From Strategypage: The importance of the Casualty Budget or Attrition in Combat

by Matthew Caffrey, Lt Col, USAFR and John Tiller, Ph. D., HPS Simulations

“It was crucial that casualties should be kept to a minimum if final victory was to be seen worth the purchase”

The Battle for the Falklands, Hastings and Jenkins, 1983, p. 184.

In military history, there have been similar circumstances arise at very different times. For example, when Lee encountered Union forces on the first day of Gettysburg, he hesitated, not sure if he should commit his army to this particular battle. At Normandy, during the early days of the World War II invasion, the Allies hesitated, not sure if they should advance with more risks or take a more cautious approach to their campaign. At Borodino, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, he failed to commit his entire army to the battle, unsure if he could “afford” the resulting casualties. In more modern times, it is interesting to compare the Vietnam War battles of Ia Drang and Hamburger Hill, one occurring during the early years of the American involvement, and considered a victory for the doctrine of airborne assault, with the second occurring during the later years of the war, and considered a terrible defeat, although tactically it accomplished the destruction of an NVA regiment.

The questions that arise from these situations are twofold:

  • How do we understand how to estimate eventual victory or defeat outcomes in such a way that transcends strictly attrition factors.
  • How do we implement military caution in artificial environments such as commercial wargames.

While the first question concerns primarily serving military strategists while the other is the concern of the recreational wargamer/civilian strategist the approach presented here actually addresses both of these issues. The concept of Casualty Budgets is based on the following:

  • In military situations, the participants are often constrained or influenced by the potential or actual casualties of the current situation in a way that transcends a pure military analysis of the situation.

This concept can be illustrated using the previous examples:

  • When Lee first arrived on the Gettysburg battlefield, he was forced to make decisions in a very uncertain situation. Although he appeared to hold the advantage at the time, there were too many unknowns about the situation for him to be able to commit his forces with certainty. Thus, for a long period during the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, Lee’s forces waited for reinforcements before advancing.
  • After the initial success of the Normandy landings, the British forces actually withdrew from their furthest advance at the end of the first day, despite the fact that they were largely unopposed at that point. Likewise, the entire course of the Normandy campaign is made up of short periods of offensive activity followed by periods of inactivity, despite many weaknesses in the German position, in a way that goes far beyond mere logistical concerns at the time. The entire campaign was conducted in a very measured and paced manner despite the result that the Germans were able to prolong the fighting in the Normandy hedgerow.
  • Napoleon failed to deliver a knock-out blow at Borodino and consequently failed to conquer the Russians. He had additional uncommitted forces at Borodino, notably the Imperial Guard, but was uncertain whether he should commit them in that battle. On a purely military basis, he could have decided that the commitment of his entire force might yield a decisive result, but the uncertainty he found himself under compelled him to save a significant portion of his force for a later battle that never happened.
  • The casualties suffered by the American forces at the battles of Ia Drang and Hamburger Hill in Vietnam cannot be compared in an abstract numerical manner. If you did, you might conclude that both of these battles were significant victories for the Americans in terms of the corresponding losses suffered by the NVA. However, historically we view the first of these as a heroic battle demonstrating the new tactic of airborne assault, while the second is viewed as a senseless shedding of blood to no good purpose.

In each case, the concept of Casualty Budgets illustrates the basis for these situations and the decisions associated with them by introducing a concept that transcends the numerical victory/loss accounting that is normally done. In the case of Lee at Gettysburg, he was not in a position to commit his force to a substantial battle just on the basis of the initial clash that first day. By the third day, when it was clear that this battle would significantly determine the outcome of the war, he was prepared to commit his last remaining reserves in an all-or-nothing charge, something that just wasn’t justified until then. At Normandy, the Allies and particularly the British were under significant political pressure to avoid what might be viewed as horrendous and unacceptable losses during the campaign. Although the total number of casualties suffered in the historical Normandy campaign was quite large, they were incurred over the course of the campaign and in such a way that they did not occur in such high numbers at any one time so as to invoke a serious political backlash as a result. Likewise, although Napoleon would in the end lose almost all of his force in the campaign, at the time of Borodino the situation was too early and uncertain for him to commit all of his forces to a decisive conclusion. He was compelled by his caution to hold back a certain portion of his force for later eventualities.

And finally, during the Vietnam war, the Americans operating under a very significant casualty budget, one that was eventually used up, so that earlier battles such as Ia Drang can be viewed as success at the time, while later battles such as Hamburger Hill are viewed as defeats. Tactically the North Vietnamese understood they had a casualty budget and managed it well. They knew they would suffer heavy casualties with American units so they tended to initiate sharp engagements when they were fresh, then break those engagements off as they started to seriously loose combat effectiveness. They would then take the time they needed to rest and refit, often a month, before they would initiate another engagement.

Casualty budgets are a relevant concept at all levels of war. Said another way, they need to be the concern of platoon leaders and presidents. Military professionals should be aware of the consequences of Casualty Budgets and work with our civilian leaders to determine what our casualty budget would be for any operation – before forces are committed. Then they should estimate how many casualties would be incurred achieving the operation’s objective. If the estimates show it is unlikely we can achieve our objectives within our casualty budget then it unlikely we can achieve our objectives at all. When the budget is exceeded the American people, then elected officials will begin to limit the President’s options. In such a case it may be better not to engage at all.

The concept of Casualty Budgets serves a particularly useful role in commercial wargaming as well as it goes a long way towards resolving the fundamental problem of reproducing caution. Experience has shown that the typical person placed in the context of a wargame will show very little if any feeling towards caution in that situation and will commit forces and take risks far beyond anything that could reasonably have occurred in the historical situation. Indeed, in commercial wargames of the Battle of Gettysburg, typically you find the fighting continuing unabated through the first day, all through the first night, and with the consequence that the entire battle is finished in about half the historical duration. The situation is likewise in commercial wargames of Borodino or any other battle, that there is little or no reason for the player to hold back or exhibit any type of caution in their approach. There simply isn’t any good way of representing the risk that existed in the historical situation, and so the notion of Casualty Budget becomes a very useful way of “legislating caution”.

When Casualty Budgets are implemented in a commercial wargame through a scoring mechanism, they compel the player to proceed at a more measured pace and conserve their forces in such a way as to avoid exceeding their budget at any given time. This approach is most appropriate at the tactical or operational level. Casualty Budgets used in this context can be both Fixed and Variable. When they are Fixed, then the player has a single value against which they must manage their forces. This would be appropriate for the Battle of Borodino for example where the player must understand that once their Casualty Budget is exceeded, the outcome of the conflict goes against them as a result. When the budget is Variable, then the player begins with a certain amount of Casualty Budget which is then increased over time according to some preset determined rate. This would be particularly appropriate for the Normandy campaign for example where the Allied player must pace his offensive activities to work within the constraints of the budget even though his total casualties might end up being large in comparison. Likewise, when used for the Battle of Gettysburg, it would compel the Confederate player to take a less drastic approach, particularly in the first day, as they would be constrained by a casualty budget that only by the third day allowed them the kind of casualties they would otherwise accept much earlier. In detail then, with a given Casualty Budget of X in effect for a given game turn, if the player exceeded their budget by having casualties of Y, then the excess Y – X in victory points would be subtracted from their overall victory determination. This would be done on a per-turn basis motivating the player to manage their budget accordingly. While it does not prevent the player from exceeding their Casualty Budget, it penalizes them for doing so and thus provides some balance to an otherwise unrealistic situation.

While penalizing players with victory points may be a good idea at the tactical or operational level, the best way to implement casualty budgets in strategic wargames will usually be to depict the consequences of exceeding the budget. In general the consequence is to limit the players options. Let’s use logistics as an analogy. When a unit has a lot of logistics it can attach, defend, withdraw and of course it could always surrender. As its use of logistics exceeds its resupply it first will not be able to attack, then it won’t be able to defend, then it won’t be able to withdraw. In time its ONLY option will be to surrender. As a units exceeds it casualty budget it first will not be able to attack, then it won’t be able to defend, then it won’t be able to withdraw. In time its ONLY option will be to surrender. A similar limiting of options occurs on the national level. Take Vietnam as an example. As our casualty budget was exceeded the President could no longer send in more troops. Then he could not reduce our rate of withdraw.

It should be appreciated that at the strategic level, casualty budgets always vary with enemy actions, our actions, time etc., although for tactical and operational wargame purposes they can be considered being fixed for the duration of the action. One example of the variableness of the budget – our greatest victory at Gettysburg may have been the address by Mr. Lincoln. His few brief remarks significantly increased the government’s casualty budget for the war and avoided a premature settlement.

Finally, in the context of military planning, it would be very significant for planners to take into account their perceived Casualty Budget in much the same way as they account for all other manner of military resources such as tanks, ammo, and artillery. Running out of Casualty Budget in a particular conflict can be just as damaging to the effort as it would be to run out of these other resources. Thus the military planner, and the military commander later on, must be sensitive to their allocation of Casualty Budget in a given situation and their expenses relative to that. In a very significant way, Casualty Budgets can very much be the basis for the classical “Win the battle, lose the war” outcome that we attempt to avoid. Or as a member of Parliament put it, “Another Such Victory”.

“Another such victory would ruin the British army”

Charles James Fox, British Parliament, after the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.

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