Defeat in detail

Defeat in detail

Defeat in detail is a military phrase referring to the tactic of bringing a large portion of one's own force to bear on small enemy units in sequence, rather than engaging the bulk of the enemy force all at once. This exposes one's own units to a small risk, yet allows for the destruction of an entire enemy force.

One definition states: “Defeat in detail is a doctrinal military term that means to defeat an enemy by destroying small portions of its armies instead of engaging its entire strength” (Erickson, 2003).

How it works

In military strategy and tactics, a recurring theme is that units are strengthened by proximity to supporting units. Nearby units can fire on an attackers' flank, lend indirect fire support such as Artillery, or maneuver to Counterattack. Defeat in detail is the strategy or tactic of exploiting failures of an enemy force to coordinate and support the various smaller units that make up the force. An overwhelming attack on one defending subunit minimizes casualties on the attacking side, and can be repeated a number of times against the defending subunits until all are eliminated.

An attacker can successfully defeat in detail either by exploiting weaknesses in the deployment or structure of defending troops, or by maneuvering with speed or other advantages that the defender cannot match (see Maneuver warfare).

Weaknesses of defender

Examples of weaknesses in the deployment or structure of defending troops would include:

  • Dug in units spread out such that the maximum effective range of their weapons is significantly smaller than the distance between units, so that units cannot provide support for the flanks of neighboring units.
  • Defending units on opposite side of physical barriers such as hills, forests, or rivers.
  • Defending units whose artillery support is too far to the rear, and thus cannot effectively engage attackers.
  • Defending units which are out of effective communications with their command structure, and thus cannot request assistance.

Enabling methods

Methods that can be used to enable the attacker to defeat the enemy in detail include:

  • Attacking one unit faster than other defending units can move to counterattack
  • Attacking faster than the defending intelligence, communications, command, and control systems allow them to respond (see OODA loop)
  • Disabling or disrupting the defenders communications, command and control systems (for example, with airstrikes, artillery attacks, radio jamming)

Historical examples

Strategic campaigns

  • 1862 Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley campaign in which Jackson defeated three Union commands (a combined 60,000 men) with his own command (17,000 men) by fighting each of the enemy columns separately while the Union commands were separated from each other by impassable terrain or distance
  • 1912-3 Ottoman Empire's losing campaign in the Balkan Wars
  • 1941 Operation Compass when the British defeat an Italian force more than 4 times their size in North Africa

Tactical examples


See also

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