Dupuy’s Verities: The Advantage Of The Offensive

Union assault on the “Mule Shoe” salient, 12 May 1864, by Thure de Thulstrup (1887) [Wikimedia]

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

An attacker willing to pay the price can always penetrate the strongest defenses.

From Understanding War (1987):

No matter how alert the defender, no matter how skillful his dispositions to avoid or mitigate the effects of surprise or the effects of flank or rear attack, a skillful attacker can always achieve at least a temporary advantage for some time at a place he has selected. This is one reason why Napoleon always endeavored to seize and retain the initiative. In the great battles of 1864 and 1865 in Virginia, Lee was always able to exploit his defensive advantage to the utmost. But Grant equally was always able to achieve a temporary superiority when and where he wished. This did not always result in a Union victory—given Lee’s defensive skill—but invariably it forced Lee to retreat until he could again impose a temporary stalemate with the assistance of powerful field fortifications. A modern example can be found in the Soviet offensive relieving Leningrad in 1943. Another was the Allied break-out from the Normandy beachhead in July and August of 1944.

The exact meaning of this verity is tricky to determine, as the phrase “willing to pay the price” does a lot of work here. History is certainly replete with examples of Phyrric victories, where the cost paid for battlefield success deprived the attacker of any clear benefit. (The U.S. Civil War Battle of Chickamauga in 1863 would be an example in line with Dupuy’s description above.) Perhaps “willing and able to pay the price” would have been a better of way stating this. And, of course, no attack is guaranteed to succeed.

What Dupuy had in mind here is probably best understood in the context of two other of his verities “Offensive action is essential to positive combat results” and “Initiative permits application of preponderant combat power.” Even if the defensive may be the stronger form of combat, the offensive affords certain inherent potential advantages that can enable attackers to defeat the strongest of defenses if conducted effectively, sufficiently resourced, and determinedly pressed.

Dupuy’s Verities: Fortification

The Maginot Line was a 900-mile long network of underground bunkers, tunnels and concrete retractable gun batteries. Its heaviest defenses were located along the 280-mile long border with Germany. [WikiCommons]

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

Defenders’ chances of success are directly proportional to fortification strength.

From Understanding War (1987):

To some modern military thinkers this is a truism needing no explanation or justification. Others have asserted that prepared defenses are attractive traps to be avoided at all costs. Such assertions, however, either ignore or misread historical examples. History is so fickle that it is dangerous for historians to use such words as “always” or “never.” Nevertheless I offer a bold counter-assertion: never in history has a defense been weakened by the availability of fortifications; defensive works always enhance combat strength. At the very least, fortifications will delay an attacker and add to his casualties; at best, fortifications will enable the defender to defeat the attacker.

Anyone who suggests that breakthroughs of defensive positions in recent history demonstrate the bankruptcy of defensive posture and/or fortifications is seriously deceiving himself and is misinterpreting modern history. One can cite as historical examples the overcoming of the Maginot Line, the Mannerheim Line, the Siegfried Line, and the Bar Lev Line, and from these examples conclude that these fortifications failed. Such a conclusion is absolutely wrong. It is true that all of these fortifications were overcome, but only because a powerful enemy was willing to make a massive and costly effort. (Of course, the Maginot Line was not attacked frontally in 1940; the Germans were so impressed by its defensive strength that they bypassed it, and were threatening its rear when France surrendered.) All of these fortifications afforded time for the defenders to make new dispositions, to bring up reserves, or to mobilize. All were intended to obstruct, to permit the defenders to punish the attackers and, above all to delay; all were successful in these respects. The Bar Lev Line, furthermore, saved Israel from disastrous defeat, and became the base for a successful offensive.[p. 4]

Will field fortifications continue to enhance the combat power of land forces on future battlefields? This is an interesting question. While the character of existing types of fortifications—trenches, strongpoint, and bunkers—might change, seeking cover and concealment from the earth might become even more important.

Dr. Alexander Kott, Chief Scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, provided one perspective in a recently published paper titled “Ground Warfare in 2050: How It Might Look.” In it, Kott speculated about “tactical ground warfighting circa 2050, in a major conflict between technologically advanced peer competitors.”

Kott noted that on future battlefields dominated by sensor saturation and long-range precision fires, “Conventional entrenchments and other fortifications will become less effective when teams of intelligent munitions can maneuver into and within a trench or a bunker.” Light dismounted forces “will have limited, if any, protection either from antimissiles or armor (although they may be provided a degree of protection by armor deployed by their robotic helpers… Instead, they will use cluttered ground terrain to obtain cover and concealment. In addition, they will attempt to distract and deceive…by use of decoys.”

Heavy forces “capable of producing strong lethal effects—substantial in size and mounted on vehicles—will be unlikely to avoid detection, observation, and fires.” To mitigate continuous incoming precision fires, Kott envisions that heavy ground forces will employ a combination of cover and concealment, maneuver, dispersion, decoys, vigorous counter-ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) attacks, and armor, but will rely primarily “on extensive use of intelligent antimissiles (evolutions of today’s Active Protection Systems [APSs], Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar [C-RAM], Iron Dome, etc.)”

Conversely, Kott does not foresee underground cover and concealment disappearing from future battlefields. “To gain protection from intelligent munitions, extended subterranean tunnels and facilities will become important. This in turn will necessitate the tunnel-digging robotic machines, suitably equipped for battlefield mobility.” Not only will “large static assets such as supply dumps or munitions repair and manufacturing shops” be moved underground, but maneuver forces and field headquarters might conceivably rapidly dig themselves into below-ground fighting positions between operational bounds.

Dupuy’s Verities: Initiative

German Army soldiers advance during the Third Battle of Kharkov in early 1943. This was the culmination of a counteroffensive by German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein that blunted the Soviet offensive drive following the recapture of Stalingrad in late 1942. [Photo: KonchitsyaLeto/Reddit]

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

Initiative permits application of preponderant combat power.

From Understanding War (1987):

The importance of seizing and maintaining the initiative has not declined in our times, nor will it in the future. This has been the secret of success of all of the great captains of history. It was as true of MacArthur as it was of Alexander the Great, Grant or Napoleon. Some modern Soviet theorists have suggested that this is even more important now in an era of high technology than formerly. They may be right. This has certainly been a major factor in the Israeli victories over the Arabs in all of their wars.

Given the prominent role initiative has played in warfare historically, it is curious that it is not a principle of war in its own right. However, it could be argued that it is sufficiently embedded in the principles of the offensive and maneuver that it does not need to be articulated separately. After all, the traditional means of sizing the initiative on the battlefield is through a combination of the offensive and maneuver.

Initiative is a fundamental aspect of current U.S. Army doctrine, as stated in ADP 3-0 Operations (2017):

The central idea of operations is that, as part of a joint force, Army forces seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage in sustained land operations to prevent conflict, shape the operational environment, and win our Nation’s wars as part of unified action.

For Dupuy, the specific connection between initiative and combat power is likely why he chose to include it as a verity in its own right. Combat power was the central concept in his theory of combat and initiative was not just the basic means of achieving a preponderance of combat power through superior force strength (i.e. numbers), but also in harnessing the effects of the circumstantial variables of combat that multiply combat power (i.e. surprise, mobility, vulnerability, combat effectiveness). It was precisely through the exploitation of this relationship between initiative and combat power that allowed inferior numbers of German and Israeli combat forces to succeed time and again in combat against superior numbers of Soviet and Arab opponents.

Using initiative to apply preponderant combat power in battle is the primary way the effects of maneuver (to “gain and maintain a position of relative advantage“) are abstracted in Dupuy’s Quantified Judgement Model (QJM)/Tactical Numerical Deterministic Model (TNDM). The QJM/TNDM itself is primarily a combat attrition adjudicator that determines combat outcomes through calculations of relative combat power. The numerical force strengths of the opposing forces engaged as determined by maneuver can be easily inputted into the QJM/TNDM and then modified by the applicable circumstantial variables of combat related to maneuver to obtain a calculation of relative combat power. As another of Dupuy’s verities states, “superior combat power always wins.”

Dupuy’s Verities: Seek The Flanks!

Battle of Chancellorsville by Kurz and Allison (1888). This painting depicted the wounding of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on 2 May 1863, while leading one of the more famous flank attacks in history.

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

Flank and rear attack is more likely to succeed than frontal attack.

From Understanding War (1987):

Flank or rear attack is more likely to succeed than frontal attack. Among the many reasons for this are the following: there is greater opportunity for surprise by the attacker; the defender cannot be strong everywhere at once, and the front is the easiest focus for defensive effort; and the morale of the defender tends to be shaken when the danger of encirclement is evident. Again, historical examples are numerous, beginning with Hannibal’s tactical plans and brilliant executions of the Battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Any impression that the concept of envelopment or of a “strategy of indirect approach” has arisen either from the introduction of modern weapons of war, or from the ruminations of recent writers on military affairs, is a grave misperception of history and underestimates earlier military thinkers.

“Seek the flanks” has been a military adage since antiquity, but its significance was enhanced tremendously when the conoidal bullet of the breech-loading, rifled musket revolutionized warfare in the mid-nineteenth century. This led Moltke to his 1867 observation that the increased deadliness of firepower demanded that the strategic offensive be coupled with tactical defensive, an idea that depended upon strategic envelopment for its accomplishment. This was a basic element of Moltke‘s strategy in the 1870 campaign in France. Its tactical manifestations took place at Metz and Sedan; both instances in which the Germans took up defensive positions across the French line of communications to Paris, and the French commanders, forced to attack, were defeated.

The essential emphasis of modern tactics and operational art remains enabling flank or rear attacks on enemy forces in order to obtain decisive results in combat. Will this remain true in the future? The ongoing historical pattern of ground forces dispersing on the battlefield in response to the increasing lethality of weapons seems likely to enhance the steadily increasing non-linear and non-contiguous character of modern battles in both conventional and irregular warfare.

The architects of the U.S. multi-domain battle and operations doctrine seem to anticipate this. Highly dispersed and distributed future battlefields are likely to offer constant, multiple opportunities (and risks) for flank and rear attacks. They are also likely to scramble current efforts to shape and map future battlefield geometry and architecture.

One of the significant selling points of military gadfly Douglas Macgregor’s proposed Reconnaissance Strike Group force structure is the capability for conducting continuous 360-degree combat operations.

Curiously enough however, current U.S. Army operational doctrine has little to say about the non-linear or non-contiguous aspects of battle. On the other hand, the current U.S. joint operations doctrinal manual has an entire section defining and describing linear and nonlinear operations.

The Origins Of The U.S. Army’s Concept Of Combat Power

The U.S. Army’s concept of combat power can be traced back to the thinking of British theorist J.F.C. Fuller, who collected his lectures and thoughts into the book, The Foundations of the Science of War (1926).

In a previous post, I critiqued the existing U.S. Army doctrinal method for calculating combat power. The ideas associated with the term “combat power” have been a part of U.S Army doctrine since the 1920s. However, the Army did not specifically define what combat power actually meant until the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 Operations, which introduced the AirLand Battle concept. So where did the Army’s notion of the concept originate? This post will trace the way it has been addressed in the capstone Field Manual (FM) 100-5 Operations series.

As then-U.S. Army Major David Boslego explained in a 1995 School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) thesis[1], the Army’s original idea of combat power most likely derived from the work of British military theorist J.F.C. Fuller. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Fuller articulated the first modern definitions of the principles of war, which he developed from his conception of force on the battlefield as something more than just the tangible effects of shock and firepower. Fuller’s principles were adopted in the 1920 edition of the British Army Field Service Regulations (FSR), which was the likely vector of influence on the U.S. Army’s 1923 FSR. While the term “combat power” does not appear in the 1923 FSR, the influence of Fullerian thinking is evident.

The first use of the phrase itself by the Army can be found in the 1939 edition of FM 100-5 Tentative Field Service Regulations, Operations, which replaced and updated the 1923 FSR. It appears just twice and was not explicitly defined in the text. As Boslego noted, however, even then the use of the term

highlighted a holistic view of combat power. This power was the sum of all factors which ultimately affected the ability of the soldiers to accomplish the mission. Interestingly, the authors of the 1939 edition did not focus solely on the physical objective of destroying the enemy. Instead, they sought to break the enemy’s power of resistance which connotes moral as well as physical factors.

This basic, implied definition of combat power as a combination of interconnected tangible physical and intangible moral factors could be found in all successive editions of FM 100-5 through 1968. The type and character of the factors comprising combat power evolved along with the Army’s experience of combat through this period, however. In addition to leadership, mobility, and firepower, the 1941 edition of FM 100-5 included “better armaments and equipment,” which reflected the Army’s initial impressions of the early “blitzkrieg” battles of World War II.

From World War II Through Korea

While FM 100-5 (1944) and  FM 100-5 (1949) made no real changes with respect to describing combat power, the 1954 edition introduced significant new ideas in the wake of major combat operations in Korea, albeit still without actually defining the term. As with its predecessors, FM 100-5 (1954) posited combat power as a combination of firepower, maneuver, and leadership. For the first time, it defined the principles of mass, unity of command, maneuver, and surprise in terms of combat power. It linked the principle of the offensive, “only offensive action achieves decisive results,” with the enduring dictum that “offensive action requires the concentration of superior combat power at the decisive point and time.”

Boslego credited the authors of FM 100-5 (1954) with recognizing the non-linear nature of warfare and advising commanders to take a holistic perspective. He observed that they introduced the subtle but important understanding of combat power not as a fixed value, but as something relative and interactive between two forces in battle. Any calculation of combat power would be valid only in relation to the opposing combat force. “Relative combat power is dynamic and can be directly influenced by opposing commanders. It therefore must be analyzed by the commander in its potential relation to all other factors.” One of the fundamental ways a commander could shift the balance of combat power against an enemy was through maneuver: “Maneuver must be used to alter the relative combat power of military forces.”

[As I mentioned in a previous post, Trevor Dupuy considered FM 100-5 (1954)’s list and definitions of the principles of war to be the best version.]

Into the “Pentomic Era”

The 1962 edition of FM 100-5 supplied a general definition of combat power that articulated the way the Army had been thinking about it since 1939.

Combat power is a combination of the physical means available to a commander and the moral strength of his command. It is significant only in relation to the combat power of the opposing forces. In applying the principles of war, the development and application of combat power are essential to decisive results.

It further refined the elements of combat power by redefining the principles of economy of force and security in terms of it as well.

By the early 1960s, however, the Army’s thinking about force on the battlefield was dominated by the prospect of the use of nuclear weapons. As Boslego noted, both FM 100-5 (1962) and FM 100-5 (1968)

dwelt heavily on the importance of dispersing forces to prevent major losses from a single nuclear strike, being highly mobile to mass at decisive points and being flexible in adjusting forces to the current situation. The terms dispersion, flexibility, and mobility were repeated so frequently in speeches, articles, and congressional testimony, that…they became a mantra. As a result, there was a lack of rigor in the Army concerning what they meant in general and how they would be applied on the tactical battlefield in particular.

The only change the 1968 edition made was to expand the elements of combat power to include “firepower, mobility, communications, condition of equipment, and status of supply,” which presaged an increasing focus on the technological aspects of combat and warfare.

The first major modification in the way the Army thought about combat power since before World War II was reflected in FM 100-5 (1976). These changes in turn prompted a significant reevaluation of the concept by then-U.S. Army Major Huba Wass de Czege. I will tackle how this resulted in the way combat power was redefined in the 1982 edition of FM 100-5 in a future post.


[1] David V. Boslego, “The Relationship of Information to the Relative Combat Power Model in Force XXI Engagements,” School of Advanced Military Studies Monograph, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1995.

Dupuy’s Verities: The Utility Of Defense

Battle of Franklin, 1864 by Kurz and Allison. Restoration by Adam Cuerden [Wikimedia Commons]

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

Defensive posture is necessary when successful offense is impossible.

From Understanding War (1987):

Even though offensive action is essential to ultimate combat success, a combat commander opposed by a more powerful enemy has no choice but to assume a defensive posture. Since defensive posture automatically increases the combat power of his force, the defending commander at least partially redresses the imbalance of forces. At a minimum he is able to slow down the advance of the attacking enemy, and he might even beat him. In this way, through negative combat results, the defender may ultimately hope to wear down the attacker to the extent that his initial relative weakness is transformed into relative superiority, thus offering the possibility of eventually assuming the offensive and achieving positive combat results. The Franklin and Nashville Campaign of our Civil War, and the El Alamein Campaign of World War II are examples.

Sometimes the commander of a numerically superior offensive force may reduce the strength of portions of his force in order to achieve decisive superiority for maximum impact on the enemy at some other critical point on the battlefield, with the result that those reduced-strength components are locally outnumbered. A contingent thus reduced in strength may therefore be required to assume a defensive posture, even though the overall operational posture of the marginally superior force is offensive, and the strengthened contingent of the same force is attacking with the advantage of superior combat power. A classic example was the role of Davout at Auerstadt when Napoléon was crushing the Prussians at Jena. Another is the role played by “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps at the Second Battle of Bull Run. [pp. 2-3]

This verity is both derivative of Dupuy’s belief that the defensive posture is a human reaction to the lethal environment of combat, and his concurrence with Clausewitz’s dictum that the defense is the stronger form of combat. Soldiers in combat will sometimes reach a collective conclusion that they can no longer advance in the face of lethal opposition, and will stop and seek cover and concealment to leverage the power of the defense. Exploiting the multiplying effect of the defensive is also a way for a force with weaker combat power to successfully engage a stronger one.

It also relates to the principle of war known as economy of force, as defined in the 1954 edition of the U.S. Army’s Field Manual FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations:

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.

These concepts are well ingrained in modern U.S. Army doctrine. FM 3-0 Operations (2017) summarizes the defensive this way:

Defensive tasks are conducted to defeat an enemy attack, gain time, economize forces, and develop conditions favorable for offensive or stability tasks. Normally, the defense alone cannot achieve a decisive victory. However, it can set conditions for a counteroffensive or counterattack that enables Army forces to regain and exploit the initiative. Defensive tasks are a counter to enemy offensive actions. They defeat attacks, destroying as much of an attacking enemy as possible. They also preserve and maintain control over land, resources, and populations. The purpose of defensive tasks is to retain key terrain, guard populations, protect lines of communications, and protect critical capabilities against enemy attacks and counterattacks. Commanders can conduct defensive tasks to gain time and economize forces, so offensive tasks can be executed elsewhere. [Para 1-72]

UPDATE: Just as I posted this, out comes a contrarian view from U.S. Army CAPT Brandon Morgan via the Modern War Institute at West Point blog. He argues that the U.S. Army is not placing enough emphasis on preparing to conduct defensive operations:

In his seminal work On War, Carl von Clausewitz famously declared that, in comparison to the offense, “the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive.”

This is largely due to the defender’s ability to occupy key terrain before the attack, and is most true when there is sufficient time to prepare the defense. And yet within the doctrinal hierarchy of the four elements of decisive action (offense, defense, stability, and defense support of civil authorities), the US Army prioritizes offensive operations. Ultimately, this has led to training that focuses almost exclusively on offensive operations at the cost of deliberate planning for the defense. But in the context of a combined arms fight against a near-peer adversary, US Army forces will almost assuredly find themselves initially fighting in a defense. Our current neglect of deliberate planning for the defense puts these soldiers who will fight in that defense at grave risk.

Dupuy’s Verities: The Power Of Defense

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David, 1814. [Wikimedia]

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

Defensive strength is greater than offensive strength.

From Understanding War (1987):

[Prussian military theorist, Carl von] Clausewitz expressed this: “Defense is the stronger form of combat.” It is possible to demonstrate by the qualitative comparison of many battles that Clausewitz is right and that posture has a multiplicative effect on the combat power of a military force that takes advantage of terrain and fortifications, whether hasty and rudimentary, or intricate and carefully prepared. There are many well-known examples of the need of an attacker for a preponderance of strength in order to carry the day against a well-placed and fortified defender. One has only to recall Thermopylae, the Alamo, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and El Alamein to realize the advantage enjoyed by a defender with smaller forces, well placed, and well protected. [p. 2]

The advantages of fighting on the defensive and the benefits of cover and concealment in certain types of terrain have long been basic tenets in military thinking. Dupuy, however, considered defensive combat posture and defensive value of terrain not just to be additive, but combat power multipliers, or circumstantial variables of combat that when skillfully applied and exploited, the effects of which could increase the overall fighting capability of a military force.

The statement [that the defensive is the stronger form of combat] implies a comparison of relative strength. It is essentially scalar and thus ultimately quantitative. Clausewitz did not attempt to define the scale of his comparison. However, by following his conceptual approach it is possible to establish quantities for this comparison. Depending upon the extent to which the defender has had the time and capability to prepare for defensive combat, and depending also upon such considerations as the nature of the terrain which he is able to utilize for defense, my research tells me that the comparative strength of defense to offense can range from a factor with a minimum value of about 1.3 to maximum value of more than 3.0. [p. 26]

The values Dupuy established for posture and terrain based on historical combat experience were as follows:

For example, Dupuy calculated that mounting even a hasty defense in rolling, gentle terrain with some vegetation could increase a force’s combat power by more than 50%. This is a powerful effect, achievable without the addition of any extra combat capability.

It should be noted that these values are both descriptive, in terms of defining Dupuy’s theoretical conception of the circumstantial variables of combat, as well as factors specifically calculated for use in his combat models. Some of these factors have found their way into models and simulations produced by others and some U.S. military doctrinal publications, usually without attribution and shorn of explanatory context. (A good exploration of the relationship between the values Dupuy established for the circumstantial variables of combat and his combat models, and the pitfalls of applying them out of context can be found here.)

While the impact of terrain on combat is certainly an integral part of current U.S. Army thinking at all levels, and is constantly factored into combat planning and assessment, its doctrine does not explicitly acknowledge the classic Clausewitzian notion of a power disparity between the offense and defense. Nor are the effects of posture or terrain thought of as combat multipliers.

However, the Army does implicitly recognize the advantage of the defensive through its stubbornly persistent adherence to the so-called 3-1 rule of combat. Its version of this (which the U.S. Marine Corps also uses) is described in doctrinal publications as “historical minimum planning ratios,” which proscribe that a 3-1 advantage in numerical force ratio is necessary for an attacker to defeat a defender in a prepared or fortified position. Overcoming a defender in a hasty defense posture requires a 2.5-1 force ratio advantage. The force ratio advantages the Army considers necessary for decisive operations are even higher. While the 3-1 rule is a deeply problematic construct, the fact that is the only quantitative planning factor included in current doctrine reveals a healthy respect for the inherent power of the defensive.

Dupuy’s Verities: Offensive Action

Sheridan’s final charge at Winchester by Thune de Thulstrup (ca. 1886) [Library of Congress]

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

Offensive action is essential to positive combat results.

As he explained in Understanding War (1987):

This is like saying, “A team can’t score in football unless it has the ball.” Although subsequent verities stress the strength, value, and importance of defense, this should not obscure the essentiality of offensive action to ultimate combat success. Even in instances where a defensive strategy might conceivably assure a favorable war outcome—as was the case of the British against Napoleon, and as the Confederacy attempted in the American Civil War—selective employment of offensive tactics and operations is required if the strategic defender is to have any chance of final victory. [pp. 1-2]

The offensive has long been a staple element of the principles of war. From the 1954 edition of the U.S. Army Field Manual FM 100-5, Field Service Regulations, Operations:

71. Offensive

Only offensive action achieves decisive results. Offensive action permits the commander to exploit the initiative and impose his will on the enemy. The defensive may be forced on the commander, but it should be deliberately adopted only as a temporary expedient while awaiting an opportunity for offensive action or for the purpose of economizing forces on a front where a decision is not sought. Even on the defensive the commander seeks every opportunity to seize the initiative and achieve decisive results by offensive action. [Original emphasis]

Interestingly enough, the offensive no longer retains its primary place in current Army doctrinal thought. The Army consigned its list of the principles of war to an appendix in the 2008 edition of FM 3-0 Operations and omitted them entirely from the 2017 revision. As the current edition of FM 3-0 Operations lays it out, the offensive is now placed on the same par as the defensive and stability operations:

Unified land operations are simultaneous offensive, defensive, and stability or defense support of civil authorities’ tasks to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative to shape the operational environment, prevent conflict, consolidate gains, and win our Nation’s wars as part of unified action (ADRP 3-0)…

At the heart of the Army’s operational concept is decisive action. Decisive action is the continuous, simultaneous combinations of offensive, defensive, and stability or defense support of civil authorities tasks (ADRP 3-0). During large-scale combat operations, commanders describe the combinations of offensive, defensive, and stability tasks in the concept of operations. As a single, unifying idea, decisive action provides direction for an entire operation. [p. I-16; original emphasis]

It is perhaps too easy to read too much into this change in emphasis. On the very next page, FM 3-0 describes offensive “tasks” thusly:

Offensive tasks are conducted to defeat and destroy enemy forces and seize terrain, resources, and population centers. Offensive tasks impose the commander’s will on the enemy. The offense is the most direct and sure means of seizing and exploiting the initiative to gain physical and cognitive advantages over an enemy. In the offense, the decisive operation is a sudden, shattering action that capitalizes on speed, surprise, and shock effect to achieve the operation’s purpose. If that operation does not destroy or defeat the enemy, operations continue until enemy forces disintegrate or retreat so they no longer pose a threat. Executing offensive tasks compels an enemy to react, creating or revealing additional weaknesses that an attacking force can exploit. [p. I-17]

The change in emphasis likely reflects recent U.S. military experience where decisive action has not yielded much in the way of decisive outcomes, as is mentioned in FM 3-0’s introduction. Joint force offensives in 2001 and 2003 “achieved rapid initial military success but no enduring political outcome, resulting in protracted counterinsurgency campaigns.” The Army now anticipates a future operating environment where joint forces can expect to “work together and with unified action partners to successfully prosecute operations short of conflict, prevail in large-scale combat operations, and consolidate gains to win enduring strategic outcomes” that are not necessarily predicated on offensive action alone. We may have to wait for the next edition of FM 3-0 to see if the Army has drawn valid conclusions from the recent past or not.

The Principle Of Mass On The Future Battlefield

Men of the U.S. Army 369th Infantry Regiment “Harlem’s Hellfighters,”in action at Séchault on September 29, 1918 during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. [Wikimedia]

Given the historical trend toward battlefield dispersion as a result of the increasing lethality of weapons, how will the principle of mass apply in future warfare? I have been wondering about this for a while in the context of the two principle missions the U.S. Army must plan and prepare for, combined arms maneuver and wide area security. As multi-domain battle advocates contend, future combat will place a premium on smaller, faster, combat formations capable of massing large amounts of firepower. However, wide area security missions, such as stabilization and counterinsurgency, will continue to demand significant numbers of “boots on the ground,” the traditional definition of mass on the battlefield. These seemingly contradictory requirements are contributing to the Army’s ongoing “identity crisis” over future doctrine, training, and force structure in an era of budget austerity and unchanging global security responsibilities.

Over at the Australian Army Land Power Forum, Lieutenant Colonel James Davis addresses the question generating mass in combat in the context of the strategic challenges that army faces. He cites traditional responses by Western armies to this problem, “Regular and Reserve Force partnering through a standing force generation cycle, indigenous force partnering through deployed training teams and Reserve mobilisation to reconstitute and regenerate deployed units.”

Davis also mentions AirLand Battle and “blitzkrieg” as examples of tactical and operational approaches to limiting the ability of enemy forces to mass on the battlefield. To this he adds “more recent operational concepts, New Generation Warfare and Multi Domain Battle, [that] operate in the air, electromagnetic spectrum and cyber domain and to deny adversary close combat forces access to the battle zone.” These newer concepts use Cyber Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA), Information Operations, long range Joint Fires, and Robotic and Autonomous systems (RAS) to attack enemy efforts to mass.

The U.S. Army is moving rapidly to develop, integrate and deploy these capabilities. Yet, however effectively new doctrine and technology may influence mass in combined arms maneuver combat, it is harder to see how they can mitigate the need for manpower in wide area security missions. Some countries may have the strategic latitude to emphasize combined arms maneuver over wide area security, but the U.S. Army cannot afford to do so in the current security environment. Although conflicts emphasizing combined arms maneuver may present the most dangerous security challenge to the U.S., contingencies involving wide area security are far more likely.

How this may be resolved is an open question at this point in time. It is also a demonstration as to how tactical and operational considerations influence strategic options.

TDI Friday Read: Principles Of War & Verities Of Combat


Trevor Dupuy distilled his research and analysis on combat into a series of verities, or what he believed were empirically-derived principles. He intended for his verities to complement the classic principles of war, a slightly variable list of maxims of unknown derivation and provenance, which describe the essence of warfare largely from the perspective of Western societies. These are summarized below.

What Is The Best List Of The Principles Of War?

The Timeless Verities of Combat

Trevor N. Dupuy’s Combat Attrition Verities

Trevor Dupuy’s Combat Advance Rate Verities