S’pose for the sake of discussion that war constitutes “our best option” in the long-running nuclear standoff with Iran. If so, proponents of military action sound remarkably tepid advocating it. They set expansive goals—terminating or setting back the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-weapons program—yet quail at the martial ways and means it would take to achieve goals of such sweep. If you balk at the means, chances are the ends will slip your grasp.
Think about it. Military strategy is a matter of seizing control of something, whether that something happens to be a parcel of ground, a group of people, or what have you. And it’s about keeping control long enough to win. Stationing superior armed might at key places on the map for as long as it takes, then, is how strategy succeeds. And since wars are ultimately about what transpires on land, soldiers or marines packing heat are the true arbiters of wartime control.
And yet few Iran hawks are agitating for a ground offensive, the surest and most direct route to victory. Heck, is anyone? That leaves air power augmented by cruise-missile strikes as the default option. Trouble is, the soldier comes and stays; warplanes come, dump their ordnance, and go. Strategic thinkers, accordingly, warn against conflating the ability to destroy from the air with the ability to control from the air. Air forces excel at the former, disappoint at the latter.
By its nature, then, aerial bombardment comprises an indispensable adjunct to military strategy. For instance, pummeling enemy ground-pounders from aloft can widen friendly forces’ margin of supremacy, helping them exert control—and fulfill their operational and strategic aims. Seldom, though, is air power decisive as a stand-alone strategy.No matter what its boosters tell you, military aviation’s advent a century ago didn’t inaugurate some novus ordo seclorum of the sky.
So it’s doubtful an air campaign can bring about a non-nuclear Iran all by itself. By capping the means available to commanders, backers of an air campaign increase the likelihood of a lackluster result. In a sense this is a bass-ackwards approach to combat. Statesmen normally limit war by political aims. In other words, they don’t demand everything. They refrain from trying to unseat the antagonist’s regime or crush his armed forces altogether. They settle for something more, well, limited.
Sometimes the bass-ackwards method works. It’s possible to wage war by “contingent,” limiting an endeavor by the means allocated. In effect officialdom assigns commanders a “disposal force” of modest scale and instructs them to make as much trouble as they can on the cheap. In the case of an Iran offensive, air forces would constitute the contingent. Doubtless U.S. airmen and rocketeers could make serious mischief for Tehran.
But here’s the thing: it takes more than mischief-making to win. A war-by-contingent is a secondary venture that bends the course of an all-out war in one’s favor. Sparta dispatched advisers to Sicily to counsel Syracuse on how to combat an Athenian invasion. Wellington’s army imposed a second, irregular-warfare front on Napoleon in Portugal and Spain. Such efforts sap an enemy’s resources and morale. No one expects troublemaking around the periphery to defeat him outright.
What Iran hawks propose, then, amounts to a war-by-contingent without the larger war. That’s an unpromising strategic vision. What if Washington proceeds with air action anyway? Well, compelling an opponent to surrender something important involves raining “blow after blow” on “centers of gravity” such as the military, warmaking materiel, or alliance support. Give the foe no respite. Slacken the tempo or pull your punches and you reduce his incentive to accept terms.
Aviators typically strike at targets dispersed on the map. That blunts the shock effect of any single blow. Consequently, the best way to stun an opponent into acquiescence is to hammer as many targets as possible at once. If you can’t concentrate forces in space to pound away, the best substitute is to concentrate offensive actions in time for psychological effect.
Air warfare must convince Iranian leaders that capitulating to American terms represents their least painful option. That’s asking a lot considering how much Tehran—and the body politic—treasure the nuclear option. Landing hammerblows on many targets at a time offers the best prospects for success from the air. Go big, go fast, keep up the pressure—and think about what comes next should the air campaign fall short.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. He is RCD’s new national security columnist. The views voiced here are his alone.