F 16s during Desert Storm. Image: US Department of Defence

The US military command began its assault on Iraq in 2003 as in the previous Gulf War in 1991: with a Buck Rogers video-game-style air attack. However, unlike “Operation Desert Storm” in the earlier conflict — which attempted to destroy the Iraqi army from the air over a prolonged period — they apparently based the 2003 plan on a “new” theory of battle adopted by the Pentagon.

The new doctrine, called “Rapid Decisive Operations” (RDO) evolved from earlier theories of “Rapid Dominance”, and “Effects-Based Operations” (EBO), which aimed to paralyze the enemy through a series of physical and psychological shocks.

The concept of striking at the will of the enemy dated back to Sun Tzu’s writings of the 5th century BC, and both Napoleon Bonaparte and Captain Basil Liddell-Hart expanded on the theme. The Nazi and Israeli war machines demonstrated successfully the concept of Blitzkrieg, focussing on breaking the opponent’s will to fight psychologically, rather than destroying the opposing military forces physically.

RDO brought to this tradition the new concept of “immaculate war”, eliminating enemy targets with modern precision weapons, allegedly with no wastage or collateral damage. Hitting enemy command centres and logistic bottlenecks with so-called “smart” weapons would freeze up their control and supply system, enabling swift, near-bloodless victory.

This new theory of warfare did not spring up in a vacuum: after the Vietnam War, US military doctrine mutated rapidly. The conflict in Indo-China, seminal in releasing the US military from intellectual dependence on nuclear weaponry, focussed military minds on more effective means of prosecuting conventional war. The South-East Asian debacle caused a complete redirection of US military thinking, from guerrilla war in the Third World to conventional warfare in the European theatre of war.

In the process of reinventing itself, the US Army emphasised transforming what US military historian Russel F Weigley described as “The American way of war”. This relied on direct confrontation, firepower and material superiority to overcome the enemy, rather than on manoeuvre warfare — the use of speed, subtlety and flexibility to disrupt the adversary’s capacity to fight.

The US Army discarded its earlier approach to warfare, based on relatively static, positional and unimaginative attrition, to prepare for a battlefield in which tempo and destruction would surpass dramatically that of earlier wars. It adopted a new field manual for operational-level doctrine in 1976, based on the Israeli army’s experiences of the 1973 October War — in which the latter found its blitzkrieg edge blunted. Defensively-oriented, and less concerned with manoeuvre, the manual acted as the catalyst for doctrinal ferment in the US Army, exposing important issues which needed addressing.

In the course of this debate, a concept emerged of the extended battlefield — having a deeper physical dimension, a time dimension, and a critical “air-land” dimension — in which officers would influence events up to 150 kilometres beyond their own front lines, and to think in terms of time beyond their front lines, in addition to distance.

The Army Commanders’ Conference approved the concept in October 1980, leading to its official adoption with the publication of the 1982 operations field manual revision. The German Army General Staff co-operated in developing this new field manual, which drew heavily on German military doctrine.

The new doctrine, officially known as “AirLand Battle”, dealt with armoured, mechanised, combined-arms combat; whilst projecting an offensive orientation. To handle its view of an extended battlefield having great depth, the doctrinal guidelines emphasised integrated attack by land and air forces.

The new model battle strategy comprised two key components:

(a) “deep attacks” beyond the forward edge of the battle area, as a means of attrition as well as to disrupt and freeze the enemy second echelons and stun the enemy long enough for

(b) the initial advantage to be exploited, by lightning-fast offensive manoeuvre using mechanised forces supported by tactical airpower and attack helicopters, in order to destroy enemy formations by attrition.

The decisive phase of battle would be the climax of the second component, close-combat; during which attention would be focussed on the close battle area, where enemy ground combat formations would be defeated, or at least prevented from penetrating into the friendly rear area.

The first check on the new strategy came during the US-led invasion of Grenada, a near-fiasco. Army units found they could not call in accurate artillery or air support from the Navy, the inter-force co-operation essential for the AirLand battle barely existed, and a mere 200 Cuban construction workers withstood the US forces’ onslaught for two days.

Col. John Boyd during the Korean War. Image: US Government

This experience caused Colonel John R Boyd, of the US Air Force (USAF), to advocate greater inter-force collaboration, a leaner military machine and the application of technology appropriate to contemporary military needs. He subsequently developed a theory, that success in war depended on observing, orienting, deciding, and then acting faster than the adversary. His biographer, Robert Coram explained that this “OODA loop” (for Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) represented “a blueprint for the manoeuvre tactics that allow one to attack the mind of an opponent, to unravel its commander even before a battle begins.”

Meanwhile, Harlan Ullman, a US military strategist at the National Defence University in Washington, D.C. became concerned about American defence doctrine. He considered the current doctrine of attrition “too Clausewitzian” — referring to the Prussian military theorist and author Karl von Clausewitz’s emphasis on destroying the enemy’s strength and his “centre of gravity”. He and a colleague, James T Wade, brought together a group of like-minded military officers, interested in replacing reliance on attrition warfare — “force-on-force” engagements and the slow destruction of enemy forces — with a strategy that could overwhelm the foe and bring victory speedily and cheaply.

Before these theories came to fruition, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed the need for a “European War” strategy and led to renewed conflicts within the US military about its war doctrine. This exacerbated the rivalry between service branches for funds from Congress, to procure new weapons systems. The Pentagon wanted to replace its obsolescent military hardware with more sophisticated systems, such as the F-22 stealth fighter and the Joint Strike Fighter (which became the F-35). To justify this procurement, it needed to find a credible enemy to replace the Soviet Union.

In 1989, General Colin Powell, the US Armed Forces Chief of Staff, established a special planning group to focus on the threat from hostile Third World nations, such as Iraq and Iran, and rebuild US military strategy around it. President George HW Bush approved the resulting new “Regional Defence Strategy” in the spring of 1990, several months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

The conceptual basis for the strategy used in the Gulf War remained the AirLand Battle doctrine, modified by the “Gulf War doctrine”, which advocated the use of every resource and tool available to achieve overwhelming, disproportionate force against the enemy. Its definite offensive orientation, befitting the sole superpower, eliminated the last vestiges of the 1976 field manual’s defensive proclivity.

Following the Gulf Campaign, in which US forces and their allies won a stunning victory against Iraqi forces in Kuwait, a fierce doctrinal debate broke out in the upper echelons of the US armed forces. It centred on the relative weightings to be given to deep attack (the prerogative of the Air Force) and manoeuvre (that of the Army).

The US Army analysed the planning and execution of Operation Desert Storm, concluding that the US military did use the AirLand Battle doctrine’s precepts of manoeuvre warfare, rather than its traditional firepower-attrition warfare canon. This differed from the widely-held view, that the operation succeeded due more to the overwhelming strength of the US forces and their allies than to the precepts of manoeuvre warfare, and that the ground campaign was conducted in the traditional manner, even if at a greater tempo.

The USAF’s strategists thought that US Central Command did not make the air and ground actions simultaneous, close, rear and deep operations, as befitted the true AirLand doctrine, but carried them out in phases. The air forces carried out drawn-out deep operations and only the last phase, which lasted a few days, involved a closely-conducted AirLand battle.

However, according to the Army’s official Gulf War history, Certain Victory, “Coalition air forces so dominated the air that enemy ground units were largely prohibited from manoeuvring and only dared to reposition at night or in bad weather. Yet the air operation, even though it lasted 41 days, failed to break the will of the Republican Guard…”

In other words, the last, ground war phase decided the battle. The US Army’s Statement of Posture 1996 reiterated this, stating that “Wars are won on the ground… The application of military force on land is an action an adversary cannot ignore; it forces decision.”

Conversely, the USAF pointed out that it used precision guided munitions (PGMs or “smart bombs”) in relatively small quantities, and that attacks preponderantly used “dumb bombs”. The allied air forces expended 85,000 tonnes of bombs, only 10% of these being PGMs — which, however, accounted for almost 75 % of the damage. Hence, the Gulf War proved the war-winning possibilities inherent in “smart bombs”.

Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Paul Castillio checks a GBU-38 Satellite Guided Bomb. Image US Navy/ Tommy Gilligan

During Operation Desert Storm, the USAF applied the concept of “Parallel Warfare”, striking at once all of the crucial systems and forces of the enemy, rather than attacking them over a period of days or weeks. It considered this method capable of effective application only after recent improvements in PGM guidance systems. “Aerospace control with precision weapons” gave the US “a war-winning strategy for the future” — “immaculate war”.

In a January 1996 briefing for USAF chief of staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman, his deputy, Lt. Gen. Ralph Eberhart developed this assertion further, advocating that the Air Force, equipped with precision weapons, could attack targets and defeat the enemy, before ground forces were in place, without ground combat or occupation of the enemy’s territory. Maj. Gen. Charles Link, Eberhart’s deputy, in turn expanded upon this, proposing that air forces, with ground forces absent, attacking enemy ground forces and halting their advance, could either enable a political settlement or buy time for ground forces to be moved up and eject or destroy the enemy.

This so-called “halt phase” concept depended on the contention that anything on a battlefield can be located with sensors in the air and in space, and destroyed with precision guided munitions. This notion disturbed US Army officers, who argued that “halt” operations amounted to the “strategic attack” concept, which had failed to win wars in the past. Even strategic bombing with accurate targeting of the enemy, failed without the intervention of ground troops. Increasing accuracy merely brought about a quantitative change to the effect of the strategy, not a qualitative one.

The sponsors of the USAF viewpoint countered this by saying the Army had responded in fear of displacement as the premier service. The “halt phase”, they argued, altered the order in which operations would be mounted against hostile forces; by dislocating the enemy’s mobility by air attack, an opportunity arose to achieve battlefield dominance before ground troops came in close contact. They claimed that a “halt strategy” indicated a greater use of airpower, with a corresponding diminution of the importance of ground forces, which “added salt to [the Army’s] doctrinal wounds.”

Nevertheless, the postulations of the Air Force could do nothing to dislodge the Army from its position, which it defended with the empirical evidence of the Gulf War. A first-rate unit could rebuild its combat strength, they argued, if destroyed gradually by attrition and not by sudden, decisive and unrelenting close-in fighting — they would disintegrate only when their will broke, not when they lost equipment.

The outcome of the conflict in Kosovo proved to be another doctrinal bone of contention. On the face of it, in “Operation Allied Force”, the air campaign against the Yugoslavia, the USAF appeared to have been an easy winner in an “immaculate”’ war. However, as military analyst Earl H Tilford pointed out, the Yugoslavs only agreed to withdraw from Kosovo and allow the introduction of a UN peacekeeping force after they had been battered by NATO air forces — whether air power changed the Yugoslavs’ minds remained moot — and, furthermore,

…the wear and tear on aircraft, the huge expenditure of sophisticated weaponry, and the continued lowering of morale among service personnel in general and aircrews in particular are more evident. In retrospect, Allied Force more closely resembles the 7 to 6 Notre Dame win over Slippery Rock than it does the 70 to 0 blowout one might have expected.

Meanwhile, according to Ullman, Gen. Charles A “Chuck” Horner, the US Air commander of “Operation Desert Storm” the US offensive in Kuwait, often said that not knowing where to “stick the needle”, in order to defeat the enemy, frustrated him. Ulmann and his group developed “Shock and Awe” to solve the problem of “where to stick Horner’s needles”, to defeat an adversary with minimal effort and at the least cost.

Harlan Ullman addressing the US Naval War College. Image US Navy/Jaima Fogg

In 1996 the group, which included Horner, published their theory as Shock & Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance:

The basis for Rapid Dominance rests in the ability to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary through imposing sufficient Shock and Awe to achieve the necessary political, strategic, and operational goals of the conflict or crisis that led to the use of force.

They aimed to disorient the enemy by creating havoc with a concentrated blizzard of powerful blows at a variety of targets. Crushing the enemy’s morale through “Shock and Awe” would minimise casualties. They counter-posed this to Ullman’s former student Gen. Colin Powell’s “Gulf War doctrine” (or “Powell Doctrine”), of overwhelming the enemy with troop strength

The group held seminars and published papers describing the concept of Rapid Dominance. Former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld became an early convert and, in October 1999, together with three other former defence secretaries, Harold Brown, Frank C. Carlucci, and James R. Schlesinger, signed a letter to President Clinton’s secretary of Defence, William S Cohen, calling for a change in defence strategy and endorsing the new concept. Cohen wrote in reply the following March that there was an official interest in inducing “Shock and Awe” in future opponents.

In 2001, President George W Bush appointed Rumsfeld Secretary of Defence once again, and he launched a programme to transform the US Military into a swift, lithe and potent war machine. He showed particular concern about the US Army, which he considered too fond of archaic doctrines and obsolescent weapons systems, and set about adopting “Rapid Dominance” as part of the official US military doctrine.

About 1997, the group of theorists who had coalesced around the ideas of Boyd, began examining “transformational” strategies, which combined OODA with highly accurate PGMs, seeing them as solutions to the problem created for the USAF by empirical observations. The group for whom “Transformational” strategies became the creed, as the key to transforming the US military, included Rumsfeld and a few defence theorists, who would later form part of his staff at the Pentagon.

They conjectured that the US experience in the Gulf War required the “American way of war” to change, causing “desired effects” rather than aiming for objectives or for the physical destruction of enemy targets. The recent conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, they held, exemplified this new ‘effects-based” way of conducting operations, rather than the old approaches of annihilation or attrition.

An April 2001 “Transformation Study Report” suggested attacking “critical nodes” to “limit or foreclose enemy options. This discussion culminated in a briefing paper by Maj. Gen. David Deptula (the principal attack planner for Operation Desert Storm’s air component), “Turning Vision into Reality: Air Force Transformation”, in which he described a “New Operational Concept (Effects-Based Planning).”

Deptula based himself on the concept of “Parallel Warfare”, developed by USAF Colonel John Warden, before the Gulf War, to achieve command of the air through parallel (i.e. simultaneous) attacks rather than by sequential strikes. He extended Col. Warden’s theory beyond the USAF, to encompass diplomatic, information, economic and other state apparatus. He also stressed holistic analysis of the enemy, focussing on the linkages between cause and effect. The enhanced accuracy and performance of PGMs provided the required “ability to deliver desired effects with minimal risk and collateral damage”; ensuring “decisive dominance” and denying the enemy the possibility of escape. These “leaps in capability” enabled “real transformation”; making possible the generation of the “effects” produced earlier by the use of mass, without the need of that mass.

Lt Gen David A Deptula. Image DoD/Jerry Morrison

In October 2001, a White Paper, Effects Based Operations published this conclusion. It defined EBO operations as “a process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome or effect on the enemy through the synergistic and cumulative application of the full range of military and non-military capabilities at all levels of conflict”, an “effect” being the result — “physical, functional or psychological” — of a specific action.

Bombing — accurately and heavily — a specific target, such as a command centre, could cause it to lose its ability to function and exert control. Consequently, the entire military machine to which it belonged, could be induced to “seize up”. Precise and focussed attacks would have a multiplier effect far greater than the simple tonnage of bombs.

Deptula, consciously following Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart, considered obliterating the enemy’s ability to function, as considered necessary, more significant than physically destroying the enemy’s forces. Wrecking the enemy’s ability to employ as desired their military machine, not destroying the opponent’s military machine itself, gave control over the enemy. He argued that, while the current service manuals gave lip service to this concept, they focussed on the physical annihilation of the opponent’s forces through attrition, without consideration of the outcome.

Quadrennial Defence Review of 2001, which Deptula oversaw, endorsed “transformational warfare” and “effects-based operations”, and they became part of US military doctrine. Being made Director of the Combined Air Operations Centre, which orchestrated air operations over Afghanistan for “Operation Enduring Freedom”, enabled Deptula to apply his theories practically. He subsequently served as director of plans and programmes at the Air Force’s Combat Command

The United States Joint Forces Command (USJFC), established in 1999 to transform military capabilities, began experimentation with EBO, at a 2002 war game named “Millennium Challenge 02”. It dealt with “a high-end, small-scale contingency that had the potential to escalate to a major theatre war”. Its objectives included conducting EBO.

This war game followed on from an exercise the previous year, “Unified Vision 2001”, which aimed to lay the foundation for making RDO a reality. RDO referred to the US “military’s vision of a swift, overwhelming joint force capable of deploying throughout the world in a matter of days and achieving rapid victory by attacking the coherence of an enemy’s ability to fight”. The exercise would “refine the experimentation programme’s RDO simulation environment for Millennium Challenge 2002.”

Millennium Challenge 02 combined live integrated field exercises by the army, navy, air force and marines, with computer simulation. Planned for two years, this biggest war game of all time, costing the US Defence Department US$250 million, involved 13,500 troops across the US, supported by real aircraft and naval vessels. Set in 2007, the war game dealt with the invasion of a country called “Red”, a militarily very powerful Persian Gulf state, ruled by a “cunning megalomaniac”.

Before the war game, USJFC head Gen. William Kernan told Pentagon reporters that the existence of free play would be central to its success. The Blue Force (representing U.S. forces) would fight a “determined and unconstrained” OPFOR (“Opposing Force”), with a built-in ability to win. He said the exercise represented “the key to military transformation”. As in Unified Vision 2001, so in Millennium Challenge 02; the Blue forces secured a “victory”, using EBO — which apparently proved to be a great success.

However, retired US Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, the game’s OPFOR commander, complained that the exercise controllers ruled out some of his moves as improper, or simply preventing them from being carried out. They prevented him from using his own ideas and tactics against the Blue forces (on the grounds that they would never be used), directed him sometimes not to use certain weapons systems and even ordered him to disclose some of its unit locations. He said that he withdrew from the game, disgusted at what he considered “cheating”.

Lt. Gen Paul K. Van Riper, USMC (retired). Image US Marine Corps.

A decorated Vietnam veteran with considerable war-gaming experience, Van Riper asserted that, instead of a free-play two-sided game, it became a scripted exercise, with a predetermined end. However, USJFC deputy commander Vice Adm. Marty Mayer defended the official position, saying the exercise aimed to plan and organise better, and to make quicker, better-informed decisions rather than to see who would win.

Given that the war game, ostensibly, tested the RDO concepts being advertised as potential war winners, it might seem that the game controllers’ interference skewed the experiment. It did, however, establish “Transformation” as the new official orthodoxy.

It seems that the RDO doctrine combined ‘Ullman’s “Rapid Dominance” theory with Deptula’s “EBO” in a “Transformational” strategy. The Pentagon apparently expected it to un-man the Iraqi command completely, by very quickly paralysing its will, depriving it of its senses and “freaking it out” with the hopelessness of its situation.

The US Command intended to “shatter Iraq physically, emotionally and psychologically” by an avalanche of 800 or more missiles, and 2,000 bombs (80% of aerial weapons being precision guided) in two days, not only against troops but also against power and water supplies in the capital. An attack of this size had never been seen or contemplated before.

The assault on Iraq began on the night of 19–20 March 2003 with a “decapitation strike”, variously reported to target only Saddam or to aim at destroying the top 55 members of the Iraqi leadership. Baghdad witnessed heaviest bombing in 20 years in the blitz of the following. At least four cruise missiles converted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s 20-storey presidential palace into a cauldron of fire, and five struck the Ministry of Armaments Procurement. The assault also targeted the vast Rashid barracks.

Deptula called the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom “a textbook example of precision engagement”. However, none of the 50 attacks using PGMs on Iraqi leaders between 19 March and 18 April 2003 succeeded. Furthermore the attacks, far from being “surgical” or “immaculate”, several times caused significant civilian casualties. It soon grew obvious that the attacks not make much more than “a hole in the room of a building”, leaving command and control functions intact. EBO inflicted heavy damage on Iraqi command centres, flattening some, but did not obliterate the Iraqi command, which continued to operate.

Ullman noted that “The Pentagon’s use of Shock and Awe — both in its rhetoric and in its actions — did not seem to work: Iraq did not fold immediately.” Saddam Hussein’s power, both military and civil, should have collapsed. However, he remained in control of his forces, which continued to mount organised resistance to the invasion and even launched counter-attacks. As in the 1991 Gulf War, the US Command found combat on the ground necessary.

The Iraq invasion entailed a return to AirLand Battle strategies. The subsequent uprising led to a reappearance of the Vietnam War era’s emphasis on counter-insurgency. After Rumsfeld’s resignation in late 2006, the US military quietly discarded “transformation”. Although aspects of it continue, the conventional wisdom finds the concept of “Shock and Awe”, essentially, obsolete.

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