On “No More Easy Wars”

An axe, by any other name, is just an axe… but what would be refreshing is a narrative that offers a positive view of a future land force against anti-access and area denial concerns rather than another cynical view of joint force contributions.


In Foreign Policy’s National Security Blog, Colonel Scott Gerber (USA) recently attempted to make out the Air Sea Battle (ASB) Concept as foolishness. Personally, I am extremely concerned about building an operational concept around a policy shift known as the “Asia Pivot.” My greatest concern is that the United States has not sufficiently fleshed out the strategic underpinnings of translating the Asia Pivot policy into action, however setting that aside for now, I will revisit that in a follow-on post. What I find striking about Gerber’s offering here is how he insists on building a straw man of mythological proportions in order to knock over the ASB Concept.

Before we begin, there is one aspect that Gerber gets right: he offers wise counsel against what a friend of this blog refers to as “self-defeating technological fetishes.” Clausewitz reminds us that “policy is not a tyrant,” and the present fiscal constraints should endear strategists towards constrained ends to match our more humble means. But while others have reminded us that “clear thinking about war costs nothing,” it is equally prudent to recall that U.S. policy makers, not spendthrift sister-service fat cats, directed the pivot.

Specifically, in what follows, we will look beyond the interservice cynicism of officers like Gerber and discover some interwoven faults of his logic. This includes the oft-used false attribution of the Iraq misadventure to “Shock and Awe,” the lack of discernment of what targeting provides the Joint Force Commander, and real grip as to what the Air Sea Battle Concept provides the Joint Force Commander. Only then can we also understand better that the U.S. Army has an important role to play in Air Sea Battle, if only it would choose to do so. Finally, we will conclude with why the U.S. Army must consider the present operational concepts within a longer view that takes us back to the days of the Air Land Battle Concept.

Perhaps the most tedious of Gerber’s arguments is the conflating of Operation Iraqi Freedom’s targeting schemes early in the conflict with the decisions to avoid stability operations. This argument appears over and over in various forms and capacities, losing credibility every time (and unfortunately it is promulgated suspiciously along service lines), as it tirelessly reminds everyone that for want of focus upon “Shock and Awe” in the early phases of the conflict, the latter stages would have been better applied if only we had not assumed away “Phase Four Operations.” It is a clear post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy:

By 2003, as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, a military-intellectual bubble had built up around these ideas, manifested in the doctrine of Shock and Awe. And for a few short weeks that spring, as U.S. forces launched their first salvos against Saddam Hussein and rolled toward Baghdad, this plan seemed to work — until it failed catastrophically. No one had planned what to do after U.S. forces threw that first spectacular punch and our enemies decided not to surrender.
Shock and Awe

Shock and Awe

But I will remind the reader that while the blame of “Shock and Awe” seems reasonable, especially within certain circles of the U.S. Army, it is in fact an insincere approach according to the RAND Corporation Arroyo Center’s report titled After Saddam: Prewar Planning and the Occupation of Iraq. The report states that “[both] CENTCOM and CFLCC [Combined Forces Land Component Commander] developed supporting OPLANs in early 2003 that focused on Phase IV operations.” Rather surprisingly, based upon being constant drumming about the ears with the “its all Shock and Awe’s fault” moniker, RAND’s After Saddam fails to specifically mention it at all! But here’s what the report does conclude as causal:

Although CENTCOM’s commander, General Tommy Franks, refers to Phase IV frequently in his memoirs, for example, he never identifies the specific mission that U.S. forces should have had during that time. To the contrary: He expresses the strong sentiment that his civilian superiors should focus on postwar operations (Phase IV) while he focused on the war itself (Phases I thru III).

As referred to above, Franks states this in his memoir American Soldier:

While we at CENTCOM were executing the war plan, Washington should focus on policy-level issues . . . I knew the President and Don Rumsfeld would back me up, so I felt free to pass the message along to the bureaucracy beneath them:You pay attention to the day after and I’ll pay attention to the day of.
Tommy Frank

Tommy Frank

Despite what could be best understood as a crises in civil-military relations, Gerber still strenuously suggests that we’ve all been duped into learning the wrong lessons in a context where “Shock and Awe” means all things air power:

Now, suddenly, those pivotal lessons have vanished like smoke. Even though their ideas miscarried, no one has asked the Shock and Awe acolytes to explain themselves. No one has asked why their ideas failed to defeat the opposition in Iraq.

Its baffling to suggest that any phrases or concepts, be that “Shock and Awe,” “network-centric warfare,” “rapid decisive operations,” “full-spectrum dominance,” or even “revolutions in military affairs,” would be sufficient to overcome the stubbornness displayed by General Franks in his scorn for Phase IV. While these are all very different conceptual ideas taken to an extreme for illumination, the pivotal lesson of Operation Iraqi Freedom is not that CENTCOM expected perfect information to fold the whole of Iraqi society (including the Republican Guard, Fedayeen, and the insurgency) back upon itself, but rather that real accountability for the lives and treasure lost is placed on a conceptual idea that was never meant to go beyond Phase III of the campaign plan. Besides, Harlan Ullman’s concept of “Shock and Awe” was not the actual operational approach used by CENTCOM for Iraqi Freedom. In short, Gerber has fashioned an extremely poor analogy here for his case.

Usama Bin Laden

Usama Bin Laden

The next thing that Gerber misunderstands is that the joint targeting cycle that produced his misunderstood “Shock and Awe” target list is the same process that is used to build the target lists for Stability Operations and Counter-Terrorism Operations now supposed in “the Human Domain.” Joint targeting in Desert Storm was known for “turning off the lights,” in Iraqi Freedom it was known for “paralyzing command and control,” and in Enduring Freedom and elsewhere it is focused upon “high-value individuals.” Gerber’s lapse here is almost as tiresome as his first point because its conflates the error of how a tool is used (the targeting process) with what that tool does (as it contributes to the military means of strategy):

The story is tight and marketable and has just one shortfall: It does not work. Shock and Awe substitutes problems that can be solved by a target list for the thorny questions that U.S. global security interests naturally pose. It appeals to our natural desire for a quick-fix solution that keeps us arm’s length from strategic entanglement. It makes us feel good, even if it is totally inadequate and unaffordable in the long run.

Further, he offers no good alternatives for trashing almost a 100 years of lessons learned in targeting methodologies that enable the exact dynamic human interaction through combat he advocates, while also working to mitigate collateral damage and effects. Yes, targeting is inherently tied to intelligence, and thus there is risk in the probabilistic determination of target lists made up of targets, restricted targets, no-strike entities, and sensitivities (highlighting the best mores of the laws of armed conflict). But no certified targeteer worth their salt would suggest that the characterization of the operational environment via targeting is anything but probabilistic. The targeteer, more than most, is explicitly familiar with the intersection of chance, uncertainty, and warfare because by definition they deal in the probabilities of destruction, kill, and mobilization, et cetera.

Another key error is Gerber’s conflation of prescription and targeting. But prescription is not why we database targets (often characterized as creating target lists). Gerber, and possibly even Major General H.R. McMaster, suggest that they do not grasp the contribution of targeting to strategy, which is: targeting aids to characterize the operational environment. Said differently, targeting helps inform the strategist as to the realm of the possible. Instead of a prescriptive approach,as it appears with its deliberate processes, targeting proactively liberates warfighters to be able to rapidly adapt to highly dynamic situations while precluding unfortunate incidents. Gerber is not alone in this short-sighted view, in which such act first and think later notions of military action tend to focus too much on the near-term. This poor perception of targeting is pervasive, especially and most recently in cyberspace planning.

Joint Targeting Cycle

Joint Targeting Cycle

So, with regards to Gerber’s rant against targeting, I’m not sure what’s driving the larger idea that the targeting cycle, with its deliberate analysis, is tantamount to a strategy. Targeteers do not share this high-minded perception, although there are some who incorrectly suggest that targeteers do. Ultimately, there are targeting strategies but targeting is not strategy, and Gerber himself makes the error.

Next, Gerber argues against reducing force structure in order to buy new capabilities in the Air Force and the Navy, but then suggests that the solution is to buy new (unmanned) capabilities:

Rather than sinking billions of dollars into carriers and aircraft that have diminishing utility, we need to leap ahead to the next generation of warfare: We need to go unmanned. The technical services should invest in unmanned ships, aircraft, and submarines (except the ballistic-missile subs). If we possessed scores of aircraft-carrying ships with thousands of strike aircraft, rather than a few massive carrier groups, the Navy would be able to protect the global commons much more efficiently. The associated reduction in aviation training and shipbuilding costs would also relieve budget pressure.
Air Land Battle

Air Land Battle

It is bizarre to lament spending over high-technology capabilities then to suggest further reliance upon unmanned assets. Further, Gerber’s lack of understanding of what entails anti-access is truly baffling even if it is beyond excessive in terms of cost. And in another sense, it is also hypocritical given the Army’shistory of Air Land Battle association to the “Big Five” acquisitionsJust like the Air Land Battle Concept sought to address many of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force’s shortfalls in joint doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leader development/education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) following Vietnam, the Air Sea Battle Concept seeks to achieve the same for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force after a decade of the strategic focus appropriately being elsewhere, for example, in appropriately landpower focused counterinsurgency and stability operations.

Finally, let us turn our focus upon Gerber’s unambiguous attempt at obstruction of the Air Sea Battle: the honest warrior must acknowledge that the current capacity for joint interoperability between the Air Force and the Army is no accident. The Air Land Battle operational concept produced a high level of detailed integration between the Army and the Air Force that simply did not exist there previously.That same level of interoperability does not yet exist between the Air Force and the Navy! Momentarily placing aside the expensive new technologies involved with operational concepts, the Air Sea Battle Concept is seeking to address the doctrinal interdependency shortfalls in the maritime domain between the Air Force and the Navy to match the joint interoperability that the Army and Air Force now enjoys in the land domain.

All wars are not equal, nor do they demand the same prescription as context still remains king. The ASB Concept only provides Joint Force Commanders a set of tools in the face of significant operational challenges, not a promise of an “easy war.” Fighting an air-sea battle will not be easy with the tyranny of distance testing the operational reach and operational tempo of joint forces. The ASB Concept doesn’t in the least relegate landpower to the dust bin of history, especially because the U.S. Army still has very important contributions to the concept if only they would stop fighting it tooth and nail. The ASB Concept is only meant to counter anti-access operational problems, not replace a history that requires the active participation of the “whole house of war,” or at least the credible threat of all joint domains.

The ASB Concept is not the prescription for all future battles, just the ones that appear more likely in the next few years yet to come. In a veiled manner, the suggestions of Gerber and others are best understood that there are limits to air and sea power, and the best solution is always a land war, with its troublesome political implications for invasion, occupation, stability,et cetera. However, he ignores those cases where limited capabilities of air and sea power can be leveraged to achieve limited political aims. For example, air and sea power were the primary threats of violence in recent diplomatic successes in Syria and Iran. Instead of repeating what Airmen and Sailors already know to be true, Gerber should offer a narrative that provides a positive view of a future land force which leverages technology and concepts to defeat our enemies with asymmetric advantages instead of a reactive approach that is tantamount to accepting the terms dictated to us.

North Korean Arm

North Korean Arm

If the U.S. Army would spend less time fighting the ASB Concept, it would recognize that it perfectly fills a void in the larger Joint Operational Access Concept. Anti-access might be dominated by the Navy, and to a lesser degree the Air Force, but the Joint Operational Access Concept provides an opportunity for greater interoperability between services. Despite the ASB Concept not being specifically focused upon the Pacific, it is prudent to recall that Pacific Command is home to 5 of the 10 largest armies in the world. Three of these five are arguably not friendly to U.S. interests. Anti-access concepts allow the joint force to project power, where area-denial concepts enables the joint force to decisively win within these environments. This is the clarion call for why the U.S. Army, particularly its senior leaders, should get on-board with concepts that deal with anti-access problems. Unless the U.S. Army prefers to do its fighting Canada or Mexico, the assumption of anti-access and their defeat is a safe assumption.

Finally, and most importantly, if Gerber had focused upon the strategic vacuum that underlies the shift of policy that focuses upon anti-access problems and Asia, like others have done effectively here and here, or made suggestions that furthered joint interdependency and interoperability, then many would be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in the face of such clear cynicism. Perhaps, it might be time the U.S. Army expend less time and energy on making weak analogies in its “guerrilla campaign” and instead focus upon windows of action that improve the three big operational concepts that have resulted from the pivot. To be clear, what Gerber is in effect cheerleading for here is a lack of the same level of joint air and land interdependency as he enjoyed for his three tours in Iraq. Whether by omission or commission, the American people deserve thinkers who avoid the level of inter-service cynicism displayed in his screed.

We must all endeavor to do better.


Richard (Rich) F. Ganske is an officer in the U.S. Air Force, B-2 pilot, and weapons officer. Rich has participated in several deployments including the Continuous Bomber Presence in the Western Pacific, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Odyssey Dawn.  He was formerly the chief air targeting officer for U.S. Central Command charged with integrating lethal and non-lethal capabilities into plans for Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Horn of Africa. Follow Rich on Twitter at @richganske.


Header image: USAF B-2 bomber escorted by USN F/A-18 fighters | USAF PHOTO


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