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Principle of War: Offensive

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  • Principle of War: Offensive

    As I read through the May 2005 issue, I came across the article by LtCol (Ret.) Leonhard in the "War College" series. Unfortunately, it needs some clarification and even more unfortunately, there haven't been any comments about it online. First of all, let's begin with the definition of this Principle of War, the Offensive.

    According to Joint Publication 1-0, Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, 14 Nov 2000, Appendix B, the purpose of an offensive action is to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. Nowhere in the ACG article is initiative mentioned although LtCol Leonhard does seem to dance around the principle. This differs greatly from saying that the principle of offensive means that one must attack all the time. Ironically he does seem to backpedal later in the article from his aversion to attacking (...the commander must also strive to divest his enemy of opportunity. Often this involves attacking). Continuing on, JP 1-0 states that, "Offensive action is the most effective and decisive way to attain a clearly defined objective. Offensive operations are the means by which a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining freedom of action and achieving decisive results. The importance of offensive action is fundamentally true across all levels of war." This flies directly in the face of the article’s statement that the offensive doesn't apply to any level of war.

    Reviewing what others have said is one of the best ways to analyze a concept. The granddaddy of them all would have to be Sun Tzu. He does not advocate attacking constantly but has much more finesse, "To subjugate the enemy's army without doing battle is the highest of excellence." He wrote, "Therefore, those skilled in warfare establish positions that make them invincible and do not miss opportunities to attack the enemy. Therefore, a victorious army first obtains conditions for victory, and then seeks to do battle. A defeated army first seeks to do battle, then obtains conditions for victory. Therefore those skilled in warfare move the enemy, and are not moved by the enemy." While the two agree on not being moved by the enemy, Sun Tzu still advocates attacking the enemy at some point.

    Next to Sun Tzu would have to be the infamous Clausewitz. In Book VI, Chapter I, he describes the concept of defense in this way, "But as we must return the enemy's blows if we are really to carry on war on our side, therefore this offensive act in defensive war takes place more or less under the general title defensive—that is to say, the offensive of which we make use falls under the conception of position or theatre of war. We can, therefore, in a defensive campaign fight offensively, in a defensive battle we may use some divisions for offensive purposes, and lastly, while remaining in position awaiting the enemy's onslaught, we still make use of the offensive.” Although Clausewitz did state that the defense is the stronger of the two forms (vs. offense) he did not exclude using forces in an offensive posture. A great example of this particular passage would be the Confederate forces during the U.S. Civil War, at least up to just before the battle of Gettysburg.

    The well-known and successful General George Patton wrote exhaustively on war. Known as a hard-charging commander, he actually had very logical thoughts on the conduct of war. Some of his maxims would actually compliment what LtCol Leonhard is attempting to say (I think), such as, "Make your plans to fit the circumstances." Regarding attacking, he said, "Never fight a battle when nothing is gained by winning." Regarding initiative, he said, "Never let the enemy pick the battle site." Above that, in the grander arena of strategy and tactics he made a rather surprising (to some) observation, "Strategy and tactics do not change. Only the means of applying them are different." Being the ardent historian, Patton was as avid reader of military history. He had this to say about the conduct of the Boer war, "Never was the truth more fully demonstrated than in South Africa of the…hackneyed phrases, ‘The offensive alone can produce decisive results…’

    One of the latest but somewhat less well-known thinkers on war was Colonel John Boyd. To those unfamiliar, he created the acronym OODA which describes his "loop" of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action that all people use to conduct their individual activities. His theory aided the efforts of many inside and out of the U.S. Marine Corps who attempted to update their service's doctrine. The result was a new emphasis on maneuver warfare; paraphrasing, "The goal [of maneuver warfare at the operational level] is destruction of the enemy's vital cohesion—disruption—not by piece-by-piece physical destruction. The objective is the enemy's mind not his body. The principal tool is moving forces into unexpected places at surprisingly high speeds." While it can be argued that maneuver warfare is not applicable on 4th generation warfare battlefields, the concept of disrupting the enemy cohesion is quite useful on the battlefield or off. This is difficult to do, of course, while your opponent has the initiative (i.e. is using the principle of offense).

    In closing, I believe that one of the most well-known commanders to subscribe to defensive-only thinking would have been General George McClellan. Let's hope our current commanders have more on their plate.

    Regards,

    Bill Moore
    Last edited by MightyHerc; 01 May 05, 22:03.

  • #2
    Originally posted by MightyHerc
    As I read through the May 2005 issue, I came across the article by LtCol (Ret.) Leonhard in the "War College" series. Unfortunately, it needs some clarification and even more unfortunately, there haven't been any comments about it online.
    interesting points - however this might get more responses in the Wars and Warfare forum. I'll mention it to the mod

    To be honest, I think what LTC Leonhard is promoting is more an extension of his "Culture of Velocity" theories than a return to post WW1 French defensive thought. More, defeating the enemy through manuever, rather than large scale attrition.

    Regarding offense and initiative - your basic premise is that offensive action = attempting to take the initiative away from the defender, and invariably succeeding. I would argue that defence doesn't necessarily equal passive, reactive actions, that restrict the defender from taking aggressive actions.

    Offence, as you stated, is to gain and keep the initiative - or in layman's terms, to put the defendeer on the back foot. This is US Military definition of offensive action; it is not the only definition however. Also, there are varying levels of initiative that "Offensive Action" must account for (and note this is *only* for a purely defensive defender - no aggressive actions undertaken):

    - Technical: an purely-defensive force will have the initiative against an attacking force if it has some equipment that the Attacker is unaware of, or can't counter - personally I think this now extends to the superior IPB that a defender will have due to static ISR resources in the defensive zone.

    - Tactical: In this level, I think the Attacker always has the advantage over the defender , simply due to the fact that they choose where and when the fight can occur - the defender is always reactive to the breach, movement etc of the Attacker. However, the defender can obtain the initiative through prepared defenses, quick reaction drills, etc

    - Operational: This to me is dependent upon the situation as a whole. Attrition based offence (such as Shock and Awe, Kosovo etc) has proven to be ineffectual in the sense of seizing the initiative from the defender - it forces the defender to regain the initiative through technical or tactical means (such as the Serbs dummy tanks), but it does not force him to restrict his defensive actions to the point of ineffectuality.

    Likewise, Manuever-based offence only has the initiative when the defender is static - even purely defensive actions may be mobile in some sense. Again, IPB is the big one in the sense that a good defender will have a good situational awareness, and the Attacker will by necessity of large scale movement, have a less accurate interpretation of the defensive zone to be breached.

    What it comes down to for me, is the sense that even purely defensive operations can maintain the initiative in the face of a determined attacker. However, I must add the corollary to that that the defender must be both aggressive and active in defending his zone, rather than reacting to the attackers movements.

    Your Sun-Tzu quote is interesting:
    Therefore, a victorious army first obtains conditions for victory, and then seeks to do battle. A defeated army first seeks to do battle, then obtains conditions for victory
    To me this seems that aggressive defence is better than passive offensive. Rapid movement to gain the objective (obtains conditions for victory), then defend what you have (seek to do battle) rather than go on the offensive (seek to do battle).

    However, we then get into semantics - is rapid movement to gain an objective an Offenive action? Not according to my Australian officer training; it could be characterised as a movement to contact, or rather gaining a defensible location. However, to another nationality, the mere action of gaining the objective could be seen as the offensive action.

    great first post - welcome to the forums
    Now listening too;
    - Russell Robertson, ruining whatever credibility my football team once had.

    Comment


    • #3
      Great topic, and great posts to follow, gentlemen. Since the topic is directly related to an ACG mag article, I'll move it to that section. It can always be moved again if warranted.
      Stay Alert, Stay Alive!

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Ivan Rapkinov
        Regarding offense and initiative - your basic premise is that offensive action = attempting to take the initiative away from the defender, and invariably succeeding. I would argue that defence doesn't necessarily equal passive, reactive actions, that restrict the defender from taking aggressive actions.
        I think Leonhard would mention that "preemption" is the soul of defense.

        How interesting I should come across this thread right now. Pursuant to learning more about what gets talked about in doctrine discussions I've begun reading Leonhard's ART OF MANEUVER. It is, perhaps, a bit dated having been written at the end of the Gulf War, but is quite interesting as it takes AirLand Battle doctrine to task.

        Anyone else read it?

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Ivan Rapkinov
          However, we then get into semantics - is rapid movement to gain an objective an Offenive action? Not according to my Australian officer training; it could be characterised as a movement to contact, or rather gaining a defensible location. However, to another nationality, the mere action of gaining the objective could be seen as the offensive action.
          And how! The French have what they call a "flexible attack" which they struggled to explain to me. It sounded like a recon in force, but when I suggested this everyone shook his head.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by Ivan Rapkinov
            Likewise, Manuever-based offence only has the initiative when the defender is static - even purely defensive actions may be mobile in some sense. Again, IPB is the big one in the sense that a good defender will have a good situational awareness, and the Attacker will by necessity of large scale movement, have a less accurate interpretation of the defensive zone to be breached.
            Really interesting observation. Leonhard's observations of IPB are too. Of course he doesn't say it is a bad thing, but he describes how IPB reinforces the prejudices of attrition model warfare. Of course, I don't see why this would necessarily be so, especially if your S2/S3 emphasized maneuver. Here's a quote from ART OF MANEUVER:

            ...."I was disappointed to watch the mech-divsion staff leap energetically inot preparation of the staff estimate and order without challenging the basic premise of the operation. Charged with te responsbility to develop at least two courses of action, the staff planned an unimaginative alternative COA indistiguishable from the first... When I questioned one of the officers as to the difference between the two, he pointed out a minor variation oin the friendly division task organization, as if this small item constituted a separate course of action... As I watched, the staff began to delved into the details of the operation,a nd their efforts were directed above all twoard conforming to doctrinal staffing methods. In the name of IPB, they nosed about te huge map board, eliciting the tiniest and most innocuous details concerning the terrain. all the ciites and towns in the area were marked out and considered "off limits," as were the woods and hills....

            Cheers,
            N.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by nilsderondeau
              I think Leonhard would mention that "preemption" is the soul of defense.

              How interesting I should come across this thread right now. Pursuant to learning more about what gets talked about in doctrine discussions I've begun reading Leonhard's ART OF MANEUVER. It is, perhaps, a bit dated having been written at the end of the Gulf War, but is quite interesting as it takes AirLand Battle doctrine to task.

              Anyone else read it?
              I must admit I've been a student of his writings for a few years now, ever since I read "Fighting by Minutes". There's a lot I probably wouldn't agree with, but the beauty of his ideas is that they challenge the status quo, rather than have strict guidelines to be followed.

              good post Nils

              btw, how goes your DA tourney match?
              Now listening too;
              - Russell Robertson, ruining whatever credibility my football team once had.

              Comment


              • #8
                I wish I had had the time to take part in the DA tourney. I see you've racked up one victory, right? In fact, I thought a lot about this scenario when reading Leonhard. The account of the staff briefing I quoted from the book comes from an action wherein an armored division must cross a region between two bridges.

                Throughout my reading of MANEUVER I was trying to situate Leonhard's beliefs within current U.S. doctrine. It made me think a bit about Rumsfeld's proposed transitioning of the army towards light forces. I'm not sure if that's a pertinent example, but the USMC's operations manual seems to take into account many more of his (or someone like him) ideas. I wonder what you would have to say about that.... (The U.S. Army's Full Spectrum doctrine is completely confusing to a dilettante civilian like me--it seems too eclectic even to be doctrine).

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                • #9
                  Offensive

                  Hi, Guys! Thanks for your interest in the article. Just a few points to clarify my thoughts on this stuff.

                  Imagine if I were watching you guys playing basketball, and found myself admiring the leading scorer. Wanting to emulate him. In analyzing his technique, I notice that he's wearing a red cap...and I conclude that red cap = high scoring. Obviously, a totally erroneous conclusion.

                  That's what we've done with the principle of offensive. We've watched selected military operations, noticed that at certain decisive points, the good guy attacked, and we have concluded that attacking = victory. It ain't so. Now you have pointed out that the verbage within the doctrinal manuals talk about initiative, which IS getting closer to the truth...but the very NAME of the principle is misleading. It suggests that there is something magical about attacking.

                  This principle's success record remains about 50%. For every great commander who attacked and won, there's another (sometimes the same guy) who attacked and got his butt handed to him. For every attack that gains the intiative, there's another that loses it. For every Joshua Chamberlain charging down Little Round Top, there's a Saddam Hussein attacking at Khafji.

                  One of the best points about all this that I ever read came from van der Goltz. When I read his commentary on offensive, I had a real slap-your-forehead moment, because his point was so obviously true. He noted that we all discuss offensive as if we are all independent little battlefield demi-gods that can attack whenever we choose to. In fact, as he pointed out, most often we are constrained by our mission and orders to attack or defend according to some higher plan, or according to the logistical realities. This is not to say that commanders at all levels don't have choices to make, but in the course of my career, MOST of the time I had no freedom to choose one form or the other.

                  To conclude--I believe that offensive is entirely a myth. The real issue is not about attacking or defending. Instead, it's about building opportunity and divesting the enemy of opportunity. Attacking is just one way of doing that, but the real art of war involves lots of other aspects to that challenge: logistics, task organization, training, recon and security measures, etc.

                  Again, thanks for this discussion. You guys are very sophisticated in your analysis and obviously well read!

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    always good to hear it from the horse's mouth

                    Col. (Mr?) Leonhard, as a wargamer interested in the professional sims that my country uses most (TacOps and Decisive Action - both in use by the US), I've always been intrigued by the vignette you wrote for the "Digital War" compilation regarding the the DAWE and TFAWE "tests" of digitisation and your resultant opinions.

                    You mention using commercial sims, just wondering which those would be?

                    Anyways, back to the topic:

                    To conclude--I believe that offensive is entirely a myth. The real issue is not about attacking or defending. Instead, it's about building opportunity and divesting the enemy of opportunity. Attacking is just one way of doing that, but the real art of war involves lots of other aspects to that challenge: logistics, task organization, training, recon and security measures, etc.
                    I come at this from the background of growing up in the Australian military culture, so perhaps I'm inherently biased towards that approach, but the attached image sums up *my* understanding of manoeuvre (using the correct spelling for once) based warfare. In my opinion the US has been spoilt by there own dominance to the point where they make the Army fit the Theory, and not, as have we(Australia), made the theory fit our Army.

                    Nils: Aye, I did chalk up a win, but wasn't a manuever battle - the "bridge" question never arose, because both John and I went for the other's available avenues, rather than try and get a lot of forces across. Rob Carpenters and Brian's tourney AAR is a better example of manuever warfare. My strategy was to gain a defensive locale and hold it, using fires from both my AH elements and arty to disrupt John's BDEs. As it was, my ISR was good enough to learn where his units were heading, so I massed my defence at what turned out to be the critical point. I think John was expecting a more manueverist apporach as hismovements seems to be about funnelling my forces into a tri-sided killzone with the river against my back.

                    I forwent a a solid logistics line at the outset to achieve a more favourabe position - had he moved faster, my BCTs would have been in trouble, but that's the gamble I took with the available recon and knowledge of his forces. Worked this time, but who can say as to next time?
                    Attached Files
                    Now listening too;
                    - Russell Robertson, ruining whatever credibility my football team once had.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      See, this is why I pay the high subscription fees to post here! What a forum!

                      Originally posted by RRLeonhard
                      Imagine if I were watching you guys playing basketball, and found myself admiring the leading scorer. Wanting to emulate him. In analyzing his technique, I notice that he's wearing a red cap...and I conclude that red cap = high scoring. Obviously, a totally erroneous conclusion.
                      So, what you're saying is that red hats are key....

                      Originally posted by RRLeonhard
                      That's what we've done with the principle of offensive. We've watched selected military operations, noticed that at certain decisive points, the good guy attacked, and we have concluded that attacking = victory. It ain't so. Now you have pointed out that the verbage within the doctrinal manuals talk about initiative, which IS getting closer to the truth...but the very NAME of the principle is misleading. It suggests that there is something magical about attacking.
                      I thought of you and your book yesterday, colonel, when I was teaching my lesson on IPB (I'm an English language trainer for the French army and only inexpert when it comes to military science--I know just enough to access my students' considerable expertise). Anyway, I had thrown a TO&E diagram on the projector and asked one of my majors to give a briefing describing the strengths and weaknesses of two force structures, one regular, one insurgent. A brilliant colonel (at least his English is great) asked what sort of coordination one might expect between the two structures. The major turned around, gaped at the diagram for a few moments and said "Well, as we can see, there is a bar drawn between the two diagrams, so there must be no coordination."

                      Originally posted by RRLeonhard
                      This principle's success record remains about 50%. For every great commander who attacked and won, there's another (sometimes the same guy) who attacked and got his butt handed to him. For every attack that gains the intiative, there's another that loses it. For every Joshua Chamberlain charging down Little Round Top, there's a Saddam Hussein attacking at Khafji.
                      Most of the examples my civilian brain supplies are from the ACW, Lee at Antietam for example.

                      Originally posted by RRLeonhard
                      One of the best points about all this that I ever read came from van der Goltz. When I read his commentary on offensive, I had a real slap-your-forehead moment, because his point was so obviously true. He noted that we all discuss offensive as if we are all independent little battlefield demi-gods that can attack whenever we choose to. In fact, as he pointed out, most often we are constrained by our mission and orders to attack or defend according to some higher plan, or according to the logistical realities. This is not to say that commanders at all levels don't have choices to make, but in the course of my career, MOST of the time I had no freedom to choose one form or the other.
                      Was this the genesis of the superb diagram in ART OF MANEUVER ("Life of a Tank Division") displaying the percentages of time spent in various activities? I will very likely base a lesson around this chapter of your book because I think it will be very provocative.

                      Originally posted by RRLeonhard
                      Again, thanks for this discussion. You guys are very sophisticated in your analysis and obviously well read!
                      So. Red hat, right?

                      Cheers!,
                      N.

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