(Un)reality Check

The Gulf conflict is considered with regard to Warden’s five ring model and the concept of the self-contained air campaign. The criticisms of Warden’s theory of parallel warfare will be analysed as will its relevance to a smaller air force such as the RAAF.

The 1990 Gulf War was a little more, from an air power perspective, than Warden’s largely discredited theories. It saw the first real demonstration of the US’ global air power reach with B-52 missions launched from CONUS; it demonstrated the rift between USAF and USN where the only common ATO format was printed paper; it validated the role of CAS aircraft like the A-10A, to the immense disgust of the fast jet fraternity; it proved the value of SEAD as a key enabler and tactical alternative to low-level strike e.g. the RAF Tornado airfield attacks on Day One; it saw the advent of stealth and practical information technologies; and it saw the birth of the myth of surgical warfare….


1. Warden & the self contained air campaign – is it now possible for air power alone to force a favourable conclusion to any conflict?

Only as an exception to proven rules. The number of times where air power alone had a strategically decisive effect on the outcome of a conflict could be counted on the fingers of one hand:

The Doolittle Raid which provoked strategic stupidity (Midway) on the part of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The Battle of Coral Sea which ended the Japanese advance south.

The two USAAF atomic bomb missions against Japan.

The Berlin Airlift was the first major Cold War confrontation and proved Western resolve to stand up to Uncle Joe.

The Linebacker II campaign which lead directly to the settlement under which US forces withdrew from South Vietnam.

2. Warden sees wars as essentially discourses between policy makers on each side. Is the implication that all actors are rational and will achieve rational results, a valid one?

There is not much evidence to support any proposal that any aspect of human behaviour is governed by rationality. Discourse between policy makers is diplomacy, not war.

3. The mind of the enemy and the will of his leaders are targets of far more importance than the bodies of his troops. Does Warden differ from Clausewitz with this assertion?

No. Warden’s ‘theory’ is nothing more than the popular interpretation of Clausewitz’s Trinity (government, people, military; or, for the COE, leadership, people and action arm) with icing on it but not adding much of anything new. Warden’s take on this has been described as “…if you hit enough things with a hammer, eventually there will be a reaction…” i.e. Warden’s application of force in Gulf War 1 was not a precise surgical application of force and there is yet to be any connection shown between the ‘Warden’ campaign and the eventual eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. On the other hand, the systematic obliteration of those forces and those in southern Iraq was definitely a key factor in the Iraqi withdrawal.

Ultimately, an history bears this out time and again, it is the will of the leader(s) than is the ultimate target and determinator.

4. Did a special set of political circumstances allow the Gulf air war to be so seemingly successful?

Not really. Gulf War 1 was the first real information war when a large part of the conflict was ‘fought’ on the television screens of the world. A disproportionate amount of coverage depicted the socalled surgical strikes; considerably less was devoted to the proportionally more attritive air campaign conducted against Iraqi land forces in and around Kuwait.

If so, would it be wise to draw universal conclusions from it?

No but unfortunately, many did, adopting as doctrine (or maybe dogma?) that a clean surgical war was now possible. After the air power false triumphs in Bosnia and Kosovo, this culminated in the ‘shock and awe’ campaign that opened Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in March 2003. Eight years down the track, this misperception still exists although with reduced popularity and it is currently being disproved again in Libya. It may be that Ghaddafi reads and applies more air power doctrine than NATO…

5.  Do Warden’s theories as employed in the Gulf War only have application in state-on-state conflict?

If ‘If you hit something often enough, it should break’ is the theory, then, no, it can be applied more broadly; whether it will be any more effective than it was in 1991 though is debatable. It would more doctrinally sound and have a greater chance of success to stick with targeting Clausewitz’s attributed trinity: leadership, people, action arm.

1 thought on “(Un)reality Check

  1. Pingback: (Un)reality Check (via The World According to Me…) « Calgary Recreational and Ultralight Flying Club (CRUFC)

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