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I was looking for a military stack exchange but i don't see one.

My guess is that you try to commit roughly equal troops to multiple engagements and hope that while you might lose more at each engagement eventually all enemies will be causalities.

EDIT: Equally equipped, equally skilled.

What I was thinking is simply trying to overwhelm your enemy with your numbers all at once would fail: friendly fire and friendlies in general getting in each other's way. In an unarmed fight, any more than 3 to 1 has similar problems (this i read in a book about prison).

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    $\begingroup$ We need more details. Numbers alone don't necessarily produce victory. A better armed, supported (e.g. air or artillery) or better positioned enemy, possibly in a fortified position can, as more than one army has discovered, result in the larger numerical force being beaten. Tactically savvy (or deficient) leaders also make a significant difference. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2021 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ This can't be answered. It's far too situational. There's nothing about what your objective is which defines what victory actually is, who is defending, who is attacking, positioning, intelligence, terrain, or anything like that. The way you seemed to have it phrased is that a third party is holding a gun to the general of both sides and saying they must run their armies head-on at each other in an open field where everyone knows where everyone else and annhilate each other is for no particular reason. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 3, 2021 at 4:58
  • $\begingroup$ What technology level? It will be different depending on the way army is organised and commanded and those things change with tech level. $\endgroup$
    – Archelaos
    May 3, 2021 at 4:59
  • $\begingroup$ Bear in mind that an opponent at a numerical disadvantage will often adopt defensive tactics to negate the other side's superior numbers. Also, seldom does anyone want "all enemies will be causalities"; the goal is to increase the numerical advantage so that the opponent gives up. $\endgroup$ May 3, 2021 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ The First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth coalitions would have loved to know how to convert numerical advantage into victory in their struggles against the French Republic and then against Napoleon. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 3, 2021 at 14:22

3 Answers 3

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The military doctrine that would be most applicable to a very asymmetrical numerical advantage (nothing else considered) would be swarming. Swarming relies on a very coordinated leadership, intelligence and logistics to provide concentrated and overwhelming attack of vulnerable enemy positions to tactically defeat the opposition.

A war of attrition (which is mentioned as using numerical advantage to overwhelm inspite of massive casulties) is never a desired scenario, and certainly not the best use of numerical advantage.

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  • $\begingroup$ My concern, especially in modern warfare is committing large numbers of troops is their vulnerability to, for example, artillery. Even when arrows were the long range weapons, archers would have wanted to look upon a sea of enemies. If somehow the war was a completely unarmed or only fought with swords, I would still think that extra numbers beyond some amount would be useless and risky (what about disease?). Does no one advocate dividing your troops into reserves who would be sent in only after the initial troops needed re-enforcements? How could a much bigger army lose that way? $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    May 3, 2021 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ @releseabe You realize that the concept of "reserves" is hundreds of years old, right? Medieval times may have been different in that you had to march your reserves out to the battlefield alongside your main troops since you couldn't radio to bring them in by vehicle or plane, but that doesn't mean you had to send every division you brought with out immediately into battle. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 3, 2021 at 5:54
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen: yes i do but i am interested in the recommended ratios, etc. I am wondering if any general would deliberately watch his soldiers lose as long as they were killing enemy soldiers and he could still send in more reserves. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    May 3, 2021 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ @releseabe Well, soldiers from an occupied country serving under them, surely. I think my junior history classes told me that the Czar basically did this in WW1 perhaps unwittingly not truly understanding machine guns. I remember my teacher as saying "There's no way you can kill a million men...but you can." And I am pretty sure Stalin's orders to set up machine guns at the rear lines to to prevent the Red Army from retreating is pretty much the thinking your a describing. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 3, 2021 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ i am pretty sure killing your own soldiers is not a valid strategy. morale is a huge part of winning. i wonder who they found to pull the trigger on those machine guns? pretty tough going to mess hall the next day, i would guess. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    May 3, 2021 at 6:13
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Fixing Force, Attacking Force, Reserve Force

The best way to use superior numbers is to either turn one or both flanks, or break the center of the enemy line. This is as close to a universal truth in warfare as possible, so it broadly applies to warfare throughout history.

The general idea is that you use roughly equal forces to "fix" your enemy in place. Preferably you want these troops to outnumber the enemy forces opposing them, but equal numbers or even a slightly smaller force works. These troops aren't there to win the battle on their own, and don't even need to be heavily engaged. They just need to be There to stop your enemy from withdrawing the troops opposing them. If you outnumber your enemy 3:1 let's say 1/3 of your force is involved in this.

Once the enemy is fixed, you then draw up another 1/3 of your force. This force you use to attack a specific portion of the enemy line. 3:1 is the generally accepted "minimum" advantage an attacking force wants, but 5:1 is what the US Army preaches as the required numbers to take a defended position. So let's say you commit this "attacking third" to 1/5 of the enemy line. You send it at a flank, so as to "turn" their entire line and make it harder for enemy forces to get there. (If you attack the center, both flanks are equally close to move reserves. Your Fixing force is supposed to prevent this but no sense taking chances!)

So you've now committed 2/3 of your force. The remaining 1/3 is your reserve. These troops are there to follow up your attacking force to exploit the gap created. Your attackers are going to be somewhat disorganized and harder to control. It makes it hard for them to do anything but "chase" the defeated portion of the enemy line. Or maybe those enemies put up a tougher-than-expected fight, and your attacking force just isn't strong enough to keep going. The reserves sweep in once the initial opposition is done and "roll up" the rest of the enemy force from the side. The reserve can also be used to shore up your fixing force if the enemy unexpectedly attacks, or can be fed into the main attack if it starts to falter.

This is all very broad strokes mind you. If war was easy, everyone would win it right? Differences in technology, terrain, temperature, weather, and a thousand other things can change all this. Heck, just knowing about this changes things, because if I'm outnumbered 3:1 I know this is the way to beat me, so I'm going to do all sorts of other things to stop this. But of course my enemy knows I know this so they do something else and so on and so forth.

Also I say "Force" as a generic term. Maybe in ancient war you use your infantry to fix, and use your (fewer, but more powerful) cavalry to attack. Maybe in modern war (1914-onward) you can call 10% of your actual manpower your "fixing" force instead of 30% because you leave lots of support weapons in the fixing force, or because you dig in your fixing force meaning you can take advantage of the 3:1 odds to leave far fewer troops facing your enemy because hey, they're only there to defend against an attack! But as a general rule-of-thumb the above holds.

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In theory a larger force is usually at an advantage, seeing as we don't fight in single combat. Two people would have an easier time wrestling down a single man than a single man would.

Now that I've stated the obvious, something useful. It is very advantageous to outnumber your enemy, but only at the point of contact. Israel, which used to fight larger armies than it's own, has a doctrine that when on offence you must outnumber the enemy three to one at the point of contact. So, while there is an issue of the maximum force you can effectively commit, you will want all your offensive battles to include troops as close to that limit as possible.

If you were to spread you're forces proportional to your enemy, you have essentially opened yourself to the maximum damage that he is capable of inflicting upon you. (That's assuming that the enemy aren't using guerrilla tactics and you're supply lines are safe.)

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  • $\begingroup$ interesting 3:1 is the ratio -- same as in unarmed fights. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    May 3, 2021 at 5:25

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