Cost and Lethality

While searching around the internet on discussions of lethality I found one my old forum posts from 2001. It is here:                                                                                               . http://www.dupuyinstitute.org/ubb/Forum1/HTML/000006.html

It was written in response to a question about the “cost/lethality ratio over time.” I think this post is worth repeating in its entirety, so let me post it here (with a few typos corrected):


I think this is a very important metric and one that the Institute has never been contracted to look into. To date, I have never seen any analysis that compares combat effectiveness, or lethality, to cost.

The Evolution of Weapons and Warfare was the start of a series of books that explored Trevor Dupuy’s combat models and theories of war. This book sets up the theoretical constructs behind his model. The book Numbers, Predictions and War actually discusses the first versions of the model (1977) and Understanding War (1987), which is Trevor Dupuy’s greatest book, discusses his theories of warfare. None of these address cost.

While a lot of people in the military don’t like to discuss cost, as a taxpayer, I think it is important. There are several issues here:

First, how does one measure combat effectiveness? While OLI’s (Operational Lethality Indexes) is one method, it is a scoring system for a model, and is really not intended for use as an analytical tool outside of the model. Beyond what are sometimes perjoratively refered to as “static measures” (scoring systems), there are several other more esoteric (more time consuming) ways of measuring combat effectiveness.

Second, how does one measure the synergistic effects of weapons systems? Meaning, just because weapon A is more cost effective per square meter of killing more than all other weapons, does not mean one should create an armed force of just one weapon. For example, the army of nothing but 155mm Howitzers does have severe limitations. There is a lot more that goes into weapon choice than just “bang for buck”.

Third, how does one measure the value of enabling systems? There is a lot of money spent on systems that do not shoot. This includes communications, support vehicles, engineering equipment, medical facilities, command facilities, transport, etc.

Fourth, how does one measure the value of logistic and supply support structure that backs up a military (including U.S. and forward basing)? This is also quite expensive.

Fifth, how does one measure the value and cost of personnel? The single largest cost in the U.S. defense budget is personnel. Is a $55,000 a year Captain 10% more combat effective than a $50,000 a year Captain? It includes retirement and benefits programs. Training cost is significant. What is the combat value of additional training, compared to the additional cost? The one thing our research continues to show is that the human factors are significant in military operations. Usually, the human factors are more significant than weapons or technology. If one is measuring the cost and contribution of weapons, then one also needs to measure the cost and contribution of human factors.

Sixth, what is the cost and combat value of morale building efforts? This includes housing for troops and families, recreational facilities and activities for troops and families, medical evacuation, family medical care, aid for disabled veterans and the Veterans Administration (VA), aid for widowed and orphaned families, national graveyards, Px priviledges, counciling, chaplains and ministers, USO shows, etc.

Seventh, what is the cost and combat advantage to intelligence efforts? This includes the DIA, CIA, NSA and even the DMA (Defense Mapping Agency). It also includes the various space and satillite efforts, spy planes, etc.

Eight, what is the cost and advantage of a “revolution” or further “evolution” of warfare (if there is one)?

Ninth, what is the cost and advantage of a unilateral advantage? For example, what is the combat (and political) advantage of the U.S. being able to bomb Afghanistan, Serbia/Kosovo, Iraq/Kuwait at will and relatively unmolested. This unilateral advantage is hard to measure with a simple “bang for bucks” measurment.

What you are asking is a very complex multi-faceted problem. Given sufficient time and analytical skills (and budget!!!), these issues can all be addressed to some extent. To date, I have not seen anyone try. I do not see how you are going to be able to adequently address the issues with the limited time frame, budget and page count of an Atlantic Monthly article.

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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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One comment

  1. I think a cost/effectiveness analysis is possible in answering narrow questions.
    For instance, naval mines were stunningly effective in shutting down merchant shipping. The US Navy naval mining campaign late in World War 2 just about shut down shipping in the Japanese Sea late in the war at a much lower delivery cost than other methods.

    The Germans early in the war had caused enormous problems with their magnetic mines before they developed counter measures. And the counter measures (as is generally true with the Allied response to German underwater threats) sure seem a lot more costly than the cost the Germans went to in delivering them. It is fairly clear that the few mines that the Germans dropped in their submarine campaign of the US Coast in 1942 than the torpedoes. And that without even factoring in the cost to shipping in shutting down harbors.

    But even the cost analysis of naval mines, looking fairly easy, starts getting difficult. What is the cost of the countermeasures created by a weapons platform being present. What is the cost benefit of area denial? What are the synergistic effects of other platforms that the weapon system is piggybacking off of?

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