Within-Campaign Analysis: A Statistical Evaluation of the Battle of Kursk

Author: Speight, L. R.

Source: Military Operations Research, Volume 16, Number 2, 2011 , pp. 41-62(22)

Publisher: Military Operations Research Society

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This paper deals with a continuing concern of military analysts?that of establishing a lawful relationship between the fighting strengths of two opponents and the expected balance of attrition, using the outcomes of historical battles as evidence. Different battles will almost certainly differ in a host of factors, other than just starting strengths, that are likely to have a profound effect on casualty outcomes. The obscuring and biasing effects of such factors could be minimised by looking at the day-to-day outcomes of single battles, but unfortunately the number of battles with the necessary level of data capture is very limited indeed. An exception is the legendary Battle of Kursk, where the Germans attempted to eliminate a sizeable Soviet salient by means of a classical pincer movement, with simultaneous thrusts from the north and the south. As a result of a massive data collection exercise, KOSAVE II, initiated by the US Concepts Analysis Agency, detailed statistics were assembled for the first 14 days of the battle on the southern face of this salient. These data covered unit postures and geographical positions, as well as a host of personnel and equipment indices, broken down to divisional level on each side. This paper examines these data to discover what can be learned from them concerning the relationships between several of these indices and recorded casualties.

The first part of the investigation focused on the day-by-day personnel strength and casualty statistics, aggregated over three different sets of units, distinguishing between the total number of units present during the battle; that subset actually in contact with the enemy; and, lastly, those not only in contact, but who also counted themselves as being actively engaged. Two different analytical approaches to estimate strength/casualty relationships were tested, and their properties and merits/demerits examined. Both approaches were successful in revealing significant strength/casualty relationships, but only when the “actively engaged” subset was considered. To achieve this level of prediction in advance one would have to know, not just the order of battle, or even the identity of units that would actually be in contact on a given day, but also which of the latter would be actively engaged.

The second part of the investigation switched attention to the data resolved down to divisional level. The aim was to determine whether divisional casualties were significantly related to key data categories defined and gathered by the KOSAVE II team. What was immediately apparent in this analysis was the very heterogeneous nature of the battlefield. Loose geographical groupings of forces could be discerned that could be regarded as “sub-battles.” But within these groupings the contact status and unit postures were often very varied, and in many cases did not conform to any simple battle logic. Concentrating on personnel losses, the key finding here was that the local German/Soviet strength ratio had a negligible effect on casualty rates. The most significant factors were the contact status of the unit concerned, and whether it was German or Soviet. Even so, the KOSAVE II data categories accounted for only a small portion of the casualty variance.

The final part of the investigation provided a more searching examination of the properties of the two estimation approaches tested in the first phase, using both the “sub-battle” and the aggregated data, and testing the effect of splitting off those classed as “captured/missing in action” from the remainder of the combat casualties. Taken together, the results suggest that in the Battle of Kursk casualty levels were roughly proportional to the number of “own side” numbers actively engaged, irrespective of the number of the opposition so committed.

A discussion section lists a number of structural features that almost certainly had a significant analytical impact on this battle, affecting the form of strength/casualty relationship giving the best fit. Especially notable was the evidence suggesting that the Soviet defensive preparation, including minelaying on a massive scale, had a considerable effect on the shape of the whole battle and on the form of the fitted relationships. This effect was not only that of causing casualties and slowing the advance, but in forcing the Germans into a battle of attrition that, at the outset, they would very much have hoped to avoid.

It is concluded that the search for some universal law linking the balance of combat strength to the expected balance of casualties is likely to be doomed to failure in battles of even moderate complexity. The effect of strength ratios is almost certain to be swamped by that of the structural elements of any campaign, especially by the pattern of unit tasking chosen by, or forced upon, the commanders concerned.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5711/1082598316241

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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