Project on Defense Alternatives

Disengaged Warfare:

Should we make a virtue of the Kosovo way of war?

Project on Defense Alternatives, Briefing Memo # 21
Carl Conetta
21 May 2001

What has most shaped the American way of war over the past decade is the decline in America's manifest stake in distant conflicts -- a consequence of the end of global superpower contention. This makes it more difficult to build and sustain an elite consensus, domestic or international, in support of intervention. Amplifying this effect is the present partisanship of our political culture. Finally, the memory of the Vietnam conflict, revived by the experience of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, continues to play a role as a counterpoint to Desert Storm.

Contrary to convention wisdom, however, these factors have not produced in the general public an extreme or undiscerning aversion to casualties. The public will support a war and tolerate casualties as long as they perceive the war to be necessary and just, its goals to be practicable, and its costs and risks to be commensurate with the interests and values at stake. But achieving and maintaining a consensus on whether a war actually meets these criteria is less assured today. On these matters public opinion is substantially led by elite opinion, which is today chronically divided -- usually along partisan lines.

For national leaders who are working in a highly partisan context, the domestic political risk of incurring even a few casualties seems high. The bureaucratic response to these conditions, the politically expedient response, has been to obviate consensus, rather than build it. This is done by keeping the visible risks of intervention to an absolute minimum, which means making risk avoidance the first principle of warfare.

1. Implementing Risk Aversion

America's diminished stake in distant conflicts has had a paradoxical effect on the war planning of the armed services: it has led them to develop more ambitious operational goals and concepts. When we intervene, we must do so earlier and faster than before; we must finish up quicker and do so with lower risk and virtually no casualties. These imperatives have been pursued through four operational principles:

  • Rapid deployment
  • Early offensive action
  • Overwhelming Force, and
  • Precision standoff attack.

The first three find expression, for instance, in the Army's goal of being able to deploy a five-division corps anywhere in the world within a month. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War it took the Army 12 weeks to deploy a force this size. The Army's new deployment goals conforms with the general goal of being able to conclude major regional conflicts within 100 days of an order to deploy - about twice as fast as the Gulf War. Among other things, this boosts the demand for lift and renders a fair slice of our Reserves irrelevant to major regional conflicts.

The principle of "overwhelming force" implies deploying more units and assets, even substantially more, than is judged needed to achieve success with moderate confidence. Exemplifying this was General Powell's decision during the Gulf War buildup to send significantly more troops and assets than General Schwarzkopf had requested to execute an offensive option. The intent, of course, is to reduce risk, but the imperative creates risks and tensions of its own: There is an obvious tension between the principles of "overwhelming force" and "rapid deployment".

Filling a theater with forces, creating large troop concentrations and massive flows of material, also increases vulnerability to just the type of asymmetric response that today's adversaries can manage: inaccurate "area" weapons - missiles, artillery, mines, and crude Weapons of Mass Destruction. The task of terrorists is also simplified by a target rich environment. Finally, the effective difference between our intelligence gathering capabilities and those of our adversaries is diminished when our signature and footprint are quite large.

The cost of huge deployments is staggering and they have a profound impact on subsequent force readiness. The Gulf War, for instance, cost 15 times as much Operation Allied Force. According to the GAO it took almost four years to fully recover readiness levels after Operation Desert Storm. Armed forces cannot frequently take on this type of stress and our allies will not often pick up the incremental costs, as they did in the Gulf War.

Given these various limits on deploying "overwhelming force" it is no surprise that the third principle of America's new way of war is the ascendant one: Precision stand-off attack.

2. The Functions of Precision Attack

Precision-attack capabilities can serve three broad purposes:

  • Mass battlefield interdiction - attacks on enemy units in or approaching the battlefield;
  • Attacks on enemy air bases, air defenses, missiles launchers, and the WMD infrastructure;
  • and, Strategic attack on an enemy's high-value homeland assets, including political and industrial targets.

The first of these, battlefield interdiction, has demonstrated real potential but important limits as well. The bounding cases are Desert Storm, on the positive side, and Operation Allied Force, on the negative. It is tempting to generalize from the Gulf War experience, but it had presented circumstances that were uniquely symmetrical with US precision attack capabilities: flat terrain, a ponderous enemy, and targets massed in the open. By contrast, precision battlefield attacks in Kosovo had a limited impact.

In the second broad area of application, precision attack is both effective and significant in taking out enemy air defenses; attacks on enemy air bases is also effective, but less significant; least effective is precision attack on WMD capabilities and their means of delivery.

What is receiving the most attention today is the third broad area of application: strategic attack on an enemy's homeland. During the Gulf War such attacks began in earnest on the first day but they had little assured impact on the battlefield, according to the Gulf War Air Power Survey. Hussein responded with strategic attacks of his own, as best he could: on Israel, the oil fields of Kuwait, and the environment of the region. It was not until his field Army had been largely disabled and a ground war was imminent that he sued for peace.

Some see the Kosovo war delivering a different verdict on strategic attack: it won -- while entailing minimum casualties for friendly forces. Among proponents such attacks are supposed to provide a general method for leap-frogging battlefield risk and striking directly at an enemy's will and capacity to wage war. Will and capacity are two different things. Both function in theories of strategic attack. And each involves its own distinctive problems.

Obliterating a nation's capacity to wage war takes time. Also, the effects on the battlefield of attacking military-industrial infrastructure are delayed. Before compelling a cessation in operations they may simply force transition to a lower level or less intensive form of warfare. At any rate, in Kosovo, Serbia had waged a relatively "low demand" war; thus, attacks on Serbian oil refineries and auto plants, for instance, had little or no direct impact in Kosovo.

Turning to the issue of will: Strategic attack on a wide variety of high-value targets, civilian and military, seeks to alter an enemy's cost calculus. This use of force aims to coerce behavior rather than to directly deny or impede it. It applies pain in one place (Belgrade) in order to get results somewhere else (Kosovo). The logic of strategic coercion supposes that it is often easier to exhaust a nation's will to persist in war than it is to destroy that nation's material capacity to wage war. Of course, this estimation depends on how important the object of war is to the aggressor. Proponents of coercive diplomacy also argue that the prospect of strategic attacks, if made credible, might be enough to compel aggressors to quit their aims. This logic undergirds strategies of graduated escalation.

3. The False Promise of Strategic Warfare

The promise that strategic coercion can often and reliably achieve objectives with a minimum of destruction is a false one. Coercion is an inherently weak form of control. This is because it hinges on a chain of causation that is complicated and attenuated: there is no direct link, for instance, between dropping Belgrade's bridges and the cessation of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. As a heuristic consider trying to get an army to disarm: Strategic attacks might eventually compel a semblance of compliance -- weapons of some sort piled high in collection areas, for instance. But in the end, who could doubt that weapon caches would be hidden everywhere? The experience of applying coercive diplomacy to Iraq since the Gulf War (based on sanctions and air strikes) reinforces this concern. Achieving a more reliable outcome would require deploying an army of monitors, searchers, collectors, and enforcers -- an army able to meet and overcome resistance when and where it occurs. In other words: reliable results require an Army.

As the Kosovo war attests, it is notoriously difficult to gauge an adversary's cost-calculus -- especially when the adversarial government is a dictatorial or authoritarian one. To some extent strategic attacks initially may strengthen national resolve. And, when aggressors believe that they are acting legally or defensively, attempts to intervene against them will be perceived as an assault on fundamental national rights; the maintenance of domestic legitimacy may then require them to hang tough. For all these reasons, strategic coercion is subject to miscalculation and escalation.

The reliance on strategic attack in Kosovo did result in almost no allied casualties -- a remarkable achievement. However, the war also dragged-on much longer than expected and NATO failed to stem the attacks on ethnic Albanian Kosovars during its course. The war imposed a higher cost in civilian lives and destruction than expected -- an outcome that detracted from its humanitarian rationale -- and it had a serious negative economic impact on the region. Another inadvertent effect of the bombing campaign was a fracturing in US relations with both Russia and China. These costs unsettled America's European allies, who certainly do not wish to repeat the experience. In some important respects, risks and costs were not so much avoided in the Kosovo war as simply transplanted from the battlefield level to the strategic level.

Skepticism is also warranted regarding the basic claim that strategic air attack "won the war." Skeptics can point to other factors that played a role and possibly a pivotal one: Russia's final abandonment of the Serbs, the softening of NATO's peace terms, the threat of a ground war, and the effectiveness of a NATO-supported KLA offensive. Indeed, some argue that NATO did not achieve its original aims, having compromised on the final peace agreement and having failed to impede ethnic cleansing in Kosovo during the course of the 11 week war.

4. A Wider Practice of Strategic Warfare?

In response to criticisms of the war's conduct, advocates of strategic air power lodge a criticism of their own: political leaders would not allow air power to be used to full effect -- or even close. The Allied Force air component commander, Lieutenant General Michael Short, argues that there should have been fewer political restrictions on targets and that targets should have been hit earlier and with greater ferocity. From this perspective, the problem was not the campaign's reliance on strategic attack, but its adoption of gradualism.

A broader, more intense air campaign might have ended the war sooner and without the intervention of other factors. How much broader and more intense? In Operation Desert Storm 1100 strategic targets were subjected to 18,000 strikes in 6 weeks. In Allied Force 500 targets were struck 6,000 times in 11 weeks. In terms of strikes per target per day, this makes the Desert Storm air campaign three times as intense as Allied Force. But strategic attacks clearly did not win the Gulf War on their own. Had the strategic campaign against Serbia been designed to surpass the standard set in the Gulf War it might have involved a scope of attack more than twice as broad as the one actually implemented in Operation Allied Force and an intensity of attack several times as great -- say, 1200 targets struck 10,000 times in four weeks.

This is where over-reliance on strategic attack leads: greater assured destruction, heavier demands on intelligence, probably more mistakes of strategic import, increased turmoil within coalitions, bigger postwar after-shocks, and international isapprobation. Dropping the Danube bridges on the first night of war, as some have suggested, would have sent a stronger message. But the cost of hastening to such action should not be underestimated. The destruction of those bridges have cost regional economies (outside Serbia) almost a billion dollars in lost commerce -- and they still are not fully repaired. Attacking civilian areas and a nation's economic infrastructure creates long-lasting scars and can have a destabilizing effect regionally. These are reasons to minimize such attacks, avoid them if possible, and treat them as acts of "last resort", not first.

A final concern is that some types of strategic attacks -- specifically, those against "dual use", political, and economic infrastructure targets -- test prohibitions against counter-civilian warfare. Although civilian casualties are unintentional, they are also entirely predictable in strategic bombing campaigns. The Allied Force campaign claimed the lives of at least 500 Yugoslavian civilians; Official Serbian estimates put the number higher: 2,000. Even at the lower end this surpasses the total civilian death toll suffered during seven months of recent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Greater reliance on strategic standoff attack as a mode of war will further blur the line between civilian and military targets. And this will do no one any good in the long term.

Citation: Carl Conetta, Disengaged Warfare: Should we make a virtue of the Kosovo way of war? Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #21. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, May 2001.

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