Much has been written about manoeuvre and attrition tactics. The emphasis of military theory usually seemed to be on firepower and movement in regard to this topic. I'd like to present one specific perspective; a look at "opportunities".

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The manoeuverist tactician seeks to dislocate an enemy strength before he engages the enemy in final close combat. A classic example is a flank attack or even encirclement in which at least a strong frontal disposition of the enemy is being de-valued.

The attritionist tactician seeks to first weaken the enemy (preferably by stand-off fires) before he engages in final combat. A classic example were the preparation bombardments of enemy defences in WW2 and during the 1991 Gulf War.

Both seek an unfair advantage. The Manoeuverist invests in movement, the Attritionist invests in ammunition. Both styles can be mixed and both styles have their utility - the discussion that rages since at the latest the early 80's (rather 40's) was merely about the proper mix of both.

A different perspective tells much more, though.
The Manoeuverist seeks to exploit opportunities while the Attritionist creates opportunities.
This shows clearly why the attritionist method is the more expensive approach and at the same time much less demanding in regard to command quality.

Those who seek to exploit opportunities as they arise succeeds the most against less competent, slower enemies and he needs to put a premium on rapid understanding and exploitation of the situation. He cannot plan days ahead - opportunities are fleeting and only the quick leaders (with quick units) can exploit them in time.

The attritionist method does not place such a premium on command quality and quick forces; it's focused on firepower and logistics (to feed the firing units) instead. That works fine if you've got the material strength, a vulnerable opponent and most important: An opponent who doesn't exploit weak spots of the attritionist before the firepower has taken too much toll.

I wrote it before; it's all about the right mix. This right mix is even more difficult to achieve than mastery in either extreme, though. You need both the Attritionist's strengths (firepower, logistics) AND the Manoeuverist's strength (quickness) to master the 'golden' middle road.

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That's of course a huge challenge. It's very difficult to train for excellence in both approaches and to unite both mind sets and keep them in the right balance (timing!).

Modern army training involves neither much firing nor much manoeuvring in comparison to wartime efforts. There's not enough effort being invested into maximising quickness, for example.
A warship's crew has several drills per day to minimise their reaction times in regard to certain hazards or even mere alarms. How often do brigades and battalions train to break contact rapidly, to relocate and execute a hasty attack (seriously 'hasty', as in less than an hour!!)? Some training is done, yet not till the achievement of real minimum lags.

Recent reports from Afghanistan tell about opportunities for defeating enemies being missed because about a dozen permissions were necessary and not all were available in time. That's attritionist bureaucracy at work.
Long story short: Western armies are powerful, but there's nevertheless a huge potential for improvements of their tactical and operational competence.

That's - admittedly - a trivial remark. We' haven't been in a major modern war for decades, after all. How could we be fit for one? That combination is pretty much impossible.



  1. Can an army be attritionist and manoeuverist at different levels. eg. Red Army in WW2 - attritionist on small scale, manoeuverist at corps/army level?

  2. That would be close to the 1930's Red Army.

    The disadvantage of such a combination is the slowness on the tactical level that can cause critical slowdowns on the operational level.
    Most likely neither level would be purely in either camp.

  3. Could this balance between attrition and maneuver be related to the golden ratio for warfare as described in
    'Unrestricted Warfare' by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui (1999)

    They claim the golden ratio (1:0.618) has an effect on warfare, but its application is not straightforward like a explicit formula but more vague like an art.


  4. It would be difficult to quantify the two approaches to use a ratio.
    A possible quantification would be timespent or the weights of ammunition & fuel spent.
    I doubt that such a quantification would have much to offer, though.

  5. Yes quantification would be very difficult and probably impossible.

    But the main idea emphasized in the report is that "symmetry" is usually not the answer and that successful strategy usually tries to find a balance in asymmetry. Where one is dominant and the other supporting.

    (They give some historical military examples of this ratio in practice starting at the middle of page 154.)

    So in this case for example either maneuver or attrition would dominate in stead of them being used 50/50. This is just a quick guess, and other factors may be more important.