The air campaign in Desert Storm was a watershed for air power. It demonstrated the effectiveness of precision munitions, marked a high water point for electronic warfare and introduced radar stealth in a decisive manner. It also established a template for the application of air power that has taken root in Air Force culture and remains firmly established a quarter century later.
Unfortunately, the Instant Thunder air campaign has also become the template for future air campaigns, despite being poorly suited for that role. In retrospect, we have learned many of the wrong lessons from Desert Storm, in that we had time to build up forces, operated from a broad network of U.S.-built bases and essentially ravaged the military structure of a small, isolated nation with an incompetently led military using obsolete equipment and outdated employment doctrine.
(This article originally appeared at War is Boring in 2015.)
By the time Allied Force rolled around in 1999, it should have become clear that the same template produced uneven results at best, even when backed by a combined NATO air force.
In the aftermath of a series of wars against relatively weak adversaries, planning for a larger war has descended into nonspecific terms. Pentagon discussions on force structure, posture and capabilities are often based on a “capabilities-based,” generic adversary reduced to the status of an opposition force. This adversary might be referred to as a “near peer,” characterized largely by the technology it brings to the fight rather than understood as a living, adaptable enemy that might have to be fought under unfavorable conditions.
This habit ignores the reality that the People’s Republic of China has eclipsed the old Soviet Union and its successor as a superpower, militarily, economically, politically and technologically. We remain wedded to an inappropriate warfighting model leftover from the Gulf War, while ignoring China’s evolution as a military power.
We ignore this evolution at our peril.
To attempt to apply the Desert Storm air campaign model to other nations is of questionable utility, and applied to China in particular is pure folly. China is large, resilient, can mass military forces like few other nations and is clearly a superior power when fighting in its own territory. Moreover, it has spent a quarter century of military development ensuring that the United States can never be in a position to repeat Desert Storm against the People’s Republic.
Chinese military force design has been built specifically to counter the U.S. Air Force’s reliance on stealth and forward basing, and to reduce the threat of carrier aviation by developing weapons designed to keep the carriers far away from the action. Our response has been to plan to fight symmetrically, matching our technological widgets against theirs in a battle in the PRC’s front yard.
Strategically, this methodology replays the successful strategic campaign, whereby the USSR spent itself into collapse trying to match American technological prowess. This time, however, the United States is on the wrong side of that strategy.
There is benefit of adopting an asymmetric offset strategy to deal with the PRC’s general technological parity and commanding position. There is additional benefit of adopting a strategy that could be executed today, without being dependent on technologies that have yet to emerge. The reality of the Chinese force structure is that it is largely a defensive structure whose utility wanes rapidly with distance from the Chinese coastline.
Unlike Imperial Japan, China lacks a carrier-capable, blue-water navy with which to challenge the United States, and has not begun an overt territorial expansion that provides overseas basing facilities. Like Imperial Japan, China is heavily dependent on overseas supply lines, and thus subject to interdiction of critical warfighting resources, especially energy.
China’s import dependency is particularly acute for energy supplies, which have to travel long distances through unfavorable maritime terrain, only to then be dependent on a limited domestic transportation infrastructure which is itself energy-intensive. This means that the PRC is vulnerable to a counter-logistics campaign intended to limit China’s energy supplies in a fashion that reduces or eliminates their capability to project military power.
The foundation for a military campaign against the PRC, presumably with the objective of stopping or reversing Chinese aggression, could be based on strategic interdiction, a.k.a. SI — a joint effort designed to prevent the movement of resources related to military forces or operations. An SI campaign would be designed to repeat the fundamental success of the Pacific War — isolating Japan to the point where it could no longer impede Allied operations in the Pacific.
A counter-logistics campaign has historical precedent in the Pacific. Indeed, we have volumes of data documenting the execution and effect of such a strategy against Japan.
In February of 1942, Japanese forces wrested Rabaul, New Britain, from the outnumbered and unsupported Australian detachment. In short order, Rabaul became the primary forward base in the South Pacific and a major obstacle sitting squarely between both Allied theaters in the Pacific. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to recapture the island fell afoul of resource constraints and the higher priority held by the war against Germany.
By August of 1943, the President made the decision that Rabaul would instead by bypassed rather than seized, largely because of the emerging realization that Rabaul did not have to be captured in order to be neutralized. Operation Cartwheel, starting in December, neutralized the island citadel without a direct and costly amphibious assault, and without requiring resources above what was already allocated for the theater.
Rabaul was attacked by air, isolated by maneuver and starved by air and naval forces to the point where it could no longer be used as a venue for power projection. Australian forces liberated Rabaul without a shot fired, surrendering four days after the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay.
While directed against only a small island group, the isolation of Rabaul is a relevant historical example of the success of a long-term strategy to neutralize powerful military forces in a critical position. Operation Cartwheel was a small example of what became a general strategy for the conduct of the Pacific War — that Japanese garrisons would be isolated and cut off, attacked in place and that the home islands would be deprived of materials, energy and supplies that relied on water or rail transport.
By the end of the war, a coherent maritime interdiction campaign brought the Japanese home islands to the brink of surrender, while an air campaign against Japanese railroads tied up domestic transport to the point that needed resources could not even be moved internally.
A well-designed, pre-planned strategic interdiction campaign provides a potential way forward for a war-winning air and naval power application, specifically tailored to the PRC’s specific characteristics. In particular, the campaign is intended to apply lessons learned against Japan to China, as if China were in fact an island.
From a transportation standpoint, China is over 98 percent island. China’s international land transportation networks, even in combination, are dwarfed by any of China’s larger ports taken singly, and its land transportation already suffers from a lack of capacity and susceptibility to disruption — both exploitable vulnerabilities.
A strategic interdiction campaign is a strategy based on denying logistical supplies to the fighting forces of an adversary. It is a combination of several efforts, including a limited blockade, interference with transportation networks and disabling some energy production at the resource level. The primary objective here is to effectively neutralize certain elements of PRC military power by starving it of energy.
In contrast with maritime interdiction, strategic interdiction is not an airtight blockade but a targeted effort to interdict primarily the production and transport of energy resources all the way back to the source. A campaign would have four elements:
A “counterforce” effort designed to attrit the adversary air forces (particularly bombers), naval forces (gray hulls) and naval auxiliaries (replenishment) to the point where they can neither project military power nor defend against U.S. power projection, at least far beyond the PRC continental shelf.
An “inshore” element, which consists of operations to deny effective use of home waters, including rivers and coastal waters. Standoff or covert aerial mining is a key component of this element.
An “infrastructure degradation” plan intended to disrupt or destroy specific soft targets, such as oil terminals, oil refineries, pipelines and railway chokepoints such as tunnels and bridges. Many of these targets would be in airspace not defended by ground-based air defense.
A “distant” maritime strategy, which occurs out of effective adversary military reach, intended to interdict energy supplies. This strategy is aimed primarily at bulk petroleum carriers (tankers) and secondarily at coal transports, and not at container, dry bulk or passenger vessels. Such a strategy might not be lethally oriented, directed instead towards the seizure and internment of PRC-bound vessels.
In effect, this strategy targets its effects on naval and air forces, which rely on jet fuel, and leaves the gasoline and diesel-dependent army shorebound. Along the way, secondary effects ripple through the industrial, refining, power generation and transportation sectors of the economy, with broad effects that are difficult to predict or quantify. A strategic interdiction strategy is not a short war strategy. It is a prolonged containment strategy derived from previous experience in the Pacific War.