War Stories

The Flaw in Shock and Awe

Rumsfeld’s theory of warfare isn’t working, at least so far.

Officials from President Bush on down are scrambling to say they never claimed the war would be won quickly. But this was precisely the message from officers involved in planning the war. It was, in fact, the premise underlying the whole war plan.

On March 19, the day the airstrikes got under way, U.S. Air Force Col. Gary L. Crowder, chief of strategy, concepts, and doctrine for the Air Combat Command, told reporters that the war would be an “effects-based” campaign. “The effects that we are trying to create,” he explained, will be “to make it so apparent and so overwhelming at the very outset of potential military operations that the adversary quickly realizes that there is no real alternative here other than to fight and die or to give up.” Once the Iraqis realize this, Crowder added, “[T]here will be a greater likelihood that they might choose not to fight for the regime.” (Italics added.)

Three days later, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained further, “We are running an effects-based campaign that is partially kinetic, partially non-kinetic, partially information operations.” The success of effects-based bombing is “not just whether there is a hole in the room of a building but whether or not the function that the element did before ceases to be effective. … In an effects-based campaign, we can achieve much shock and awe by hitting just critical points.” This echoed Crowder, who had said that hitting a few key nodes would “collapse the system from the inside.”

Soon after came the (remarkably accurate) bombing of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace and several governmental ministries, all in downtown Baghdad. If the concept of “effects-based” bombing had worked, Saddam would have folded. He may fold still, whether due to the airstrikes, ground battles, or some other spur for mutiny. The war is just 1 week old. Yet it’s clear that, for now, the bombing had done little more than make “a hole in the room of a building”—or, actually, level whole buildings. The “function” that the buildings performed, as McChrystal put it, has not ceased to be effective. Saddam remains in control of his military forces, which are mounting organized resistance and, in some cases, counteroffensives.

And so we return to lessons learned from past wars: It’s one thing to knock down buildings, another to change minds. The targets of “effects-based” bombing are the minds of Saddam Hussein and the people around him—the goal was to surprise, shock, and disorient them into a state of chaos, paralysis, or surrender. We tried to mess with Saddam’s mind in Operation Desert Storm, the first war against Iraq, in 1991. Hundreds of smart bombs and cruise missiles were aimed at “leadership” and “command-control” targets. Yet the U.S. Air Force’s official history of that war concluded that this aspect of the campaign didn’t work. Despite “the lethality and precision of the attacks,” the study concluded, Saddam’s command-control “system turned out to be more redundant and more able to reconstitute itself than first thought. Fiber-optic networks and computerized switching systems proved particularly tough to put out of action.”

Ever since Desert Storm, a small but increasingly influential group of Air Force officers has been refining the concept. In the past few years, smart bombs and cruise missiles have become vastly more accurate, due to the use of Global Positioning Satellites to guide the weapons to their targets. Due to satellites, advanced drones, and fast computers, commanders can pick out targets and order weapons to hit those targets—including mobile ones—far more swiftly than before.

By 1997, these officers started talking about “transformational” war strategies. In June 2001, Maj. Gen. Dave Deptula wrote a briefing paper called “Turning Vision Into Reality: Air Force Transformation.” In it, he outlined what he called a “New Operational Concept (Effects-Based Planning).” The “ability to deliver desired effects with minimal risk and collateral damage ensures decisive dominance [and] denies the enemy sanctuary.” More critically, these “leaps in capability” could “produce the effects of mass without having to mass as we have in the past—enabling real transformation.” (Gen. Deptula is no mere theorist. He supervised Donald Rumsfeld’s Quadrennial Defense Review in 2001, which endorsed “transformation warfare,” and he is now director of plans and programs at Air Force Combat Command.) A similar report, called the “Transformation Study Report,” written the previous April, noted the need to attack “critical nodes” to “limit or foreclose enemy options.”

A few high-level Pentagon civilians were enthusiastic about this concept, most notably Andrew Marshall, director of net assessment and, more significant, a bureaucratically shrewd analyst who has held his job since 1974, when then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger created it for him. Marshall presented the “transformation” idea to Rumsfeld, who was also impressed. When the concept seemed to work in Afghanistan, the defense secretary was sold.

As the military geared up for Gulf War II, Rumsfeld took the ideas to heart. The old-school generals recommended a massive invasion force, but Rumsfeld directed them to take it down. As one senior official told a Wall Street Journal reporter last December, “Effects-based operations give you the ability to do the running start with a smaller force.”

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. Central Command, told reporters on March 22, “This will be a campaign unlike any other in history—a campaign characterized by shock, by surprise, by flexibility …”

But what if the enemies are not shocked or surprised—or if they are at first, but then quickly recover and launch their own campaign of shock and surprise? “Effects-based” theorists talk of the modern U.S. military’s “asymmetric” advantages: We have air power, precision weapons, and speedy data links while the enemy does not. However, the past few days of battle have shown that the Iraqis have their own “asymmetric” ploys: guerrilla militias, intimate knowledge of the terrain, and the willingness to use their own civilians as cover.

The late John Boyd, an Air Force colonel who devised some of the theories that inspired “transformation” doctrines, wrote that successful warfare involves surprise, deception, and the creation of confusion and disorder. In a legendary six-hour briefing called “Patterns of Conflict,” Boyd said that the key was to get “inside an adversary’s O-O-D-A loop.” This loop entailed “observing” the enemy’s actions, “orienting” one’s own forces to the changing situation, “deciding” on a countermove, and then “acting” on it. The side that completes these cycles more quickly, he said, will win the war.

This is what the allied ground forces did in the final days of Desert Storm. Toward the end of that conflict, U.S. Central Command’s deputy director of operations, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard Neal (the Marines were particularly influenced by Boyd’s thinking), told reporters in Riyadh that the Iraqi army was in deep trouble because “we’re inside his decision-making cycle … we’re kind of out-thinking him … we can see what he’s been doing, we can kind of anticipate what his next move is going to do, and we can adapt our tactics accordingly.”

Boyd’s ideas are still in circulation. The April 2001 “Transformation Study Report” described a campaign that “operates inside the adversary’s decision cycles, [and] combine[s] precision and speed (controlling the tempo).”

The question in the coming days and weeks is not whether U.S. forces have the power to outgun the Iraqi army (that goes without saying), but whether they also have the flexibility to outmaneuver the guerrillas who are harassing the flanks and the rear. The issue isn’t whether we win (again, that goes without saying) but what victory costs and how long it takes. Rumsfeld chose to deploy something less than the crushingly overwhelming ground force recommended by the old-school generals. The wisdom of the new-school transformers is now being put through the severest sort of test.