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Military debate - winning wars, winning battles


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It is a truism of military science that success in battle depends on calculable strengths such as mass and firepower.

 

My observations is that for this reason strategy plans around this truism, anticipating success. However, this is not always the case.

 

My question is: would the forum agree that wars are won when battles defy the outcome dictated by calculable strength?

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"Calculable strength" becomes far harder to calculate once you throw in asymetric warfare into the equation.

 

But I'd say that battles are won by defying the outcome dictated by calculable strength, and wars are won by wining crucial battles (or lost by loosing too many cruical battles)

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"Calculable strength" becomes far harder to calculate once you throw in asymetric warfare into the equation.

 

But I'd say that battles are won by defying the outcome dictated by calculable strength, and wars are won by wining crucial battles (or lost by loosing too many cruical battles)

 

 

To clarify my point, and echo yours, I am defining those crucial battles as those which defy expectations. A breakthrough, an upset, a shock to the folks back home, the end of a general's career. These things lose wars.

 

I'm not sure I'd agree that assymetric war is an exception to this principle. I believe it to be an expression of the principle. The assymetric actor, by virtue of their weakness, has many more opportunities to 'score' unexpected wins. The conventional actor has almost none. I'm not suggesting that it's the only distinction of assymetric war, but it's one of them.

"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

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Indeed, but only because asymetric warfare is a big unknown and thus practicly uncalculable - thus making wins and losses both more and less unexpected. The conventional actor in this case is operating mostly in the dark.

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I don't but into this whole "assymetric warfare is beyond military science" schtick. Which may be rude, but isn't meant to be offensive about what you just said.

 

Assymetric warfare is about relaxing your strategic goals to the point of imbecility, driving operational flexibility from that to doing just about anything, and hoping that makes up for your movement being a bunch of mentally challenged high school dropouts armed with socks full of gravel. your only objective is to wreck anything within arms reach until no-one in tehri right mind would want to be anywhere near you. Huzzah!

"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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Asymmetric warfare (which I hate as a term only slightly less than collateral damage) is perfectly sensible when the alternative is taking your AK out into the field to be obliterated by some bloke in Nevada with a PS3 controller like a good 'honourable'- or let's be honest, really stupid- soldier would. The goal is to win, not accumulate karma.

 

On the original question, it's far too simplistic a proposition. Defying expectations certainly influences winning battles or wars but it's not the be all and end all- Cannae defied expectations massively, but didn't win the war. Ulundi won the Zulu War but went exactly as expected; while Isandlwana, which defied expectations, had no long term effect at all.

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Asymmetric warfare (which I hate as a term only slightly less than collateral damage) is perfectly sensible when the alternative is taking your AK out into the field to be obliterated by some bloke in Nevada with a PS3 controller like a good 'honourable'- or let's be honest, really stupid- soldier would. The goal is to win, not accumulate karma.

 

On the original question, it's far too simplistic a proposition. Defying expectations certainly influences winning battles or wars but it's not the be all and end all- Cannae defied expectations massively, but didn't win the war. Ulundi won the Zulu War but went exactly as expected; while Isandlwana, which defied expectations, had no long term effect at all.

 

Isandhlwana could have seen the Zulus seize Natal with its harbour, easily. But Cetewayo refused to believe that the Queen was so dishonourable as to annex him on a flimsy pretext. he deliberately restrained the impis.

 

Unfortunately Bartle Frere and general colonial evilness intended exactly that.

 

In the long term I'm not sure anything the Zulu nation could do in the 1860s would save it. However, I would point out that the record of the Zulus fighting against the British remains a point of pride and national identity for them. Indeed I would suggest that the Zulu nation is still in existence to a greater extent than many European ones. ...Althoguh I'm straying into Churchillian poetic license now!

 

More to the point Ulundi was certainly intended to win. Massive force had been accumulated by the British and was weilded like a steamroller. Th emore important question is what would have happened had the Zulus abandoned Ulundi like Moscow and somehow exacted serious casualties? After the slow and nervous tedium of the build up I think it likely that the administration would have been gravely embarrassed and those arguing that the entire war was pointless greatly strengthened.

 

Alt History HO!

"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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As long as one doesn't go silly with the argument.

 

The weaker force is expected to lose, thus has more opportunities to defy the odds, thus has better chance of winning.

 

I'd rather suggest the obvious alternative, wars are mostly won by winning battles with superior forces, as expected, catching no-one off guard.

Rather, good stories and legendary battles are born when the weaker force, calculated to lose, wins against superior forces.

 

And even then, it's mostly because the calculation is done badly (usually discounting the quality difference between forces)

and then exaggerating the numbers difference..

 

--

Which brings me to one point I've been thinking about recently.

Are there any legendary heroic generals/commanders that got their fame by winning with superior numbers against superior quality?

... ehh.. zulus.. but.. hmmm...

Edited by Jarmo
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Wars are won by the side who wants it the most. This has certainly been the case in the many asymmetrical military interventions by western powers. In the case of two major powers battling it out, you kill the civilian population to destroy their industrial base until they can no longer support military operations. The political environment will often dictate what is possible though, so the reaction of other powers is the great unknown.

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I believe wars are won on a far more subtle factor, the tensile strength of the combatants upper lips. This can of course be bolstered by facial topiary, well waxed and styled.

 

In seriousness though I would say most extended campaigns are won through attrition and logistics, if an empire is willing and able to continue its warring indefinitely, then the opponent will be swept away. No matter the amount of strategic miracles he may execute, Hannibal, Spartacus and the defense of Syracuse seem to demonstrate this for Rome, through perseverance they conquered. However perseverance can be affected in so many ways, public opinion, logistical failures, lack of espirit de corp, shock and awe etcetera.

 

One can even denude a mainly skirmishing/ambushing force of their native resources if one is willing to do so, as we English demonstrated (to our shame) with the concentration camps that effectively crushed the resupplying and rearming of the Boer resistance fighters. Of course we did not intend for the camps to be mismanaged, ill supervised and under equipped, but I still think the responsibility rested on our shoulders. One supposes that one of the few instances of total war that the modern world has seen would be the sixth armies attack, defense and eventual virtual annihilation in Stalingrad.

 

Or what Gorgon so much more succinctly wrote.

Edited by Nonek
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Quite an experience to live in misery isn't it? That's what it is to be married with children.

I've seen things you people can't even imagine. Pearly Kings glittering on the Elephant and Castle, Morris Men dancing 'til the last light of midsummer. I watched Druid fires burning in the ruins of Stonehenge, and Yorkshiremen gurning for prizes. All these things will be lost in time, like alopecia on a skinhead. Time for tiffin.

 

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Wars are won with resources. Those who have more generally win. The best you can do with having less than your opponent is go guerilla and protract was as long as you can. While annoying, it won't actually win you the war.

 

(Before anyone says Vietnam, I'd like to point out that the casualties on the Vietcong side far outweighed the American casualties)

 

Besides, outcomes defy predictions only when we were lacking the information to make the correct prediction.

Battles are won before they start.

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I'd like to destroy another idea about wars: that they are won by primarily by actions taken during the actual war. The better commander ensures his victory before the war has even started. Unfortunately, this is greatly downplayed and not much understood in history books, because of the narrowness of perspective which occurs when you define what a "war" is. If you broaden the discussion to a "conflict" of interest opposing powers then it becomes clear that military or otherwise war- related actions or decisions taken before the war are devastatingly crucial to the outcome and at times more interesting than the actual war. Take for example Heinz Guderian, Charles de Gaulle, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, and Lidell Hart - to a large degree, the outcome of WW2 was dependent on to which degree their respective nations adopted the ideas of these thinkers. "Deep operations", "indirect approach", "blitzkrieg" were all really different terms for strikingly similar types of post-WW1 warfare.

 

I'd really say that wars are mostly won before they are started.

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Shouldn't we just throw quotes from Sun Tzu left and right by now?

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Well, the debate has deepened a wee bit, and broadened out. I'm pleased it's struck a chord.

 

Jarmo was certainly in harmony with my thinking when he said that wars mainly progress by superior force. My point was precisely that when this doesn't happen it shakes the kinds of political forces mentioned by Gorgon and Nonek.

 

~~

 

The question of wars being fought long before they start is because of the good old principles of warfighting. You don't just wave your arms around and conjure up a fighting force. There was a brief period during the mid 1800s when I'd say maybe you could. But someone still had to be training troops, breeding horses, studying malaria prophylaxis etc. etc. But I'd rather leave that one for now.

 

~~

 

I supose the reason I'm particularly interested is that HM Forces base every assumption on the idea that the UK is not going to bring a superior force to almost any conflict. I'm trying to imagine why in God's name they'd do that.

"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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I think we should collectively decide to call them the Viet Minh. Nominal determinism like this irritates me, probably because it's true that it has some effect.

 

Good call. Nothing could crown the clusterf*** of morale in the British Army like abolishing every regiment, and calling them all the Viet Minh.

 

Gordon Brown is going to be so f***ing annoyed he never thought of that.

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"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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I don't think there's any real benefit to be had by trying to reduce 'how to win a war' to a simple formula- as whatever that formula is there will always be multiple counter examples. Application of successive superior force? Vietnam, where the ARVN/US won pretty much every battle. Better resources? Same really, but with more counterexamples. Will to win? Too often trumped by sheer weight of numbers, I doubt Poland had any less will to fight than Germany in WW2 and the Zulu had far better will to fight than the British, weight of numbers and technology told though. Preparation? Japan was far better prepared than the US for WW2. They're all contributing factors of course, but ultimately what decides who wins is either the two sides agreeing on who won/ lost or one side being incapable of fighting on, and that's all that can be said with any certainty.

 

You could probably make some sort of algebra for it like a Paradox game- a = battle results, b = provinces held, c = 'war exhaustion', d = physical resources; if a/b/c/d are less than critical thresholds combined or individually then war continues- but it will never correctly fit every situation, and arguably not by a large amount too. Because there's also variable e for, er, entangibles, which by definition cannot be measured accurately.

 


I supose the reason I'm particularly interested is that HM Forces base every assumption on the idea that the UK is not going to bring a superior force to almost any conflict. I'm trying to imagine why in God's name they'd do that.

Because the primary role of any army is to defend their country rather than to be International Policemen, which is an optional extra. If you had a list of existential risks for Britain that the army needs to be prepared for I'd bet that the top one would still be Russia.

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I supose the reason I'm particularly interested is that HM Forces base every assumption on the idea that the UK is not going to bring a superior force to almost any conflict. I'm trying to imagine why in God's name they'd do that.

 

There are ways for some western armies to hit opponents that on paper are far above their weight class.

 

Most foes NATO-alligned countries have engaged in modern times used the old Soviet-system of strategy i.e. highly-centralised, top-down command structure and unified sweeping movement of ground forces. Thus, towards the end of the Cold War NATO devised strategies that involved crippling the mechanisms and infrastructure necessary for higher level functions of a numerically superior opponent (i.e. a Warsaw Pact offensive). Ironically, it was a Soviet general who pointed this out (see Marshall Ogarkov and his "Revolution in Military Affairs"). Among these was the use of precision guided munitions which could be used to hit headquarters, communications and logistics centers, and bridges. Another component (deployed shortly after the end of the Cold War) was new advancements in information warfare. In manuever warfare, the biggest force multiplier is good intelligence. Use of observation satelites, RC-135 "Rivet Joint" reconnaissance planes (and later, high-altitude UAVs), and E-8 JSTARS allows NATO forces to observe large formations, identify the weakest points, and choose their fights.

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"Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”

 

-Philip Roth, The Plot Against America

 

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Well, Zor, there IS a point to it, because governmental decisions always come back to the Treasury. Maybe Enoch will back me up on this. And the Treasury isn't interested unless and until you can slap a numerical assessment on something.

 

Hence - and if you've never come across this before prepare for your mind to be blown - Quality Adjusted Life Years.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quality-adjusted_life_year

"It wasn't lies. It was just... bull****"."

             -Elwood Blues

 

tarna's dead; processing... complete. Disappointed by Universe. RIP Hades/Sand/etc. Here's hoping your next alt has a harp.

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Just for the semi-random quotage from a work of fiction that links in on the subject might entertain a few of you..

 

 


"Theory on the psychology and processes of battle has rapidly advanced over the last ten years or so, Mr. President," Pierson began. "Many battles in history had outcomes that defied conventional wisdom. Notable among those are Rourke's Drift, Crecy and Alesia. In each of those cases, numerically inferior units comparable in apparent capability with their opponents were placed in a situation where defeat was, apparently, inevitable. Yet they prevailed. Countervailing these oddities were the much more common experiences where numerically inferior units failed. A well known example of the latter was the Battle of Little Big Horn.

 

"Various theories existed over time in classic warfare literature which tried to define the reason for these anomalous outcomes. Most of them came down to sayings: 'On deadly ground, fight.' 'The moral is as the physical by three to one.' And so on. But the mechanism was poorly understood and did not always stand up to tests. At Dieppe, for example, a unit that might have survived under other circumstances was killed or captured. Whereas in the same war, at Bastogne, another unit with comparable correlation of forces survived and beat their larger opponent.

 

"Recent theory of the psychology of combat indicates that certain forms of training are synergistic. That is one method of training laid upon other methods, along with a functionality best described as 'esprit', is capable of creating units that have a high 'true' force multiple in combat. A recent example was found during the entry phase of the Iraq war in which a heavy infantry company was cut off and surrounded by the near order of ten times their number. Despite that fact, they were able to not only defeat the attackers but ravage them. They killed nearly three times their number in attackers and suffered a single casualty, he only wounded.

 

"Recently, this theoretical form of battle, tentatively called unit form asymmetrical battle, has been used in an ad hoc way notably in Afghanistan. On several occasions our small patrols have been attacked by numerically superior Taliban units. On each of those occasions the small unit was able to not only defeat the numerically superior force but do so with casualties to their attackers that were higher than would normally be expected.

 

"It should be noted, that all such instances were unintentional. No one in the US Army is willing, at this time, to test the theory in practice. The chance of failure is too high.

 

"Theory suggests that there are two sides to the psychology. The first is the psychology of the attacker. Seeing a small unit, trapped, unable to be reinforced and numerically far inferior, the attacker assumes the ability to defeat the unit utterly. They, therefore, press the attack to a much greater degree than would normally be the case. Call it the 'bully' mentality. They can beat up on a group that has been bothering them and anticipate little real difficulty in doing so.

 

"The other side, the combat psychology and ability of the defender, is arguably the more important. The defenders must have several conditions to succeed. They must see no possible outcome but utter destruction and universal termination if they lose. Surrender must not be an option. They must have total confidence in their superiority. They must have capable leadership. And last but arguably most important, they must have a level of training that places their combat skills in a multiple over their attacker.

 

"In World War II, for example, the Japanese had three of these pre-conditions: unwillingness to surrender, confidence and capable leadership. And during the early phases of the war they were superior in training. Thus they often were able to defeat opponents that were numerically superior. As time went on, however, and the level of training of American and British forces improved, they were unable to effect their earlier successes.

 

"Modern Western combat training has been tested and proven to create soldiers that have a combat ability that is unheard of up until recently. Modern American standard infantry soldiers find, localize, engage and destroy targets with a coldness and precision that was unthinkable only twenty years ago. The reasons are complex and involve both new methods of training and certain societally common experiences. But the effect has been proven, repeatedly, to be synergistic and give the individual soldier and unit a combat multiplier over any of our standard opponents on the near order of twelve to one.

 

"The Kildar is apparently banking that the combination of prepared defenses, which are normally gamed as being a three to one advantage for the defender, and the combat multiplier of the Keldara over the Chechens, on an order of six to ten to one, will permit him to survive the encounter. And given the psychology of the attacker, that the Chechens will press the attack hard enough that he will not just defeat them but devastate them. That concludes my lecture, Mr. President."

 

"Well done," the president said, smiling. "How many times have you given that lecture?"

 

"About three, Mr. President," Pierson replied. "I specifically avoided words like 'transformative' but I am in a small but growing community that believe that the really 'transformative' aspects of warfare don't lie in the cool gadgets or 'effects based warfare' but in transforming the ability of the individual to bring death and destruction upon the enemies of America, in stressing the training and psychological preparation of the combatant. I was unaware that Colonel Nielson was a fellow traveler but that is apparently the case."

 

"So you think this will work?" the president asked.

 

"Sir, honestly, I don't know," Pierson admitted, slumping slightly. "Every case in which this sort of thing has worked it has been when units were more prepared and had better support. Even in Rourke's Drift one aspect often overlooked was that it was a supply base. They had virtually unlimited ammunition and were well rested and fed before the battle."

"Cuius testiculos habeas, habeas cardia et cerebellum."

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Well, Zor, there IS a point to it, because governmental decisions always come back to the Treasury. Maybe Enoch will back me up on this. And the Treasury isn't interested unless and until you can slap a numerical assessment on something.

I'm sure in that sense it has a purpose, and it's not like discussing it is pointless anyway except in as much as discussing anything on the internet is pointless- there just cannot be any sort of 'unified theory' to come out of it and the ultimate conclusion will always be a general trend rather than something definitive.

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The way wars are won differs from epoch to epoch. WWII was won by superior economy/industry and numbers. Modern American imperialistic adventures are won primarily by advanced technology.

 

Also, defining a "won" war today is difficult, without formal combatants which could officially surrender or a ground invasion and subsequent occupation.

 

Even defining war itself is difficult. Today any conflict that lasts longer than what is expected (which is fluid in itself) is rebranded as a war by the media.

 

The participating sides, the agressor in particular (like the US in most ïnterventions") purposefully avoids declaring war because of the legal implications. According to the UN charter war is illegal and the mechanism of collective security must act against the state that declares war. Which is why no one declares war outright anymore, even when its plain that that's what it is.

И погибе Српски кнез Лазаре,
И његова сва изгибе војска, 
Седамдесет и седам иљада;
Све је свето и честито било
И миломе Богу приступачно.

 

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I think winning wars is like building a house when someone is working against you, whilst at the same time they are trying to build a house which you're trying to impede.
 

Initially and ideally you have a plan and resources, with the amount of available resources you must make the best house possible and that's where the logistics begin. Then comes all the building, setting up a foundation, posts, hammering in the nails. Throughout each section you must make sure that you do your best so that your house holds up and its habitable. 

Now you can come up with a particular reason why you won or lost (e.g: making sure that your enemy's foundation was weak so the house crumbled, or that the nails weren't hammered well so everything was wobbly) But you can't come up with a wining strategy since every project is different, it takes an analysis of what the resources are that both parties have available and what the final goal is. Or as Sun Tzu said "The winning army realizes the conditions for victory first, and then fights. The losing army fights first, then seeks victory."

 

 

The problem with modern warfare is that wars are not fought for the benefit of the state and that the state seeks not the benefit of its people, rather they are fought for profit and restructure for the benefit of those who initiated the conflict. "All wars in history have begun because of economic reasons" that's something my philosophy teacher once said and upon some review I agreed with him. The common man is no longer seeing any benefit from war as it doesn't make him safer or richer and so no matter who wins in a modern conflict the common man loses.

I'd say the answer to that question is kind of like the answer to "who's the sucker in this poker game?"*

 

*If you can't tell, it's you. ;)

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