Quality Has a Quality All Its Own: The Virtual Attrition Value of Superior-Performance Weapons


Can the United States stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan by turning the island’s approaches into an “unmanned hellscape”? Can the “attritable” unmanned capabilities being acquired through the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative close an emerging gap in combat power with the People’s Liberation Army? Can the U.S. Air Force compensate for its shrinking force structure, maximize the effectiveness of its manned airframes, and achieve “affordable mass” with collaborative combat aircraft?

Each of these efforts represents a wager that smaller, less expensive, and more numerous systems are critical to deterring or defeating Chinese aggression. They also reflect one side of a long-standing defense policy debate over the utility of expensive and advanced capabilities versus cheaper and less sophisticated alternatives. This tradeoff between quality and quantity arises because, as Alfred Thayer Mahan observed regarding naval fleets, “Budgets not being illimitable in size, there results between numbers and individual cost of ship an opposition.” Advocates of the two approaches have sparred throughout history, including when Britain launched the Dreadnought battleship in 1906 and when the United States purchased the M1 tank, F-15 fighter aircraft, and other weapons in the 1980s. Today, the dueling approaches comprise a high-stakes debate in American defense strategy — with future fighting concepts and billion-dollar contracts hanging in the balance.



Right now, the affordable-but-plentiful school seems to be gaining ground. Although this approach helps to address constraints on the U.S. military’s size and posture, policymakers should not let enthusiasm for cheaper weapons mutate into prejudice against costlier ones, which has happened in the past. Sophisticated yet scarce capabilities offer unique advantages, particularly when it comes to degrading an opponent’s military effectiveness by inflicting virtual attrition.

From the Doolittle Raid in World War II (which convinced the Japanese to heighten defenses around their home islands) to the SCUD hunt during Operation Desert Storm (which compelled Iraqi units to remain hidden and reduced missile launches by 50 percent), history shows that attacks by highly capable, limited-inventory forces can exert a surprisingly large influence once their direct and indirect effects are taken into consideration. The latter can be difficult to measure, easy to miss, and even easier to dismiss, especially for observers focused on the clear-cut signs of physical attrition. But ignoring them could leave the United States without critical tools it can use to deter, fight, and win.

The Reality of Virtual Attrition

In most sports, when team A has a highly proficient offensive player, team B often devotes disproportionate attention and effort to stopping them. Doing so, however, can wear down the members of team B, reducing their ability to go on the offense themselves. And this might even create a cycle in which team A keeps getting more chances to put points on the board. In other words, the value of a player is not just measured in the number of points he scores, but in how his ability to score can put an opposing team in a difficult bind. That, in short, is virtual attrition.

When it comes to military affairs, virtual attrition entails the threat or use of violence to cause inefficient changes in enemy force generation or force employment. Put simply, a military inflicts virtual attrition when its attack, or the prospect of its attack, causes the adversary to adjust its behavior in ways that decrease the quality, amount, or rate of combat power brought to bear. Conversely, a military suffers virtual attrition when the physical attrition it fears causes it to deploy, maneuver, or sustain its forces in suboptimal ways.

For instance, the threat of airstrikes might drive ground forces to hide or disperse, reducing their volume of fire or rate of advance; rather than going on the attack, targeted ground forces need to focus more on simply staying alive. Likewise, air-to-ground strikes against infrastructure targets that had seemed invulnerable or out of bounds might trigger defensive countermeasures yielding similar inefficiencies; if states suddenly need to protect facilities they previously believed were not at risk, that could dilute their ability to conduct attacks of their own.

The concept itself is hardly novel. Virtual attrition lies at the heart of combined arms maneuver warfare and suppression of enemy air defenses. In those contexts, artillery units and electronic warfare platforms, respectively, endeavor to impede rather than destroy enemy forces. Virtual attrition has also been critical to the success of past military campaigns, including the battle of the Atlantic and the combined bomber offensive of World War II. Yet it remains understudied and underappreciated because it lacks the visibility and measurability of physical attrition. For example, although the 1999 NATO campaign against Serbian air defenses failed to destroy many mobile launchers, it still pushed the Serbs to keep their launchers hidden and radars turned off. Serbian air defenses survived the war, but NATO air forces achieved their objectives by striking targets while suffering minimal losses. These effects do not register neatly on battle damage trackers or add to “kill counts,” but they contribute greatly to military success.

Today, the easiest place to see virtual attrition in action is by looking at the U.S. response to China’s military rise. Facing a host of anti-access/area denial systems, the U.S. military can no longer operate as it did when its air and sea bases remained largely immune from enemy attack. Instead, it has to contemplate delaying the dispatch of reinforcements rather than rushing them into a crisis zone, hunkering down assets behind active and passive defenses instead of pushing them immediately into the fight, dispersing forces across many small locations as opposed to concentrating them in a few large installations, and positioning critical platforms where they remain most survivable but not necessarily most efficient.

Many of these effects, should they materialize, originate from the relatively modest (albeit growing) inventories of very advanced Chinese weapons. That raises an important question: How might the United States leverage superior-performance capabilities of its own to inflict virtual attrition on China?

Snipe, Block, Harass, Repeat

Although virtual attrition can appear in various guises, three general types of virtual attrition–inflicting activities stand out: sniping, blocking, and harassing. These activities all occur at the tactical level, but they could also achieve operational-level effects by leveraging superior-performance weapons, even those fielded in smaller numbers.

Sniping compels an adversary to operate less efficiently. Good snipers are highly lethal, but their value extends beyond killing enemy personnel. Though few in number, they shape enemy behavior by remaining hidden, differentiating high-value targets, and striking from long ranges. The real or imagined threat of sniping can fix enemy forces, disperse them, or delay their operations while they hunt for a concealed marksman.

In the Indo-Pacific theater, submarine– or ground-launched hypersonic missiles could operate as snipers imposing virtual attrition. With unit costs in the tens of millions, inventories of these weapons will remain relatively limited. But by remaining concealed, penetrating enemy defenses, and striking high-value assets, they could create operational dilemmas and opportunity costs for the People’s Liberation Army. If these weapons struck critical targets previously considered invulnerable, similar targets elsewhere might suddenly need to hide, shelter, disperse, stay on the move, or adopt stronger defenses (meaning those defenses could not deploy in other places). Moreover, by imposing an inefficiency tax, virtual attrition might reduce the demands on U.S. defensive operations and create windows of opportunity for U.S. offensive operations.

Blocking offers another way to inflict virtual attrition. Militaries have long used mines to inhibit an opponent’s movement on land and at sea. Minefields may damage units attempting to pass through them, but their purpose extends beyond physical attrition to fixing, canalizing, and delaying. Enemy forces encountering mines must risk the harm of traversing them, take time to clear them, or bypass them via an alternate route — all of which can cause operational inefficiency.

With today’s technology, blocking encompasses more than just static minefields. Ground-based anti-ship missiles can perform a similar function. A Marine littoral regiment armed with the right missiles or an Army multi-domain task force equipped with Tomahawks could hold at risk ships transiting key routes without seeding those areas with sea mines. Missiles positioned within range of the Luzon Strait, Bashi Channel, or Miyako Strait could block Chinese navy vessels’ transit to the greater Pacific, forcing them to follow longer routes or bunch near other chokepoints — two potentially advantageous outcomes emblematic of virtual attrition at sea.

Finally, harassing presents a third option for imposing virtual attrition. Although not particularly lethal, harassing fires have long been used by artillery and reconnaissance units to disrupt an enemy’s tempo. Andrew Jackson’s forces employed harassing fires to wear down British units at the Battle of New Orleans, and U.S. artillery units in Vietnam routinely conducted harassment missions against enemy supply routes.

Certain advanced weapons — especially those more affordable in higher quantities than the costliest systems — might harass the People’s Liberation Army and cause virtual attrition. For example, future air-launched hypersonic missiles may possess the speed and precision to strike mobile and elusive targets. With high survivability and a sufficiently large magazine, however, they could also strike softer targets, from airfields to troop emplacements. Although this might seem like overkill, it would demonstrate that nothing and no one is safe, even inside well-defended airspace. That, in turn, could cause the Chinese military to augment its defenses in ways that detracted from offensive operations. Harassment may also play out in space, where directed energy or other nonkinetic counter-space capabilities could harass satellites, forcing them to reposition, burn valuable fuel, and forego future maneuvering.

Sniping, blocking, and harassing can all cause physical attrition, but their effects increase when incorporating virtual attrition. This fact highlights the inadequacy of simplistic “cost per shot” comparisons between cheaper and costlier weapons, as such comparisons ignore the second-order effects that are the hallmark of virtual attrition.

Big Lessons from Small Weapons?

Of course, even if costlier, superior-performance weapons can inflict virtual attrition, so can cheaper, sufficient-performance weapons. Indeed, the war in Ukraine shows cheaper weapons compelling Russian forces to operate more cautiously in an environment teeming with drones. Although cheaper weapons can clearly accomplish virtual attrition, they have three limitations in doing so relative to costlier weapons.

First, part of what makes cheaper weapons less expensive is the fact that they lack performance characteristics — striking power, speed, range, stealth — that create the greatest uncertainty in an enemy’s mind and thus shape their behavior. For example, an advanced munition’s ability to penetrate defenses and hit high-value targets would cause opposing leaders to perceive a continuous risk requiring continuous countermeasures. Because low-cost drone swarms are more easily detected and defeated, as Israel showed during Iran’s massed drone attack in April, such swarms pose a defensive challenge but may not stimulate the pain-avoidance decisions triggered by incessant vulnerability. In sum, the superior performance of costlier weapons permits them to inflict virtual attrition in ways that cheaper weapons cannot.

Second, current operations in Ukraine do not reflect what would occur during a future conflict against China. Due to differences in geography and fighting strengths, drone swarms and other low-cost capabilities could likely impose only limited damage in many Indo-Pacific scenarios. Moreover, their effectiveness is dependent on the promise of reliable autonomy and swarming capabilities that may prove insufficiently mature or impractical at a price point that allows for mass procurement. As a result, their virtual attrition effects would prove minimal, particularly since they could not hold at risk well-defended or high-value targets, including targets deep in mainland China.

Third, despite drones dominating the news, Ukraine’s limited use of advanced Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles has generated virtual attrition by pushing Russia to move portions of the Black Sea Fleet east from Crimea to Novorossiysk and restrict naval operations in parts of the Black Sea. Most recently, Ukraine’s employment of small numbers of longer-range Army Tactical Missile Systems against Russian airfields inflicted virtual attrition by disrupting air operations. These examples indicate that higher-performance weapons, not lower-cost alternatives, have generated much of the noteworthy virtual attrition in Ukraine.

Minding the Mass Gap

There is little doubt that the United States faces a growing challenge when it comes to the amount of combat power it can generate compared to the rival it worries about most. That, in turn, has catalyzed a new version of an old debate over the merits of quantity and quality in defense procurement. Investing in less advanced systems that can be acquired in larger numbers might indeed help to close the “mass gap,” especially if the capabilities they produce are employed in practical ways — for instance, as the short-range tier of a layered stand-in force that can help to disrupt the frontline units of an invasion, rather than as aspirational silver bullets that can achieve more ambitious goals like destroying large portions of an invading force.

But these investments are unlikely to serve as a substitute for more advanced systems, particularly in a broader, lengthier war between the United States and China. Only high-performance weapons possess the attributes that will enable them to strike high-value targets and shape adversary behavior on the contested battlefields of future conflicts. At the same time, leveraging advanced systems that might only be available in small numbers requires rethinking how they are employed and to what ends. That means moving beyond a narrow focus on physical attrition and placing renewed emphasis on virtual attrition options and effects.



Evan Braden Montgomery is the director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Travis Sharp is a senior fellow and director of the defense budget studies program at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Tyler Hacker is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.


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