of the US Army’s Active Defense doctrine of the 1970s than the vaunted AirLand Battle concept of the 1980s. While many distain (sic) Active Defense for running counter to institutional culture, it clearly recognized the primacy of the combined-arms defense in depth with supporting joint fires in the nuclear era. The concept’s elevation of the sciences of terrain and weaponry at scale—rather than today’s cult of the offense—is better suited to the current strategic environment. More importantly, this methodology would enable stated political aims to prevent adversary aggression rather than to invade their home territory.

In the article’s comments, many pushed back against reviving Active Defense thinking, which has apparently become indelibly tarred with the derisive criticism that led to its replacement by AirLand Battle in the 1980s. As the authors gently noted, much of this resistance stemmed from the perceptions of Army critics that Active Defense was passive and defensively-oriented, overly focused on firepower, and suspicions that it derived from operations research analysts reducing warfare and combat to a mathematical “battle calculus.”

While AirLand Battle has been justly lauded for enabling U.S. military success against Iraq in 1990-91 and 2003 (a third-rank, non-nuclear power it should be noted), it always elided the fundamental question of whether conventional deep strikes and operational maneuver into the territory of the Soviet Union’s Eastern European Warsaw Pact allies—and potentially the Soviet Union itself—would have triggered a nuclear response. The criticism of Active Defense similarly overlooked the basic political problem that led to the doctrine in the first place, namely, the need to provide a credible conventional forward defense of West Germany. Keeping the Germans actively integrated into NATO depended upon assurances that a Soviet invasion could be resisted effectively without resorting to nuclear weapons. Indeed, the political cohesion of the NATO alliance itself rested on the contradiction between the credibility of U.S. assurances that it would defend Western Europe with nuclear weapons if necessary and the fears of alliance members that losing a battle for West Germany would make that necessity a reality.

Forward Defense in Eastern Europe

A cursory look at the current military situation in Eastern Europe along with Russia’s increasingly robust anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities (see map) should clearly illustrate the logic behind a doctrine of forward defense. U.S. and NATO troops based in Western Europe would have to run a gauntlet of well protected long-range fires systems just to get into battle in Ukraine or the Baltics. Attempting operational maneuver at the end of lengthy and exposed logistical supply lines would seem to be dauntingly challenging. The U.S. 2nd U.S. Cavalry ABCT Stryker Brigade Combat Team based in southwest Germany appears very much “lone and lonely.” It should also illustrate the difficulties in attacking the Russian A2/AD complex; an act, which Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro remind, that would actively court a nuclear response.

In this light, Active Defense—or better—a MDO doctrine of forward defense oriented on “a fires-dominant force with robust capacity to defend in depth,” intended to “enable stated political aims to prevent adversary aggression rather than to invade their home territory,” does not really seem foolishly retrograde after all.

TDI Friday Read: Multi-Domain Battle/Operations Doctrine

With the December 2018 update of the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept, this seems like a good time to review the evolution of doctrinal thinking about it. We will start with the event that sparked the Army’s thinking about the subject: the 2014 rocket artillery barrage fired from Russian territory that devastated Ukrainian Army forces near the village of Zelenopillya. From there we will look at the evolution of Army thinking beginning with the initial draft of an operating concept for Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) in 2017. To conclude, we will re-up two articles expressing misgivings over the manner with which these doctrinal concepts are being developed, and the direction they are taking.

The Russian Artillery Strike That Spooked The U.S. Army

Army And Marine Corps Join Forces To Define Multi-Domain Battle Concept

Army/Marine Multi-Domain Battle White Paper Available

What Would An Army Optimized For Multi-Domain Battle Look Like?

Sketching Out Multi-Domain Battle Operational Doctrine

U.S. Army Updates Draft Multi-Domain Battle Operating Concept

U.S. Army Multi-Domain Operations Concept Continues Evolving

U.S. Army Doctrine and Future Warfare


U.S. Army Doctrine and Future Warfare

Pre-war U.S. Army warfighting doctrine led to fielding the M10, M18 and M36 tank destroyers to counter enemy tanks. Their relatively ineffective performance against German panzers in Europe during World War II has been seen as the result of flawed thinking about tank warfare. [Wikimedia]

Two recently published articles on current U.S. Army doctrine development and the future of warfare deserve to be widely read:

“An Army Caught in the Middle Between Luddites, Luminaries, and the Occasional Looney,”

The first, by RAND’s David Johnson, is titled “An Army Caught in the Middle Between Luddites, Luminaries, and the Occasional Looney,” published by War on the Rocks.

Johnson begins with an interesting argument:

Contrary to what it says, the Army has always been a concepts-based, rather than a doctrine-based, institution. Concepts about future war generate the requirements for capabilities to realize them… Unfortunately, the Army’s doctrinal solutions evolve in war only after the failure of its concepts in its first battles, which the Army has historically lost since the Revolutionary War.

The reason the Army fails in its first battles is because its concepts are initially — until tested in combat — a statement of how the Army “wants to fight” and rarely an analytical assessment of how it “will have to fight.”

Starting with the Army’s failure to develop its own version of “blitzkrieg” after World War I, Johnson identified conservative organizational politics, misreading technological advances, and a stubborn refusal to account for the capabilities of potential adversaries as common causes for the inferior battlefield weapons and warfighting methods that contributed to its impressive string of lost “first battles.”

Conversely, Johnson credited the Army’s novel 1980s AirLand Battle doctrine as the product of an honest assessment of potential enemy capabilities and the development of effective weapon systems that were “based on known, proven technologies that minimized the risk of major program failures.”

“The principal lesson in all of this” he concluded, “is that the U.S. military should have a clear problem that it is trying to solve to enable it to innovate, and is should realize that innovation is generally not invention.” There are “also important lessons from the U.S. Army’s renaissance in the 1970s, which also resulted in close cooperation between the Army and the Air Force to solve the shared problem of the defense of Western Europe against Soviet aggression that neither could solve independently.”

“The US Army is Wrong on Future War”

The other article, provocatively titled “The US Army is Wrong on Future War,” was published by West Point’s Modern War Institute. It was co-authored by Nathan Jennings, Amos Fox, and Adam Taliaferro, all graduates of the School of Advanced Military Studies, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and currently serving U.S. Army officers.

They argue that

the US Army is mistakenly structuring for offensive clashes of mass and scale reminiscent of 1944 while competitors like Russia and China have adapted to twenty-first-century reality. This new paradigm—which favors fait accompli acquisitions, projection from sovereign sanctuary, and indirect proxy wars—combines incremental military actions with weaponized political, informational, and economic agendas under the protection of nuclear-fires complexes to advance territorial influence. The Army’s failure to conceptualize these features of the future battlefield is a dangerous mistake…

Instead, they assert that the current strategic and operational realities dictate a far different approach:

Failure to recognize the ascendancy of nuclear-based defense—with the consequent potential for only limited maneuver, as in the seventeenth century—incurs risk for expeditionary forces. Even as it idealizes Patton’s Third Army with ambiguous “multi-domain” cyber and space enhancements, the US Army’s fixation with massive counter-offensives to defeat unrealistic Russian and Chinese conquests of Europe and Asia misaligns priorities. Instead of preparing for past wars, the Army should embrace forward positional and proxy engagement within integrated political, economic, and informational strategies to seize and exploit initiative.

The factors they cite that necessitate the adoption of positional warfare include nuclear primacy; sanctuary of sovereignty; integrated fires complexes; limited fait accompli; indirect proxy wars; and political/economic warfare.

“Given these realities,” Jennings, Fox, and Taliaferro assert, “the US Army must adapt and evolve to dominate great-power confrontation in the nuclear age. As such, they recommend that the U.S. (1) adopt “an approach more reminiscent of the US Army’s Active Defense doctrine of the 1970s than the vaunted AirLand Battle concept of the 1980s,” (2) “dramatically recalibrate its approach to proxy warfare; and (3) compel “joint, interagency and multinational coordination in order to deliberately align economic, informational, and political agendas in support of military objectives.”

Future U.S. Army Doctrine: How It Wants to Fight or How It Has to Fight?

Readers will find much with which to agree or disagree in each article, but they both provide viewpoints that should supply plenty of food for thought. Taken together they take on a different context. The analysis put forth by Jenninigs, Fox, and Taliaferro can be read as fulfilling Johnson’s injunction to base doctrine on a sober assessment of the strategic and operational challenges presented by existing enemy capabilities, instead of as an aspirational concept for how the Army would prefer to fight a future war. Whether or not Jennings, et al, have accurately forecasted the future can be debated, but their critique should raise questions as to whether the Army is repeating past doctrinal development errors identified by Johnson.

Trevor Dupuy and Technological Determinism in Digital Age Warfare

Is this the only innovation in weapons technology in history with the ability in itself to change warfare and alter the balance of power? Trevor Dupuy thought it might be. Shot IVY-MIKE, Eniwetok Atoll, 1 November 1952. [Wikimedia]

Trevor Dupuy was skeptical about the role of technology in determining outcomes in warfare. While he did believe technological innovation was crucial, he did not think that technology itself has decided success or failure on the battlefield. As he wrote posthumously in 1997,

I am a humanist, who is also convinced that technology is as important today in war as it ever was (and it has always been important), and that any national or military leader who neglects military technology does so to his peril and that of his country. But, paradoxically, perhaps to an extent even greater than ever before, the quality of military men is what wins wars and preserves nations. (emphasis added)

His conclusion was largely based upon his quantitative approach to studying military history, particularly the way humans have historically responded to the relentless trend of increasingly lethal military technology.

The Historical Relationship Between Weapon Lethality and Battle Casualty Rates

Based on a 1964 study for the U.S. Army, Dupuy identified a long-term historical relationship between increasing weapon lethality and decreasing average daily casualty rates in battle. (He summarized these findings in his book, The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare (1980). The quotes below are taken from it.)

Since antiquity, military technological development has produced weapons of ever increasing lethality. The rate of increase in lethality has grown particularly dramatically since the mid-19th century.

However, in contrast, the average daily casualty rate in combat has been in decline since 1600. With notable exceptions during the 19th century, casualty rates have continued to fall through the late 20th century. If technological innovation has produced vastly more lethal weapons, why have there been fewer average daily casualties in battle?

The primary cause, Dupuy concluded, was that humans have adapted to increasing weapon lethality by changing the way they fight. He identified three key tactical trends in the modern era that have influenced the relationship between lethality and casualties:

Technological Innovation and Organizational Assimilation

Dupuy noted that the historical correlation between weapons development and their use in combat has not been linear because the pace of integration has been largely determined by military leaders, not the rate of technological innovation. “The process of doctrinal assimilation of new weapons into compatible tactical and organizational systems has proved to be much more significant than invention of a weapon or adoption of a prototype, regardless of the dimensions of the advance in lethality.” [p. 337]

As a result, the history of warfare has been exemplified more often by a discontinuity between weapons and tactical systems than effective continuity.

During most of military history there have been marked and observable imbalances between military efforts and military results, an imbalance particularly manifested by inconclusive battles and high combat casualties. More often than not this imbalance seems to be the result of incompatibility, or incongruence, between the weapons of warfare available and the means and/or tactics employing the weapons. [p. 341]

In short, military organizations typically have not been fully effective at exploiting new weapons technology to advantage on the battlefield. Truly decisive alignment between weapons and systems for their employment has been exceptionally rare. Dupuy asserted that

There have been six important tactical systems in military history in which weapons and tactics were in obvious congruence, and which were able to achieve decisive results at small casualty costs while inflicting disproportionate numbers of casualties. These systems were:

  • the Macedonian system of Alexander the Great, ca. 340 B.C.
  • the Roman system of Scipio and Flaminius, ca. 200 B.C.
  • the Mongol system of Ghengis Khan, ca. A.D. 1200
  • the English system of Edward I, Edward III, and Henry V, ca. A.D. 1350
  • the French system of Napoleon, ca. A.D. 1800
  • the German blitzkrieg system, ca. A.D. 1940 [p. 341]

With one caveat, Dupuy could not identify any single weapon that had decisively changed warfare in of itself without a corresponding human adaptation in its use on the battlefield.

Save for the recent significant exception of strategic nuclear weapons, there have been no historical instances in which new and lethal weapons have, of themselves, altered the conduct of war or the balance of power until they have been incorporated into a new tactical system exploiting their lethality and permitting their coordination with other weapons; the full significance of this one exception is not yet clear, since the changes it has caused in warfare and the influence it has exerted on international relations have yet to be tested in war.

Until the present time, the application of sound, imaginative thinking to the problem of warfare (on either an individual or an institutional basis) has been more significant than any new weapon; such thinking is necessary to real assimilation of weaponry; it can also alter the course of human affairs without new weapons. [p. 340]

Technological Superiority and Offset Strategies

Will new technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence provide the basis for a seventh tactical system where weapons and their use align with decisive battlefield results? Maybe. If Dupuy’s analysis is accurate, however, it is more likely that future increases in weapon lethality will continue to be counterbalanced by human ingenuity in how those weapons are used, yielding indeterminate—perhaps costly and indecisive—battlefield outcomes.

Genuinely effective congruence between weapons and force employment continues to be difficult to achieve. Dupuy believed the preconditions necessary for successful technological assimilation since the mid-19th century have been a combination of conducive military leadership; effective coordination of national economic, technological-scientific, and military resources; and the opportunity to evaluate and analyze battlefield experience.

Can the U.S. meet these preconditions? That certainly seemed to be the goal of the so-called Third Offset Strategy, articulated in 2014 by the Obama administration. It called for maintaining “U.S. military superiority over capable adversaries through the development of novel capabilities and concepts.” Although the Trump administration has stopped using the term, it has made “maximizing lethality” the cornerstone of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, with increased funding for the Defense Department’s modernization priorities in FY2019 (though perhaps not in FY2020).

Dupuy’s original work on weapon lethality in the 1960s coincided with development in the U.S. of what advocates of a “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) have termed the “First Offset Strategy,” which involved the potential use of nuclear weapons to balance Soviet superiority in manpower and material. RMA proponents pointed to the lopsided victory of the U.S. and its allies over Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War as proof of the success of a “Second Offset Strategy,” which exploited U.S. precision-guided munitions, stealth, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems developed to counter the Soviet Army in Germany in the 1980s. Dupuy was one of the few to attribute the decisiveness of the Gulf War both to airpower and to the superior effectiveness of U.S. combat forces.

Trevor Dupuy certainly was not an anti-technology Luddite. He recognized the importance of military technological advances and the need to invest in them. But he believed that the human element has always been more important on the battlefield. Most wars in history have been fought without a clear-cut technological advantage for one side; some have been bloody and pointless, while others have been decisive for reasons other than technology. While the future is certainly unknown and past performance is not a guarantor of future results, it would be a gamble to rely on technological superiority alone to provide the margin of success in future warfare.