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The New American Way of War

Total War 2006: The Future History of Global Conflict

by Simon Pearson
Hodder and Stoughton, 428 pp., £6.99 (paper)


More than a decade after the cold war, America still spends more on defense than all of its NATO allies combined and five to six times more than its rivals. In the coming year, the American defense budget will be close to $300 billion, compared to between $40 and $64 billion for the Russians and $37 billion for China.1 No nation in history has ever outspent its rivals to this degree or done so at such low relative cost. For the truly astonishing feature of American defense expenditure is that it amounts to no more than 3 percent of gross domestic product. This is what Paul Bracken means when he talks about “superpower lite.”

The question about “superpower lite” is whether this expenditure actually buys military readiness or just waste and a false sense of security. A related question is whether the emerging American way of war—which emphasizes the avoidance of risk and casualties—is gradually making American power more and more vulnerable.

America owed its military renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s to Vietnam. Veterans like Norman Schwartzkopf, Colin Powell, Alfred Grey, Charles Krulak, and Wesley Clark returned home angry and ashamed at their defeat and rebuilt all-volunteer, professional armed forces from the ground up. Besides going back to basic military skills and trying to re-create the warrior ethos of their profession, the Vietnam generation embraced what became known as RMA, the revolution in military affairs: the use of computers and knowledge management systems to improve battlefield command and control; the development of precision-guided conventional weapons; and the deployment of stealth systems, new types of armor, and unmanned platforms, which reduced risk for American combatants.

The key element of the revolution in military affairs was not technological but political. By reducing risks to American personnel and reducing diplomatically costly forms of collateral damage to its enemies, RMA has made it much easier for an American president to use military force. This helps to explain why George Bush and Bill Clinton resorted to military force more frequently than any other commander in chief since Roosevelt and did so with relative impunity.

In Desert Storm in 1991, American technology gave a ruthless and stunning demonstration of how far RMA had transformed the American way of war. For the first time, cruise missiles made their appearance as an offen-sive weapon, and for the first time in twentieth-century combat, air power led and ground forces followed. Forty-two days of relentless aerial destruction made it possible for ground forces to win victory in less than one hundred hours. Indeed, so swift was the victory that some commanders, like General Barry McCaffrey, have been accused of firing on retreating or surrendering troops.2

Desert Storm was seen by the military establishment and by some politicians as avenging Vietnam, but it left behind dangerous illusions. The victory was so decisive, and information about it so carefully managed, that the American public was never clearly informed that it was purchased at the price of approximately 100,000 Iraqi lives. The use of precision-targeted cruise missiles allowed the public to believe that Allied bombing had been discriminate. In fact, cruise missiles amounted to no more than 8 percent of the ordnance dropped on Iraq, and while the Air Force claimed that the bombing minimized collateral damage, independent estimates have shown that the air campaign pulverized much of Iraq’s civilian economy.3 In Theodore Draper’s words, Desert Storm demonstrated that America dominates the world militarily but not politically.4 And it left the Iraqi people with the worst of all possible worlds, their country ruined and the power still in the hands of a criminal adventurer. Nine years later, Saddam Hussein is still in control, and his capacity to threaten Israel, Iran, and Turkey is still intact. As Williamson Murray, of the US Naval Academy, puts it in his contribution to Gulf War Air Power Survey, America assumed that “the weak link in Iraq’s armor was its political stability.” In fact, it was the military that collapsed, “while the political regime displayed an impressive capacity to absorb punishment and retain its hold on power.”

Does this sound familiar? In 1999, NATO pried Kosovo from Milosevic’s grip, but could not dislodge him from power. So even those enemies who have been subject to America’s wrath have survived and in some ways prospered. Kosovo and Desert Storm proved that air power cannot change enemy regimes: it can only damage their capacity to do harm.

Desert Storm created the pattern for the American way of war that eventually prevailed in Kosovo. America learned from Vietnam that unilateral use of force eventually forfeits international legitimacy and domestic support. Desert Storm demonstrated the political necessity of coalition warfare. Coalition partners do not add much firepower, but they provide essential political legitimacy. The second lesson of Desert Storm was that collateral damage can be costly. International reaction to the bombing of the Al-Firdos bunker in Baghdad, in which over two hundred civilians perished in an American strike in February 1991, effectively ended strikes on the city. In Kosovo, the proportion of attacks using precision-guided weaponry, both cruise and J-Dam missiles, rose from 8 percent in Desert Storm to 35 percent. Precision guidance, plus stealth bombers, allowed NATO to take the war “downtown” to Belgrade, in other words, to risk strikes at sensitive targets even in the presence of international TV crews.

The central difficulty of the American way of war in Kosovo was that avoiding “collateral damage” to civilians and to nonmilitary targets and avoiding pilot loss were conflicting objectives. If pilots fly high, they can’t identify targets accurately and the risks of horrifying accidents increase. Flying low improves accuracy but the risk to pilots is significantly increased. According to a careful study by William Arkin of Human Rights Watch, during the seventy-eight days of the Kosovo campaign, there was no loss of NATO lives, but the bombing claimed between 488 and 527 civilian lives. We can conclude from this that reducing risk to pilots ultimately mattered more than minimizing loss of civilian life. Still, the losses were significantly lower than the Serbs claimed, low enough in fact not to jeopardize political support for the war from the nineteen-nation alliance that endorsed it.

Yet the Kosovo war, like Desert Storm, has proved to be an ambiguous kind of victory. Since the Kosovo campaign was won entirely in the air without a ground component, it confirmed rather than allayed the suspicion of America’s allies and enemies alike that its technological superiority hides a crucial weakness: a refusal to risk American lives. There is of course no virtue in putting American lives at stake, and any military commander has a primary obligation to reduce risk to his forces wherever possible. The problem with the American way of war is whether such military strategy can work.

Relying exclusively on air power has limits: planes are effective against fixed strategic targets, like petroleum storage, bridges, and command bunkers; but even then air power rarely succeeds, by itself, in destroying a regime’s ability to command and control its forces. Against mobile targets and forces, its limitations are even more obvious. “Tank-plinking” did not destroy Serbian armor in the field, and NATO’s initial claims that it did so have been shown to have been exaggerated. Air power forced Milosevic’s army underground into shelters, but once the bombing stopped, the army rolled back into Serbia.

More important, air power alone cannot protect civilians at risk. You can’t stop ethnic cleansing from fifteen thousand feet.5 That Clinton ruled out the use of ground troops before combat commenced in Kosovo made it clear how political constraints actually work in “humanitarian” interventions: wherever a politician has to choose between air power, which involves low risks but low gains, and the use of ground troops, which entails high risks and may achieve high gains, he will choose air power, even if it can’t deliver him complete victory. All this reflects the American way of war in the post-Vietnam era: it is risk-free and casualty-averse war waged in the expectation of impunity. Elsewhere I have called this new style of intervention “virtual war.”6

The larger question raised by Kosovo is whether the American way of war is adapted to the new era of wars involving “humanitarian intervention” and protection of human rights. Instead of confirming American resolve to involve itself in these new wars, Kosovo raised the suspicion that America will only take part in such situations if risk to its own combatants is minimal. The question for the future of American strategy is whether it will ever allow Americans to engage in ground combat. In the new American way of war, the Air Force has the leading role as the high-altitude precision specialist; the Navy follows as a platform from which to launch planes and missiles; and the Marines can be used to secure beachheads and evacuate Americans at risk.

What function remains for the US Army? Its only foray into the tribal wars of the 1990s, the Somali operation of 1993, ended in humiliating withdrawal after eighteen soldiers were killed. Since Somalia, rule number one for Army deployments abroad has been “force protection.” But if your first job is protecting yourself, what other mission can you hope to accomplish? The Army’s problem, moreover, is not only one of risk aversion. It is also structural. The reality seems to be that the American Army is still organized as it was for the battles of World War II and the cold war rather than the kinds of intervention to secure peace and protect civilians that have been taking place since the end of the cold war. The US Army still relies on armored divisions, requiring huge logistical support, and it takes months to deploy ground forces in strength. It lacks either the strategy or the tactics for a rapid, mobile deployment to fight its way in to rescue civilians who are being subjected to genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacre, or eviction. American presidents choose air power because the Army has not been able to present low-risk plans for ground action. Until it can do so, it will be confined to a bystander role, peace-keeping in the streets of Kosovo and Bosnia, while the other services take the lead as well as the credit and blame.

America has been criticized for its aversion to military casualties, but it has taken just enough military action to dominate its alliances, and prevail against its enemies, without plunging the US into the kinds of divisions about the international use of military power that nearly wrecked the country in the 1960s. If all this is true, then why are admirals and generals bleakly warning the rival presidential contenders that defense spending will have to increase by more than $30 billion a year for the next decade?7 Why are so many defense specialists calling for a national missile defense system? Why are so-called experts inventing new and previously unimagined threats from starving dwarf nations like North Korea?

  1. 1

    Elizabeth Becker, “Chief Themes of Military Budget: Modernizing and Troop Welfare,” The New York Times, February 8, 2000.

  2. 2

    Seymour Hersh, “Overwhelming Force,” The New Yorker, May 22, 2000.

  3. 3

    The 8-percent figure is taken from Anthony Cordesman, “The Kosovo Bombing Campaign,” CSIS study, Washington, D.C., September 1999.

  4. 4

    Theodore Draper, “The True History of the Gulf War,” The New York Review, January 30, 1992.

  5. 5

    Conrad C. Crane, “From Korea to Kosovo: Continuities in the Application of American Airpower in Limited Wars,” unpublished paper, US Military Academy, West Point, April 2000; see also John Barry and Evan Thomas, “The Kosovo Cover-Up,” Newsweek, May 15, 2000.

  6. 6

    Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (Metropolitan Books, 2000).

  7. 7

    Thomas Ricks and Roberto Suro, “For Military’s Budget Planners, Clinton Era Is Already History,” International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2000, p. 1.

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