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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."[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 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 in the deployment or structure of defending troops and/or b) advantages, such as maneuvering speed, that the defender cannot match. Chief among examples of a) is the case of asymmetric support structure, in which unit A can support B but unit B cannot support unit A. For example, during World War I, when horse cavalry 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).
  • 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).

Historical examples

Strategic campaigns

Tactical examples

See also


  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. 

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