Independent Long-Range Strike: A Failed Theory

Sidewinder visit to White House

Today’s Pentagon struggles to adapt to an increasingly disorderly and potentially dangerous world with ever more constrained resources. This requires it to shed outdated thinking and apply clear-headed logic to resolve real world operational challenges. In the case of the arguments for increased investment in independent deep strike warfare, it appears that clear-headed thinking is in short supply. As a first step, we should question whether independent strike has significant value.

However, the Department of Defense does not seem inclined to ask this basic question. Instead it continues to push for purchasing over 2400 F-35s, even as it commits major funds to develop a new long-range bomber. Proponents use a variety of arguments for why we are making these investments but the basic one is that the United States must maintain a viable manned long-range strike capability. In rebuttal, a number of authors (Pournelle, Hendrix, Hammes) have pointed out that aircraft are not required to conduct strike operations. However, the Department of Defense continues to spend billions on either strike aircraft or platforms that exist to support strike aircraft. This is in keeping with its long term investment strategy. And it is not only aircraft that are primarily dedicated to the strike mission. One of the most frequently cited justifications for the aircraft carrier has been its value as sovereign territory from which to conduct strike operations. In short, the belief that independent deep strike operations are a key strategic tool has become an article of faith in the U.S. Department of Defense. Perhaps it’s time for heresy.

First expressed coherently in 1921 by Guilio Douhet in The Command of the Air, air power enthusiasts have repeatedly expressed the belief that deep strike can independently win wars. (For this article, independent deep strikes are those strike operations conducted with the intention of coercing an opponent to cease an activity or to surrender purely through the application of air power.) This deep faith is particularly puzzling given the spotty, if not outright unsatisfactory, results of actual independent deep strike operations conducted over the last seven decades. In short, despite massive investments in independent deep strike, the theory remains wrong.

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-air power or anti-Air Force, let me make it very clear that I know that control of the air is an essential part of any joint campaign. U.S. forces have had the luxury of air supremacy in every conflict since Korea. The U.S. Air Force’s advocacy for the full range of air power has been the cornerstone that has insured the United States maintains an edge in air superiority operations. And, even though U.S. air superiority has not been seriously challenged since the Korean War, it rightly remains a vital and prudent investment. Further, independent deep strike in the form of our nuclear deterrent forces is a central pillar of our national defense — although the need for a manned bomber to deliver nuclear weapons is a matter of serious debate and disagreement.

Similarly, it is clear that close air support or interdiction in direct support of major ground action have been important and effective elements of U.S. campaigns. Whether the U.S. won or lost the conflict, this application of air power has frequently saved the lives of American service personnel.

The element of air power that this article questions is strike as an independent tool. It is important we have this discussion because we are about to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in bombers and fighter bombers specifically to maintain our ability to conduct these operations. Yet deep strike, as an independent operation, has an abysmal record.

Proponents of independent deep strike have theorized two paths through which air can win a war or campaign independently. First is Douhet’s concept that air power, directed at the homeland of an opponent, would lead to rapid surrender. Air power proponents often point to two campaigns that prove, despite the theory’s first 70 years of failure, that today’s independent deep strike can win a war: Operation Allied Force in Kosovo and Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait. The more enthusiastic proponents claim that air power won both campaigns and the ground elements were either unnecessary or simply mop-up operations. Other analysts strongly disagree. No less an authority than Sir Michael Jackson of the British Army stated that the Russian withdrawal of support was the primary reason Milosevic quit fighting in Kosovo. And even the U.S. Air Force’s own Gulf War Air Power Report would only say the “ingredients for a transformation of war may well have become visible in the Gulf War, but if a revolution is to occur someone will have to make it.” The fact remains that even the poorly led, demoralized Iraqi Army did not withdraw or surrender in large numbers until the joint force moved north with ground forces.

But for the sake of argument, let’s concede that strike was decisive in these cases. The question then becomes, what are the chances we will have such favorable conditions again? In both cases, allied forces employed over 1000 aircraft and enjoyed extensive base infrastructures, overflight permissions, a lengthy period for force build up, as well as technological superiority in every area. In each case, the enemy was essentially passive, had limited or no air force, antiquated air defense, and poor tactical/operational leadership due to the dictatorial systems in place. If it takes weeks or months to achieve even limited victory in these cases, why would anyone think airpower is a stand-alone war winner? Will we unite the airpower of the United States and most of Europe to conduct a sustained air campaign?

Despite the unlikelihood of attaining such conditions again, proponents maintain that long-range strike gives us the ability to coerce an opponent to change or stop an activity we disapprove of. Unfortunately, the evidence does not support air power’s ability to do that.

  • During September 1982, U.S. naval forces conducted naval gunfire and air strikes against Shi’a targets in Lebanon. On October 23, 1982, the Lebanese Shi’a bombed the U.S. Marine barracks at the airport, killing 241 Americans.
  • On December 4 of the same year, the United States conducted an air raid into Syria — losing two aircraft and ending with the embarrassment of Jesse Jackson traveling to Syria to get our aircrew back. But the strikes had no apparent impact on the strategic or even tactical situation. In fact, by February of 1984, pro-Syrian militia overran West Beirut. This period also saw the growth and strengthening of Hizbollah.
  • On April 15, 1986, the United States launched bombing raids on Libya in response to the Berlin nightclub bombing that killed two American servicemen. The intent was to convince Libya not to support terror attacks on U.S. citizens. The primary outcome was Libya’s bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. (An act which Muammar Gaddafi much later accepted responsibility for. He even turned two Libyan operatives over for trial.)
  • In April 1988, the USS Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian mine in the Gulf. In response, the United States executed Operation Praying Mantis. In the daylong fight, the United States destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and sunk or severely damaged several Iranian warships. The mix of air, naval, and Marine forces directly attacking the Iranian naval and air forces convinced the Iranians to decrease their actions against neutral shipping and U.S. forces. However, it did not discourage Iran from further action either in the Gulf or other arenas.
  • In August, 1998, U.S. forces attacked 6 terrorist base camps and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan in response to the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. These strikes had no apparent deterrent effect on Al Qaeda.
  • In Operation Desert Storm, strike aviation was given the independent mission of defeating/suppressing Saddam’s Scuds. According to a RAND’s Special Operations Force and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets, the coalition air forces saw 42 Scud launches but could only get into position to drop ordnance eight times. The author noted that the commercial vehicles on the highways provided significant background clutter that made the Scuds hard to target. However, the British Special Air Services reported that actual launches could be seen by ground observers from 30 miles away. In addition, Allied forces had absolute air supremacy as well as hundreds of aircraft that could range freely over the entire country. Despite all these advantages, the Gulf War Air Power Survey concluded, “There is no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers — as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks or other objects with Scud-like signature — were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft.” They failed to get a single confirmed kill despite the fact it took 30 minutes to erect, fuel, and launch a liquid-fueled Scud.
  • In Operation Enduring Freedom, U.S. air assets rapidly ran out of targets but were not able to drive Taliban forces out of Afghanistan until ground elements were present to identify targets and Northern Alliance militias.
  • Since August 2014, U.S. aircraft have been conducting strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They have degraded ISIL’s capabilities and stalled its advance into Iraq. Unfortunately on May 17, 2015 ISIL showed renewed capability and seized Ramadi quite easily.

Despite the claim that long-range strike can force an opponent to change his behavior, we have very little evidence it does. Even most air power enthusiasts will agree the operations listed above had little impact in the target nations. In summary, even massive strike operations with the most modern technology have only worked against small, weak states that lacked air defense, an effective air force, and leadership. Further, as the downing of Flight Pan Am 003 over Lockerbie showed, the other side may well strike back in response.

So with this dismal record, why do proponents of the new bomber insist it is essential to U.S. security? They argue that the United States must be able to “contend with more mobile sets of targets,” “hold targets at risk,” and finally, “to hit hardened and deeply buried targets.” Let’s consider each in turn.

The above discussion concerning the Iraqi Scuds should put to rest the idea we can pursue mobile targets effectively with manned aircraft. But deep strike advocates still insist we can find and kill Chinese mobile systems in the complex mix of rural, urban, and industrial environments protected by China’s integrated air defense system. To do so, the United States would have to maintain sufficient aircraft in contested air space to ensure we could find and hit a target in less than the 10 minutes the new solid fueled, mobile missile systems require to set up, and fire. We simply don’t own enough aircraft. Further as noted in a clever, funny, and pointed Boeing advertisement, stealthy aircraft are just as visible in daylight as non-stealthy ones. U.S. aircraft simply will not be able to hunt mobile systems in daylight.

As for “holding targets at risk,” proponents have never explained why manned bombers or strike aircraft are necessary to “hold targets at risk.” Do cruise missiles not hold targets at risk? In fact, air power proponents have never shown how “holding targets at risk” has been a particular deterrent. (When Ghaddafi chose to destroy PanAm 103, did he think we could not bomb Libya in response? Or did he evaluate the risk and decide taking action was worth it?) Nor, with the possible exception of the Kosovo campaign, do we have evidence that bombing has coerced an opponent into changing its behavior.

Finally, the requirement to hit hardened and deeply buried targets seems to refer to command and control centers or perhaps nuclear weapons silos and manufacturing facilities. Unfortunately, no one has explained how we prevent the enemy from simply digging deeper or moving in to commercial mines. Many of these mines go miles into the ground and have multiple shafts that followed the ore seams. It makes little sense to invest heavily in a capability so easily side-stepped by an enemy. In fact, efforts to neutralize such a target will most likely continue to focus on destroying the targets connectivity to the outside world which does not require heavy bombers or even manned aircraft.

A second theory holds that independent strike is critical because it can defeat an enemy force through interdiction of its supplies. In fact, two major air campaigns in Italy (1944) and Korea (1951-1952), both named Operation Strangle, were specifically designed based on this theory. Despite having air superiority in both Italy and Korea, neither of the operations succeeded in defeating the enemy force. The Germans and later the Chinese and North Koreans were capable of maintaining effective military operations throughout the interdiction campaigns. Interdiction had similarly disappointing results against North Vietnamese logistics throughout the Vietnam War despite the major increase in total number of aircraft as well as bomb tonnage available.

The need for deep independent strike is often accepted as dogma. It is an accepted truth, in the same way as the idea that air superiority is a pre-requisite for victory. In Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, Col. John Warden, III stated that “Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority, no major offensive has succeeded against an opponent who controlled the air, and no defense has sustained itself against an enemy who had air superiority.”

While a clear statement of faith, it is unfortunately incorrect. In fact, several conflicts since WWII have been won by the side that didn’t even have an air force, much less air superiority. Afghanistan, Algeria, Rhodesia, the Chinese Revolution, Vietnam (involving both France and the United States), and Aden are all examples where the side with air supremacy lost. It is this type of hyperbole that makes up much of the justification for independent deep strike capability. Yet, like the hyperbole surrounding many defense capabilities, that position has not generated much success in practice.

So why does independent deep strike remain a tool of choice for national leaders? There is no doubt that independent deep strike capabilities have proved valuable in dealing with the domestic politics of misadventures abroad. It has regularly provided policymakers with a low or no-cost option to prove they are “doing something” about the current crisis and thus neutralize pressure from domestic opponents as well as allies who feel the United States must take action. In fact, as we see in Iraq today, independent deep strike has functioned most effectively in managing the demand to do something and has had utility in managing conflicts where we do not wish to engage on the ground.

As John Olsen noted in his recent book Airpower Reborn, “The utility of airpower is highly situational.” Reduced resources and uncertain threats mean the situation has changed. Will a mix of manned aircraft, cruise missiles, long range rockets, and cheap drones do a better job of providing the historically useful strike missions — interdiction during an active offensive; responding to political demand to “do something”; close air support; combat at sea; support of a joint operations; and managing conflicts we don’t want to fight? Does the fact that we conduct the vast majority of these operations in lower threat environments mean a high/low mix of aircraft along with missiles will actually give us a more effective, affordable force? Would having three F-18 Super Hornets be more useful in a Syria or Afghan campaign than one F-35? How about a mix of manned aircraft, cheap disposable drones, and cruise missiles? We are deep into a revolution of small, smart, and many. Is continued investment in the few and exquisite a good procurement strategy?   Would a bomb truck (say a 747 or 787) that carries dozens of long-range cruise missiles be a better investment than a new long range strike bomber (LRS-B)?

We need to consider alternatives. And when we have those discussions, we need to stop comparing the capabilities of today’s cruise missiles and drones to the paper capabilities of a bomber we hope to field by 2030. Today, Block IV Tomahawks are about $1,100,000 each at low rate production. If one assumes it is possible to reduce the price by only 9 percent by going to high rate production, a single LRS-B would probably pay for 2,000 Tomahawks. This is if you think we will get the next generation bomber for the same price as the last generation bomber. Given the historical record of bomber costs, it is more reasonable to assume we will pay at least 50 percent more per aircraft for the new generation. Thus we could buy 3,000 Tomahawks for the price of a single bomber. And for every month we do not have to fly the bombers for training (current cost of a B-2 flight hour is $169,000), we can purchase additional missiles. Of course, we will not be purchasing Tomahawks but a descendent that uses the exceptional advances in nano-energetics (explosives), fuel efficiencies, materials, manufacturing processes, and artificial intelligence to provide significantly greater range, accuracy, and destructive power. Improving nano-explosives alone will dramatically increase the explosive power of the 1,000-pound warhead a current Tomahawk can carry.

One of the biggest potential game changers is the incredibly rapid advances in additive manufacturing (3D printing).   In May 2015, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University announced a new 3D printing technique which is 100 times faster than previous methods. It is the equivalent of going from a dot matrix printer to a laser printer. The Voltera V-1 machine can now print complete prototype circuit boards.   In fact, the Australians and General Electric have printed jet engines. These advances create the very real possibility of dramatic cost reduction in cruise missiles.

It is time to consider radically different alternatives to manned aircraft as well as different ways to accomplish valid strike missions. For a decade or more, the major platforms we currently own will remain highly capable. The United States has a massive advantage in these already purchased legacy systems — bombers, fighter-bombers, and carriers. We can save money by not purchasing the much more expensive new generation of these very old systems. (We are buying a new class of aircraft carriers based on the idea they will continue to be in service until 2090.) Instead, we can extend the life of current platforms and invest the savings in developing the new systems that will dominate future warfare. The mix of old and emerging technology can provide a capable, balanced force as we transition into the future. The services need to focus on developing those capabilities that have proven essential to the joint fight — and strike is clearly one of those.

It is only long-range, independent strike that has consistently failed to deliver promised results. It makes no sense to dedicate a high percentage of our limited procurement resources to a capability that has provided so little return. As President Lincoln famously noted, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.” It is time to abandon the dogma of independent, long-range strike, a theory which has failed in practice for over 90 years. In its place, we must focus our future force structure on those missions where the extraordinary capabilities of airpower have succeeded.


T.X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.


Photo credit: Master Sgt. Robert Trubia, U.S. Air Force