Wednesday, September 10, 2014

3 To 1

In ground combat, it is generally accepted that an attacker must own a 3:1 local advantage to achieve a breakthrough against a defended front.  History has shown that rule of thumb to be reasonable at least in concept if not exact numerology.  Indeed, the development of maneuver warfare is, partially, a recognition of that concept and an attempt to bypass its requirements. 

Of course, this concept is applied to land warfare but does it offer any insights for naval warfare?

At the level of the individual sea battle, outcomes are usually determined by the maxim that the side that fires first, effectively, wins.  Of course, there are other factors but the point is that sea battles seem not to adhere to the 3:1 rule.  Why not?  Well, the aspects of a land battle that grant the defender the advantage do not, for the most part, apply to naval battles.  Bunkers, fortifications, overlapping fields of fire, concealment, etc. don’t exist at sea.

So, does that mean the 3:1 rule offers no insights for naval combat and that this will be one of ComNavOps shortest posts?  I think you can anticipate the answer to that!

The 3:1 rule does, I think, offer some insights but not at the level of the individual sea battle.  Instead, it applies to the broader and higher level of strategic naval operations, specifically the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) scenario. 

The attacker, attempting to penetrate the A2/AD zone, will have to face a defender able to utilize a limitless supply of assets (limitless in the sense that the defender’s entire air, naval, and land resources will be readily at hand) with multiple widely dispersed bases.  In contrast, the attacker will be operating far from home bases and at the end of a long supply chain.  While the attacker can bring all of its naval forces to bear, if it so chooses, its air forces will be only partially and sporadically present due to the likely ranges. 

In addition, the defender will be able to utilize mines to attrite and, more importantly and more likely, direct the movement of the attacker along predictable paths to predictable locations. 

The defender will be able to utilize land, sea, and air assets in a coordinated fashion while the attacker has only sea and air assets.

The defender will be able to obtain sensor information from mobile air and naval platforms, of course, but also land based radar and passive sensing stations.  The attacker will be limited to airborne sensors and, to a limited extent, submarine sensors.  Further, the attacker’s sensing platforms will be limited in persistence and vulnerable in operation.  To be fair, the defender’s airborne sensing platforms will also be vulnerable but the attacker will have fewer assets available to prosecute those platforms.  Last but not least, the defender will likely have installed underwater acoustic sensing systems (SOSUS-like).

The tyranny of range strongly favors the defender.  Defending aircraft can operate for longer periods, achieve greater persistence, and generate higher sortie rates.  Similarly, defending surface forces are closer to their bases for refueling, rearming, and repair.

The defender will be able to utilize land based anti-ship cruise (and ballistic?) missiles thereby achieving a large numerical superiority over the attacker’s missile reserves.

The defender can achieve a large degree of land based dispersion of assets which will greatly complicate the attacker’s targeting efforts and enhance the survivability of the defender’s assets.  By comparison, the attacker’s weapons will be concentrated in a relatively few platforms and, probably, a relatively few groupings.  While that concentration offers some defensive advantages (concentration of defensive firepower), it also offers a very tempting and exposed target for the defender.

Finally, the defender has the ability to repair combat damaged assets due to the proximity of manufacturing support and repair depots.  The attacker will generally be unable to affect repairs and damaged assets will, to a large extent, be rendered “killed” for the duration.  The days of slapping a patch on an aircraft or welding some plate on a ship are gone.  The attacker, without access to depot level support, will be generally unable to make the complicated electronic, structural, and stealth repairs required to return assets to operational status in a relevant time frame.

The A2/AD scenario is not totally one-sided.  The attacker retains the advantage of choice of time and, to a limited extent, place to initiate hostilities.  This includes retaining the advantage of surprise to the extent that such can exist in this day of satellites, world wide communications, long range airborne sensors, etc.  The attacker can also concentrate his available forces to the maximum extent possible against the specific chosen target.  In contrast, the defender must defend a broader area until the attacker clearly indicates the specific target.  A final advantage is that the attacker can retreat, if necessary, to fight another day if things aren’t going well.  The defender has nowhere to go if things are going badly.

Considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of both sides in the A2/AD scenario, it seems obvious that the defender possesses some significant advantages compared to the defender.  Reason would suggest that the attacker will require a significant numerical advantage in order to overcome the defender’s advantages.  Whether that number is on the order of 3:1 or some other ratio is debatable but the concept seems valid.  All else being equal, meaning approximately equal tech, training, tactics, and morale, the attacker will require a significant numerical advantage in order to overcome a defender’s A2/AD defenses.

Of course, if “all else” is not equal, the required numerical superiority of the attacker may be altered.  If the defender is technologically deficient, poorly trained, poorly maintained, etc., the attacker’s required ratio may decrease.  Still, as the Navy (and Air Force) contemplates penetrating China, N. Korea, or Iran’s (and Russia??) A2/AD zones, it would do well to carefully examine its current trend towards ever smaller fleet and aircraft numbers.  We may find ourselves needing a 3:1 advantage and not having it.


  1. Maybe I am missing something, but I was thinking where are we taking into account the element of surprise. As an attacker, if I have the advantage of surprise then I can do more damage with far fewer units then if I do not. This would be true on Land, in the air or at sea.

    To me the defender biggest disadvantage is he has to will not know where the attacker will attack, thus will always have defenses spread out over a large area, enabling an attacker the opportunity to attack a weak link. The defender probably needs to outnumber his attacker by a lot more than three to one.

    I cannot think of a modern day example where the defender truly held their ground. Usually you see a loss of territory when is the retaken

    To me this underlines just how difficult the job of the defender really is.

    My thinking is that it will be if we ever find ourselves in a defensive position again, then will will find our lack of numbers a very real problem.

    Alternatively do you not bother trying to defend and just rely on our ability to a counter attack?


    1. Mark, you're overlooking the nature of, and factors in, modern naval-land combat and the element of surprise. The days of WWII where scouting and intel consisted of a few airplanes with guys using binoculars are gone. Today, we (and an enemy) have satellites, airborne early warning radar, submarines along obvious approaches, sonar (SOSUS-like) networks, electronic signals analysis (we can sense electrical emissions from equipment; radio silence is almost pointless), over-the-horizon land based radar, and, of course, good old observers in our ports (do you think China doesn't have observers around all our military ports and bases?). The ability to achieve the type of surprise you're describing is virtually nil.

      Add to that the predictability of certain approaches (the first island chain is, essentially, a series of navigational chokepoints, for example) and the predictability of certain targets and the element of surprise further diminishes.

      A degree of surprise can certainly be achieved but nowhere near the level you're postulating.

      Finally, a naval task force, once in position against an A2/AD defense now faces the enemy's full naval, air, and land power. That's a huge advantage for the defender.

      Give this some more thought and see what you think.

  2. Ooooo K interesting piece, bound to stimulate discussion. And that’s what it’s all about.
    Obviously someone is going to take apart your land vs air and sea warfare. So I’m not going to bother.
    Let’s just assume a 5:1 advantage and be done with it for the sake of argument. I’m a bit unsure what you measuring, let’s say ships to land installations, and be done with that too.
    Naval warfare is a game of stealth and motion. Unlike land warfare you effectively have all the world to move in, and distances that provide the ultimate in stealth.
    To this end there is absolutely no reason given a coast full of targets that a navy with more than 5 assets, that you can’t hit your target. It may take time; after all you have all the time in the world. And there is a question of whether you will get away with it, and the question of how you exploit the hole you just created.
    But you can harry and stretch defenders, bluff and draw forces away from targets. And in short run a defender ragged just trying to find you.
    You will wear down their recon UAV, Naval and air force by ensuring assets are ambushed. And remember if they do find you an hour later your 30 miles away, a day later your 600+ miles away, in any direction (that it’s a FANOMINAL amount of square miles to search ). While you have the advantage that their cities \ manufacturing facilities \ bridges \ power stations etc. etc. generally stay where they were put.
    IF you play things right you can strike with virtual impunity with massive force ( much much more than 5:1 ) and then be GONE!
    The idea of lining up your fleet up in a nice long line, waving to “GO!” flag and trading blows till the guy with the most things wins, is a little outdated, and by a little I mean a lot.

    1. Ben, read my reply to Mark about the element of surprise and think hard about what that means to the naval force facing a land based enemy. This isn't WWII. A naval force can't simply scoot around undetected. OTH land based radar and airborne AEW cover the seas for hundreds to thousands of miles in any direction. Satellites search the seas (satellites are not all-seeing but still constitute a powerful surveillance element). China has undoubtedly planted SOSUS-like networks extensively across the many navigational chokepoints in the first island chain and elsewhere. They have thousands of aircraft available for patrol. I can go on but you get the idea. A naval force isn't simply going to cruise undetected up and down an enemy's coast.

      Think about the resources we have. If the situation was reversed, do you think the Chinese could send a naval fleet to attack the US mainland and we'd never see it coming?

      Consider the "cold war" intercepts we constantly did (and, apparently are begining to do again!) against the Soviets. We detected, tracked, and intercepted every plane, ship, and sub that moved. Did some solitary plane, ship, or sub achieve an undetected movement at some point? Probably, but that hardly constitutes a naval land assault force.

      I ask you to reconsider your premise and let me know what you think.

    2. Satellites are a bit of a no no.
      Even when you do spot the battle groups etc. in a day you have to search over a million square miles of sea for it again. (Literally 1,130,400 square miles)
      AEW is a problem, but the sea is full of boats, and the USAF page literally list the E3 sentry’s radar range as 250 miles (bit low, but let’s assume for a positive ID of any given vessel its OK), that’s well within carrier strike, but more importantly at 1000 miles range you need 25 of them continuously in the air to leave no holes in that perimeter. It just doesn’t happen that way does it.

      So let’s say a 530mph you just have 5 walking the perimeter, how are you defending these? Hornets properly armed can take out that target very quickly, then land and steam away. Or re-sortie to take out the obvious incoming forces at the extremes of the land based planes range.

      They will be forced to face you on your terms; else you will eat away and eat away. You will engineer engagements for targets of opportunity at the extremes of their range and close to you.
      Your sortie rate in travel time alone will be massively superior, if things go badly you withdraw if they succeed you can press, at no point do they ever get a fix on your group. And if they ever do, by the time they get their you’re somewhere else.

      Movement always movement.

      An enemy would require a CONSTANT fix on a fast battle group, and that just can’t be done, air assets simply are not persistent and reliable \ defencable enough.

      Defensive battles virtually by definition are only a matter of time. In a fight if you can’t strike back, you will lose, it’s just when. This is pretty much provable from a fist fight right up to the biggest type of warfare you care to mention.


    3. Ben, I think you're misunderstanding several aspects of this. First, you may be misunderstanding the basic premise of the post. I'm not talking about a naval group conducting tiny hit and run raids or shooting down a couple of planes and running off. I'm talking about a major assault. An assault where you intend to move close in (on a relative if not literal basis) and stand and fight and/or conduct a landing. You intend to seize an area of land (or ocean as the case may be). In this scenario, by definition, you ultimately have to clearly reveal your position even if you somehow managed to arrive there undetected. It's analogous to a land assault whose goal is to take a chunk of defended land. You have to go to the enemy.

      Next, you may not be appreciating the scope and magnitude of surveillance resources available to an enemy who knows approximately when you're coming and approximately where you'll come from. None of the surveillance devices/platforms I mentioned is a 100%, all-seeing eye. However, the combination is pretty hard to beat. Satellites to monitor likely areas, SOSUS to monitor chokepoints, submarines along likely routes, AEW out to hundreds of miles, surface ships patrolling large areas, simple observers on fishing boats and islands, etc. make it highly unlikely you can approach to a prime attack location totally undetected.

      Added to that is the electronic signals detection. As CNO Greenert has stated, we've forgotten about electromagnetic shielding. For example, the EMALS on the Ford is an electromagnetic beacon that can be seen from a thousand miles away. All the Navy's ships radiate energy badly from years of indifference in electromagnetic design. It's like the flashlight analogy. You can see it from a long, long distance away. A couple cross bearings and you've triangulated the location.

      There is virtually no chance that a major strike group could approach undetected.

      Once detected, the 3:1 phenomenon begins. The enemy can call on its entire arsenal of land based missiles and aircraft, all its navy and air force, etc. A task group, no matter how large, can't even remotely match the resources of a land based enemy operating from their own country. Hence, 3:1.

      Think carefully about the layers of detection that a competent enemy would have. They extend outward thousands of miles. I'll repeat, turn the situation around and imagine the odds of an enemy approaching an alerted US coast undetected. Not possible. And even if it did happen, once the group arrived they'd be faced with overwhelming force that they couldn't hope to match. Again, 3:1.

      Does that make more sense?

    4. I DO totally see where you are coming from, and my example is still valid I feel.
      ( p.s. the EMALS thing scares the hell out of me ! I don’t know that ??? )

      I wrote a whole piece but scrapped it.

      Let’s take a different approach.

      Once upon a time ships where literally built like castles at sea. ( see forecastle etc. ) this is still so. A Nimitz is still based on the idea an armoured airfield, but it floats. We really haven’t come that far. A CBG is still a large armoured and defended chunk of America (that happens to move).

      Even if you see a CBG coming, what are you going to do about it at 1500 miles ?

      Your beyond you ground based aircraft range so you have to refuel, and if you do attack you are effectively playing the 3:1 routine the other way round. Transit time is significant, and will overwhelmingly affect sortie rate. Do you have enough assets to strike with an estimate 150 (3:1) TOP LINE planes 1500 miles away from home with a sortie rate to match a NIMITZ, and for each battle group?!?!

      @ 210 sorties per day for say 3 NIMITZ times by 3:1 (let’s NOT take into account the distance and air-to-air refuelling tho of course this is critical) that’s 1890 top of the line planes. A DAY. China or Russia simply doesn’t have this right now.


    5. I would submit that if the defender is forcing you into a high sortie count simply to deal with the outer edge of their defenses, then he is succeeding. Have any fiendishly complex modern aircraft been subjected to such an operational tempo? I am unaware of it but would be interested to see the results. Even disregarding the inevitable combat losses, losses to wear and tear, accident, and exhaustion would hurt the attacker disproportionately. And, if a task force recognizes this and periodically withdraws to rest and refit, that is another win for the defense.

    6. Ben, I'll take one more crack at this. Consider the defenses that China could bring to bear in an A2/AD defense scenario. There's an unknown number of the DF-21 IRBMs. China has reportedly acquired/built a regiment of Backfire bombers presumably carrying a few to several supersonic cruise missiles with ranges of hundreds of miles (heck, the old Soviet missiles could do that so the Chinese have probably upgraded that performance and probably added ECM as well). A USN strike group has to approach withing a few to several hundred miles to hit their target. A Tomahawk has a range of several hundred miles (up to around 900 under ideal, straight line conditions) so unless the target is on the coastline, the group would have to approach much closer - let's say 4-500 miles. Consider the number of aircraft, surface ships, land based missiles, and subs that could be brought to bear. Yikes!

      Even this only barely matches the post's intent. I'm describing a serious, seize land and ocean attack, not a raid. So, even a Tomahawk attack is barely what this post is describing. The post is describing something like the re-taking of Taiwan or amphibious assault on Iran or serious strikes on mainland China or stand and fight operations in support of Japan or some such heavy duty assault scenario through an A2/AD zone.

      A naval strike group wouldn't stand a chance on its own. That's what the whole AirSea Battle concept was: a recognition of the immense difficulty in breaching an A2/AD zone.

      If, after all this, you still think we can casually sail a strike group back and forth with impunity in an A2/AD zone against a peer enemy then I'll have to leave you with your opinion and move on to the next topic!

      Just out of curiosity, where are you getting your sortie numbers? A Nimitz has around 44 Hornets of which half a dozen are always dedicated to buddy tanking. That leaves around 38 Hornets for actual combat. How many aircraft do you think China has? It's hundreds of Hornet-ish or better and thousands in total. Each of them can also perform multiple sorties per day (you've got to be fair in assessing this!). How many days of all out combat do you think a carrier can engage in before it runs out of jet fuel and munitions? Typically, around three days or so is the limit.

    7. Thing is, into the scenario you are describing you would need "game changers" simply building more and more hulls won't do it.

      This reminds me of the Tank vs. ATGM duel, no matter how good modern and up-armored the tank is , there is always going to be a cheaper missile witch is going to penetrate the armour.
      And designing missiles is always cheaper and faster than making more complex machinery be that a 8m$ tank or a 800m$ ship.

      So unless we have game changers we cannot keep up the traditional way.
      Game changers in you scenario above would be stealth reacon/strike UAVs and sophisticated UUV witch would saturate and disable the defenders command network and his coastal missile launchers, ships and everything else to an accepteble degree in witch it is safer for the attaker to move his vessels closer to the defenders shores/islands.

    8. "China has reportedly acquired/built a regiment of Backfire bombers "
      Now that are just rumors. This talk has been going on for over 10 years, there was even talk to transfer the whole production line to china.
      But lets look realisticaly, they build the Tu-16 bomber varriants for more than 40 years and they seem happy with them ,because they just do not put enough emphasys on mid range bombers for now.
      If they wanted they could have bought atleast 40-60 backfires by now.
      The fact is that they seem to overlook medium range bombers for some reasons, and i bet the reasons are that for the moment they feel that they can project enough power with missiles.
      And don't forget how much you talked about pentagon buget wars, maybe they have almost the same and the missile lobby has the upper hand.

    9. Storm, the Tu-22 report is from Proceedings, a reputable source. I discussed this in a previous post (see, "What's Old Is New Again").

    10. There are no Tu-22/26 bombers in china, non secondhand nor new build ones. Its funny how the US has this super expensive security monitoring apararus , but not even a single picture for someone to scream " here they have it" .
      The chineese do not see this type of aircraft as reasonable to invest at the moment and near future.
      But do not be surprised if they show a scaled down B-2 like bomber in the next years.
      They are pragmatic and are in no hurry.

  3. ComNavOps, was your point to merely stimulate discussion, or do you have a solution to A2/AD in mind? I'm curious, that's all. If I had to hazard my own solution, I would start with the premise that waging war against a peer enemy is an all in or all out affair. From there I would put my money on fielding a plain bigger navy - it's imperative to be able to replace losses and have a fleet which can absorb them. This leaves aside the questions of manufacturing capacity, cost, and selling such efforts and costs to the public, of course.

    1. archer, the post was a theoretical examination of the 3:1 concept and how it could apply to naval operations. Of course, the ultimate purpose behind any theoretical discussion is to apply it to reality. That said, the lesson and application of 3:1, in my mind, is that you absolutely need a sharply defined goal and strategy. Take China and the A2/AD issue - we need to have a solid idea of how we would want to engage (meaning, what are the victory conditions?) and then we need to carefully develop the resources to do so against the backdrop of theoretical considerations such as the 3:1 and others.

      That's a wishy-washy answer but without going deeper into the victory conditions it's the best I can offer. I have a very defined set of China victory conditions in my mind but this is not the blog for that type of discussion. I'll leave it to you to come up with your own set of victory conditions and then ponder how they could be achieved given all the things that we discuss in this blog.

  4. how about the US navy in persian gulf when they attack iran ? in such limited waters, i think the defender got advantage here and the attacker might have to increase their 3:1 ratio to ensure success without massive casualties

    1. "b", exactly right. The use of mines, alone, by Iran could prove overwhelmingly difficult to counter given our almost total lack of MCM assets.


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