27 May 2018

In the third post of a four-part series on air power and strategy, Peter Layton reminds us that strategy is just an idea. Part One in the series, examining the need to define ends, can be found here and Part Two, considering the competition, can be found here.

In earlier posts (here and here) we discussed the first two fundamental characteristics of strategy. The third may perplex: strategy is just an idea. To examine this, let us use a simple well-known model.

Art Lykke deconstructed the art of strategy into ends, ways and means where the ‘ends’ are the objectives, the ‘ways’ are the courses of actions and the ‘means’ are the instruments of national power (air power in these posts).  The ‘means’ are used in certain ‘ways’ to achieve specific ‘ends’. All three parts are important albeit some mistakenly try to simplify this even further.

Some conceive strategy as being solely a balance between ends and means. Christopher Layne for example declares: “strategy is simple: it is the process by which a state matches ends to means.”  In this perspective, great means leads directly to great victories.

Historically however, nations with great means have often found it surprisingly difficult to convert these into achieving their desired ends.  Given its great means, the United States should have been able to readily achieve its objectives in Afghanistan after 2001, in Iraq after 2003, or indeed in the 1960-70s in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  The outcomes actually achieved suggest strategy is more than the simple balancing of ends and means.

Instead as Sir Lawrence Freedman observed, strategy is “about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.”

Good strategy involves an astute course of action, a shrewd ‘way’, that is additive to the available power; the impact of the means is magnified. A good example is the 1967 Israeli counter-air strategy (see first post).  In contrast, poor strategy subtracts from the available means; it destroys the power you have. This is well illustrated by the German counter-air strategy in the Battle of Britain (see second post).

This can be simplified into Ends = Ways + Means albeit it is impossible to actually sum unlike objects. Strategy is then the ‘ways’; it sets out the causal path to victory. It explains how the means will be used to reach the defined political objective.  Strategy is an idea but one with a well-defined purpose and big ambitions.

In passing, Ends = Ways + Means also reveals that ends and ways are directly related.  A single way does not produce any possible end; the way used needs to be compatible to the ends sought. The consequence of this is that the grand strategy that shapes the subordinate air power strategy informs the choice of ways but that’s too complicated for now.

In initially considering the ways that air power could be applied, the early air power theorists realised traditional strategic thinking needed reconceptualising. Surface force manoeuvre was inherently constrained by geography and the adversary’s defending forces. Now, aircraft could soar above all that. As 19th century aeronautical pioneer Sir George Cayley said the air was “an uninterrupted navigable ocean that comes to the threshold of everyman’s door.”  For the first time, military power could be applied at any time anywhere across a hostile state.

The inter-war period was particularly prolific in debates about which target sets to attack. Douhet and Harris thought attacking the populations of major cities would undermine an adversary’s resistance. Conversely some generals and admirals considered that attacking an adversary’s land and naval forces would lead to victory. In a third approach, American thinkers decided that the adversary should be viewed as a system; attacking carefully chosen key industrial nodes would lead to the collapse of the adversary’s economy and war making ability.  In World War Two all three broad approaches were tried, at times succeeding and at times failing. A clear determination of what to target in future wars was difficult to make.

John Warden [Image credit: Wiki commons]

John Boyd [Image credit: Wiki Commons]

John Andreas Olsen [Image credit:
Oslo Militære Samfund]

Today two air power theorists stand out with a third possibly emerging. John Warden has developed a five-ring model to guide target selection. The adversary is perceived as a system composed of the leadership, organic essentials (energy, food, money), infrastructure, population and fielded forces. In this, the key ring is the leadership, both physically and psychologically, with some delving deeper adding values targeting. In simple terms Warden’s model recommends creating system paralysis, as this will most quickly cause the adversary leadership to change their aggressive policies.

John Boyd moves beyond such target set thinking.  For Boyd winning requires working the Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action (OODA) loop faster than an adversary. With this, the adversary’s reactions to friendly force initiatives will always lag, becoming less and less appropriate to the battle as it evolves. He stresses that the crucial aspect to attaining the requisite superiority in OODA loop speed is rapid orientation. Success lies in building an accurate image of the battlespace more rapidly than the opponent. Situational awareness is the sine qua non of victory – a notion not unknown to aviators.

Apparent in this discussion is the focus on warfighting. John Olsen has recently added the notion of systemic empowerment to the concepts of winning through systemic paralysis that Warden and Boyd developed.  With recent nation-building experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, Olsen considers that air power can be used for positive purposes not just negative. He envisages “systemic empowerment [that] would create better conditions for friendly actors to assume power. [It would] encourage, enhance, establish, and educate.”  Air power would be used not just to destroy but also to build.

Which particular way some future strategy should embrace depends both on the context and the ends sought. In this it’s worth noting that the target set approaches, and OODA loops offer simplicity in their advice but may draw attention away from other air power aspects. You will recall the Israelis in 1967 (first post) focused on developing the capability for higher sortie rates as a way to magnify their limited means and achieve their strategic ends.  This lateral thinking example highlights a criticism by Peter Faber about air power thinking that needs to be remembered when developing practical air strategies: “the causal relationship between aerial attacks and political outcomes remains murky…a clear exposition of this relationship remains the Holy Grail of air power theory.” Air power strategising remains a work in progress.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.