On attack, surprise and tempo

I'll lay out a little framework on what I've learned /read in the past. First, two example quotes:

"It's quite remarkable that most people believe that the attack costs more casualties. Don't even think about it; the attack is the least costly operation.

I first saw that clearly in 1914. We attacked an English hill position in Northern France. We approached to about 300 meters. The English were just reinforcing to launch some counterattacks as a cover for major withdrawals. The commander of our company in the center said, "If the English reinforce we're lost -- so we've got to get up the hill before the reinforcements arrive." We blew our signals and launched the attack. The result was that the English were overrun and thrown out, and the losses were as follows: our light infantry battalion of 310 men buried 30; The English buried 250 men and lost 250 as prisoners. And from the heights we could see the English army in retreat. For an attack under most unfavorable circumstances, these results are typical relative losses for the attack and the defense.

The matter is, after all, mainly psychological. In the attack, there are only 3 or 4 men in the [small unit] who carry the attack; all the others just follow behind. In the defense, every man must hold his position alone. He doesn't see his neighbors; he just sees whether something is advancing towards him. He's often not equal to the task. That's why he's easily uprooted. Nothing incurs higher casualties than an unsuccessful defense."

"Furthermore, in 1987 OA [operational analysis] demonstrated that the defender is at a systematic disadvantage in close country (be it woods or built-up areas). It seems that, amongst other things, in close country the defender is generally unable to mass the fire of his weapons, due to very short ranges available in relation to unit frontages. Given their relative protection, if only from view, the attackers can mass forces more safely than is normal. They can therefore isolate and attack small bodies of enemy relatively easily. The overall effect was described as 'counterintuitive'. [...] In [fighting in built-up areas; urban combat] the attacker is expected to suffer high casualties.
By assumption, the defender will suffer fewer casualties. Conversely it seems that such expectations, formed from experience of high casualties in FIBUA, are based on ignorance of relative casualty rates. Attacking infantry generally have an advantage of 3.57 :1 in terms of attackers' to defenders' casualties in FIBUA."

The commonly held opinion can be explained differently; an attack is ceteris paribus more costly than no attack in most cases. Yet it tends to be less costly for than defence, unless shit happens (bad luck, incompetence, too much incorrect intelligence).

Now the second ingredient:
"The effect of surprise attacks [...] is considerable. HA [...] showed that in a company- or battalion-level attack, the attacker's casualties tend to be about twice those of the defender if the attack is frontal. Where the attacker manages to find an exposed flank [...] the defender typically takes slightly more than twice as many casualties as the attacker. When an attack strikes the defender's unprotected rear, the attacker tends to inflict almost four times as many casualties as he suffers. The overall advantage of rear over frontal attacks is of the region of seven-fold in terms of casualties. [...]
Surprise occurs in about 40 per cent of infantry attacks. [...] It increases the probability of success, reduces the attacker's casualties, and increases the probability of inflicting shock. The probability of success in the attack in ana rmoured battle typically ranges from 40 per cent to 54 per cent when there is no surprise. Where surprise occurs, the probability of overall success is about 75 per cent. [...] If surprise is achieved, the probability of success is largely independent of force ratio. If success is not achieved, the probability of success is highly dependent on force ratio. [...]
Surprise will normally have a greater impact than a force ratio of 10:1."
Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, p. 85-86

Timely reconnaissance and high tempo no doubt increase the odds of achieving surprise in mobile warfare, but both provoke a mental problem: One might fear to have too little of the former and too much of the latter.
I myself am of the "first avoid defeat, then seek victory" kind of personality* - and this is likely inferior to a more daring attitude. I would be tempted to wait for better intelligence and might fear to run into traps or to exhaust fuel supply - and miss out on opportunities to accomplish missions with the benefit of surprise and thus with little losses.

//Quick excursion:
I noticed many people have difficulties thinking in gradients instead of absolutes (and I blame poor math education). Something pointing at a certain direction doesn't mean this is always the way to go. It depends, as the challenge is usually to optimise several conflicting variables rather than to maximize something.
In the aforementioned case there's a "too daring" and a "too timid".//

Keeping the quotes above in mind, we can have a fresh look at 20th century military history, and at tales of clumsiness or rapidity in mobile warfare.
It appears that some armies preferred rather daring leaders and collected the benefits of surprise more often in mobile warfare, provoking this benefit by moving quick with a seeing eye (Germany, Japan).
Others trusted rather their material strength and sought battle preferably with a very beneficial force ratio (US, UK, USSR) with surprise rather being a desired outcome of planning (especially deception and secrecy) rather than of unpredicted rapid movements.

The "If surprise is achieved, the probability of success is largely independent of force ratio." part was and likely still is especially attractive to those who cannot muster a very favourable local force ratio, or who cannot afford unfavourable loss ratios.

It may be difficult to ingrain the quest for surprise in mobile warfare through high tempo into armies which consider themselves to have superior assets. This may be even more difficult if peacetime service or small war service rewards caution over daring (casualty aversion).
And this is the point where I suppose many German readers will remember some of the many complaints (not just mine) about how the Bundeswehr has adopted the American way of war too much, with grown HQs, much planning, much specialisation and a certain clumsiness.**



P.S.: Finally a new military theory text on Defence and Freedom!

*: You can tell by watching me play chess, for example. I end up with lots of zig-zag pawn lines.
**: While still enjoying a reputation of being capable of higher tempo actions than most NATO ally forces, of course. 


  1. I think the casualty disparity makes a lot of sense, and really doesn't feel counter-intuitive to me. Sure, all things being equal, the defender has more advantages, but one doesn't attack when all things are equal. In a well-executed attack, the attacker has a pretty large information advantage. They know where they'll be fighting, and when they'll be fighting, and hopefully what they'll be fighting.

    The defender has to wait, expend mental energy both preparing for a large number of possible attacks and standing on watch to identify an attack as soon as possible.

  2. If attacks depend on a few leaders, then snipers taking them out would be the choice of defence.
    If there is a problem of defenders feeling psychologically isolated, than you need a flying column that does announce and visit their positions and gives them a feeling of support. In essence, reserves for a counterattack.
    Modern technology could change the situation for defence with more overall situational awareness via communication tools and correspondingly, a psychological impact if the communication that is relied upon, breaks down in critical moments.

  3. One anecdote does not make a convincing argument, and one anecdote is all Balck gives us despite the fact that surely there are some sort of records from the events other than testimonials of old men.

    I feel that these military theory arguments suffer from a crushing amount of vagueness in all their details. For example, Michael makes the good point that of course a competent attack will have unexpectedly good loss ratios because a competent attack will only be made when there is an strong advantage. Since the quotes don't really clarify the situations describe but rather talk in generalities, I'm not sure what can be trusted.

    And of course the interesting problem is to start from an even fight and somehow generate a strong advantage, but the texts seem to be content with pointing out exactly what situations are a strong advantage.

    1. The quotes were examples and the blog text depends on the reader remembering similar examples. A comprehensive text on the subject would require a book format.