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 eventual 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).


In military strategy and tactics, a recurring theme is that units are strengthened by proximity to supporting units. Nearby units can fire on an attacker's flank, lend indirect fire support such as artillery
Originally applied to any group of infantry primarily armed with projectile weapons, artillery has over time become limited in meaning to refer only to those engines of war that operate by projection of munitions far beyond the range of effect of personal weapons...

, or maneuver to counterattack
A counterattack is a tactic used in response against an attack. The term originates in military strategy. The general objective is to negate or thwart the advantage gained by the enemy in attack and the specific objectives are usually to regain lost ground or to destroy attacking enemy units.It is...

. Defeat in detail is the tactic of exploiting failures of an enemy force to coordinate and support the various smaller units which make up the force. An overwhelming attack on one defending sub-unit 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" by exploiting a) absolute weaknesses or comparative disadvantages
Comparative advantage
In economics, the law of comparative advantage says that two countries will both gain from trade if, in the absence of trade, they have different relative costs for producing the same goods...

 in the deployment or structure of defending troops and/or b) advantages, such as maneuvering speed
Maneuver warfare
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare , is the term used by military theorists for a concept of warfare that advocates attempting to defeat an adversary by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption brought about by movement...

, that the defender cannot match. Chief among examples of a) is the case of asymmetric
Symmetric relation
In mathematics, a binary relation R over a set X is symmetric if it holds for all a and b in X that if a is related to b then b is related to a.In mathematical notation, this is:...

 support structure, in which unit A can support B but unit B cannot support unit A. For example, during World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, when horse cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

 were still in use to some extent, aircraft could support cavalry, but cavalry had little or no ability to support aircraft. Thus, if a unit is equally suited for use against cavalry and against aircraft, using it to eliminate enemy aircraft would have benefits lasting well into future engagements against enemy cavalry units weaker for their lack of support, but using it against enemy cavalry -- and thereby leaving the enemy aircraft intact for subsequent engagements -- would bring benefits during that engagement alone.

Weaknesses of defenders

Examples of weaknesses in the deployment or structure of defending troops would include:
  • Dug-in units spread out over so wide a distance that the maximum effective range of their weapons is significantly smaller than the distance between units, preventing those units from supporting the flanks of neighboring units.
  • Defending units on opposite sides 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 have no effective communications with their command structure, and thus cannot request assistance.

Enabling methods

Methods which 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 counter-attack.
  • Attacking faster than the defending intelligence, communications, command and/or control systems can respond to (see OODA loop
    OODA Loop
    The OODA loop is a concept originally applied to the combat operations process, often at the strategic level in military operations. It is now also often applied to understand commercial operations and learning processes...

  • Disabling and/or disrupting systems required for one defending unit to support another (as by attacking, e.g., communications, command, and/or control systems with, e.g., air strikes, artillery attacks, and/or radio jamming
    Radio jamming
    Radio jamming is the transmission of radio signals that disrupt communications by decreasing the signal to noise ratio. Unintentional jamming occurs when an operator transmits on a busy frequency without first checking whether it is in use, or without being able to hear stations using the frequency...


Strategic campaigns

  • 1792-1797: Napoleon Bonaparte's
    Napoleon I
    Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

     first campaign in Italy during the French Revolution, in which the French army of 37,000 men defeated 52,000 Piedmontese and Habsburg troops with rapid advances that prevented the two nations' armies from combining.
  • 1862: Stonewall Jackson's
    Stonewall Jackson
    ຄຽשת״ׇׂׂׂׂ֣|birth_place= Clarksburg, Virginia |death_place=Guinea Station, Virginia|placeofburial=Stonewall Jackson Memorial CemeteryLexington, Virginia|placeofburial_label= Place of burial|image=...

     Shenandoah Valley campaign
    Valley Campaign
    Jackson's Valley Campaign was Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's famous spring 1862 campaign through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia during the American Civil War...

    , in which Jackson defeated three Union
    Union Army
    The Union Army was the land force that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army and the National Army...

     commands (a combined 60,000 men) with his own command (17,000 men), by fighting each of the enemy columns in turn while the Union commands were separated from each other by impassable terrain or significant distance.
  • 1912-3: The Balkan League's
    Balkan League
    The Balkan League was an alliance formed by a series of bilateral treaties concluded in 1912 between the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia, and directed against the Ottoman Empire, which at the time still controlled much of the Balkan peninsula...

     victory over the Ottoman Empire
    Ottoman Empire
    The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

     in the First Balkan War
    First Balkan War
    The First Balkan War, which lasted from October 1912 to May 1913, pitted the Balkan League against the Ottoman Empire. The combined armies of the Balkan states overcame the numerically inferior and strategically disadvantaged Ottoman armies and achieved rapid success...

  • 1914: The battles of Tannenberg
    Battle of Tannenberg (1914)
    The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian Empire and the German Empire in the first days of World War I. It was fought by the Russian First and Second Armies against the German Eighth Army between 23 August and 30 August 1914. The battle resulted in the almost complete...

     and Masurian Lakes, where the Germans
    German Empire
    The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

     exploited the local topography and the personal antipathy between the Russian commanders to defeat the Russian Second Army and then the Russian First Army
    Russian First Army
    The Russian First Army was a World War I Russian field army that fought on the Eastern Front for two years.The First Army, commanded by General Paul Rennenkampf, invaded East Prussia at the outbreak of war in 1914 along with the Second Army commanded by General Alexander Samsonov. After declaring...

     in sequence.
  • 1941: Operation Compass
    Operation Compass
    Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. British and Commonwealth forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya in December 1940 to February 1941. The attack was a complete success...

    , when the British defeated an Italian force more than four times their own size in North Africa by exploiting the fact that the Italian defenses could not mutually support each other.

Tactical examples

  • Gallic tribes tried (and nearly succeeded) defeating Caesar's army in detail at the Battle of the Sabis
    Battle of the Sabis
    The Battle of the Sabis, also known as the Battle of the Sambre or the Battle against the Nervians , was fought in 57 BC in the area known today as Wallonia, between the legions of the Roman Republic and an association of Belgic tribes, principally the Nervii...

  • Battle of Raate Road in Finland (1940)

See also

  • Big Wing
    Big Wing
    The Big Wing, also known as a Balbo, was an air fighting tactic proposed during the Battle of Britain by 12 Group commander Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Acting Squadron Leader Douglas Bader. In essence, the tactic involved meeting incoming Luftwaffe bombing raids in strength with a...

  • Strategy of the central position
    Strategy of the central position
    The strategy of the central position was a key strategy used by Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars. It involved attacking two cooperating armies at their hinge, swinging around to fight one until it fled, then turning to face the other. The strategy allowed the use of a smaller force to defeat a...

  • Battle of annihilation
    Battle of annihilation
    A battle of annihilation is a military strategy where an attacking army seeks to destroy the military capacity of the opposing army in a single planned pivotal battle...

  • Swarming (military)
    Swarming (military)
    Military swarming is a behavior where autonomous, or semi-autonomous, units of action attack an enemy from several different directions and then regroup. Pulsing, where the units shift the point of attack, is a part of military swarming. Swarming is not limited to the human military realm...

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