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Transforming Principles: Modern Irrelevance of the Principle of Mass

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Research paper

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The present focus on transformation of the U.S. military has instigated a dialog regarding the current and future relevance of historically accepted principles of war. This paper addresses one of those principles -- mass -- and the evolution of conditions that have eroded its relevance in modern warfare. A basic definition of the principle of mass is to concentrate combat power at the decisive point in space and time. The thesis of the paper is that the principle of mass is no longer applicable to contemporary armed conflict and should be discarded in favor of existing and emerging concepts that are germane. Part 1 traces the historical genesis of the principle to the Napoleonic era, citing initial adherents Clausewitz and Jomini. Part 2 discusses modern changes that have affected the principles of war in terms of weaponry the nature of the enemy and a shift in priorities with respect to the operational factors of force, space, and time. Recent examples of armed conflict are presented that support the eroded relevance of mass in favor of the concepts of precision engagement, dispersion of forces, mobility, and flexibility, all within a context of real-time unity of effort. Part 3 examines current doctrine and the visionary documents guiding the transformation of U.S. military forces. The keepers of current doctrine appear reluctant to let go of the principle of mass despite changes in warfare that have resulted in the erosion of the principles relevance. But recent visionary documents from the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, and the Office of Force Transformation distance themselves from the principle of mass and instead make reference to the more modern concepts of warfare discussed in Part 2. The author concludes that the principle of mass has lost modern relevance, and that all references to it should be discarded in modern strategy, doctrine, and visionary documents and replaced with modern concepts of warfare.

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  • Military Forces and Organizations
  • Unconventional Warfare

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