I looked forward to reading Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken’s article, “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But it Sure Doesn’t Lose Them” in War on the Rocks, which I can count on for some provocative reading. Unfortunately, I have to take a dissenting view on that article, not so much for its advocacy of airpower, but because of its method. In general, tactical methods and missions are in themselves not a solution for problems of policy and strategy. Those arguments may be attractive to politicians and budgeteers, but the way in which those arguments are constructed is misleading.
“The sin being committed here is what Samuel Huntington called strategic monism…”
The problems that the authors identify military solutions for are actually policy goals, which the authors don’t articulate. The problem is that specifying an air, sea, or any other tactically-framed solution against unstated policy goals is tantamount to giving a solution before the elements of the problem have been identified. The sin being committed here is what Samuel Huntington called strategic monism, where a particular method is deemed to be the only way to address circumstances of policy and strategy that are inherently unique. The crux of achieving policy goals, whether they be limited objectives or so-called “victory,” is not a military force, its composition, or its mission, what military mission is being conducted, or what particular assets are being employed, but the desired strategic objectives — not the tasks.
Military strategy, regardless of its form, is always going to be subordinate to policy guidance. If that policy guidance is phrased in ways that enable a positive strategy, then there will be more leeway for the use of the military instrument of national power. If that policy guidance is phrased to drive a negative strategy such as denial or prevention, where the goals are focused on another actor’s freedom of action, or to prevent the emergence of certain conditions, then active pursuit of a positive strategy will not be possible. Instead, “satisficing” for the least unsatisfactory outcome is likely the best that can be achieved.
I am frankly concerned when I see selective citation to serve the needs of an argument, as can be found in the WOTR article. While the discussion of conflict termination in the Pacific theater is probably better reserved for a different venue, airpower could terminate armed hostilities (and I’m choosing my words carefully here) because the United States was willing to prosecute a degree of destruction (e.g. unrestricted submarine warfare on Japanese civilian shipping, firebombing of multiple cities, and two nuclear strikes) that even Curtis LeMay believed would have led to his trial as a war criminal had the U.S. lost the war. What airpower could not do was the post-conflict stabilization that is not always optional. Similarly, the bounds of policy guidance were very clear in Korea — particularly when a joint force commander advocated for the use of airpower-delivered nuclear weapons, leading to his very public relief by his civilian leadership. As to Vietnam, the use of airpower in Operation LINEBACKER I only delayed North Vietnamese hopes of a unilateral military resolution, which occurred three years later in 1975.
The selective citation of history continues into later examples, most notoriously DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, where differences in styles of operation (in this case, the relationship of AirLand Battle doctrine to battlefield air interdiction versus the Air Force’s traditional view of air interdiction), combined with an early lack of transparency in the targeting process, resulted in a bitter dispute between Headquarters, Army Central and Headquarters, Air Forces Central Command (both Service subordinate headquarters to Central Command) that required the deputy combatant commander to resolve. Operations in Kosovo, Libya, and lately Syria excluded ground combat operations because of policy restrictions that were a function of political consensus and will more than military capability.
“The authors describe landpower as full commitment of the nation’s spirit blood and treasure, and thus not scalable or reversible. A further implication is that landpower is not usable for limited national policy goals.”
Equally problematic is the strawman of landpower as large-scale conventional force combined arms operations, whether against a peer competitor or not. The authors describe landpower as full commitment of the nation’s spirit blood and treasure, and thus not scalable or reversible. A further implication is that landpower is not usable for limited national policy goals. In reality, the Army and Marine Corps have provided landpower forces for limited objectives for years, whether noncombatant evacuation operations, joint exercises,security cooperation, or even combat operations. The fact that Army conventional and special operations forces are in Iraq conducting operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham is necessarily beholden to the realities of the limited policy goals that govern their use.
“…the notion of “victory” actually begs the question of what the desired outcomes of policy might be.”
The employment of landpower in pursuit of “victory,” as the authors note, implies a unitary definition of “victory” that may only apply in state-on-state conflict — which I argue the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq ceased to be by 2003. However, landpower is not solely limited to large unit employment (which, in the interests of transparency, the U.S. Army’s bumper stickers of “combined arms maneuver” and “wide area security” do not help), and the notion of “victory” actually begs the question of what the desired outcomes of policy might be. Tactical purposes, strategic objectives, and policy goals are not the same, and to conflate them is intellectually dangerous. In general, arguing that previous events that led to costly failures and implications of the same without drilling down the elements of causality is a reification error. One, correlation is not causation. Two, less rigorously, any time I hear something that sounds like “history proves that…” it’s an indicator that the speaker doesn’t know history or its methods (or just doesn’t care).
Thus, the basic suffix question I ask of any discussion of military operations in pursuit of policy goals is usually “for what?” In particular, discussions of military options should not initially not focus on what the force is doing tactically. Instead, the basis of discussion needs to be more conceptual, involving descriptions of strategic ways, such as denial, punishment, deterrence, or containment that serve policy goals. Looking upwards to policy, military practitioners of strategic art must balance ends, ways, means, and risk within the bounds of policy. Looking downwards to tactics, military practitioners of operational art will tailor forces as necessary to do what is required. A full view of military power has to account for both of those perspectives.
The instrument of national power in question is not airpower, landpower, or seapower.
The excellence of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy in their respective domains is an invaluable contribution to the U.S. joint force. At the same time, it is a regrettable reality that trade offs are a zero-sum game for defense budgeting. Nonetheless, the U.S. military cannot rest simply on terminating conflicts. Effective military strategy also entails creating the desired conditions that serve enduring national interests, whether before or after conflict termination.
The instrument of national power in question is not airpower, landpower, or seapower. It is the military instrument of national power, and its use in the pursuit of limited objectives is a function of policy first, then strategy. Competent military strategists are agnostic in their selection of tools, regardless of domain, be it air, land, sea, information, cyberspace, or any other. Tactical capabilities provide options, but are in themselves not a solution.
Francis Park is a U.S. Army Strategist currently serving as a historian. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Kansas. His experience includes campaign planning, strategy, and policy assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Army Staff. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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.