The Diplomat has hosted some interesting recent conversations about strategy, conversations that intersect with my own interests on the relationships between military institutions and strategic effect. “Strategy” is a notoriously slippery term that often seems to serve simply as a blunt rhetorical instrument. Nevertheless, it might help to try to break down how air, sea, and land forces have traditionally conceived of the relationship between strategy and victory. My starting point is that strategy should be about constraining, to the greatest extent possible, the voting rights of the enemy.
Historically, airpower has employed an assertive definition of strategic decision. Classical airpower theorists (such as Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and others) viewed strategic airpower as the capacity to destroy enemy state capacity without destroying the enemy’s fielded military forces. Strategic air attacks against cities would either induce state collapse by undermining the confidence of the population, bring about the collapse of the organized military, or some combination of the two. Neo-classical airpower theory (most notably in the form of John Warden’s “Five Rings” theory) held much the same view, with some sophisticated tweaks.
Less… enthusiastic visions of airpower have focused on the role that airpower can play in setting the terms for decisive battle (weakening fielded enemy forces, destroying enemy logistics and communications) and in providing direct tactical support for friendly land and sea forces. Under these terms, the strategic contribution of airpower is not independent, but rather as part of strategic landpower and seapower.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Seapower has historically had a different conception of strategic decision. As Jim Holmes notes, Julian Corbett described the navy as a facilitator of decisive results, rather than an executor. The navy could only hope to produce an environment in which the army had the best chance of disarming and breaking the will of the enemy. I dissent a bit from Holmes’ description of Mahan; I read Mahan more as suggesting that achieving a decisive political decision is less important in the long run than maintaining control of the sea, through which the fruits of empire will flow.
What about strategic landpower? In one sense, all land power is strategic; physical control over territory is, after all, what states do, and armies have long represented the pointy end of the state. Land power also has the (nearly) unique capability to disarm an enemy and enforce certain political outcomes, such as the establishment of a new regime or the transfer of a province. Destroying the military forces of an enemy and depriving the enemy’s government of access to territory has strategic effect, even if the goals are formulated in tactical and operational terms.
And so formulated thusly, Allied strategic seapower in World War II constrained Japanese options by limiting Japanese mobility and cutting Japan off from critical resources. Allied strategic airpower sought to destroy the industrial and social foundations of the Japanese state, thereby inducing either collapse or surrender. Coalition strategic landpower claimed direct, terrestrial control over key geographic points, and (crucially) threatened to deny the Japanese state control over China, Korea, and its own national territory. In the end, Japanese voting options were so constrained that the government chose acquiescence over destruction.
Strategic aims are asymmetric; Japanese air and sea power focused on limiting Allied access to Southeast Asia by destroying U.S., British, and Dutch naval forces (similar to what we would expect from Chinese air and sea power, only with the Japanese and Koreans perhaps replacing the Dutch and British), while Japanese landpower sought to unseat the colonial regimes and the disagreeable governments in Chongqing and Yenan. The Japanese were never, however, able to sufficiently constrain the “voting” capabilities of their enemies.
Strategy: It’s about preventing the enemy from voting early or often.