The 3-to-1 Rule in Recent History Books

This seems to be the rule that never goes away. I have a recent a case of it being used in a history book. The book was published in English in 2017 (and in German in 2007). In discussing the preparation for the Battle of Kursk in 1943 the author states that:

A military rule of thumb says an attacker should have a superiority of 3 to 1 in order to have a chance of success. While this vague principal applies only at tactical level, the superiority could be even greater if the defender is entrenched behind fortifications. Given the Kursk salient’s fortress-like defences, that was precisely the case.

This was drawn from Germany and the Second World War, Volume VIII: The Eastern Front 1943-1944: The War in the East and on the Neighboring Fronts, page 86. This section was written by Karl-Heinz Frieser.

This version of the rule now says that you have to have a superiority of 3-to-1 in order to have a chance of success? We have done a little analysis of force ratios compared to outcome. See Chapter 2: Force Ratios (pages 8-13) in War by Numbers. I never heard the caveat in the second sentence that the “principal applies only at tactical level.”

This rule has been discussed by me in previous blog posts. Dr. Frieser made a similar claim in his book The Blitzkrieg Legend:

The 3-to-1 Rule in Histories

These books were written by a German author who was an officer in the Bundeswehr, so apparently this rule of thumb has spread to some of our NATO allies, or maybe it started in Germany. We really don’t know where this rule of thumb first came from. It ain’t from Clausewitz.

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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9 Comments

    • Germany and the 2nd World War is (partially) a disappointing compendium and I would have expected more from an Oberst (colonel) a.D.

      • “Germany and the 2nd World War is (partially) a disappointing compendium and I would have expected more from an Oberst (colonel) a.D.”

        1) It is a multi volume work by dozens of authors.

        2) Which alternative is better?

        3) Frieser is usually quite solid. Here N. Zetterling may offer a more professional opinion.

        • 1)Hence I said partially, but Frieser has certainly a dominating role.
          2)There is no “one single book to rule them all”. The best alternative is to find the primary sources and make an all-out analysis from an engineering, economic, philosophical, archeological and political/historical perspective (and interpretations from during or immediately after the war). If you want to have insight into german perspectives you should follow publications in the IFZ.
          3) It incorporates errors in both economic aspects (war industry) as well as military studies (the laws of war), to my understanding N.Zetterling is not an expert on the former either, only the latter.

          • Frieser contributed a lot only to volume 8, to assign him a dominating role is nonsense.
            He did in my understanding some original work – he was one of the first who rejected the Soviet narrative on Kursk. Here N. Zetterling can indeed contribute.

            The handling of the German war industry is quite good in the series in comparison to older German and US stuff, what is your issue?

    • The odds of winning had a great deal to do with exactly who was doing the attacking. Germans vs. Soviets at a 1-2 force strength, yes. Vice-versa, not so much.

      One of Trevor Dupuy’s fundamental arguments was that the circumstantial variables of combat had as much, if not greater, impact on combat outcomes as raw force strength.

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