Dupuy’s Verities: The Effects of Firepower in Combat

A German artillery barrage falling on Allied trenches, probably during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, during the First World War. [Wikimedia]

The eleventh of Trevor Dupuy’s Timeless Verities of Combat is:

Firepower kills, disrupts, suppresses, and causes dispersion.

From Understanding War (1987):

It is doubtful if any of the people who are today writing on the effect of technology on warfare would consciously disagree with this statement. Yet, many of them tend to ignore the impact of firepower on dispersion, and as a consequence they have come to believe that the more lethal the firepower, the more deaths, disruption, and suppression it will cause. In fact, as weapons have become more lethal intrinsically, their casualty-causing capability has either declined or remained about the same because of greater dispersion of targets. Personnel and tank loss rates of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, for example, were quite similar to those of intensive battles of World War II and the casualty rates in both of these wars were less than in World War I. (p. 7)

Research and analysis of real-world historical combat data by Dupuy and TDI has identified at least four distinct combat effects of firepower: infliction of casualties (lethality), disruption, suppression, and dispersion. All of them were found to be heavily influenced—if not determined—by moral (human) factors.

Again, I have written extensively on this blog about Dupuy’s theory about the historical relationship between weapon lethality, dispersion on the battlefield, and historical decline in average daily combat casualty rates. TDI President Chris Lawrence has done further work on the subject as well.

TDI Friday Read: Lethality, Dispersion, And Mass On Future Battlefields

Human Factors In Warfare: Dispersion

Human Factors In Warfare: Suppression

There appears to be a fundamental difference in interpretation of the combat effects of firepower between Dupuy’s emphasis on the primacy of human factors and Defense Department models that account only for the “physics-based” casualty-inflicting capabilities of weapons systems. While U.S. Army combat doctrine accounts for the interaction of firepower and human behavior on the battlefield, it has no clear method for assessing or even fully identifying the effects of such factors on combat outcomes.

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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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  1. “All of them were found to be heavily influenced—if not determined—by moral (human) factors.” You probably meant “morale” factors rather than “moral” factors; however, the moral development stages* of the the various combatants might very well have a significant influence on the morale of those combatants experiencing the impacts of firepower!

    *Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development:



    The Red Badge of Courage illustrates some of influence of morals on morale:

    During the Civil War, a Union regiment rests along a riverbank, where it has been camped for weeks. A tall soldier named Jim Conklin spreads a rumor that the army will soon march. Henry Fleming, a recent recruit with this 304th Regiment, worries about his courage. He fears that if he were to see battle, he might run. The narrator reveals that Henry joined the army because he was drawn to the glory of military conflict. Since the time he joined, however, the army has merely been waiting for engagement. At last the regiment is given orders to march, and the soldiers spend several weary days traveling on foot. Eventually they approach a battlefield and begin to hear the distant roar of conflict. After securing its position, the enemy charges. Henry, boxed in by his fellow soldiers, realizes that he could not run even if he wanted to. He fires mechanically, feeling like a cog in a machine. The blue (Union) regiment defeats the gray (Confederate) soldiers, and the victors congratulate one another. Henry wakes from a brief nap to find that the enemy is again charging his regiment. Terror overtakes him this time and he leaps up and flees the line. As he scampers across the landscape, he tells himself that made the right decision, that his regiment could not have won, and that the men who remained to fight were fools. He passes a general on horseback and overhears the commander saying that the regiment has held back the enemy charge. Ashamed of his cowardice, Henry tries to convince himself that he was right to preserve his own life to do so. He wanders through a forest glade in which he encounters the decaying corpse of a soldier. Shaken, he hurries away. After a time, Henry joins a column of wounded soldiers winding down the road. He is deeply envious of these men, thinking that a wound is like “a red badge of courage”—visible proof of valorous behavior. He meets a tattered man who has been shot twice and who speaks proudly of the fact that his regiment did not flee. He repeatedly asks Henry where he is wounded, which makes Henry deeply uncomfortable and compels him to hurry away to a different part of the column. He meets a spectral soldier with a distant, numb look on his face. Henry eventually recognizes the man as a badly wounded Jim Conklin. Henry promises to take care of Jim, but Jim runs from the line into a small grove of bushes where Henry and the tattered man watch him die. Henry and the tattered soldier wander through the woods. Henry hears the rumble of combat in the distance. The tattered soldier continues to ask Henry about his wound, even as his own health visibly worsens. At last, Henry is unable to bear the tattered man’s questioning and abandons him to die in the forest. Henry continues to wander until he finds himself close enough to the battlefield to be able to watch some of the fighting. He sees a blue regiment in retreat and attempts to stop the soldiers to find out what has happened. One of the fleeing men hits him on the head with a rifle, opening a bloody gash on Henry’s head. Eventually, another soldier leads Henry to his regiment’s camp, where Henry is reunited with his companions. His friend Wilson, believing that Henry has been shot, cares for him tenderly. The next day, the regiment proceeds back to the battlefield. Henry fights like a lion. Thinking of Jim Conklin, he vents his rage against the enemy soldiers. His lieutenant says that with ten thousand Henrys, he could win the war in a week. Nevertheless, Henry and Wilson overhear an officer say that the soldiers of the 304th fight like “mule drivers.” Insulted, they long to prove the man wrong. In an ensuing charge, the regiment’s color bearer falls. Henry takes the flag and carries it proudly before the regiment. After the charge fails, the derisive officer tells the regiment’s colonel that his men fight like “mud diggers,” further infuriating Henry. Another soldier tells Henry and Wilson, to their gratification, that the colonel and lieutenant consider them the best fighters in the regiment. The group is sent into more fighting, and Henry continues to carry the flag. The regiment charges a group of enemy soldiers fortified behind a fence, and, after a pitched battle, wins the fence. Wilson seizes the enemy flag and the regiment takes four prisoners. As he and the others march back to their position, Henry reflects on his experiences in the war. Though he revels in his recent success in battle, he feels deeply ashamed of his behavior the previous day, especially his abandonment of the tattered man. But after a moment, he puts his guilt behind him and realizes that he has come through “the red sickness” of battle. He is now able to look forward to peace, feeling a quiet, steady manhood within himself.
    [Wikipedia · Text under CC-BY-SA license]

  2. Actually, Dupuy intentionally used the term moral vice morale in reference to human factors. He had likely adopted terminology used by J.F.C. Fuller, who grouped three of his original principles of war into a Moral Sphere (principles 4, 5, & 6): Fear (Determination) & Morale (Surprise) = Courage (Endurance).

  3. Perhaps the precision to firepower ratio may be of greater significance. The tendency for the 20th century is a slight increase in daily KIA, with a decline of massed strikes prolific in WW1 (maybe with the exception of Soviet formations in the later period of WW2, whose firepower did not produce a proportional increase in casualty infliction anyway). If we observe US doctrine for both world wars, they steered away from such an accumulation and instead invested into precision, while the individual per capita lethality of a weapon system evolved.

    • Basically, greater lethality per shot forces a reaction (and can also provoke the isolation of indvidual groups), while in order to raise precision one must sacrifice firepower (or “barrage” power) and rate of fire (to a certain degree), especially in a time where collateral damage must be minimized or avoided. Greater AoE without killing power is only going to impose a penalty on morale, this will disrupt the structure of the troops on the main battle line only temporarily.
      This also lead to the misunderstanding of Soviet firepower (frequently encountered in literature), which could not match those of Western units on an individual basis. The ratio of direct to indirect must be different there (including greater accuracy and shots per tube).

      • These are excellent observations. The overall U.S. military trend toward maximizing the probability of hit/probability of kill capabilities of its smart weapon fires systems at the expense of volume (numbers of systems) may well prove to be a critical liability against adversaries employing asymmetrical saturation and swarming tactics. The effectiveness of such adaptations seems to be apparent from recent wargaming exercises. That makes me wonder if the prevailing American theories of combat as reflected in combat models, wargames, and doctrine, which privilege the lethality of weapons platforms over the human effects of combat, are leading them down the primrose path to potential defeat in future battle.

        • I would argue that it comes down to the different mentalities of nations and their respective systems and how governments and societies treat their human resource. WW2 memoirs and battle reports are illuminating, in so far that they reveal the nature of each front (ignoring conventions and individual rights for a moment). The Western front might have seen a greater share of heavy caliber guns, utilizing forward observers and air reconnaissance coordination to a greater degree. German and US artillery could sweep away entire enemy units with almost pinpoint strikes, whereas the mass accumulation of tubes on the Eastern Front (for the RKKA), had the function to suppress the enemy, to minimize the exposure to enemy fire before infantry could approach the line (“to get the hands dirty”, with less regard to losses). Initial strikes were to prepare the attack, casualty infliction was constrained to cost effective systems (e.g. mortars). Greater concentration on the HKL (main battle line) resulted in greater casualties for German troops, dispersing and overstretching would open them for penetrations.
          I might be wrong here, since I am not American, but in order to answer the question as to what the US should strife for ideologically, this might lie in and could be reflected by the very spirit of the respective institutions: The Army versus the USMC. It could almost be considered ironic that the nature expresses itself in the iconic and emblematic appearance of both soldiers: Cavalry boots, elegance (“Patton the equestrian”) and the animalistic leopard/frogskin (camouflage) – they probably had to look their enemy into the eye more often (perhaps with the exception of the troops that were sent into Hürtgen) . Can the US sacrifice a lot of manpower without feeling the impact on the economy? The US military is expensive, but the nation is not particularly militarized (a world presence, Air forces and Navy are material intensive). I also do not think that the US has to fear a military defeat in the nearest future (yet alone geostrategically), at least not to the degree that it is going to determine their future as long as their economy will not suffer (and the US should certainly reconsider playing the bodyguard for South East Asia and Europe, which could backfire and drag them into unnecessary conflicts. Would it be a mistake? I do not know.).
          Afterall, It is not going to suddenly turn into an imperialistic, totalitarian regime.
          It will be a gradual (cultural) decline though, as a result they might lose the control over the Pacific. Wars can be decided by more than military might though. Dupuy has demonstrated that innovative weapon systems only rarely changed the outcome of conflicts, the Eastern Front as the prime example – greater development levels cannot always ensue victory (at least until a high number of robots will substitute a high number of reservists). Poor planning and diplomacy influenced the defeat, wars can be decided in the political room. It would be wiser to invest into better leadership and advisors, since currently there seems to be a problem with anticipating many of the adversaries moves, paired by an even greater display of naiveté.

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