Slogan or Strategy?

Slogan or Strategy?


While the phrase and concept for "shock and awe" were invented over a decade ago, it was not until the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003, that the term gained its veritable 15 minutes of fame. As the inventor of the phrase and the co-chairman of a group of retired senior military and former civilian defense officials responsible for creating the construct, the brief attention was both an interesting and frustrating moment. With bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles raining down on Baghdad and other targets in Iraq, the Pentagon announced that a campaign of "shock and awe" was being waged against Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army.

A day or so after the attacks began, London's Daily Telegraph ran, under a two-inch headline that trumpeted "Baghdad Blitz", a spectacular photo of an American bomb exploding somewhere in the Iraqi capital. The print and electronic media erroneously seized on the notion of shock and awe as a massive and therefore indiscriminate bombing campaign reminiscent of World War II, designed to cripple and incapacitate the entire country--not just destroy the regime. The Bush Administration recognized this public relations disaster in the making, and as suddenly as it had attracted attention, the phrase vanished without a trace.

Shock and awe, and the attendant concept of "rapid dominance", were meant to be the polar opposites of what was being portrayed in the press as akin to the massive bombing campaigns of World War II and the use of overwhelming force to defeat an enemy by literally destroying its army, navy and air force in a firepower-dominated, attrition style of warfare. Attrition-oriented warfare aims to wear out or destroy the enemy by wearing down his forces far more quickly and efficiently than our forces are degraded in combat.

Indeed, the basis for shock and awe sprang from the great Chinese military philosopher and general Sun Tzu. Ironically, the key question with which the group wrestled was how to defeat an enemy without firing a shot (or with minimal use of military force), by overcoming the adversary's means and will to resist. A corollary was that less collateral damage would lead to swifter and less expensive reconstruction. Critics argued that this form of "immaculate warfare" was impractical. We disagreed, believing that the theoretical and intellectual construct of shock and awe should be tested and evaluated through war games, seminars and then operational tests. None of that has happened--yet.

This article carries on those aims. First, because of the widespread misuse of the term, this piece explains the original intent and application of "shock and awe." Second, despite the hype, it shows how shock and awe were never inherent in the planning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Finally, this article takes an abbreviated look at the future to determine where and whether shock and awe have any applications beyond conventional war.

In the Beginning

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the overwhelming victory won in the 1991 Gulf War, the time seemed right for major changes in the military capability and force structure of the United States. Under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and the all-powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, the administration of George H. W. Bush proceeded cautiously with its "Base Force" study, choosing to trim American forces numerically by about a third but keeping the same type of strategy and force structure. Hence, the "base force" was a smaller version of the military that won the Cold War with its emphasis on engaging and defeating an enemy power through attrition-style warfare, enabled by "maneuver" (or the ability to move more quickly than the enemy), and equipped with the most advanced technology in the world.

The Clinton Administration entered office in 1993 and conducted its own defense assessment under Secretary of Defense Les Aspin called the "Bottom Up Review." The driving force behind what became known as the BUR was also Colin Powell, in his last months as chairman. The BUR made no fundamental course corrections and progressed only modestly from Bush's base force, even though great lip service had been paid to the "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) and the level of American military prowess so vividly demonstrated in Operation Desert Storm, which, after a deadly bombing campaign, routed the Iraq army in a ground campaign lasting one hundred hours. The BUR made no radical change, continuing the scope and pace of evolution that had characterized military reform since the Kennedy Administration shifted from Eisenhower's strategy of massive retaliation to a flexible-response formula for tailoring U.S. forces. Flexible response meant having the capability to counter the Soviet Union at every level of conflict, from thermonuclear to guerrilla and counter-insurgent warfare.

In simple terms, American military strategy and force structure were based on several long-standing concepts. First, military force was "kinetic"--in that it attempted to destroy an enemy army with an overwhelming use of firepower and the superiority of its weapons and technology--and attrition oriented. Second, force would be applied according to the doctrine of overwhelming and later decisive force. The late Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's first secretary of defense, coined the phrase "overwhelming force." "Decisive force" was Powell's addition when he became chairman, though as Weinberger's senior military assistant, he had a hand in fashioning the so-called Weinberger Doctrine.

The Army was organized around its infantry, modern tanks and fighting vehicles, artillery, helicopters and support; the Air Force around its dazzling arsenal of aircraft; the Navy around aircraft carriers, air wings, surface ships and submarines; and the Marine Corps much like the Army but with amphibious ships to take it wherever it had to go. While maneuver warfare was always important, at the end of the day, firepower and attrition were the ultimate means to achieve victory, enabled by other capabilities, including electronic warfare and highly sophisticated surveillance.

What brought our group together was the discomfort that despite the daunting military capacity that the United States possessed, other concepts might be more relevant to the evolving post-Cold War era. So James Wade, a former senior Defense Department official, and I recruited a bevy of distinguished retired officers, all but one who had been in service during Desert Storm, to take on this problem. That group included retired Admirals L. A. "Bud" Edney, Jonathan T. Howe and Leighton "Snuffy" Smith; and Generals Chuck Horner (who ran the air war during Desert Storm), Fred Franks (who commanded VII Corps during that war), Tom Morgan and later Gary Luck (who had commanded XVIII Corps). Dr. John Foster, a former head of Pentagon research and engineering, was also a charter member, and Donald Rumsfeld was a later participant and observer.

It was Chuck Horner's frustration with being unable to topple the Iraqi regime during the first war that focused our thinking. Horner often remarked that during Desert Storm he simply did not know where to "put the needle" in order to bring down the enemy. We went about searching for those needles and the appropriate entry points to defeat an adversary with minimal effort and presumably at the least cost to us and to the other side.

Behavior and Key Elements

Affecting behavior is crucial to life, whether in war (most dramatically), high-stakes politics or business, or any other form of human activity. The key in affecting behavior is to get people to do what we want or to stop what is harmful or contrary to our interests. But how could that be done through war, where the traditional means to victory was to destroy the enemy's will to resist by destroying his military? Could behavior be so affected and victory achieved without the need to impose large amounts of physical and direct force to destroy or neutralize the enemy?

Clearly, will and perception were the intended targets of what Prussian military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz called the centers of gravity. War was about breaking an enemy's will to resist and forcing the adversary, as he wrote, "to do our will." Consequently, our approach was to focus on understanding how to affect, influence and even control will and perception principally through military means. Of course, compelling behavior can be done coercively. In military parlance, that led to firepower and attrition solutions, usually with high levels of destruction and damage, certainly to the enemy. Yet, as Sun Tzu counseled, the best outcome is to win without firing a shot.

After much debate, the mechanisms that we believed could affect, influence and control will and perception were distilled into the notion of shock and awe. "Shock" was defined as the momentary reaction to some event leading to paralysis, impotence and a feeling of helplessness. In other words, it meant overcoming an enemy so quickly and rendering that enemy incapable so as to make any resistance futile or impossible. Shock, of course, is as old as war. The issue became applying it strategically and politically, as well as tactically.

"Awe" went beyond intimidation. It was an effect that translated the initial shock into an enduring quality, so that will and perception would not revert back to a pre-existing condition. If shock was sudden and stunning, awe was the inoculation that made the effects on will and perception lasting. The combination of shock and awe would either so immobilize an adversary that the only choice was surrender, or create a paralysis tantamount to defeat. The means for translating shock and awe into operational effects were principally military. However, at the time we believed that non-military means such as diplomacy, economics, disinformation, logic and even threat could also produce sufficient shock and awe as to affect will and perception.

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