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Strategy in the Contemporary World

Strategy in the Contemporary World (6th edn)

John Baylis, James Wirtz, and Colin Gray
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p. 25515. Geography and Strategylocked

p. 25515. Geography and Strategylocked

  • Daniel Moran


This chapter examines how geographical setting shapes the conduct of war. It first provides an overview of the ways that physical geography influences the tactical identities of armed forces as well as their strategic effects, focusing on practices that lie at the heart of ‘joint’ warfare — in which land, sea, and air forces cooperate to their collective advantage. The discussion highlights the strategic possibilities presented by warfare in different physical environments — that is, land warfare, naval warfare, and air warfare. The chapter also considers the strengths and weaknesses of forces that fight on land and sea and in the air, unconventional warfare fought on land, the maritime strategy employed by navies, theory vs. practice of air power, and coercive bombing. Finally, it analyses the strategic potential of space war, the expansion of war into cyberspace, and the use of ‘cyber’ weapons in information warfare.

Reader’s Guide

This chapter explores the strategic possibilities presented by warfare in different physical environments. It identifies the strengths and weaknesses of forces that fight on land and sea and in the air. It also considers the strategic potential of warfare in space, and of information technologies employed as weapons. In practice, modern warfare almost always seeks synergy between the realms in which force is deployed. To that extent what follows is not a realistic presentation of how modern war is actually conducted. Nevertheless it can be instructive to consider those forms separately in order to understand what can and cannot be accomplished by various forms of violence.

Introduction: The Lie of the Land

Strategic theory is concerned with the use of force by political communities. The psychological effects that violence causes do not vary in any predictable way with respect to the means employed: a blow delivered from the sea feels much the same as one from the land. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian theorist whose work On War (1832) is foundational to modern strategic thinking, wrote exclusively about war on land. But the distinctive characteristics of war as he conceived it—the overwhelming effects of fear, chance, and uncertainty; the escalatory dynamic that drives adversaries to extreme measures; the superior strength of the defensive; the difficulty of sustaining military action over long periods; the need for constant adaptation to the unexpected—are equally familiar to those who have fought on the sea or in the air. The contest of wills that is central to every strategic encounter will play itself out in similar fashion, regardless of the physical environment in which it occurs.

p. 256Nevertheless, in practice the conduct of war is overwhelmingly shaped by its geographical setting. All armies resemble each other more than they do the navies and air forces that fight under the same flags. Before any armed force can come to grips with its opponent, it must first master the immediate challenges of its physical environment. Ships must float. Aircraft must remain suspended in the air. Armies must propel themselves across a landscape rich with obstacles. Warfare, the making of war, is first of all about making the most of one’s chances within the constraints imposed by nature. Only after that has been accomplished can the enemy be given the attention he deserves.

Physical geography defines the tactical identities of armed forces. It also shapes their strategic effects. Armies, navies, and air forces possess distinctive strengths and weaknesses when it comes to translating military effort into political results. A country that fights chiefly with an army will be confronted with strategic possibilities different from those available to one that fights mainly on the sea or in the air. The aim of this chapter is to highlight those possibilities: to consider the conduct of war in different physical environments, and to identify the strategic risks and opportunities that each presents.

Combined Arms and ‘Joint’ Warfare

The discussion that follows is a somewhat artificial exercise, rather than a description of reality. This artificiality is owed mainly to the invention of the aeroplane, and secondarily to the mastery of wireless communications. Nowadays good armies and navies never operate without seeking to control the skies over their heads. Major naval weapons systems are in fact aerial weapons (aeroplanes, missiles, etc.), tactically indistinguishable from those of an air force. An air force in turn depends on a ground-based infrastructure whose establishment and defence will generally be the work of an army. Forces operating on land, sea, and in the air also communicate constantly with each other, tailoring their operations accordingly. Such practices are at the heart of ‘joint’ military operations, in which land, sea, and air forces cooperate to their collective advantage. The superiority of joint operations is now taken for granted by military planners. Left to their own devices, armies, navies, and air forces each present a limited set of strategic capabilities. Their individual strengths are offset by equally distinctive weaknesses. Joint warfare is now the norm, or rather the ideal, because it allows military organizations to exploit the strengths and mask the weaknesses of their component parts.

Land Warfare: The Quest for Victory

Land armies are the pre-eminent form of military power everywhere. This is owed to their role in the creation of political communities, whose independent existence depends on their ability to defend themselves against others. Only land armies can secure territorial frontiers, and it is by virtue of their ability to exercise continuous control over territory that sovereign states are most readily distinguished from other political forms. Political entities that are not states can make war. But unless they can field an army they cannot control territory, and in the absence of such control they will never take their place among the sovereign nations of the world. Historically, armies and states have created each other.

p. 257Armies Exist to Control Territory and People

Armies are the only armed forces intended to seize and hold, and not merely to destroy, their objectives. That armies seek to destroy each other is also true, as it is for navies and air forces. But death and destruction in war are always a means to an end, and if the end is to gain control of a human population, then only an army will do. Once an army has established such control, the difficulty of dislodging it can be considerable. ‘Regime change’ is inherently an army mission, and cannot be contemplated by any state that is not prepared to commit its land forces to the fight on a sufficient scale to dislodge and replace the ground forces of the enemy.

Such a commitment is now considered an especially weighty one. For a country like the United States, which is able to inflict massive damage and suffering by means of naval and air forces, the decision to employ its army is often more politically perilous than the decision to fight in the first place. Any military operation involving what are sometimes called ‘boots on the ground’ will have a heightened significance for public opinion in a democratic society, if only because of the additional risk of friendly casualties. Such a step is normally considered only after some form of strategic bombardment has been tried and found wanting. The major American interventions in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq (in 1990–1) all began with an initial decision to employ air and naval forces, followed by a separate, independently considered decision to send in the army. No such step-wise approach occurred in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because in that instance the overthrow of the enemy state was the objective from the start.

The Politics of Land Warfare

Additional political scrutiny attaches to land warfare because the use of land forces has a kind of finality about it that does not apply to naval and air operations. If the outstanding advantage of armies is their ability to hold their ground, their outstanding disadvantage is that they are difficult to move. Employing them requires enormous determination, and one reason to employ them is because you want to convey such determination to the enemy. Once the commitment has been made, however, it is difficult to undo. Land forces engaged with an undefeated adversary cannot disengage without incurring tactical risk. They are also liable to present a spectacle of failure for the world to see. Ships and aeroplanes come and go. An army comes and stays. That is its nature and purpose, both tactically and strategically.

The defensive resilience of armies renders the delivery of a successful attack extremely difficult. War on land is almost always a grinding, wearisome business. The ‘art of war’ is devoted to figuring out how to make it less so (see Box 15.1). The goal of all warfare, as the sixteenth-century Austrian field marshal Raimondo de Montecucolli said, is ‘victory’, an observation that stood out when it was made because it cast aside a variety of other objectives—honour, glory, plunder, prestige—that the aristocratic elites of those times rated highly. In strategic terms victory is a political and not merely a military concept. This is one reason why Montecucolli’s modern successors tend to add the word ‘decisive’, meaning victory that goes beyond the accomplishment of tactical goals, and achieves results that alter the political conditions that brought the war about. For an army, victory of this kind cannot usually be gained by pushing the enemy around, or even away. It requires that his powers of resistance p. 258be broken and disorganized, so that he confronts the possibility that, at some point in the future, he may become defenceless.

Operational Art

In modern times military theorists have identified three general paths to this kind of success. The first, which emerges in the strategic literature of the eighteenth century, is to manoeuvre against the flanks and rear of the opposing army. The fighting elements of land armies represent only a fraction of their manpower. The rest are devoted to maintaining the complex logistical system required to keep the army moving, eating, and fighting. Attacks directed against that system often have disproportionately disruptive effects. Precisely because the vulnerability of an army’s logistics is so well recognized, however, it usually proves difficult to exploit. Armies take good care to protect their communications if they can. Nor is it easy to engage in bold manoeuvre against the enemy’s rear while protecting one’s own against similar assault. Modern armies work hard to outmanoeuvre each other, and when they have succeeded, as in the German offensives against France in 1870 and 1940, the results have been impressive. But such outcomes are historically rare, because armies of similar size, fighting with similar methods, have little chance of wrong-footing each other so grievously as to win all at once. When such efforts fail, the grim realities of attrition swiftly reassert themselves (see Box 15.1).

An obvious solution is to have an army that is not of similar size to your opponent’s, but is instead much larger. Modern states possess extensive means of mobilizing their populations for war, either by persuading them to fight or by coercing them to do so. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, governments were reluctant to call upon the mass of their subjects to bear arms, because they could not afford to equip the huge armies that would have

15.1Box Key Concepts

Manoeuvre versus Attrition

Writers on land warfare routinely distinguish between ‘manoeuvre warfare’ and ‘attrition’. The distinction is not hard and fast: opportunities for manoeuvre may only arise as a result of preparatory, systematic destruction of enemy forces, which is what one normally means by attrition. Nevertheless, the difference between the two approaches bears thinking about.

Attrition emphasizes cumulative destruction through the systematic application of firepower. It is often the natural choice for the side with greater material resources, which does not need to do anything fancy to win. Attritional fighting tends to focus tactical decisions on choices among different targets or objectives, which can often be prioritized according to some doctrinally codified scheme.

While attritional methods tend to be generic and repetitive, the idea of manoeuvre only has meaning in relation to a particular opponent. It seeks to capitalize on specific vulnerabilities—the fact that enemy forces move slowly, for instance, or are poorly supplied with bridging equipment, or have low morale—in order to achieve disproportionate effects. Most people associate manoeuvre with rapid movement, but it is really a more general concept, which tries to gain exceptional advantage from the control of small amounts of space and time. The provision of local security to isolated villages by small detachments of American forces during the Vietnam War is an example of manoeuvre warfare, because the aim was not to destroy enemy forces, but to thwart the enemy’s intentions by controlling small but critical bits of territory—the bits where Vietnamese people actually lived.

p. 259resulted, and because doing so entailed political risks: people mobilized for war might expect political concessions in return. The fact that a country’s inhabitants had just been trained and equipped for fighting also seemed to increase the possibility that they would seize those concessions for themselves. It is not surprising that universal conscription was first attempted by a revolutionary government, that of France in 1793. The resulting army dwarfed those of France’s adversaries, and could only be defeated once Europe’s other great powers adopted similar methods.


During the nineteenth century major land armies grew dramatically in size. The consequences of this development were amplified by modern weaponry, whose range and lethality increased dramatically. As soldiers pondered this new reality, they recognized that it cut against the possibility that they might outfox their opponent. Forces numbering in the millions could scarcely be manoeuvred in any meaningful sense, and once they got within range of each other no outcome seemed possible except massacre on an epic scale.

If there was a way out, the best observers concluded, it could only be found at the outset of hostilities, when you might catch your enemy unprepared for action. The best chance for decisive victory seemed to lie with the side that could strike hardest right at the start. Here was a third path to victory, one whose attractiveness has survived a considerable record of historical disappointment. Many of the major wars of the twentieth century began with massive attacks designed to achieve swift and decisive success. Examples include the Japanese offensive against Russia in 1904, and against America and Great Britain in 1941; the German offensive of 1914, and the so-called blitzkrieg of 1939–41; the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950; the Iraqi invasions of Iran in 1980, and of Kuwait in 1990; Israel’s attacks against Egypt and Syria in 1967, and those by Egypt and Syria against Israel in 1973. This list could be expanded without difficulty, but the basic impression would not change, which is that on the whole the advantages of attacking first have not proven sufficiently decisive to outweigh more fundamental sources of military strength. Land armies are voracious consumers of men and materiel. In general, victory on land has gone to belligerents with sufficient political determination, social resilience, and economic productivity to sustain military effort over the long haul.

Many thoughtful soldiers nevertheless remain convinced that it is their duty to win quickly if they can. Not all, however. Revolutionary insurgency is a form of land warfare that embraces protraction as a source of strategic leverage, by which an opponent may be worn down. Insurgents take advantage of a terrain feature that conventional forces prefer to avoid: the civil population, within which the insurgent conceals himself, and which he holds hostage. Such methods are timeless. Whenever the weak have fought the strong they have relied on ambushes, traps, terrorism, hit-and-run attacks, and so on, in the hope that, just by staying alive and engaged, victory may come to them.

Unconventional Warfare

If such unconventional warfare has loomed large in recent years, it is partly because of the decline of conventional land warfare as a feature of the international system. Since the end p. 260of the Second World War advanced societies have avoided fighting each other, so that major wars have only been waged by or against second-rate powers. It is also true that the insurgent’s chances have improved owing to better technology, above all in the area of communications. A few radios connecting isolated rebel bands or terrorist cells can make an enormous difference at the tactical level, while the ability to communicate with the civil population via the public media has gone some distance towards evening up the odds in a contest whose basic terms are always defined ideologically.

Counterinsurgency can fairly be numbered among the most important missions of contemporary armies. This is a reality that professional soldiers are often reluctant to embrace, however. The swift overthrow of an enemy army remains the acme of professional military achievement. Setting this traditional standard aside will require a re-examination of the basic assumptions on which land warfare has been conducted for three hundred years.

Key Points

Armies are distinguished from other military branches by their ability to seize and hold, rather than simply to destroy, their objectives.

Land warfare in the industrial era has shown a strong tendency towards stalemate and attrition.

The aim of manoeuvre warfare is to strike the enemy at times and places that achieve disproportionate destructive or disruptive effects.

Modern wars often begin with massive initial offensives designed to win before the other side is fully mobilized.

Revolutionary insurgency does not seek to win quickly, but rather by slowly eroding the moral and political resolve of the enemy.

Maritime Strategy

Human populations have always been concentrated near the world’s oceans and navigable rivers. This pattern means that most of mankind lives within range of the aircraft and missiles that comprise the bulk of modern naval weapons. Nevertheless, bombarding the shore has historically been the least significant of naval missions. The distinctive strategic contribution of navies depends on their activity on the sea, always keeping in mind that nothing that happens there can matter unless it alters the thinking and actions of those living on the land.

Until the sixteenth century the main role of navies was to transport soldiers to an enemy shore. The ability to do this conferred important advantages, above all the freedom to choose the time and place of an attack. Such navies were tactical adjuncts to armies. Naval warfare existed, in the sense that when warships met on the sea they tried to fight each other. But such episodes were rare and inconsequential. What mattered were the soldiers that the ships carried. It was their combat that decided the war.

p. 261The Age of Sail

The development of sailing warships capable of traversing the world’s oceans transformed this ancient picture. Sailing navies were the instruments by which European overseas empires were created. The highly integrated world system that we know today is descended from them. The role of navies in this process was twofold: to transport soldiers, merchants, missionaries, and settlers to the far corners of the world; and to protect or prey upon the network of seaborne trade that resulted.

The inelastic agrarian economies of continental states could offer nothing like the wealth generated by long-distance trade, which sailing navies made possible. Sailing navies were instruments of economic warfare, and achieved strategic effects mainly through their impact on international trade. When the American naval officer and theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan coined the term ‘sea power’ at the end of the nineteenth century, it was the synergy between naval power, commerce, and colonial expansion that he had in mind. From Mahan’s perspective, states whose navies could ‘command’ the sea—that is, employ it for their own purposes while denying its use to others—were destined to dominate those who could not.

By the time Mahan was writing, however, the organic relationship between naval power and maritime trade was beginning to break down. This was owed partly to the Industrial Revolution, which allowed continental states to match the economic productivity of overseas commerce; and partly to the increasingly intricate economic dependencies that trade itself created. Mahan and his contemporaries thought the strategic significance of sea power was destined to increase in proportion to the value of the goods that moved across the world’s oceans. In practice, however, the world economy gradually became too large and complex to be coerced by direct military means.

Blockade and Economic Warfare

One can see this by comparing the operations of the Royal Navy against Napoleonic France at the start of the nineteenth century, and against Germany at the start of the twentieth. Naval warfare in the first of these contests centred on a close blockade of the enemy’s coast. British warships, too powerful and numerous to be driven off by their French counterparts, lurked in the maritime approaches to French ports, cutting them off from seaborne trade. British ships also stopped and searched any commercial vessel on the high seas that was suspected of trading with the enemy. Neutral powers had no choice but to accept this interference, since their own navies were no match for the British. In time, businessmen in Europe and the Americas came to prefer transporting their goods in British ships, or under British licence. Naval superiority also allowed Britain to seize France’s overseas colonies, whose trade shifted to the British side of the ledger. None of this could prevent Napoleon’s armies from running roughshod over opposing armies in the short run. But over the longer term the financial leverage that accrued to Britain and its allies proved overwhelming. The final campaigns that brought Napoleon down were not conducted by British armies, but they were paid for by the British treasury, grown rich from the exercise of maritime strategy in its classic form.

Nothing remotely similar was possible a century later, when Britain found itself at war with Germany. Close blockade of the German coast had been rendered impracticable by the new weaponry of the industrial age—long-range guns, mines, torpedoes, etc. Britain instead p. 262attempted a ‘distant’ blockade of the entire European continent, which affronted the rights of neutral states, who were no longer willing to knuckle under so easily. Britain’s own ability to wage war depended on access to world markets, and the prospect that Britain’s neutral trading partners might refuse to do business with it, or even enter the war on the other side, set strict limits on how British sea power could be exercised.

Against Napoleon, the British had grown rich by cornering the market on overseas trade. Against Germany they grew poor, borrowing money from the United States to finance their own war effort. The task of depriving a great industrial nation of the means to carry on war proved to be beyond the power of the Royal Navy; to which was added the defensive burdens of Germany’s retaliatory submarine campaign, which seriously threatened Britain’s own overseas trade for the first time in centuries. Britain’s centrality to the global economy that it helped to create had ceased to be an unambiguous source of strategic leverage, and was shown to be a strategic vulnerability as well, one that is now shared to some degree by every advanced society.

Economic warfare has declined as a naval mission, as its political and economic consequences have become increasingly unmanageable. The strategic advantage afforded by sea power in wartime has accordingly become less distinctive—though it goes without saying that any nation separated from potential adversaries by an ocean will require a navy if it wishes to get across. Nowadays the high seas have become a zone of safety across which an enormous share of world trade can pass unmolested—a fact that should not be obscured by incidental concerns about piracy, or speculation about the supposed vulnerability of maritime straits to closure by terrorists. Systemically, the sea today is part of the ballast that keeps the world economy, and global order generally, on an even keel. If that should cease to be true, the world would quickly become a different and more dangerous place (see Critical Thinking).

Critical Thinking

Attacking or interdicting trade on the high seas still makes sense


Economics. Modern armed forces are the product of modern economies, and modern economies always require access to international markets for goods, natural resources, and finance. Cutting off an adversary from these things raises the cost (i.e. the suffering) of war for his own side, even if it does not immediately compromise his ability to fight.

Politics. Politically, it makes no sense to allow an enemy to conduct ‘business as usual’. Letting that happen will erode morale on your side, and make it easy for neutrals to stay neutral, when what you want is for them to side with you, or at least to put pressure on your enemy to come to terms.


Unacceptable costs. To suppress maritime trade you must be willing to sink merchant ships manned by civilians. Even if you are prepared to accept the political consequences of that, it is not worth risking a valuable warship for such a purpose. The economic harm you inflict will also be felt mainly p. 263by the civil population: in wartime the government and armed forces are first in line for everything, so they will not feel the pressure. Neutrals will turn against you, since their trade will also be disrupted.

Too slow. Economic warfare is always slow to have its effect. You should put your thought and effort into trying to win quickly.



Does the intricate integration of the world economy help to contain and moderate the disruptive effects of war? Or does it just make things worse? Worse how?


Is attacking seaborne trade more likely to appeal to the stronger or to the weaker side in war?


How should neutral states behave if they are confronted by belligerents who are trying to cut each other off from global markets?

Good Order at Sea

At present the only nation that possesses a navy of global strategic significance is the United States. That significance rests on the leading role that it plays in maintaining good order at sea, and on its ability to project power from sea to shore. In this latter role it functions like a specialized sort of air force, which compensates for the short range of its weapons by the ability to move its bases around. The advantages of being able to do this should not be underestimated. Land-based air forces require a massive fixed infrastructure, whose location may limit how those forces can be used. Aircraft operating from land bases sufficiently remote to be safe from enemy attack may have to fly through neutral airspace to reach their targets, for which permission may be denied in a crisis. Forward bases constructed to avert this problem take time and resources to build, and are no more defensible than any other fixed asset within range of enemy weapons. If such bases are built on enemy territory, then the territory must first be seized. If they are built on neutral or allied territory, then operations again become subject to political requirements that may be difficult to control. Warships do not suffer from these liabilities, but can approach their targets directly from international waters. Once on the scene, they can sustain operations almost indefinitely, being continuously replenished and resupplied at sea (see Box 15.2).

There can be no guarantee that such advantages will last forever. The strategic utility of a powerful navy is ultimately subject to the continuing evolution of long-range strike systems and other weapons of ‘access denial’, which are designed to hold warships so far off shore that they cannot fight effectively against an enemy on land. Such weapons are easy to envision, but they are difficult to realize in practice. In the meantime, naval forces offer a combination of striking power, speed, and flexibility that is well suited to a security environment in which threats cannot be anticipated long in advance. The ability of naval forces to perform the kind of constabulary function required in a world of brushfire conflicts and rapidly emerging crises is one of their most distinctive contributions to the contemporary world picture.p. 264

15.2Box Case Study

Gunboat Diplomacy

‘Gunboat diplomacy’ is a phrase dating from the heyday of European imperialism. It referred to the fact that colonial powers might convey their wishes to those less powerful than themselves by dispatching a warship in lieu of an ambassador, with a few rounds of gunfire substituting for the customary diplomatic note. Such practices have gone out of fashion, and the phrase with it; but the underlying reality to which it refers remains important to understanding the strategic leverage that a navy affords.

A powerful navy generally has a significant proportion of its ships at sea even in peacetime. Armies and air forces only deploy for combat when danger looms. Warships on the high seas, on the other hand, have much the same capabilities in peacetime as in time of war. They are armed and ready, and can appear wherever they can find water under their keels.

A nation that maintains significant naval forces at sea acquires significant strategic options. Warships can convey a threat, or reassure a friend, without engaging in any warlike act whatever. Because they are already ‘out there’ they are almost always the first to respond in a crisis. The speed with which warships on station can respond to trouble also helps to deter certain kinds of trouble from happening in the first place. While long-range land-based aircraft can strike anywhere, the military options they offer when they arrive on the scene are limited to either blowing something up, or not. Naval forces provide a more diverse array of choices, ranging from prolonged observation, through the delivery of an implied threat, to the conduct of air strikes and the mounting of an amphibious assault.

The ability to do such things has never been the primary reason to have a navy, but it is an important extra benefit if you have one anyway. Like any military action, the practice of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ entails risk, including that of providing adversaries with isolated targets of opportunity—a peril illustrated by the surprise attack on the USS Cole during a port visit to Yemen in October 2000. Nevertheless, warships continuously at sea are well suited to a security environment characterized by diffuse threats and rapidly emerging crises, including natural catastrophes like the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, in which the first effective humanitarian relief was delivered by warships on station in the area.

Key Points

Sailing navies achieved strategic influence mainly through their impact on international trade.

The strategic leverage of navies in war has declined in the industrial era, as continental economies have become more robust, and as the complexity of the global economy has increased.

The ability of warships to operate freely in international waters can afford direct strategic access to an opponent, which may otherwise be unavailable.

Nowadays the traditional goal of naval warfare—to ‘command the sea’—must be balanced against the comparably important challenge of projecting military power from sea to shore.

Air Power

Few human inventions have been as eagerly anticipated as the ‘flying machine’, images of which can be found in art and literature since the Renaissance. Few doubted that such a machine would find many remarkable applications in war, to the point where imagination has often outstripped reality. The history of air warfare has been shaped to an unusual degree p. 265by exaggerated expectations of one kind or another, compared to which the real capabilities of air forces have often fallen short.

Theory vs Practice

The tens of thousands of military aircraft that flew over the battlefields of the First World War did so mainly to perform reconnaissance, in the hope of getting the vast armies beneath them moving again. They possessed nothing like the range and striking power envisioned by H. G. Wells a few years before in his novel Wings (1908), in which an air armada launched from Germany devastates New York City. Technological advances rapidly increased the ability of aircraft to lift explosives off the ground, however, and by the end of the Second World War British and American air forces were wreaking havoc on a scale resembling the apocalyptic fantasies of air power enthusiasts like Giulio Douhet, whose book Command of the Air (1921) claimed that aerial bombardment would be so terrible as to bring any war to a swift conclusion.

This prediction failed to come true, however. After the dust settled, many wondered whether the aerial devastation of German and Japanese cities had not merely amplified the horrors of modern war, spreading them haphazardly among civil populations that might have been spared. The grim prophecy of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, looking at the other side of the coin, had proven equally faulty. He had told an alarmed House of Commons in 1932 that ‘the bomber will always get through’. They had not. By 1945 the Royal Air Force had suffered more casualties than the Royal Navy, testimony to something real airmen always understood: war in the air is difficult, dangerous, and disappointing, just like war everywhere else.

Air Power and Air Forces

The integration of aerial weapons into the conduct of war was the central military problem of the twentieth century. Looking backwards from the twenty-first it is apparent that a great deal was accomplished, so that a surprisingly clear and convincing picture has emerged. The frustrations of the world wars were owed partly to immature technologies, partly to the tendency of institutional interests to compromise objective analysis. The strongest advocates of air power were convinced that only independent air services, co-equal with armies and navies, could master this new method of fighting. Their desire for institutional independence led to exaggerated claims that the long-range bombardment of economic and civil infrastructure could decide the outcome of war. Such claims inspired equally exaggerated scepticism that air power was all that important. The resolution of these bureaucratic quarrels (always in favour of independent air forces), combined with the progress of technology, have given rise to a more stable picture, in which air power is featured not so much as the universal solvent of modern war, but as the all-purpose glue that makes modern combined arms operations possible (see Box 15.3).

If air power retains an independent strategic role, it is at the extreme ends of the conflict spectrum. Nuclear weapons, if they are again employed by an organized government, will almost certainly be delivered by aircraft or missiles, and it is easy to believe that their detonations, if sufficiently numerous, will render the activities of armies and navies inconsequential. More interesting, and more unexpected from the point of view of traditional air powerp. 266

15.3Box Key Perspectives

Command of the Air

Giulio Douhet was an Italian artillery officer, whose experience of stalemate in the First World War made him eager for any tactical alternative that promised a swift and decisive military result. After the war he became an important proponent of air power. He thought that the air, like the sea, could be ‘commanded’ by a superior force that would deny its use to the enemy. The passage below encapsulates his vision, whose influence is apparent in the air campaigns of the Second World War.

To have command of the air means to be in a position to prevent the enemy from flying while retaining the ability to fly oneself … An aerial fleet capable of dumping hundreds of tons of … bombs can easily be organized; therefore, the striking force and magnitude of aerial offensives, considered from the standpoint of either material or moral significance, is far more effective than those of any other offensive yet known. A nation which has command of the air is in a position to protect its own territory from enemy aerial attack and even to put a halt to the enemy’s auxiliary actions in support of his land and sea operations, leaving him powerless to do much of anything. Such offensive actions can not only cut off an opponent’s army and navy from their bases of operations, but can also bomb the interior of the enemy’s country so devastatingly that the physical and moral resistance of the people would also collapse.

Douhet (1983: 24–5).

theory, is the role of air weapons in conflicts where only limited force is required. Air power has become the main tool by which strong countries seek to coerce weak ones, for two general reasons. The first is that Stanley Baldwin’s prophecy has now come true. Bombers almost always do get through, owing to doctrinal and technological developments that allow the best air forces to suppress all but the very best air defence systems. Although any pilot flying a combat mission is undoubtedly risking his or her life, the risk is often small compared to any other comparably destructive act of war. It disappears entirely if the blow is delivered by ballistic or cruise missiles, or by unmanned ‘drones’, whose numbers and versatility have increased markedly in recent years. Bombers and missiles now strike their targets with a consistency that was scarcely imaginable in earlier times. In the world wars, aerial weapons were synonymous with indiscriminate destruction. Today they are synonymous with stealth and precision.

Coercive Bombing

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how one views the gap between peace and war, which has narrowed by virtue of the ease with which aerial strike operations can be conducted. The use of bombardment to punctuate a diplomatic demand or enforce a sanctions regime may pose little risk to the personnel involved, but the possibility that such attacks will inspire an escalatory response from the other side cannot be dismissed. The aim of violence in war is always to break the enemy’s will. Yet it may equally well harden his heart, stiffen his spine, and stimulate his imagination.

Which of these will happen is never easy to anticipate. Strategic theory concerns itself with the way political communities use (and experience) force. Strategic effectiveness is p. 267thus dependent, to some extent, on how accurately belligerents understand each other. Strategic bombing, as originally conceived, envisioned the enemy society as a single entity mobilized for war. Enemy governments were seen as authentic expressions of those societies, all of whose members were complicit in the violence of war. This view provided a moral justification and a tactical rationale for the far-reaching destruction that aerial bombardment entailed, in which damage inflicted anywhere was supposed to make itself felt everywhere. An army could be disabled without the ugly necessity of confronting its weapons, by demolishing the factories that made those weapons, along with the homes and bodies of the people who worked in the factories. Civilian deaths were not just tolerated, but sought.

Liberal democracies, at least, are inclined to think of their adversaries differently now. They no longer take the psychological unity of armed forces, state, and society for granted. On the contrary, these are now often seen as being artificially stitched together by political expediency, brute force, or some other fragile thread. The resulting seams have become the main targets of strategic bombardment in its current form. The aim of an air campaign conducted with precision weapons is to disable the government, the armed forces, and the critical infrastructure that supports them, while sparing as much of the surrounding society as possible. Apart from its greater humanity, this approach has the additional advantage of making the reconstruction and rehabilitation of a defeated enemy easier. But whether these strategic assumptions are more reliable than those that prevailed in the past is an open question. Today’s understanding of how air power works has been refined in campaigns against isolated, despotic regimes. Such experiences may have made democratic countries too quick to doubt the moral resilience of their opponents. Totalitarian and criminal regimes may be quite firmly rooted in their surrounding societies, and correspondingly difficult to coerce without inspiring the kind of escalatory reactions that lead to general war.

Key Points

The integration of aerial weapons into warfare was the dominant operational problem in the twentieth century.

Expectations about what air forces can achieve have often run ahead of what has been possible in practice.

Modern air campaigns are no longer oriented towards inflicting mass destruction, but are intended to disable an enemy government and its armed forces, while sparing the surrounding society as far as possible.

Precision weaponry has made aerial bombardment the weapon of choice for coercing concessions from a weaker enemy.

The Final Frontier: Space War

Compared to the land or the sea, the air has proven to be a remarkably permissive arena of war, at least for those who can operate there unopposed. Yet its characteristics can still p. 268be improved on. Beyond the Earth’s atmosphere lies, well, nothing. That is what space is: a perfectly transparent, friction-free environment, which has never yet been employed for any warlike purpose other than to observe and support activity on the planet’s surface below. In this regard it has acquired immense importance. Space is nothing, but it is not empty. Thousands of military and commercial satellites are already there, performing all manner of communication and reconnaissance functions, and providing the terminal guidance that has made the accuracy of major weapons systems increasingly independent of their range. Whenever we speak of ‘precision’ weapons, we are almost always talking about systems that depend, in some degree, on assets deployed in space. If the land, sea, and air forces of the United States were deprived of their ability to communicate with the space-based systems orbiting overhead, the effect would be comparable to a major battlefield defeat. To that extent, space war already exists.

Space as a Battlefield

Whether space holds strategic possibilities independent of the contribution that space-based systems already make to the conduct of war is a matter of speculation. The military use of space is governed by two international legal norms. The first holds that claims of national sovereignty do not apply beyond the Earth’s atmosphere; the second that actual weapons (as distinct from sensors and control systems) cannot be deployed there. These provisions are not so much barriers to action as reflections of a prevailing consensus. The first has contributed to the exploitation of space for reconnaissance and communications. Any country capable of launching a satellite is free to peer down on its neighbours. This arrangement contributed to the stability of strategic deterrence during the cold war, by affording the United States and the Soviet Union a high degree of confidence that each knew what the other was up to.

The ban on putting weapons in space is less a matter of perceived mutual advantage than of apparent futility. The transparency that makes space such an ideal environment for reconnaissance and communications means that weapons placed there would be highly vulnerable to detection and destruction, without offering tactical capabilities significantly different from those available on the planet’s surface. War in space could also end up creating conditions that make its continuance impossible. Once satellites take to destroying each other, the low-orbital space in which most of them operate will rapidly fill up with junk, even small bits of which pose a lethal risk to whatever working systems remain in orbit. This problem already exists, to the point where scientists have become concerned about the cascading effect that will result if existing bits of junk start smashing into each other. The immensity of space should not conceal the fact that only small slices of it are currently of practical use to humanity. Those slices are already becoming contaminated by human use.

For now, the strategic application of space appears likely to remain confined to the collection and distribution of information, for purposes of precision targeting, and for the collection of general intelligence. Challenges in the latter area lie less in collecting data than in employing it effectively. It is easier to launch satellites capable of recording every mobile phone conversation in Afghanistan, or of photographing every flatbed truck in Shanghai, than it is to field the army of Pashtun speakers and photo-analysts required to interpret the results. Those who have gone to war have always hungered for more information. Technically speaking,p. 269

Key Points

Space systems are vital to the conduct of war on land, sea, and in the air. Advanced military information systems often depend on space-based components, whose destruction would severely degrade those systems’ performance.

Fighting that involves the destruction of objects in space risks fouling the orbital environment with debris, to the point where it becomes unusable for military (or other) purposes.

So far as is publicly known, there are no weapons currently based in space.

that hunger is now on the verge of satiation. Yet the results may prove less digestible than our ancestors imagined.

War by Other Means: Cyberspace

Up to now modern war has been all about people hurling pieces of metal at each other. Its historical development has been marked by a steady increase in the size, velocity, range, variety, and lethality of the pieces. Nuclear weapons represent a modest departure from this pattern, since their destructiveness is achieved by different means. Yet they too are products of a massive metal-bashing, industrial-age infrastructure, and impose huge economic, logistical, and organizational burdens on those who employ them.

Information Warfare

What if it were otherwise? What if war could be fought without the need to store up and discharge massive amounts of kinetic energy? What would that be like? No one has the faintest idea. But the flourishing of information technology has at least removed the question from the realm of fantasy. Whether ‘cyberspace’ really deserves to be treated as an independent realm of war may be disputed. It is a wholly imaginary place, originally conceived in a work of science fiction, and now conjured up by physical systems that are no less subject to direct attack than other military or civilian objects. Yet the centrality of those systems to the conduct of war today is beyond dispute. To that extent ‘cyberwar’, like ‘space war’, already exists.

One reason information warfare has come in for so much scrutiny is the uneasy realization that complex information systems, on which even mundane military operations now depend, are unusually vulnerable to attack compared to other military assets. This is a grave problem, but it remains a tactical one, and should not be confused with the direct use of information as a strategic weapon. The latter is also readily distinguishable from propaganda (also known as ‘the war of ideas’). Strategy is not about persuasion, at least not primarily. It is about the forcible imposition of one’s will on an adversary.

‘Confusion to Our Enemies’

Whether such imposition can be accomplished by the manipulation or disruption of information alone is difficult to say. A computer virus that disabled a national stock exchange p. 270might have consequences comparable to those of a military attack. If such a blow were delivered during a ‘shooting’ war it would require no explanation, and would merely be another means by which one side sought to injure the other. On its own, a cyberattack of this kind would be difficult to exploit for strategic purposes, if only because, once its source and purpose were revealed, it might invite a conventional military response by way of rejoinder. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that information is becoming one of the ‘arms’ whose effective combination is crucial to the conduct of war. A computer terminal may not look as alarming as a warship or an M-16, but appearances can be deceiving.

Like most forms of modern warfare, information attacks seek precision. And like most new forms of fighting (think of aeroplanes) they often fail to achieve it, producing general havoc and distress whose effects may be difficult to exploit for any defined purpose. An example of successful precision is the cyberattack mounted in 2010 against the Iranian nuclear programme, by parties still officially unknown. The attackers employed a computer ‘worm’ known as Stuxnet, specifically designed to disable the control systems of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Such an effort requires a great deal of money and time, plus painstaking intelligence. If you take those things away, a cyberdevice set loose on the world might end up anywhere. In this respect information war suffers from some of the same limitations as biological warfare, which has loomed ominously on the strategic horizon for over a century without ever having been realized in practice, because its fratricidal risks have outweighed its prospective benefits. In this sense, at least, the metaphor of the ‘virus’ is well chosen.

Until now no information attack in any form has been regarded as an act of war by the victim. ‘Cyber’ weapons have so far been deployed exclusively within the gray zone of provocation, harassment, and intimidation that have always separated peace and war. Whether this will remain true is impossible to say. For now, the strategic geography of cyberspace remains terra incognita. It is a place where it is cheap to operate, and to fight undetected, provided you are willing to settle for mostly incidental confusion as your desired result. Its greatest appeal for now may be to terrorists and weak states who lack the means or opportunity to fight openly on a scale commensurate with their ambitions; who do not mind if they are not given public credit for their deeds; and who are not especially dependent on information technology themselves. For the rest, information warfare currently presents itself mainly as a defensive problem for advanced societies, and its value as a tool of strategic coercion remains unproven.

Key Points

As modern weapons have come to rely on precision sensors and advanced communications systems, the question of whether information itself may become a weapon has gained increasing attention.

The information technologies on which modern societies now rely pose an attractive target to potential adversaries, especially for those that are not particularly dependent on similar technologies.

Although attacks on or interference with information systems have become a more prominent part of international politics lately, such actions are not yet regarded as acts of war.

p. 271Conclusion

It would be naive to suppose that the expansion of war into the new and nebulous realm of cyberspace, should it occur, will have a moderating effect on its destructiveness. However and wherever war is waged—land, sea, air, space, or ‘cyberspace’—it will remain the brutal business it has always been, in which victory will go to those with the material and emotional resources required to stand the strain.



The commitment of ground forces in war appears to require a higher level of political commitment than the commitment of air and naval forces. Does this have the effect of eroding, or strengthening, the psychological barrier that separates peace and war?


If having a large and powerful navy is a good idea, why is the United States the only country that has one? Are there any circumstances under which we can expect this to change?


In peacetime, strategic decision-making often translates into decisions about how to spend money on defence. Where, between its army, navy, and air force, should an advanced society be investing its marginal defence dollars today?


Would your answer to the previous question be different for a developing nation? Or for a country like Iran or North Korea, which feels threatened by the United States?


Given that advances in precision weaponry are now entering an era of diminishing returns (after several decades of rapid advance), where should air, sea, and land forces be looking to improve their combat effectiveness?


If you could invent a new weapon, what would it do?


If you could invent a new defensive technology or system, what would it do?


Do you expect the current international consensus against placing weapons in space to continue? What kinds of developments would you expect to undermine this consensus?


Revolutionary insurgency has proven more successful in modern times than in the more remote past. Why is this? Do you expect this pattern to continue? Or would you expect that regular armed forces will eventually reassert their historical mastery of the battlefield?


Is it more helpful to think of information as a weapon in its own right, or as a means of making other weapons more effective?

Further Reading

D. Gates, Sky Wars: A History of Military Aerospace Power (London: Reaktion Books, 2003)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat covers topics from the Wright Brothers to missile defence.

P. L. Hays, B. J. Vallance , and A. R. Van Tassell (eds), Spacepower for a New Millennium: Space and US National Security (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat discusses the strategic exploitation of space.

G. J. Rattray, Strategic Warfare in Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat looks beyond tactical issues to consider the strategic implications of information warfare.

H. Strachan, European Armies and the Conduct of War (London: Routledge, 1988)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat is a survey of the history of war on the continent where it first achieved modern form.

G. Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (London: Frank Cass, 2004)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat offers an up-to-date introduction.

p. 272Web Links

The Federation of American Scientists is a comprehensive site dealing with defence planning and technology.

The National Security Archive of George Washington University is an online repository of documents and commentary pertaining to strategic issues.

Global Security is exceptionally strong on weapons and other military systems.

Air University Bibliographies offers hundreds of specialized bibliographies on topics relevant to the study of war, strategy, and international politics.

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