First published Strategic Culture Foundation
The American Way of War is founded on three assumptions. Ever since 1945 the USA has assumed that it would have air superiority: it knew that it would have to fight for it against the Soviets but assumed that it would be able to gain it, at least in the areas where needed (local air superiority). In Korea there was some resistance but the USAF was able to bomb pretty freely. Wikipedia informs us that it dropped more bombs on Korea than it did in the entire Pacific Theatre and about half as many as it did in the European Theatre in 1941-1945. North Korea was obliterated: “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another, and some in South Korea, too.” Which, of course, is the principal reason why North Korea has nuclear weapons today.
Bombing became the American Way of War par excellence with ever greater tonnages dropped: Cambodia received about the same amount as Korea, Laos about three times as much, Vietnam about six times as much. And the bombing continues today throughout Washington’s forever wars. Officially it is precise, surgical, carefully selected: “The targets I’m assigned to destroy have been vetted through the most professional members of our armed services, and (I know) that others are taking their jobs as seriously as I am“. But US Precision Bombing is a “Persistent Myth” and the reality is quite different:
Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force has loosened its definition of “accuracy” from 25 feet to 10 meters (39 feet), but that is still less than the blast radius of even its smallest 500 lb. bombs. [Here’s one.] So the impression that these weapons can be used to surgically “zap” a single house or small building in an urban area without inflicting casualties and deaths throughout the surrounding area is certainly contrived.
In the end, there is no difference from random carpet bombing: “precision strike” after “precision strike” after “precision strike” – even assuming the intelligence that guides the “precision” is accurate, which it isn’t – leaves nothing but rubble:
If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble. It’s been a painfully apt term since Sept. 11, 2001. In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful — rubblize and rubblization.
Here are pictures from Raqqa in Iraq. Amnesty International calculates that 30,000 artillery rounds were fired and the New Yorker estimates 10,000 bombs dropped; given an assumed population of 300,000 that’s one for every seven or eight people; “precision” or not, what would your neighbourhood like like after that?
Doing war from the air is pretty cost-free especially if your targets have weak air defence. The 1998 NATO operation in Kosovo had two accidental NATO deaths and two aircraft shot down. The 2011 NATO operation in Libya cost one soldier and two aircraft from accidents and one helicopter captured. It’s engagingly technical and allows much talk of precision. To say nothing of the opportunity to smugly accuse others of just tossing bombs around: “Putin’s modern Air Force choosing devastating dumb bombs over precision strikes“. (In this puff piece the authors do not understand that the Russians actually have figured out a cheap way to make “dumb” bombs “precise”. The process is explained here. Also note the familiar American boast “We’re able to do very precise weaponeering in order to strike and then also minimize civilian casualty”.)
The second assumption of the American Way of War is a prerequisite of the first – assured communications. The American way of precision bombing requires that the bomb or missile “talk” continually to its guide, whether that be a laser designator, a signal to the target and back or GPS satellites. This “talking” must be free, unrestricted and continuous – if it is stopped, the “smart” missile or bomb immediately becomes “stupid”. (Another advantage of the Russian way, incidentally, is that the “talking” is unnecessary once the bomb is dropped.)
US warfighting doctrine depends on air power operating and communicating freely.
The countries on Washington’s target list are well aware of this and that is why they are continually improving their air defence and electronic warfare capabilities. Conversely, the reason why NATO members have feeble air defence and limited EW capability is that they’ve never thought they needed to have them. Years of beating up countries with trivial air defence and EW has left them complacent. (Even a wake-up call like the shooting down of the F-117 is soon sent down the Memory Hole.)
Great strategists have always known that victory is found in avoiding the enemy’s strength and attacking his weakness and that one should “fight the enemy with the weapons he lacks.” Russia, China and Iran cannot expect to win a naval battle in the South Pacific against the US Navy: there will be no second Battles of Leyte Gulf, Midway or Coral Sea. That would be to attack US strengths. Missiles to take out aircraft carriers are the answer: do not attack the enemy’s strength, fight him with the weapons he lacks. Neither would they attempt to invade and conquer the USA itself. Defence is what they want and these are the principles that guide them.
But there is a third assumption of the American Way of War and that is simply this:
the air raid sirens will sound somewhere else.
Everything that I have said above applies to Israel. Just like the USA, Israel has grown accustomed to using air power, “precision strikes” and all the rest of it. In 1973 it had a hard ground fight but since its 2006 repulse by Hezbollah in Lebanon it has relied ever more on air strikes. Like the US, it is confident that it has air superiority and secure communications. Being so much closer to its enemies, it is not as confident that the air raid sirens will always scream somewhere else, but confident that it can inflict, via its air power, unacceptable damage on its enemy, Israel proceeds. Hezbollah and Hamas would be fools to try – even if they could – to build an air force to fight Israel, neither can they expect to have air defence and electronic warfare assets to seriously challenge Israel’s air superiority. Because they cannot attack the two assumptions of air superiority and communications, they must therefore attack the third assumption of invulnerability. Not the enemy’s strength but his weakness.
The last big US ground operations, the Iraq wars of 1990 and 2003, were preceded by months of unimpeded transportation of immense quantities of supplies across the Atlantic. Baghdad never interfered and the complacent supposition that the air raid sirens would sound only in the enemy’s skies was further strengthened. But, should NATO be so suicidal as to provoke Russia to war, this will not be the case: the Iskanders will come calling and there will be no uninterrupted buildup. NATO bases will not be safe sanctuaries and the convoys will have to fight their way through.
We see, today, the proof of concept. In May Gaza fired hundreds of simple, cheap rockets at Israel. The Israeli air defence system, Iron Dome, was reasonably effective but it will run out of missiles long before Gaza, to say nothing of Hezbollah, will. Iron Dome suffers from the weakness that it is far more expensive than the simple rockets Hamas is using. Debris rained down on Israeli cities, the odd rocket got through (probably more than we were told). The air raid sirens were continuous and Israelis were in bomb shelters. It’s true that Israel’s air force obliterated buildings in Gaza but that’s not the point: everyone knew they could do that, it’s the continuous rockets that are new. This went on for eleven days with no diminution of fire from Gaza. A piece in the NYT, not a noticeably Israel-hostile outlet, quotes an estimate of 30,000 rockets in Gaza; only about ten percent were fired. Hezbollah has at least four times as many. The myth of Israel’s invincibility has been broken: gravely diminished in 2006 on land, its skies are no longer safe. Fight the enemy’s weakness (its home morale – how many dual citizens are already packing their suitcases?) and use weapons it does not have.
A ceasefire was announced after eleven days; we’ll see if it holds: Israeli police have again stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque which was the trigger in the first place. The Jerusalem Post attempts a summing up; and a very pro-Israeli one it is: so many commanders, headquarters, launching sites claimed destroyed. Most important though is its recognition that Hamas “increased its volume and range” of rocket launches. And “Hamas took credit for redrawing the equation of power in the region in its battle with Israel, asserting that Israel is now in a state of decline”. A claim to be sure. But one with some reality. Hamas struck with greater numbers and deeper into Israel than ever before and there were also disturbances in the Arab population in Israel proper. Hamas is claiming a victory and it is not wrong to do so.
Air superiority, assured immediate communications and security of the home front. Gaza and Hezbollah present the poor man’s solution to the problem – lots of cheap rockets to challenge the assumption of a secure home front: Israel’s “illusion of normality” is gone.
Richer and more industrially-based entities can counter the first two assumptions and challenge the third with more sophisticated answers. Perhaps the greatest challenge to the complacency that other countries will be the amphitheatres for American wars is the Russian Poseidon; this weapon, a sort of giant autonomous underwater cruise missile, is designed to create a tsunami to wipe out US ports and coastal areas. Iran, in its retaliatory attack on the US base in Iraq last year, showed that US forces were not safe in their bases. China and Russia are both creating weapons systems to attack the USA where it is weak using weapons it does not have. US aircraft carrier battle groups, rather than projections of mighty power, are mere targets to hypersonic missiles. Russian EW capability has been described by at least one US general as “eye-watering“, able to turn off US systems; and one may be sure that the Russians are saving their best for later. (Can they blind an entire warship? Not at all! Disinformation! Nonsense! Information Warfare! A little too much protesting?) Russia and China can do this because they are not lost to fantasies of “power projection” or “full spectrum superiority“; they defend themselves with weapons the aggressor does not have that are directed at his weakness. Enough and not too much is their guide.
Gaza vs Israel represents the proof of the concept.