Combat Power and Battle Ecology

20 June 2011



The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005) defines “combat power” as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time.”

Strangely, this definition does not appear in the online DOD Dictionary of Military Terms.

The U.S. Army, Field Manual 100-5, 1994, sometimes subtitled “Fighting Future Wars,” and frequently characterized as the US Army’s central doctrinal statement, has this to say about combat power:

“Overwhelming combat power is the ability to focus sufficient force to ensure success and deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation. … Overwhelming combat power is achieved when all combat elements are violently brought to bear quickly, giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition. … Four primary elements — maneuver, firepower, protection, and leadership — combine to create combat power — the ability to fight. Their effective application and sustainment, in concert with one another, will decide the outcome of campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements. Leaders integrate maneuver, firepower, and protection capabilities in a variety of combinations appropriate to the situation.”

I don’t have my own copy of Field Manual 100-5 (clearly my library is inadequate) so I had to rely on an edited text available on the internet; I don’t know how well this text I consulted represents the complete text, so I offer this above quote with this caution. In any case, the above quote gives the intuitively accessible formulation of combat power as “the ability to fight,” which is clear enough, but also probably tautological.

Returning to the definition in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 31 August 2005), it seems to me that the total destructive force that can be brought to bear is only half of the equation of the ability to fight. The other half of the equation of the ability to fight is being able to continue fighting as one’s adversary is applying his total destructive force against oneself. In fact, the “sustainment” mentioned in Fighting Future Wars is predicated upon just this.

Thus we might formulate this other half of combat power as follows:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can withstand from opponent at a given time.”

Which together with the earlier definition gives the following:

“The total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which a military unit/formation can apply against the opponent at a given time and place while resisting the total means of destructive and/or disruptive force which the adversary of that same military unit/formation can apply at the same time and place.”

I think that this is a little more comprehensive conception of combat power, and while we all know from the first principle of war that an objective must be established and from the second principle of war that one must take the offensive, because only an offensive achieves decisive results, it nevertheless remains true that even in undertaking offensive action to attain an objective, one’s forces must resist the destructive power of the enemy as much as it must bring its own destructive force to bear on that same enemy. Sustaining combat means surviving combat (including surviving defensive action undertaken to counter one’s offensive actions) so that one can continue to fight.

I can appeal again to the definition of combat power (cited above) in Field Manual 100-5 for a parallel definition of combat survival power, which is to say, combat resiliency. If combat power is to, “deny the enemy any chance of escape or effective retaliation… giving the enemy no opportunity to respond with coordinated or effective opposition,” then combat resiliency is the power to escape and conduct effective retaliation, responding to attack with coordinated and effective opposition.

It would be misleading to call this defensive combat power, in contradistinction to offensive combat power, as the two are indissolubly linked, although there is a certain temptation to employ this obvious formulation. Nevertheless, the temptation must be overcome: in taking the initiative, closing in an engagement, one brings one’s force to bear, and one’s opponent must survive this initial onslaught in order to make use of combat resiliency to respond effectively. However, that effective response can take no other form than bringing one’s force to bear, and this bringing of one’s force to bear is indistinguishable from that action of the force with the initiative.

There is, however, a legitimate distinction to be made here, so I will distinguish in what follows between internal combat power (or internal combat resiliency) and external combat power (or external combat resiliency). Whatever the philosophical compromises entailed by the internal/external distinction, in the present context of military affairs the philosophical baggage is to be preferred to the military baggage, which latter is more freighted with potentially misleading meanings. This distinction will be useful in what follows in the development of battle ecology.

It could be argued that, since a military objective must be defined and offensive action undertaken to secure the objective (because only offensive action can obtain a decisive result), that the temporal order of taking the initiative to close and engage is definitive. In an ideal combat environment, in which an initial onslaught might annihilate the enemy constituting a purely offensive action with no defensive component, the temporal order distinguishing offensive and defensive action (side A attacks; side B responds with defense) might allow us to make a clear distinction between offensive and defensive combat power. No combat environment is ideal, however. Any engagement will involve the reciprocity of combat power, so that temporal order of the initiative or the venerable offense/defense distinction is less relevant than might be supposed. There may be a psychological efficacy in first blood and that gives disproportionate power to the initiative, but any initiative must be sustained through combat resiliency or the decision will go to the opposition if it possesses superior combat resiliency, regardless of which side took the initiative.

This latter observation is particularly obvious when we consider an assault upon a fixed position, as in a siege, a trench raid, or the taking of a hill, when an offensive action can be utterly dissipated by defensive action so that nothing remains of the combat power of the attacking unit and the objective is not attained. The point here is that resisting the combat power of the enemy is not strictly or exclusively a concern of defense, but is equally integral to offensive action.

I want to here consider combat power in the context of battle ecology. In Metaphysical Ecology and Bottlenecks as Vulnerability and as Opportunity I began to sketch the concept of battle ecology. In the former I suggested that battle ecology is a more comprehensive concept that the now common “battlespace,” while in the latter I suggested that:

“A fully developed battle ecology would, in the best ecological fashion, demonstrate the inter-action of these cases, showing a kind of combat panarchy in which the greatest movements of strategy are revealed on the ground to the frontline soldier (either as an asset or a liability), and equally the actions of an individual frontline soldier are seen to travel upward through the strategico-tactical nexus until they echo at the highest levels of strategic opportunity and vulnerability.”

The “cases” mentioned above are divisions within the strategico-tactical nexus that I have formulated — constrained and unconstrained tactics, operations, and strategy — and I further developed the idea of the strategico-tactical nexus in Addendum on the Strategico-Tactical Nexus, in which I introduced the strategico-tactical continuum and strategico-tactical permutations.

strategico-tactical nexus

Battle ecology gives us a theoretical framework for understanding both aspects of combat power — bringing one’s destructive force to bear while resisting the destructive force that the enemy brings to bear. Battle, like an ecosystem, is a complex adaptive system, and we can model battle along ecological principles. This is the central idea of battle ecology. The theoretical framework of battle ecology makes it possible to understand combat power in terms of ecological resiliency.

strategico-tactical Continuum

The Wikipedia article on ecological resilience cites four properties of resilience in complex adaptive systems:

Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”
Panarchy: the degree to which a certain hierarchical level of an ecosystem is influenced by other levels.

A military unit is a complex adaptive system, and a battle between two or more military units is in turn a complex adaptive system that can be described in the terminology of resilience. The two aspects of combat power delineated above suggest two perspectives on each property of resilience, which I will call internal resilience and external resilience, as follows:

Internal Latitude: augmenting one’s own latitude so as to maximize the amount one can change before losing the ability to recover

External Latitude: compromising the enemy’s latitude in order to force the enemy past a threshold beyond which recovery is impossible

Internal Resistance: augmenting one’s own resistance to a change of one’s internal systems imposed by the enemy

External Resistance: compromising the enemy’s internal system; imposing involuntary change upon the enemy despite attempts to resist this change

Internal Precariousness: safeguarding against precariousness of one’s own forces; finding innovative way to increase the limits of one’s own threshold of precariousness

External Precariousness: precipitating the precariousness of enemy forces; finding ways to decrease the enemy’s limits and to force the enemy to and beyond the threshold of precariousness

Internal Panarchy: promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus

External Panarchy: forcing ruptures in the panarchy of the enemy’s strategico-tactical nexus, or exploiting any such discontinuities as manifest themselves

Combat is all about resiliency. In a fully developed combat ecology it would be possible to distinguish while noting the integration of bringing one’s force to bear tactically (tactical resiliency), bringing one’s force to bear operationally (operational resiliency), and bringing one’s force to bear strategically (strategic resiliency). Bringing one’s force to bear in an ecologically coordinated action, so that tactical, operational, and strategic forces act in concert to reinforce each other constitutes resiliency across the strategico-tactical nexus. This is precisely the sense of internal panarchy mentioned above, namely, “promoting the seamless integration of panarchy among one’s own strategico-tactical nexus.”

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: