The Five-Ring Circus: How Airpower Enthusiasts Forgot About Interdiction


Since the development of the Army Air Corps, airmen have been entranced by the possibilities inherent in airpower for a quick and relatively bloodless end to a major war. While the U.S. Army adopted Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini and the Navy Alfred Thayer Mahan, the fledgling air force adopted the theories of Gen. Giulio Douhet, who believed that airpower would emerge as the primary determinant of victory. World War II decisively disproved many elements of Douhet’s theories, at least in Europe, where strategic airpower was critical to victory, but not independently decisive. Since then, the most zealous airpower advocates have latched onto each new promise of airpower-centric victory, from nuclear weapons to the combination of stealth and precision. In the process, we lost sight of some of the most effective air efforts undertaken to neutralize enemy forces on the battlefield and render an adversary’s goals impossible to achieve militarily. Somehow, we relegated interdiction to the back benches.

The most pernicious of the prevailing airpower theories is Col. John Warden’s “five rings,” which returned to the vision of a decisive strike against enemy leadership through airpower, with the expectation that the target country would quickly fold. This theory, tied closely to an unambiguously decisive air campaign in Desert Storm, remains deeply ingrained in the Air Force — a beguiling mirage that seems to have been proven in Iraq in 2003, discounting the twin facts that the air campaign did not succeed in either decapitating the government or causing its collapse. Twenty-four years later, we remain mesmerized by the prospect of quick victory against any opponent without actual regard to the limits of military force, much less the limits of airpower. This theoretical framework has handicapped the next generation of airpower strategy development and blinded the Air Force to airpower applications that are effective, but not quick, easy, or subject to the beguiling lure of advanced technology. Extended interdiction campaigns are proven, war-winning efforts that have been given short shrift in the face of a misty vision of landing a decisive blow. The effectiveness of airpower in battle is a result of interlocking, coordinated efforts that deliver mutually supportive effects as part of an integrated campaign.

The Five Rings

In 1995, Col. Warden published The Enemy as a System, a refinement of a strategic vision that underpinned the air campaign in Desert Storm and had already become a classic staple of airpower theory. Warden’s construct described an adversary country as a series of concentric rings, with the leadership at the center. Subsequent rings contained organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and finally fielded forces, which serve to protect the inner rings. The approach has held up fairly well, although globalization effects have necessitated some refinements in the model.

Graphic by Gary Noel

The five ring model is a map, not a strategy. The central tenet of Warden’s strategic approach was classic strategic warfare — airpower enabled a force to jump over the outer rings to strike at the center, which Warden defined as “the most important” because of its leadership function. “They, the leaders, are at the strategic center, and in strategic warfare must be the figurative, and sometimes the literal, target of our every action.” Warden deliberately conceptualized the center ring as the brain of an organism, without which any organization would die — the so-called “decapitation” attack. Warden also introduced the idea of strategic paralysis, in which air attacks on the center ring set conditions wherein it becomes physically impossible for an enemy to oppose us. As a theory, this was the logical and direct descendent of a long history of airpower thought on warfare. In practice, it is overly simplistic, as it assumes a degree of centralization not present even in single-party dictatorships. Modern governments, even totalitarian ones, have their control measures well spread out or the state cannot function, making strategic paralysis unlikely.

The Gulf War seemed to validate Warden’s theory, but upon closer examination it may not have been the case. We did not succeed in directly targeting either the Ba’ath party government or its communications. Despite the massive destruction wrought by the air campaign, it still required ground forces to eject Iraqi occupiers from Kuwait and gain a ceasefire. Broadening the survey makes the theory even less compelling. There is no historical case in which U.S. airpower succeeded the way Warden said that it should. Certainly, airpower was a key determinant against Germany, Japan, Serbia, Iraq, and the Taliban government of Afghanistan, but not because of successful attack against inner ring targets. In fact, the U.S. government has engaged in a deliberate, enduring hunt for “high-value targets” in a variety of insurgent and terrorist organizations for almost fifteen years without causing the predicted collapse of a single one.

The allure of the center ring continues to exert its influence on American strategists, offering a relatively quick and easy path to victory, but is a poor foundation for developing a strategy against a complex adversary. Strategic attack can certainly have an effect, but it is an element of integrated airpower application and not a substitute. Air interdiction provides options that are inherently flexible and can be accomplished from a distance, and we have a long, successful history of interdiction that should not be ignored. Strategic interdiction in particular has the potential to provide war-winning effects against capable and resilient adversaries, but it is not quick or easy.

World War II

Wars are fought by humans, but sustained by materiel. The objective of an interdiction campaign is to interrupt, delay, or destroy any relevant necessities at any point along the supply chain, from assembly of raw materials to delivery to frontline forces. The U.S. Army Air Forces and the Royal Air Force started a strategic bombing campaign long before D-Day, the effects of which are still being debated. In preparation for the coming invasion, air efforts shifted heavily toward interdiction in March 1944, with the objective of destroying the transportation network in France. As Gen. William W. Momyer wrote, this is where interdiction was born. Its tenets were to:

(a) Strike the source of the war material; (b) concentrate the attacks against the weak elements of the logistical system; (c) continuously attack, night and day, the major lines of communication supporting the army in the field; (d) inflict heavy losses on enemy logistics and forces before they approach the battlefield where the difficulty of successful interdiction is greatest; (e) keep continuous ground pressure on the enemy to force him to consume large quantities of logistics.

Without the ability to redeploy and resupply forces in the field, German forces were much less likely to successfully oppose the invasion. So it proved, as the Wehrmacht was unable to bring its reserve armored divisions into the fight. Allied ground forces in France, despite being brought over the beach, increased in combat power far faster than the German forces that were already there. From the spring of 1944 on, every ground offensive in Europe was accompanied by an air interdiction campaign. After Germany’s defeat, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt later revealed:

It was all a question of air force, air force and again air force. The main difficulties that arose for us at the time of the invasion were the systematic preparations by your air force; the smashing of the main lines of communications, particularly the railway junctions. We had prepared for various eventualities … that all came to nothing or was rendered impossible by the destruction of railway communications, railway stations, etc. The second thing was the attack on the roads, on marching columns, etc., so that it was impossible to move anyone at all by day, whether a column or an individual, that is to say, carry fuel or ammunition. That also meant that the bringing up of the armoured divisions was also out of the question, quite impossible.

In the Pacific, the counter-logistics campaign was extended, comprehensive, and joint, starting before the Japanese second wave landed after their strike on Pearl Harbor. Submarines, PT boats, and aircraft were so effective that in New Guinea, the Solomons, and the Bismarks, 110,000 soldiers of Japan’s 18th Army starved to death — almost double the 60,000 killed in action. Theater-wide, roughly 60 percent of Japanese war dead were due to starvation. The effort extended all the way to the home islands, where the maritime interdiction campaign crippled Japanese industry even before the B-29 raids. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey (Pacific) recognized as much in 1947:

It is the opinion of the Survey that by August 1945, even without direct air attack on her cities and industries, the over-all level of Japanese war production would have declined below the peak levels of 1944 by 40 to 50 percent solely as a result of the interdiction of overseas imports.

The oil flow was so badly disrupted that after September 1943 more than 70 percent of the oil from the East Indies was successfully interdicted, a figure that averaged 91 percent during the last fifteen months of the war. Maritime interdiction worked, and worked well.

B-25D-1 of the 13th Bomb Squadron over Rabaul’s Simpson Harbor on November 2, 1943 (Jack Heyn, USAAC)

Korea and Vietnam

I will gladly lay my cards right on the table and state that if it had not been for the air support that we received from the Fifth Air Force we would not have been able to stay in Korea.

— Gen. Walton H. Walker, USA, 8th Army Commander, 1948-1950

Air interdiction was a major component of airpower application in Korea, just as in World War II. The Air Force flew some 220,000 interdiction and armed reconnaissance sorties out of a total of 400,000 combat (non-reconnaissance) sorties. The Korean interdiction campaign, and in particular the portion of it inappropriately named Operation Strangle, is often criticized because it did not actually strangle Chinese or North Korean forces — certainly not in the manner experienced by the Japanese 17th and 18th Field Armies. This may have been an unrealistic expectation, in that a U.S. division (15,000 men strong) required 500 tons of supply per day to remain in action while its North Korean equivalent (11,000 men) required 70 tons and a Chinese division (10,000 men) only 60 tons. What the interdiction campaign did accomplish successfully was removal of the ability of Communist forces to launch and sustain an offensive, shift large forces, or conduct unrestrained movement in daylight. Had United Nations air forces been able to operate effectively at night, the interdiction campaign might have been more effective. Still, after 1950 the longest period that Communist forces maintained an offensive was nine days. Expecting to starve an army that had intact (if damaged) land supply lines was always unrealistic — but the interdiction campaign had measurable effects on the battlefield by severely limiting the ability of Communist forces to take offensive action.

USAF aircraft attack rail lines south of Wonson, North Korea, 1950 (U.S. Army Military History Institute)

In Vietnam, interdiction was arguably the main effort for airpower for the duration of the war, but was only marginally effective until 1972 because too much infrastructure was off-limits to attack and the only politically acceptable interdiction targets were too far away from the most vulnerable bottlenecks. At best, tactical interdiction limited the number of People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) divisions in the field to 12 instead of the 18–20 seen in 1975. Only in 1972, responding to the PAVN’s Easter Offensive, did the gloves come off. In Linebacker I, B-52s were allowed to dismantle the railway system, the eight major roads crossing the Chinese border were attacked, oil storage was destroyed, and the three major North Vietnamese ports were closed by aerial mining in Operation Pocket Money. Between May and June, roughly 70 percent of the war materiel needed to sustain the offensive was being interdicted, and almost half of the import flow dried up by September. Later, the 11-day Linebacker II campaign is widely credited with forcing an end to American involvement in the war, although not by diminishing the North Vietnamese will to fight (which nobody has ever accomplished) but by changing the calculus from a “fight now” condition to “fight later,” after the United States had left.

After Vietnam

I started the war with 13,000 soldiers. By the time we had orders to pull back to Baghdad, I had less than 2,000; by the time we were in position in Baghdad, I had less than 1,000. Every day the desertions increased. We had no engagements with American [ground] forces. When my division pulled back across the Diyala Bridge, of the more than 500 armored vehicles assigned to me before the war, I was able to get fifty or so across the bridge. Most were destroyed or abandoned on the east side of the Diyala River.

 Abd Al-Karim Jasim Nafus Al-Majid, Commander, Al Nida Armored Division

The doctrinal revisions associated with AirLand Battle were designed for a different kind of enemy — the Soviet armored and motorized rifle divisions buttressing the iron curtain. “Battlefield Air Interdiction” (BAI) entered the lexicon, a concept in which precision munitions, 24-hour operations, and modern strike fighters would pressure Red Army logistics well back into the second echelons and beyond, starving Warsaw Pact formations of the fuel, ammunition, and other materiel needed to support a fast-moving, combined arms offensive. Correctly executed, the aerial interdiction effort would have ensured that the defending NATO forces were better supplied and possessed higher endurance than the Soviets and their clients. There was no room for Douhet in this fight — decapitation attacks in Moscow were impossible to execute without nuclear weapons, and Soviet industry was well out of range of NATO tactical airpower. This doctrinal revolution was never executed against the Soviets, but came into play when a Soviet client state invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

In Desert Storm, interdiction was a key element of the operations plan. Defined more loosely as “cut supply lines,” this was the only theater objective that was included in all four phases of the CENTCOM Operations Plan. By the end of the war, the carrying capacity of the transportation network from Baghdad to Kuwait was reduced by 90 percent, although massive stockpiles by forward forces meant that most remained adequately supplied for the logistical demands of sitting in the desert and waiting for coalition ground forces. The interdiction campaign ensured that forward forces dared not move or take any offensive action that might draw attention. There was no conceivable way that Iraqi forces could have assembled or supported a local counterattack, much less a general counteroffensive.

Destroyed Armored Fighting Vehicles along Highway 80 in Iraq, March 1991 (Staff Sgt. Dean Wagner)

Over a decade later during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the air campaign was significantly smaller than Desert Storm, with about a third of the combat sorties and 13 percent of the munitions expenditure, although in 2003 the use of precision weapons was ubiquitous whereas in 1990 it was not. The vast majority of Iraqi ground units defending the route to Baghdad were struck heavily from the first day, and road movements were heavily punished. No major vehicle movement of any kind occurred south of Baghdad without devastating consequences from the skies. As a result, the majority of Iraqi fighting power was lost to desertion, and Iraqi soldiers found it far safer to be dismounted. The secondary effects of the interdiction attacks were that Iraqi ground forces lost all of the advantages associated with mechanization and were reduced to a disorganized force of light infantry unable to redeploy to meet advancing ground forces and unable to be reinforced. Resupply became somewhat irrelevant because the remaining combat power was so limited.


The enduring vision of obtaining decisive, strategic effects against “first ring” targets with airpower has never been realized, and there is significant evidence to demonstrate that the theory is impossible to realize without (perhaps) the use of nuclear weapons. Since World War II the Air Force has engaged in strategic bombing campaigns in every major conflict without “catastrophic success” — the decisive collapse of the enemy’s warfighting capability or will. On the other hand, interdiction campaigns have been consistently effective to some degree, with Vietnam the only notable exception and even then only prior to Linebacker I. In World War II France, North Vietnam in 1972, and Iraq (twice), air interdiction efforts were staggeringly effective and contributed greatly to the outcomes of the conflict. Against Japan, the maritime interdiction effort was responsible for kneecapping Japanese industry and the military support infrastructure even before the B-29s arrived over Japan. In Iraqi Freedom, air interdiction effects were so overwhelming that some units effectively disintegrated without ever encountering coalition ground forces.

The implications for defense planning are significant. Any bet on a quick, decisive, strategic airpower blow against a capable adversary (read China) is a bad bet, given that we have been unable to strike quick, decisive blows against smaller and less capable adversaries. Interdiction campaigns work at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, particularly if the detailed planning requirements are met in advance. Modern airpower theory, if allowed to rest on unproven promises of a quick victory, will exacerbate the development and training of an already unbalanced force and skew employment concepts towards the fanciful. The Five-Ring Circus has had too long a run, and it’s time to pack up the tents and remember why interdiction has been a successful warfighting strategy.


Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor and electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.