The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, through which the Israeli Air Force appears to target weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah, provoked an important debate among those concerned about a U.S. military intervention in Syria. Given the prominence of concerns about the requirements of establishing air superiority over Syria not simply from civilians such as myself, but from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should the IAF’s successful raids prompt us to recant some of our skepticism?
CFR’s Steven Cook recently wondered why there was such contrast between a reluctant U.S. military and a daring Israeli one, asking:
Why does it seem that Israel’s air force can penetrate Syria’s alleged superior air defense network at will and with impunity, but whenever the idea of using American and allied air forces to help the rebellion comes up, the Syrians are 10 feet tall?
Undoubtedly some commentary and analysis has exaggerated the Syrian air defenses. While dense and certainly more modern and comprehensive than Libya’s relatively dilapidated Integrated Air Defense System (IADS), they are hardly insurmountable. However, simply because something is operationally feasible does not make it strategically wise. Strategy is not simply the sum of tactical possibilities. What matters, when assessing Syria’s military is what kind of costs and obstacles it poses for the objectives we want to undertake. Can our tactical and operational capabilities deliver us strategic results in proportion with the risks and costs?
Before I begin, I would like to note that Cook is absolutely correct that there’s no reason to exclude him from the conversation simply because he does not have military experience or a background in strategic studies or related technical knowledge. However, I do think civilians such as myself writing about the feasibility of military operations do have some obligation to engage thoroughly with discussions about capabilities. If we’re interested in answering why the Israelis conduct raids with impunity but the U.S. is worried about imposing an NFZ, we need to thoroughly examine the numerous military considerations and not simply questions about political willpower. Cook believes arguments such as mine and MIT PhD candidate Brian Haggerty’s boil down to five contentions, the first four of which he finds unconvincing “in whole or in part.”
1) Israel’s brief incursions are different from the sustained campaign the United States—and presumably allies—would have to undertake to establish a no-fly zone (NFZ) in Syria.
2) Israel’s missions have been on the “periphery” of Syria and have never had to contend with the dense network of air defenses in and around major population centers.
3) The Assad regime has placed air defenses within population centers, putting both Syrian civilians and American aviators at risk during any air campaign.
4) Intervention in Syria would be costly and detract from the U.S. military’s ability to conduct operations in other areas.
5) Syria is complicated and military intervention may not help the situation; in fact, it might make the situation for Syrians a good deal worse.
Cook’s objection to the first is that just because the U.S.’s imposition of an NFZ would be more complex and comprehensive than Israeli raids in 2003 on Islamic Jihad, 2007 on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear facility, and the three airstrikes since the beginning of the Syrian civil war (as well as he 2003 and 2006 overflights of Assad palaces), “does not mean the United States should not or cannot prevent Assad’s forces from flying.” That is true, but examining how different these operations would be is necessary to understand why Israeli strikes should not change the calculus of an NFZ.
First, let’s address the nature of the recent Israeli strikes. Several sources report that the attack targeting Syrian surface-to-surface missiles, possibly destined for Hezbollah, came from munitions launched over Lebanese airspace. The January attack on a shipment of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) came from aircraft traveling over Lebanese airspace, although they may have briefly penetrated Syria. The most recent attack, supposedly conducted with “rockets,” likely used a similar model of avoiding or only briefly penetrating Syrian airspace, particularly if the IAF used an air-to-surface missile such as the Popeye (although “lofting” guided bombs could achieve similar results).
The point here is that the IAF is engaging ground targets with stand-off weaponry. Because they have extremely limited target sets located near the fringes of Syrian airspace, Israel can target them without the need to destroy Syrian air defenses, let alone achieve persistent air superiority. This relates to Cook’s refutation of the second generic talking point about Israeli air strikes, that they were at the “periphery.” As Cook rightly points out, Latakia is not at the periphery of Syrian air defense capability. Israeli over-flights of Assad’s summer residence, however, were conducted at extremely low altitude and supersonic speeds, and because Latakia is on the coast, Israel could conduct most of the operation from international airspace with the brief exception of over-flying the palace itself, significantly reducing the window of practical and political vulnerability to Syrian air defenses. As for the Israeli airstrike in Deir ez-Zor, like all these other raids, its goal was to minimize windows of vulnerability through an extremely limited target set, minimal sorties at high speed and low altitude, in addition to the relatively novel and extensive use of electronic warfare and computer network attacks to temporarily blind or misdirect Syrian radar in the area.
The problem is, none of these techniques apply to the essential conduct of a NFZ – patrols to establish and maintain control of Syrian airspace You cannot create a persistent NFZ through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. NFZs, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying hostile IADS, commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to NFZs (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).
Rather than comparing Israel skirting around the task of SEAD, or using temporary SEAD techniques such as EW and computer network operations, to a Syrian NFZ, it would be better to examine Israel’s Operation Mole Cricket 19. During the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli air operations faced Syrian forward deployment of SAM sites in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian border. In order to establish air superiority (in this case to facilitate air support to Israeli ground forces), Israel launched an ambitious operation, involving roughly one hundred aircraft, extensive use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and remotely-piloted aircraft to engage seventeen out of the nineteen SAM targets and hundreds of Syrian aircraft. While the raid was a brilliant demonstration of effective SEAD and air-to-air combat, it also highlights precisely why even an extremely successful SEAD operation is an onerous undertaking compared to the raid operations that seek to avoid it entirely.
According to estimates, SEAD operations destroyed 52 of 70 air defense targets in Bosnia and 33 of 35 air defense targets in Operations Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq. As in Mole Cricket 19, achieving air superiority over a conflict zone requires comprehensive SEAD, and even then, these operations often fail to break the will of enemy air defenses. Within months of Mole Cricket 19, Syrian batteries targeted and fired upon U.S. reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, provoking an airstrike that saw two U.S. planes downed. Even more directly, Iraq continued throughout years of U.S. NFZs over northern and southern Iraq to provoke or attempt to engage U.S. aircraft, and even rebuilt damaged sites. In the Kosovo War, U.S. SEAD efforts met continual challenge from Serbian forces despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority.
Avoiding the problem of destroying Syrian air defenses by trying to use shoot-and-scoot raids with the assistance of electronic warfare is utterly impractical for enforcing a comprehensive NFZ. Electronic warfare aircraft are not easy to come by and could not maintain the sortie generation ratio necessary to protect combat air patrols over Syria indefinitely, so short of a massive SEAD operation, a U.S. NFZ is simply not going to happen. Even dilapidated air defense systems must be thoroughly reduced in order for the U.S. to maintain effective air coverage to deny Syrian airspace.
Now, Cook argues that because the U.S. has the operational capability to impose an NFZ on Syria, the only relevant issue is whether or not a NFZ would improve the situation or not. It seems clear, however, that the scale of costs should influence what degree of prospective improvement justifies action. The U.S., as the strongest military power on earth, has the capability to undertake military operations of enormous scale. The question that a strategist must ask is whether or not the U.S. can realize such an operation in a way that improves the situation in Syria, but whether that improvement, and its advancement of American policy goals, is commensurate with the costs of the operation itself.
In this sense, it actually matters an immense deal that Israeli airstrikes require only a handful of jets, but a SEAD effort in Syria would require perhaps around six times as many aircraft as did NATO operations in Libya. It matters quite a lot that few of the tricks the Israelis used to conduct their raids will allow us to avoid the major task of what will likely be a long and onerous campaign. Here, Cook’s dismissal of the fourth contention, that a Syrian NFZ could seriously distract from other fronts, rings especially hollow: “the last time I checked, the U.S. armed forces were designed to fight on multiple fronts.”
Yes, and it is wise to limit to that multiplier, especially when the wear of a decade of war and fiscal constraints on deployments, operations, and maintenance come into consideration. The U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan. The U.S. has security considerations in the Persian Gulf vastly more central to its interests than what is occurring in Syria. America has security guarantees of far greater gravity and value to South Korea and Japan. As Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Mark Welsh, remarked, deploying, say, the F-22 to Syria could detract from “a concern in the Pacific somewhere, there aren’t many airplanes. In this business, quantity does have a quality all its own.” (An infamous RAND briefing on the dynamics of U.S. air combat in the Pacific reached a very similar conclusion.) Much the same could be said about electronic warfare aircraft such as the B-2, EA-18G Growler, ISR aircraft, along standoff precision-guided munitions, which take part in everything from deterrence missions in Korea to intercepting and disrupting insurgent communications in Afghanistan. The cost a NFZ imposes on the U.S. increases as it drags on and imposes further constraints on redeployments and lag-times for combat readiness in other theaters.
That the U.S. capability to impose an NFZ in Syria would require hundreds of aircraft and thousands of precision guided munitions that its air defense capabilities, then, deserves much more emphasis than the fact that the Israelis were able to execute a completely different and more limited mission set without such a commitment. While Syria’s air defenses could not indefinitely hold off the USAF, USN, or IAF in a pitched battle, that they can still challenge the air forces such as Turkey’s, and that its smaller allies lack the ability to scale up their deployments from their performance in Libya will mean the U.S. will face poor prospects for mitigating or spreading the costs of its operations with its allies. Do any of these considerations make an NFZ impossible? No, but these operational considerations complicate the answer enough that simply saying we have the capability to impose a NFZ on Syria is woefully insufficient for analyzing an intervention’s practicality and prospects.
I personally agree with Cook about the third concern in the abstract – civilian casualties from U.S. strikes are an inevitable outcome of imposing an NFZ in virtually any situation, and must be weighed against the danger of Assad’s air force. That said, it does matter that U.S. forces would be in danger of inflicting larger numbers of civilian casualties if a Syrian NFZ expanded to a bombing campaign against regime ground forces as the campaign in Libya did almost immediately (Cook does not make this argument in his post, but some proponents who want “safe zones,” such as John McCain, have objectives that imply striking ground forces and not simply aircraft). Given that Assad’s forces are greatly more numerous than Gaddafi’s and engaging in overwhelmingly urban combat, and in an environment where tactical intelligence for targeting purposes will not likely be as forthcoming.
Ultimately, Cook argues that the only salient objection is whether “military intervention might not attenuate the civil war or might make things worse and, I would add, the American people do not want to become involved in another Middle Eastern imbroglio.” Yet failing to weight the cost of exercising a capability makes assessing the actual risks and benefits of a campaign impossible. For example, interventions that provide minor or discrete but not decisive advancement to our objectives in a conflict can often be very sensible if they require a limited amount of force at low risk, but far more questionable when limited gains come at massive expense even when the risk is low.
If anything, the Israeli strikes provide a useful insight into everything a NFZ will not or cannot be. The Israeli strikes aim at specific, identifiable direct threats to vital Israeli interests and use the smallest force and lowest risk possible to eliminate those threats. The Israelis may not be able to solve the problem of potential arms transfers to Hezbollah writ large, but standoff strikes against discrete targets do not tie down Israeli forces enough to make it a distracting quagmire.
A NFZ, on the other hand, massive amounts of aircraft and munitions in both standoff and air superiority roles to even deliver the basic goal of grounding the Syrian air force. A Syrian NFZ presents an even larger operation than the Libyan air campaign, and one that is likely to be even less effective, especially if it is a pure NFZ that refrains from the additional aircraft, munitions, and ground/intelligence efforts that would be necessary to support a campaign to target the Syrian army. Syria’s mix of ground forces and paramilitary groups appear far more combat effective than their Libyan regime equivalents, and, even without air cover, would not be operating at crippling loss without their air force (Syrian aircraft appear far more competent at terror bombing than tight close-air support).
Whereas Israel can pick and choose which targets to engage and which raids to forgo, a NFZ is an open-ended commitment that requires a major aerial (and likely naval) presence until the Syrian government capitulates. Even if the U.S. is operationally capable of imposing such an outcome, it is entirely fair to argue the requirements of such an operation would make such a minor improvement in the Syrian situation insufficient to grant that capability a strategic logic. The operational requirements of a NFZ are great and yet they only seem to ameliorate U.S. concerns about Assad-rebel fighting, but provide only nebulous and indirect ways of addressing other key concerns in the region. Syria’s military may be puny on its own, but launching a massive operation for the sake of stripping away one instrument in a civil war while the U.S. is limited in its fiscal means and faced with far more direct challenges (if ones less immediately violent) to its interests elsewhere merits scrutiny of the means required. Large aerial operations against third world militaries were attractive and appealing in the 1990s when the U.S. enjoyed greater flexibility and little fatigue or fiscal trouble in its armed forces, policymakers must now make harder choices.
The fifth objection that Cook recognizes as legitimate – concerns about the efficacy or potential harmfulness of intervention – is not independent of the other four. The requirements of dismantling rather than evading Syrian air defenses and the opportunity costs of expending those resources absolutely weigh upon whether an intervention’s effect on a conflict makes for good strategy and policy. Through parsing why the Israeli strikes are so different from U.S. operations, the disproportionate ratio of requirements to outcomes, the dubious clarity of objectives, murky parameters for action all become even more obvious in contrast.
It's the Sequestration Game of Thrones, and a careful observer of DC defense politics will glimpse much tumult as the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force all battle for supremacy through both official channels and favored proxies in the defense punditosphere. I don't mean to trivialize this or cast aspersions, however. It is deadly serious business and it rests on serious and credible differences about the path of future American national security. One primary transmission channel for these arguments is analysis of the present and future defense challenges facing the US.
Some future vision of the operational environment, and the larger geopolitical environment from which operational context is derived, must be called upon to support a view of organizational change. Sometimes this isn't as much a prediction of the future as much as a recognition of continuity, as can be found in Joseph Collins' recent Small Wars Journal piece on the enduring value of landpower. Often times we see thinking on defense challenges enshrined either implicitly or explicitly under a given theory of military change.
Despite overly broad warnings of anti-intellectualism, the defense landscape has been very friendly to theory over the last 20 years. We've seen a lot of theoretical writing about war and change, from network-centric warfare to all of the post-9/11 inspired takes on COIN, insurgency, and complex warfare. Much of these theories take the following structure: (1) declare that some change in the nature or character of war has occurred (2) detail some characteristics of the quality they observe, (3) explain the causal mechanisms of how it occurred/why it occurred and (4) lay out recommendations as to how the joint force can adapt and/or change. Bullet 4 here is really the most important because the ultimate consumer of the product is not necessarily an academic audience but an policy elite with the power to set programs and budgets.
There is, however, a conflict between a sound theory and a useful one for practitioners in the military-industrial complex. War, like any large-scale social issue, is very messy and often characterized by causal complexity. There are many variables at play that produce military transformation and change. Many of them will be beyond the control of policymakers. For example, take the ill-fated notion of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The most sound academic takes on the issue pictured such seismic military changes as the outcome of an complex interaction between political forms, modes of economic production, culture, and external geopolitics.
The most popular versions of the RMA, however, tended to focus squarely on technology, doctrine, and military organization. Things like the nature of the international system was mostly beyond the control of Pentagon bureaucrats. Technology, doctrine, and organization are at least theoretically manipulatable by the military.1 So to be blunt, the problem is that an truly solid theory of warfare would be likely very much of little use to practitioners. I could imagine such a conversation between a theoretician and a defense practitioner as going like this: "You have a decent probability of winning/changing your military/etc if x, y, and z are in place. What you can do does matter, but can be canceled out by these larger factors."
I'd be pretty po'd if I was on the receiving end of a Debbie Downer lecture like that. And it also suggests why incentives to give a false picture of the policymaker's agency and ability to achieve desirable endstates are pretty high. We all like to imagine ourselves as history's actors, but history has room for only a few truly disruptive actors like Napoleon. And military historians have continuously debated how much of Napoleon's sucesses had to do with his unique persona and how much had to do with the political-military system he inherited from both ancient regime military innovators and revolutionary figures like Carnot. Of course, it's likely some combination of both, but that's also a pretty unsatisfying answer.
There's also the not-so insignificant matter that many would-be military conceptualizers do not give enough thought to basic problems of evidence and method. The first is fairly daunting. Take, for example, thinking about naval change. The question of the carrier's supposed irrelevance has been ongoing since the early 70s. But consider that a major fleet battle has not occurred since World War II, and there have been barely any ship-to-shore engagements that would constitute a meaningful test of "anti-access" weapons. if we were to look at the carrier's continued use as a geopolitical power projection tool alone, we might conclude that talk of the carrier's twilight is hot air.
Of course, then we get into looking at omitted variables that might explain why we would have good reason to question the carrier's prominence, such as the nature of the international system. We have not, for various reasons, yet seen either a true diffusion of truly dangerous anti-ship weapons that would hobble the USN from demolishing most regional militaries. The militaries capable of actually causing the USN serious difficulty have not engaged it. So if we were looking to build a theory of naval change that involves a case analysis of the state of the carrier today we would have to think very hard about all of those issues, and then some.
Finally, we get to the actual mechanism of change. The popular way we are predisposed to think about change in general is polluted by a heavily dumbed-down version of the economic "creative destruction." Something big appears on the horizon, almost totally exogenous to anyone or anything it might effect. The change makes everything prior to it irrelevant, and has a uniform effect on all kinds of prexisting diverse social and political trends. The message is clear: you either get with the times, or you get rolled. This is why we often see books and articles often titled with "the end of ____." The end of marriage, the end of men, the end of power, etc. It's the "video killed the radio star" approach to defense.
The problem with such ways of thinking immediately pop up. If, say, a future of nonstate irregular warfare is the inevitable result of the theories we've collectively imbibed, then we have a tough time explaining why more traditional threats like Iran and North Korea occupy so much attention. In the case of the Kim Family Regime, it turns out that (to play the Napoleon card again, as the Corsican was a artillerist by trade) a bunch of well-placed big guns (conventional and nuclear) can really make the difference between just being a Team America: World Police comedy device and having the world obsess over you. Diversity and complexity are empirically observed characteristics of both social and "natural" systems.
Second, the change often bears the collective influence of all of the entities it effects. Those influences, from global considerations to national and subnational factors, bear sustained consideration. Fears of drone proliferation leading to suboptimal outcomes ignore the powerful role that national-level and systemic-level characteristics bring to bear on technology. Not all states or armed groups can, for various reasons, acquire the technology or the powerful logistical-organizational-political backbone that supports the US drone campaign. Nor do they share the same goals as the US and their future politico-military behavior cannot be simply reduced to the "US targeted killing on steroids" stereotype of "China and Russia are gonna catch some bodies when they get TEH DRONES" (of course, they've also had said drones for a while).
Note that both China and Russia face far more dangerous threats to their own national security from Islamic militants than the US does. But the response of both states to the threat has differed immensely in nature and scope from the US. Some of this has to do with internal considerations unique to both actors. But regional and systemic factors matter too. China and Russia, for example, free-ride on US stabilization efforts in Central Asia while making their own arrangements with local actors (many of whom share a similar threat understanding) to deal with specific terrorism and extremism issues. Second, it is worth noting that the most severe efforts both states have engaged in against what they view as threats to internal stability have been in either states historically a part of the parent country (Chechnya, for Russia), or actually within their territory (Xinjiang, for China). Is it possible that either could, with the tacit cooperation of other states, go on a robotic hunting expedition for jihadists unfriendly to your average Ivan or chafing at the presence of the Chinese military's G.I. Zhou in Xinjiang? Certainly. But this would be a glaring outlier in what is otherwise a fairly consistent approach to handling internal security issues.
All of this comes back down from the 30,000 feet level to this realization: good theory about military change often goes against what we might see as "common sense" and may in some circumstances be largely useless to actually gaining operational advantage. One of the most sobering readings I recently did was Dima Adamsky's The Culture of Military Innovation. Adamsky argued quite convincingly that the Soviets came to a useful conception of what they would have to do to adapt to the possibilities of technological shifts in conventional warfare. Of course, the political, economic, and technological side of that shift wasn't there whatseover in an already terminally decaying late Cold War USSR. I doubt that knowing that warfare reliant on advanced conventional command and control was on the rise helped the Soviets much if they already knew that a technological and economic behemoth like the US would be far better at building and fielding such systems.
Don't get me wrong. I like military theory. I also like thinking about the future. A good deal of my writing on this blog involves both. But ideas have consequences, and this makes thinking about "under the hood" factors like the stuff I've reviewed tonight all the more important.
1 In practice, service competition and other grubby day-to-day realities actually prevented the pan-service RMA ideal from being implemented.
One of the most useful aspects of Zero Dark Thirty is its dogged focus on the mundane and numerous things that underpin great raids. There are the countless hours of intelligence collection and analysis, some of which is highly dangerous. The deliberations and interagency decisions about an event that not only risks the lives of brave men but also requires a high degree of enabling technologies and logistics. Perfect certainty is unavailable, and the identification of the Abbottabad hideout is a product of inductive reasoning of a highly impressionistic nature. A sophisticated helicopter malfunctions.
Of course, the film underplays all of the things that could have gone wrong. My former Georgetown classmate Phillip Padilla, a USSOCOM alumni, wrote a very chilling piece for Slate with Daniel Byman about how Neptune Spear could have easily gone FUBAR. As Padilla observes, the intel could have been wrong, al-Qaeda could have prepared defensive traps and positions that might have inflicted a heavy toll on the attackers, the helicopter could have crash-landed in an location far more inconvenient than the compound (such as in the middle of urban Abbottabad itself), and a diplomatically perilous and tactically risky shootout with the Pakistani military could have occurred.
For every Neptune Spear, there are many Dieppes or Mogadishus. In the world of hostage rescue, the kind of confused mess seen in Algeria's gory retaking of its natural gas complex is more common than smooth operations like Entebbe or the GSG-9's expert performance at Lufthansa Flight 181. Roger Spulak of the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) emphasizes that Special Operations Forces (SOF) are selected and organized in a manner that deals directly with three prominent sources of friction on the battlefield: constraints imposed by physical and cognitive limits, informational uncertainty, and the highly unpredictable nature of combat between two thinking adversaries. Elite warriors are better able to overcome basic human constraints, flexibility provides a means of customizing capabilities to deal with informational problems in ways conventional forces cannot, and creativity provides game-changing methods for dealing with complex problems. The latter is dramatically demonstrated by William McRaven's concept of "relative advantage," which can create a state of tactical paralysis in even a well-prepared opponent that knows an attack is coming.
The problem is that the higher the importance of the mission, the greater the level of fog, friction, and overall interactive complexity inherent in the operational problem. A war cannot be won by great raids alone. Even new technology has not changed the high costs to consistently replicating decisive raids. An operation like Stuxnet was dependent on contextual organizational, technological, and human factors that are unlikely to be replicated in the exact same way for the target set struck. Getting that mixture right is very difficult. It seems apparent from open-source accounts that bad intel and good enemy counterintelligence ruined the recent French hostage rescue attempt in Somalia. The right organizational framework eluded the doomed rescuers in the 1980 Tehran hostage rescue attempt. Enemy adaptation, restrictive rules of engagement, poor strategic guidance, and the problem of operating in a multinational coalition were all factors in the Battle of Mogadisu.
Sometimes special operations are also fairly irrelevant to the long-term outcome. The Spetsnaz operation in 1979 that ushered in the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan decapitated the government in a marvelous display of operational acumen. But like a stone that makes the water ripple but nonetheless still sinks, its influence on the ultimate outcome is at best highly indirect. Perhaps Neptune Spear will be more significant for its domestic political effects than its ultimate impact on al-Qaeda. Certainly killing bin Laden removed a prominent enemy leader from the war effort and delivered troves of valuable intel on how his organization worked. But the destruction of the Afghan safe haven and the constant attrition by local Afghan cross-border forces (the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams) and American airpower likely had a more important impact.
Neptune Spear did, however, give the President more political breathing room to draw down the Afghan war. In terms of the ultimate aim of war, this is highly useful and underrated. Stuxnet also may have reassured regional allies and given more time for the US to create the sanctions regime that would devastate Iran far more than any computer worm. Some special operations missions have distinct strategic payoffs that often make them often worth the risk, and hence the need for customized, tailorable forces that can do the job. The structural requirements of enabling those forces, however, are often grossly undervalued.
The "tip of the spear" is only one small element of a large and multifarious machine, and when that machine breaks down (as it is wont to do) there is hell to pay. Special operations forces are highly skilled and lightly armed infantrymen, supported by special operations aviation, search and rescue, close air support platforms, and other enabling capabilities. A small group of lightly armed infantrymen, as seen at the battle of Arnhem, does not count for much in the face of superior numbers and even the most rudimentary of combined arms. And as my friend Rei Tang often reminds me, the famed SOF efforts during the Surge were highly dependent on a unique form of interagency fusion.
All of these factors should give us pause when thinking of replacing targeted killing programs with capture regimes. The level of planning and risk involved, to say nothing of the potential blowback in terms of violations of sovereignty and civilian casualities, is of an order of magnitude higher. Between 1,500 to 3,000 Somalis were killed or wounded in the Battle of Mogadishu, all for the capture of one man who wasn't even there to begin with. If there is one truth to criticisms of targeted killing, it is that they are more sustainable. The air war over Pakistan has gone on long because the complexity and friction inherent in the missions are lower. But one of the prominent reasons why is that the potential moral harm inherent in some situations potentially posed by a coercive capture regime dwarf those of airpower-based killing. The large and complex apparatus needed to make a snatch-and-grab work in a complex environment cannot be underplayed, and the human consequences for civilians when that machine breaks down can be very ugly. How would we regard Neptune Spear if scores of Pakistan civilians were harmed in a madcap attempt by special operators to shoot their way out of a failed mission?
Reducing targeted killings is certainly desirable, but the degree to which captures can meaningfully replace TKs is highly context-dependent. Ultimately, when the policy requires an terrorist be removed from the scene, some means will be used. When a snatch-and-grab promises Mogadishu-like results, an aircraft may be employed. When it is possible to rendition a terrorist, it will likely be preferable to do so. As noted in my previous posts, the demand is unlikely to go away, which has implications for the supply. Finally, there is no way to reliably know whether another Mogadishu will occur. Had AQ or the ISI been better at counterintelligence and deception operations they could have foiled Neptune Spear in the same way the Somalis did to the French hostage rescuers. Indeed, when one thinks of the great coups de main of antiquity, good CI and MILDEC could have turned the Trojan Horse or the fall of Jericho into bloody disasters. Had the inhabitants of Jericho "turned" Rahab they could have fooled the Israelites as handily as the Double Cross System foiled the Germans, and the Trojans might have been a bit more skeptical of "Greeks bearing gifts" had they patrolled more vigorously.
What is the future of special operations great raids? Technology will create different tactical possibilities, certainly. Advances in cyberweapons, directed energy weapons, sensor meshes, 3-D printing for logistics, and robotics will create a much more diverse and powerful set of enabling capabilities to augment the power of raiding forces. Of course, they will also introduce their own set of complications, vulernabilities, and enemy adaptations. What won't change is the enduring value of SOF as a "strategic asset"--defined not necessarily as a tool that necessarily has intrinsically "strategic" qualities but one that delivers a certain kind of effect with a unique and rare meaning for strategy. That meaning must be appreciated, lest SOF is squandered in missions that do not play to its unique strengths or seen as a panacea.
Intelligence reform is once again in the air, and this time the bogeyman is the "militarization" of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As Mark Safranski notes, there is something deeply bizarre about the idea that an organization created from the bones of a paramilitary covert action force (the Office of Strategic Services) and frequently involved in joint military ventures with special operations forces (like the Vietnam-era Phoenix Project) should be blamed for engaging in large-scale collaborative military ventures. The frequency with which observers call for the Agency to reject militarization and pursue the supposedly more pure activities of intelligence collection and analysis suggest a lack of historical knowledge of the CIA's paramilitary past.
The CIA was built to perform both covert action and intelligence collection. Aside from a brief period in the 1990s, the Agency has engaged in both. Creating and managing paramilitary armies, running off-the-books air forces and engaging in political action and influence campaigns has been the Agency's bread and butter from Southeast Asia to Latin America and plenty of places in between. The military and other elements of the interagency has been a natural partner for the CIA, particularly in waging sustained and violent campaigns against sub-state actors. This is not to deny the importance of Sherman Kent and the Agency's strategic intelligence mission. But focusing on Kent alone makes us forget that for every Kent there was also a James Jesus Angleton or a Kermit Roosvelt. And for every Angleton and Roosevelt there was also a MACV-SOG operator or a deniable pilot bombing a Third World battlefield in the Cold War.
It was precisely the lack of good paramilitary options during the 1990s that spawned policymaker demand for unmanned aerial vehicle strikes and greater interagency fusion between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Note too that for better or worse, the Agency and its military counterparts have also returned to form in Central Asia and Africa with local paramilitary proxy forces and secret (non-UAV) air forces in geopolitical hot spots. Merely laying out the continuum of military/intelligence fusion in past and present eras of covert activity isn't enough. What is needed is a framework for understanding why the Agency and the military remain so intricately tied together, and why paramilitary missions are likely to continue in some form no matter what is said about the benefits of rejecting targeting and returning to intelligence collection.
This framework is absent from 90% of conversations about military and intelligence fusion, and the debate needs better perspective. Let's start with the purpose of national power. There are many sides of power, defined at a minimum as the ability to shape the ability of actors to determine their circumstances and fate. Some aspects of power are inherently compulsory in nature, meaning they hinge on the capability to force someone (an individual) or something (an social entity) to do what you want. Others have to do with institutional heft or producing a ideology capable of mobilization.
However, the intermediary step between the capability, structure, or discourse in question and the resulting outcome is often some form of control. In counterinsurgency campaigns, it is difficult to build states without the ability to prevent the enemy from interfering. Creating such control requires violence when the violent objector to the policy objective remains on the field. More broadly, states have developed elaborate means of creating control over domestic and international social environments. As Erin Simpson reminds us, even architecture can help bolster state control over a restive polity through design that facilitates tactical advantage and movement by local security forces.
One means of control is information. Counterinsurgency theorists have often emphasized the importance of cartography, demographic information, relational data, and superior means of information processing because greater understanding an operational environment lowers the costs of control. The anarchist social scientist James C. Scott alleged (with a fair degree of infamy) that certain hill tribes in Asia resisted developing written languages in order to avoid incorporation into centralized polities. Counterintelligence and deception operations deny and misdirect adversaries in search of information. The phrase "information is power" is banal but there is some use for it.
Intelligence analysis takes information and data and transforms it into actionable products for policymakers. Unsurprisingly, intelligence has always been tied to control, domestically or internationally. Strategic indicators and warning (I&W) helps deny control to a foreign enemy by providing advance warning of attack. The role of domestic intelligence in maintaining domestic political control is obvious. Intelligence does not guarantee control but it is certanly part of the requirements for generating control in a social environment.
Control can also be gained through organized social action, which can directly deny, disarm, destroy, or otherwise thwart an objector to state policy. Organized violence is a form of social action, but so can be a political mobilization, construction of an alternative institution, or calculated erosion of a target social structure or entity. Many covert operations use combinations of violence, hidden influence, erosion, and mobilization to achieve control. There's a long CIA history of militarizing ethno-religious groups that are on the bottom of a given country's power structure or arming insurgents and providing them with military support.
So what does all of this have to do with intelligence? Plenty. Policymakers did not develop intelligence agencies to do "intelligence," a term that only represents a fraction of what many intelligence organizations across the world do. Let's not confuse a given institutional design, which can shift radically over time, with core purpose. Policymakers have always wanted intelligence agencies, intelligence entrepreneurs, or specialized ad hoc groupings to improve their ability to generate control in the following ways: collection of information, manipulation, and direct coercive action, often in concert with other agencies. Special operations historian Simon Anglim lays out how covert operations fit in:
There are grey areas in which states clash short of open warfare when use of subversion, sabotage and fighting by local proxies may be a preferred strategic option to overt commitment of regular forces; moreover, given that much non-violent covert activity aims at undermining the target state’s military preparedness and will to fight, and steering its strategic decision-making processes, there are important strategic dimensions here, also. A covert operation, therefore, is a single mission aimed at creating a particular situation in another country with concealed means and intent. Non-violent covert operations create disaffection among the target state’s population, weakening its will to affect the world around it, or steer surreptitiously its decision-making via placing agents in key positions. Violent covert operations include sabotage, assassination, and paramilitary support of armed insurgency against the opposing power.
Many covert activities happen during wartime and in the context of larger military campaigns. During the Pancho Villa expedition Pershing attempted to use secret agents to poison Pancho Villa outright. The infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) used agents of intelligence to further British strategy in the struggle against the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The CIA carried out extensive covert operations of a paramilitary nature in the Korean War and did so in cooperation with special operations soldiers as part of MACV-SOG in the Vietnam war. And there was the OSS in WWII, the proliferation of specialized British military intelligence and special operations groups, and the operation of private air forces before US entry into the war.
Policymakers want a variety of means to realize control. When regular military means are too blunt a tool and diplomacy too soft, they will clamor for what they (rightly or wrongly) consider to be a subtle knife. In Ghost Wars, Steve Coll noted that every time the Pentagon could not give the President actionable options for raids in pre-9/11 Afghanistan without rendering the plans politically useless. In the eleven years since 9/11, successive Presidents have clearly rejected such a calculus and demanded that the CIA and the Pentagon work together to produce covert options for pursuing enemies of the state. In particular, the line between the CIA has always been fairly porous. As SOF scholar Nick Prime often noted on Twitter, military and CIA often combine to realize common missions, exchange personnel, and closely collaborate.
Finally, like any good bureaucratic actor the CIA jockeys to serve a pressing need. The most pressing need today, as perceived by policymakers, is the war effort. Militarization goes beyond just adapting to the demands of policymakers, as a former classmate pointed out to me. If the President did not want a military-focused CIA, would he have appointed a former general to head it? And David Petraeus, unlike fellow General Michael Hayden, was not dual-hatted.
If the CIA decides to go "back to intelligence," policymakers will rightly conclude that the Agency is only doing half of its job. It seems paradoxical to bemoan the militarization of intelligence when the likely outcome of muzzling the CIA's paramilitary organs will be greater Pentagon conduct of covert affairs. As Robert Caruso once explained, it is not clear that this structure will result in greater transparency. DoD has many more ways than the Agency to frustrate such inquiries. A CIA weak on paramilitary-focused covert action will guarantee a more militarized intelligence structure than the Intelligence Community we have today.
Yet there is some merit to criticism of the CIA's post-9/11 focus. The emphasis on the targeting cycle has come at the expense of strategic intelligence. If intelligence agencies cannot deliver deliver credible assessments of intelligence useful to the formation of strategy, they are also doing half their jobs. The strategic effect derived from post-9/11 covert action has also been mixed. Data problems make it hard to assess the impact of the air war in Pakistan, and in Yemen the covert campaign has been arguably counterproductive. There are reasonable concerns about the long-term impact of the CIA losing its significant institutional advantages in complex counterintelligence, non-targeting covert operations, and intelligence collection.
But blaming paramilitary covert operations alone ignores the fact that covert operations in war serve strategy. And when policy and strategy have an overly military character, it is not surprising that myopia will set in as intelligence efforts are shifted to fit operational demands. Covert operations in Vietnam and its neighbors were supposed to support an overarching war effort that in and of itself was horribly flawed. In Yemen the United States is the counterinsurgency force for the Yemeni government, and the failures of targeted killings must be considered within the context of Washington's poor conduct of the overall campaign.
The focus on the targeting cycle owes itself to policymaker demand. Listening to some critiques of CIA/JSOC operations for militarization of intelligence, one would never realize that the nation has been at war for eleven years. If the CIA did not radically shift to support operational military demands it would have likely endured the same tongue-lashing Robert Gates gave the Air Force for not supporting the COIN mission. Nearly every element of the United States government was told to support the wars, and the CIA was no exception to the general rule. During times of war or situations in which the chance of war is high, policymakers tend to want the military and the CIA to cooperate to advance their strategic aims or otherwise help realize policy. if you want a less militarized IC, you ought to demand a policies less reliant on violent and/or coercive means. And in particular, policies that demand an expansive political-military effort across a large portion of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Finally, critics engrossed in the ethical quandries of direct action should not ignore the significant moral compromises inherent in day-to-day intelligence collection (particularly human intelligence operations). There is a reason why Americans have always been traditionally uncomfortable with intelligence agencies, and we have never quite given up the basic sentiment that "gentlemen don't read other gentlemen's mail." Intelligence collection has often threatened civil liberties, and convincing vulnerable informants to betray their country, group, or tribe is fraught with ethical perils. Today, the ethical challenge of human intelligence operations are often forgotten. But they were an omnipresent problem during the Cold War, and one recognized in even fictional literature on intelligence like John LeCarre's novels.
So what to be done? First, any process of intelligence reform has to incorporate what policymakers fundamentally desire out of organizations like the CIA. In an ever more open-ended struggle against al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, this will be covert action in cooperation with the military. The difficult challenge lies in resolving the Title 10/50 conflict and developing greater transparency while still preserving institutional relationships and tactics, techniques, and procedures built up during the post-9/11 wars. The CIA will also have to balance such demands with core intelligence collection and assessment. The frustrating part about this is that the CIA's ability to pursue better intelligence collection and analysis is inherently constrained by policymaker demand. Another Afghanistan and we will be likely to see much more attention and resources focused on targeting. The fictional CIA honcho in Zero Dark Thirty yells "give me targets!" because he likely has someone above the Agency also breathing down his neck.
Most importantly, the United States must also understand that covert operations are also governed by policy and strategy as well. As Micah Zenko's research shows, "discrete military operations" are effective in the context of an overarching strategy. And it goes without saying that covert operations cannot rescue a bad policy. Unfortunately, much of the history of covert operations in America is often precisely that--failed attempts to rescue bad policies with spooks and door-kickers. Covert operations have their limits and it would behoove us to spend more time trying to understand their inherent constraints. But setting up a false binary between a paramilitary and intelligence CIA won't help us do that.
Having plowed through Tom Ricks' book on generals, I expected to write a review here. Unfortunately, I realized that I lack the background in the history of American military management and leadership to properly evaluate Ricks' arguments. I found some of the critical arguments raised persuasive but also thought Ricks also strongly defended his work. This is just a case where I just needed to do so more reading.
That being said my reading of The Generals raised a couple of general points relevant to readers of a blog founded to discuss ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The first is the complexity of assigning blame for strategic misfortune. I have touched on this theme in the past and we do have a reasonably well developed understanding of military failure. But we have much less of a consensus about responsibility for failure. Why?
The problem of the general's role in military failure is a classic agent-structure problem. Does the fault lie in bad people? Or are generals prisoners of bad structures? Jason Dempsey argues that the military favors tactical proficiency rather than the capacity for bargaining and negotiation with civilian leaders that is needed to create good strategy. Do politicians get the generals they choose? Tommy Franks' tactical focus was consistent with the Bush administration's initial political ideas about the extent of desired American involvement. Ricks counters that bad political objectives doesn't necessarily mean that political leaders shouldn't dump generals that demonstrate a clear lack of professional chops.
One of the more fascinating aspects of reading The Generals is that, as Brian Linn said, the book also reflects a practical tension with the commonplace idea of a strict separation of structure and agent levels of analysis:
First, are the U.S. Army’s post–World War II leadership problems essentially individual or systemic? Has the Army in the last half-century simply had a run of bad luck in the pool of senior officers available to lead its forces, or has its personnel system consistently proved incapable of generating superior wartime commanders? The book’s organization—each chapter devoted to an individual general—tends to reinforce the thesis that failure is the result of having the wrong man in the wrong job, but much of the weight of Ricks’s analysis, as well as his recommendations for change, points to systemic problems.
This may be a problem for Ricks, or it also could be that the book's tension between individual and system comes from the entirely human issue of trying to visualize how micromotives generate macrobehavior. The idea that we have to choose between agent-based or structure-based approaches may be at fault here. The Army is a system made up by a variety of interacting individuals and cultures, as Linn himself has pointed out. And the Army is also a subsystem of a larger institutional environment that allows it substantial autonomy to make its own ways but also exerts its own pressures.
Bringing this down from the 30,000 feet level, what the wars have shown is that we don't think deeply enough about the metrics we really want our generals to be judged by. Take, for example, Andrew Bacevich's polemical take on David Petraeus:
Petraeus understood — and was willing to acknowledge — that by invading Iraq, America had created a situation where winning had become implausible. …So rather than persisting in efforts to win outright, Petraeus conjured up an alternative: Redefine the goal as something other than victory; move the goal posts to make it easier to put points on the scoreboard.
Of course, as I argued last week, how a political community defines "winning" is important. It's also flexible. Passion, the verdict of the battlefield, and the policy of the state all interact and a political condition can change over time. Bacevich assumes that an objective and positively Platonic form of "victory" exists but he does not define what it would mean to "win outright" in Iraq after the rise of the Iraqi insurgency. So Petraeus used a combination of violence and statecraft to advance the new policy---a policy that his political masters determined.
Does it make sense for Bacevich to fault Petraeus for not "defeating" the insurgency when completely annihilating them, as implied in his comparisons to Patton and Zhuov's complete destruction of the Wehrmarcht, was not necessary to achieve the mission he was given? Were American generals in Korea's later phase abject failures because they did not "defeat" the North Korean and Chinese armies, despite successfully using force to preserve a democratic South Korea?
I don't have an solution about how to judge generalship in the Army today. But I do know how we should not judge it. I fear the lesson we'll learn from our strategic misfortunes in Iraq and Vietnam is that all we need are hard-charging types that have Patton's aggression and drive. This "blood and guts" view would ignore Patton's own deep reading in the history of his profession and his inconsistent but nonetheles important appreciation for the nature of his military task. That's not a recipe for "winning" wars, no matter how you slice it.
The Internet is abuzz with theorizing about who won and lost the short Israel-Hamas duel in Gaza. Unfortunately, the standards by which victory and defeat is tallied are fairly impressionistic. How else to explain the fact that so many actors have both won and lost in different areas? The problem is that victory and defeat are difficult, if not impossible, to objectively determine above the level of tactics. Certainly this is not always the case. It can be said beyond a doubt that the Confederacy was defeated in the American Civil War, for example. Southern armies were broken and their civic masters ceased to exist as political entities. Yet this is not helpful to us because the vast majority of wars do not end with one side's total erasure. It is more useful to observe that wars can decide political issues, sometimes to neither actor's optimal preference. The Korean War decided that the Korean nation would remain divided for the forseeable future. This was not optimal for the United States, the South Koreans, or the North Koreans, all of whom wanted reunification on their own terms. But it was certainly acceptable enough to justify ceasing combat for all three. China of course placed a higher value on avoiding a pro-Western unified Korea than any other objective. Hence it would be better to focus on the political issue being decided through violence and the nature of Hamas and Israel's violent relationship.
Many Gaza analyses stubbornly refuse to disentangle the respective categories of policy (the political condition or behavior favored by the polity waging war), strategy (the bridge between policy and warfare), and tactics (the strategy's manifestation as military violence). The rationality of both Israel and Hamas is endlessly dissected, though whether or not an political decision is the expression of consistent and ordered preferece doesn't change the fact that at the end of the day violence was required to remove obstacles to the policy's realization. The oft-stated conclusion that Israel has no long-term strategy for Gaza may have some truth but is also somewhat misleading. Operation Pillar of Defense was governed by a fairly basic strategy to use violence to return to a political status quo that Israel has maintained through a variety of instruments of national power since Hamas emerged as the dominant actor in the Gaza strip. The Israeli contention, arrived at via a domestic political process, that such a political condition is desirable enough to fight over is the policy. The policy is a political understanding that is achieved through a structuring of violent action (the strategy).
The current state of affairs in Gaza is a kind of violent relationship that both sides dislike but nonetheless have found acceptable for varying periods of time. Given that the Hamas charter declares Israel's destruction as the group's paramount political goal, Israel is not happy with Hamas' goals, Iranian sponsorship, or ability to do harm. Yet the consequences of eliminating it would entail sole responsibility for dealing with Gaza, to say nothing of the military, diplomatic, and domestic political costs assumed in a ground campaign and occupation. Plus, as bad Hamas may be, it certainly beats dealing with a fractalization of Palestinian armed groups with less discipline, organization, or capacity for strategic decisionmaking. In his essay "The Amorites Iniquity," Israeli National Security Council official Gur Laish also points out that Israel has a political consensus that is willing to tolerate low-level violence from Gaza in return for the ability to focus on its own political and economic development. Of course, such violent peace requires a border security system and periodic standoff operations against targets inside Gaza. What Israel requires from Hamas is continue a pattern of behvior in which violent behavior against Israel--by Hamas or any other Gaza actor--is kept to a bare minimum. Having the capbility to execute a Cast Lead or another iteration of the current operation is essential, however, as the mutual interest of each actor to maintain the relationship is constantly in flux.
Hamas certainly also dislikes being hemmed up and policing and administering Gaza for Israel's benefit. It casts its own strategy in the language of resistance (muqawama, the subheading of this blog). It derives political benefit from being seen as resisting and also must deal with other Palestinian groups competing for the same political capital. But as Laish points out Hamas can resist within what Israel considers to be accepted levels of violence--even if israel's own violence creates political problems for Hamas' position in Gaza. For a while, the status quo was also acceptable to Hamas, if not preferable. Then, as Armin Rosen explains, the acquisition of long-range weapons created a new incentive to try to revise the parameters of the violent relationship to its own benefit. Certainly Hamas could also potentially believe (with some justification) that the regional environment was more favorable, and also was pressed by the proliferation of more hardline competing groups that did not benefit from the status quo. Whether or not either side intended the low-level violence to spill over into war is difficult to determine but perhaps irrelevant. War happened, and the resultng Operation Pillar of Defense can be understood as a Israeli attempt to return to the status quo. Thomas Rid has observed that Israelis perceive "deterrence" as the persistence of a pattern of favored behavior, a understanding more characteristic of police dealing with crime levels than political scientists. The strategy of Pillar of Defense was to use force to return to the previous condition.
So we can state that Israel's strategy appears to have functioned mostly as intended. Hamas' long-range rocket stocks have likely been disrupted and Hamas has yet again lost leaders. A ceasefire has restored prominent aspects of the status quo. The big question is whether the policy is tenable. As Shashank Joshi points out, smuggling will remain a long-term problem. The political conflict between Egypt's conflicting desires and ceasefire obligations concerning the Gaza blockade is certain to continue. The evolution of Hamas' Iranian-supplied weaponry also suggests aspects of the military balance may be moving in a troublesome direction. The Palestinian Authority, as predicted, was undermined and Hamas also will continue to have to deal with competing Gaza-based groups after the same political role it occupies. But it unclear precisely how regional actors will proceed, offering perils for both sides trying to feel their way around a transformed regional environment. Long-term dynamics aside, there are also very real near-term incentives for the status quo to continue, if punctuated by periodic bursts of violence.
How Israel and Hamas understand their strategic position and behave is subject to a range of conflicting incentives, the power of domestic politics, the confusion endemic to high risk environments, and organizational processes. But at the end of this process lies policy, and its realization in violence through strategy. Whether or not the policy or the strategy is valid is up for vigorous debate, but it is inaccurate to argue, as Israeli analyst Alon Pinkas does, that Gaza has turned Clausewitz on his head. War is not driving policy, although each actor's unique understanding of the set of political and military facts "on the ground" war reveals will certainly shape future policy. Rather, Pillar of Defense is an attempt to return to a political condition that enjoys domestic political favor in Israel. It is surely not the end of the struggle between Israel and Hamas, and there is no guarantee that the pattern of conflict will continue in the same manner. But both Israel and Hamas decisionmakers likely know this, and telling them that they need better plans to adapt does not guarantee they will adapt in the supposedly enlightened manner the op-ed writer desires. How they will adapt can further alter the course of a conflict that has raged since the early 20th century and is unlikely to end any time soon.
In tomorrow's New York Times Sunday Review, Lucian Truscott IV blasts General David Petraeus for failing to "conquer" Iraq and Afghanistan. Truscott unfavorably compares Petraeus to generals who "stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds" and were "nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations." Yesterday at the venerable Halifax International Security Forum, Wolfgang Ischinger admonished Western policymakers to avoid "military solutions" for "political problems." The temporal juxtaposition of Truscott and Ischinger's comments is striking precisely because they represent the Platonic ideal of two similar--and conceptually misguided--approaches to understanding modern conflict.
To Truscott IV, what matters in war is violence, and only one kind of violence. In this reading, the worth of a general derives only from his enthusiasm for pursuing decisive battle of the kind seen in popular "drums and trumpets" military history. But that kind of warfare is only one small slice of human history. That is why the Prussians were so confused by French resistance that continued long after her main armies were crushed on the field in 1870. It is also why German dreams of a second Cannae--on a battlefield that dwarfed any ancient engagement in size and intensity--foundered in 1914. In war, violence is ideally used to advance the dictates of policy, not for its own sake. Violence for the purpose of aesthetic should be left to Quentin Tarantino films, not the real world of war. Indeed, words like "conquer" and "subjugate" imply that Truscott IV imagines that the US should have executed an OPLAN derived from a certain major operation in CENTCOM's AOR that took place in 1258.
Truscott IV's rather Mongolian reading of American strategy's purpose brings to mind the confusion inherent in hard-boiled critiques of modern counterinsurgency that idealize tools such as the destructive raid, targeted killing, or collective punishment rather than analyze how they were actually used to further a political community's desired future condition. Phrased differently: does it really matter if Patton or Truscott IV's grandpappy were nail-chewing, "nearly psychotic" go-getters if such "military murder" was inappropriate for the policy? Warfare in all eras of history is characterized by political and material constraints. These constraints were intimately familiar to American commanders in World War II, who had to balance operational necessity with keeping an unlikely worldwide coalition together. Breaking the will of the enemy was of paramount importance, but the manner in which it was done also had implications for the peace that would follow.
There will always be people that point out what ideally could be done with a certain military tool, like those that called on the US to utilize an "elastic defense" in Western Europe during the late Cold War. That had a superficial plausibility to it--why not trade space for time, bleeding out the Soviet army as reinforcements streamed into Europe? The problem with that approach is that the West German government would not tolerate a strategy that explicitly allowed much of its territory to be ravaged. Like it or not, the US had to fight with rules the Germans defined if we hoped to keep NATO united against the Red hordes.
Ischinger's confusion is the product of a similar focus on tools rather than purpose. Indeed, to be fair, the idea has a long intellectual pedigree. But the argument that there are separate "political" and "military" problems with bifurcated solutions ignores the time-tested concept that the purpose of the military is to break the will of the violent objector to the policy. Hence by creating new political realities, the military is also a "political solution." Admiral Mike Mullen's now-famous dictum that "we can't kill our way to victory" is often repeated but is also empirically unfounded. If the policy is correct, the strategy is sound, and the tactics are appropriate for the task one can often do precisely that. Indeed, recent academic research confirms Clausewitz's hypothesis that it is precisely the nature of the war aims that weighs highest in questions of victory and defeat. Because an objective definition of "victory' has never existed above the level of tactics, the way a state defines victory is key to whether it can achieve it through organized violence.
But that's a rather long chain of "ifs" that a strategist must keep track of. Making good policy is hard. Crafting good strategy to break the enemy's will and executing it is simple in conception but fiendishly difficult in practice. And there's an entire military innovation literature about the problems of correctly judging military trends and developing appropriate tactics. That said, we shouldn't confuse periodic failure of the military instrument with the idea that the utility of force itself has somehow universally declined. Some political objectives are genuinely unresolvable through force. But the reasons why matter. Maybe the enemy's military power is too strong. Perhaps defeating the opponent is not worth the cost. The nature of the military instrument could be too blunt and imprecise to deliver the desired effects. The political community in question might normatively oppose a certain kind of violence and thus take it off the list of possible solutions.
Explaining precisely why the use of force would be ineffective is all more useful and helpful than a blanket statement that military solutions are inappropriate for a "political problem"---because the idea of a solely "military problem" defies thousands of years of history and most of what we know of strategic theory. There are only political problems, and they are decided through combinations of force and statecraft. And when someone criticizes a supposed "military solution" it is often a veiled way of stating that they disagree with an envisioned political end that differs from their own.
Unfortunately, the idea that tools are ends is common in most discussions of modern security topics. The depressing result of tool-fixation is that those ends remain unquestioned. That's why "drone war" remains the topic of conversation rather than the fact that the United States has become an active participant in internal conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Shouldn't the casualness with which we inject ourselves into local political disputes be cause for concern, flying robots or not? Tools are sexy, but how they actually advance (or don't) policy most surely isn't.
* Some apologies to readers unfamiliar with the show that inspired the title.
Military failure is always hard to discuss rationally. Whether we are considering a black mark on an otherwise victorious strategy or yet another disgrace in a lost war, military failures always are contentious issues and great analytical challenges. Veterans Day and the circumstances that inspired it offer a useful moment to reflect on the difficulties of analyzing strategic failure---and the costs of getting it wrong.
Veterans Day originates from a set of interrelated events (Poppy Day, Armistice Day, Rememberence Day) that commemorate the end of World War I. For many, World War I inspires either patriotic zeal or a sense of intense revulsion. The latter is particularly prevalent in the West, feeding a popular image of World War I as a nihilistic slaughter enabled by generals guilty of nothing less than strategic malpractice. The sheer scale of the war's devastation inspired a host of simplistic explanations, ranging from a supposed "ideology of the offensive" to conservative strategists and tacticians unwilling to recognize that firepower's dominance on the battlefield made a Napoleonic style of massed assaults untenable.
Newer history casts doubt on these popular explanations. Military thinkers were well aware of the techno-tactical challenges new technologies posed. Warfare from the end of the Napoleonic era to World War I did not offer manifestly clear lessons about the kinds of operations and tactics appropriate for the modern battlefield. In fact, some pre-WWI wars even suggested that old methods could be retrofitted to deal with new weapons and logistical technologies. The Russo-Japanese War and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 featured large-scale infantry assaults and infiltrations well in keeping with prewar military experience. Observing the battles of the wars of German unification, military professionals had good reason to predict that railroads and continuous logistics simply made the quest for decisive battle larger and more destructive. Military revolutions are incremental in nature, building up to a violent and sudden shift that observers often fail to predict.
Even a solid understanding of new technology does not translate into the ability to usefully employ it under major combat conditions. It took the major European powers a substantial amount of time to understand how to coordinate all arms together, properly supply them, and ensure that front and headquarters could effectively communicate. Contrary to public belief, the major Western powers mostly adapted to the new strategic environment and some even innovated. By 1918 every element of World War II existed in embryonic form. The fact that particular lessons of the Great War, such as France's "methodical battle," were no longer valid by the 1930s does not necessarily constitute proof that they were obviously useless to contemporary observers. Finally, thinkers proposing the thesis that better maneuver could have somehow avoided mass slaughter must deal with the unavoidable fact of the Western front's high force-to-space ratio and this density's fatal consequences for any offensive strategy.
if planning for a radically uncertain future war is difficult, learning from it presents even greater hazards. Basil Liddell Hart, Giulio Douhet, and a host of thinkers within the British and American air forces placed the blame for World War I's stalemate and attrition on a mode of strategy built around direct combat. These thinkers instead visualized the enemy army and society as a unified organism and argued that the enemy "brain" could be crippled by targeting leadership targets, industrial centers, and public will. Ironically, the interwar military thinkers' visions of a less cruel war spawned World War II's massive and destructive strategic bombing campaign. Instead of limiting war's slaughter, they merely brought painful death and mass terror upon the civilians who had once been safe behind the battle lines.
Military failure is always a complex matter that deserves broad introspection. We need to follow Eliot Cohen and John Gooch's example (as seen in their pioneering work on the subject) and reach for systemic answers. What we find might be troubling---and even disturbing. It is hard to see how World War I's massive armies, new technologies and tactics, prewar doctrinal uncertainty, and totalizing strategic aims would not result in mass death. But grappling thoroughly with the dynamics of failure in every conflict is the least we owe to the men and women we honor on Veterans Day.
There's been a flurry of commentary and scholarship examining the idea that the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) enabled a new kind of fluid, boundary-skipping form of warfare. Some observe that the conflict against al-Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) involves multiple political and spatial contexts. We balance between the interiority of the homeland, the exteriority of the battlefield, and a set of other spaces distinguished by the degree they permit access and power projection. All of these spaces are linked together by communication technologies, logistics networks, and financial flows.
From the late 1990s onwards, the disaggregated nature of emerging threats stimulated US government interest in interagency cooperation and networked military and security organizations. The refrain is familiar: an allegedly new threat requires novel methods that cross interagency lines and crack bureaucratic rice bowls. Of course the threat, while novel in character, is not entirely new. Similarly, the spate of analyses warning of unprecedented counterterrorist warfare reflect the same wrongheaded assumption: AQAM is the only opponent political communities have fought whose uneven geography poses political, legal, and strategic challenges. Hence America's war against al-Qaeda sets a dangerous new trend.
The historical record does not support this narrative. War beyond borders is actually more common than it might seem in today's very state-centric world. Transnational threats have never fit comfortably in neat political or legal categories, and states have often embraced unorthodox operating methods and organizations to enhance their security. Let’s start with a deep dive: in the premodern world, pirates, nomads, and secret societies were both geographically fluid and highly mobile. The anarchist writer Hakim Bey idolized the Assassins because they defied established borders and laws to create their own secret realm:
Across the luster of the desert & into the polychrome hills, hairless & ochre violet dun & umber, at the top of a desiccate blue valley travelers find an artificial oasis, a fortified castle in saracenic style enclosing a hidden garden. ...As guests of the Old Man of the Mountain Hasan-i Sabbah they climb rock-cut steps to the castle. Here the Day of Resurrection has already come & gone--those within live outside profane Time, which they hold at bay with daggers & poisons.
Bey argued that the Assassins and pirate communities were disaggregated communities of free spirits living in fortified sanctuaries; separated by oceans of sand and sea. In turn, nomadic powers moved as diffuse clouds throughout large landmasses and lived parasitically off of settled peoples. The Tartar peoples, Clausewitz observed, also constituted a collective warmaking entity that did not observe the neat separation between political, economic, and military divisions of labor common to states and empires.
How did states and other political communities respond? You might be surprised how little really has changed. Pirates and bandits were regarded as "enemies of humanity" and were treated harshly. Sovereign boundaries were transgressed to capture non-state enemies that took refuge within settled political communities. Established legal and political concepts stress that only states have the “rightful authority” to wage war. Great powers also established counterterrorism networks and shared intelligence since the late 19th century. Upset about privatized war or the Human Terrain System? Contractor support, native intelligence networks, and targeted killings were also old hat to Army officers involved with the Indian Wars and Pancho Villa expedition.
States may not want to admit that non-state networks can wage war against them, but transnational enemies won’t go away. States themselves use similar methods to mobilize power across borders, as Robert Kaplan observed of Iran's "virtual empire" of proxies and intelligence operators. The Soviet Union had a far-reaching global network of spies, client states, and proxies and the West feared the Comintern’s capacity for ideological subversion long before it feared the Soviet military.
It’s hard not to conclude that World War II also stands as a giant rebuke to the idea that the global war on terror poses a unique challenge to questions of borders, neutrality, legality, and politics. As my blogmate Dan noted, Axis naval, air, and mechanized power projection capabilities necessitated operating in neutral territory and sometimes invading and controlling entire states. Iran, Iceland, and Norway are just a few of the places that came under Allied power. World War II is also a case of "complex" war against a coalition held together by transnational ideologies. The Germans ruled a group of fascist states and non-state networks, and the Japanese and their local allies fought to establish a pan-Asian system radiating out from Tokyo.
The West countered the complex threat by generating a astounding variety of interagency collaboration and hybrid organizations. Stanley McChrystal would be more at home during WWII than the Iraqi surge. Collaborative interagency research, analysis, and operations groups were assembled to plan economic warfare, crack codes, analyze adversary strategic culture, and assess asymmetric threats like the German U-Boat offensive. Indeed, WWII was also the heyday of groups ranging from covert operations organizations like the Office of Strategic Services and Special Operations Executive to oddball groups of mercenaries like the Flying Tigers.
Just because the threat is old does not necessarily mean that we have a universal template that will erase the complicated political and strategic problems inherent in this kind of warfare. The AUMF is broad and wide-ranging because politicians and the public perceive that the threats are similarly unbounded. But that perception alone should not be a justification for hurrying down every rabbit hole and wasting resources and lives in the process. Policy and strategy can help clarify objectives and make them sustainable over time. Trying to develop a better understanding of the relationships between local and global threats is also necessary to avoid needless conflict, as are rigorous analysis of the effects of various political-military methods.
What is not useful is an ahistorical narrative of unprecedented and spatially unbounded warfare that ignores the long record of states going beyond borders to fight threats to national security. One cannot expect politicians and security officials castigated for a failure to "connect the dots" and counter transnational threats before 9/11 to react sympathetically to such rhetoric. Pakistan exports terror abroad and is unwilling and unable to curb such negative externalities. Hence Pakistan's hue and cry over its sovereignty has fallen on deaf ears.
The real risks lie in strategy and policy, not necessarily geography. What is the US theory of victory? How do we know who the enemy is? How do we know we are winning or losing? Are the costs of our effort sustainable? Are our targets enemies or bystanders we attack out of ignorance? The answers to these questions are still elusive. But the US public deserves to know, whether the enemy has a flag and capitol or hides in the shadows.
Let's face it: American landpower is in crisis. As blogfather Andrew Exum pointed out in a January column, without a dominant adversary or geographical template (the Soviet Union, Central Europe) landpower's case is getting harder to make. The counterinsurgency era provided a breather, but not necessarily a solution. It was common not too long to ago to see a flood of books and articles making the case that the Army had innovated towards a form of war (counterinsurgency) that would dominate the future of conflict. However, as Exum observes, this ignored the fact that Army/Marine counterinsurgency in Iraq was a contingent innovation designed to help the US through a war that many COIN thinkers regarded as a mistake. In 2012, the American defense landscape has moved away from large-scale stability operations and privileged air-sea battle, foreign internal defense, and unconventional warfare scenarios. None of these seem, at first glance, to be particularly promising for the big battalions.
Some predict that the "man on the scene with the gun" will be replaced by the culturally sensitive special operative, cyberwarrior, or Predator pilot. Afghanistan in 2001-2002 and Libya last year is often trotted out to support this thesis. Certainly US airpower and Gulf Cooperation Council unconventional warfare units saved the Libyan rebels from defeat and gave them the support and organization necessary to win. But holes in the narrative emerge when we consider that the decisive weight was Libyan ground forces. Similarly, the success of the "Afghan Model" in 2002 should be properly credited to the Northern Alliance's Afghans. Moreover, relying on airpower and special operations forces as the US main effort also had costs. The fact that the US cannot diplomatically operate in a Libya whose citizens and government are ostensibly pro-American or even properly investigate the Benghazi consulate attacks speaks volumes about the problems of confusing reliance on ground proxies with actual political control. Granted, these costs are small compared to large-scale ground engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they still complicate the now-trendy vision of indirect warfare.
Douglas Ollivant has also soundly observed that we cannot assume that special operations forces will be a salve for every security challenge we face. Some scenarios will simply be too big for SOF to handle alone. Even in the US does not seek to reconstruct collapsing states, securing weapons of mass destruction and leadership targets in the aftermath of an implosion of Syria, North Korea, Libya, or any number of other states would be demanding tasks that special operations would have difficulty handling by themselves. Some sanctuary-raiding missions would require larger ground forces. Others may simply lend themselves better to general purpose forces. Recent African success waging combined land-amphibious operations in Somalia suggests that land forces executing amphibious raiding in Africa could inflict substantial damage on pirates and other foes. In other situations we may not be able to rely on proxies to do the job for us, either because of a principal-agent mismatch or lack of capability. Finally, SOF and airpower in recent conflicts also depend implicitly on the enemy lacking the ability to threaten the bases and supply networks that sustain them with ground power, commando forces, or long-range weapons. Should Afghanistan’s government lose substantial amounts of territory or collapse outright after US withdrawal, the basing arrangements upon which we base our proxy warfighting would be threatened.
Still, the question remains: how to rebrand landpower? The Army War College's Antulio Echevarria II has a great piece at the Strategic Studies Institute taking on the challenge. In the past, Echevarria has written about how the United States lacks a "way of war" but instead had developed a "way of battle" oriented around destroying enemy armies. Destroying armies is necessary but not sufficient for decisive victory. In a new compilation of case studies on the subject of hybrid warfare edited by Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor, there are copious examples of strategic misfortunes induced by conflation of Napoleonic victory with actual defeat of the enemy. Eliminating the bulk of French forces in 1871 forced the Prussians to contend with makeshift armies and partisans. The US' inability to manage the challenge of fighting insurgents, partisans, and main force units simultaneously played a strong role in its defeat in Vietnam. And in Korea today the US and South Korea will contend with North Korean main forces, special operations groups, and paramilitary networks in any ground scenario.
We've argued for a while as to what to call these conflicts, from Fourth Generation Warfare to various forms of "complex" irregular war. But the bottom line is that future conflicts will involve the need to gain control over populations, whether the opponent is a positional force, guerrillas, or both. Echevarria offers a way out of the morass:
Some will want to argue that Landpower's raison d'être is to defeat an opponent's ground forces. However, if more than 2 centuries of military operations are any guide, America's political leaders will see that as only “mission half accomplished.” The Indian wars, the Philippine insurrection, the Banana wars, World Wars I and II, the interventions in Asia and Latin America, the Balkans, the Middle East, and many other areas suggest that Landpower is generally employed not only to defeat an opponent's ground forces, and the quicker the better, but also to establish and maintain control over people and places thereafter. This is what Landpower brings to the table that Airpower and Seapower cannot. The idea is, again, to extend the reach of policy.
Echevarria is not saying the role of landpower should be to build states. The conflation of defeating one's opponents with governing them has been one of the most destructive trends in recent national security policy. Echevarria addresses this head-on. In contrast to the stereotypical idea of an American way of war based around unlimited political objectives, Echevarria argues that Presidents have often sought to only use as much force as appropriate. Even in eras of total war, we have always considered conserving our own resources. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of fighting Germany in World War II, and US did not completely completely mobilize its resources for the task. Even during the Cold War, the US never adopted a "garrison state" mode akin to the Soviet total warfare state.
Adopting a holistic definition of landpower allows the Army and Marines to market themselves for a range of missions while still building a core set of skills oriented around offense, defense, and stability and support operations. This would certainly preserve all of the experiential gains of the last ten years in fighting insurgents, guerrillas, and illicit networks, but not limit the military to believing that one strategy should guide response. Indeed, it would also emphasize the productive use of land forces in situations short of war for shaping operations and rapid response. Finally, this conception of landpower would be a good basis for integrating landpower with cyberpower and special operations warfare. The Landpower Group currently examining the future of the concept is fruitfully looking at that intersection, as well as landpower’s adaptation to other emerging security challenges.
To return to Echevarria's original point, an new conception of the American way of war would emphasize not only the armies of the opponents but the social and political contexts that generate them. It would privilege Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini but also leave room for John Arquilla. However, such a conception would require forces built around around combat. In the last ten years American soldiers have hunted down the enemy and engaged in the close fight in some of the most physically demanding regions of the Earth. And historically there is nothing soft about small war, whether chasing down Pancho Villa overland in Mexico or fighting dug-in al-Qaeda units on the mountains during Operation Anaconda. To recognize this is not to denigrate the importance of cultural knowledge or persuasion, but it is to point out that everything else rests on the ability to threaten or violently coerce. Combat could occur anywhere, as daring attacks against American rear areas and supply columns have proved over the last ten years. As William F. Owen observed, expansive political objectives must be purchased by operations that grant control. Otherwise, the enemy always has the ability to spoil the plan.
This vision of landpower would not necessarily be a call for large land forces on the model of 1917-1991. Rather, it would be a use of landpower familiar to policymakers throughout most of American history: boots on the ground to give America a say in what happens in unstable regions of interest to American national security, protect American diplomats and commercial interests from the predations of states and sub-state groups, and attack non-state organizations that threaten American lives. If framed that way, landpower could remain a competitive advantage even if scaled down.