Libya: Airpower, SOF and the NTC Part II

This blog first appeared on the blog Fear, Honor, and Interest on 28 September 2011. I am reposting it here because I think the author, Nick Prime, was particularly prescient in his analysis and provides some cautionary points for technologically-focused warfare and revolutions in military affairs. This is the second part of a two-part blog exploring the strategic effects of NATO’s entry into the war in Libya. This second installment looks to asses the way in which air power and SOF achieve strategic effects, the goal of which is to calibrate our understanding of, and expectations for potential future ‘small footprint’ conflicts.

I want to start this piece with a slight preface. In my last, and first, post I discussed the relative value of contributions made by the NATO assets involved in Operation Unified Protector. I discussed the relative values of their contributions in relation to the formation of the NTC. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t upfront about the manner in which I assessed relative contributions. When I rated the contributions of NATO’s combined airpower and the small but effective band of elite special operators on the ground I used the word significant. When seeking to emphasize the importance of the NTC’s establishment I used the word decisive. Both of those word choices were deliberate, in the words of my terrific former academic advisor, when writing academically only one factor can be decisive, everything and anything else can be significant but not equally superlative. Significant is a terrific and also terrible word for this purpose, as it can be both emphatically supportive and somewhat belittling.

While the distinction could be viewed as little more than semantics, it is, in actual fact quite a bit more than simple nuance. The point I was trying to make, is in many ways at the very core of why silver bullet strategic theories often falter when put to the test in actual wars. In particular it’s why wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq failed and its why if Libya succeeds it will have very little to do with the highly important contributions made by the special operations and air forces of NATO’s allied states.

As cliché as it’s become, the Clausewitzian dictum really is at the centre of this, the initial phases of the Iraq and Afghan wars failed for the simple reason that despite the brilliant tactical and operational performances of American (and allied) forces the political situation was not such that an expedited strategic result could be achieved. While nothing is set in stone yet with regards to the Libyan Revolution, it’s within the realm of possibility that an expedient strategic result can be achieved. At little cost of blood and treasure, at least to those who are not holding a Lybian passport. This is why it is important that the vital lesson from this conflict should not be that SOF and air power can win the day. It is however important to explore the way we can better understand the value of these contributors as they are vital. Additionally, both of these aspects are staples of modern conflict and both have often been criticized for a failure to live up to the hype and fanfare both their budgets and their advocates create.

Neither Special Forces, nor airpower alone can singularly win a war, yet both are incredibly valuable tools, both tactically and strategically. While the technical aspects of their contributions vary greatly, from the strategic perspective they can be viewed in a similar vein, certainly with regard to expectations.

Since the dawn of military airpower strategic theorists have advocated its war winning abilities via direct application of strategic bombing with the sole purpose of achieving strategic effects. The strategic bombing campaigns of World War II were a near perfect application of the theories of air power advocates and practitioners like Billy Mitchell and Hugh Trenchard. In addition to being theorists of air power these two men were in many ways the fathers of their respective services. As such they had to do more than just ponder the relative values of the branches they supported. They had to lobby for funding and support from governments that didn’t necessarily view them as good value. In order to best assure the success and prosperity of their fledgling fields they did what any good salesman does. In a manner that would make both Don Draper and Steve Jobs nod with appreciation, they made their product all things to all people. By developing parallel applications, the first being close air support, supporting tactical operations with a tool capable of achieving crucial attrition at the tactical level.

This however wasn’t enough to justify the creation independent services. Therefore advocates like Hugh Trenchard and Billy Mitchell, desperate for a means to create an independent air service in their respective countries. Developed theories of strategic bombing, built on the belief that enough bombing of an enemies heartland could achieve a singularly decisive strategic result. The underpinning theory was that by dropping enough bombs deep into the social and industrial centres of the enemy’s heartland. Allied Air Forces could demolish both the morale support for the war through sheer terror, and render the enemy’s wartime economy and industry incapable of waging war at an industrial level. Assuring that no matter the battlefield or the situation the right tool for the job was airpower.

In World War II the success of tactical airpower was undeniable, not that it was ever really in question. At the strategic level however it’s a lot more difficult to distinguish. The nuclear attacks on Japan aside, the strategic bombing campaign against Germany clearly failed to achieve the singularly decisive result it strove to achieve. It failed to be decisive despite the fact that the campaigns planners prescribed to each and every relevant aspect of the theories that should have assured its success.

It can be argued that during the early phases of the Second World War, seventy some years ago in the very same Libyan deserts currently being contested; the forbearers of modern special operations forces came into being. The Special Air Service (SAS) and the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) were raised for the purpose of waging an unconventional warfare campaign against the German Afrika Korps. It cannot, nor should it ever have been, argued that the actions of the SAS/LRDG achieved a singularly decisive strategic result. Aside from actions outside the context of a wider war such as what some have dubbed the ‘great raids’ or specific counter-terrorism operations, nowhere in the last eighty years can it be claim that special operations forces achieved a singularly decisive strategic result. Nor has anyone with credible special operations experience put forth the idea that special operations alone can win wars. Yet consistently critics of special operations have attempted to establish this as a sort of standard, as the sole means on which the existence of these forces can be justified.

A more realistic understanding of the valuable contribution both airpower and special operations can make would be to view them as strategic amplifiers. In both of the already stated examples strategic bombing of Germany and the SAS/LRDG operations against the Afrika Korps, airpower and special operations forces may not have achieved a singularly decisive strategic result but they did amplify the effects of the wider conventional campaign.

By viewing their effects through the prism of Clausewitz’ concept of Friction we can understand the effects these two campaigns had on the larger conflict. As best understood the idea of friction, in the Clausewitzian sense can be used to appreciate the limitations that have been constant throughout the history of armed conflict. Opposing forces cannot create an opponent’s need for manpower, weapons, supplies, and the logistical systems to support them. The opposing forces can however amplify the effects of this inherent friction. While the strategic bombing of Germany failed to be decisive yet its cumulative effect was extremely significant. It managed to amplify the friction existing within the German military and economic system. By forcing a greater contribution of precious resources to assure that Germany maintained the requisite levels of production crucial to meeting its logistical needs. The allied air forces inhibited the ability of the German forces to achieve their strategic goals.

The actions of the SAS/LRDG can be viewed in a similar vein, though perhaps better framed looking solely at the theatre level; they could be extrapolated further. By both attacking and disabling numerous enemy supply depots, as well as damaging or destroying scores of enemy aircraft on the ground. SAS/LRDG operations succeeded in denying crucial supplies and capabilities; capabilities which may have enabled the Afrika Korps to press significant tactical advantages in their drive for the Arabian oil fields. The resulting effects then were to amplify the inherent difficulties of supplying and maintaining, aircraft, tanks and other heavy equipment; already challenging in such a difficult desert environment. At the operational and strategic level this contributed to stalling or weakening enemy offensive capabilities, altering the flow of the campaign to the Allies benefit.

Additionally they both function as a means to amplify the tactical, operational, and strategic level effects of attrition. While neither is likely to singularly attrit an opposing force to the point of defeat, when used in concert with conventional aspects of waging war they can expedite a successful strategic result.

By way of conclusion it’s important to tie this back into the context of operations in Libya. When used to best effect SOF and airpower are amplifiers, they can expedite a desired strategic end state when used in conjunction with conventional forces. They can do so either by improving the fighting capabilities of allied forces or alternatively by diminishing the fighting capabilities of an adversary. However, in contrast to what some have argued, they cannot achieve a strategic result without being used to facilitate the operations of a conventional force. The ability of that conventional force to handle what remains in spite of the actions of airpower and SOF is what ultimately achieves the desired strategic end state. In the early stages of the Afghan ’01 war, while airpower and SOF achieved significant results and created the space for successful conventional action in order to decisively determine the result of the conflict. The lack of a capable, unified, conventional element on the battlefield allowed the enemy to reassert his influence on the battlefield. Thus the ultimate success of NATO’s operation in Libya will depend entirely on whether or not the Libyan NTC is capable of achieving the conventional needs of the conflict and denying the return or creation of an enemy that can reassert a competing influence. Therefore when we look forward, towards future conflicts in which regime change or removal is the desired strategic end state; cognizance of the need for a credible, capable conventional force either foreign or indigenous to fill the void is absolutely vital.

Nicholas Prime is an MPhil/PhD Candidate in the Department of War Studies, King's College London. His thesis research is focused on the evolution of American strategic thought in the first half of the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter: @NC_Prime. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.