Beyond mutual cancellation

The First World War was ultra-bloody, but even during the most heated days the vast majority of the troops wasn't even in contact with the enemy, much less in the main effort battles or even becoming casualties that day. The vast majority was instead waiting in front of each other, or in some way supporting such troops. They were cancelling each other out.

Air power is countered and greatly diminished in its potential by air defences, which in turn provoke dedicated anti-air defences aircraft missions, equipment if not entire such specialised aircraft. In the end, the air defences can avoid destruction for quite some time if they are competent, and the result is that the air defences and a portion of the opposing air power cancel each other out.

It is a very widespread phenomenon in military history that most forces don't defeat each other, but instead cancel each other out. The examples above are by far not the only ones.

Navies have a nice term close to such mutual cancellation; "fleet in being"; the idea that a fleet by its mere existence restricts the freedom of action of the opponent. (It's also quite an excuse for being too useless to do anything directly useful for months or years, of course.)

The Western way of warfare has mostly been about being better at this cancellation game, trying to overcome such cancellations by superior quality. Better anti-radar missiles, better counterbattery fires et cetera. Other efforts were directed at doing the cancellation part of warfare with less resources. Advances in field fortifications belong to this category, for example.

Rarely was the focus on breaking out of this cancellation game, pulling together some resources and trying to circumvent the cancellation situations. Blitzkrieg was one such example; it wasn't about winning in trench warfare or doing it with fewer troops, but about going past trench warfare.

The interests of procurement bureaucracies, toy lovers and arms industries favour the idea of being better in the cancellation game by having the better tools. Thus expensive radars compete with expensive jammers, expensive tank upgrades compete with expensive anti-tank munitions et cetera. 

This begs the question; where could we nowadays find - especially in doctrine advances - ways to improve the military by not playing the expensive game of mutual cancellation, but of circumventing cancellation for sake of direct benefits?

I suppose Luttwak delivered a key insight for this* decades ago already: 
An unspectacular advance will remain without counter for a long time, whereas a spectacular advance will provoke a strong reaction, leading to a quick and powerful countermeasure.
So one way to avoid mutual cancellation would be to pursue incremental improvements instead of "revolutionary" ones. The arms industry doesn't like this, of course. This approach also has the drawback of not delivering much in terms of deterrence, since incremental qualitative improvements are not fully appraised by threats.

In operational art, the way to go is to muster the self-discipline and political support required for pursuing the Schwerpunkt concept whenever it's promising; this reduces the share of forces that's cancelling opposing forces and maximises the share of forces that's in the business of actually overwhelming opposing forces locally or in a small region.

Concepts such as "anti-access / area denial" ("A2/AD") and everything with "counter" in its description deserve more scrutiny than is usually offered. Many such things are necessary and purposeful, but a focus on such approaches may lead to almost all military efforts being about mutual cancellation, which is a powerful recipe for a long, devastating war instead of quick and decisive warfare.

To "get things right" in the military domain means to deter well with least possible expenditures, avoiding wars altogether or minimizing the horrible consequences of warfare. I suppose the widespread emphasis on mutual cancellation of military potential is too strong, and we should be more sceptical of approaches that are about or predictably end in mutual cancellation.

(This was about one-sided suppression of tactical repertoires, an idea related to mutual cancellation.)

(Another similar thought, but more distantly related to mutual cancellation.)




  1. Really interesting, especially the reference to Luttwak's spectacular/unspectacular distinction. Very complicated and situation specific as to how this pans out in effects in wars, countermeasure development and particularly in terms of deterrence, surely?

    Definitely difficult to draw conclusions.

    Very interesting, thanks.

  2. Do you see the 2014 Russian hybrid operation in Eastern Ukraine as an example of this concept?

    By hiding behind and among proxy forces and by refraining to use air power Russia created the shroud of plausible deniability which made Ukrainian counterpart delay its reaction. In fear of escalation Ukraine started a half-hearted anti-terrorism operation when it was already under a foreign invasion. Same applied to Ukraine's friends in the West, who were more concerned of an escalation than losing Ukrainian territory.

    Ukrainian and Western response had likely been serious if Russia declared war and invaded in full force.

    However, Russian hybrid operation never reached the desired outcomes, whatever they might be. When Ukraine finally responded in force and started to gain ground against the proxy force, Russia was forced to cancel enemy advance by inserting regular troops. Thus the logical conclusion of protracted out-cancelling war without final conclusion in sight.


    1. "It’s easy to start a war, but it’s always difficult to end with it" Erasmus of Rotterdam

      Putin ordered many military actions, but never concluded a single one with a satisfactory political end state. Even Chechnya/Ingushetia isn't fully resolved.

      His risky game in Eastern Ukraine moved into this stalemate because he once again failed to negotiate an end to the war.

      I think that's how the Donbass conflict should be looked at. The stalemate there isn't so much about military factors as it is about political ones.

    2. I've seen comments like this before which then go into "but they're building trenches!" Yes - because the political situation is stalemated but forces are still in contact. That is an incremental force survivability measure that preserves gains in territory that is later a political bargaining tool or in the case of the separatist movement the whole reason-in-being itself. The stalemate is absolutely not military, and when there was a chance of military reversals before the consolidation of the Crimean oblast, Russian forces intervened directly and had decisive effect.

  3. The good part about spending a lot of effort to cancel out the capabilities is that the risk assessment doesn't look good for either side as there is no decisive advantage to exploit.

    That said, it is very unlikely that the Great Captains of the past were aware that they had a Great Army before they embarked on they campaign. Germany didn't know it had a decisive edge on France 1939.

    1. Alexander the Great was actually aware that he was a Great Conqueror and that he had a Great Army. He was an idolater but he also claimed deity for himself.
      Führer, Duce, Caudillo, ‘el Che’, Japanese Tenno ("heavenly sovereign")… are some titles.

      Blitzkrieg: a really new military tactic?
      For historians the concept of blitzkrieg is ancient: the Bronze Age (3300 BCE) concept of ‘chariot’ and the Iron Age (1200 BCE) concept of the famous ‘Mounted Archery’, depicted in various forms throughout history (carvings, paintings, etc.), seem to be the direct ancestors of the concept of blitzkrieg.
      Indeed, Germany was the fastest and most proficient at applying ‘combined new technologies’ (airplanes, tanks, machine guns etc.) to an ancient concept.
      But ‘the bulk of German combat divisions were horse drawn throughout World War II’.


      "The Blitzkrieg Legend"

    2. Fuhrer was scared 1939, it was the success of 1939 and 1940 that made him convince himself he was a great military genius.

      Blitzkrieg was new, it solved the defender reinforcement advantage that was created by new technology.

  4. This post just reminded me that it is time for me to read Luttwak again, a very good reference that will not ruin anyone (£6.99), thank you.

    I am no military expert, so my approach might be naïve. But, when I read Major J. McCarthy paper about A2/AD concept, I am not convinced by his first recommendation:
    ‘Accept A2/AD as a fundamental change to the character of conventional warfare’.
    But I might agree with the second and third recommendations. And I certainly agree with ‘…but a focus on such approached may lead to almost all military efforts being about mutual cancellation…’.

    Doesn’t this fancy acronym ‘A2/AD’ remind anyone of the fundamentally unchanged character of conventional warfare?
    The Great Wall of China?
    It was a monumental high tech structure in the 13th century, with massive defence towers, forward observation towers with elaborate signal systems (flags and pyrotechnics), explosive land mines, bombs etc. Sure, we traded man powered bows and arrows, and gun powder for solid fuel rockets, but the concept does not seem fundamentally new: keep the OPFOR as much far away as possible. Defend and sometimes raid the OPFOR.

    As Genghis Khan noticed in the 13th century: the Great Wall of China has a weakness; it is the men who are defending it = it is worth no better than the best of the men who are manning it.
    We all know the outcome of Genghis Khan military campaigns.

    1. The Great Wall, Roman Limes and Hadrian's Wall were no good against invasions, but fine against small raiding parties that would see their retreat with loot and captured livestock obstructed.

    2. That is exactly what I meant with regard to the ‘A2/AD’ paper.
      The historical setbacks of ‘real walls’: Limes Germanicus, Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China and their human and financial costs did not prevent the construction of castles, fortresses, trenches, bunkers, Maginot lines, the Atlantic Wall, Berlin Wall, Korean DMZ, Bar Lev Line… or the new Ukrainian Wall.
      It only shows how humans are in love with walls, they worship them for millenniums! :)

      I see ‘virtual walls’: artillery barrage, defence systems (e.g Iron Dome), short and medium range ballistic missiles (e.g. Dongfeng, Iskander… missiles) and their costs as a concept that should perform no better than the ‘real walls’ against the ruse of a competent force.
      Ruse and deception (not perfidy or insidiousness) will always overcome both man made ‘real walls’ and ‘virtual walls’; and ‘natural walls’: Gran Sasso raid (1943).

      The study of ‘natural walls’ are interesting because they are not man made, they are less predictable and demand much more scrutiny, as they are often complemented with ‘real walls’ and ‘virtual walls’. *

      Virtual ecosystem
      The study of ancient literature is interesting too (biblical, fairy tales etc.):
      King Solomon could talk to animals, insects and vegetation; especially the hoopoe (a sacred bird in many cultures) that brought him a surprising message (piece of intelligence) about Sheba. The various forms of drones and robots concept we develop today (human like, bird like, fish like, insect like, vegetation like etc.) try to imitate the natural ecosystem and King Solomon ability to communicate with animals, insects and vegetation to get intelligence.

      As some comments mentioned above, the example of the Chechen wars (1994-2009) also come to my mind when we talk about mutual cancellation, though with a huge disequilibrium.
      Russia was able ‘to cancel all Chechnya out from the world map’ when Chechens were only able to strategically cancel Russians on the ‘tactical and operational levels’.**

      * Topographic and climatic obstacles: vast prairies, mountains, forests, rivers, sea, deserts, extreme cold/ heat, humidity/ dry, elevation poor in oxygen, fog, rain, snow, blizzard, tornado, etc. are the best factors for ruse and deception.
      ** The definition of ‘Strategic’, Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (1987), p.90.

  5. another subject


    1. Indeed, it is a never ending debate :) :




  6. As Genghis Khan was mentioned is rather telling that much of the narrative centers around various equipment and generic tactics despite it being arguably the area where early on little differentiates them from other nomand tribes from earlier periods and areas. I suspect you could insert descriptions of Scythian, Sarmantian, Sakean, Kushan, Avar, Hunnic, Magyar, Turkic etc behaviour, equipment and tactics with ease into Mongol accounts without raising much attention. Certainly most of that stuff was well known and understood by many enemies and usually denied or partly adopted.

    Of course key factors of Genghis successes have also long been indentified but those qualities are generelly more hidden then the overt panoply. Without rich ancient sources like Josephus our insight into those many hidden Roman values like organisation and discipline would be limited as it can't be understood from material culture alone. Indeed we are often unable to appreciate the reasons of success behind particular events because we just lack the sources.

    Articles in US field artillery journals after the Blitzkrieg also understandably gravitate towards overt reasons, missing much of the key factors mentioned in the Blitzkrieg Legend.

    We already discussed in the 'fixing x debate' that it is very likely that modern Western forces are for various reasons not even close to the 'right' structure for a Russian aggression. If this is true there is much scope for improvement and an intelligent, systematic and disciplined long-term process after a harsh zero-budget appraisal could create most of the large under-the-radar profits. Though it might be smart to make much more noise about some still needed overt projects.


    1. I agree with you Firn (all 4 paragraphs).
      A metaphysical effort could still help appreciate ancient history even with lack of sources.

      I was very schematic and probably unfair with WWII blitzkrieg. Luttwak gave a more accurate academic description in chapter 7, ‘Blitzkrieg: the rewards and risks of maneuver’ (pp. 99-106, in my 1987 edition). Though a concept might be ancient, what is interesting is also what Luttwak does not say about blitzkrieg: it takes a certain mindset, vision, discipline (indoctrination), courage, selflessness and trust to commanders to apply it again today and in the future.

      Russia is not the Soviet Union. But, sure we have seen that the Kremlin enjoys ‘salami tactics’ and can become unnecessarily violent (Ukraine and Syria). Fortunately there is ample room for better defence structure without adding more resources. 700 millions Europeans were not born brainless!
      In an extreme and improbable scenario, Europe alone could theoretically mobilise 50-70 millions and that is no joke in front of Russia’s potential 15-20 millions.
      I continue to hope, maybe naively, that in parallel, soft politics, diplomacy and alliances/partnerships can still soften Russia’s stance and normalize the relations.

  7. First my own contribution and then some comments on contributions already made: unfortunately all made by various Anons, so I'll address them in a paraphrased way.

    In terms of incremental improvements: on a grand strategic level this can be both good and bad. I would think the classic example is the Cold War and Soviet armaments development. From our perspective in the West it is very easy to fixate on the generational leaps we had in the late 70s and 80s which made our combat equipment arguably the best, but when we look at the same period historically we see that only happened, in the case of AFVs for example, because of enduring, omnipresent concern over Future Soviet Tank. This FST concern led directly to the notion that we *must* be generations better than the opposition because continuous Soviet incremental improvements, combined with their ability to produce and crew these units in mass, was creating a situation whereby we were both qualitatively inferior and quantitatively inferior. This is perhaps part of the reason Hackett and Simpson are so big on pointing out that "you can only fit ~20-25 divisions into the German battlespace," although with Simpson I think it is also a mechanism to illustrate the importance of echelonment. T-55, T-62, T-72 are not inferior to M48, M60, Leopard 1, AMX-30s in the same way that T-72B is a punching bag for Leopard 2A4, M1A1HA, etc: but that very assumption that it is a punching bag is based on the almost optimal conditions of the 1991 Gulf War, not combat with restricted LoS in more dense terrain like Europe's.

    In this model what we see is the Soviets holding the strategic initiative, incrementally improving their designs in such a way that their actual combat value (let alone the inflated concerns about their value based on what little we knew at the time) continually increased, forcing us to respond. This was very expensive though, as SO has identified. The thing is though, we are now locked into a generational leap mentality where even just incremental improvements have become gold-plated and hugely expensive to acquire: we've got the worst of both worlds going, and this must be changed.

    One of the central points about Soviet and later Russian operational method that is not broadly understood in the West is that these are big fucking countries. If you have more kit than the enemy, you can meet him and stay in contact with them, *then go where he isn't.* Mass will matter. SO is correct in that the modern RF does not have significantly greater mass than NATO: it is not the Soviet Union. But we are needlessly handicapping ourselves regardless as a result of our strategically broken procurements process.

  8. And secondly: all this talk of walls? Why not say "defensive perimeter," and understand that perimeters can be meant either in the fashion of a citadel - keep the enemy out at all costs - or instead to increase the opportunity costs of any given action. Why all this needless fixation on physical structures versus force or weapons effects to neutralise/deny the same perimeter to the OPFOR?

    RE: Russian politics being "needlessly violent." In terms of "needless violence," sure, in an absolute case where we dictate Russian foreign and domestic policy that's true. From our perspective. From their perspective they have only ~20-30 years of the West dictating policy in the world, varying-degrees-of-legal-and/or-ethical/moral military interventions in other nations, at least one hugely illegal war (2003), and so on. With Syria, with the threatened fall of one of the few remaining friendly governments which provides a genuine service to the Russian gov't, it's not 'unthinkable' or 'unnecessarily violent' for the Russians to intervene directly. We just don't like the guy they're helping, so our hyperbolic rhetoric machine is in overdrive. Likewise, considerations over Russian warm water port access have governed Russian policy for three centuries: they weren't going to give the Crimea up, and when things got super fucky-fucky in Ukrainian politics because of their meddling in favour of that Poroshenko dipshit, everybody overreacted. Of course the Russians are more in the wrong what with their whole blatant territorial annexation thing, but you can perhaps now see that they were acting in support of foreign and domestic political aims which are perfectly legitimate in their eyes.

    My overarching point here is that we have to seek to understand our likely adversaries (or for that matter, any) and not stay wrapped in our insular, comforting bubble that fundamentally handicaps our strategic and operational conceptions.

  9. NW, you are correct, I am also fine with expressions like ‘defensive perimeter’ or ‘all-around defence’, we understand each other.
    Since I am no military expert, I used the ‘wall’ as a metaphor:
    - ‘real walls’ = man made fortified constructions of the list above that also include the word ‘wall’ in their names (e.g. Ukrainian Проект «Стіна» = ‘The Wall’, in English), I did not invent those names;
    - ‘virtual wall’ = your ‘weapons effects to neutralise/deny the same perimeter to the OPFOR’, such as ‘Iron Dome’ (e.g. ‘kippat barzel’), Dengfeng (‘East wind’), artillery barrage (e.g. BM-30 ‘Смерч’ = whirlwind) etc.;
    - ‘natural walls’ = geography, climate, etc.
    Often, as you can see, weapons use metaphors as names.

    §2 : Everybody has its own opinion about armaments. I don’t know if there is anything impressive about Russian (or others) warfare? Ukrainians were mentally unprepared for the present ‘brother against brother’ conflict, but despite all criticism, they performed very well (except for Crimea, which status can always change). Russian ‘aerospace’ is more of a concern, like in Syria. But even with total air supremacy, cruise missiles and indiscriminate day and night bombings, ‘Rebel’ casualties are 1.8 x greater than Regime forces casualties. And some days, on some fronts this ratio is reversed. I suppose that if the Rebels had long range rockets and missiles ‘to harass’ Russian/ Syrian airbases and ports or just a few AA missiles, it would be a huge game changer.

    §3 : Not only the Russian Federation (RF) is not the Soviet Union, it is also not Warsaw Pact.
    But, as you mentioned it, the RF is still the biggest country on the planet (80% Russians, with a density of 8.5 inhabitant/ km2) and with almost endless natural resources.
    I would have thought that the ‘Russian operational method’ and its vastness was in fact understood a long time ago by some Great Conquerors like the Vikings (that ended up in Africa, North America and Asia), the Mongols (Genghis Khan and Batu Khan) and some less fortunate ones (Napoleon and Hitler).

    §6 : seems an adequate description of the Russian point of view. Indeed, it would be naïve to believe that one imperialistic power could forbid another one to adopt a similar attitude and behaviour. Should we remind that before the Ukrainian conflict, Russia was a partner (almost an ally) of the West? Russians, even today, cannot explain such a sudden change in politics. And, not all Russians approve the Kremlin politics.

    Fortunately, human nature is more peace loving that conflict loving, and it is always a minority of privileged elite that drags everyone else into the unknown. And for every action, good or bad, there is a payback.

  10. Beyond mutual cancellation: Assassination, Defection and Reward$?

    I allowed myself to plagiarize S.O.’s title.
    In the USA, bounty hunters are still common in some States.

    1. Assassination (with or without Reward$):

    One never knows how many people are secretly willing to cooperate to put an end to a conflict/ brutal regime. If the opportunity is never offered, one might never know.
    Operation Valkyrie: Olbricht, Tresckow, Stauffenberg assassination attempt on Hitler is an example. I am amazed that no one in the Soviet Union tried to assassinate Stalin. Only the Germans tried with Operation Zeppelin.

    Syrian opposition could reward with:
    - money (usually it is in $ US, but any ‘strong’ £/€ currency could do),
    - new identity (and citizenship),
    - safe extraction and safe heaven etc. = a new life;
    for the Assassin(s) and its family (even if it is 300 people);
    If it captures alive or dead (assassinate) their opponent Leader, main Commanders etc.

    2. Defection and Reward$:

    Syrian Opposition could reward in the same way:
    - Leaders and Commanders that defect to the Opposition and that are willing to reconstruct a united Syria along democratic, secular, and obviously federal lines (with provincial parliaments and governements)…;
    - Leaders and Commanders that sells tactical, operational and strategic advantages (Russian bases?) to the Opposition, and are willing to get a new life abroad…

    The idolatry and veneration that exists around some leaders might not survive Assassination, Defection and Reward$ Art of War?