Wang Chenweiyi

Wang Chenweiyi (G1800366G)
Strategic Studies
School of S. Rajaratnam International Studies
Nanyang Technological University
Topic: Compared to a prolonged war of attrition, targeting an opponent’s leader is the less costly approach to victory. Discuss.
When it comes to war, we tend to think about how to bring down the opponent strategically. If you are superior in strength, you could use direct approach, attrition in the war, to wear out your opponent. However, the price to pay for attrition is bloody and costly. To avoid direct confrontation and diminish the possibility of resistance, one could apply an indirect approach to tackle the opponent’s Centre of Gravity (COG). Even though, war of attrition is used more frequent in modern war, we could not deny that by targeting the leadership of your opponent, it shatters the opponent’s system more quickly and brings you victory eventually.
This paper will first provide the explanation of COG, direct and indirect approaches in war, as well as carry out the comparison between both approaches. It will then examine both direct and indirect approaches to victory, in terms of their military resources, financial ability, political cost and morale issues, with few case studies. In particular, it focus on which could be less costly approach to victory.
Centre of Gravity (COG) and Warden’s Five Ring Theory
As Clausewitz suggested, to defeat your enemy, we should direct all our effort against the enemy’s centre of gravity (COG), the “hub of all power and movement”. When striking the COG of opponent with sufficient force, it could cause the enemy to lose its balance/equilibrium state and eventually could possibly collapse its system. Clausewitz’s COG focuses on effects-based approach rather than capabilities-based one. In other words, to collapse the system, the effect would be the largest by aiming at opponent’s weakest forces with maximum concentration. As John Warden advised, “Every level of warfare has a center, or centers, of gravity…the most important responsibility of the commander is to identify correctly & strike appropriately enemy centers of gravity.” The ideal strike would be attacking on COGs in different rings to cause the system to break down, while putting more pressure on leadership. Depend on the leader’s intent, on whether to defeat or destroy the enemy, the approach could be range between direct to indirect approaches.
Direct approach and Indirect approach
The key principle of attrition is about “Bringing, by strategic measures, the major part of an army’s forces successively to bear upon the decisive area of a theatre of war”. To against the decisive points, one could operate with its greatest possible force to attack, together with other combined effort. The primary goal of attrition is never about settle down the war, but to wear your opponent down, via a process of gradual and repeated attacks. Such attacks brought destruction across opponent’s fields and takes a long period of time. Its targets are the moral and material forces, so as to target the opponent to surrender before you. For years, “the only way to defeat the enemy was to repeatedly attack on and wear them down, without any opportunities of maneuvering”. Hence, to strive a decisive military victory, one needs to engage the opponents in major confrontations or hit it with conventional forces, which could possibly cost many lives, properties and even infrastructures.
John Terrine and Gary Sheffield, are the historians, suggested that attrition war, was needed to gain victory, “a ‘wearing down process’ that sapped Central Powers strength and left them vulnerable during the Hundred Days campaign of 1918”. This could possibly explain the logic behind the use of attrition during war, by the commanders in early days. For instance, during the latter part of the American Civil War, the Union general pushed the army constantly to neutralise his opponent’s advantage in manoeuvrability and tactics, with overwhelming supplies and manpower, despite the casualty count was high and unfavourable.
“More and more clearly has the lesson emerged that a direct approach to one’s mental object, or physical objective, along the ‘line of expectation’ for the opponent, tends to produce negative results.” This shows the downside of direct approach, as the opponents will anticipate our objectives and prepared themselves with better defense and reinforce their position, as well as choose their frontline to fight against us. “And therefore those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” World War I, a classic example of direct approach, showed that victory cannot be achieved without massive loss of lives by using attrition in war. The opponent could only surrender to avoid any further mass body counts.
This belief in the use of mass has been fostered by Carl von Clausewitz in his book “On War”. Many did misinterpret the term “mass” and fought the war with mentality to send in more troops and weapons to wear out the enemy. They believed they enemy will give up after they got exhausted. However, “the greatest possible number of troops should be brought into action at the decisive point.” The manpower and resources should be deployed into critical points such as weakness of opponent, that could determine the outcome of war, which it was also suggested by Sun Tze, as “The force which confronts the enemy is the normal; that which goes to his flanks the extraordinary”. In his book, Sun Tze also stated his vision on conduct of war, which he advised to seek chances to spot enemy’s weakness by manoeuvring. “Now an army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes at weakness.” In short, we should move like water to avoid direct confrontation and seek opportunities. Moreover, he believed in getting the troops to perform two roles. One is deployed to lure the enemy by direct confrontation, the other one launch “the flank attack”.
The famous modern strategist, B.H. Liddell Hart, provided a broader view of such roles in war, which he defined them as “dislocation” and “concentration”. The indirect approach is about striking opponent’s strategic vitals via indirect ways. It reduces the chances of opponent to retaliate and finds ways to fulfil the idea of movement and surprises. Dislocation is one of the ways to ensure your opponent has no power to resist, as it is the perfection of strategy that produce a decision without any serious fighting. It concentrates its effort by targeting the opponent’s centre of gravity and collapse its will to fight via manoeuvre warfare and ultimately, avoid wasteful attrition. When it is able to disturb and disrupt the opponent’s system, the leaders of opponent will react and move according to your objectives. Such objectives are mainly putting pressure through diplomatic, economic means as indirect pressure; through political deterrence and military coercion, as well as low-intensity military conflict as direct pressure. In this paper, we focus on “targeting the leadership” as one of the means to conduct indirect approaches. It tends to dislocate or distract the enemy first and they will not able to respond to your concentration, eventually it leads to victory.
Comparison between attrition war and targeting opponent’s leader
In this section, both components will be analysed and discussed in terms of military resources, financial ability, political cost and morale, through case studies.
Why war of attrition?
In the modern wars, we can see war of attrition takes place even though, it could generally be more costly than war of manoeuvre. Why is it so? Firstly, the combat powers generated by both ends is almost the same. Once one of the parties achieved a decided advantage in elements of combat power (leadership, fire power, maneuver, protection and information), the stronger one would end it with attrition. Secondly, the leaders sees the strategy of attrition as best chance of success. Thirdly, the nations with large pool of population, land, sufficient transportation system, and ability to make their major armaments, are able to replace the lost lives and equipment quickly. Fourthly, the leaders would choose to fight on, instead of accepting the fact to decisive battle. Some would also argue that, the ultimate reason for the use of attrition, due to “defeating an opponent in a decisive battle may not guarantee strategic victory”. For example, Napoleon was able to defeat individual members of coalition but seemed to always face a new coalition and was ultimately defeated. However, the stronger the industrial base and bigger willing pool of population, the nation could last longer in war, that accompanied by more death tolls, weaker economies, longer recovery and low morale in certain circumstance, after the war. All these will be explained in following examples as war of attrition.

A typical example, a battle from World War I, called the “Battle of Verdun”. It lasted 303 days in France and involved standoff between both French and Germany forces. While the German army charged toward the hills in the area to gain a great point for strategic manoeuvres, it boosted the soldiers’ morale, right before progressing slowed to a glacial crawl. Meanwhile, the French army was told not to retreat under any circumstances and to carry on counter-attacks constantly. The French was switching tactics to fight in battle and the German was busy occupying more useful territory. However, between June to August, a village was switched hands over 16 times as such useful territory. As a result, the German end up fighting in a bad position to be in during a war of attrition, with full force and reduced resources. Eventually, the German commander chose to deceit as the resources were further reduced and the French army claimed back the lost territory. The battle ended with one of deadliest and costly manner. From the beginning, both parties fought to force the other side into submission with similar approaches, even though both were trapped. What kept them going was the mentality that, “once a substantial number of lives have been lost, commanders are motivated to continue a battle for longer than is wise in an attempt to justify those losses – a deadly instance of the sunk cost fallacy”.

The other typical example, from the Vietnam War. The North Vietnam, which was assisted by China and other communist countries, fought against the South Vietnam, which was assisted by USA, South Korea and others. It lasted almost 20 years and spread over few other countries such as Laos. The attrition warfare left the war to be characterised by extreme brutality and human suffering. Many lives were lost in the fight to prevent spreading or growth of communism and 10% of South Vietnam states were destroyed with Agent Orange. The food supplies were cut off and it led to many birth defects. However, the great lost of lives did not stop the Viet Cong. The Guerrilla warfare was used against attrition by utilising unpredictable insurgency, which included sabotage and ambushes. It left the US army no choice, but to sought to take more lives from the Vietnamese people via attrition means. The highest feasible body count was reached in order to make Vietnamese into submission. As the US army could not handle the adversaries, it used large force engaging in attrition to defeat a small one engaged in guerrilla warfare. They won the war by destroying all that they could manage.
Although both examples showed the victory of French and US armies, many problems surfaced with attrition warfare.
First of all, the high death tolls. Many lives were lost, especially the solider and civilians. A total estimates of death in Battle of Verdun was 700 thousands to nearly one million, and 1.4 to 3.4 millions lost their lives in Vietnam war. Secondly, such warfare demanded much resources. The Vietnam war costed 770 billion USD and one trillion USD for subsequent veterans benefits. The damages to Vietnam’s industries and economies was far beyond the abovementioned figures. It took both sides a long time to end the war and drained their economies out. Thirdly and fourthly, as such warfare caused serious lost of lives and financial abilities, it brought further crucial long-term problems to the victors. As the young man fought the war in frontline and lost their lives, it lead to a significant drop in birth rates in Europe after World War I. A total of 3.2 million babies were expected to be born in Germany alone. After a war, the productivities dropped drastically for industries, with shortage of manpower and thus caused a change in structure of economies. Much money was spent during war and could not be directed into other areas such as healthcare. Homes, farms, schools and other infrastructures were destroyed and took a nation many years to rebuild and recover from its losses. All these, could never allow the political leaders to overlook them.
Why targeting the leaders?
In this essay, “targeting the leaders” during war refers to leadership decapitation and it will examine whether it is effective during counterinsurgencies. Some studies suggesting that by targeting leaders, the decapitation can aid in counterinsurgencies with collapse of high-profile leaders. To understand how effective the leadership decapitation is, in counterinsurgency success, we must look the four following reasons:
Targeting leadership (be it killing or capturing), could potentially bring down the morale or the will of the people. The existing studies found that insurgent mobilization put its emphasis on a collective action problem in generating participation in rebellion. By removing influential leaders, the collective participation during insurgency, could be undermined and the followers will not be motivated to execute more insurgency plans. For instance, the power of Darul Islam insurgent was collapsed, when the leader, Kartosuwiryo was assassinated, in Indonesia. Similarly, the Burmese insurgent leader, Saya San, who gathered support for the rebellion through millenarian expectations and ritualistic practice, was killed and the insurgent force was broken down, in November 1931.
By eliminating the leaders, the insurgent power would turn to the moderate leaders. Once they are empowered, with the expense of leaders, it will be success in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategy. It provides possibility for these moderate leaders to negotiate and the benefits for utilising such strategies are similar. Change of leadership could also lead the militants to lay down weapons as the way the new leaders lead would shift from more extremist to more moderate. For instance, during the Second Anglo-Burmese War in the 1850s, the British assisted the country to gain peace and local power by overthrowing the leadership. The political aim was achieved without raging a long war that could potentially trigger more negative thoughts and more room for insurgent force to grow to fight back.
The insurgency will face more difficulties in carrying out planning and coordination, if the leaders are removed as part of operational capabilities. The leaders are the COG, by eliminating them, the rest will be disturbed as a whole (system), and planning and execution of plan will be disrupted, as well as it limits the strength to attack and counter-attack. For instance, when the insurgent leader from Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Rohana Wijeweera was captured, the JVP was left vulnerable and got defeated by government’s counter-insurgency measures, in April 1971. All the attacks that organised by the leader was unable to execute and it was such less bloody victory with less violence. Thus, it reduced the loss of lives and damages to infrastructures and in short, the victory came with less killing of soldiers or civilians which in turn, could also help the country to restore its peace more quickly, in a way.

The airpower is argued to be best idea in leadership targeting or decapitation, as it could closely specify the target to be taken, who is also the heart of the opponent’s structure. As suggested by airpower theorist John Warden, “only at the center can a single input of energy … result in a significant change in enemy system”. In other words, with less input, it potentially cuts on the spending in counter-insurgency and reserve the financial ability and resources for other usage. As the indirect approaches suggested “effect-based operations”, the absence of leadership in the “war on terror”, would “seriously degrade important enemy function” in a relatively precise and selective manner. Furthermore, once the leaders were removed, the next concern would be the idea of “the enemy’s organization’s ability to operate as desired is ultimately more important than destruction of forces it relies on for defense”. As your opponent takes your objective as theirs, the victory will not be far from reaching.
However, the idea of leadership decapitation will need to address certain objections. Stephen Hosmer suggested that with few exceptions, targeting leaders is generally ineffective. Robert Pape also drew similar conclusion and argued that “it has never been effective” for eliminating the opponent’s leader in interstate bombing campaigns. Besides the decapitation is ineffective, it could be counterproductive as well. The reasons are, firstly, targeting leadership is more morally defensible than the widespread death toll of civilians and soldiers. Secondly, the fear of retaliation, and lastly, the possibility that successor will be worse. Pape further argued that leadership targeting is not likely to coerce adversaries because (1) it is hard to find individuals and kill them; (2) the death of leaders during war often brings less policy change than is expected; and (3) succession is unpredictable in many states, especially during war.

Overall, why is targeting leadership is still preferred? It is because, the leaders are usually the centre of totalitarian’s focus. With change of leadership, the state will be destabilized and likely a new leader would struggle for power; the military power will be left adrift for new command and insurgency will be brought down by counter-attacks without their leader. The war will end with less lost of lives for both civilians and soldiers, less damage to infrastructures such as houses, able to meet the political objectives and less input to destroy the morale or will of the opponents by taking their leader down.
With case studies and examples, we learn that, attrition in war takes a long time to wear the opponent down, it aims mainly at material and morale aspects to make your enemy surrender. Victory comes with a huge price and consequences for the victor to bear with. Whereas, even with the objections to carry out leadership decapitation, many could not deny the fact that by targeting the leaders, it not only distracts the opponent, but also disturb the system as a whole. Factors like less death toll, less affected financial ability, less political cost and less military sources used, make such strategy more favourable than attrition in war. To take down your opponent, one must understand what keeps your enemy strong and able to retaliate even under attacks. By targeting the core in their COG, it makes them vulnerable and thus can be defeated. Hence, targeting an opponent’s leader is less costly approach to victory, compared to a prolonged war of attrition.