Has Obama been seduced by air power?
After one week, Odyssey Dawn, the operation aimed at protecting Libya's civilians from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, seems to be bumping up against the limitations of its U.N. Security Council mandate. Coalition military officials believe they have demolished Qaddafi's air force and have suppressed his air-defense systems. But in spite of increasing airstrikes against Qaddafi's tanks and artillery, his ground forces are still on the verge of crushing rebel resistance in Misrata and are thwarting attempts by the rebels near Benghazi to advance westward.
Many of President Barack Obama's advisers, particularly those who served in Bill Clinton's administration, may have some nostalgia for how the former president appeared to deftly employ coercive air power on two occasions in the Balkans and, in doing so, avoided bloody and politically ruinous ground wars. Clinton's successor was not so lucky. Having observed the dramatically different political consequences for the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama may be expecting air power to similarly deliver Clintonian success for him.
Obama may unwittingly be placing his hopes for easy success in Libya on Col. John Warden, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and chief planner of the strategic air campaign against Iraq in 1991. Warden explained his theory for using air power to achieve decisive effects in the latest issue of Air & Space Power Journal.
According to Warden, war planners should view their adversary as a system and devise a strategy that inflicts war-winning damage on its critical nodes or weak points. For Warden, enemy military forces in the field -- currently the focus of air strikes in Libya -- are merely the end point of the system's long chain of motivations, decisions, and processes. Enemy forces destroyed in the field can be replaced if the system creating, supporting, and leading them remains in place. Focusing only on those forces will likely lead to a stalemate. Much better, according to Warden, is to focus strikes against an adversary's leadership, and the processes and infrastructure that recruit, train, equip, support, and control their war effort.
There has been much open debate this week on whether the coalition can and should attempt to kill Qaddafi with a bomb or missile. To Warden, targeting Qaddafi would be a good start, but the air campaign should encompass an even broader array of leadership targets. Qaddafi's lieutenants should also be in the bomb-sights, along with the assets those regime members value most. Warden cites the air campaign against Slobodan Milosovic's forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. At first, coalition aircraft attacked only Serbian military forces in the field, attacks which were of little concern to Milosovic and thus generated little coercive leverage. During the second month of the Kosovo campaign, coalition planners added a wider range of leadership figures, including economic assets these leaders valued, to the target lists. Dissension inside the Serbian leadership broke out and Milosovic soon agreed to withdraw from Kosovo.
In spite of the Kosovo success (which Qaddafi and his family have very likely studied), political and practical limitations are likely to bog down Warden's theory. Although modern air weapons are incredibly precise, aerial reconnaissance remains inadequate to track down individual leaders who strive to remain hidden. In many cases, it is too difficult to disentangle damage to strictly military infrastructure and processes from damage to electrical, water, and food distribution to the civilian population. One errant bomb aimed at a military target can change a whole campaign. In 1991, while attempting to implement Warden's theory against Saddam Hussein, a U.S. laser-guided bomb scored a perfect hit on an underground bunker thought to be one of Saddam's command posts. But that night, the command post was being used as a bomb shelter for civilians. Scores were killed and the United States subsequently suspended Warden's strategic bombing campaign against downtown Baghdad.
The messy infantry-centric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further tarnished Warden's vision of air power's ability to single-handedly deliver decisive results. The head of Joint Forces Command, Gen. James Mattis -- a quintessential dirty-boot Marine Corps infantry officer -- banished Warden-inspired "effects-based operations" from the military's doctrine. In Mattis's long experience, war is too chaotic and too human to be solved by systems analysis. Mattis quoted Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster."
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, the guidance for Operation Odyssey Dawn, is almost surely too restrictive to permit a decisive air campaign against Qaddafi. As frustration mounts in the days ahead, coalition policymakers will likely seek to expand the target lists drawn up by their air planners. They may even look to Warden's theory for an easy way out of the Libya conflict. But they won't find enough there to avoid a looming stalemate.