Military Incompetencies

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List of Military Incompetencies

Mr. R Gabriel defines military incompetence as the "inability of military leaders to avoid mistakes which, in the normal course of things, should and could be avoided. This definition says nothing about those contingencies that cannot realistically … be planned for or foreseen and therefore avoided. All war involves the “fog of war” and the fog of war can never be totally overcome.”[1]

Dr NF Dixon defines military incompetence by reference to common themes of:[2]

  • A fundamental conservatism and clinging to outworn tradition, as well as an inability to profit from past experience.
  • A tendency to reject, suppress or ignore information which is unpalatable or conflicts with pre-conceptions.
  • A tendency to under-estimate the enemy and over-estimate the capabilities of one ’ s own side.
  • An undue readiness to find scapegoats and suppress news about military setbacks.
  • A predilection for frontal assaults and the belief in brute force rather than the use of surprises or ruses.
  • Indecisiveness and a general abdication from the role of a leader.
  • A failure to exploit a situation due to the lack of aggressiveness.

The list is not intended for simple military defeats, no matter how large, nor events where one side lost simply because the other side was better—there has to be an elemtn of significant incompetence and it must be a major cause of defeat or loss of territory, lives or national assets.

Template:Dynamic list

Ancient era

  • The Battle of Changping (262–260 BC), in which 400,000 captured troops from the State of Zhao were buried alive after their commander Zhao Kuo fell for a trick of the commander from the State of Qin.
  • The Battle of Mobei in 119 BC, where the entire Xiongnu army of over 100,000 men was destroyed by the Han army. This battle and its aftermath ensured the supremacy of the Chinese over the northern barbarian tribes for the next few hundred years.
  • The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, when Crassus with 40,000 soldiers marched into Parthia expecting to be victorious, chose to march a direct route through the desert instead of the mountains of the north, and was entirely anniliated by 9,000 Parthian soldiers
  • The Battle of Guandu in 200 AD, in which the more powerful army of Yuan Shao failed to guard its supplies, and was defeated by Cao Cao.
  • The Battle of Edessa occurred in 259 AD when Emperor Valerian with a 70,000-strong Roman army marched into Persia to end Persian advances into Roman territory. The outcome was an overwhelming Persian victory and the entire Roman army was decimated.

Medieval era

  • The Battle of Hattin in 1187, where overconfident Crusader forces from Jerusalem became trapped in a waterless desert area, and thus became easy prey for the Saracen forces of Salah-ud-din (Saladin)
  • The Battle of Kalka River, 1223. A Mongol army obliterates an allied Kievan-Rus'/Cuman army at a river crossing on the Kalka in the Ukraine. The Mongols draw the Russo-Cuman force out until they are overextended, then attack with their heavy cavalry and destroy the allied forces in detail. The Mongols capture several Russian princes and ritually execute them by crushing them beneath a feasting table on which the Mongol leaders dance and feast.
  • The Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. English Earl John de Warenne's well-equipped army were trapped on a narrow bridge by William Wallace's 15,000 unarmored, lightly armed Scots, bearing the traditional long spears of lowland Scotland. The bridge had been chosen as the point of engagement by Warenne, even though the river could easily have been forded just a few miles upstream.
  • The Battle of Agincourt in 1415. A large French army, with a large contingent of knights, was defeated by Henry V's much smaller army, which included the famed English longbowmen.
  • The Tumu Crisis in 1449. A very large force (500,000) of the Ming dynasty were defeated by a very small army (20,000) of Mongols, and the Zhengtong Emperor of the Ming dynasty was captured. This battle is regarded as the greatest military debacle of the entire Chinese history. There is a legend that Zhengtong Emperor had been working as a herder during the capture in Mongol.

16th century

  • The Siege of Vienna in 1529 marked the height of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman the Magnificent failed to capture the city, despite significant advantages in manpower.
  • Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. 15,000–18,000 Scottish troops were defeated by 3,000 English after becoming trapped in a bog.
  • Battle of Okehazama in 1560. Imagawa Yashimoto's invasion of Owari province halted completely, after being ambushed by Oda Nobunaga's force during the night, leading to large casualties, many officers (including Yashimoto) dying, and his army being forced into a rout and eventually disememberment.
  • The Spanish Armada in 1588. An English fleet sends fire ships into the Spanish invasion fleet destroying some and scattering the rest effectively ending the invasion threat. The Armada would later run into storms and almost half the ships never returned to Spain, as well as more than half the troops.

17th century

18th century

  • The Battle of Cartagena de Indias in March–May of 1741. This battle, fought in the War of Jenkins' Ear, saw a huge British amphibious force of 26,400 men and 186 ships beat back and defeated by 4,000 Spanish troops and just 6 ships. The British pulled back after losing over 8,000 men killed, 7,500 wounded losing 1,500 guns and 50 ships.
  • The Great Siege of Gibraltar in June 1779 – February 1783. During the American Revolution a combined Franco-Spanish force lays siege to a British garrison for nearly four years. A 'Grand Assault' of over 60,000 men, and 150 assault vessels by the bisieging forces on September 1782 results in total disaster, with over 6,000 casualties and dozens of ships lost.

19th century

20th century

  • The Battle of Sarikamish – Ottoman forces attack Russian fortifications in the Allahuekber mountains in late 1915. They suffer devastating losses because of their use of outdated tactics and ill-preparedness for low-temperature combat.
  • The Battle of the Somme – an attempt by Allied forces to break the German line during WWI, remembered most for the incredibly high casualties suffered by the British Army. Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle, due in part to ineffective artillery preparation of the objective and a gross underestimation of German fortifications. The major incompetence was the failure of British staff officers to act on signals about the large number of maimed and wounded.
  • The Winter War from November 1939 to March 1940 – The Soviet Union invaded Finland with the goal of conquering it completely in a few weeks. Instead, the war lasted several months and ended in a peace treaty leaving the Soviet Union having gained 11% of Finlands territory and 30% of its economy whilst suffering heavy losses, although they were in possession of more than three times as many troops, thirty times as many planes and one hundred times the amount of tanks.
  • Operation Compass in North Africa during winter 1940/41. The Italian army built their forts too far apart so they were not mutually supporting, and lacked tanks or other mobile forces. A British force of 35,000 men was able to rout the Italian army of 150,000, forcing them back 800 km and capturing around 3 times their own number for almost no losses.
  • Operation Typhoon, the failed German drive towards Moscow in 1941 was exacerbated by the German decision to not bring along any winter clothing and vehicle antifreeze.
  • The naval Battle of Midway. Admiral Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy attempted to invade the American navy base at Midway Island. U.S. Navy intelligence broke his codes and anticipated the attack. The Imperial Japanese Navy lost four fleet carriers in three days partly due to the decision to refuel their aircraft simultaneously on the flight deck, making the fuel hoses and aircraft vulnerable to bombing.
  • The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43 was one of the turning points of World War II. The German General Friedrich Paulus failed to keep a mobile strategic reserve and the entire (and formerly invulnerable) 6th Army was surrounded on all sides by a rapid Soviet flanking attack. Rubble caused by excessive bombing and artillery by the German troops had left their tanks unable to effectively enter the city. The German troops in Stalingrad surrendered even though Adolf Hitler had promised that they would never leave the city.
  • Operation Market Garden was a British led airborne operation which took place on 17—26 September 1944. The aim was to bypass the German Siegfried line by air assault over major canals and rivers in the Netherlands. Many factors led to the total failure of this operation, including deliberately ignoring itelligence photographs showing a superior German tank force, a culture of groupthink, and hubris of the leaders.[3]
  • The Bay of Pigs Invasion, a United States-backed 1961 attempt to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro with 1,500 Cuban exiles. Not only were the exiles heavily outnumbered when they reached the bay, but the US-promised air support never came to aid the exiles.
  • Operation Eagle Claw, a U.S. attempt to rescue hostages in Iran. This operation was marked by a series of mechanical and communication failures that led to the deaths of eight American servicemen, and failed to rescue the hostages.
  • Srebrenica genocide In 1995 a Dutch battalion stood by and did nothing while women were raped, and 8,000 men and boys were abused and then, after separation from the women, were taken away and systematically murdered by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of General Ratko Mladić. The Secretary-General of the United Nations described the mass murder as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War.[4] The Netherlands Army Battalion did nothing despite orders from Minister Voohoeve of the Netherlands had ordered that “under no circumstances was Dutchbat allowed to cooperate in the separate treatment of men.” The Supreme Court of the Netherlands confirmed that the Battalion and the state of the Netherlands were liable and responsible for failure in their duties. [5]

21st Century

  • 2006 Royal Air Force Nimrod disaster. During a reconnaissance flight on 2 September 2006 in Afghanistan, XV230 had an on-board fire, explosion and crashed, killing 14 military personnel in Britain's biggest single loss since the Falklands War. The Nimrod was based on the Comet aircraft, which had been unsafe and involved in a number of fatal crashes because of defective design of its airframe. The US authorities did not grant it an airworthiness certificate when it entered British service, which at the time was judged in Britain to be a case of resentment by the Americans at a British success, but in hindsight looks like nothing more than a sound, fact-based decision made on merit alone. Charles Haddon-Cave QC was appointed by the British government to lead the Nimrod Review, which was an independent enquiry into the causes of the crash. Unusually for an official British report, but much more like a US report, Mr. Haddon-Cave named names and spelt out exactly who was at fault, where incompetence lay, and why. His report said of the Nimrod that "Its production is a story of incompetence, complacency and cynicism" and he accused one of the senior RAF officers responsible of a "fundamental failure of leadership".[6] The British government subsequently admitted responsibility for the deaths of the 14 servicemen aboard Nimrod aircraft, admitted that the aircraft was not airworthy, and accepted liability. [7] [8]
  • 2007 Iranian seizure of a party of crew from HMS Cornwall The Iranian navy captured a Royal Navy crew in international waters with no resistance offered by the British. Lieutenant Felix Carman RN was in charge of the British sailors until their capture. One of the Royal Navy sailors cried when his iPod was taken by his captors.[9] Two official reports from the British government denied that any British officer or other British person was to blame.[10] The Royal Navy captain, Jeremy Woods, who was officer commanding of HMS Cornwall ship involved was subsequently removed from his ship, although the UK Ministry of Defence denied that his removal had anything whatsoever to do with the event,[11], which was widely seen as a humiliation for the UK.
  • British defeat in Iraq, 2007. In 2007 the British Army retreated from Iraq without having stabilized the situation on the ground and abandoned the population of Basra to violence and lawlessness. "Britain suffered defeat in Iraq", said a US general, [12]Jack Keane, who stated that the UK had left the local population to be terrorized. After the British Army retreated from the centre of Basra in 2005 45 women were killed by the militia for "un-Islamic" behaviour such as not wearing a veil. The British withdrawal came as the Americans were increasing their deployment. A British general who was in charge said that it was not Britain's finest hour and was not cricket.[13]
  • 2015, Britain unable to keep Russian spy submarines clear of its Naval base because of defence cuts. After having to cut the Nimrod fleet and choosing to cut various other equipment systems without making any replacement, the UK had by 2015 lost its capability to detect potentially hostile foreign submarines from performing close surveillance of its nuclear submarine base at at Gare Loch on the River Clyde, [14], with Russian submarines sighted off the Scottish coast and the UK unable to do anything about them without begging for help from its allies who have retained defensive and counter-surveillance capability, such as the USA, Canada, Australia, France, Denmark, Norway, South Africa, Portugal, Estonia, Belgium and Germany. [15]

See also



  1. Gabriel, Richard A. Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win. Macmillan. 1 Aug 1986. p 6.
  2. Choong, CPT Adrian, review of Dixon, NF, "Book Review: On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Norman F. Dixon". Singapore Ministry of Defence Website: Home, Journals, 2004, Vol. 30 No. 2.
  3. Fitzpatrick, Dan. “Why Operation Market Garden failed” U.S. European Command website, Stuttgart, Germany, September 26, 2014 (Retrieved 14 July 2015)
  4. UN Press Release SG/SM/9993UN, 11/07/2005 "Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s message to the ceremony marking the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Potocari-Srebrenica". Retrieved 13 July 2015.
  5. Judgement of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, 6 September 2013, First Chamber, 12/03324 LZ/TT (official English translation).
  6. Haddon-Cave, C. The Nimrod Review. ISBN 9780102962659, HC 1025 2008-09
  7. "Nimrod victims' families sue MoD". BBC News. 2008-12-23. Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  8. Bingham, John (2009-03-30). "MoD admits responsibility for Afghanistan Nimrod explosion deaths". The Daily Telegraph (London). Retrieved 2010-03-27. 
  9. Narain, Jaya. "Iran hostage Mr Bean branded 'disgraceful' by his own mother" Daily Mail. 23 April 2007. (Retrieved 14 July 2015)
  10. Settle, Michael. "No-one to blame for 'national embarrassment' of sailors' capture" Daily Record. 20 June 2007 (Retrieved 14 July 2015).
  11. Walker, Peter. "Navy: MoD moves captain in Iran captives affair" Guardian, 29 July 2008. (Retrieved 15 July 2014).
  12. "Britain suffered defeat in Iraq, says US general" BBC, 29 September 2010. (Retrieved 14 July 2015).
  13. BBC. Ibid.
  14. Merrill, J. "MoD asks for American help in searching for Russian submarine near Scotland" Independent. 8 January 2015.
  15. Ward. V. "MoD forced to ask US for help in tracking 'Russian submarine' Mystery foreign submarine thought to be lurking near Faslane naval base" Daily Telegraph. 9 Jan 2015 (retrieved 14 Jul 2015).

Further reading

  • Dixon, Norman. On The Psychology of Military Incompetence. (ISBN 978-0712658898)
  • Gabriel, Richard A. Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn't Win.
  • Hughes-Wilson, J. Col. Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups (ISBN 0-7867-1373-9)