Brian D. Vlaun on Lessons Learned for 21st Century Targeting from the World War II European Bombing Campaigns

By Robbin Laird

Col. Vlaun is a USAF officer in the bomber force. He has served in the Middle East with the B-1 and has four B-1 deployments. He then went to the Nellis Weapons School for the B-1 and taught at the weapons school. His experience led him to think about the challenge of learning how to best employ modern weapons systems and how to deliver effective targeting solutions.

And that interest led him during his studies at the Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies to look at the World War II bombing campaign experience with regard to how targeting solutions and effectiveness were determined and assessed.

He later had a NATO assignment in Spain where he gained practical experience with the challenge of managing different combat cultures and working targeting integration.

Clearly, Combined Air Operations Centers teach one the challenge of managing the microcosm of cultures that need to be understood to build and shape air tasking orders.

He is now serving at Minot Air Force Base In North Dakota, where he is Vice Commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, which operates a fleet of B-25H Stratofortress bombers as part of the USAF’s conventional bomber task forces and strategic deterrent force.

According to Col. Vlaun: “My background has made me really interested in the parallels between the things we were seeing 70 years ago to what I think we’re looking at today.”

In his book, Selling Schweinfurt, Col. Brian D. Vlaun discusses how combat leaders, supported by their structures that provide cross-cutting assessments of target effectiveness, sorted through the challenge of how to use the World War II European-based bomber force.

The core effort was pretty straightforward — attrite German military capabilities.

But beyond that focal point, questions loomed over how best to attrite the industrial and economic base supporting the German war effort, while determining how best to support the coming invasion force.

There certainly was not consensus on how to do either of those efforts optimally.

Intelligence organizations developed during the war clearly influenced judgements about targeting and how to employ the bomber force toward favored objectives from the various communities’ analytical preferences.

From this standpoint, nothing has changed.

In armed conflict, objectives need to be selected and forces packaged to achieve the desired effects.

With modern ISR systems, one has more data, but follow-on damage assessment is still challenging.

Determination of what to do in terms of follow-on force attacks and tactical or strategic judgements about the conflict are subject to very different analytical paths dependent upon the chosen data, the analysts’ preferences, and the political and institutional interests of the policy makers.

The policy narrative will lead a targeting approach, and the danger is that this narrative will also highlight the “correct” intelligence assessments.

As the author cautions: “An air campaign may never be fought with perfect information, but we can endeavor to ask the right questions: What are the organizational interests at play?

“What ideas and symbols are they selling, and why? And how will these affect the air campaign?”

I had a chance recently to interview Col. Vlaun and to discuss his book further as well as lessons learned going forward towards what I would call the shift from the single service kill chain to a multi-domain kill web.

I think the importance of his book, from my point of view, is that working the culture of targeting across multi domain forces is not solved by technology.

Technology can facilitate big data management; but does not deliver, by itself, enhanced targeting capabilities and solutions.

We discussed the evolution of targeting as the kill chain evolves into the kill web.

Col. Vlaun’s perspective informed by his research is to highlight the challenge of shaping the right sort of questions as we move forward for dynamic targeting with a multi-domain force.

How do we determine the changes necessary to steer the organizational cultures underlying multi-domain targeting?

According to Col. Vlaun: “What we need to be doing now to help organizations learn for tomorrow’s fight?

“And are we developing the right competencies to best shape the growing role of multi-domain targeting?”

“As we continue enhancing the capabilities that we have between our sensors, our command and control, and our shooters, I think we need to have our eyes open to whether we’re looking at just an evolution in our approach to targeting, or whether we may add all of this up to something that is revolutionary in the way that we plan and apply air power.”

Looking back 70 years ago, it was clear that, in Col. Vlaun’s words: “Organizations are not particularly good at self-reflection, which I think is an important consideration moving forward, because we have expanded our feedback loops to commanders, and it is up to commanders to drive the learning and changes necessary for effective targeting in a multi-domain environment.

“How do we continue to enhance commanders’ and their organizations’ abilities to make these kinds of crucial self-assessments in multi-domain environments?

He added: “If we’re going to change the way we fight, we’ve got to figure out how to be able to assess and improve our organizational cultures, understanding, of course, that these things don’t happen quickly.

“But at least having our minds open to where the influences of culture are on our organizations, we can chart paths to accelerate change in the right direction.”

From my perspective, as we focus on kill web solutions, the cultural dimension for shaping effective targeting goes up, not down.

And Col. Vlaun’s insightful look at the cultures within and outside of the Army Air Force in WW II shaped the targeting approaches during that war inform how we should think today about the way ahead.

This is how he concludes his book:

Understanding airpower requires an understanding of the organizations nominating targets and performing analysis. This imperative does not appertain solely to historical analyses; it is also incumbent upon those preparing for and fighting wars to assess not only external organizations but also their own.

This is no easy task, however, especially for those on the inside. Stephen Rosen aptly offers, “Although it is hard to understand others, it is harder to understand ourselves. … Organizational self-assessments have rarely displayed a realistic understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the organization.”

The effort is worthwhile, because organizational learning may help reduce the costs of war or avoid campaigns of attrition altogether through a more comprehensive strategy. An air campaign may never be fought with perfect information, but we can endeavor to ask the right questions: What are the organizational interests at play? What ideas and symbols are they selling, and why? And how will these affect the air campaign?[1]

He warns: “Perhaps no factor is more prescient or insidious than the organizational implications of air intelligence modernization.”[2]

He then went on to identify two key challenges facing the strategic shift in targeting culture.

The first is the built-in problem of organizational interests shaping the intelligence assessment and not understanding how that interactive dynamic works in shaping tactics and strategy for the use of airpower.

The second is the danger of making unrealistic assumptions about what big data analytics can deliver with regard to judgements about intelligence in service of targeting, and even more to the point in terms of the dynamics of rapid battle assessment.

In short, Col. Vlaun has provided a very interesting look at the history of the targeting regimes and various metrics shaped in the European bombing campaign.

And he has provided a lot to think about with regard to the challenges of modern kill chains and kill webs when addressing how to shape the kind of combat or crisis management effects desired in combat.

[1] Brian D. Vlaun, Selling Schweinfurt (History of Military Aviation) (p. 213). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Brian D. Vlaun, Selling Schweinfurt (History of Military Aviation) (p. 211). Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.

For my own look at the B-17 experience: