Ending the Ideology of the Offense, Part II

August 25, 2022
ukr forces south artillery fire

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an essay. The first was published last week.

What if the ages old military maxim that “the best defense is a good offense” is false? What if the “best defense is a good defense”? This was Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s belief, a view he could not get Gen. Robert E. Lee, bent on a decisive offensive battle at Gettysburg, to embrace before he sacrificed Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division at Cemetery Ridge.

In the first part of this essay, I argued that a constellation of post-Cold War factors resulted in a U.S. warfighting approach focused on offensive operations from the continental United States. Principal among these factors was the reality that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Department of Defense no longer had a state threat to define the military problem of place, adversary, and an adversary’s capabilities to focus its concept and capability development efforts.



This was not a problem in the immediate post-Cold War world, given that U.S. operations were either taken to compel weak adversaries to change their behavior, e.g., operations to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, or to remove the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from power. Importantly, none of these operations required capabilities not already in the U.S. arsenal. Consequently, the Cold War threat based approach to developing capabilities and concepts was no longer relevant. In its stead, the Department of Defense adopted capabilities-based planning as a way to continue developing future capabilities. Here, developing best in class capabilities and concepts to defeat an adversary’s capabilities became the imperative. This all made sense — at the time.

What has changed is the return of China and Russia to the world stage. As the ongoing war in Ukraine and the Chinese response to U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, these two actors are willing to use military force to attain their objectives. The current U.S. approach to military problems needs to return to addressing these two specific adversaries and to understand what concepts and capabilities are needed to deter their aggression.

Elbridge Colby has written convincingly about the need to establish a strategy of denial to deter China. I endorse his approach and believe it relevant to Europe as well. Furthermore, events in Ukraine are demonstrating an important new reality that will make deterrence by denial realizable and credible: The ascendance of the defense as the stronger form of war.

I will now turn briefly to several observations from Ukraine that are relevant to the context in which such deterrence operations would occur. I will also describe how they go against what is emerging conventional wisdom in some cases.

Generalizable Observations from Ukraine

The specific nature of the military problem posed by China and Russia does not mean that there are not things to be learned from the Ukraine war, beyond a close examination of Russia. There are many that bear attention, but some are profound in their implications.

First, achieving surprise — one of the enduring principles of war — has proven difficult for both combatants. It was clear to U.S. intelligence agencies before the war that Russia was going to attack, and there were accurate assessments of Moscow’s operational scheme and force dispositions. Ukraine has benefitted from ubiquitous intelligence from small drones at the tactical level to space-based imagery from U.S. and commercial sources. Kyiv has a better understanding of Russian dispositions and likely intentions than did Allied commanders with Ultra during World War II. This reality should create an urgent demand for new concepts and capabilities for deception. It could also require the disabling or blinding of these systems, both terrestrial and in space — actions our adversaries can already take. In the interim, joint concepts ought to account for this reality which, again, puts a premium on pre-conflict positioning.

Second, despite predictions to the contrary, modern large-scale combat operations may not necessarily be short. Even though this war, as of the publication of this essay, has gone on for six months, it is short by the historical realities of past major large-scale conflict between relatively equally matched adversaries. Thus, expectations by many that wars will be short and decisive may be wrong, unless they escalate into the nuclear realm. This, as others have emphasized in War on the Rocks, has enormous implications across the joint force including magazine depths, casualty care and replacement, the industrial base, and on and on.

The protraction of the war is important to understand from a number of perspectives. To begin with, it appears that the Russian army is too small to double-down on its failed offensive against Kyiv, much less to conquer the entirety of Ukraine in the face of determined resistance. My sense is that the Russian leaderhsip realized this and reoriented to an objective in the Donbas that they can achieve with available resources and their favorable correlation of forces with the Ukrainian military in the region. Subsequently, although significantly outgunned and outnumbered at the points of Russian attack, Ukrainian resistance has persisted and exacted a heavy toll on the Russian forces. Why this is possible is an important question.

Third, the discarding of mass as a principle of war is, in my view, misplaced. Stephen Biddle’s view that the increased lethality of modern weapons demands the dispersal of forces for them to survive. This premise has been widely accepted since World War II and is found in many emerging U.S. warfighting concepts. Small, dispersed units, in these constructs, converge to take advantage of opportunities, thus achieving objectives and avoiding the vulnerabilities supposedly inherent in mass.

If lethality was the only challenge, Biddle might be correct. However, with the earlier noted addition of ubiquitous sensing systems that challenge achieving surprise moving to converge on a transparent battlefield may also make formations visible and subject to attack. The U.S. military itself demonstrated this when it used a range of surveillance systems during Operation Iraqi Freedom that detected even small enemy formations at night and in blinding sandstorms, enabling their destruction.

Mass seems to be fundamental to Russian operations, and perhaps to those of Ukraine as well. As the war grinds on in the East, both armies are toe-to-toe in a war of attrition. Small, dispersed units face the danger of being overrun. They also lose combat effectiveness with even modest casualties. If you can be found, you can be attacked and killed. Thus, mass is needed to maintain the offensive, but it also enables the defender to acquire and engage you more readily. The difficulty of achieving surprise lies mainly with the force on the offense. It also forces the attacker to try to sustain sufficient mass to continue operations in the face of a defender who is able to take measures to protect his massed formations. Hence, the digging in and going to ground in urban areas by Ukraine. The requirement to maintain mass has shown the demand, as I wrote recently, to have in place measures for force preservation, reconstitution of units, and casualty replacement as both sides fight to endure and out last the other. This has been true since at least the Napoleonic Wars as Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his effort to describe the character of a modern battle: “a slow process of mutual attrition that will reveal which side can first exhaust its opponent.”

Many attribute Ukrainian success to date to higher will to fight and morale, engendered by an existential fight and enabled by robust external materiel support. These are surely critical factors. Indeed, some are calling for Ukraine to counterattack and regain their lost territory, including the earlier lost parts of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Afterall, the offense is the decisive form or war and only by attacking can Ukraine win the war.

Nevertheless, something else is also happening. Given the realities of the battlefield in Ukraine, the defender has an enormous advantage. To transition to the offense, unless Russian forces are thoroughly exhausted, Ukraine will suffer as Russia has thus far.

This is because what I believe we are witnessing is a pivotal moment in military history: the re-ascendance of the defense as the decisive form or war. Noting a similar occurrence in his day, but for different reasons, Clausewitz recognized this shift as well: “All this should suffice to justify our proposition that defense is a stronger form of war than attack.”

The Department of Defense should endeavor to understand the importance of technologies on the battlefield objectively, lest it learn the hard way as has been the unfortunate practice in the past. Despite the murderous effects repeating weapons, rapid-firing artillery, and other technologies showed in the U.S. Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War and their ability to radically buttress the defensive, World War I was conducted by generals imbued with the spirit of the offense. Hundreds of thousands perished believing that élan could conquer machineguns. Eventually, innovations were made along the lines Biddle notes, most famously with German infiltration tactics to restore the offense.

Much is made of the German innovation, given that it returned the offensive to its “rightful” place as the decisive form of war. The World War II German blitzkrieg mechanized infiltration tactics and enabled the rapid operational exploitation of the Great War tactical innovation. This is still lauded as the epitome of military excellence.

What is less examined is the fact that the death knell of the German military in both world wars came when they exhausted themselves in offensives against defensive lines that held during the 1918 Spring Offensives and during the 1944 Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Thus, the defense won these key battles, and the counter-offensives were in effect exploiting offensive failures against exhausted German remnants. What would be an obviously ahistorical, but interesting examination, would be to game and analyze what would have happened if the other side had attacked first. Would the German defensive posture have defeated these offensives and then crushed their exhausted adversaries? The chilling effect the failure of Operation Market Garden had on Eisenhower shows his belated appreciation that a risky offensive was not the proper course to victory in Europe during World War II.

The two abortive German offensives were initially close-run battles, principally because the Germans were able to attain surprise. An example that is perhaps more germane to today is the 1943 German offensive at Kursk. Briefly, Russian intelligence, coupled with excellent military deception operations (maskirovka), brought the Germans into a deadly defensive trap. As David Glantz and Jonathan House write, “for the first time the Germans lost the advantage of surprise.”

Thus, firepower combined with intelligence, enabled the Russian defense to prevail in what many believe was the turning point in World War II. It was the final large-scale German offensive in the East. Henceforth, the Wehrmacht fought a two-year-long delaying action to forestall the inevitable Gotterdammerung in the Battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945.

The technologies the United States has developed for intelligence and fires make those available to Russian forces at Kursk pale in comparison. The U.S. joint force should recognize this reality of the ascendance of the defense enabled by the technologies the Department of Defense has developed and design its concepts and war plans accordingly.

What Is the Purpose of U.S. Military Power?

Before moving to a discussion of how an ascendant defensive reality could be operationalized by the United States against China and Russia, I want to turn for a moment to a very basic question: What is the purpose of U.S. military power?

In its very basic sense, it remains what Clausewitz famously said:

war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means. … The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.

Thus, the purpose of military action should be in support of the overarching political object. In the case of the United States, the policy objective, as described in President Joe Biden’s 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, is clear:

Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions.

The key words that should provide guidance to military concept developers are “deter” and “prevent.” Current warfighting concepts focused on expeditionary offensive operations are not supportive of this strategy, because they explicitly assume that deterrence failed to prevent a war and the mission is not deterrence, but compellence of an adversary to undo their actions.

These approaches, while not without risk against conventional peer capabilities, are at best problematic against nuclear-armed adversaries. This is because many U.S. concepts have their origins in ideas to defeat adversaries without nuclear weapons or assume that we can deny the enemy their use. This is most evident in U.S. Air Force declarations of airpower as a strategic instrument:

Airpower creates effects at the strategic level of warfare. Airpower, through global reach and global power, can hold an enemy’s strategic COGs [centers of gravity] and critical vulnerabilities at risk immediately and continuously through kinetic or non-kinetic means.

The current Air Force doctrine describes these centers of gravity and the importance of their attack:

SA [strategic attack] can deny an enemy’s strategic options in a variety of ways. Deterring or denying use of CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear] may require the threat of nuclear response or conventional attacks on production and delivery systems, whether threatened or actual. Conducted in accordance with the law of war, SA against enemy leadership and their connectivity to instruments of national power may also be effective.

Forestalling these strategic calamities that threaten leadership survival, national command and control, and the neutralization of their nuclear deterrent would offer a clear rationale for our enemies to escalate, either in the theater of operations or against the U.S. homeland, perhaps with nuclear weapons. Indeed, a 2020 decree by Putin makes it clear that Russia “retains the right to use nuclear weapons … in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat.”

Instead of immediately “going downtown in Baghdad,” where this approach was attempted (without success in attacking leadership), America could easily find itself “on the road to Armageddon.”

It is not surprising that United States finds itself where it is today. Quite simply, given decisions since the end of the Cold War, no other conceptual approach aside from expeditionary offensive operations was feasible — or necessary. The decades-long absence of a peer threat, positioning realities, multiple irregular warfare demands over the past 20 years on the U.S. military, and the preference for offensive operations all conspired to put the joint force where it is currently. Indeed, given the current realities of Allied forces in the Europe and the Pacific expeditionary operations might have to be preemptive—with all the consequences that would incur—to prevent a fait accompli. Not a good place in which to find ourselves.

Ukraine should be a wakeup call to rethink what the United States needs to do to prepare for conflict with actors who are obviously willing to use aggression to attain their ends. To do this, the Department of Defense has to embrace the policy demand that it has concepts, capabilities, and postures that enable it to credibly deter and prevent aggression. In my view, this can only be accomplished with a recognition of the ascendance of the defense. Furthermore, concepts for effective defensive operations, aside from rigorously focusing on the specific theaters, adversaries, and adversary capabilities, must be developed with the ever-present reality of nuclear weapons in mind.

What to Do Instead of Attack, Attack, Attack?

If the goal of U.S. policy is to deter and prevent, then military concepts should be designed for that purpose. I have suggested that such an approach would demand a strategy of deterrence through denial, as has my RAND colleague David Ochmanek, and supporting concepts and capabilities. The fundamentals of this strategy, as described by Mike Mazarr, are straightforward:

Deterrence by denial strategies seek to deter an action by making it infeasible or unlikely to succeed, thus denying a potential aggressor confidence in attaining its objectives — deploying sufficient local military forces to defeat an invasion, for example.

These fundamentals may be straight forward but Clausewitz’s warning about the inherent friction in war is a useful caution: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

What we are seeing in Ukraine is a different threat from the anti-access and area denial strategies presumed to be the principal Chinese and Russian challenges for which the U.S. military is preparing. The shoe is on the other foot. U.S. forces will likely find themselves, as have Ukrainian forces, fighting to defend against Russian and Chinese offensive acts of aggression, perhaps in Taiwan or the Baltics. Again, our strategy should be to convince our adversaries that we can deny them their objectives.

In the Pacific, is the best approach enabling our allies and partners in their defense and bolstering them with a greater U.S military presence, particularly on the land? If so, none of the emerging service and joint warfighting concepts emphasize defensive operations, nor are capabilities being developed to create U.S. anti-access and area-denial capabilities.

What is needed is a new warfighting concept that recognizes the risks of escalation if deterrence through denial fails. This would require a defense that can defeat an enemy’s ability to execute offensive fire and maneuver. Essentially, it has to take away their ability to continue the tactical and operational offense. Long-range fires in this case would be limited to targets directly engaged in operations and not strategic, e.g., leadership, national command and control, or nuclear systems. The objective of the defense would be to halt the enemy offensive with as little loss of territory as possible and to assume the offensive to compel their withdrawal from their ill-gotten gains. And go no further.

T.X. Hammes recently wrote that the results of rise of the shift to the dominance of the tactical defense with the relatively inexpensive tactical systems, e.g., drones and loitering munitions. I agree with him but would extend this dominance to the operational level. Ubiquitous surveillance throughout the depth and breadth of the battlefield, coupled with deep strike systems, will give the United States the ability to defend at depths never before possible, thus increasing the ability to deter by denial.

This conceptual approach is not unlike the outcome of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Saddam was denied aggression against Saudi Arabia during the defensive phase of Desert Shield and compelled to withdraw from Kuwait in the offensive phase in Operation Desert Storm. This is not a concept that calls for defending one’s foxhole to the end. Offensive action is a crucial component of an effective defense and is at the fore in the counteroffensive to compel the adversary to comply with your demands. Again to Clausewitz, who explained: “So the defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows.”

An added benefit of an effective defense is that the adversary suffers significant attrition, which will likely make him consider more carefully future aggression. After Operation Desert Storm Saddam Hussein was deterred until Operation Iraqi Freedom. Thus, punishment reinforces future deterrence both from the perspective of reduced capabilities and a reluctance to suffer future punishment.

U.S. joint and coalition forces in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were also executing what Active Defense and AirLand Battle were originally designed to accomplish: the defense of NATO against the Warsaw Pact. The objective, as it was in Desert Storm with Iraq, was halting Soviet aggression if deterrence failed and restoring territorial integrity. Although it is impossible to prove a negative, apparently the capacities and capabilities of NATO, bolstered by their own nuclear deterrent, were sufficient to deter a Soviet attack. Such an approach is what is also required for deterring and, if necessary, fighting nuclear-armed China and Russia.

What is clearly the desired end state in the defense is that it be formidable enough in the calculus of the adversary that they are deterred from aggression. Consequently, sufficient means ought to be in place to convince an adversary that the game is not worth the candle.

As events are showing in Ukraine, even with the inherent advantages of the defender, deterring a committed aggressor requires significant capacities and capabilities on the ground. Compelling the enemy to stop their aggression and withdraw is even more difficult, given their ongoing investment in prestige, blood, and treasure. Indeed, the world is witnessing the costs one of the principal U.S. adversaries — Russia — is willing to endure to accomplish its objectives. Thus, this war should give the Department of Defense at least a basic understanding of what is required to deter or defeat Russian aggression against NATO.

The Risks of Failing to Learn

My fear is that if the Department of Defense does not at least consider that the Ukraine war should create a crisis over U.S. doctrines and concepts, and the capabilities that are being developed to enable them, then it is setting itself up for an August 1914-like Battle of the Somme catastrophe. During the Great War, ideas about the ascendance of the offense — like the French l’offensive à outrance — died in the face of new technologies like the machinegun and rapid firing artillery. That the staying power of the ideology was protracted can be seen in the slaughter of the April 16 to May 9, 1917, French offensive commanded by Gen. Robert Nivelle. The Nivelle Offensive resulted in little gain and cost 135,000 French casualties in less than a month as generals still clung to the belief that the offensive was dominant.

The hold of a modern day ideology of the offensive is clear in the statement in Joint Publication 3-0: Joint Operations that:

Although defense may be the stronger form, offense is normally decisive in combat. To achieve military objectives quickly and efficiently, JFCs normally seek the earliest opportunity to conduct decisive offensive operations. … Defensive operations enable JFCs to conduct or prepare for decisive offensive operations.

The fighting in Donbas resembles more the battlefields in France during the World War I and the Eisenhower “advance on all fronts” strategy in the later stages of World War II than U.S. operations since Operation Desert Storm. The offensive will return when one side is exhausted.

Again, it is worth recalling that two of the pivotal battles at the end of the two world wars were caused by the failure of decisive offensive operations. The 1918 German spring offensives ruined a German army, even though it had just been reinforced by battle-hardened reinforcements from the East after Russia’s withdrawal from the war. The subsequent Allied offensive was against an out of position remnant of a defeated and demoralized German Army that had suffered nearly one million casualties in six months that were not replaceable. Similarly, the concluding offensives in Northwest Europe were against a Germany Army that had exhausted its combat capacity in a Hitler’s last gasp high stakes gamble in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. In both cases, the German decisive offensive operation resulted in a force too exhausted to defend against a counteroffensive.

It may, in fact, be best to attack last, rather than first.

This is the power of the defense if it is properly established with sufficient capacity and capabilities. It may be what Ukraine is trying to show the United States as a way forward in deterring its adversaries. If it lets it.



David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, and Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era. From 2012-2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for General Raymond T. Odierno.

Image: Ukrainian News24, open source intelligence