Strength in Numbers? Mass and Precision


This week we return to the subject of clouded concepts with a look at ‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’. Let me take you back to the cold winter of 1983. The scene is a Rugby pitch on a frigid Saturday afternoon, the ground is just beginning to unfreeze, but the hard mud will feel like concrete to a mis-timed tackle.  Parents in warm coats eye their progeny with pride, this is Yorkshire, and I am the ‘Pack Leader’ of the Glenhow Preparatory School First XV. The whole team is huddled by the posts, legs like corned beef in the icy chill and there is only one topic of conversation, ‘How big are they, are they bigger than us, how much will it hurt!’. Size matters, as the moments tick by, nonchalance turns to interest, turns to anxiety, turns to terror; then the changing room door opens we behold the Orc army that has been sent to teach us the meaning of pain. These ‘humans’ are huge, at 5′ 8″ I am Lilliputian in comparison, as they come closer the smell of ‘Deep Heat’ and stale sweat assails the nostrils, they are not of this Earth.

When encountering an adversary, whether on a Rugby pitch, battlefield, or in a bar-room we make an assessment of his capabilities. Let us consider meeting our opponent in the context of a bar-room, he is alone and we are with a group of friends, we might feel buoyed by this advantage and in the ensuing fight, all things being equal, we might expect to win. We have done so by employing ‘Mass’, that is defeating him using sheer weight of force. If we want to find a military example, we need look no further than Allied victory in the Second World War: In simple terms Allied advantage in manpower and materiel was so preponderant that neither Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan could match it. In the case of Nazi Germany, even superior warfighting ability in some areas and technologically advanced weaponry could not counteract Allied industrial production and populations. In that example Mass was highly effective.

Now let’s go back to the fight, this time we are alone and our opponent has a pair of friends with him, but we are armed with a knife, are trained in its effective use, and recognise that our opponent is the key protagonist.  We use the weapon to neutralise our main opponent and his support, keen to avoid further loss, picks up their friend and exits stage left. ‘Mass’ has been defeated by ‘Precision’. The weapon utilised against the opponent’s critical vulnerability has overbalanced his mass. As an military example we might use the Six Day War of 1967 in which a smaller but better equipped and educated Israeli force brushed aside its Arab opponents with precision strikes against Arab airpower and armoured formations, leading to military collapse. Clearly both examples are rather simplistic, but they are used here to give a basic understanding of the concept. The important factor to remember is that even David made an assessment of Goliath before pulling out his sling and choosing his stones.

‘Mass’ and ‘Precision’ are described as sitting at either end of a spectrum. The conceptual choice of which end of the spectrum ones force is most appropriately configured on, or whereabouts on the spectrum is most realistic for one’s force, is usually made according to the amount of materials and resources available, access to technology, and the culture of the force itself but, and this is vital, it is possible to have a large quantity of ‘Precision’ and not be a ‘Mass’ force. As an example, US military doctrine is predicated on precision, but lots of it; it does not depend on ‘Mass’. The Western way of fighting, at least since the adoption of AirLand Battle in the 1980s, heavily favours ‘Precision’ and, it is argued, this is correct given Western advantages, even in post-modern warfare. The problem for the West is that faced with a ‘Mass’ opponent, it is difficult for many soldiers to make the intellectual leap away from ‘Mass’: that being outnumbered might not be disadvantageous.  There is a comfort in numbers; emotionally and cognitively size matters. Soldiers will always crave ‘Mass’ because they equate it with safety.

The inability to make that leap is almost ingrained in soldiers. At a RUSI roundtable discussion on the future use of the Army Reserve last year, Army policy makers were confident that they could create ‘Mass’ by the mobilisation of retired soldiers, it was estimated that this number was around 40,000.  The problem is that they cannot be armed and equipped and neither can the platforms which they operate be regenerated.  The British Army, it is true, is less exposed than say the RAF or Royal Navy to ‘Precision’, but if 3rd UK Division was left burning on the Steppe, no amount of volunteers could replace it, because the platforms and equipment which enable the fighting doctrine could not be replaced. The critical vulnerability for the UK and most European countries pursuing ‘Precision’ is that they have both failed to retain sufficient war stores to re-equip, and have insufficient reserves to regenerate a force trained to use them.  It is not that ‘Precision’ is wrong, rather it is that it requires greater resource than governments are prepared to give and a good deal more cognitive room than most armies are prepared to make.  

Back to Yorkshire in 1983. You may not be surprised to know that we beat the Orcs, yes they were bigger, but far more immobile, added to that we took a decision to keep the ball away from the scrum and use our speed and agility to our own advantage.  We recognised that their scrum was their critical vulnerability, and so by denying it room to act, we essentially defeated their ‘Mass’ with our ‘Precision’. Even back in the Cold War it was possible to think asymmetrically, even in Yorkshire! Bloody cold though!!

I hope you enjoyed my boyhood memories, yes I am that old!

Speak to you soon, all the best,




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