The Attritional Art of War: Lessons from the Russian War on Ukraine

Marching orders: Russian servicemen take part in a Victory Day parade in Moscow. Image: Bai Xueqi / Alamy

If the West is serious about the possibility of a great power conflict, it needs to take a hard look at its capacity to wage a protracted war and to pursue a strategy focused on attrition rather than manoeuvre.

Attritional wars require their own ‘Art of War’ and are fought with a ‘force-centric’ approach, unlike wars of manoeuvre which are ‘terrain-focused’. They are rooted in massive industrial capacity to enable the replacement of losses, geographical depth to absorb a series of defeats, and technological conditions that prevent rapid ground movement. In attritional wars, military operations are shaped by a state’s ability to replace losses and generate new formations, not tactical and operational manoeuvres. The side that accepts the attritional nature of war and focuses on destroying enemy forces rather than gaining terrain is most likely to win.

The West is not prepared for this kind of war. To most Western experts, attritional strategy is counterintuitive. Historically, the West preferred the short ‘winner takes all’ clash of professional armies. Recent war games such as CSIS’s war over Taiwan covered one month of fighting. The possibility that the war would go on never entered the discussion. This is a reflection of a common Western attitude. Wars of attrition are treated as exceptions, something to be avoided at all costs and generally products of leaders’ ineptitude. Unfortunately, wars between near-peer powers are likely to be attritional, thanks to a large pool of resources available to replace initial losses. The attritional nature of combat, including the erosion of professionalism due to casualties, levels the battlefield no matter which army started with better trained forces. As conflict drags on, the war is won by economies, not armies. States that grasp this and fight such a war via an attritional strategy aimed at exhausting enemy resources while preserving their own are more likely to win. The fastest way to lose a war of attrition is to focus on manoeuvre, expending valuable resources on near-term territorial objectives. Recognising that wars of attrition have their own art is vital to winning them without sustaining crippling losses.

The Economic Dimension

Wars of attrition are won by economies enabling mass mobilisation of militaries via their industrial sectors. Armies expand rapidly during such a conflict, requiring massive quantities of armoured vehicles, drones, electronic products, and other combat equipment. Because high-end weaponry is very complex to manufacture and consumes vast resources, a high-low mixture of forces and weapons is imperative in order to win.

High-end weapons have exceptional performance but are difficult to manufacture, especially when needed to arm a rapidly mobilised army subjected to a high rate of attrition. For example, during the Second World War German Panzers were superb tanks, but using approximately the same production resources, the Soviets rolled out eight T-34s for every German Panzer. The difference in performance did not justify the numerical disparity in production. High-end weapons also require high-end troops. These take significant time to train – time which is unavailable in a war with high attrition rates.

It is easier and faster to produce large numbers of cheap weapons and munitions, especially if their subcomponents are interchangeable with civilian goods, ensuring mass quantity without the expansion of production lines. New recruits also absorb simpler weapons faster, allowing rapid generation of new formations or the reconstitution of existing ones.

Achieving mass is difficult for higher-end Western economies. To achieve hyper-efficiency, they shed excess capacity and struggle to rapidly expand, especially since lower-tier industries have been transferred abroad for economic reasons. During war, global supply chains are disrupted and subcomponents can no longer be secured. Added to this conundrum is the lack of a skilled workforce with experience in a particular industry. These skills are acquired over decades, and once an industry is shuttered it takes decades to rebuild. The 2018 US government interagency report on US industrial capacity highlighted these problems. The bottom line is that the West must take a hard look at ensuring peacetime excess capacity in its military industrial complex, or risk losing the next war.

Force Generation

Industrial output exists so it can be channelled into replacing losses and generating new formations. This requires appropriate doctrine and command and control structures. There are two main models; NATO (most Western armies) and the old Soviet model, with most states fielding something in between.

NATO armies are highly professional, backed by a strong non-commissioned officer (NCO) Corps, with extensive peacetime military education and experience. They build upon this professionalism for their military doctrine (fundamentals, tactics and techniques) to stress individual initiative, delegating a great deal of leeway to junior officers and NCOs. NATO formations enjoy tremendous agility and flexibility to exploit opportunities on a dynamic battlefield.

In attritional war, this method has a downside. The officers and NCOs required to execute this doctrine require extensive training and, above all, experience. A US Army NCO takes years to develop. A squad leader generally has at least three years in service and a platoon sergeant has at least seven. In an attritional war characterised by heavy casualties, there simply isn’t time to replace lost NCOs or generate them for new units. The idea that civilians can be given three-month training courses, sergeant’s chevrons and then expected to perform in the same manner as a seven-year veteran is a recipe for disaster. Only time can generate leaders capable of executing NATO doctrine, and time is one thing that the massive demands of attritional war do not give.

The Soviet Union built its army for large-scale conflict with NATO. It was intended to be able to rapidly expand by calling up massed reserves. Every male in the Soviet Union underwent two years of basic training right out of high school. The constant turnover of enlisted personnel precluded creation of a Western-style NCO corps but generated a massive pool of semi-trained reserves available in times of war. The absence of reliable NCOs created an officer-centric command model, less flexible than NATO’s but more adaptable to the large-scale expansion required by attritional warfare.

However, as a war progresses past a one-year mark, front-line units will gain experience and an improved NCO corps is likely to emerge, giving the Soviet model greater flexibility. By 1943, the Red Army had developed a robust NCO corps, which then disappeared after the Second World War as combat formations were demobilised. A key difference between the models is that NATO doctrine cannot function without high-performing NCOs. The Soviet doctrine was enhanced by experienced NCOs but did not require them.

Instead of a decisive battle achieved through rapid manoeuvre, attritional war focuses on destroying enemy forces and their ability to regenerate combat power, while preserving one’s own

The most effective model is a mixture of the two, in which a state maintains a medium-sized professional army, together with a mass of draftees available for mobilisation. This leads directly to a high/low mixture. Professional pre-war forces form the high end of this army, becoming fire brigades – moving from sector to sector in battle to stabilise the situation and conduct decisive attacks. Low-end formations hold the line and gain experience slowly, increasing their quality until they gain the capability to conduct offensive operations. Victory is attained by creating the highest quality low-end formations possible.

Forging new units into combat-capable soldiers instead of civilian mobs is done through training and combat experience. A new formation should train for at least six months, and only if manned by reservists with previous individual training. Conscripts take longer. These units should also have professional soldiers and NCOs brought in from the pre-war army to add professionalism. Once initial training is complete, they should only be fed into the battle in secondary sectors. No formation should be allowed to fall below 70% strength. Withdrawing formations early allows experience to proliferate among the new replacements as veterans pass on their skills. Otherwise, valuable experience is lost, causing the process to start all over. Another implication is that resources should prioritise replacements over new formations, preserving combat edge in both the pre-war army (high) and newly raised (low) formations. It’s advisable to disband several pre-war (high-end) formations to spread professional soldiers among newly created low-end formations in order to raise initial quality.

The Military Dimension

Military operations in an attritional conflict are very distinct from those in a war of manoeuvre. Instead of a decisive battle achieved through rapid manoeuvre, attritional war focuses on destroying enemy forces and their ability to regenerate combat power, while preserving one’s own. In this context, a successful strategy accepts that the war will last at least two years and be broken into two distinct phases. The first phase ranges from initiation of hostilities to the point where sufficient combat power has been mobilised to allow decisive action. It will see little positional shifting on the ground, focusing on favourable exchange of losses and building up combat power in the rear. The dominant form of combat is fires rather than manoeuvre, complemented by extensive fortifications and camouflage. The peacetime army starts the war and conducts holding actions, providing time to mobilise resources and train the new army.

The second phase can commence after one side has met the following conditions.

  • Newly mobilised forces have completed their training and gained sufficient experience to make them combat-effective formations, capable of rapidly integrating all their assets in a cohesive manner.
  • The enemy’s strategic reserve is exhausted, leaving it unable to reinforce the threatened sector.
  • Fires and reconnaissance superiority are achieved, allowing the attacker to effectively mass fires on a key sector while denying the enemy the same.
  • The enemy’s industrial sector is degraded to the point where it is unable to replace battlefield losses. In the case of fighting against a coalition of countries, their industrial resources must also be exhausted or at least accounted for.

Only after meeting these criteria should offensive operations commence. They should be launched across a broad front, seeking to overwhelm the enemy at multiple points with shallow attacks. The intent is to remain inside a layered bubble of friendly protective systems, while stretching depleted enemy reserves until the front collapses. Only then should the offensive extend towards objectives deeper in the enemy rear. Concentration of forces on one main effort should be avoided as this gives an indication of the offensive’s location and an opportunity for the enemy to concentrate their reserves against this key point. The Brusilov Offensive of 1916, which resulted in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian army, is a good example of a successful attritional offensive at the tactical and operational level. By attacking along a broad front, the Russian army prevented the Austro-Hungarians from concentrating their reserves, resulting in a collapse all along the front. At the strategic level, however, the Brusilov Offensive is an example of failure. Russian forces failed to set conditions against the whole enemy coalition, focusing only on the Austro-Hungarian Empire and neglecting German capacity. The Russians expended crucial resources which they could not replace, without defeating the strongest coalition member. To reemphasise the key point, an offensive will only succeed once key criteria are met. Attempting to launch an offensive earlier will result in losses without any strategic gains, playing directly into enemy hands.

Modern War

The modern battlefield is an integrated system of systems which includes various types of electronic warfare (EW), three basic types of air defences, four different types of artillery, countless aircraft types, strike and reconnaissance drones, construction and sapper engineers, traditional infantry, armour formations and, above all, logistics. Artillery has become more dangerous thanks to increased ranges and advanced targeting, stretching the depth of the battlefield.

In practice, this means it is easier to mass fires than forces. Deep manoeuvre, which requires the massing of combat power, is no longer possible because any massed force will be destroyed by indirect fires before it can achieve success in depth. Instead, a ground offensive requires a tight protective bubble to ward off enemy strike systems. This bubble is generated through layering friendly counter-fire, air defence and EW assets. Moving numerous interdependent systems is highly complicated and unlikely to be successful. Shallow attacks along the forward line of troops are most likely to be successful at an acceptable cost ratio; attempts at deep penetration will be exposed to massed fires the moment they exit the protection of the defensive bubble.

Integration of these overlapping assets requires centralised planning and exceptionally well-trained staff officers, capable of integrating multiple capabilities on the fly. It takes years to train such officers, and even combat experience does not generate such skills in a short time. Checklists and mandatory procedures can alleviate these deficiencies, but only on a less-complicated, static front. Dynamic offensive operations require fast reaction times, which semi-trained officers are incapable of performing.

An example of this complexity is an attack by a platoon of 30 soldiers. This would require EW systems to jam enemy drones; another EW system to jam enemy communications preventing adjustment of enemy fires; and a third EW system to jam space navigation systems denying use of precision guided munitions. In addition, fires require counterbattery radars to defeat enemy artillery. Further complicating planning is the fact that enemy EW will locate and destroy any friendly radar or EW emitter that is emitting for too long. Engineers will have to clear paths through minefields, while friendly drones provide time-sensitive ISR and fire support if needed. (This task requires a great deal of training with the supporting units to avoid dropping munitions on friendly attacking troops.) Finally, artillery needs to provide support both on the objective and enemy rear, targeting reserves and suppressing artillery. All these systems need to work as an integrated team just to support 30 men in several vehicles attacking another 30 men or less. A lack of coordination between these assets will result in failed attacks and horrific losses without ever seeing the enemy. As the size of formation conducting operations increases, so do the number and complexity of assets that need to be integrated.

Implications for Combat Operations

Deep fires – further than 100–150 km (the average range of tactical rockets) behind the front line – target an enemy’s ability to generate combat power. This includes production facilities, munitions dumps, repair depots, and energy and transportation infrastructure. Of particular importance are targets that require significant production capabilities and that are difficult to replace/repair, as their destruction will inflict long term damage. As with all aspects of attritional war, such strikes will take significant time to have an effect, with timelines running into years. The low global production volumes of long-range precision-guided munitions, effective deception and concealment actions, large stockpiles of anti-aircraft missiles and the sheer repair capacities of strong, determined states all combine to prolong conflicts. Effective layering of air defences must include high-end systems at all altitudes coupled with cheaper systems to counter the enemy’s massed low-end attack platforms. Combined with mass-scale manufacturing and effective EW, this is the only way to defeat enemy deep fires.

Victory in an attritional war is assured by careful planning, industrial base development and development of mobilisation infrastructure in times of peace, and even more careful management of resources in wartime

Successful attritional war focuses on the preservation of one’s own combat power. This usually translates into a relatively static front interrupted by limited local attacks to improve positions, using artillery for most of the fighting. Fortification and concealment of all forces including logistics is the key to minimising losses. The long time required to construct fortifications prevents significant ground movement. An attacking force which cannot rapidly entrench will suffer significant losses from enemy artillery fires.

Defensive operations buy time to develop low-end combat formations, allowing newly mobilised troops to gain combat experience without suffering heavy losses in large-scale attacks. Building up experienced low-tier combat formations generates the capability for future offensive operations.

The early stages of attritional war range from initiation of hostilities to the point where mobilised resources are available in large numbers and are ready for combat operations. In the case of a surprise attack, a rapid offensive by one side may be possible until the defender can form a solid front. After that, combat solidifies. This period lasts at least a year-and-a-half to two years. During this period, major offensive operations should be avoided. Even if large attacks are successful, they will result in significant casualties, often for meaningless territorial gains. An army should never accept a battle on unfavourable terms. In attritional war, any terrain that does not have a vital industrial centre is irrelevant. It is always better to retreat and preserve forces, regardless of the political consequences. Fighting on disadvantageous terrain burns up units, losing experienced soldiers who are key to victory. The German obsession with Stalingrad in 1942 is a prime example of fighting on unfavourable terrain for political reasons. Germany burned up vital units that it could not afford to lose, simply to capture a city bearing Stalin’s name. It is also wise to push the enemy into fighting on disadvantageous terrain through information operations, exploiting politically sensitive enemy objectives. The goal is to force the enemy to expend vital material and strategic reserves on strategically meaningless operations. A key pitfall to avoid is being dragged into the very same trap that has been set for the enemy. In the First World War, Germans did just that at Verdun, where it planned to use surprise to capture key, politically sensitive terrain, provoking costly French counterattacks. Unfortunately for the Germans, they fell into their own trap. They failed to gain key, defendable terrain early on, and the battle devolved instead into a series of costly infantry assaults by both sides, with artillery fires devastating attacking infantry.

When the second phase begins, the offensive should be launched across a broad front, seeking to overwhelm the enemy at multiple points using shallow attacks. The intent is to remain inside the layered bubble of friendly protective systems, while stretching depleted enemy reserves until the front collapses. There is a cascading effect in which a crisis in one sector forces the defenders to shift reserves from a second sector, only to generate a crisis there in turn. As forces start falling back and leaving prepared fortifications, morale plummets, with the obvious question: ‘If we can’t hold the mega-fortress, how can we hold these new trenches?’ Retreat then turns into rout. Only then should the offensive extend towards objectives deeper in the enemy rear. The Allies’ Offensive in 1918 is an example. The Allies attacked along a broad front, while the Germans lacked sufficient resources to defend the entire line. Once the German Army began to retreat it proved impossible to stop.

The attritional strategy, centred on defence, is counterintuitive to most Western military officers. Western military thought views the offensive as the only means of achieving the decisive strategic goal of forcing the enemy to come to the negotiating table on unfavourable terms. The strategic patience required to set the conditions for an offensive runs against their combat experience acquired in overseas counterinsurgency operations.


The conduct of attritional wars is vastly different from wars of manoeuvre. They last longer and end up testing a country’s industrial capacity. Victory is assured by careful planning, industrial base development and development of mobilisation infrastructure in times of peace, and even more careful management of resources in wartime.

Victory is attainable by carefully analysing one’s own and the enemy’s political objectives. The key is recognising the strengths and weaknesses of competing economic models and identifying the economic strategies that are most likely to generate maximum resources. These resources can then be utilised to build a massive army using the high/low force and weapons mixture. The military conduct of war is driven by overall political strategic objectives, military realities and economic limitations. Combat operations are shallow and focus on destroying enemy resources, not on gaining terrain. Propaganda is used to support military operations, not the other way around. With patience and careful planning, a war can be won.

Unfortunately, many in the West have a very cavalier attitude that future conflicts will be short and decisive. This is not true for the very reasons outlined above. Even middling global powers have both the geography and the population and industrial resources needed to conduct an attritional war. The thought that any major power would back down in the case of an initial military defeat is wishful thinking at its best. Any conflict between great powers would be viewed by adversary elites as existential and pursued with the full resources available to the state. The resulting war will become attritional and will favour the state which has the economy, doctrine and military structure that is better suited towards this form of conflict.

If the West is serious about a possible great power conflict, it needs to take a hard look at its industrial capacity, mobilisation doctrine and means of waging a protracted war, rather than conducting wargames covering a single month of conflict and hoping that the war will end afterwards. As the Iraq War taught us, hope is not a method.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Alex Vershinin

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