Defeat in detail

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Defeat in detail, or divide and conquer, is a military 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 many small risks but allows for the eventual destruction of an entire enemy force.[1]


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, or maneuver to counterattack. Defeat in detail is the 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 conduct the tactic of defeat in detail by exploiting the absolute weaknesses or comparative disadvantages in the deployment or structure of defending troops, as well as advantages such as maneuvering speed that the defender cannot match. In an asymmetric support structure, A can support B, but unit B cannot support unit A. For example, during World War I, when horse cavalry was 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 aircraft, using it to eliminate enemy aircraft would have benefits that would last well into future engagements against enemy cavalry units weakened by their lack of support. However, using it against enemy cavalry, while leaving the enemy aircraft intact for subsequent engagements, would bring benefits only during that specific engagement.

Weaknesses of defenders[edit]

  • Dug-in units that are spread out over so wide a distance that the maximum effective range of their weapons is significantly shorter than the distance between units, which prevents those units from supporting the flanks of neighboring units.
  • Defending units on opposite sides of physical barriers such as hills, forests or rivers (but see the "reverse slope defence", now rendered obsolete by crewed and uncrewed aircraft, for a historically attested deliberate tactic).
  • Defending units whose artillery support is too far to the rear and so cannot effectively engage attackers.
  • Defending units that have no effective communications with their command structure and so cannot request assistance.

Enabling methods[edit]

The following methods can enable the attacker to defeat the enemy in detail:

  • Attacking one unit faster than other defending units can move to counter-attack.
  • Attacking faster than the defending intelligence, communications, command or control systems can respond to (exploiting the OODA loop).
  • Disabling or disrupting systems required for one defending unit to support another (as by attacking communications, command, or control systems with air strikes, artillery attacks, or radio jamming).


Strategic campaigns[edit]

Tactical examples[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Erickson, Edward J (2003). Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912–1913. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-97888-5.
  2. ^ Green, Jeremy (April 1997). "General Napoleon Bonaparte's Italian Campaign". Military History.
  3. ^ Webb, Jonathan (2009). "Six Days' Campaign, 1814".; and Shosenberg, James W. (30 April 2014). "Napoléon's Six Days".
  4. ^ Edward J. Erickson (2003). Defeat in Detail: The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 12–. ISBN 978-0-275-97888-4.
  5. ^ John Keegan (31 August 2011). The First World War. Random House. pp. 155–. ISBN 978-1-4070-6412-3.
  6. ^ Eric L. Haney; Brian M. Thomsen (6 March 2007). Beyond Shock and Awe: Warfare in the 21st Century. Penguin Publishing Group. pp. 28–. ISBN 978-1-4406-2879-5.
  7. ^ Tuunainen, Pasi (2013). "Motti tactics in Finnish military historiography since World War II". International Bibliography of Military History. Brill. 33 (2): 121–147. doi:10.1163/22115757-03302003. Retrieved May 13, 2020.