Small Wars

This Week at War: The Latest Temptation of Air Power

The Libya air campaign will not be as quick or painless as the White House seems to think.

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.

Marine Corps takes a calculated risk with its future

Last autumn, the Marine Corps appointed some of its officers and civilian officials to prepare a recommendation for how the Corps should restructure itself after it finishes its mission in Afghanistan. The Force Structure Review Group's (FSRG) report recommends some serious cost-cutting and a return to the Corps' amphibious and expeditionary roots. In doing so, the FSRG plan takes some calculated military risks, which these planners recognize and attempt to mitigate. But their plan also carries some political risks for the Marine Corps, which may end up being even more dangerous.

The FSRG's most notable recommendations are significant chops to frontline Marine Corps combat power, reversing most of an increase in headcount since 2007. The report recommends an 11 percent cut in infantrymen, a 20 percent cut to both tanks and artillery units and a 16 percent cut in its fighter jet squadrons. As this frontline combat power is reduced, the report also calls for associated reductions in headquarters units, logistics support capacity, and other support staff.

The premise behind these reductions is that the Marine Corps is not likely to be called on for any more "major sustained operations ashore" such as the five-year effort to pacify Iraq's Anbar Province or the ongoing large counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The big cuts to tanks, artillery, and tactical air support indicate an even lower probability assigned to another Desert Storm-type armored battle.

While the plan reduces the capacity for conventional high-intensity combat, it retains irregular warfare skills acquired over the past decade. The plan adds to the Corps's special operations headcount, retains much of the training and support for irregular warfare built up since 2002, bolsters specialized law enforcement support capabilities, and adds to the Corps's cyber operations capacity.

The FSRG came to a carefully considered conclusion that the Marine Corps should be most ready for missions such as partnership engagement with foreign security forces, a variety of amphibious operations, humanitarian and disaster assistance, and rapid crisis response. At the same time, the group knew that it would have to take risks somewhere. It concluded that it could take a risk with the Corps's capacity to mount large or open-ended manpower-intensive campaigns such as those it waged in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In spite of this seemingly recurring pattern of long bloody slogs, the FSRG planners were willing to scale back their expectations of this pattern repeating yet again.

The FSRG intends to mitigate this risk by tapping, if necessary, the Marine Corps Reserve for the extra manpower and capabilities its plan will cut from active duty forces. The report also implies a shift in responsibility to the Army should the country get bogged down in another long struggle involving general-purpose ground troops.

Using the reserves and the Army to hedge the risks of a new and economical force structure plan seems like a reasonable military judgment. Whether it is a wise political judgment for the Marine Corps is more questionable. If, due to an FSRG miscalculation, the Marine Corps finds itself constantly mobilizing reserve forces for costly overseas contingencies, Marine Corps leaders are sure to hear about it from angry overseers on Capitol Hill. Similarly, if the Marine Corps's plans are premised on an Army bailout when reality clashes with force structure shortfalls, questions about why the Pentagon needs a large Marine Corps may surface once again.

The FSRG made a careful assessment of the post-Afghanistan world and has designed a new Marine Corps force structure to match that assessment. In addition to saving the taxpayers money, the proposed realignment will shift the Marine Corps away from manpower-intensive scenarios toward the types of missions the planners believe are not only the most likely but also match up well with the Corps's organizational strengths. But the plan's political risks may be more dangerous than its military risks.

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Small Wars

This Week at War: Quagmire Ahead

International airpower will be enough to escalate the civil war in Libya, but not to win it.

After a very short discussion, the U.N. Security Council, led by Britain and France, passed a resolution on March 17 that authorizes the use of military force against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime and forces. The resolution permits the use of "any means necessary" but prohibits a foreign military occupation of Libya. It specifically calls for a no-fly zone and the use of force to protect civilians. The rapid advance of pro-Qaddafi forces toward Benghazi forced the United States to quickly harden its position. Equally surprising were abstentions by China and Russia, allowing the resolution to pass.

Today, Libya responded by declaring a unilateral cease-fire. Qaddafi and his advisors may have been equally surprised by the speed with which the Security Council acted. The declaration of the cease-fire is an interesting gambit by Qaddafi. It will force the international coalition opposing him to suspend the start of an air campaign against Libya. Meanwhile, government forces will still be able to maneuver against rebel positions and move forward equipment and supplies for renewed attacks. And it will give his troops time to switch to an irregular warfare strategy, which I discuss more below.

Obama administration officials may have thought they would have many more days, or possibly weeks, to organize a multilateral response to the Libyan situation. It seems clear they badly misjudged the timetable pro-Qaddafi forces have been able to maintain. Third-world armies have a notoriously poor reputation at military logistics operations, such as frontline supply and vehicle maintenance. But Qaddafi's forces have been able to sustain a remarkably long supply line that now stretches many hundreds of kilometers from their bases near Tripoli. Qaddafi's ability to keep his mechanized spearhead moving forward up to 100 kilometers on some days may have been as surprising to officials in Washington as it was to rebel commanders in Benghazi. Qaddafi's forces were already bombarding Benghazi, and his ground forces should reach the rebel redoubt today or tomorrow.

Although the French government boasted that air strikes against Qaddafi's forces would begin within a few hours after the Security Council vote, organizing an air campaign that will have a meaningful effect on Qaddafi's ground forces will take much longer to organize. Most crucial in this regard is Obama's hesitancy to have U.S. military forces in the lead in this operation. Second is the strong desire by Western powers to have Arab military participation (Qatar and United Arab Emirates are mentioned), hopefully in the very first waves of attacking aircraft. Take away the United States, the most powerful and experienced air power, and add in completely inexperienced Arab air forces, and the result will be many long planning meetings as various European and Arab political and military leaders attempt to cobble together a multilateral air force.

This coalition will not be able to ignore Libya's air defense system, which includes 15 early warning radars, 30 surface-to-air missiles sites, and Qaddafi's fighter aircraft force. Coalition jets will have to suppress this system before they can provide persistent reconnaissance over the battle front and methodically attack Qaddafi's tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. It is very likely that the battle for Benghazi -- assuming Qaddafi revokes his cease-fire -- will be well advanced before the coalition's air campaign has reached this phase.

The coalition should reckon with Qaddafi's likely responses. Although they are helpful, he does not need his tanks and artillery to regain control of Libya's cities. Once coalition aircraft begin attacking conventional military targets, Qaddafi will switch to irregular warfare techniques. His soldiers and mercenaries will abandon their uniforms and travel by bus, accompanied by civilians, refugees, and friendly media for shielding against air attack. Once inside cities like Benghazi and in close quarters with the rebels, Qaddafi's infantry will similarly be immune from air attack, especially if the coalition is prohibited from deploying ground troops as forward air controllers.

Finally, Qaddafi is a particularly unscrupulous and ruthless adversary with long experience using terrorism as a strategic weapon -- Libya was a large source of suicide bomb volunteers during the Iraq war -- so members of the coalition should expect terror retaliation in various forms.

Although his overseas bank accounts have been seized, Qaddafi already has the necessary money, troops, weapons, and ammunition to sustain a low intensity but brutal campaign against the rebels. The investigation begun by the International Criminal Court has left him and his sons with little choice but to fight on. The United Nations has authorized the wide-ranging use of air power against his regime. Air power will be enough to escalate this war but not enough to win it. Although prohibited for now by the Security Council, "boots on the ground" will eventually be required to remove Qaddafi and his sons from Libya.

Chinese missiles are sinking the Navy's long-range plans

Last week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an analysis of the Navy's shipbuilding plans. The study showed that the Navy's 30-year plan to buy new warships will not keep up with the retirement of aging ships, and thus the Navy will only briefly (around 2023) reach the number of warships it says it needs to accomplish its missions. In addition, the CBO concluded that the Navy has underestimated by 18 percent (or $93 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars) the amount of funding it will need to implement its 30-year plan, a plan that will fall short of its stated requirements.

Although that may sound discouraging enough, rapid advances in both the numbers and lethality of adversary anti-ship missiles will force the Navy to dramatically rethink how it goes about it business. This will very likely mean that the Navy's shipbuilding plan, and CBO's analysis of it, will both soon be sent to the shredder.

In a recent essay published in the Naval War College Review, Vitaliy Pradun, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, described in detail the rapidly growing threat Chinese missiles pose to U.S. Navy surface warships operating within about 1,000 kilometers of the Chinese coast, a zone that includes many important United States allies and numerous shipping lanes vital to global commerce. According to the CBO, the Navy's shipbuilding plan contemplates the purchase of 142 new surface combat ships over the next 30 years. Pradun's description of the threat posed by missiles to these ships calls into question the viability of the Navy's plan.

Rather than attempting to match the United States in aircraft carriers or warship and aircraft quality, Pradun describes how the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has carefully focused its resources on missile development and acquisition in order to achieve specific advantages over U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. According to Pradun's analysis, it does not matter that China doesn't operate aircraft carrier strike groups or the most modern naval destroyers or fighter aircraft. China's inventory of many hundreds of long-range ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles will soon be in a position to overwhelm U.S. fleets that venture too close to China during a war. In addition to the threat to the Navy's surface forces, Chinese missiles are already positioned to cripple the U.S. Air Force's bases in the region, a conclusion the Congress's U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reached in its 2010 annual report.

According to Pradun, Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles, which the PLA has fitted to nearly every boat, ship, submarine, and aircraft, out-range U.S. anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. Pradun also described an increasingly elaborate radar, sonar, and reconnaissance satellite network China has built to track U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific. In addition, Pradun discusses why U.S. missile defense efforts are not keeping up with the numbers, speed, and accuracy of the PLA's missiles.

Pradun concludes that Pentagon planners need to redesign how U.S. forces will operate within the zone the PLA apparently intends to contest. He recommends a dramatic shift to missiles and aircraft with much longer ranges than those currently operated by the Navy and Air Force. In the scenario Pradun describes, the troubled and expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program won't be of much help. What are needed instead are the Air Force's next generation long-range bomber, the Navy's carrier-based long-range drone aircraft, a new anti-ship cruise missile that at least matches what the PLA already has, and a new technique -- perhaps a ship-based laser -- to defend against saturation missile attacks.

Last week the CBO revealed why it thought the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan was underfunded. When placed next to Pradun's analysis, the CBO report hardly matters. Without a change in course, it will soon become too risky for the Navy to enter a large swath of the Western Pacific during a crisis with China. In a few years, we should expect the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan to look a lot different than today's.

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