It is one of the sneakiest, most insidious things in warfare. It can creep up on you, and you'll suddenly find out that you no longer can do all that you wanted to do. It's called "virtual attrition," and while it doesn't make many headlines, it matters more to military operations than you'd think.
So, what exactly is "virtual attrition?" Well, plain old attrition is defined by the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary as "the act or process of weakening and gradually defeating an enemy through constant attacks and continued pressure over a long period of time." In war, these are the planes that are shot down, the ships that are sunk, the tanks that go "jack in the box," the troops that are killed. In other words, you lost them for good.
Virtual attrition, therefore involves "losing" the assets. Only it doesn't involve actually destroying the asset. Here's a couple of examples:
Scenario One: There is a factory complex in Bad Guy Land that you want to remove from the landscape. It will take 16 Joint Direct Attack Munitions to destroy. Now, four F/A-18E Super Hornets from one of the squadrons in the air wing of USS Enterprise can each carry four JDAMs, that should put enough bombs on target, right?
Well, not quite. You see, Mr. Sleazebag Swinemolestor, the dictator of Bad Guy Land, just got some brand new Russian S-300 missile systems (the SA-10 Grumble). He's got one defending the factory complex you want to go away. He also got some brand new J-11 Flankers from China that he's using to protect the place.
Now, sending planes into the teeth of air defenses doesn't work out so well. We found that out the hard way in more than a couple wars.
So now, you may need some escorts. Well, we can add a couple more F/A-18Es with AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles and AGM-154A Joint Standoff Attack Weapons to deal with the S-300s, and two more loaded with a ton of AIM-120 AMRAAMs for the Flankers.
Only those four additional Super Hornets have to come from somewhere. On a carrier (or even a land base), there are only so many airframes. The S-300s and the Flankers just forced the United States to double the size of the "package" they are sending to service the target.
A carrier usually has 24 Super Hornets. Some will be down for maintenance. Some will be needed to provide air cover for the carrier or planes like the E-2 Hawkeye or EA-18 Growler. There will be other targets to hit, like bridges, air bases, headquarters buildings… you get the picture.
Now, you can't hit all the targets you want to hit, because you need to not only make the factory go away, you need to make the defenses go away. You have lost the use of the planes as strike assets. In essence, other missions get shortchanged. That is one way virtual attrition works.
Scenario 2: China's DF-21 has gotten a lot of hype as a threat. That ignores the fact that the RIM-161 SM-3 Standard Missile is already capable of defeating it. But the DF-21 still inflicts the "virtual attrition."
Let's assume that BadGuyLand's dictator, the aforementioned Sleazebag Swinemolestor, has bought 30 DF-21s. Now, while the SM-3 has proven reliable (a success rate of about 90 percent in tests), the usual practice will be a "shoot-shoot look" approach — firing two missiles at each target, and looking to see if you got it. That is a quick way to eat up missiles, especially when you miss.
So now, the Enterprise's escorts have to load more SM-3s into their Mark 41 Vertical Launch Systems. The problem being, of course, they only have 96 cells each. And if you are carrying more SM-3s, you have to take other missiles out, like BGM-109 Tomahawks, RIM-66 SM-2 Standard Missiles, and RUM-139 Vertical Launch ASROCs.
Now, you could fix this by adding the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group (originally planned for a WESTPAC deployment), with her escorts, the Bunker Hill, the Winston S. Churchill, the Harmon Rabb, and the Cole. But that carrier group has to come from somewhere… so you now have to make up for that or pray that the region stays calm.
The other alternative is to add more escorts. You could strip the Mac Taylor from anti-piracy duty off Somalia, or call in the John S. McCain from her Freedom of Navigation exercise in the South China Sea, or maybe even have the Dave Nolan detach from the replenishment ships. But then you take risks by pulling those ships from those missions.
In essence, virtual attrition means you have to pull in extra assets – and the assets you pull in, no matter how good they are, cannot be in two places at once. It is not spectacular. It doesn't make headlines, but virtual attrition is a real problem that the military has to address.