Campaigns, Strategies and Politics: Leveraging Military Power

By Robbin Laird

Leveraging military power is a core challenge facing leaders of states.

With the shift from the land wars to the new strategic situation, there is little doubt that both military and civilian leaders face major challenges understanding what military capabilities they have, need and how to use them in full spectrum crisis management.

No better case study of the challenges of evolving dynamics than how airpower was used to fight ISIS.

We wrote a great deal about this challenge at the time the challenge was being defined, shaped and executed.

We inputed pieces to the Obama Administration and then the Trump Administration along the way as well.

It was clear to us that the incrementalist airpower approach used in the Iraq counter-insurgency made little sense in dealing with the emerging state of ISIS.

It was also clear that until there was a political change, namely, the election of Donald Trump. that Washington was not going to shift its airpower strategy significantly.

What this boils down to can put this way: campaigns need to be guided by strategy and that strategy needs to be shaped by the political leadership who will forge, guide, or dump it.

The latest book by Ben Lambeth provides significant detail on the airpower transition unfolded from counter-insurgency to the fight against the ISIS state.

And along the way, the Russians entered the fray which provided some extra dynamics of interest as well with regard to peer competitor airpower competition as well.

Lambeth concluded his book by quoting a mutual friend, the late Colin Gray: A country’s overall campaign strategy can be so dysfunctional that it “cannot be rescued from defeat by a dominant airpower, no matter how that airpower is employed.”

Lambeth then went from this point to summarize his book: “That was precisely the situation that was created by the Obama administration’s and CENTCOM’s entirely preventable underemployment of U.S. and coalition air forces for more than two years until the effort was finally rescued by ensuring leadership decisions that padlocked unerringly on the campaign’s most overarching goal and applied the right strategy and force mix toward achieving it as quickly as possible.

“This is is the ultimate campaign teaching from OIR that we should all take greatest care never to forget.”

It should be also noted on the political side, that President Trump, for whatever his other challenges, embraced the airpower shift. And the current effort inside the beltway to efface his memory, which reminds one of the efforts of the Egyptians to erase the memory of the Pharaoh Akhenaten after he passed away, is intellectually dishonest and does not serve our interests as analysts.

Gradualism in military operations in support of the wrong strategy is not going to achieve a successful outcome, certainly in a combat sense.

And the coming of the Russians into the fray was interesting as well.

Fifth generation aircraft operated in the Syrian airspace and Russian air defense systems were tested.

For those who think we need to go back to the F-15 past, there are some lessons to be learned here as well.

“When the F-22s entered Syrian airspace for the first time that night, the acquisition and tracking radar operators of Syria’s integrated air defense system evidently had no clue that they were there,” (page 148).

Lambeth has provided a very good analysis of the dynamics going on when one campaign strategy which defined the use of airpower is allowed to shape what a different campaign strategy should have required.

And the hold of the counter- insurgency mentality upon U.S. military leadership remains significant, up to and including not thinking about the role of nuclear weapons in shaping large scale conventional campaigns if they unfold with either the Russians or the Chinese.

The strategic shift is profound; but it is not at all clear that the political-military counter-insurgency cabal is not still the dominant force in shaping the way ahead

The book can be found here: