Best Defense

Does time favor the defender?: An example from the Battle of Britain

When I was giving a talk at the University of Texas in Austin last winter, we got into an interesting discussion of time as a variable in the conduct of war. I think it needs to be studied more, especially at the strategic level. A good point of departure would be George Marshall’s observation that ...

via Wikimedia
via Wikimedia

When I was giving a talk at the University of Texas in Austin last winter, we got into an interesting discussion of time as a variable in the conduct of war. I think it needs to be studied more, especially at the strategic level. A good point of departure would be George Marshall’s observation that Americans don’t like wars that last longer than four years.

At the tactical level, I suspect that the passage of time tends to favor the defense. I was struck in reading Richard Overy’s The Battle of Britain that the in the summer of 1940, the "learning curve was principally of value to the defender" — that is, the British, as they had time to "iron out the teething troubles in the system of communication." (Yes, I know that’s bad writing — an iron could really hurt one’s teeth — but it still makes the point.)

I wonder also if the defender tends to have a better idea of enemy losses, and so is better able to discern tactics that work and that don’t. The Germans persistently overestimated British aircraft losses. In September 1940, Overy writes, Göring was informed that the British "had been reduced at one stage to a mere 100 serviceable fighters." In fact, Overy writes, they had 738 Spitfires and Hurricanes ready to go, with another 256 in storage and "ready for immediate dispatch."  

And for those of you who worry about such things: Yes, I am reading Stephen Bungay’s exhaustive The Most Dangerous Enemy, about the Battle of Britain. It is indeed terrific, one of the best works of military history I’ve ever read. My thanks to whoever it was that signaled me on this one. I even sent Bungay a fan note, something I rarely do.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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