Decision by attrition or decision by manoeuvre

As I mentioned earlier:
Now one might ask whether I would seek decision by attrition or decision by manoeuvre.

I suppose the answer depends a lot on the geography. The more geographically constricted the friendly and the more cohesive the opposing forces are, the more attrition will tend to decide the outcome.

Attrition may on the other hand be understood as an enabler for manoeuvre (battlefield shaping). A manoeuvre battlegroup may be able to get into an advantageous position and succeed with a surprising manoeuvre based on the attrition success that the opposing manoeuvre force became less mobile after having its bridgelayers blow up, for example. More likely, heavy casualties during scouting and advance guard movements may make the hostile manoeuvre battlegroups timid, predictable and less secured - thus enabling their defeat by less inhibited battlegroups.
Attrition may also make manoeuvre in harms way possible in the first place, such as by defeating a timely detected ambush position with an artillery mission.

"Attrition vs. manoeuvre" is one of the old if not ancient debates, much older than the "wheels vs. tracks" debate and much older than its 1980's '2nd generation warfare and 3rd generation warfare' incarnation.

Manoeuvre has one extremely tempting promise, though: It would - if done really, really right - end a defensive war without loss of sovereignty within the shortest possible time or with the smallest possible losses.
The British Empire/Commonwealth defeated the Italians in Libya not by First World War-style artillery battles, but by manoeuvre. The Italian prisoners of war alone outnumbered the Allies' dead and wounded more than 70:1. The Italian dead and wounded did so "only" by less than 10:1. No cannonade between European forces has ever achieved anything similar, while several other campaigns that were coined by manoeuvre did.
The same ground forces that inevitably are needed for decisive manoeuvre (the tanks) are the embodiment of military aggression in Europe. At the same time they're necessary ingredients of the only course of action that allows for a quick and not very bloody end to a hot conflict in Europe (without sacrificing sovereignty for peace).


*: On the other hand, such lopsided results are typically achieved if one party is vastly superior in quality (the Italians had much inferior heavy weapons and AFVs and only partial motorisation). A one-sided cannonade would yield lopsided casualties statistics as well.



  1. Decision is finding the correct combination of attrition and manoeuvre on different scale at different location under given conditions (geographical, meteorological…). The British (Operation Compass) learnt valuable lessons from the previous Blitzkrieg. Later, Rommel’s Afrika Corps ‘won’ the tactical and operational war, but lost the logistics war.
    WW2 Soviet Army were forced by Stalin into a more timid (less risky) attrition approach (logistics) with few daring manoeuvres, they nonetheless finished their journey in Berlin. A war can be started and won by blitzkrieg (the fake Tommy’s Franks blitzkrieg in Iraq) and by deception (bribery of Saddam’s officers) then, turn into a lengthy bloody attrition war and teaching new lessons to airpower enthusiasts (2003 attack on Karbala). Iraq and Afghanistan are such good examples of ‘Call of Duty’ video game generations being totally mistaken of what actual war means. The soldiers understand that they are not responsible for that kind of brainwashing by their leaders.

  2. Is there a real disagreement on what is superior?
    I'm not aware that any military would prefer to bludgeon they opponents into submission rather then outmaneuver them.

    However, for any war that takes longer then 6 weeks, the idea failed and it is decision by attrition.

    The Italian army had many shortcomings, the gear was one of the smaller issues. Everything what the Germans did right to punch above they weight (GDP) the Italians did wrong.

    1. Superior? Rather a more appropriate choice depending on the situation. Submission of the opponent is rarely a goal at the beginning, but some catastrophic events (i.e. Napoleon conquest of Moscow, success of Operation Barbarossa, Pearl Harbour…) might have a catalysing effect?

      I wonder if history support formulas like ‘6 week war’, ‘6 day war’ (seven week Austro-Prussian war, Arab-Israeli 6 day war…), though the shorter the better, for the pacifist I am.
      Apart from the symbolism (6 = Chinese lucky number, Christian satanic number…);
      6 week rule = especially in healthcare, a period that marks a specific biological change in human medical condition (pregnancy, postpartum, surgery, recovery…);
      6 weeks = the time blood plasma can be stored (it is a critical substance);
      6 weeks = in Arab-Israeli conflicts, the maximum time after which Israel start to feel an exponentially costly conflict (i.e. 2006 Lebanon war). Israel prefers short intense summer wars when they can mobilize the ‘holidayers’ at home and in the Diaspora without affecting to much the economy and the ‘whole normal life’. That is a reason why IDF escalate quickly in intensity to demoralize the opponent(s) and cut short the conflict. That tactic and strategy has some merit, but it has not brought a definite peace with all the neighbours.

      Italians seemed neither convinced nor motivated by Mussolini’s fascism and campaigns in France, Africa, the Balkans (Italy capitulation in 1943)… they not only massively surrendered to Anglo-Americans but also switched side to Yugoslav partisans (i.e. First Partisan battalion Pino Budicin) providing enormous stockpiles of weaponry and a good number of officers.