Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Does limited war ever work?

The entire history of air power was written the very first time that a bomb was dropped out of an airplane in warfare.

The occasion was a small colonial war between Italy and Turkey, the date was 1911, and the place, curiously enough, was Libya.
On November 1 an Italian pilot took off from the desert, flew over the Turkish lines, and dropped four small bombs — grenades, really, weighing about five pounds apiece that the pilot had to yank a pin out of with his teeth before lobbing them from the cockpit. The next day Italian newspapers declared the triumph of this new mode of warfare:


It was a ridiculous exaggeration, of course, and the Turks for their part rather more cannily announced that the Italian air assault had hit a hospital.

The revolution in precision guidance over the last three decades has vastly increased the tactical effectiveness of air-launched weapons while minimizing the danger that civilians nearby (or even not so nearby) will be killed or injured; on Sunday, American B-2 bombers, probably flying at 40,000 feet, precisely destroyed hardened military aircraft hangars at Sirte airport in Libya while leaving the adjacent civilian terminal and runways literally untouched. It is now the merest routine for bombers and unmanned missiles and drones to destroy targets even in the midst of cities without inflicting one-thousandth the number of civilian casualties that were once accepted without batting an eye in World War II; it is now routine for fighter jets to launch a single weapon and destroy a tank on the ground below with near certainty, a feat that in World War II took an average of 3,500 bombs dropped per tank successfully hit. Ironically, the very effectiveness of modern air power has dispelled most of the mystique it once held; now that air power can actually do what was from the start hyperbolically claimed for it, the whole business seems even rather ho-hum. (I examine this history in my 2004 book Air Power, which unlike most of my other previous work is available not only from fine second-hand bookstores everywhere but is actually still in print in paperback, and as an ebook.)

The myth we have yet to get over, however, is the larger one within which the increasingly frequent resort to air power operates — that conviction of statesmen in empires from ancient Rome to 19th century Britain to modern America that limited war waged by the mighty will overawe the weak into political submission with comparatively little cost, involvement, or trouble.

The trouble is not just that the weak always have tactical recourses that can indefinitely delay total defeat and sap the resolve of the mightiest; the real trouble is the simple fact that limited war is predicated on an enemy's crying uncle at some point far short of annihilation (an end point that requires military commitment of an entirely different kind; see, for example, the Soviet offensive against Germany in World War II). It depends on transforming military means to political ends that the military force employed is almost inevitably ill-matched toward attaining.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the more limited the political goals, the more conceivable it is that an enemy will capitulate in the face of limited military pressure. In America's wars against the Barbary powers of North Africa in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the aims were distinctly limited, as well as clearly defined: no regime change, no cession of territory, no occupation; but rather a political agreement on the part of the Barbary states to end their state policy of preying on American merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Seizing warships and bombarding harbors was a straightforward exercise of military power well-suited to this objective, and by 1815 the rulers of Tripoli and Algiers had come to terms.

The closest modern example we have is NATO's assault against Serbia to pressure Slobodan Milosevic to halt his offensive in Kosovo. Again the aim was distinctly circumscribed — Milosevic when he finally did capitulate was at least convinced he would remain in power and keep his riches — and it is not even clear whether air strikes against Serbian targets were the decisive factor, or whether it was only the increasingly menacing possibility of a NATO ground invasion and withdrawal of Russian diplomatic support for Serbia that finally tipped the scales. (Air Force officials I have talked to about this always get that maddening "if you knew what I knew" look in their eyes — or, what really makes me want to resort to violence, and I'm a peaceable man, they trot out that hoary line, "I could tell you . . .  but then I'd have to shoot you" — and hint that we know from listening in on Milosevic's phone calls that he began to get really worried when we started targeting factories owned by his cronies. But the jury is still out on this.)

In some ways we were extraordinarily lucky in the case of Serbia, because the limited military means employed in the air campaign — striking almost completely symbolic targets such as the ruling Socialist Party headquarters along with almost a random grab-bag of civilian infrastructure in Serbia proper such as bridges and power plants — were so disconnected from the political ends being sought. And that goes to the heart of the issue: There is an undercurrent throughout the history of empires dealing with troublesome uprisings or recalcitrant small foes of believing that the mere showing of resolve will be sufficient. I was especially struck by this when delving into the War of 1812, when the shoe was on the other foot; again and again you could almost see the British lords of the admiralty and commanders on the North American station saying in frustration, after one of their small raids on the Chesapeake or after burning some little American town, "We're the mightiest sea power on earth — why can't you people understand that?" The British in 1812 were keenly aware of the impossibility of carrying out any prolonged occupation of American territory, but up until the end were convinced that the right show of force would make the Americans see the folly of their ways in taking on a power that outnumbered them 100 to 1 in men, ships, naval guns, and other resources, and capitulate to British terms. Yet as General Wellington finally counseled the British government, there was in fact no place to hit America that would be so painful as to force her to surrender. In the end the British admitted their military impotence and dropped every single one of their political conditions; the war ended with a complete return to the political status quo ante. And this was a case where the terms demanded by the superpower of their upstart foe even at their peak were remarkably limited; for most of the conflict Britain wanted little more than a face-saving way to end the fight. American accession to even the most rigorous British terms would never have meant "regime change," loss of sovereignty, or political self-annihilation. When your true goal is coercing a dictator to abandon his vast power and vaster stolen wealth, the stakes are ever so much higher.

The fatuousness of the armchair critics who are now denouncing the Obama administration for not initiating military action against Libya sooner (John McCain the other day said, “Obviously, if we had taken this step a couple of weeks ago, a no-fly zone would probably have been enough") is perhaps the only thing more flimsy than the political-military calculation that has led us to fire off a few hundred million dollars' worth of ordnance from a safe distance with the declared goal of creating a no-fly zone (which is an operational means, not even a strategic, much less a political, end) and protecting the civilian population (something that no use of military force is less well-suited to than air power; see, for example, the Kurds and southern Shiites in Iraq after Gulf War I).

A sine qua non for the effective use of military force is to define at the outset what you aim to accomplish by it. Saying that its purpose is to establish a no-fly zone is about like saying your purpose in going to war is to fire bullets. But the magical thinking of superpowers in this arena always does confuse means and ends.

Prognosticators are a dime a dozen even when something as serious as war is going on, in part because no one ever seems to be held accountable for the wrong things they say. But amid the avalanche of punditry of the past week one prediction unfortunately struck me as the most likely to prove correct. This was the Hollywood tough-guy cliche uttered by Qaddafi's No. 2 son the other day:

"You're making a big mistake."