March 22, 1999

               The Airstrike Option: Vietnam, Desert Storm and Serbia


               In threatening air strikes against Serbia over Kosovo, Bill
               Clinton, the anti-war protestor, is following the same policies
               as Lyndon Johnson, the man he protested against.  Air strikes,
               isolated from a general warfighting strategy, do not convince
               adversaries of resolve but of weakness.  Serbia, like North
               Vietnam, is drawing the conclusion that the U.S. is not prepared
               to wage war against Serbia in an effective way.  Like Vietnam,
               Serbia sees weakness in U.S. policy.


               It is once again time to think about air power.  President
               Clinton made it clear on Friday that he felt that Serbia had
               already gone over the line that justified air strikes.  Over four
               hundred strike aircraft are in theater and B-52s are standing by
               in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.  Several cruise missile
               armed vessels are in range.  The stage is set.  We have discussed
               extensively the issue of intervention in Kosovo, ranging from the
               complexities of peace keeping to possible Serbian responses to an
               American air campaign.  It seems quite likely that the United
               States and NATO will, at some point, bomb Serbia. Regardless of
               whether the air strikes go ahead, this is a propitious time to
               consider the utility of air power as a force, by itself, for
               influencing the behavior of adversaries.

               The use of air power to compel political acquiescence has a long
               but not particularly distinguished history.  First, the Germans
               launched an air campaign against Great Britain in 1940 intended
               to force the British to accept a peace treaty that acknowledged
               German domination of the European continent.  The campaign failed
               to achieve its end.  Second, the Anglo-Americans launched a
               massive air campaign against Germany in 1943-1945.  The goal of
               this campaign in the mind of some air power advocates was to
               force unconditional surrender without the need for a land
               assault.  In the minds of most strategists, the goal was to
               attack and destroy Germany's industrial infrastructure so as to
               undermine Germany's ability to wage war.  Unconditional surrender
               required the death of many tankers and infantrymen, while the
               post-war Strategic Bombing Survey cast serious doubt on the
               effect of the air assault on German wartime production.  Third,
               the United States launched a massive air campaign against Japan
               in 1945.  Its goals were similar to the air campaign against
               Germany.  The Japan campaign has the greatest claim to success.
               Even here, the outcome was ambiguous, since it is not at all
               clear that it was the conventional air campaign that compelled
               surrender.  Surrender came only after atomic bombing, different
               in nature from conventional air attack.  The more serious
               challenger for war-ender was the naval blockade, which was fully
               in force by 1945.

               All three of these campaigns are examples of great powers using
               the air campaign as an instrument against other great powers.  We
               also have examples of the use of air power by a great power
               against a secondary or even tertiary power: the U.S. air
               campaigns against North Vietnam, and then against Iraq in 1991.
               These may be more germane in evaluating a bombing campaign
               against Serbia or any other minor power.

               The initial theory of the campaign against North Vietnam was
               divided into two parts.  The first was the assumption that North
               Vietnam did not take American resolve seriously, that North
               Vietnam did not think the United States was truly committed to
               the defense of South Vietnam.  The second assumption was that
               North Vietnam would not place at risk its own infrastructure,
               industrial, military and social, merely to continue its support
               of the National Liberation Front in the South.  Therefore, the
               theory went, once the North experienced an intense bombing
               campaign, it would quickly understand American resolve and it
               would also rationally calculate that continued support for the
               NLF was not in its interests.  The North would either abandon the
               war in the South or negotiate an acceptable settlement.

               The North Vietnamese saw the air campaign in a very different
               light.  They saw the air campaign as proof of a lack of will and
               an inability on the part of the United States to risk serious
               casualties.  For both demographic and political reasons, the
               North understood that the United States could not afford to lose
               5,000 men a week in combat.  From the North Vietnamese point of
               view, the use of air power represented a desperate attempt on the
               part of the United States to wage war without incurring the risks
               and costs of warfare.  The recourse to air power during the early
               stages of war convinced the North Vietnamese that the Americans
               lacked resolve.  The North Vietnamese strategy, therefore, was to
               absorb the American air attacks while drawing the United States
               into a war of attrition on the ground in the South.  They
               understood fully that they would absorb much greater casualties
               than the Americans in such a war.  But they also understood that
               the Americans, in the final analysis, would find almost any level
               of casualty unacceptable -- while they were prepared to incur
               massive losses.

               The psychology behind this strange calculus had to do with
               something social scientists like to call "issue saliency."  In
               simple English, this means simply the relative importance of an
               issue to each side.  To the United States the future of South
               Vietnam was an important issue but not one on which the survival
               of the United States in any way depended.  For North Vietnam, the
               absorption of South Vietnam into a united, communist Vietnam was
               a matter of fundamental national interest.  No other interest
               superceded it.

               Therefore, the idea that the United States could stage an air
               campaign that could impose a level of pain sufficiently high to
               dissuade North Vietnam to abandon a national obsession was
               delusional.  It was not clear that any level of pain would have
               persuaded North Vietnam to capitulate on this subject.  Second,
               it is not clear that, short of carpet bombardment with nuclear
               weapons, the United States possessed sufficient aircraft and
               weaponry to impose the necessary level of pain.  How much pain
               would Washington's army have endured before surrendering at
               Valley Forge?  How much pain would the American Confederacy have
               been willing to endure, even after Gettysburg, to secure
               secession?  How high a price were the Russians willing to pay at
               Leningrad or Stalingrad?  These are measurable, quantifiable
               indications of national endurance.  It takes a great deal to
               compel capitulation where fundamental national interests are at
               stake.  Threats of bombing North Vietnam back to the stone age
               not withstanding, it is simply not clear that air power has ever
               had the ability by itself to impose levels of suffering that are
               unendurable to a people committed to a national goal.

               In Vietnam, to the contrary, the air campaign convinced the North
               of the lack of American resolve.  It understood that a nation
               seriously committed to the defense of South Vietnam would not
               take recourse to the air campaign as the foundation of its
               national strategy.  They understood, particularly in its early
               stages, that the air campaign was a bluff, covering up American
               weakness.  Indeed it was a bluff.  McNamara and Johnson both
               hoped that the air campaign would persuade that North Vietnamese
               to back down.  For some reason, in spite of the fact that they
               were fully aware of their own lack of resolve, the Johnson
               administration genuinely believed that this lack of resolve would
               not be apparent to their adversaries.

               It is not that an air campaign cannot work.  Its problem is that
               it cannot work except as part of a comprehensive warfighting
               program in which the air campaign operates as part of a single,
               integrative, strategic, operational and tactical package.  The
               purpose of this package is, as Clausewitz saw clearly, to destroy
               the enemy's ability to wage war primarily by rendering its armed
               forces inoperable.  Air power used as a weapon against
               populations has consistently failed.  Air power used in isolation
               as an instrument against conventional military power has
               similarly failed.  However, air power, when it is used as part of
               an integrated war fighting system, is invaluable.

               In 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, air power was used as a
               direct instrument of war, intended to reduce the ability of the
               Iraqis to wage war.  It was not intended to signal American
               resolve nor was it intended to win the war by itself.  Rather,
               air power was an all out assault on the Iraqi war fighting
               ability.  Starting as an assault on Iraq's command, control,
               communications and intelligence capabilities and on its air
               defense system, it shattered the ability of Baghdad to command
               its armies in the field.  Following this, the air campaign turned
               on the major formations of the Iraqi army in Kuwait, destroying
               tactical command and communications, as well as killing soldiers
               and destroying equipment.  At the end of the air campaign, Allied
               forces were able to encircle, engage and destroy Iraqi forces,
               while aircraft cut off the retreat on the famed "highway of
               death."  Air power made the successful ground war possible, but
               without the ground war, Kuwait would not have been liberated and
               Desert Storm would have failed.

               Political leaders seeking low risk ways to wage war are
               constantly tempted by air power.  They expect the other side to
               collapse in fear at the very thought of bombing.  During the
               early stages of Vietnam, the Johnson administration seriously
               hoped that the air campaign would constitute the essence of the
               war or, to be more honest, as an alternative to waging war.  Now,
               there are some cases in which this may happen.  That is a case
               where the issue at hand is of only marginal importance to the
               people being bombed.  But it is not effective when the campaign
               is against a country pursuing its fundamental national interest.
               In that case, the only thing that can dissuade the nation is to
               take actions that threaten the very survival of the regime or
               even of the nation.  It was when the Japanese realized that the
               survival of the nation was at stake that they capitulated to the
               air campaign.  The North Vietnamese never felt that either the
               nation or even their regime was at risk from the air campaign.
               Therefore, the campaign was futile.  In the later stages, in
               1972, air power may have motivated the North to be more flexible
               at peace talks, but it never caused them to abandon fundamental
               national interests.

               In this sense, Serbia reminds us of Vietnam.  From the Serb point
               of view, the introduction of NATO forces into Kosovo will end
               their sovereignty over it.  They see this as part of an ongoing
               American campaign to dismember Serbia.  Having blocked the
               secession of predominantly Serbian regions from Bosnia, they are
               now seeing support for the secession of predominantly Albanian
               regions from Serbia.  They see this inconsistency in American and
               NATO policy as a sign of a desire to destroy Serbia as a nation.
               The question of Kosovo, like the question of South Vietnam,
               represents a challenge to a fundamental understanding of what the
               Serbian nation means.  Whatever other calculations might intrude,
               the threat of air attacks will not cause them to surrender
               fundamental national interests.

               Serbia has studied both Desert Storm and Vietnam very carefully.
               It is aware that Serbia's terrain and weather reduce the
               effectiveness of an air campaign substantially, as compared to
               what the U.S. was able to achieve over Kuwait and Iraq.  They are
               also aware that the United States has not deployed anywhere near
               the ground forces it had available during Desert Storm.  The
               Serbs are fully aware that neither the United States nor NATO
               have the stomach for the type of casualties that they would have
               to absorb if they were prepared to attack Serbia.  Finally, they
               are aware that during a bombing campaign, stories about Kosovo
               casualties in the Western Press would be replaced by pictures of
               dead Serbian children; and that human rights protestors, eager to
               be on both sides of any photogenic issue, would quickly begin
               condemning the war on the Serbian people.

               What makes all of this possible is the Serbian government's sense
               that it has the support of the Serbian people.  The Clinton
               administration's dream is that a bombing campaign will drive a
               wedge between the Serbian government and the Serbian people, with
               the people demanding a change in policy because they were
               unwilling to endure the pain.  Milosovic knows his people better
               than Holbrooke, Albright or Clinton.  He also knows his history.
               There is not a single instance in history in which an air
               campaign caused a split between a government at war and its
               people.  It didn't happen during the Battle of Britain, in
               Germany, in Japan, in North Vietnam and it hasn't yet happened in
               Iraq.  Milosovic is betting that it will not happen in Serbia.

               Thus, an air campaign, isolated from a comprehensive warfighting
               strategy designed to defeat the Serbian army is not only unlikely
               to succeed.  Its success would be unprecedented in history.  The
               Serbs, as a nation, have too much at stake to permit their
               territory to be occupied by foreign troops.  Moreover, with
               Russian winds shifting, the Serbs calculate that they may well
               have a great power ally prepared to sustain them, just as North
               Vietnam did.  The U.S. could have defeated North Vietnam by
               invading it.  It chose not to, rationally understanding that the
               prize was not worth the cost.  The United States can defeat
               Serbia by invading it, but again, the prize isn't worth it.  The
               problem is that as in Vietnam, the United States can neither
               commit the forces needed to win nor abandon the issue.  In search
               for a solution at a cost the United States can bear, Clinton, the
               anti-war protestor, is paradoxically following the precise policy
               of Lyndon Johnson, the man against whom he protested.