Precision Strike Technology Goes Global

Surviving a world of diffuse precision strike is a strategic and organizational problem for the US military.

Stepping briefly out of the debate over AirSea Battle, there has been some excellent recent work on the strategic implications of the diffusion of precision-strike technologies. In the summer issue of Parameters, Conrad Crane warns about the attractiveness of long range precision-strike, a warning that could serve for the allure of airpower more generally.

Crane’s piece works as a nice commentary on Barry Watts’ recent monograph on the history of precision strike (short version here). Watts makes an excellent point: the United States has, in practice, led the precision strike field, virtually to the exclusion of all other players.  There are examples in which United States forces have been subjected to certain forms of precision strike, but these are few and far between.

The concern apparent in Watts’ monograph is the increasing lethality of Chinese precision-strike systems. Conventional Chinese weapons can now, or will in the short future be able to, destroy or disable the most sophisticated and advanced U.S. systems with conventional payloads.  The premise is fragility; Chinese precision systems can threaten the ability of the USN and USAF to adequately respond to the PLAN and the PLAAF by destroying or disabling critical elements of the U.S. strategic military system, thus inducing system failure.

But what makes the system fragile?  Arguments differ; on the one hand, losing a carrier might be too much for political and military authorities to bear, thus leading to a strategic decision not to intervene. Precision threat uncovers strategic vulnerability that undermines the capacity of the system to function. On the other hand, precision strike (on a target such as Guam) might undercut the actual operational capacity of the U.S. military to fight a campaign. And so it’s worth investigating how enemy precision-strike platforms actually threaten to undercut American military power.

On the strategic point, part of the concern surely involves casualties, and enduring worry that casualties tend to undercut war support.  What President would risk 6,000 American lives to intervene in a dispute between China and Japan? However, it’s less than clear from the empirical evidence that casualty counts actually do undercut political support for war objectives; the sinking of an aircraft carrier might, depending on the circumstances, further commit the American public to a war. From an organizational perspective, we could expect U.S. admirals to be deeply reluctant to commit a carrier into risky situations, but then the higher order capabilities of the USN are increasingly oriented towards the possibility of fighting China.

On the operational side, we don’t have a lot of good examples of modern military organizations being shredded by precision-guided munitions. The concern is that attacks on critical points, whether infrastructure, communications, or key capabilities, could severely undercut organizational effectiveness, thus rendering U.S. advantages worthless. However, most of our experience with strike against complex systems (for example, the German economy in World War II) seems to indicate that complexity produces redundancy and stability instead of fragility; people who know how to solve problems are hard to precision-strike, and they represent the real center of gravity for an organization.

For two decades, precision-guided munitions have given the United States the freedom to intervene wherever it wishes. The diffusion of such systems may finally be reining that freedom in, at least where China is concerned, and thinking about how to survive a world of diffuse precision strike is a strategic and organizational problem. It’s surely worth noting that the concern about enemy long-range precision strike is what animates the most politically objectionable aspects of AirSea Battle, the desire to attack Chinese launchers that threaten American aircraft carriers and regional bases. However, it may still be too soon to panic over the strategic relevance of China’s precision weapons; as suggested, complexity has its own virtues.