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Air Power: A Personal Theory of Power

This is a post in the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

There is insight in exploring the unique advantages of each domain. And the speed, reach, height, ubiquity, agility, and concentration advantages of air power allow us to focus on how best it can be used.[1] This essay will contrast the usage of air warfare via annihilation and attrition to highlight a third way, paralysis. One of the principal advantages of air power is its ability to create the temporal effect of paralysis. While it is not wholly unique from other forms of power in this capacity, it is better at it than most due to the combination of its unique advantages. Admittedly, this is a narrow look at paralysis via air power, but one that demands a point of departure from previous conceptualizations of its factors and uses.

Defining Air Power

The definition of air power has eluded strategists since man first tasted flight. The most important aspect of defining is that we must avoid conflation with niche capabilities, missions, or even processes that are related to its practice. “To be adequate,” as Colin Gray suggests, “a characterization or definition of air power must accommodate, end to end, the total process that produces a stream of combat and combat support aircraft.”[2] My definition of air power is the act of achieving strategic effect via the air.[3] Air power contributes to compounded strategic effect via annihilation, attrition, and paralysis.

Categorization and Explanation

Hans Delbrück, in History of the Art of War, describes two Clausewitzian strategies of warfare. The first is focused upon the annihilation of one’s adversary. The second, exhaustion, is more circumspect in its limited aims. Both are clearly subordinate to the idea that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.”[4] Delbrück extended these into Niederwerfungsstrategie (the strategy of annihilation) and Ermattungsstrategie (the strategy of exhaustion, attrition). The former’s sole aim is the decisive battle, where the latter is understood to have more than one concern, which is a spectrum between both battle and maneuver with the aim of exhausting the adversary. Delbrück’s History suggests that neither annihilation nor exhaustion are inferior to one another, and that attrition is not the mere avoidance of battle. But he was emphatic that these strategies were subordinate and subject to the Clausewitzian general theory.[5]

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948. (Wikimedia Commons)





While Clausewitz was, of course, focused on the land domain, air power has proven useful in both annihilation and attrition. The Desert Storm “Highways of Death” provides a useful example of the application of air power towards annihilation. And the best example of air power’s application of attrition is one where it denied exhaustion: the Berlin airlift, with over 277,000 flights in a period of 15 months lifted 2.3 million total tons of supplies. In either case, was the application of air power uniquely responsible for strategic effect? No. In both cases — and in most every case — other forms of power aided the outcome via force, or the threat of force. But outside the Delbrückian dichotomy, there is a third way for to create strategic effect — paralysis.

…the lasting effect of paralysis, like shock, is fleeting. A permanent state of paralysis is an unsustainable (and unacceptable) political objective…

The strength of air power in the combination of speed, reach, height, ubiquity, agility, and concentration also enables a fleeting form of influence in paralysis. This strategic categorization is analogous to the tactical categorization of firepower, maneuver, and shock. Where at the strategic level firepower is exhaustive and maneuver is destructive, shock seeks temporal paralysis. Paralysis is the aim to disrupt, disable, and degrade an adversary’s physical, mental, and ultimately moral capacities. The aim of such a strategy is never an end in itself; it merely seeks to minimize destruction without precluding such action.[6] Thus, the lasting effect of paralysis, like shock, is fleeting. A permanent state of paralysis is an unsustainable (and unacceptable) political objective, and its diminishing strategic effect is reinforced by empirical examination of history. This straightforward admission occurs naturally because adversaries are not inanimate objects subject to one fell swoop, but adaptive duelists constantly seeking advantage against one another.[7]

Theorists of Paralysis: John R. Boyd (L) & John A. Warden (R) (via POGO.com & Wikimedia Commons) Boyd’s theories of paralysis were more descriptive, vice Warden’s theories of paralysis are more generally associated with a more prescriptive form. Both theorized that paralysis had more enduring effect than outlined in this work.


Whether air power is seeking to influence non-cooperative centers of gravity via an overwhelming tempo and variety of action,[8] or complicate the adversary’s “connectedness” by seeking a degree of isolation between its leadership, organic essentials, infrastructure, population, and fielded forces,[9] paralysis has always lacked in attaining or achieving control.[10] However, this does not preclude strategies of temporal paralysis as essential precursor to, or pivot between, the strategies of annihilation or attrition where control can ultimately be achieved. In this manner, paralysis has shown some cumulative merit in exacerbating the cognitive problem posed to an adversary because it attacks their ability to understand the character of the threat they face.[11]

Paralysis and the Laplacian Fallacy in Real War

Information and knowledge are imperfect and outcomes are not predictable. This thought contrasts Pierre Simon de Laplace, who by extension of Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy suggested that the motion of heavenly bodies were mechanistic and determined completely by physical law. If you knew where one object was, you also knew where it was going in a predictable manner. Such Laplacian science cannot be effectively extended to war, as war cannot be mechanistically engineered.[12] The Clausewitzian axiom of general friction, that which “makes the apparently easy so difficult,” cannot be wished away by mechanistic approaches to war.[13]

The proper approach in seeking paralysis acknowledges the sub-optimal character of complexity, where simplicity is favored over ideals of greater effectiveness. Through this approach, one refuses the lure of the silver bullet or the bolt from the blue, but exchanges these for a more humble magnification of the adversary’s friction via mismatch, deception, disruption, and overload. The proper foundation of temporal paralysis is built upon the proposition that “actions taken to drive up the adversary’s friction are as vital to success as those taken to minimize your own.”[14]

The temporal advantage of paralysis is subjective to context and tied to chance, but not withstanding these practical limits, it is still extremely useful for transitioning to a complementary strategy of either annihilation or attrition, or both in parallel. This is why air forces have become accustomed to being the major — although not the sole — military force in garnering the strategic initiative in campaigns (or Phase II operations in doctrinal parlance of the American way of battle). Whether the outcome of that phasing construct is to compel de-escalation via the threat or use of additional joint force, or transition to the assertion of a degree of control via other forces as described above, it is still a priceless strategic advantage to have control of the air. Without a degree of control of the air, as a necessary but solely insufficient condition, escalation dominance is stunted and the final strategic outcome placed at risk.[15]

The ultimate consideration for deciding upon a strategy of paralysis via air power is whether or not it is prudently feasible for use. In at least two situations, it is not.

Anticipation of Paralysis

Centres of Gravity from “Nothing New Under the Sun Tzu: Timeless Principles of the Operational Art of War” by CDR Jacques P. Olivier from Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter 2013, p. 57.


The ultimate consideration for deciding upon a strategy of paralysis via air power is whether or not it is prudently feasible for use. In at least two situations, it is not. In those contexts where center of gravity analysis is counterproductive or made counterproductive and when your war aims are mismatched against an adversary seeking an unlimited aim.

The former becomes problematic when the concept of the center of gravity becomes as Antullio Echevarria suggests, “an article of faith.” This is further exacerbated when disagreement occurs on the basis of epistemic rationality, which is logic founded on faith, typically from doctrinaire point of view. Finally, these problems are further compounded when a truly mechanistic approach is taken in center of gravity analysis that is tantamount to a “center of critical capability” analysis.[16]

The latter is problematic for paralysis on an empirical basis. Paralysis has typically performed poorly in protracted, internecine, and civil wars. One needs look no further than the recent counterinsurgencies to grip the truth of this. In these examples of war the “centers of conflict themselves tend to remain highly dispersed and deceptively diffused,” according to Echevarria, where under “such conditions, time often benefits the less technologically sophisticated adversary.”[17] As discussed above, such forms of war tend to obscure the true character of the threat sufficiently to mitigate the effectiveness of paralysis.[18]


While there are few truly unique aspects of domain-specific forms of power, each form has advantages that make it exceptional from others. For air power, that is speed, reach, height, ubiquity, agility, and concentration, which combine to provide it exceptional flexibility and versatility. While air power has demonstrably contributed to strategic effect via the strategies of annihilation and attrition, it has also done so via temporal paralysis. However, this transitory strategy is not conferred unlimited agency. Rather, temporal paralysis via air power is always subject to context and must never be applied mechanistically. It should be prudently avoided in cases where the adversary seeks unlimited aims. Finally, temporal paralysis is not inferior to its kindred strategies of war, annihilation and attrition.

[1] Colin S Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press, Air Force Research Institute, 2012), 280, 281, accessed September 19, 2013.

[2] Colin S. Gray, Explorations in Strategy (Westport, Conn.; London: Praeger, 1998), 63.

[3] According to Colin Gray in The Strategy Bridge, “Strategic effect refers to the consequences of behavior upon an enemy. The effect can be material, psychological, or both.”

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 69.

[5] Gordon Alexander Craig, “Delbrück: The Military Historian,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 341–342; Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 87, 594, 607–608, 610.

[6] David S. Fadok, “John Boyd and John Warden: Airpower’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis,” in The Paths Of Heaven: The Evolution Of Airpower Theory, ed. Phillip S. Meilinger (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 359, accessed February 6, 2014.

[7] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 75, 77, 79.

[8] Fadok, “Airpower’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis,” 363–370; Frans PB Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Routledge, 2006). Fadok, “Airpower’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis,” 363–370; Osinga, Science, Strategy and War.

[9] Fadok, “Airpower’s Quest for Strategic Paralysis,” 370–379.

[10] Antulio J. Echevarria, “Fusing Airpower and Land Power in the Twenty-First Century: Insights from the Army after Next,” Airpower Journal (Fall 1999): 69. Ibid.; J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick, N.J.,: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 23–29, 42–48, 71; Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect, 74.

[11] Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2 (January 18, 2012): 236.

[12] Barry D. Watts, The Foundations of U.S. Air Doctrine: The Problem of Friction in War (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University, December 1984), 106–107, 109, 110, accessed September 1, 2013.

[13] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 119–121.

[14] Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 166–172; Watts, The Foundations of US Air Doctrine, 119–121.

[15] Gray, Airpower for Strategic Effect, 284–285.

[16] Antulio J. Echevarria, “Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity Legacy,” Infinity Journal, Clausewitz & Contemporary Conflict (February 2012): 5–7.

[17] Echevarria, “Fusing Airpower and Land Power in the Twenty-First Century,” 69.

[18] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 236, 240.

The Sacking of Rome Week: 16 June

4e5201be347f95a9741d5855b6592ad9161724ddWith the Quadrennial Defense Review recently completed, it is important to delve deeper into the United States’ strategic vulnerabilities. The QDR calls for a ‘rebalancing’ to address a ‘broader spectrum of conflict,’ but just how broad might that spectrum be? From what angle might an attacker seek to strike, undermine, or destroy the United States or its global order –  what means might they employ?


In order to foster a discussion on threats to American power and influence in the 21st century, CIMSEC is organizing a theme week entitled ‘The Sacking of Rome’. When Hannibal crossed the Alps, it was an extraordinary event, a paradigm shift for that period in warfare. To assess the preparedness of the US/allied military, our diplomatic institutions, and our global order – we invite you to submit articles discussing ideas that might seem just as outlandish and off-the-wall in the modern context. How might US or NATO forces be defeated in a confrontation at the operational, tactical, or even strategic levels? What vulnerabilities could be exploited so as to undermine US influence globally or in a particular region? What are constructive ideas to answering those challenges? How would we stop you?


Articles will be published on the CIMSEC website through the week of June 16-21. Please submit your completed drafts by Friday, June 13th at 22:00 EST. Submissions or proposals can be submitted via e-mail to Paul Pryce (paul.l.pryce@gmail.com) or Matthew Hipple (matthipple@gmail.com).


We look forward to your contributions, be you Gothic marauder, Volscian sympathizer, or simply a concerned Roman citizen.

Sea Control 37 – Personal Theories of Power

seacontrol2CIMSEC and The Bridge have been coordinating on a collection of articles on the personal theories of power for several uniform service members, defense professionals, and academics.  I sit down with, Dave Lyle, Rich Ganske, and Nate Finney, three other writers from the series, to discuss the nature of power, some of the theories from our collection, and the utility of such discussion.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 37 – Personal Theories of Power

Speaking of theories of power… remember, CIMSEC is running our “Sacking of Rome” series starting 16 June! Instead of talking about securing the commons, maintaining global security… using historic examples, modern-day developments, or predictions of the future, red-team the global system and develop constructive answers to your campaign. If you were an adversary, how would you seek to subvert or tear down the global system and how could we stop you? Paul Pryce is our editor for the week: (paul.l.pryce -at- gmail.com).

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Vietnam Set to Receive Japanese Patrol Boats Next Year

Vietnam’s Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told Reuters on Monday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that the country expects to receive patrol boats from Japan early next year.

This is the first timeline provided by either side, where as recently as Friday at the same conference Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said only that Japan was “moving forward with the necessary survey to enable us to provide such vessels to Vietnam.”

Japan’s assistance comes as both nations engage with China in high-stakes territorial rows over disputed islands and their attendant Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) – Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the East China Sea, and Vietnam over the Paracels/Xishas in the South China Sea.

Vietnam’s lack of capacity to defend its claimed EEZ was highlighted when it unsuccessfully tried to disrupt the operations of a Chinese oil rig moved into waters off of Zhongjian Island in the Paracels last month, sparking water cannon battles, collisions, and the sinking of a fishing vessel.

Patrol-boat aid for Vietnam has been on Japan’s agenda since at least late 2013. Vietnam reportedly sought 10 Japanese patrol boats as early as April last year, and Abe confirmed in December that the two nations were in talks over a deal. The exact number of patrol boats, their specifications, and whether they would be procured through a Japanese-secured soft loan have not been confirmed.

AbeLast week, Abe told the Japanese Diet that Japan would be unable to provide Vietnam with used, likely more-capable coast guard vessels in the near term due to its own need for maritime capabilities in the current environment. Abe at the time made no mention of the provision of new vessels for Vietnam, although he had agreed in March to send a survey team to the country to research the possibility of a donation.

While it is unclear which maritime departments within Vietnam would receive the vessels, Hanoi took the step in October of transferring the Vietnam Marine Police from the Navy to the Coast Guard to make it eligible for the vessels under Japan’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) rules which prohibit aid from use for military purposes.

Japan has in recent years agreed to other patrol boat “gifts” to Southeast Asian nations. In 2007, it provided three new 27 meter patrol vessels to Indonesia and agreed last July to provide ten 40-meter vessels to the Philippines, slated to begin arriving in the Philippines in the third quarter of 2015. While the Philippines deal is also called a donation, the vessels are being procured through a $184 million soft loan announced in December.

In addition to patrol boats, Japan has over the past decade engaged in a variety of programs aimed at boosting the maritime capabilities of Southeast Asian nations, including counter-piracy, search and rescue, and maritime domain awareness training and assets.

Maritime capacity building aid for Vietnam has been forthcoming from the United States as well. In December U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would give Vietnam $18 million to develop its maritime capacity, including funds earmarked for five fast patrol boats, and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard have increased training engagements with the nation since 2010.

In April, Abe and President Obama released a joint statement affirming their joint commitment to, “assist Southeast Asian littoral states in building maritime domain awareness and other capacities for maritime safety and security so that they can better enforce law, combat illicit trafficking and weapons proliferation, and protect marine resources.

Seen as a dual-purpose effort to maintain regional stability by enhancing sea lanes defenses against maritime crime and boosting the deterrence capabilities of those in territorial disputes with China, the partnership is likely to manifest itself in future coordination in the region.

LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

This article was cross-posted in coordination with USNI News.