Defence in depth

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Defence in depth (also known as deep or elastic defence) is a military strategy that seeks to delay rather than prevent the advance of an attacker, buying time and causing additional casualties by yielding space. Rather than defeating an attacker with a single, strong defensive line, defence in depth relies on the tendency of an attack to lose momentum over time or as it covers a larger area. A defender can thus yield lightly defended territory in an effort to stress an attacker's logistics or spread out a numerically superior attacking force. Once an attacker has lost momentum or is forced to spread out to pacify a large area, defensive counter-attacks can be mounted on the attacker's weak points, with the goal being to cause attrition warfare or drive the attacker back to its original starting position.

The idea of defence in depth is now also widely used to describe multi-layered or redundant protections for non-military situations, both tactical and strategic. However, redundancy sometimes produces less, instead of more reliability – it creates a more complex system which is prone to various issues, may lead to human negligence of duty, and may lead to higher production demands that overstress the system, making it less safe.[1]

Military defence in depth

A conventional defence strategy would concentrate all military resources at a front line which, if breached by an attacker, would leave the remaining defenders in danger of being outflanked and surrounded and would leave supply lines, communications, and command vulnerable.

Defence in depth requires that a defender deploy their resources, such as fortifications, field works and military units at and well behind the front line. Although an attacker may find it easier to breach the more weakly defended front line, as they advance, they continue to meet resistance. As they penetrate deeper, the attacker's flanks become vulnerable, and, should the advance stall, the attacker risks being enveloped.

The defence in depth strategy is particularly effective against an attacker who is able to concentrate their forces and attack a small number of places on an extended defensive line.

Defenders who can fall back to a succession of prepared positions can extract a high price from the advancing enemy while themselves avoiding the danger of being overrun or outflanked. Delaying the enemy advance mitigates the attacker's advantage of surprise and allows time to move defending units to make a defence and to prepare a counter-attack.

A well-planned defence in depth strategy will deploy forces in mutually supportive positions and in appropriate roles. For example, poorly trained troops may be deployed in static defences at the front line, whereas better trained and equipped troops form a mobile reserve. Successive layers of defence may use different technologies against various targets; for example, dragon's teeth might present a challenge for tanks but is easily circumvented by infantry, while another barrier of wire entanglements has the opposite effects on the respective forces. Defence in depth may allow a defender to maximise the defensive possibilities of natural terrain and other advantages.

The disadvantages of defence in depth are that it may be unacceptable for a defender to plan to give ground to an attacker. This may be because vital military or economic resources are close to the front line or because yielding to an enemy is unacceptable for political or cultural reasons. In addition, the continuous retreats required by defence in depth require the defender to have a high degree of mobility in order to retreat successfully and the morale to recover from the retreat.


A possible early example of this came at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, when Hannibal employed this manoeuvre in order to encircle and destroy 8 Roman legions, although this is disputed by some historians.[2]

Edward Luttwak used the term to describe his theory of the defensive strategy employed by the Late Roman army in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Later examples of defence in depth might be European hill forts and the development of concentric castles. In these examples, the inner layers of defence can support the outer layers with projectile fire and an attacker must breach each line of defence in turn with the prospect of significant losses, whereas the defenders have the option of falling back to fight again. In the American Revolutionary War's Battle of Cowpens, the American forces were positioned in three lines which soaked up the shock of the British charge and inflicted heavy casualties before the Americans were able to overrun the British, who at this point had lost their cohesion.

More recent examples of defence in depth include the multiple lines of trenches of the First World War and plans for the defence of Britain against a potential German invasion in the Second World War. During the Battle of Normandy, Wehrmacht forces utilized the bocage of the area to create successive lines of defences to slow the attacking Allies in hopes that reinforcements would arrive.

The Pacific Theatre also had many examples of defence in depth, with the Japanese inflicting heavy casualties on the Americans in the Battles of Tarawa, Saipan, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

The best modern example of a successful defence in depth is that of the Battle of Kursk. During the battle, the Red Army deliberately drew the Germans into an attritional battle in multiple well-prepared defensive lines, before launching massive counter-attacks on either side of 9th Army in the north and 4th Panzer Army in the south. The initial German offensive never fully penetrated the Red Army lines. By contrast, the subsequent Red Army counter-offensive pushed the front line hundreds of miles westwards.

Colonel Francis J. Kelly discussed the employment of defence in depth in Army Special Forces camps during the Vietnam War. Kelly, a former U.S. Army Special Forces commander and author of Vietnam Studies U.S. Army Special Forces 1961–1971, stated in his work that the austere Special Forces fighting camps were highly functional and easily defended.[citation needed]

While untested, this was also the planned NATO strategy in Europe during the Cold War at the Fulda Gap.[citation needed]

Non-military examples

Reactor Unit 3 (right) and Unit 4 (left) of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on 16 March 2011. Three of the reactors overheated, causing meltdowns which released large amounts of radioactive material into the air.[3]

The term defence in depth is now used in many non-military contexts.

Fire prevention

A defence in depth strategy to fire prevention does not focus all the resources only on the prevention of a fire; instead, it also requires the deployment of fire alarms, extinguishers, evacuation plans, mobile rescue and fire-fighting equipment and even nationwide plans for deploying massive resources to a major blaze.[citation needed]

Defense-in-depth is incorporated into fire protection regulations for nuclear power plants. It requires preventing fires, detecting and extinguishing fires that do occur, and ensuring the capability to safely shutdown.[4]


Defence in depth may mean engineering which emphasizes redundancy – a system that keeps working when a component fails – over attempts to design components that will not fail in the first place. For example, an aircraft with four engines will be less likely to suffer total engine failure than a single-engined aircraft no matter how much effort goes into making the single engine reliable. However, Charles Perrow, author of Normal accidents, has said that sometimes redundancies backfire and produce less, not more reliability. This may happen in three ways: First, redundant safety devices result in a more complex system, more prone to errors and accidents. Second, redundancy may lead to shirking of responsibility among workers. Third, redundancy may lead to increased production pressures, resulting in a system that operates at higher speeds, but less safely.[1]

Nuclear engineering

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In nuclear engineering and nuclear safety, all safety activities, whether organizational, behavioural or equipment related, are subject to layers of overlapping provisions, so that if a failure should occur it would be compensated for or corrected without causing harm to individuals or the public at large. Defence in depth consists in a hierarchical deployment of different levels of equipment and procedures in order to maintain the effectiveness of physical barriers placed between radioactive materials and workers, the public or the environment, in normal operation, anticipated operational occurrences and, for some barriers, in accidents at the plant. Defence in depth is implemented through design and operation to provide a graded protection against a wide variety of transients, incidents and accidents, including equipment failures and human errors within the plant and events initiated outside the plan.[5]

Information security

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Likewise, in information security / Information Assurance defence in depth represents the use of multiple computer security techniques to help mitigate the risk of one component of the defence being compromised or circumvented. An example could be anti-virus software installed on individual workstations when there is already virus protection on the firewalls and servers within the same environment. Different security products from multiple vendors may be deployed to defend different potential vectors within the network, helping prevent a shortfall in any one defence leading to a wider failure; also known as a "layered approach".[citation needed]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. Healy, Mark. Cannae: Hannibal Smashes Rome's Army. Sterling Heights, Missouri: Osprey Publishing, 1994.
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  4. NRC: 10 CFR Appendix R to Part 50—Fire Protection Program for Nuclear Power Facilities Operating Prior to January 1, 1979
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