13 May 2018

In the first post of a four-part series on air power and strategy, Peter Layton discusses the importance of defining objectives to strategy-making.

Strategy and air power confuse many, both in and out of uniform. Over four posts we’ll discuss how the two relate; mainly trying to make clear the concept of strategy. Making successful strategies is by no means easy, particularly when time is short and demands many.  The task is not made easier if you’re unsure what strategy is.

Strategy is simply a way to solve specific types of problems.  Strategy’s big idea – and its big attraction – is that it offers the possibility of shaping events rather than being shaped by them. Other methods are better for other types of problems as we’ll discuss later.

The type of problems that strategy is intended for are those where an objective – an ‘end’ – can be defined. The strategy adopted may not succeed, but the intention is to realize this desired outcome. Western thinking since Carl von Clausewitz has stressed that military force is used to achieve political outcomes: “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it”.

A strategy’s objectives are accordingly best expressed in terms of politics. The field of politics between states has been examined for decades within the academic discipline of International Relations. Its language, concepts and theories developed over many years can be used to assist defining the desired ends.

British strategist Basil Liddell-Hart advanced thinking about ends in stressing that the aim of war should be a better peace. When fighting ceased, you should be better, not worse, off.  Accordingly, your political object is not just the return to the status quo ante as this led to the war in the first place. War should aim at the peace beyond, not the war in itself.  Clausewitz noted: “The political object…will thus determine…the military objective to be reached”. Achieving the military objective is a stepping-stone to the political end, not an end in itself.

In recent years, Western states have had great difficulty in defining the desired ends of various conflicts entered into.  However, strategy is not the appropriate problem-solving methodology if you cannot define the desired ends.

Well-defined strategic ends lay behind the stunning success of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the June 1967 Six Day War.  Israel wished to change the relative balance of power between itself and surrounding Arab states into a more favourable one; with this its likelihood of survival would be improved. Within the Arab alliance, Egypt had the largest neighbouring military forces. If these could be significantly weakened relative to Israel, a better peace could be established.

The IAF’s role was to diminish the Egyptian Air Force’s (EAF) combat power.  The way chosen to achieve this was through an offensive counter-air operation that predominantly attacked EAF airbases. Planning began in 1963. An intensive intelligence collection programme was commenced to gain and continually update detailed information on all Arab airbases. Very detailed mission planning was undertaken, and air and ground training optimised for the particular types of missions envisaged, with the IAF’s force structure purposefully developed.

The detailed planning revealed that the IAF’s force structure was inadequate for the task envisaged;  however, a larger force structure was simply unaffordable. With the means insufficient for the ends sought, the IAF response was to adjust the way it would employ its air power. The crucial change was to put significant emphasis on achieving very rapid aircraft turnarounds. Generating more sorties would give a virtual, if not literal, increase in air combat fleet size. Other measures taken included having three pilots per aircraft, achieving a very high aircraft serviceability rate and reducing to a bare minimum aircraft withheld for national air defence. Only twelve Mirages were retained from the air combat force of 196 aircraft that included 76 Mirage IIICJs.

Formation of the Israeli Mirage fighters in 1967. [Image credit: http://ibzine.idu.edu.pl/?p=420]

The IAF generated about 1,000 sorties on 5 June 1967 of which some 750 were flown against Egypt and the remainder against Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. The EAF lost 304 aircraft that day, most on the ground with only nine shot down during air-to-air combat. In addition to EAF losses, half the small Syrian Air Force was destroyed with Jordan’s completely annihilated. The IAF lost 20 aircraft, a worrying daily percentage for a long war but a reasonable trade off for a short one.  By war’s end 452 Arab aircraft had been destroyed for the loss of 46 Israeli aircraft.

The IAF dramatically changed the relative balance of power between itself and surrounding Arab air forces. This success came from a single-minded concentration on achieving the ends; indeed the operation’s name was Moked, which translates as ‘focus’ in English. The offensive counter-air operation was very carefully choreographed; much could have gone wrong and almost did. Egypt’s President Nasser told the EAF Chief to expect an attack 3-5 June; the Chief sought to undertake a pre-emptive strike against IAF bases but for political reasons was not allowed.  Such an attack would have significantly upset the IAF’s attack schedule.

The strategy’s ends drove a resource-constrained IAF to adopt a fragile plan that optimised the IAF for a very specific operational circumstance. It significantly helped Israel achieve its desired better peace albeit there were risks involved.

But what happens if you can’t define the ends?  In that case, using strategy as a problem-solving tool is impractical. Now, instead of trying to shape events, the air force concerned needs to be able respond to them. This is where the IAF finds itself today.

Israel is in an intractable conflict with the Palestinians. Instead of defining and seeking a better peace, Israel has embraced a risk management approach, popularly termed mowing the grass.  This approach tries to limit the losses incurred if some specific feared risk eventuates; in Israel’s case, this would involve the Palestinians in Gaza or Lebanon launching a mass unguided rocket attack into populated areas.  The feared risk event occurred in Gaza in late 2012.

The IAF by this time was very well-resourced and had developed both an impressive integrated sense and strike capability that was able to quickly locate and destroy rocket launchers before they were used, and an equally impressive capability to shoot down in flight any rockets fired (the Iron Dome system).  The combination proved highly successful. While almost 1500 rockets were fired and many more attempted to be launched, only six Israelis were killed in the eight-day conflict with building damage sharply limited as judged by insurance claims.

The IAF’s operations limited the damage inflicted on Israel by the Palestinian attack albeit without creating a better peace where such wars ceased. Risk management wars can reoccur and indeed the IAF had already fought two similar wars in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008 before the 2012 one, and would fight another in 2014.

The importance of well-defined ends in the business of making strategy is apparent. It’s not that air power will be tactically less effective if you can’t decide the ends but you won’t build the future you want. Instead, the likely outcome is a nightmare vision of recurring wars.  Strategy-making is necessary if you want to win, not just fight, wars.

Dr. Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.