USAF Aerospace-Power Doctrine

By Strickland, Paul C. | Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

USAF Aerospace-Power Doctrine


Strickland, Paul C., Aerospace Power Journal


Decisive or Coercive?

Editorial Abstract: Is our doctrine geared to serve the funding war more than the shooting war? The author investigates this question in light of Kosovo, pointing out some interesting internal friction points. Using typologies of "positive" and "negative" goals, he argues for a more effective shooting-war doctrine based on coercive aerospace power.

WHILE NORTH ATLANTIC Treaty Organization (NATO) aircraft prosecuted an air campaign of unprecedented precision against the former Republic of Yugoslavia, NATO marked its 50th anniversary in Washington, D.C. NATO solidarity was at stake. For 78 days, the world's most powerful alliance appeared on the verge of fragmentation. To NATO's relief, Serbia capitulated after a military campaign fraught with gradualism and obtrusive political meddling. For many airpower proponents, Operation Allied Force vindicated decisive airpower doctrine. For others, Allied Force was a misapplication of core US Air Force aerospace doctrine. Without NATO's political interference, many believed the air campaign would have netted a more rapid and asymmetric victory for the alliance.

Allied Force highlighted a significant doctrinal imbalance between decisive and coercive airpower. US Air Force aerospace-power doctrine focuses almost exclusively on the idea that airpower is decisive in a major theater war scenario. Consequently, it minimizes discussion regarding the coercive application of airpower in nontraditional types of conflicts like Kosovo. The result is a doctrinal void of guidance in the education of future Air Force leaders to understand the complexities and truly coercive nature of airpower. Allied Force was a prime example of coercive airpower application resulting in far less than decisive outcomes. The root cause of this ineffective coercive air campaign nested in clashing positive and negative political/military objectives.

In his book The Limits of Air Power, Mark Clodfelter defines positive objectives as "those that [are] attainable only by applying military power" and negative objectives as goals "achievable only by limiting military force."' He explains "that political controls on air power flow directly from negative objectives, and that the respective emphases given to positive and negative aims can affect air power's political efficacy."2 Our purpose here is not to endorse Clodfelter's choice of terms, which can be misleading if misinterpreted to imply a moral valuation. Yet, simply using his typology affords a clearer understanding of Kosovo's complex interaction of military and political factors. Clodfelter's intent is to strike a comparison between potential bipolar military and political objectives that collide to create opposing and coercive consequences of military action. The air campaign over Kosovo was just such an example.

Allied Force endured strong interference by NATO's political leadership, which revealed tension between NATO's negative political objective (preserve the alliance) and the positive military objective (destroy or compel Serbian forces to depart Kosovo and halt ethnic cleansing). This chasm between negative and positive objectives fostered friction and frustration among senior officers, which worked against a rapid conclusion of the air campaign. Over time, several factors plus airpower (lack of Russian support, the involvement of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and Serbian successes in achieving their tactical objectives), coerced Serbian forces to pull back from Kosovo. One can argue, then, that airpower was indecisive in preventing regional destruction, refugee migrations, and ethnic cleansing-all originally positive military objectives. Clearly, NATO's negative objective to preserve the alliance dominated the decision to implement a laborious incremental air campaign. Moreover, counter to the positive effects of unlimited application of airpower, the gradualism of Allied Force may well be the norm for future coalition conflicts.

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