Attrition: The Falklands, Afghanistan And History

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February 17, 2010:  British media recently noted that United Kingdom forces in Afghanistan have now suffered the same number of dead (255) as during the 1982 Falklands war. But there were several significant differences between the two campaigns. For one thing, the Falklands fighting was far more intense, and only lasted 74 days. The Afghanistan fighting has been going on since late 2001 (over 3,000 days so far). In both campaigns, Britain had about the same number of troops on the ground (about 10,000), but in the Falklands there was a large naval force, and they suffered 40 percent of the fatalities.

In the quarter century since 1982, weapons and equipment have changed considerably, which is why the casualty rate (the percentage of troops killed per month of combat) is much lower than in Afghanistan than it was in the Falklands.

To see this, we'll use a standard measure of combat losses, the number of troops in a combat division (12-20,000 troops) who are killed each day the division is in combat. Since late 2001, there have been .12 American combat deaths per division day in Afghanistan. British losses have been a little higher, but that's still far less (over 70 percent less) than the rate suffered in the Falklands.

During the Vietnam war, the average division lost 3.2 troops a day, which was similar to the losses suffered in Korea (1950-53). In Iraq, the losses have been .44 deaths per division per day. By comparison, during World War II the daily losses per American averaged (during 400-500 combat days) about twenty soldiers per day. On the Russian front, German and Russian divisions lost several times that, and often over a hundred a day for weeks on end.

For short campaigns, which Iraq and Afghanistan are not, the losses were similar. That's why the concept of "days in combat" is used. During World War II, and before and since, divisions would often be out of the combat zone for days, or weeks, before going back into action. Thus the spectacular six week German conquest of France in 1940, saw their combat divisions taking 30 dead (on average) per day. But during another spectacular military victory, the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli dead were 22 per division per day, and that actually went down to 18 a day during the less spectacular 1973 war.

By contrast, the three week invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw U.S. troops suffering 1.6 dead per day per division. During the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, Israel lost 8 soldiers per division per day. In the Falklands, the British lost the equivalent of 8 troops per division day.

Casualties also depend on who is fighting who. In the Falklands, the British were fighting trained soldiers, although most of the Argentines were conscripts, and far less deadly than the longer term volunteers in the British units. In Afghanistan, professional British troops are facing Afghan irregulars. Although the Afghans have a well deserved reputation for being effective fighters, they tend to avoid going head-to-head with the British, and rely more on roadside bombs and ambush. Even so, the Taliban suffer far higher casualties, and the British rate is less than a third of what it was for their grandfathers during World War II. Warfare has changed a lot in the last century, even though the troops (grim looking guys with packs, carrying rifles) appear similar.

 


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