War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat

War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat

by Christopher A. Lawrence
War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat

War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat

by Christopher A. Lawrence


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War by Numbers assesses the nature of conventional warfare through the analysis of historical combat. Christopher A. Lawrence 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612349152
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 498
Sales rank: 827,864
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst and has participated in studies for the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. Air Force. He is the executive director and president of the Dupuy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict. Lawrence is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka and America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.
Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst and has participated in studies for the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. Air Force. He is the executive director and president of the Dupuy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict. Lawrence is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka and America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam.

Read an Excerpt


Understanding War

My personal feeling is that if I have done anything worthwhile, it is in military theory and the relationship of the elements of historical experience to theory.

— TREVOR N. DUPUY, quoted in Susan Rich, "TDI Profile: Trevor N. Dupuy"

In March 1973 the U.S. Army ended its eight-year war in Vietnam. At the time this was longest war in U.S. history. It was a large, grinding guerrilla war that included many battalion-level actions. In the northern part of the I Corps operational area, near the border with North Vietnam, the conflict was almost a conventional war. Nonetheless this was a brushfire war, or counterinsurgency, not a conventional war like World War I, World War II, or the Korean War. As the Vietnam War ended, U.S. Army officials appear to have decided that they were never going to fight that type of war again. They did not analyze the war in depth, they did not further study it, and they did not plan for engagement in any other guerrilla wars. This was an army that felt its primary mission was to fight and win conventional wars.

Throughout the Vietnam War the U.S. Army maintained a major conventional warfare mission: to defend Western Europe from the sizable conventional threat posed by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In 1974 the Soviet Union had a 1.8 million–man army, with thirty-one divisions (including sixteen tank divisions) and 9,025 medium tanks in Eastern Europe threatening Western Europe with invasion. Backing this up were another sixty-three divisions in the European part of the Soviet Union. These included around twenty tank divisions and probably more than 10,000 tanks. Their allies, the Warsaw Pact, consisting of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, were armed and ready to join them with armies totaling 826,000 men and thousands more tanks.

The United States maintained four divisions in Europe in 1974, along with 2,100 tanks ready or stockpiled there. Out of sixteen total divisions (including three marine divisions) another three stood ready to reinforce the Seventh Army in Europe and at least four divisions were held in strategic reserve. These were ably supported by U.S. allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with combined armies of around 2 million men, at least forty-five divisions, and at least 10,000 tanks. The balance of power, or balance of terror, in such a large conventional conflict pitted Soviet and Warsaw Pactground armies of at least 2.6 million men and 30,000 tanks against a defending force of at least 2.3 million men and 12,000 tanks. This was the primary mission of the U. S. Army and would define its structure, planning, and focus for the next two decades.

As the Vietnam War continued without U.S. ground involvement, the United States seemed to retreat into itself, absorbed in its domestic conflicts and civil demonstrations. In the wake of a president who resigned under the threat of impeachment, the nation was divided as to the utility of the war in Vietnam or any such armed action. The U.S. defense budget was cut repeatedly over the years, in part because there was no need to maintain an expensive force in Vietnam, and in part because America's focus had retreated inward after the depressing experience of fighting a large guerrilla war for eight years and walking away with nothing. In 1975 South Vietnam was conquered through a conventional ground campaign by North Vietnam, and the nation we had invested two decades in supporting and lost almost sixty thousand American lives fighting for disappeared without looking like it had even put up a decent fight.

The 1970s was the decade of the hollow army, when the budget was cut, manpower declined, and morale was low. A sense existed that the U.S. Army was at its weakest in decades. It still had a mission to defend Western Europe, though there was a fear that if the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies attacked, it would be only a matter of weeks before the attacking army was across the Rhine and our defense would completely collapse. For example, in 1978 the book Imbalance of Power: Shifting U.S.-Soviet Military Strengths stated that in NATO's Central Sector (meaning Germany) "NATO is quantitatively outclassed by the Warsaw Pact in almost every category, and is losing its qualitative edge in several respects that count." This imbalance was the scenario that the defense analytical community needed to properly address.

Conventional combat and the war in Europe remained the focus of much of the U.S. Army analytical and modeling efforts through the 1980s, and it was the primary focus until the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed suddenly. This rapidly hemorrhaging series of events began with Mikhail Gorbachev becoming head of the Soviet Union in March 1985 and his first reforms (called perestroika) in 1986; they continued with the opening of the Soviet Union in 1988 (the policy called glasnost), the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 by the people of East Germany, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact on 1 July 1991, and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 25 December 1991. Suddenly the basis for the previous four decades of U.S. defense planning had disappeared.

But the U.S. Army had two more major conventional warfare missions to complete. In August 1990 the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United States and its allies deployed significant forces to halt any farther expansion and in February 1991 drove Hussein's forces out of Kuwait with a corps-size armor sweep. Many of these forces deployed directly from their previous assignment in Germany, where they had been facing down the Soviet Union. The United States limited its actions at the time to simply freeing Kuwait and did not push on farther into Iraq.

On 11 September 2001 the United States was attacked by Islamic extremists, leaving over three thousand American civilians dead. In response, in December 2001 the U.S. armed forces entered Afghanistan to support factions wishing to overthrow the government, which had provided shelter and support to the terrorist organization that attacked the United States. In March 2003 the United States invaded Iraq with a more conventional operation for the sake of eliminating that country's weapons of mass destruction. This was a surprisingly easy operation and the last major conventional operation of the U.S. Army. It was completed in April 2003, with the United States and its allies conquering the entire country.

The overthrow of two third-world governments, the U.S. occupation of these countries, and the establishment of new democratic governments in these countries presented the U.S. Army with a very different set of missions than the conventional war mission it had considered its primary job for the previous thirty years. As insurgencies developed in both Afghanistan and Iraq against our allied governments and armed forces, the U.S. Army suddenly found itself back to fighting the type of war it thought it had left behind in 1973. In 2005 the missions facing the U.S. Army were commonly thought to be new, but in fact they were the same type of missions the U.S. Army has conducted since the days of the frontier.

During that time the study of conventional war had taken a backseat to the study of insurgencies. Our work at the Dupuy Institute shifted to reflect this emphasis so that all of our work after 2006 was related to studying and analyzing insurgencies. Much of that work is covered in my book America's Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

But conventional warfare has not been replaced entirely by counterinsurgency, counterterrorist operations, and air strikes and drone strikes. It is not something antiquated that will never be encountered again. Just as the U.S. Army was not able to avoid engaging in insurgencies, the armies in the future will not always be able to pick and choose the types of wars they fight.

To start with, the United States throughout this period has maintained overt conventional missions. First, the United States still has the mission to assist South Korea in case of an invasion by North Korea, a threat that has existed for over sixty years. The U.S. Army still maintains the better part of the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea as a defensive reserve for the Korean Army. This is very clearly a conventional warfare mission, although many people suspect that the conflict will not end with the war between the two Koreas but with the collapse of the North Korean government and subsequent efforts by South Korea to deal with any disorder related to that collapse.

Second, though not often discussed, is a possible conventional mission in Asia based in a conflict over Taiwan, which is still claimed by the People's Republic of China. China is poised with large conventional forces across the strait from this small democracy, ready to cross and occupy it. This could be a classic conventional amphibious operation and conventional conquest. Helping to defend Taiwan — or, worse, reclaim Taiwan — could force the United States back into another conventional war.

The United States has spent the past ten years involved in fighting two large insurgencies. All insurgencies contain a conventional aspect, but the size of the operations tends to be smaller. So while there may be no division-on-division conventional combat, there are certainly large numbers of company-on-company and smaller conventional fights in many insurgencies. The tendency for many recent conventional warfare situations to be battalion-level and company-level actions is what led to our research on smaller unit actions, discussed in chapter 12.

Events in Iraq in 2014 have also driven home that there are still conventional combat missions for the U.S. armed forces. Mao Zedong, the Chinese communist revolutionary leader, postulated that "revolutionary wars" have three stages. The first stage is the organization, consolidation, and preservation of base areas, usually in difficult and isolated terrain. The second stage is the progressive expansion by terror and attacks on isolated enemy units to obtain arms, supplies, and political support. The third stage is the destruction of the enemy in battle. This means, in many cases, conventional warfare.

In many respects this is how the Chinese Civil War ended in 1948–49, with the Communist Chinese armies shifting over to more conventional operations, greatly assisted by the large infusion of weapons and aid provided by the Soviet Union. But we also saw significant conventional operations late in the Indo-China War. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was a three-month siege of a trapped division-size French force. The Vietnam War always had significant conventional elements to it; for example, the offensive in 1972 that almost collapsed the South Vietnamese included significant conventional forces fielded by North Vietnam, and it was a large conventional offensive by North Vietnam in 1975 that ended the bloodiest guerrilla war in modern history. So while most guerrilla wars do not enter that third stage postulated by Chairman Mao, some do, and this is conventional warfare.

In fact this is in part what occurred in Iraq in 2014, when the guerrilla group ISIL swept across the northwestern third of Iraq, occupying it and taking Mosul, the second largest city in the country. Though a guerilla force, ISIL had developed a conventional combat capability, arming itself with more traditional weapons, including tanks and other heavy equipment. Suddenly ISIL had the ability to move, engage, and defeat major elements of the Iraqi Army. Being a conventional force, it also provided the U.S. Air Force with prime targets to attack. As such, the U.S. Air Force developed a role in the Iraq War that it did not have before. Aerial bombardment is of limited value in a guerrilla war, but if those guerrilla forces become more conventional, then aerial bombardment has greater purpose. While you cannot defeat an insurgency with air power, you can certainly whittle away its ability to conventionally take and hold ground. Now the Iraq War has developed more conventional warfare elements, similar to some other insurgencies.

So the conventional warfare mission for the United States armed forces remains. Furthermore, other conventional missions are appearing on the horizon. A conventional threat appears to be developing in Eastern Europe, where conflicts between Ukraine and Russia led to Russia annexing the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and directly supporting rebels who have seized parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine. More to the point, NATO members are now concerned that their mutual defense mission, which was thought to be over in 1991, has not entirely ended. In response NATOis now looking at basing more conventional defensive forces in Eastern Europe.

Finally, there are conventional missions that one does not plan for. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, several of these conventional operations have suddenly cropped up, unheralded and not part of any U.S. defense planning. The Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S. major multidivision operations to liberate Kuwait in 1991 are perfect examples of these unheralded conventional warfare missions. The United States did not have any defensive treaties with Kuwait before that war. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 was one such conventional mission, and there was a smaller conventional operation in Afghanistan in November 2001, when the U.S. Marine Corps was able to insert a battalion from sea directly into Afghanistan. The U.S. entry into Panama in December 1989 (Operation Just Cause) was fundamentally a conventional operation. None of these operations was in discussion or in planning the year before; they all developed on short notice and with actors the United States had not planned on engaging. These four examples are certainly a warning that any number of conventional scenarios can suddenly develop at any time and apparently at almost any place. If such a scenario has happened in the recent past, there is no reason to believe it will not happen again in the near future.

Of course, conventional warfare will never go away. It is the means by which armed forces take and hold ground. There is a still a need to review what we have learned and understand about conventional warfare. The work of the Dupuy Institute throughout the 1990s and up through 2006 was heavily oriented toward examining many of those issues. We feel that this work is still relevant and useful in the modern world and therefore present it in this book.

From 1996 through 2005 the Dupuy Institute did a series of reports primarily for the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Army on combat mortality, prisoner-of-war capture rates, the utility of lighter-weight armor, the utility of landmines, urban warfare, measuring situational awareness, casualty estimation methodologies, and a range of other subjects primarily related to conventional warfare. While these reports were designed to answer the specific questions and needs of our sponsors, they also contained, as a by-product, analysis and testing of various aspects of warfare, including such issues as force ratios and human factors. As such, buried and scattered in over sixty reports were bits and pieces of analysis that addressed these bigger issues and provided a basis for a quantitative analysis of various aspects of warfare. This book is primarily based on this quantitative analysis.

Much of what has been developed in the past on the theory of warfare is not based on quantitative analysis but is instead based on case studies of history or personal experience. For example, if Clausewitz said defense was the stronger form of combat, this point was established by looking at a range of cases, personal experience, and a good dose of deductive reasoning. Trevor Dupuy's work added an element of quantitative analysis to the theoretical examination of warfare, and the Dupuy Institute has further expanded this analysis. This book will attempt to show that defense is the stronger form of combat based on statistics from a large number of cases. In some instances it is even possible to provide some measure of the degree to which it is the stronger.

One of the primary analytical tools for doing this is a series of databases on combat called the DuWar databases. We relied on a database of 752 division-level engagements from 1904 to 1991 for much of our analysis, but the DuWar databases are a suite of nine databases developed over the years to answer various analytical questions. These are the most extensive set of force-on-force combat databases we are aware of. They mostly consist of sets of engagements that match and compare opposing forces at the same level of combat.

This book does not attempt to modify or develop any existing theory of combat. It does attempt to establish what we actually do know, and why we know it, and perhaps provide some indication of how much impact these factors have. As such, this book supplements Trevor Dupuy's original work and, to some extent, Clausewitz's work. It is the next step in the analysis of combat.


Excerpted from "War By Numbers"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Christopher A. Lawrence.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1. Understanding War 
2. Force Ratios
3. Attacker versus Defender
4. Human Factors 
5. Measuring Human Factors in Combat: Italy 1943–1944
6. Measuring Human Factors in Combat: Ardennes and Kursk, July 1943
7. Measuring Human Factors in Combat: Modern Wars
8. Outcome of Battles
9. Exchange Ratios 
10. The Combat Value of Superior Situational Awareness 
11. The Combat Value of Surprise 
12. The Nature of Lower Levels of Combat 
13. The Effects of Dispersion on Combat
14. Advance Rates
15. Casualties 
16. Urban Legends
17. The Use of Case Studies
18. Modeling Warfare 
19. Validation of the TNDM 
20. Conclusions
Appendix 1: Dupuy’s Timeless Verities of Combat
Appendix 2: Dupuy’s Combat Advance Rate Verities 
Appendix 3: Dupuy’s Combat Attrition Verities

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