November 21, 2019

Attrition and the Will to Fight a Great Power War

By Emma Moore

A nation’s capability and will to fight are interdependent critical factors in determining military operational success in conflict. The possibility of a kinetic war, however slight, now occupies the minds of policy makers. As great power competition and worry over potential great power conflict (GPC) increases, it is vital to consider the effects of attrition and the demands such conflict would require. The United States’ ability to tolerate manpower attrition and sustain the force in a war against a near-peer competitor is one factor that could determine American will to fight—and ultimate success—in a great power war. Many planners expect conflict to remain in the “grey zone” or the cyber domain with less risk of violence. But what if they are wrong? In the next GPC the nation may be vulnerable to platform and human attrition. The potential of such a conflict ultimately raises questions of the will to fight, reasonable risks, and associated casualties.

Conversations about the military balance tend to focus on projected capabilities and platforms while the need for personnel and possibility of large-scale casualties receive less attention. Planners should seriously consider not just the vulnerabilities of platforms they field but also how mobilization and loss of service members would change national decisions, capabilities, and will to fight. Against a near-peer competitor, what level of attrition can the US tolerate? Will society be willing to engage in a great power war? These are important considerations when assessing US preparedness and should inform talent management, military end strength, and force composition. To understand this argument, one must first consider the context of attrition and then explore the nuances of platform and human attrition.

Read the full article in Strategic Studies Quarterly.

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia