Home Forums Modern Quality beats quantity: Golan Heights (Nafah), 1973

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    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    I was treated to an excellent division-sized Golan Heights tank battle by Bob Mackenzie. My rubbish Syrians gave it a good go but in the end were pretty much wiped out by superior quality Israelis, despite outnumbering them two to one.

    My sense is that quality wins battles, but in the longer term quantity is the way to win wars. Can anyone point me towards serious writing on this question?

    Back in the wargaming world, here’s my photo-AAR of the Golan game.

    It’s worth a look, less for my deathless prose than for Bob’s beautiful models – hard to believe they are 1/300 scale.

    Avatar photoDarkest Star Games

    The tables and minis looked fantastic.  I also liked that Bob didn’t permanently mount his minis to the bases so damage could be removed and things like the tend added.

    That sort of game is tough, and hard to balance when writing (if indeed balance is desired).

    "I saw this in a cartoon once, but I'm pretty sure I can do it..."

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    Good game which conformed to accepted readings of that war in many ways. But then giving the Israelis a +2 would do that I guess. I’m not saying it’s wrong but it probably hard wires the result to an extent.

    As for ‘Quality wins battles. Numbers win wars.’* it has a snappy ring to it which surely must have been coined in some US military papers somewhere? I can’t currently find the phrase however, and if it doesn’t exist I’m prepared to Trade Mark it and copyright protect it before you get there!

    Is it true? I don’t know. Its sounds like something Lanchester and/or Dupuy would have come up with or possibly Martin van Creveld. I’m a bit suspicious of some of the reduction of warfare to numbers because except in say logistics (I know! That’s what wins wars!) the numbers you plug in turn out to be somewhat arbitrary if you dig a bit. Christopher Lawrence in War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) takes up Dupuy’s (and I suppose Clausewitz’) torch of mathematical study of combat. I haven’t read properly it I confess – it’s on the list: if only because it promises to be more comprehensible than ‘Numbers Predictions and War’ – but reviews suggest he takes a few pops at previous certainties (including Dupuy’s. He worked with Dupuy and is the President of the Dupuy Institute). He is honest about the quality and quantity of data used in the past, and the few conclusions he does come up with raise a few eyebrows if not hackles. Combat in urban areas results in fewer casualties and smaller resource expenditure than open warfare for one. I can already think of a few reasons. I must read the damn’ thing!

    I’m sure John (Mr Picky- or online encyclopaedic superbrain as I prefer to think of him) will have access to, and understand, all the relevant publications and numbers – come on John, help us here!

    *It has a delightfully faux Stalinist ring to it.


    Good show! CHRIS

    I would not say numbers guarantee winning wars, but let us SAY they increase the likelihood of victory. In my own field the the more asymmetric the quantitative capability distribution between two states the less likely of war to erupt, and if it erupts the more likely the stronger side to win. But these are probabilistic relationships. War is still a card game and the quantitatively weaker side can still win (Especially if it has theater dominance, and the war remains limited).

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    I was thinking about the war being gamed that prompted Chris’ question.

    In 73 and in 67, and more so in 48, the numbers were massively stacked on the Arab side and quality (of armaments at least) was on their side in 48 and not so clear cut as some commentators may suggest in the former two. Troop training and morale and commitment is another thing and one of the problem areas in quantifying war.

    But who won the battles? Generally Israel, although the start of Yom Kippur was not so good for them.

    And who won the wars? Is the war over? This may seem like an irrelevant question if we take the discrete series of battles in each period as ‘a war’. But the casus belli remains and is all conflict between Arab nations and Israel part of the same long war? If so we don’t know the outcome so maybe numbers will tell.  If not and the outbreaks of war were continuations of political and diplomatic differences by other means, perhaps the wars were won by the qualitatively superior force and maybe diplomacy can produce a modus vivendi eventually.

    I’m not sure what that does to the initial hypothesis, but it suggests perhaps it may have at least some variation.

    Avatar photoPaint it Pink

    The peanut gallery says that logistics win wars…

    One is good, more is better

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    I’m a bit suspicious of some of the reduction of warfare to numbers because except in say logistics (I know! That’s what wins wars!)…

    Do I win a coconut?

    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Thanks for all the comments. I’m glad my post was so thought-provoking.

    That sort of game is tough, and hard to balance when writing (if indeed balance is desired).

    Actually, my experience is that getting the terrain and order of battle right and chugging the right troop ratings through the machine is usually all fairly straightforward, and that if you do that you will get a fair recreation of the action. The hardest bit to balance is the victory conditions. Bob has revised those but his scenario didn’t seem to need any other changes.

    giving the Israelis a +2 […] probably hard wires the result to an extent.

    No doubt. That’s adapting the model to fit the data, and it’s plausible, so I’m OK with that.

    As for ‘Quality wins battles. Numbers win wars.’* it has a snappy ring to it. *It has a delightfully faux Stalinist ring to it.

    Yes, a pleasing aphorism! And I find I can think of lots of wars won by numbers and not many won by quality. So it might even be true. It would indeed be nice if eg John were to chip in with some authoritative references to support or dispel.

    War is still a card game and the quantitatively weaker side can still win (Especially if it has theater dominance, and the war remains limited).

    Yes, I agree. The Russo-Japanese War was one example I could think of where quantity lost – is that in your theater dominance category? (Manchuria being a long way from most of Russia hindered the Russians from exploiting their quantity advantage.)

    Troop training and morale and commitment is another thing and one of the problem areas in quantifying war. But who won the battles? Generally Israel, although the start of Yom Kippur was not so good for them. And who won the wars? Is the war over?

    Certainly, training and morale and commitment are huge. Israelis’ backs are to the wall (OK, the sea) and there was and is more at stake for them than for the average Egyptian or Syrian conscript. I think a case can be made for regarding 1948 and 1967 and 1973 as campaigns in a war that is not over.

    The peanut gallery says that logistics win wars…

    The peanut gallery has a case. However, any logistic effort still needs troops at the sharp end. Is it better to have a few really good ones or lots of poor to middling? The UK began WWI with the former and ended it with the latter. Any examples of armies that went in the other direction during a war?

    Keep the good thoughts coming!




    Avatar photoJim Webster

    But who won the battles? Generally Israel, although the start of Yom Kippur was not so good for them. And who won the wars? Is the war over?


    In the same area the Crusader states/Outremer lasted from 1098 to 1291 which does beg the question, when did the war start, when did the war end?



    Yes. The Japanese got theater dominance. By 1905 they too wanted to end the war as Russian quantity started to tell.


    There is s bit of a selection bias here. If you have quality but not quantity you will probably selektör into wars were you believe you have a good change of winning fast. This is very likely to lead to either quick victories if the gamble works or grinding defects as the other side literraly grinds your better but smaller army to dust.

    Avatar photoJohn D Salt


    [Mr. Picky materialises in a questionably-fragrant cloud of greenish smoke.]

    Apologies for the delay in replying, I have been diverted by a huge box of largely Japanese 1/144 scale aircraft and have not been paying attention to my Invokotron[tm] bleeper telling me when my name has been invoked. I believe Hastur has the same problem, which is why it’s always best to call him three times.

    [Mr. Picky adjusts spectacles on nose and stares owlishly over them in a vain attempt to appear scholarly.]

    This business if quality vs quantity is I think best understood if we structure it in terms of mechanisms of defeat. Three is a magic number, so we might consider that there are three ways a military force or nation in arms can be defeated. It can be:

    1. Bugged out.
    2. Knocked out.
    3. Worn out.

    Poor-quality forces will “bug out” or find some other way of defecting from the battle as soon as the party starts, or sooner if they’re keen. (“Poor quality” in this case must be understood in terms of the desires of the military commander; I see nothing “poor quality” about not wanting to die for Hitler, Putin or Saddam Hussein.) With an army of this kind, force ratios are irrelevant. Greater numbers just mean more useless mouths to feed and more prisoners for the enemy to accomodate when they roll over them. Even an initially enthusiastic army might be reduced to this level by difficulties of sustaining itself in the field in adverse conditions, so there’s another vote for the importance of logistics.

    Dave Rowland (“The Stress of Battle” 2006) and his associates have shown with their historical analysis the importance of shock and surprise in modern warfare (the other two big determinants of victory are recce-led attack and air superiority), so with the appropriate application of “shock and awe” or “Schrecklichkeit” it may be possible to induce an otherwise adequate force to pack it in. On the other hand, approaches based on terror might backfire badly if they arouse combative disgust in the enemy. The mantra of international Marxist terrorism in the 1970s, “kill one and frighten a million”, ultimately did them precious little good.

    Forces that don’t disintegrate in shock might still be knocked out. Consider the Arab-Israeli Wars: the Egyptians in 1967 ran, in 1973, they stuck it much better, but still lost. And whatever was wrong with the Syrians attacking in the Valley of Tears in 1973, it was not lack of courage, they kept on coming when the Israelis were burning their T-55s in handfuls. There seems to be a minimum entry standard of tactical quality to count as a “proper army”. In a fight between an army that has mastered modern tactics and one that has not, numbers are largely irrelevant; saturation of the defences (presenting more targets than they can handle) may be a good way to get SSM hits against a SAM-defended ship, but it’s no way to deal with MGs or anti-tank weapons. Stephen Biddle makes this point in his 2004 book “Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle”, based on his earlier analysis of the very one-sided war on Iraq. The ability of modern weapons to destroy targets is limited more by the supply of targets than anything else, hence the old 21st Army Group saying “Don’t put everything in the shop wndow”.

    Once one has a competent opponent, the tactician’s dream of the rapier versus the bludgeon becomes much harder to make a reality, and we’re into attrition. I think it was Dave Isby who said “German armies do not collapse, they have to be demolished, and it is a long and difficult process”. Defeat by attrition still comes down to exhaustion of motivation or exhaustion of supply — total annihilation hardly happens, and usually casualties are a result of defeat, rather than defeat being a result of casualties. Sustainment logistics don’t matter much if your opponent can be swifty shocked into surrender, you might manage the war on your 3 days of supply carried with the troops, but otherwise, shell shortages have been a popular source of annoyance from 1915 to now. With PGMs, and other expensive modern munitions, the problem of adequate ammo supply becomes even more acute. A competent opponent means you’re in for a long game, and it will matter whose resources last longest. This is the kind of fight where force ratios matter.

    Incidentally, there seems to me to be, among those who prefer the rapier to the bludgeon, a queasy feeling of disapproval about achieving victory by employing more resources than the enemy, rather than by just being more stylish, typified by John Ellis’ 1990 book “Brute Force”. During the world wars there was perhaps sometimes a whiff of disapproval from professional soldiers for the part-timers called up into the million-man armies that fought, summed up in the phrase “He was never a proper soldier, you know — he was only in the war.” I have much sympathy with the Polish officer reported IIRC at the end of Bidwell and Graham’s 1982 book “Fire-power: The British Army – Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945”. Having sat through a presentation on the Principles of War, the gallant Pole said to the presenter “You’ve forgotten one”. “Oh yes?” said the presenter, “and what’s that?” “You must be stronger” was the answer.

    The question of force ratios has been looked at with decidely mixed results by historical analysts. Trevor Dupuy’s 1990 book “Attrition: Forecasting Battle Casualties and Equipment Losses in Modern War” pays remarkably little attention to them. Indeed Dupuy has suggested that “The smaller side wins” is not an entirely dreadful predictor of military success (probably at least as good as “the side with the funniest hats wins”). But generally he follows the American/Jominian idea that winning is achieved by bringing greater force to bear. It’s impossble to avoid mention of Lanchester any longer, so I’ll mention him as the high priest of force ratios and attrition, but I’ll also mention Fiske, Chase and Osipov to share the blame. A fine quick canter through the story of Lanchester’s “laws” by my old wargaming friend Paul Syms can be found in the archive for the 2017 International Symposium on Military OR at https://ismor.com/ismor_archives/34ismor_archive/34ismor_index.shtml — I recommend reading his workshop report as well as his initial presentation.

    Lanchester’s square law is more famous than his linear one. In hand-waving terms, the first says that God favours the big battalions disporportionately, the second only in proportion to their bigness. Some work by Niall Mackay and Chris Price (“Concentration and asymmetry in air power: historical lessons for the defensive employment of small air forces”) in the 2014 ISMOR seems to show that there are cases in air defence — in this case, the Battle of Britain — where it is actually best to employ forces piecemeal rather than en masse, showing that Dowding and Park’s methods were even more vastly superior to the idiotic “Big Wing” doctrine than we had previously known.

    Sometimes the square law is thought of as the “aimed fire” version of the Lanchester equations, and the linear law as the “area fire” version, as the density of targets influences casualties in the latter but not the former. Most personnel casualties in modern warfare are inflicted by indirect fire weapons, and even direct anti-personnel fire seems to be largely area fire. AFVs on the other hand generally need to be hit by point fire. So probably we should use a linear law for infantry and a square law for armour. This gives a mathematical explanation for the ability of armour to concentrate force more effectively than infantry can. Paul Syms seems to have found some justification for this from Kursk battle data.

    There’s also the question of mobility, which gives the ability to choose where to concentrate. Liddel-Hart’s 1953 “The Rommel Papers” impressed me with the very clear distinction drawn between mechanised and unmechanised forces. I have seen Lanchester’s square law used as an argument for smaller, more expert forces, if they can engage a bigger force piecemeal, concentrating force against one fraction of the enemy at a time. One senses again the preference for the rapier over the bludgeon, and the desire to dance around the enemy in freewheeling maneouvre, getting inside his OODA loop and on his nerves. If you’re selling high-tech Buck Rogers wonder-junk (as Dave Hackworth called it) that promises to be a force multiplier by offering enhanced situational awareness in a transparent battlespace, you want customers to believe in this sort of thing. Terrain and weather make such things tricky; and the logisiticians will remind you that, as well as sustainment, logistics is about moving people and their stuff.

    One of the effects of terrain is to divide a big battle into lots of little fights, what Rowland and Speight call “micro-battles”. This mucks up the Lanchester assumption of fire spread evenly over the enemy force, and explains how a preponderance of force may be impossible to bring to bear all at once.

    For full-scale continental warfare it may make sense to try to employ a “high-low mix” of high quality units plus a broader, lower-quality mass. The German and Russian armies of WW2 offer good examples. If however you are a maritime nation, and are limited by shipping capacity as to what you can send to the seat of war, it only makes sense to send your best, so, for example, the US and British armies were more homogenous in quality in WW2 (and wholly mechanised). Purely from the wargaming point if view, one might think that the high-low mix is more fun, as the tactical skill of placing “fort contre foible” has a stronger fort and a weaker foible, one isn’t just lining up largely-identical force elements.

    I seem to have blethered excessively, and feel a need for more cake. I will however close with a recommendation I think I have already made, for a pair of 2016 books by Charles Dick, “From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944” and “From Defeat to Victory: The Eastern Front, Summer 1944”. These books contrast the Anglo-American and the Russian approaches to defeating Germany. One thing that struck me from these was that the famous Russian use of huge force ratios was not, as is commonly supposed, a way of ensuring victory, nor their version of the “the more you use the fewer you lose” principle of not penny–packeting armour, but rather a way of speeding up victory. Quicker wins in an operational network of engagements meant more opportunities for exploitation and “physical surprise” before friction inevitably drags an operation to its culminating point. The Sovs may have employed brute force, but they employed it cleverly.

    So does Mr. Picky favour quality, or quantity? I want both, please. And cake.


    [Mr. Picky re-materialises in the kitchen next to the Waitrose chocolate indulgence cake.]

    All the best,


    Avatar photoJim Webster

    Thanks for that, John. Fascinating.

    So actually, the sensible way forward might be to hold your line with the bog standard who are good enough to survive, so the elites with their Buck Rogers wonder-junk (love the phrase) can pick their point and attack on dry ground and a fine day with the sun on their backs so the wonder-junk doesn’t degrade in the mud


    Avatar photoJohn D Salt

    So actually, the sensible way forward might be to hold your line with the bog standard who are good enough to survive, so the elites with their Buck Rogers wonder-junk (love the phrase) can pick their point and attack on dry ground and a fine day with the sun on their backs so the wonder-junk doesn’t degrade in the mud

    Just so. Indeed this is a good description of the German WW2 approach to the “high-low mix”, having a bunch of “ground-holding” grunts in the line and the shiny Panzer, SS and FJ units ready to act as “fire brigades” to conduct counter-attacks. The better class of unit was regarded as “assault troops”. Presumably it did their reputation no harm if they were committed to battle fresh and rested in a place of their commander’s choice, rather than having to hold the line in the rain and mud until the enemy choose to attack them.

    All the best,


    Avatar photoChris Pringle

    Wonderful, thank you, John. Most illuminating.


    That was wonderful John. Thank you. Reminds me of a scene in my favorite military sci-fi series (novels anime) Legend of Galactic Heroes, where the warmongering politician asks the recently successful and promoted genius admiral how he would go about taking a key fort of the enemy, and the admiral answers, with a million ships preferably. The politician was not amused.

    The point is that anybody would like to have quality and quantity. And hey sometimes it makes for miracles. During the Sonderbund War (last serious Swiss scrap) had both quality and quantity and was able to win an almost perfect bloodless victory (making him the closest living epitome of Sun Tzu’s highest form of war, winning without battle)

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