Aggressive defence

Armoured divisions which forcibly crossed a river 1940* were told to set up a defended bridgehead by cautious minds. The idea was to wait for reinforcements and to refresh the exhausted troops. It was a sensible tactic on paper, for the culminating point of attack was likely close if not already exceeded. The troops were really tired and the artillery almost out of ammunition after four days of rapid advance.
More daring commanders on the scene - understanding that armour was better on the offence than on the defence - were more aggressive. Their concept was to advance and they enlarged the bridgehead considerably before hastily assembled elements from several opposing divisions arrived to create a weak defence around the bridgehead.
Later on, the reinforced armoured forces broke out of their large bridgehead quite easily (and probably with luck).

Ever since, the tactic of (what could be called) aggressive defence was firmly established in the repertoire of Western fast ground manoeuvre forces: Aggressive manoeuvres to disrupt preparations for counter-offensives, for breaking through defensive lines before they become strong and for avoiding a close containment of bridgeheads and breakthroughs.

Well, on paper: The same war famously saw a huge failure to enlarge a bridgehead a few years later.**

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The concept - as imperfect as its execution usually is - has a quite universal applicability. You can observe the same in chess, in politicians' debates, in football - it should be no undue stretch to apply it to military strategy.

The ingredients are
(1) one's own ability to act aggressively
(2) while the opposing side is not yet done with (preparations for) what it intends to do.

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Imagine an unfolding crisis, and your government has confidence in its expectations for what's going to happen next.
Couldn't a couple aggressive***, unexpected actions ruin the opposing sides' plans, crush their timetable, make their political calculations obsolete, destroy their confidence in their ability to predict your government's reactions and to predict the costs of the crisis?

Couldn't such a disruption make a quite acceptable diplomatic settlement more likely?

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I'm all for peace and free love and stuff****, but I distrust the notion that escalation is always a bad thing. An escalation to ruin some aggressor's day may be the right thing to do. To have and obey a defensive and reactionary game plan makes one predictable. The very existence of a crisis should be understood as a hint that someone used this predictability to predict the outcome of a produced crisis - and arrived at the conclusion that it's a good idea.
A.k.a. failure of deterrence.


*: Meuse crossing, May 1940
**: Anzio, early 1944
***: "aggressive", NOT "aggression against a peaceful country
****: Similarly, I don't think "war as last resort" makes much sense.


  1. This is basically the same general concept as Readiness that you've discussed earlier, right? Broadly, you don't act when your position is the best, you act when the difference between your position and your enemies is the greatest. The more time you take to get ready, the more time the enemy has to get ready.

    1. On the operational and tactical level it could be framed in the "Gefechtsbereitschaft" concept, but this doesn't do justice to it.

      The martial arts analogy of catching someone off-guard and keeping him on the defensive fits better.

      American theorists would probably frame the topic in the "initiative" concept, or in OODA.

  2. Pre-emptive strike is closely related to this idea. You know how that worked.
    The current Ukraine crisis can be seen as such a step, from a Russian point of view.
    Very dangerous djinn in the bottle. Be careful that it doesn't turn out to be Pandora's box.

    1. Aggressive defence stretched a bit and applied to the Eastern Ukraine problem would have been a NATO army and air force concentration in Eastern Turkey before the Crimea seceded.
      This would have threatened a violent solution of the Abchasia, South Ossetia and Berg-Karabach conflicts against Russia's preferences if Russia acts on the Eastern Ukraine.
      The threat would probably have been enough to take away Putin's freedom of action till the new Ukrainian government is in full control of continental Ukraine.

      That's not what Western political culture is capable of nowadays, though. Our political culture knows embargoes, sanctions and clumsy force build-ups against vilified small powers.