January 1, 2007  

The indirect approach

When it comes to winning small wars, air power is more than putting steel on target. Air Force strategic thinking continues to be grounded in a theory of strategic attack that fails to maximize air power’s utility in small wars. Continuing to adhere primarily to this policy relegates other uses of air power to afterthoughts and shortchanges America’s military capability as the nation faces a form of warfare that essentially grants air supremacy. This form of warfare, whether called small wars, asymmetric warfare or fourth-generation warfare, is a classic David vs. Goliath affair, and we are Goliath. Having witnessed the “shock and awe” of American firepower, modern insurgents understand the message loud and clear: They cannot achieve victory by fighting America on its own terms. To neutralize the technological strength of U.S. forces, modern insurgents have adapted their strategy and tactics to capitalize on our weaknesses, including our over-reliance on strategic attack.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, America’s response to external aggression or perceived threats has been the employment of strategic attack. Adhering to a component of C.E. Callwell’s three classes of small wars, America has made the direct use of air power its first choice in wiping out insults or avenging wrongs. This option was exercised in operations ranging from the use of F-111s against Libya to the use of cruise missiles in the Sudan and Afghanistan. The effectiveness of this tactic is inextricably tied to the enemy’s center of gravity, as demonstrated by retired Air Force Col. John Warden’s five-rings concept. By striking an enemy hard where it hurts the most, air power can often achieve a desired effect against a conventional enemy. However, when the enemy’s center of gravity is intangible, as it often is in small wars, targeting becomes more difficult and strategic attack loses its value. Avoiding Goliath’s fate requires that we look past strategic attack to a more effective use of air power that accounts for the nature of our enemy and incorporates lessons from past small wars.

Although the Air Force strives to position itself to control the skies over a hostile nation, air superiority is not the end state sought by air power. Air superiority is simply a means to an end. It does not, standing alone, constitute the sovereign options that the Air Force seeks to deliver on behalf of the U.S.

Strategic attack is a method of attacking an enemy’s centers of gravity to produce a level of destruction and disintegration of an enemy’s military capacity to a point where the enemy is no longer capable of carrying out aggressive activity. In common vernacular, this means that air power is about putting bombs on target. From the very beginning, air power theorists saw the need for projecting lethal air power onto an enemy’s soil.

Throughout air power’s history, its focus has been on bombing the targets necessary to bring about a successful conclusion to war. Theorists from Giulio Douhet to Warden have agreed that long-range bombardment, or what we today would call strategic attack, is the primary mission of an air force. This idea has been carried forward to current Air Force doctrine. In discussing the changing character of war, Air Force Basic Doctrine concludes that a “prompt, continued, aggressive application of air and space power in the opening phase [of a war] may actually constitute the conflict’s decisive phase.”

The Air Force approach to warfare is based in part on effects-based operations. Of the 17 key operational functions enumerated in Air Force Basic Doctrine, only one is specifically aimed at the attainment of national security objectives — strategic attack. While this observation does not seek to diminish the remaining operational functions, these functions either support the strategic-attack mission or provide a supporting role to an Army or Marine Corps ground mission. It is this approach that restricts the full benefits of these operational functions in a small-war environment.

A small-war environment does not present the same objectives and centers of gravity as a conventional war. Thus, to increase the effectiveness of air power in achieving national security objectives, air power must adapt to the changing nature of war. A look at the nature of our small-wars enemy and the shortcomings of strategic attack in a small-wars setting demonstrates the need for a fresh examination of air power’s utility beyond strategic attack.


While most insurgent movements in past small wars were characterized by a Marxist ideology and a military arm that at least attempted to copy traditional military hierarchy, the insurgents America faces today mostly subscribe to extremist Islam and follow a decentralized structure.

Commenting on the difference between the Israeli military and Islamic insurgents vis-à-vis an acceptance of casualties, one Hezbollah official said, “When an Israeli soldier is killed, senior Israeli officials begin crying over his death. ? Their point of departure is preservation of life, while our point of departure is preservation of principle and sacrifice.” The Islamic insurgent wages a jihad, or holy war, against his enemy and views this as a religious duty. This results in a greater motivation and willingness to die, and counterinsurgent forces must deal with this phenomenon.

In addition to engaging in religious fanaticism, the modern insurgent also shuns traditional military hierarchy. Rather than follow a formal structure with a commander and subcommanders, these insurgents are more like gangs organized around mosques, neighborhoods and local leaders taking their cue from an ideological hatred of America not some grand military strategy. Moreover, these insurgents wear no uniforms, operate from their homes rather than a military base, maintain no communications that can be routinely intercepted and have no rank structure.

Modern insurgents also deviate from mainstream military doctrine when it comes to tactics. Adopting tactics of the weak when faced with a strong adversary, modern insurgents combine traditional guerrilla tactics with the tactics of terrorism. In so doing, modern insurgents seek battle in urban areas where they can fight and hide amid the civilian population in an effort to avoid strategic attack. Employing hit-and-run tactics in urban terrain with which they are intimately familiar, Islamic insurgents are highly mobile and refuse to establish fixed defenses, preferring instead to fight running battles with U.S. troops.

Insurgent attacks, however, are not limited to U.S. troops and other military targets. Islamic insurgents will attack economic, political, social and religious targets in an effort to convince U.S. decision-makers that achieving a desired political outcome is too costly in blood and money. The insurgent strategy, then, is not to defeat America militarily, but politically.


The shock and awe campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) again demonstrated the superiority of U.S. air power. Essentially following the centers of gravity/parallel attack plan espoused by Warden prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and solidified in American air-power doctrine, air power was able to achieve complete success in a shockingly short period of time. This aerial demonstration proved that in force-on-force, conventional-style war, American air power has no equal. However, OIF’s change from regime annihilation to a small-war insurgency raises the question of whether Warden’s five-ring concept of strategic attack continues to represent the optimum employment of air power.

Warden articulates an organizational scheme for determining an enemy’s center of gravity, which he claims is applicable to every organization. This scheme is composed of five elements: a leadership element to guide the organization’s courses of action; organic essentials required to keep the organization functional; infrastructure to assist in attaining the organization’s goals; a population that provides a labor pool; and a defense mechanism that protects the organization from external threats. As applied to a nation-state, these five elements would consist of a government; energy sources, such as electricity and oil; an infrastructure in the form of factories, roads and other such facilities; the nation’s citizens; and a fielded military.

Organizing these elements into concentric rings, Warden gives strategic value to these elements according to their ability to influence the decision-making process of the nation. Since the leadership or government of a nation-state is most able to effect policy change in a timely manner, it is placed in the center, most important ring. A nation’s organic essentials come next. Since a nation-state is not likely to follow a particular course of action for a long period of time without this element, an indirect influence on leadership decision-making is likely to occur quickly once this asset is denied. The third ring is composed of the infrastructure needed to accomplish a nation-state’s goals. By denying the use of these assets, strategic attacks can also influence leadership but to a lesser degree than with attacks to organic essentials. Within Warden’s fourth ring is the nation’s population. Obviously, attacks on a population will alter public opinion, but it often takes much longer to filter up to the government and can backfire. One need only compare the reaction of American and Spanish citizens to attacks within their respective countries to recognize this. The fielded military is in Warden’s last and least important ring. Although this may seem counterintuitive, it becomes much clearer when one realizes that many nations have continued to send troops into combat knowing a war was already lost.

Although Warden’s theory is obviously applicable to state-on-state, conventional war, its utility in insurgent-based small wars is questionable because modern insurgencies do not typically fit within the five-ring organizational scheme.

Depending upon their goals and ideology, insurgent movements can adopt a network or hierarchical approach to organization. Insurgent movements having a basis in extremist Islam typically follow a cellular or compartmentalized structure that provides a higher degree of security than a traditional, hierarchical framework. Normally, only a single member of one cell has contact with a member from another cell and the remaining members are left unaware of the existence of the other cells. The result is that the compromise of one cell often has little effect on the organization as a whole. Thus, attacking the leadership ring via Warden’s five-ring concept becomes increasingly difficult and, even when possible, yields meager results.

Although striking at a nation-state’s organic essentials or infrastructure often yields timely results vis-à-vis policy change, the same cannot be said of insurgent movements. It must be remembered that modern insurgents live among the population, often in urban areas. The same gas and electricity used by insurgents is also used to heat the homes of local residents who may be sympathetic to U.S. interests or at least ambivalent. As indicated below, a return of basic services to the indigenous population is crucial to gaining and maintaining popular support for U.S. forces. Of paramount importance to all people is the ability to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. Until these basic needs are met, people will think of little else and will seek out any organization able to meet those needs. By refraining from attacking the organic essentials and infrastructure designed to support these basic needs, or restoring their capabilities in a timely manner, American forces gain the support of the local populace and simultaneously deny this same support to the insurgent. This, in turn, denies the insurgent his true organic essential — popular support. Thus, while organic essentials and infrastructure may be justifiably targeted by lethal air power in a conventional-style conflict, an entirely different method of targeting is required for small wars.

The use of Warden’s five rings to target the population and military poses the most significant problem when attempting to apply this concept to small wars. Positive identification of an insurgent often proves elusive until he decides to strike. This creates potential targeting problems when attempting to distinguish between lawful and unlawful targets in a small-wars setting. The omnipresence of today’s media coupled with the insurgents’ effective use of those media as a propaganda tool dictates restraint when it comes to targeting. Gone are the days when a population was treated as a viable target for the lethal application of air power. Similarly, while actual combatants should be targeted, the fact that insurgents hide among the people dictates that care be taken not to strengthen the insurgents through excess collateral damage. Yet this is precisely the danger we face by overemphasizing strategic attack in small wars and ignoring past lessons encountered.


The lessons of past small wars teach that air power’s indirect use is much more valuable than its lethal application. The three categories of nonlethal air power that have proven most useful in small wars are: airlift; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and psychological warfare. Against modern insurgencies, these indirect applications of air power will continue to prove more beneficial than simply putting steel on target. This is especially true since lethal air power often results in unintended casualties that result in an erosion of popular support.

Airlift, a means by which personnel and supplies can be moved in support of ground operations, can be crucial to mission success. Callwell, an eminent scholar in the field of small wars, once said that the intertwined problems of mobility and supply place the counterinsurgent at a distinct disadvantage. He argued that the “all-important question of supply is in fact at the root of most of the difficulties, and has been the cause of some of the disasters, to which regular troops engaged in small wars seem ever to be prone.” Airlift evens the odds and permits the counterinsurgent force to attain the mobility and sustainability normally only enjoyed by the insurgent. Indirect air power gives counterinsurgency forces an opportunity to force the insurgent to fight where the regular force’s tactical advantages of firepower and discipline will prevail.

In insurgencies ranging from Malaya to Rhodesia to Lebanon, counterinsurgent forces used airlift to support the movement of small, deep-penetration units designed to seek out and kill insurgents. This use of air power permitted a freedom of movement not normally enjoyed by the counterinsurgent force. The ability to rapidly supply a patrol deep in insurgent territory allows the counterinsurgent force to maintain pressure by attacking vigorously and doggedly pursuing the insurgents. As America continues to face insurgents who move about a country with near impunity, airlift will be increasingly necessary to seize the initiative by taking the fight to the insurgent.

The indirect application of air power through ISR is another crucial role for air power in future small wars. Traditionally, insurgent forces have been able to adapt to aerial ISR through the use of improved camouflage techniques and night movement. But when insurgents massed to attack, air power proved vital by identifying the threat and employing its lethal capabilities. Although modern insurgents will sometimes engage in positional warfare so U.S. air power can identify and employ firepower in a ground support role, the urban nature of the conflict will often preclude major air strikes. In that case, ISR can still prove useful to the infantryman.

As we know from the OIF battle of Ramadi, there are often telltale signs of an impending fight, e.g. local residents tend to restrict movement and streets often become bare. Since this may be limited to particular neighborhoods rather than an entire city, ISR assets can identify these signs and relay the information to ground troops. Modern technology even allows ISR to accomplish this role at night. This is nothing new. Marines employed this tactic, called infantry missions or air escort, in Nicaragua in the late 1920s. Thus, while technology is not the sole answer, an old-school solution matched with modern technology can assist with the problems of today’s modern insurgencies.

Modern technology can also assist in another area of indirect air power: psychological operations. Although such operations in the past were typically confined to the local area through the distribution of leaflets to the enemy and the populace, today’s insurgencies require a much broader scope. In addition to engaging in psychological warfare against insurgents during battle, air power must be used to engage the enemy through the media. Islamic insurgents have identified the media as a key battleground and have become adept at presenting a unified version of their story to the Western media. That this message has had some success in achieving its goal of influencing U.S. policy-makers is not questioned.

Aside from the possibility of jamming communications in the battle area, air power can assist in this propaganda war by recording the truth. In most areas in which the enemy is engaged, Western reporters are not welcome. Often reporters from Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news organization known for its anti-American bias, are the only ones permitted in the area, because insurgents will likely target Western journalists. This results in an inaccurate portrayal of events. For example, in the battle of Fallujah, Al Jazeera focused solely on the destruction and broadcast images of civilian deaths, emphasizing a perceived overuse of American firepower. No effort was made to show how insurgent tactics were the direct cause of these deaths or how the insurgents violated the laws of war. Had American officials wanted to challenge this false reporting, they could have done so by using imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles and the data accompanying every air strike. However, this victory was conceded to the insurgents and public opinion forced an initial American withdrawal from Fallujah when victory was within grasp.

Looking at the nature of warfare through the blinders of strategic air power leads one to focus on past warfare rather than the strategy and tactics of the warfare we currently face and are likely to face in the future. While air power in its strategic context will certainly prove extremely valuable in combating a modern, conventional army as it did in the initial stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom, its lethal utility is dramatically reduced when warfare becomes desultory. When that occurs, the indirect use of air power proves more valuable to the overall goal of defeating an insurgency. Since insurgencies of the type America is currently fighting appear to be the wave of the future, perhaps the time has come to develop an alternative air power targeting strategy, one that is more suitable for small wars.


Since small wars are fought across the full spectrum of society, we must develop a full-spectrum theory for employing air power. An effective targeting diagram must look toward all facets of society that are implicated in a small war and couple them with all aspects of air power rather than solely its lethal application. Indeed, the lethality of air power does not make it unique. It is the delivery of that lethality by air that makes it unique. Therefore, the air delivery of such traditional support functions as civil engineering to create effects where and when needed would constitute a form of offensive air power. Rather than rely on air power in its destructive form, a constructive form of air power could assist in “achiev[ing] our national security objectives by affecting an adversary’s leadership, conflict-sustaining resources, and/or strategy.” How, then, can an effective targeting diagram that uses traditional support functions in an offensive role be crafted to defeat a small-wars enemy?

Borrowing a lesson from the Marine Corps’ hard-won small-wars lessons, we must look to the psychology of small wars. It must be remembered that, as the Small Wars Manual put it, “[t]he motive in small wars is not material destruction. It is usually a project dealing with the social, economic, and political development of the people.” Air power, and all its facets, must be directed toward these ends, and to do so, Warden’s five rings should be replaced with 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s four levels of deficit needs. Air power directed toward fulfilling these four basic needs of a target population will require the employment of air power beyond simple strategic attack and will result in a greater Air Force contribution to overall mission success. Simply stated, directing the use of air power toward fulfilling a target population’s hierarchy of needs will not only assist in eliminating the enemy in the traditional, lethal sense, but will also assist in winning over the population to our side.

Maslow recognized the human tendency to fulfill particular needs before others. Humans, Maslow argued, will initially seek to meet basic needs before seeking to satisfy successively higher needs. People’s needs can be arranged in a hierarchy more applicable to human beings than Warden’s organizational scheme. Basic needs such as air, water and food are categorized as physiological needs. Without fulfilling them, a human ceases to exist. The fulfillment of these needs takes precedence over all others. Next in order of importance is safety.

Once a human being has prevented death from the internal threat of having the body shut down from lack of air, water or food, he then seeks to avoid threats from external forces. This need for safety also extends to one’s family; familial safety is on the same plane as personal safety.

The third need is social. Having secured against both internal and external threats, the human being next seeks a sense of belonging and community.

The fourth need is self-esteem. As the previous three needs are satisfied, the human being tends to need recognition and respect from others. This need can typically be met through creating a sense of contribution in the individual so that he feels that he has given to society or at least given to someone.

Applying this theory to the use of air power in small wars dictates a broader use of air power than lethality. Using Iraq as an example, we see that the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom I — the actual liberation of Iraq and defeat of its conventional armed forces — saw a near complete breakdown in Iraqi society that resulted in the absence of public utilities and traditional commerce that met the basic needs of Iraqi citizens. The average Iraqi was foremost concerned with things such as obtaining food, getting the water running and getting the power turned on. How can air power assist in this?

The Air Force has experience with humanitarian airlift. In fact, one of the greatest moments in Air Force history was its airlift in support of Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War. Applying that knowledge to today’s small wars could allow the citizens of a target country to meet their initial basic needs courtesy of the U.S. government. This serves three purposes. First, it provides a head start to meeting the next need, physical security, by obviating the need for lawlessness to secure food for oneself and one’s family. Next, it shows the benevolence of the U.S. government and assists in winning the hearts and minds of the populace. Last, images of this humanitarian relief allow the U.S. government to present a positive message to the world, thereby securing support at home and abroad, and to move toward taking the insurgent fish out of the water. Moreover, although not really air power per se, but certainly within the repertoire of the Air Force, the abilities of Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resources (BEAR) Base and other construction assets could assist in rebuilding local communities and getting basic services up and running.

Assisting the local population with meeting its safety needs is where lethal air power has a contribution in small wars. As we see in Iraq, insurgents continue to put up a fight, and when they mass for an attack, lethal air power can be there. Of course, Air Force ISR capabilities can also assist with locating insurgents, so rapid-reaction ground units can close with and eliminate them. These assets, as well as close-air support, are and will continue to be valuable tools in small wars. However, an increased use of ISR capabilities through unmanned aerial vehicles with longer loiter times can assist in providing security just by their presence. As evidenced by the increased use of remote cameras in urban areas, particularly Europe, these capabilities have a crime deterrence effect. Coupled with traditional lethal air power, this provides great incentive for insurgents to curtail their activities.

Once air power has assisted in eliminating, or at least significantly reducing, internal and external threats to the target population, it can also be used to assist with meeting the third and fourth needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. Building a sense of community for the target population and fostering their own sense of worth is necessarily related to their society’s ability to regain its footing. This is what is typically referred to as nation-building or stability operations. As we see from the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not an easy task and requires an interagency approach. However, the Air Force can play a significant role in this endeavor.

Initially, air power can be used to foster a sense of accomplishment by teaching the target population how to effectively employ air power in its own defense. Using techniques borrowed from law enforcement, Air Force instructors can not only teach valuable flying skills, but also demonstrate air power’s use in a constabulary role. Additionally, air power can be used to assist with new elections. As was done by the Marine Corps in Nicaragua, air power can be used to transport ballots and election monitors to protect the integrity of the process. Concurrent with these uses of air power, airlift also can be employed to transport the necessary supplies to rebuild communities. Moreover, as previously indicated, the Air Force can employ other capabilities such as civil engineering and BEAR Base assets to assist with rebuilding schools, community centers and the like.

The lethal application of air power cannot take a primary role in a small-wars setting. The modern insurgent simply does not provide the strategic targets that a conventional army does. Although one might argue that precision-guided munitions cure air power’s side effects (i.e. collateral damage), surgical strikes would likely be limited to situations in which a known target is present or when close-air support is necessary. However, this use of air power would be in a supporting role rather than in the direct and independent role advocated by a majority of today’s air-power theorists. To fulfill the mission of defending the U.S., the Air Force must use all of its resources to its advantage. Small wars are never one-dimensional and a successful counterinsurgent campaign must inevitably employ an air-power strategy that addresses both the military and civil-political aspects of a campaign.

The failure to do so cannot be compensated for by air power’s lethality.