Setting the Record Straight on Attrition


Alarms regarding the number of casualties and the depth of destruction to Gaza’s physical infrastructure continue to ring loudly in the throes of the Israel-Hamas conflict. At the time of writing, more than 23,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and a staggering amount of collateral damage has made everything from medical care to burial in death exceedingly challenging in the war-torn area. This is the level of death and destruction despite the Israeli government’s assertion that it has conducted a “precision, focused and process-based campaign.” The rub here is that whether a precision strategy is used or not, a destruction-oriented strategy focused on eliminating an adversary force, especially if it is in an urban area (or areas), will create attritional effects. This logic tends to be missing from most discussions of precision strike strategy and maneuver warfare today.

Attrition should be appreciated for what it is. Attrition is not the product of a poor strategy, bad tactics, or ineffectual military. Nor is attrition inferior to maneuver or the discussion between the competing ideas an irrelevant distraction, as some commenters assert. As Christopher Tuck writes, attrition is a characterization of armed conflict in which both sides possess the means and will to fight for their policy aims while remaining elusive enough to extend a conflict’s duration beyond a quick and simple initial battle. Christopher Denzel posits that maneuver warfare is operational art and that positional warfare and attrition all work together to unlock military success on the battlefield. Policymakers, military practitioners, and analysts should accept that attrition is a general characterization of war and warfare in which destruction — whether it is focused on an army, an insurgent network, or any other type of adversary — is the primary method through which combatants pursue their political and military goals. As Heather Venable and David Alman note, technology does not elevate the attrition factor either. As such, attrition should not be categorically discarded because it does not mesh with casualty-averse sensibilities.

There are a number of misunderstandings about attrition and its rightful place in warfare. The failed Ukrainian counteroffensive from the summer of 2023 is instructive. Blinded by a maneuver bias, the U.S. military advised the Ukrainian armed forces to conduct a maneuver-oriented counteroffensive against entrenched, fortified, and multidomain Russian defense in depth along the contact line. Commentary today still suggests that maneuver and attrition sit on opposite ends of a spectrum of warfare and that militaries that can execute maneuver warfare will fight less deadly wars — both being incorrect distinctions. Nonetheless, with no assailable flanks present, Ukrainian forces attacked headlong into the face of Russian defenses with an inappropriate approach for the situation at hand. As a result, Russia’s destruction-oriented defense thwarted Ukraine’s maneuver-centric attack, further contributing to the conflict’s highly attritional character. This further highlights the strategic, tactical, and institutional misunderstandings about the relationship between maneuver warfare, positional warfare, and attrition.



Additionally, it is important to consider that regardless of how precise a weapon system is, so long as it is accompanied by an explosion of any kind, it will destroy things in proximity to its blast. As more strikes are aggregated across an area, those destructive effects compound and create an engagement, battle, operation, or campaign that can be characterized — among any other number of adjectives that fit the situation — as attritional. If a military force like Israel relies on a blend of stand-off strike in conjunction with highly mobile ground operations, all focused on destroying a political-military adversary such as Hamas, then staggering casualties should be expected. This is increasingly pertinent when groups such as Hamas use urban terrain to attempt to offset military overmatch. Thus, the hype that surrounds much of what maneuver warfare and precision strike strategies can do is just that: hype. Buying into the hype without hedging one’s bets against the idea that both maneuver and precision strike strategy can prevent battlefield death, collateral damage, and civilian casualties causes policymakers, institutions, and military practitioners to remain perpetually unprepared for the reality of wars of attrition.

It is important to understand these broadly held myths about conflict because, if left unchecked, they will continue to lead to calamitous missteps in planning policy and executing military strategy. They also prevent international organizations from properly preparing for the deleterious impact of warfighting, precision strategy or not. Those four myths include: 1) attrition is a form of warfare, 2) attrition is a correlation of forces and means battle, 3) attrition is focused on a one-to-one exchange ratio between adversaries, and 4) attrition is a lesser form of warfare. Examining these misunderstandings about attrition reveals two critical things: First, attrition is not a form of warfare, but a characterization of conflict in which one or more sides uses the pragmatic employment of destruction-based tactics and operations to create or take advantage of tactical and strategic opportunities on the battlefield. Further, it is important to remember that destruction-based warfare is not movement-agnostic. Rather, destruction-based approaches are grounded in the combination of movement to enable firepower.

Second, one form of warfare does not carry an inherent advantage over another. Rather, forms of warfare organically evolve to the situational requirement(s). As a result, a form of warfare’s value resides in its ability to best address the military situation at hand, and not in its adherence to a state military’s preferred doctrine.

Moreover, the forms of warfare, as a rule, correspond to three factors. First, the forms of warfare reflect a state or nonstate actor’s military goals. If the goal is removing a hostile force from the sovereign territory of another state — as is the case in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict — then destruction-based warfare is required to push the hostile army out of their neighbor’s sovereign territory. However, if a combatant’s goal is a dash to take control of another combatant’s capital, then a more movement-centric approach to warfare is required.

Second, the battlefield’s situation influences the type of warfare a combatant might employ. A situation can be defined many ways but in this case includes the physical terrain in which the conflict is occurring, the location of all forces — regular and irregular — throughout the theater of war, the availability of time, and the military objective. A combatant’s choice on how it wants to fight withers away when weighed against the situation at hand. Thus, the situation has a deterministic effect on campaigns and operations and, subsequently, the tactics therein.

Third, the forms of warfare are reflective of a state’s tools of war. A state military heavily invested in a reconnaissance-strike complex and mechanized forces will tend toward firepower and a destruction-based approach to warfighting more so than a state military that cannot support a robust strike and mechanized force. Likewise, nonstate actors tend to operate not so much on firepower and destruction as on movement and making the best use of position.

Defining Attrition

Trevor Dupuy provides one of the most useful and unbiased examinations of attrition. Dupuy writes that “attrition is a reduction in the number of personnel, weapons, and equipment in a military unit, organization, or force.” He defines attrition as “the difference between losses and returns to duty.” Dupuy does not define attrition as a form of war, but rather, he defines attrition as a result of combat, and therefore as a characterization of warfare in which destruction is the currency and wars focused on exhausting an adversary by increasing the material costs of war beyond what the adversary can sustain. Further, he states that enemy action and accidents are the primary methods through which attrition materializes.

More recent literature builds on Dupuy’s work and describes attrition as a state of being; put another way, attrition is a characterization, and not a form, of warfare. The characterization of “attrition” can be applied situationally or generally. For instance, an analyst can describe two tactical forces engaged in destruction-based fighting as a battle of attrition. This term can also apply if one side is using destruction-based methods against its adversary but is not putting its force in situations that allow for a comparable destruction-based approach from the opponent. Further, a combatant might use a destruction-based method, combined with the pragmatic use of terrain, force disposition within the terrain, and timing to avoid having its own force attritted, while inflicting high degrees of destruction on the adversary. This dynamic — the operational and tactical interplay between a force’s location on the battlefield, firepower, and movement — is positional warfare.

Nonetheless, some situations require headlong fighting in which both adversarial forces have no recourse or method of escape from battering combat. In these instances, in which both forces are engaged in methodical destruction-based warfighting, like the international community witnessed in the latter phase of Operation Inherent Resolve’s siege of Mosul, the watchful onlooker can classify this dynamic as a battle of attrition. When combined with the similar dynamic that occurred during the 2015–16 battle of Ramadi, this campaign can be defined as a war of attrition.

In a conflict in which the entire theater is engulfed in destruction-based warfighting, the war itself can be defined as a war of attrition. Wars of attrition, as Cathal Nolan and other scholars remind us, are the womb in which military victory develops.

Examining Attrition’s Detractions: Assertion 1: Attrition is a form of warfare

Many individuals engaged in the defense and security studies space community imply that attrition is a form or method of warfare. This cannot be further from the truth. In a military thinking sense, a “form,” “method,” or “type” implies that the subject possesses a cohered body of knowledge and a set of operations and tactics. These ideas — the body of knowledge and operations and tactics — might be institutionally developed and maintained, or organically developed by a theorist working outside the confines of an institution. These ideas might be codified as strategy, concepts, or doctrine, if maintained by an institution, such as a Western military force. On the other hand, these ideas might be codified as theory, if they are maintained by scholars, analysts, or theorists. A review of both U.S. and U.K. army operations doctrine finds no substantial mention of attrition or attrition warfare.

Given the absence in Western military doctrine, as well as defense and security studies or international relations scholarship, of discussion regarding “attrition warfare,” one must surmise that the word attrition is describing an environment in which destruction is the currency of conflict, and not a form, style, or type of warfare.

In other publications, scholars have provided an alternative framework for defining the mechanics of armed conflict. In this framework for warfare (see figure 1), contact serves as the X-axis and movement serves as the Y-axis. Contact (i.e., direct engagement with an adversary) is rated from heavy to light. Movement (i.e., the ability to use or the actual use of movement more than firepower) is also rated from heavy to light. The process of comparing movement and contact from heavy to light along each of those variables yields two primary forms of warfare — positional and roving warfare. Two subordinate forms of warfare exist beneath positional and roving warfare. Attrition, for its part, is not a form of warfare. Rather, attrition is a descriptor used to highlight armed conflicts, campaigns, battles, or engagements in which destruction-based warfighting is high, and at least one side in the conflict is inflicting significant casualties on the other.


Figure 1: Framework for Warfare

Further, a large amount of the literature on forms of warfare suggests that the goal of “attrition warfare” is to wear an opponent down and outlast them on the battlefield. The problem here is that is a goal, not a method, of warfare. Semantics aside, the differentiation is important. The goal of outlasting an adversary while preserving one’s own combat power is inherent to any actor operating in a competitive environment. Accepting that attrition is an adjective and not a noun, and thus moving forward with a more detailed framework for warfare, might well help kickstart the much-needed reset.

Assertion 2: Attrition is a correlation of forces and means battle

Dupuy found that “there is no direct relationship between force ratios and attrition rates.” He states that many factors influence attrition rates, to include weather, physical terrain, a force’s location, and relative combat effectiveness. Dupuy posits that the combination of variables, not one specific variable, influences attrition rates. His analysis on the subject concludes that neither personnel strength nor force strength ratios impact attrition rates in a meaningful way. Moreover, Wayne Hughes writes that destruction-oriented warfare is vital to suppressing a combatant which provides the suppressor with movement opportunities. In turn, attrition creates more situational opportunities for mobile exploitation. That is, attrition creates many opportunities for deft military commanders to exploit. This position — that attrition creates opportunities for mobile exploitation — is echoed by many prominent conflict analysts and scholars to include Heather Venable, Christopher Tuck, Anthony King, and Cathal Nolan. Considering this wide range of analysis, it is safe to say that attrition is not a correlation of forces and means battle. This is not to suggest that correlation of forces and means battle analysis does not matter, because it does, but it needs to be placed in the appropriate context.

Nonetheless, no compelling or empirical scholarship has emerged to refute the veracity of attrition’s utility in war and warfare. Further, many contributors’ uses of attrition in relation to a rate implies its descriptive (i.e., adjective) nature, and not a form, method, or style (i.e., noun). Considering the fact that attrition is an adjective and not a noun, it is safe to say that attrition is not a correlation of forces and means battle, but rather, a descriptive term used to describe destruction-oriented warfare.

Assertion 3: Attrition is focused on a one-to-one exchange ratio between combatants

 To continue to dissect the idea that attrition is focused on a one-to-one exchange ratio between combatants, it is important to assume that attrition is a form of warfare. Let’s assume two combatants, both of which are industrialized states, are engaged in armed conflict. For the sake of argument, these combatants are state military forces, and not subunits, individuals, or nonstate forces. A degree of parity exists between both combatants; neither combatant A nor combatant B possesses a significant advantage over the other in terms of the elements of national power or combat power. Both combatants operate on the logic of systems theory (i.e., their first goal is survival, and their second goal is victory), they are both economic, rational actors (i.e., they each operate with their self-interest at the fore, but will not sacrifice their survival for self-interest), which includes avoiding large-scale troop deployments and the wanton use of their forces. Viewed collectively, these ideas form the causal mechanism that dictates a military force’s form of warfare.

Combatant B is combatant A’s adjacent territorial neighbor. Combatant B has invaded combatant A, and it is occupying one-sixth of combatant A’s territory with a large joint force made primarily of a large land army. Diplomacy is at a dead end. Military options, at least for the time being, are combatant A’s only recourse to its geopolitical problem.

Militarily, combatant A has a more open command system in which senior leadership empowers its junior leadership to make on-the-spot decisions. This ethos permeates combatant A’s military force. Combatant B, on the other hand, has a closed command system in which decision-making is hierarchical. As a result, combatant B operates a command system that is slower, less informed, and less responsive to a current tactical or operational situation than combatant A’s.

Combatant A wants to use a destruction-based approach to fighting and defeating combatant B. Combatant A wants to fight this way because the existence of combatant B’s military force is the object of combatant A’s military strategy and the primary challenge that its policymakers must address. Thus, combatant A assumes that the physical destruction of combatant B’s land force will trigger combatant B’s policymakers to change their state’s policy and end the conflict posthaste. Moreover, it is also wise to assume that combatant B will call for a negotiated end to the conflict at a point far removed from the outright destruction of its land army. Therefore, combatant A is correct to assume that a destruction-based approach is best for addressing combatant B.

Yet combatant A’s caveats — avoid large-scale troop deployments and the wanton loss of one’s forces and equipment — mean that it is not interested in using bad operations or poor tactics. Bad in this case means methods of warfare that drive up its own casualties. Combatant A’s true military interest is in destroying as much of combatant B’s military force as possible, in the shortest amount of time feasible, while protecting its own force and preventing its destruction.

As a result, combatant A’s operations and tactics will be a blend of movement, striking (i.e., attacking), and protection that best delivers a destructive effect on combatant B, while preserving its own force. Preserving one’s own force is the important thing to remember here. Any rational and economically minded combatant will operate, to its best ability, in a self-preserving way while striving to achieve its military objectives.

History does nonetheless provide a few instances in which a state’s military was forced into a relative reciprocal scenario with its adversary. World War II’s Eastern Front, for instance, provides many examples in which exchange rates between the Soviet Union’s armed forces and those of Nazi Germany were relatively equal. This was more the result of situational factors than preferential methods.

Nevertheless, one would have to eliminate one or more of warfighting’s causal mechanisms to assume that combatant A or B would willingly engage in combat that allowed for a “one-for-one” exchange rate. At the same time, one would have to assume that a combatant is irrational if it were to remove one or more of the elements of causality. Causality aside, it is dishonest to assume that a state military — fictitious or otherwise — would intentionally operate in an irrational manner, and this is the third assertion’s most egregious leap of logic. States and their militaries do not operate illogically — at least not intentionally.

Assertion 4: Attrition is a lesser form of warfare

Many of the strawmen provided by late 20th-century theorists continue to erode clear thinking about attrition. Writing in 1979, Edward Luttwak disparages attrition as firepower-centric warfare that is out of step with the direction the United States and NATO should be headed. Luttwak writes:

We all know what attrition is. It is war in the administrative manner, of Eisenhower rather than Patton, in which the important command decisions are in fact logistic decisions. The enemy is treated as a mere inventory of targets and warfare is a matter of mustering superior resources to destroy his forces by sheer firepower and weight of materiel.

Luttwak offers that more movement-oriented forms of warfare are better than firepower-based forms of warfare. Luttwak provides this opinion without providing empirical evidence to support his argument. Further, he asserts that Western militaries would be best served using an alternative, movement-centric form of warfare, rather than the laborious and synchronized attritional style.

In the mid-1980s, William Lind emerged on the scene as another attrition-detractor. Lind decries attrition as a slow, ponderous approach to warfare that places synchronization, timing, and centralized command and control ahead of responsiveness and surprise. Writing in the early 1990s, John Antal states that armies that adopt an attritional style of warfighting emphasize firepower ahead of movement, and that by doing so, attrition-oriented armies are less capable of inflicting cognitive paralysis on an adversary and winning in a more cost-effective manner. Lind’s, Antal’s, and Luttwak’s theses, in addition to institutional recalcitrance toward the concept’s utility, remain today’s static that interferes with a clear picture about destruction-oriented warfare.

Many of the points made by individuals such as Luttwak, Lind, and Antal do not stand up to analytical rigor. The empirical work of Wayne Hughes, for instance, finds that firepower and destruction are quintessential elements of battlefield victory. Moreover, terrain, more than anything, dictates the speed at which a combatant operates. Terrain further defines whether a military operation or tactical engagement is a headlong clash of forces, or if one combatant is capable of flanking the other combatant and reaching the rear of its formation. Terrain, when combined with an adversary’s actions, further complicates matters. An adversary in open terrain might contract into restrictive terrain, such as mountains, dense woods, and urban areas, to offset the advantages of a mobile adversary who possesses fire and combat power overmatch.

A combatant’s training proficiency is another factor that determines the swiftness of its combat operations. To this point, it is also important to convey that combat losses over time change an army. Michael Kofman notes that as a conflict elongates over time, the original, highly trained army of regulars tends to be replaced by hastily trained conscripts. As a result, the combatants both become less adept at synchronized combined arms warfare, and thus sequential combined arms warfare overtakes the former. It is therefore disingenuous to assert that attrition is a lesser form of warfare. Instead, destruction-oriented warfare often results from necessity.

What’s more, Alexander Svechin offers that destruction-oriented approaches to warfare are the next logical option when a war cannot be won in a single, decisive strike or battle of annihilation. Svechin writes that destruction-oriented approaches are directed toward obtaining and maintaining material superiority, while depriving a hostile combatant of the means that they need for continued resistance.

Since history demonstrates that most wars are not won in a singular, decisive strike, it thus makes sense for destruction-oriented operations to take center stage in armed conflict. Thus, attrition, although not actually a form of warfare, is not a lesser form of warfighting. Those who make this suggestion are selectively ignoring the impact that deterministic elements such as terrain, time, an adversary’s action, and training have on combat.


As the wars in Gaza and Ukraine illustrate, attrition is a characterization of conflict and not a form of warfare. Attrition is an adjective used to provide meaning to engagements, battles, campaigns, operations, and wars in which destruction is high. Moreover, attrition lacks a coherent body of knowledge and an accepted set of practical applications that would allow it to be considered a form of warfare. Therefore, it is prudent to accept that attrition warfare is not actually a typology. Rather, it is a misnomer that needs to be rectified. Replacing attrition in all cases in which the defense and security studies community, as well as military practitioners, are not outlining an activity’s character is paramount. The term destruction-oriented warfare is an appropriate replacement for attrition’s use in regard to a form of warfare.

Further, Western militaries must graduate beyond fanciful and idealist thinking about armed conflict. The destruction of hostile armies is how a military creates the situation required for their policymakers to pursue strategic victory. In some instances, however, that is not the case. The threat of, or the bludgeoning push toward the destruction of, a hostile army generates the signal for hostile policymakers to negotiate an end to armed conflict.

So long as large-scale wars between industrialized states continue, and destruction-oriented methods remain the path to military, and subsequently political, victory, then the defense and security studies communities must come around to understanding attrition and its place in the conduct of armed conflict. As Nolan reminds us, the destruction of armies, or the push toward destroying armies, is the most effective and historically supportable way in which to drive policymakers to the negotiating table.


Amos C. Fox is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Reading. Additionally, Amos is the chief human resources officer for the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and he hosts the Revolution in Military Affairs podcast.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. James R. Smith