Questioning The Validity Of The 3-1 Rule Of Combat

Canadian soldiers going “over the top” during an assault in the First World War. []
[This post was originally published on 1 December 2017.]

How many troops are needed to successfully attack or defend on the battlefield? There is a long-standing rule of thumb that holds that an attacker requires a 3-1 preponderance over a defender in combat in order to win. The aphorism is so widely accepted that few have questioned whether it is actually true or not.

Trevor Dupuy challenged the validity of the 3-1 rule on empirical grounds. He could find no historical substantiation to support it. In fact, his research on the question of force ratios suggested that there was a limit to the value of numerical preponderance on the battlefield.

TDI President Chris Lawrence has also challenged the 3-1 rule in his own work on the subject.

The validity of the 3-1 rule is no mere academic question. It underpins a great deal of U.S. military policy and warfighting doctrine. Yet, the only time the matter was seriously debated was in the 1980s with reference to the problem of defending Western Europe against the threat of Soviet military invasion.

It is probably long past due to seriously challenge the validity and usefulness of the 3-1 rule again.

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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