Attrition warfare is a military strategy in which a belligerent attempts to win a war by wearing down the enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and material. The war will usually be won by the side with greater such resources. The word attrition comes from the Latin root atterere to rub against, similar to the "grinding down" of the opponent's forces in attrition warfare.
Military theorists and strategists like Sun Tzu have viewed attrition warfare as something to be avoided. In the sense that attrition warfare represents an attempt to grind down an opponent through superior numbers, it represents the opposite of the usual principles of war, where one attempts to achieve decisive victories by using minimal necessary resources and in minimal amount of time, through maneuver, concentration of force, surprise, and the like.
On the other hand, a side which perceives itself to be at a marked disadvantage in maneuver warfare or unit tactics may deliberately seek out attrition warfare to neutralize its opponent's advantages. If the sides are nearly evenly matched, the outcome of a war of attrition is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory.
The difference between war of attrition and other forms of war is somewhat artificial, since war always contains an element of attrition. However, one can be said to pursue a strategy of attrition when one makes it the main goal to cause gradual attrition to the opponent eventually amounting to unacceptable or unsustainable levels for the opponent while limiting one's own gradual losses to acceptable and sustainable levels. This should be seen as opposed to other main goals such as the conquest of some resource or territory or an attempt to cause the enemy great losses in a single stroke (e.g., by encirclement and capture).
Historically, attritional methods are tried when other methods have failed or are obviously not feasible. Typically, when attritional methods have worn down the enemy sufficiently to make other methods feasible, attritional methods are abandoned in favor of other strategies. In World War I, improvements in firepower but not communications and mobility forced military commanders to rely on attrition, with terrible loss of life.
Attritional methods are in themselves usually sufficient to cause a nation to give up a non-vital ambition, but other methods are generally necessary to achieve unconditional surrender.
It is often argued that the best-known example of attrition warfare was during World War I on the Western Front. Both military forces found themselves in static defensive positions in trenches running from Switzerland to the English Channel. For years, without any opportunity for maneuvers, the only way the commanders thought they could defeat the enemy was to repeatedly attack head on, to grind the other down.
One of the most enduring examples of attrition warfare on the Western Front is the Battle of Verdun. Erich von Falkenhayn later claimed that his tactics at Verdun were designed not to take the city, but rather to destroy the French Army in its defense. In practice the German Offensive was intended to go as far as possible and had no obvious design to minimize German casualties and maximize French casualties. Falkenhayn is described as wanting to "bleed France white" and thus the attrition tactics were employed in the battle.
Attritional warfare in World War I has been shown by historians such as Hew Strachan to have been used as a post hoc excuse for failed offensives. The decision to launch a war of attrition at Verdun was also used to mask the failure of Falkenhayn's original tactical plan.
Attrition to the enemy was easy to assert and difficult to refute, and thus may have been a convenient face-saving exercise in the wake of many indecisive battles. It is in many cases hard to see the logic of warfare by attrition because of the obvious uncertainty of the level of damage to the enemy, and of the damage that the attacking force may sustain to its own limited and expensive resources, while trying to achieve that damage.
That is not to say that a general will not be prepared to sustain high casualties while trying to reach an objective. An example in which one side used attrition warfare to neutralize the other side's advantage in maneuverability and unit tactics occurred during the latter part of the American Civil War, when Ulysses S. Grant pushed the Confederate Army continually, in spite of losses, confident that the Union's supplies and manpower would overwhelm the Confederacy even if the casualty ratio was unfavorable; this indeed proved to be the case.
- The "delaying" tactics of Quintus Fabius Maximus "Cunctator" against Hannibal Barca during the Second Punic War.
- Battle of Actium of 31 BC during the Roman civil wars
- The Hungarian resistance against the Mongols 1241–1242
- The Dai Viet Empire (now known as Vietnam), three repulsions of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan and the last Khan of the Mongol Empire) in 1258, 1285 and 1288
- The American strategy during the American Revolutionary War
- The French invasion of Russia by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812
- The Spanish Civil War (1936–1939)
- Tonnage war in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II
- The Air battle for Great Britain in World War II after the bombing of London
- Static battles in World War II, including Soviet urban defense during the Battle of Stalingrad
- Battles of Rzhev (1942–1943)
- The final two years of the Korean War
- The Vietnam War (Body count)
- The "Long War" during the Provisional IRA's armed campaign against the British Army during the Troubles.
- The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition from 1967–1970.
- The Soviet war in Afghanistan
- The later phases of the Iran–Iraq War
- The War in Afghanistan (2001–present)
- Sri Lankan military's crushing of LTTE (2005–2009)
- The 2011 Libyan civil war is arguably an example of attrition warfare.
- The Mexican Drug War, where the Mexican government seeks to fatally weaken the cartels. Given the recent rise of irregular autodefensas militia units after a number of smaller attacks against cartels by irregulars possibly from the United States, this phase of warfare may be coming to an end.
- The Syrian Civil War
- Asymmetric warfare
- Guerrilla warfare
- Human wave attack
- Mexican standoff
- No-win situation
- Pyrrhic victory
- Winner's curse
- Win-win game
- Fabian strategy
- Flypaper theory (strategy)
- Lanchester's laws
- Loss Exchange Ratio
- Maneuver warfare
- Ivan Bloch (19th century)
- Types of War, www.military-sf.com, undated (accessed 20 January 2007)
- Merriam Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 2013.
- Kaye, C.A. 1957. "Military Geology in the United States Sector of the European Theater of Operations during World War II". Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 68(1): 47–54, 1 fig.
- About World War I, www.english.illinois.edu, date unknown (accessed 20 January 2007)
- First World War. "Erich von Falkenhayn on the Battle of Verdun, 21 February 1916".
- Ulysses S. Grant, www.nndb.com, date unknown (accessed 20 January 2007)
- "Airstrikes turn Libya conflict into battle of attrition". North County Times. Retrieved 2011-04-01.
- Sullivan, John P.; Adam Elkus (2009). "Cartel v. Cartel: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency". Small Wars Foundation: 11. Retrieved 26 April 2015.
- DiGiovanni, Janine (24 October 2012). "Bleary-Eyed Troops Fight a Building at a Time in Syria". New York Times. Retrieved 30 October 2014.