Attrition warfare

Attrition warfare

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Attrition warfare is a military strategy
Military strategy
Military strategy is a set of ideas implemented by military organizations to pursue desired strategic goals. Derived from the Greek strategos, strategy when it appeared in use during the 18th century, was seen in its narrow sense as the "art of the general", 'the art of arrangement' of troops...

 in which a belligerent side attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and matériel
Materiel
Materiel is a term used in English to refer to the equipment and supplies in military and commercial supply chain management....

.

The war will usually be won by the side with greater such resources. An example of this was during World War I when the Allies
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

 wore down the Central Powers
Central Powers
The Central Powers were one of the two warring factions in World War I , composed of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria...

 to the point of capitulation
Capitulation (surrender)
Capitulation , an agreement in time of war for the surrender to a hostile armed force of a particular body of troops, a town or a territory....

.

Strategic considerations


Military theorists and strategists like Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu
Sun Wu , style name Changqing , better known as Sun Tzu or Sunzi , was an ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who is traditionally believed, and who is most likely, to have authored The Art of War, an influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy...

 have viewed attrition warfare as something to be avoided. In the sense that attrition warfare represents an attempt to grind down an opponent through superior numbers, it represents the opposite of the usual principles of war, where one attempts to achieve decisive victories through maneuver
Maneuver warfare
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

, concentration of force
Force concentration
Force concentration is the practice of concentrating a military force, so as to bring to bear such overwhelming force against a portion of an enemy force that the disparity between the two forces alone acts as a force multiplier, in favour of the concentrated forces.-Mass of decision:Force...

, surprise
Ambush
An ambush is a long-established military tactic, in which the aggressors take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack an unsuspecting enemy from concealed positions, such as among dense underbrush or behind hilltops...

, and the like.

On the other hand, a side which perceives itself to be at a marked disadvantage in maneuver warfare or unit tactics may deliberately seek out attrition warfare to neutralize its opponent's advantages. If the sides are nearly evenly matched, the outcome of a war of attrition is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory
Pyrrhic victory
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory with such a devastating cost to the victor that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately cause defeat.-Origin:...

.

The difference between war of attrition and other forms of war is somewhat artificial, since war always contains an element of attrition. However, one can be said to pursue a strategy of attrition when one makes it the main goal to cause gradual attrition to the opponent eventually amounting to unacceptable or unsustainable levels for the opponent while limiting your own gradual losses to acceptable and sustainable levels. This should be seen as opposed to other main goals such as the conquest of some resource or territory or an attempt to cause the enemy great losses in a single stroke (e.g. by encirclement and capture).

Historically, attritional methods are tried when other methods have failed or are obviously not feasible. Typically, when attritional methods have worn down the enemy sufficiently to make other methods feasible, attritional methods are abandoned in favor of other strategies.

Attritional methods are in themselves usually sufficient to cause a nation to give up a non-vital ambition, but other methods are generally necessary to achieve unconditional surrender.

History


It is often argued that the best-known example of attrition warfare was during World War I on the Western Front
Western Front (World War I)
Following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the German Army opened the Western Front by first invading Luxembourg and Belgium, then gaining military control of important industrial regions in France. The tide of the advance was dramatically turned with the Battle of the Marne...

. Both military forces found themselves in static defensive positions in trench
Trench warfare
Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

es running from Switzerland to the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

. For years, without any opportunity for maneuvers, the only way the commanders thought they could defeat the enemy was to repeatedly attack head on, to grind the other down.

Attritional warfare in World War I has been shown by historians such as Hew Strachan
Hew Strachan
Brigadier Professor Hew Francis Anthony Strachan, DL, FRSE, FRHS is a Scottish military historian, well known for his work on the administration of the British Army and the history of the First World War...

 to have been used as a post hoc excuse for failed offensives. Erich von Falkenhayn
Erich von Falkenhayn
Erich von Falkenhayn was a German soldier and Chief of the General Staff during World War I. He became a military writer after World War I.-Early life:...

 later claimed that his tactics at Verdun
Battle of Verdun
The Battle of Verdun was one of the major battles during the First World War on the Western Front. It was fought between the German and French armies, from 21 February – 18 December 1916, on hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France...

 were designed not to take the city, but rather to destroy the French Army
French Army
The French Army, officially the Armée de Terre , is the land-based and largest component of the French Armed Forces.As of 2010, the army employs 123,100 regulars, 18,350 part-time reservists and 7,700 Legionnaires. All soldiers are professionals, following the suspension of conscription, voted in...

 in its defense. In practice the German Offensive was intended to go as far as possible and had no obvious design to minimize German casualties and maximize French casualties. Attrition was therefore used later in the battle to shift the focus away from Falkenhayn's tactical failure, rather than a goal of the battle itself.

Attrition to the enemy was easy to assert and difficult to refute, and thus may have been a convenient face-saving exercise in the wake of many indecisive battles. It is in many cases hard to see the logic of warfare by attrition because of the obvious uncertainty of the level of damage to the enemy, and of the damage that the attacking force may sustain to its own limited and expensive resources, while trying to achieve that damage.

That is not to say that a general will not be prepared to sustain high casualties while trying to reach an objective. An example in which one side used attrition warfare to neutralize the other side's advantage in maneuverability and unit tactics occurred during the latter part of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, when Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th President of the United States as well as military commander during the Civil War and post-war Reconstruction periods. Under Grant's command, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and ended the Confederate States of America...

 pushed the Confederate Army continually, in spite of losses, confident that the Union
Union (American Civil War)
During the American Civil War, the Union was a name used to refer to the federal government of the United States, which was supported by the twenty free states and five border slave states. It was opposed by 11 southern slave states that had declared a secession to join together to form the...

's supplies and manpower would overwhelm the Confederacy
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 even if the casualty ratio was unfavorable; this indeed proved to be the case.

Other examples

  • The "delaying
    Fabian strategy
    The Fabian strategy is a military strategy where pitched battles and frontal assaults are avoided in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoiding decisive battles, the side employing this strategy harasses its enemy through skirmishes to cause...

    " tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus "Cunctator"
    Fabius Maximus
    Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator was a Roman politician and general, born in Rome around 280 BC and died in Rome in 203 BC. He was Roman Consul five times and was twice Dictator in 221 and again in 217 BC. He reached the office of Roman Censor in 230 BC...

     against Hannibal Barca
    Hannibal Barca
    Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca Hannibal's date of death is most commonly given as 183 BC, but there is a possibility it could have taken place in 182 BC. was a Carthaginian military commander and tactician. He is generally considered one of the greatest military commanders in history...

     during the Second Punic War
    Second Punic War
    The Second Punic War, also referred to as The Hannibalic War and The War Against Hannibal, lasted from 218 to 201 BC and involved combatants in the western and eastern Mediterranean. This was the second major war between Carthage and the Roman Republic, with the participation of the Berbers on...

    .
  • Battle of Actium
    Battle of Actium
    The Battle of Actium was the decisive confrontation of the Final War of the Roman Republic. It was fought between the forces of Octavian and the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. The battle took place on 2 September 31 BC, on the Ionian Sea near the city of Actium, at the Roman...

     of 31 BC during the Roman civil wars
    Roman civil wars
    There were several Roman civil wars, especially during the late Republic. The most famous of these are the war in the 40s BC between Julius Caesar and the optimate faction of the senatorial elite initially led by Pompey and the subsequent war between Caesar's successors, Octavian and Mark Antony in...

  • The Hungarian resistance against the Mongols 1241–1242
  • The Đại Việt Empire (now known as Vietnam
    Vietnam
    Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

    ), three repulsions of Kublai Khan
    Kublai Khan
    Kublai Khan , born Kublai and also known by the temple name Shizu , was the fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294 and the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China...

     (the grandson of Genghis Khan and the last Khan of the Mongol Empire) in 1258, 1285 and 1288
  • The American strategy during the American Revolutionary War
    American Revolutionary War
    The American Revolutionary War , the American War of Independence, or simply the Revolutionary War, began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen British colonies in North America, and ended in a global war between several European great powers.The war was the result of the...

  • The French invasion of Russia
    French invasion of Russia
    The French invasion of Russia of 1812 was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars. It reduced the French and allied invasion forces to a tiny fraction of their initial strength and triggered a major shift in European politics as it dramatically weakened French hegemony in Europe...

     by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812
  • Trench warfare
    Trench warfare
    Trench warfare is a form of occupied fighting lines, consisting largely of trenches, in which troops are largely immune to the enemy's small arms fire and are substantially sheltered from artillery...

     in the American Civil War
    American Civil War
    The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

    , notably the Siege of Petersburg
    Siege of Petersburg
    The Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia, fought from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War...

  • Trench warfare in World War I
    World War I
    World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

    , including the Battle of the Somme (1916)
    Battle of the Somme (1916)
    The Battle of the Somme , also known as the Somme Offensive, took place during the First World War between 1 July and 14 November 1916 in the Somme department of France, on both banks of the river of the same name...

    , the Battle of Verdun
    Battle of Verdun
    The Battle of Verdun was one of the major battles during the First World War on the Western Front. It was fought between the German and French armies, from 21 February – 18 December 1916, on hilly terrain north of the city of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France...

     and many others
  • Tonnage war
    Tonnage war
    A tonnage war is a military strategy aimed at merchant shipping. The premise is that an enemy has only a finite number of ships, and a finite capacity to build replacements for them. The concept was made famous by U-boat commander Karl Dönitz, who wrote: The shipping of the enemy powers is one...

     in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II
  • The Air battle for Great Britain
    Battle of Britain
    The Battle of Britain is the name given to the World War II air campaign waged by the German Air Force against the United Kingdom during the summer and autumn of 1940...

     in World War II after the bombing of London
  • Static battle
    Static battle
    In a static battle, both sides suffer heavy casualties and battlefronts move so slowly that the result is "static" . Movement is limited by the amount of casualties.Examples from history include:The Battle of Moyry Pass...

    s in World War II, including Soviet urban
    Urban warfare
    Urban warfare is combat conducted in urban areas such as towns and cities. Urban combat is very different from combat in the open at both the operational and tactical level...

     defense during the Battle of Stalingrad
    Battle of Stalingrad
    The Battle of Stalingrad was a major battle of World War II in which Nazi Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad in southwestern Russia. The battle took place between 23 August 1942 and 2 February 1943...

  • Battles of Rzhev
    Battles of Rzhev
    Rzhev Battles is a general term for a series of World War II offensives launched during January 8, 1942—March 31, 1943 by the Soviet Red Army in the general directions of Rzhev, Sychevka and Vyazma against a German salient in the vicinity of Moscow, known as the "Rzhev meat grinder" for...

     (1942–1943)
  • The Vietnam War
    Vietnam War
    The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

     (Body count
    Body count
    A body count is the total number of people killed in a particular event. In combat, a body count is often based on the number of confirmed kills, but occasionally only an estimate.-Military use:...

    )
  • The "Long War" during the Provisional IRA's armed campaign against the British Army during the Troubles
    The Troubles
    The Troubles was a period of ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland which spilled over at various times into England, the Republic of Ireland, and mainland Europe. The duration of the Troubles is conventionally dated from the late 1960s and considered by many to have ended with the Belfast...

    .
  • The Israeli-Egyptian
    Arab–Israeli conflict
    The Arab–Israeli conflict refers to political tensions and open hostilities between the Arab peoples and the Jewish community of the Middle East. The modern Arab-Israeli conflict began with the rise of Zionism and Arab Nationalism towards the end of the nineteenth century, and intensified with the...

     War of Attrition
    War of Attrition
    The international community and both countries attempted to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Jarring Mission of the United Nations was supposed to ensure that the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 242 would be observed, but by late 1970 it was clear that this mission had been...

     from 1967–1970.
  • The Soviet war in Afghanistan
    Soviet war in Afghanistan
    The Soviet war in Afghanistan was a nine-year conflict involving the Soviet Union, supporting the Marxist-Leninist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the Afghan Mujahideen and foreign "Arab–Afghan" volunteers...

  • The War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
    War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
    The War in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, as the armed forces of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Afghan United Front launched Operation Enduring Freedom...

  • The 2011 Libyan civil war
    2011 Libyan civil war
    The 2011 Libyan civil war was an armed conflict in the North African state of Libya, fought between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and those seeking to oust his government. The war was preceded by protests in Benghazi beginning on 15 February 2011, which led to clashes with security...

     is arguably an example of attrition warfare.

See also

  • Guerrilla warfare
    Guerrilla warfare
    Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

  • Human wave attack
    Human wave attack
    Human wave attack, also known as human sea attack, is an offensive infantry tactic, in which an attacker conducts an unprotected frontal assault with densely concentrated infantry formations against the enemy line, intended to overrun the defenders by engaging in melee combat.-Definition:According...

  • Mexican standoff
    Mexican standoff
    A Mexican standoff is a slang term defined as a stalemate or impasse; a confrontation that neither side can foreseeably win. The term is most often used in lieu of "stalemate" when the confrontational situation is exceptionally dangerous for all parties involved.In popular culture, the Mexican...

  • No-win situation
    No-win situation
    A no-win situation, also called a "lose-lose" situation, is one where a person has choices, but no choice leads to a net gain. For example, if an executioner offers the condemned the choice of dying by being hanged, shot, or poisoned, since all choices lead to death, the condemned is in a no-win...

  • Pyrrhic victory
    Pyrrhic victory
    A Pyrrhic victory is a victory with such a devastating cost to the victor that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately cause defeat.-Origin:...

  • Winner's curse
    Winner's curse
    The winner's curse is a phenomenon akin to a Pyrrhic victory that occurs in common value auctions with incomplete information. In short, the winner's curse says that in such an auction, the winner will tend to overpay...

  • Win-win game
    Win-win game
    A win-win game is a game which is designed in a way that all participants can profit from it in one way or the other. In conflict resolution, a win-win strategy is a conflict resolution process that aims to accommodate all disputants.-Types:...



Military theory:
  • Fabian strategy
    Fabian strategy
    The Fabian strategy is a military strategy where pitched battles and frontal assaults are avoided in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoiding decisive battles, the side employing this strategy harasses its enemy through skirmishes to cause...

  • Flypaper theory (strategy)
    Flypaper theory (strategy)
    In military strategy, the flypaper theory is the idea that it is desirable to draw enemies to a single area where it is easier to kill them and where they are far from one's own vulnerabilities. Perhaps the best description of the benefits of the strategy was given by U.S. Army General Ricardo...

  • Lanchester's laws
    Lanchester's laws
    Lanchester's laws are mathematical formulae for calculating the relative strengths of a predator/prey pair. This article is concerned with military forces....

  • Loss Exchange Ratio
    Loss Exchange Ratio
    Loss-Exchange Ratio is a military term that calculates the comparative casualties suffered by each combatant from a battle, engagement or extended conflict. For example, at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, the Union forces suffered approximately 23,000 casualties against...

  • Maneuver warfare
    Maneuver warfare
    Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

  • Ivan Bloch (19th century)