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Excerpted from: Air Theory for the 21st Century    by Colonel John Warden III
  War in the twenty-first century will be significantly different for the United States from anything encountered before the Gulf War. American wars will be increasingly precise; imprecision will be too expensive physically and politically to condone. Our political leaders and our citizenry will insist that we hit only what we are shooting at and that we shoot the right thing.

Increased use of precision weapons will mean far less dependence on the multitudes of people or machines needed in the past to make up for inaccuracy in weapons. Precision will come to suggest not only that a weapon strike exactly where it is aimed, but also that the weapons be precise in destroying or affecting only what is supposed to be affected. Standoff and indirect-fire precision weapons will become available to many others, which will make massing of large numbers in the open suicidal and the safety of deploying sea-based or land-based aircraft close to a combat area problematic.

Information will become a prominent, if not predominant, part of war to the extent that whole wars may well revolve around seizing or manipulating the enemy’s datasphere.1 Furthermore, it may be important in some instances to furnish the enemy with accurate information. This concept is discussed later in this chapter.

The world is currently experiencing what may be the most revolutionary period in all of human existence with major revolutions taking place simultaneously in geopolitics, production, technology, and military affairs. The pace of change is accelerating and shows no sign of letting up. If we are to succeed in protecting our interests in this environment, we must spend more time than ever in our past thinking about war and developing new employment concepts. Attrition warfare belongs to another age, and the days when wars could be won by sheer bravery and perseverance are gone. Victory will go to those who think through the problem and capitalize on every tool available—regardless of its source.... Military operations must be conducted so as to give reasonable probability of accomplishing desired political goals at an acceptable price. Indeed, before one can develop or adopt a concept of operations, an understanding of war and political objectives is imperative. Let us begin laying the intellectual framework for future air operations.

Ed Note: large section deleted...

To summarize: understand the political and technological environment; identify political objectives; determine how you want to induce the enemy to do your will (imposed cost, paralysis, or destruction); use the five-ring systems analysis to get sufficient information on the enemy to make possible identification of appropriate centers of gravity; and attack the right targets in parallel as quickly as possible. To make all this a little more understandable, it is useful to finish by mentioning the Gulf War’s key strategic and operational lessons, which look as though they will be useful for the next quarter-century or more.


We can identify 10 concepts that summarize the revolution of the Gulf War and that must be taken into account as we develop new force levels and strategy:

  • 1.The importance of strategic attack and the fragility of states at the strategic level of war
  • 2.Fatal consequences of losing strategic air superiority
  • 3.The overwhelming effects of parallel warfare
  • 4.The value of precision weapons
  • 5.The fragility of surface forces at the operational level of war
  • 6.Fatal consequence of losing operational air superiority
  • 7.The redefinition of mass and surprise by stealth and precision
  • 8.The viability of "air occupation"
  • 9.The dominance of airpower
  • 10.The importance of information at the strategic and operational levels
Let us look at each of these briefly.

1. The importance of strategic attack and the fragility of states at the strategic level of war. Countries are inverted pyramids that rest precariously on their strategic innards—their leadership, communications, key production, infrastructure, and population. If a country is paralyzed strategically, it is defeated and cannot sustain its fielded forces though they be fully intact.

2. Fatal consequences of losing strategic air superiority. When a state loses its ability to protect itself from air attack, it is at the mercy of its enemy, and only the enemy’s compassion or exhaustion can save it. The first reason for government is to protect the citizenry and its property. When a state can no longer do so, it has lost its reason for being. When a state loses strategic air superiority and has no reasonable hope of regaining it quickly, it should sue for peace as quickly as possible. From an offensive standpoint, winning strategic air superiority is the number one priority of the commander; once that is accomplished, everything else is a just a matter of time.

3. The overwhelming effects of parallel warfare. Strategic organizations, including states, have a small number of vital targets at the strategic level—in the neighborhood of a few hundred with an average of perhaps 10 aimpoints per vital target. These targets tend to be small, very expensive, have few backups, and are hard to repair. If a significant percentage of them are struck in parallel, the damage becomes insuperable.

Contrast parallel attack with serial attack where only one or two targets come under attack in a given day (or longer). The enemy can alleviate the effects of serial attack by dispersal over time, increasing the defenses of targets that are likely to be attacked, concentrating his resources to repair damage to single targets, and conducting counteroffensives. Parallel attack deprives him of the ability to respond effectively, and the greater the percentage of targets hit in a single blow, the more nearly impossible is response. 4. The value of precision weapons. Precision weapons allow the economical destruction of virtually all targets—especially strategic and operational targets that are difficult to move or conceal. They change the nature of war from one of probability to one of certainty. Wars for millennia have been probability events in which each side launched huge quantities of projectiles (and men) at one another in the hope that enough of the projectiles (and men) would kill enough of the other side to induce retreat or surrender.

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Probability warfare was chancy at best. It was unpredictable, full of surprises, hard to quantify, and governed by accident. Precision weapons have changed all that. In the Gulf War, we knew with near certainty that a single weapon would destroy its target. War moved into the predictable. With precision weapons, even logistics become simple; destruction of the Iraqis at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels required that about 12,000 aimpoints be hit. Thus, no longer is it necessary to move a near-infinite quantity of munitions so that some tiny percentage might hit something important. Since the Iraqi army was the largest fielded since the Chinese in the Korean War and since we know that all countries look about the same at the strategic and operational levels, we can forecast in advance how many precision weapons will be needed to defeat an enemy—assuming of course that we are confident about getting the weapons to their targets.

5. The fragility of surface forces at the operational level of war. Supporting significant numbers of surface forces (air, land, or sea) is a tough administrative problem even in peacetime. Success depends upon efficient distribution of information, fuel, food, and ammunition. By necessity, efficient distribution depends on an inverted pyramid of distribution. Supplies of all operational commodities must be accumulated in one or two locations, then parceled out to two or four locations, and so on until they eventually reach the user. The nodes in the system are exceptionally vulnerable to precision attack.

As an example, consider what the effect would have been of a single air raid a day—even with nonprecision weapons—on the WWII Red Ball Express or on the buildup behind VII and XVIII Corps in the Gulf War. The Red Ball Express became internally unsustainable, and the VII and XVIII Corps buildups severely strained the resources of the entire US Army—even in the absence of any enemy attacks. Logistics and administration dominate surface warfare, and neither is easy to defend. In the past these activities took place so far behind the lines that they were reasonably secure. Such is no longer the case—which brings into serious question any form of warfare that requires huge logistics and administrative buildup.

6. Fatal consequence of losing operational air superiority. Functioning at the operational level is difficult even without enemy interference. If the enemy attains operational air superiority (and exploits it) and can roam at will above indispensable operational functions like supply, communications, and movement, success is not possible. As with the loss of strategic air superiority, loss of operational air superiority spells doom and should prompt quick measures to retreat—which is likely to be very costly—or to arrange for surrender terms.

7. The redefinition of mass and surprise by stealth and precision. For the first time in the history of warfare, a single entity can produce its own mass and surprise. It is this single entity that makes parallel warfare possible. Surprise has always been one of the most important factors in war—perhaps even the single most important, because it could make up for large deficiencies in numbers. Surprise was always difficult to achieve because it conflicted with the concepts of mass and concentration.

In order to have enough forces available to hurl enough projectiles to win the probability contest, a commander had to assemble and move large numbers. Of course, assembling and moving large forces in secret was quite difficult, even in the days before aerial reconnaissance, so the odds on surprising the enemy were small indeed. Stealth and precision have solved both sides of the problem; by definition, stealth achieves surprise, and precision means that a single weapon accomplishes what thousands were unlikely to accomplish in the past.

8. The viability of "air occupation." Countries conform to the will of their enemies when the penalty for not conforming exceeds the cost of conforming. Cost can be imposed on a state by paralyzing or destroying its strategic and operational base or by actual occupation of enemy territory. In the past, occupation (in the rare instances when it was needed or possible) was accomplished by ground forces—because there was no good substitute. Today, the concept of "air occupation" is a reality and in many cases it will suffice. The Iraqis conformed with UN demands as much as or more than the French did with German demands when occupied by millions of Germans. Ground occupation, however, is indicated when the intent is to colonize or otherwise appropriate the enemy’s homeland.

9. The dominance of airpower. Airpower (fixed wing, helicopter, cruise missile, satellite), if not checked, will destroy an enemy’s strategic and operational target bases—which are very vulnerable and very difficult to make less vulnerable. It can also destroy most tactical targets if necessary.

10. The importance of information at the strategic and operational levels. In the Gulf War, the coalition deprived Iraq of most of its ability to gather and use information. At the same time, the coalition managed its own information requirements acceptably, even though it was organized in the same way Frederick the Great had organized himself. Clear for the future is the requirement to redesign our organizations so they are built to exploit modern information-handling equipment. This also means flattening organizations, eliminating most middle management, pushing decision making to very low levels, and forming worldwide neural networks to capitalize on the ability of units in and out of the direct conflict area.

The information lesson from the Gulf was negative; the coalition succeeded in breaking Iraq’s ability to process information but failed to fill the void by providing Iraqis an alternate source of information.6 This failure made Saddam’s job much easier and greatly reduced the chance of his overthrow. Capturing and exploiting the datasphere may well be the most important effort in many future wars.

Go to Part II: Battlefield of the Future



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