January 1, 2009  

New principles for new war

Now can we meet the new challenges of global terrorism and defend ourselves with the least cost in blood and treasure? We need to identify the nature of the present environment and how our military should be structured to operate within it. We must then revise our doctrine and teach these new ideas to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines so they can internalize them before a crisis occurs.

One of the basics for such an educational rebirth is to understand the principles of war. Unfortunately, these principles — formulated nearly a century ago and enshrined in our doctrine — are outdated, insufficient and misleading in a modern era dominated by air and space assets, real-time intelligence, speed-of-light command-and-control systems, and ubiquitous multimedia news sources. Simply put: The old principles of war won’t work in an age calling for new ways of fighting, not just more efficient ways of fighting the old way. Reliance on the old principles of war will have us looking backward and fighting the last war — and doing that badly — rather than looking forward to fight the next.

The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was a watershed. Iraq had the fourth-largest army in the world, hardened during a decade-long war with Iran. The U.S.-led coalition was projecting power from around the world in a difficult desert environment. But when the coalition struck in January 1991 to liberate Kuwait, the Iraqi forces were doomed.

Our strategy was to rely on air power supported by ground forces. The ground troops were there to pin the enemy, to fix him, while air power punched him. In a remarkable directive, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf told the air commander that he wanted air power to reduce all frontline Iraqi divisions by at least 50 percent before offensive ground operations began. This in fact occurred — by G-Day in late February, all 48 frontline Iraqi divisions had been reduced by air power to below 50 percent in strength. The Iraqi Army was “combat ineffective” before major ground operations even began.

The conflicts following Operation Desert Storm buttressed claims that a new paradigm of war was emerging. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and northern Iraq in 2003, diplomatic and geographic constraints shaped a series of operations that proved unusually successful — providing politically desirable results with a remarkably low casualty toll. These campaigns were alike in that they relied primarily on air and space power — land- and sea-based — combined with special operations forces, indigenous ground troops such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the Kurds in northern Iraq, and robust intelligence and command-and-control systems linked together in a global array.

These conflicts were characterized by new and revolutionary technologies: stealth, precision-guided munitions (PGMs), massive ISR use and near-real time global C2. They combined to produce extremely low casualties, low collateral damage and rapid decision-making. They produced victory. We achieved our political goals at low cost.

In short, we confronted enemies using asymmetric strategies by responding with our asymmetric advantage — air and space power. The campaign in southern Iraq in 2003 seemed to crack the mold a bit, but it was still a smart campaign plan that relied on airpower and small but hard-hitting conventional ground forces. Shock and awe worked. In three weeks, Baghdad fell. An example of how new technologies were revolutionizing war was “the great sandstorm” during the drive to Baghdad. Our ground forces halted, and the Iraqis thought they had an advantage — until their tanks and trucks began blowing up. Air and space assets were able to see through the sand, and precision weapons, which were guided by radar or GPS, still worked.

But then the wheels began to fall off, and it took nearly five years to get ourselves back on track. That leads to a fundamental question: Did we put in too few ground troops to ensure the pacification of Iraq, or did we send in too many? The addition of large numbers of conventional forces served as a magnet to draw in bad guys from adjoining countries to fight the “infidels.” There were only a few hundred insurgents in Iraq in the spring of 2003. Because of our ground presence that number soon exploded to more than 20,000.

We disregarded the paradigm that had worked so successfully for the previous 15 years, and disaster resulted. How did we so misjudge the nature of the war in Iraq? Part of the problem was our reliance on old principles of war.

The desire to impose order on the chaos of war is age-old. Military thinkers and generals therefore posited rules, laws, maxims and principles that governed the conduct of war. This was a highly practical exercise — and still is. The human brain needs to limit complexity, especially in crisis situations when time is short. It does this by categorizing. For soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, this means reducing their job to certain basics.

Some devices used have assumed the character of adages: “Take the high ground,” “Git thar fustest with the mostest,” and, for the pilot, “Check six.” Others have taken this subject more seriously. Sun-Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine Jomini and others have suggested rules to guide military leaders, but these efforts were of limited use.

World War I, with its trench warfare and horrendous casualties, showed the bankruptcy of military thought. Yet, despite the carnage and muddle-headed thinking of the war’s commanders, one man offered new ideas. In 1916, J.F.C. Fuller, a British soldier, compiled a list of eight “strategic principles” that were imbued with a pithiness and logic that has let them stand the test of time: Objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, movement, surprise, security and cooperation.

In 1920, these were formalized in British Army doctrine, and the following year, the U.S. Army adopted them, although adding a ninth — simplicity. Today, U.S. Air Force doctrine still lists nine principles — the same tired list proposed by Fuller and modified by the Army nearly a century ago.

It is time to start over. War has changed so dramatically since 1916 when Fuller offered his strategic principles that the continual attempts to sand these square pegs so they’ll fit into round holes has become useless. The new environment coupled with revolutionary changes in war’s conduct demand a fresh start. I propose the following list.

Air, space, cyberspace and naval supremacy. The U.S. has come to assume the dominance implied here, and it does so for good reason. The Army has not had to fight without air superiority since Kasserine Pass in 1943. It has not lost a soldier to an enemy airplane since 1953. It has never had to fire a surface-to-air missile at an enemy aircraft — the bad guys have never gotten that close.

Our sea superiority has been equally impressive. Since the Battle of the Atlantic, our dominance at sea has been unquestioned. We have been able to deploy forces worldwide, by air or sea, for more than a half-century with virtually no losses. Those forces have then been resupplied, again by air and sea, largely unopposed.

Cyberspace is a new environment that is becoming a crucial front in modern war. But because it is such a new field, dependent on brain power and not industrial might, it is an area for adversaries to seek an asymmetric advantage. We cannot allow that to happen.

Homeland security. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were the worst assault on the U.S. mainland in history. Airpower, in the form of commandeered civilian airliners, killed more than 3,000 innocent people in New York City, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. A result has been the establishment of a huge apparatus — the Department of Homeland Security — that has responsibility for thwarting future attacks. Certainly, home defense has always been a major component of our defense policy, but new terrorist threats demand a different response. Internal police forces, border patrols or intelligence agencies such as the FBI are no longer adequate to defend against the worldwide and networked terrorist forces arrayed against us. New technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, information warfare and computer self-defense systems have been built to conduct this new fight. New intelligence-gathering and analysis organizations have been created to track down terrorists and prevent their attacks before they occur.

Unity of command. The demands of modern, theaterwide warfare necessitate unity of command because of the increasingly long ranges and responsiveness of the weapons at a commander’s disposal. Aircraft can travel hundreds of miles in minutes to deliver ordnance, and space assets can sense an entire theater during a single pass. When such systems can see or shoot at continental distances, there must be a guiding hand to ensure they are operating in a coordinated and seamless fashion to achieve a specific purpose.

The demands of unifying and focusing the efforts of several military services and allies while at the same time controlling and coordinating the efforts of non-military agencies so as to ensure a holistic strategy and policy, demands that a single individual be in charge. Although this will not ensure the resulting policy or strategy is the correct one, such unity of command is a necessary if insufficient condition for success.

Integration. This refers to the coordinated use of all levers of power: military, political, economic, psychological and cultural. Although in the old era it was wise to use a combination of the levers of power, today it is essential.

For example, at the conclusion of military hostilities in 1991, Schwarzkopf went to the tent at Safwan to negotiate a cease-fire with the defeated Iraqi commander. Schwarzkopf received virtually no guidance from the U.S. State Department on this critical meeting. He was not prepared, and serious trouble resulted. War and its aftermath must be addressed by a coalition of agencies, not simply the military — and they must plan before the war for the conditions desired after the war. Today, a concerted effort emphasizing experts and expertise from Defense, State, Treasury, Homeland Security, the intelligence community and, perhaps, nongovernmental agencies, will be needed to confront successfully the varied challenges now facing us.

Jointness. For centuries, the need for cooperation among the services was considered a sometimes desirable but seldom necessary occurrence. Until World War II, the Army and Navy could largely ignore each other with few ill effects. That changed during the war, but the problem was not completely eradicated. A main problem leading to defeat in Vietnam was the parochialism and sometimes childish rivalry that existed among the services. It was only further difficulties in war that forced reform and a move towards jointness. It is now difficult to understand what the problem was. Jointness works.

Intelligence. The demand for intelligence is greater than ever yet more difficult to fulfill. As our intelligence-gathering sensors and techniques have become better, so too have adversaries’ tricks at hiding, camouflaging or distorting the objects we try to examine. At times, this can lead to disaster — as with “The Case of the Missing WMD” in Iraq. The type of intelligence has changed. Just as the advent of air power required a new type of economic intelligence, so now insurgency and terrorism require cultural intelligence that our present system is not equipped to collect. We simply do not know or understand the motivations of the Islamic radicals who seek to destroy us.

In addition, although we now have sensors that can detect objects, moving and stationary, as well as intercept all types of electronic emissions, there are certain targets that still confound us. We need to detect the presence of all types of WMD — where they are made, stored and transported. Until we can do so, accurately and continuously, we will be unable to hold at risk rogue states that defy international sanctions and continue to pursue such weapons.

Net-centricity. We must link, on a global basis and in real time, the various intelligence-gathering sensors and C2 links that are deployed around the world. This linkage is now beginning. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, UAVs are being “flown” by pilots at consoles at air bases in the U.S. That is world war, in real time.

There is, however, an intrinsic tension between the principles of net-centricity and unity of command. The latter can be seen as fostering a more centralized view of command and control, whereas net-centricity can often be viewed as an attempt to decentralize — to flow information downward to the tactical level, allowing local commanders on the scene to make more timely decisions. This seeming paradox is not insoluble.

Mobility. The U.S. believes that its interests are best defended as far from its shores as possible, so power projection is essential. Significantly, there are slightly more than 1,100 large cargo aircraft in the world, and more than 700 of them belong to the U.S. (all in the Air Force), which is nearly 65 percent of the world total. There are also 825 aerial refuelers in the world — the U.S. has more than 700, or about 85 percent of the total. Most of the other large cargo planes and tankers belong to NATO countries. This air mobility force allows the U.S. and its allies to project power anywhere in the world, rapidly, and, just as important, to sustain those forces for an extended period of time.

Precision. The development of precision-guided munitions is one of the great military revolutions of our age. These weapons have generated fundamental changes to the way we plan military campaigns. Beginning with Desert Storm in 1991, “air-shaft accuracy” has become so routine it is now expected.

PGMs have reduced by orders of magnitude the number of sorties required to neutralize a given target. This reduction in sorties means fewer aircraft and fewer weapons, which in turn mean fewer personnel, less fuel, less ordnance, and fewer spare parts. Because many of these personnel and much of the materiel must come from the U.S., their reduction puts a lighter load on the mobility forces that deploy and sustain these assets. PGMs are the gifts that keep on giving.

PGMs also ensure fewer casualties. Because they have such a high probability of success, usually only a single aircraft is needed to neutralize a given target. PGMs also mean less collateral damage and fewer civilian casualties.

Media awareness and initiative. I am not advocating that the military manipulate or deceive the news media. Rather, commanders must realize that virtually everything they do will now be scrutinized by a skeptical news media over which they have no control.

Every bomb, missile or bullet we fire can have political effects. When a bomb goes astray, a Tomahawk missile crashes into a hotel lobby or an edgy soldier kills a civilian at a roadblock, our foreign policy suffers a setback. We can no longer afford to miss. More than that, even when we hit the target, we have to do so almost softly and with minimal impact. One is reminded of TV Westerns many years back: the good guy — the one in the white hat — never killed the bad guy; he shot the gun out of his hand and arrested him. That is our new standard.

Purpose. Virtually everything a human being does is guided by a sense of purpose, even if that purpose is obscure, ill-advised, self-destructive or made under pressure. War is no exception. It has become an article of faith that in Western countries this purpose — used to justify the use of military force — must be based on policy. In other words, the use of force is determined by politicians, not those in uniform, and the politicians should base their decision to use force on rational reasons of state policy. Moreover, this political purpose should be logical, ethical and enjoy a large measure of support among the people. This is not only a peculiarly Western notion that lacks universality, but in practice it is often twisted and distorted so as to become meaningless.

Yet purpose is a crucial component of military action — there must be a point to it all. Given the landmines surrounding such a principle, however, perhaps it merely can be said that these purposes should be well-conceived, clear and non-trivial; that the use of military force should not be considered as an end in itself; that the gains to be achieved should be commensurate to the resources expended; and that all those involved should understand what is expected of them individually and as a nation before employing the military tool. But saying that says a very great deal indeed. Whether the purpose invoked is a sound one is usually not known until the war has already been launched.

This is my effort at proposing new principles of war for a new era of warfare. They reflect the new conditions, new enemies and new technologies that now dominate war.

Warfare has changed; we must change with it. These new principles of war can help us understand this new era and also shape the doctrine and force structure we will need to confront that new era. AF

Phillip S. Meilinger is a retired Air Force colonel and former defense analyst with a doctorate in military history.