All posts by John Kuehn

Reconsidering the American Way of Strategy

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By John T. Kuehn


The ship of state that we call the United States is adrift at the political-strategic level or what some may call the grand strategic level. 24-hour news cycles, a president (and Congress) addicted to tweeting and posturing, an ambivalent and often ignorant public, and a complete failure by the national and sometimes international media to discern what is of value from what is pabulum has led to strategic gridlock in the foreign policy of the United States.

First, there are two caveats that must be addressed. The first caveat acknowledges that these ideas regarding a strategy for the United States of America are wholly unoriginal and derivative from those of Barry Posen, principally those in his article “Command of the Commons” (2002) and his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), and similarly focuses on concepts like grand strategy, command of the commons, and “liberal hegemony” (defined below).1 Secondly, ideas “on strategy” comes from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Book Three of that work addresses what we today call operational art more than it does grand strategy, but the elements of thinking about strategy at that level are not significantly different from thinking about it at the higher levels.2

On Strategy

A cursory structural examination of On War’s section “on strategy” reveals that when one turns to the index the first thing one reads is a list of topics, including a discussion of just what strategy is, or strategy as Clausewitz defines it. In today’s terminology Clausewitz expounds on campaign strategy, i.e. operational art at the operational level of warfare. Next, Clausewitz addresses some factors one does not normally associate with strategy writ large: virtue, moral factors, and things like boldness and “perseverance” (patience). Clausewitz is really discussing the attributes of the military strategist, although perhaps his comments can be extrapolated up the levels of war to the policy strategist in charge of overall events and national well-being or even survival. It closes, after a review of essentially Jominian operational considerations, on what might seem an odd pair of notes: “the character of contemporary war” and a discussion of “tension and rest.”3

These last two have particular importance for today because they get us from the operational level to what is normally now thought of as the strategic, or even grand strategic, level—the levels where ends are decided and acted upon. First the issue of tension and rest: “…in most campaigns, periods of inaction and repose have been much longer than periods of action.”4 This supports the claim made here that Clausewitz’s strategy here is really minor strategy, or campaign strategy. He is referring to the concept of culmination of action in war and that sooner or later exhaustion occurs at which point overt military activity (combat) diminishes or ceases while the protagonists build up combat power, will, political will, or all of the above to resume active operations. This has real implications for American policy today since the U.S. military has figured out how to keep the operational train moving with little suspension of action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria and Yemen. It has also figured out how, by using an all-volunteer force, unmanned aerial systems (i.e. “drones”), long range missiles (Tomahawks), and Special Forces to continue to get around this “dynamic law of war.” The naval aspect here is particularly important because U.S. naval forces have, since World War II, been primarily used for the purposes of power projection, not sea control or large scale fleet actions. This in turn has caused the application of naval power to be “a part of the problem” of maintaining the status quo of “permanent war for permanent peace.”

The U.S. military – and one must include CIA drone warfare and naval forces as mentioned above – keeps operations relatively constant, albeit at low levels, but still lethal. Interestingly, this steady state of activity does little to achieve long term political results and in Afghanistan in particular has led to what may be called a “declining status quo.” That is, a situation that over time gets worse. This is because the enemy – the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS)—all in Afghanistan, do not violate this law. They suspend operations and rest and then apply the tension at times and places of their choosing, slowly sapping the political will of their much more powerful, but ironically impotent, foes. They fight each other, too, but nonetheless they obey the law while “we” violate it. A similar dynamic is also witnessed in the ongoing conflicts in East Ukraine as well as the Syrian Civil War and a number of other conflicts around the globe in Asia and Africa.

Which brings us to Clausewitz’s second-to-last, and perhaps most compelling chapter in his book on operational strategy—which is what we can now properly characterize it as. He discusses the “character of contemporary warfare” in his day. The lesson here is not to draw lessons from Bonaparte’s 1812 Russian campaign, as he does in order to set up his law of “tension and rest,” but rather to tell the prospective operational artist or strategist that he or she, too, must assess the contemporary character of warfare as they craft a campaign strategy. He contrasts the nearly absolute wars of his day with those more limited wars of previous times: “Wars waged by both sides to the full extent of their national strength must be conducted on different principles from war in which policy was based on the comparative size of regular armies.”6 The lesson for today is that the character of contemporary wars must be assessed, on all sides – not just both sides since most wars these days have multiple protagonists, not a clearly delineated Axis versus Allies paradigm as in World War II.  

The strategist must study contemporary warfare along with the other things Clausewitz says he must develop (patience and boldness) or study of the enemy (threats). This means understanding not just warfare locally, but one’s own cultural context for war. Perhaps the key character of contemporary American warfare — as opaque as it is to the majority of the American public — is that it is maintained by a political will unconnected to most Americans, in other words they are choices made by policy elites, choices most Americans either feel unable to affect or simply do not care about. This is dangerous. It cedes the initiative at the strategic level to the enemies we have chosen to engage with. Simply, policy elites have more skin in the game. It also increases the chance that the strategist will make choices disconnected from national interests and policies and more narrowly focused on the biases and preferences of the strategist himself. This also opens the door for irrational forces associated with emotions and neuroses of the strategist, rather than rational policy considerations, to influence decision-making. As Clausewitz emphasizes in his “fascinating trinity,” war is a team sport, not a solo event or just for a group of special insiders.7

Strategic Restraint

Here is where we bring in Barry Posen’s ideas about grand strategic restraint. First we must understand what he argues against. He does this by clearly outlining the existing grand strategy of the United States as something he calls liberal hegemony — and not a mild form either, but an aggressive, proactive form that emerged with the end of the Cold War. However, in the 1990s it was a more moderate form of what we have today. 9/11 caused a group of policy makers known as neoconservatives to adopt the more extreme elements of a liberal hegemonist agenda: muscular cooperative security and something Posen labels “military primacy.”8 Cooperative security was manifested, especially during the Clinton Administration, by the expansion and employment of NATO in the 1990s. Those who doubt this should consult Operations SHARP GUARD (Adriatic Sea 1993-1996), DELIBERATE FORCE (Bosnia 1995), and ALLIED FORCE (Kosovo 1999 ). More recently the implications of NATO’s expansion to include nations along the Baltic littoral have influenced how U.S. naval officers have had to think about meeting NATO obligations in that body of water with U.S. naval forces to continue the status quo of power projection. This has further stressed the capabilities of the U.S. Navy in ways that policy elites had not anticipated, nor adjusted force structure in the long term to address.

The NATO 1990s air campaigns highlight Posen’s second component—military primacy. But this primacy most forcefully manifested itself after 9/11. It was then demonstrated again with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Even so, it had been conceived of years earlier, by President George H.W. Bush:

“Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration…and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.9

Liberal hegemony characterized by the maintenance of military primacy is the source of many of our problems vis-à-vis contemporary warfare. As long as this remains the policy of the United States, and there is nothing coming out of the current Trump administration to indicate otherwise, this is the United States’ strategy, like it or not.

So what is the way ahead? It all begins with persuasion. People made these decisions and people will make decisions that can ameliorate and perhaps get the United States to a position of relative “rest” in the current global system. Current moderation of strategy may be temporary and we could only be one crisis away in today’s 24-hour news cycle from another iteration of the more extreme approach in use since the end of the Cold War. Making restraint a habit takes time and practice.

Good News Bad News

A position that has merit is to return to the policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) of the 1930s, armed neutrality with a build-up of naval and air forces to dominate the air and sea commons around the North American continent. Additionally, he was willing to make America serve as the “arsenal of democracy” to support those states who needed it against totalitarian and militaristic regimes.10 It was not his fault those states badly mismanaged the problem posed by the Axis causing FDR to more forcefully plan for war. Yes, FDR did not have to deal with intercontinental ballistic missiles, but during the Cold War the U.S. had some “good enough” strategies in place to manage this very scary scenario. But it is best managed by engagement with Russia, China, and even North Korea. Setting aside the nuclear case, let us return to the idea of “command of the commons” by primarily naval and air forces.11 That means efforts to better command, or influence, the space, air, ocean, and cyber commons. There is plenty to do in these domains, little of which requires “boots on the ground.”

However, liberal hegemony in its current state is looking more like “illiberal hegemony”—a reference of course to the rise of demagoguery and authoritarian personalities in traditionally democratic states. Said another way, U.S. grand strategy is on autopilot because of the current, self-induced presidential crises. Thus, the diplomatic-military-congressional-industrial complex continues doing what it was doing—maintaining liberal hegemony via primacy and cooperative security— and keeping its head down in Washington while servicing its agendas abroad.12 Meanwhile, policy elites bemoan a false change in U.S. strategy, claiming that restraint, or neutrality, or whatever one wishes to call it, has lost ground for the U.S. globally, first under President Obama and now accelerates with Donald Trump’s election.13 What has lost the U.S. ground globally is 16 years of indecisive and expensive military operations combined with an ongoing leadership crisis in Washington, not that leadership’s change of the current strategy. Posen himself has said as much in a recent interview.14 

A metaphor will help explain the situation. The current “ship of state” for the U.S. is like an aircraft carrier that has lost the ability to control its steering from the bridge, and changing course from the bowels of the ship in auxiliary control (auxcon) has not occurred, thus the momentum of the current strategy continues to keep the ship on its last commanded heading — the failing and failed strategies of the past. There is no way to give orders to the helm to change the course of the ship of state on the bridge by the captain (president) — and no one has any idea how to regain control, some in fact prefer the rudderless ship.

Now for some good news — ironically, the ongoing loss of presidential power is a positive force for actually empowering changing the course from below.15 But there must be a will to change course “from below,” that is by the people executing (and making) policy in Congress as well as in the various executive bureaucracies. Donald Trump’s loss of power undermines effective execution of the strategy to some degree, but it does not change it. First we must admit that the overall strategy is misplaced. That is going to take some doing and it is not going to happen quickly. Thus, today’s strategists in America must get their heads out of the operational sands overseas, and turn their attention to the policy debates and battlefields back home.


Deploying three aircraft carrier groups into a sea-denial environment in the Sea of Japan—as was recently the case vis-à-vis North Korea—is not the best use of U.S. resources. Never, at any point in time has the leadership of the Navy been in a better position to drive strategy from below by dissenting on these meaningless, some might even call them reckless, displays of naval power. Admirals John Richardson (the CNO) and Admiral Harry Harris (PACOM) could set an example, and perhaps educate the civilian leadership (Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster) in shepherding liberal hegemony by “just saying no.” They may be relieved in any case because of all the high profile Navy accidents, so why not make it count for something?16 Perhaps the Navy, and the nation, need another “revolt of the admirals,” as was seen in 1949 when the strategic ship of state was on the wrong heading.17 We do not need to create new frameworks and theories of strategy. We do need to think through the wisdom that is sitting already on our bookshelves and in the past. It is not too late to change course, if only we would. A good place to start is with naval forces. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, this might no longer be true.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is a former naval aviator, retiring as a Commander from the U.S. Navy in 2004. He is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Dr. Kuehn was awarded the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, A Military History of Japan (2014), and Napoleonic Warfare (2015). His latest book is America’s First General Staff.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] Barry R. Posen,  Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), xii; see also Posen, “Command of the C)ommons, The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer, 2003): 5-46.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz,  On War, edited by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 175; see also Clausewitz, “Two letters on Strategy,” located at (accessed 11 June 2017).

[3] Clausewitz, On War, vi, 177, 184, 186, 220-221.

[4] Clausewitz, 221.

[5] This discussion based on recent scholarship by the author on the organizational culture of the US Navy, soon to be published as a chapter on the Navy since 1941 in anthology edited by Peter Mansoor and Williamson Murray by Cambridge University Press; the permanent war for permanent peace reference comes from Michael Howard’s discussion of Immanuel Kant’s ideas on collective security in War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Clausewitz, 89.  “Fascinating” is a better translation, according to Christopher Bassford, than “paradoxical.”  See Clausewitz Homepage, (accessed 10/02/2017).

[8] Posen, 6-7.

[9] Defense Policy Guidance of first Bush administration, cited in Posen, 8.

[10] See David Kaiser, No End Save Victory (New York:  Basic Books, 2014), 25-30, 155. Kaiser also highlights how FDR’s “four freedoms” contributed, via the crucible of war, to the adoption of liberal hegemony (157), although he perhaps did not intend to do this.

[11] Posen, “Command of the Commons,” passim.

[12] Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010),   32; Bacevich implies the Congressional component on page 228.

[13] See for example Ben Miller, “Will Trumpism increase the Danger of War in the International System?” at (accessed 14/06/2017); see also Kyle Haynes, (accessed 14/06/2017).

[14] See, (accessed 14/06/2017).

[15] See John T. Kuehn, “Problematic Presidencies” at Proceedings Today, (accessed 10/03/2017).

[16] The reference here is to the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, among others, “Previous Collisions Involving U.S. Navy Vessels,” by May Salam, 21 August 2017 in New York Times, see (accessed 10/27/2017).

[17] The CNO Admiral Louis Denfield dissented from existing Administration strategy and policy and was relieved by the Secretary of Defense.   See Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals (Washington, DC, 1994), p. 288; Love,  History of the U.S. Navy, p. 379.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2017. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

Airpower-R-US: The Old, New Way of Doing Business?

“Kurdish Forces, Backed by Coalition Airstrikes, Move Toward Mosul” announced a recent headline from the front in the war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.  As I read this headline the slogan that popped into my mind was Toys-R-US, or more to the point, Airpower-R-US; and in a more joint context, Fires-R-US. The US stands for United States. The metaphor here involves going to the store (the US) and getting what one needs to handle one’s military and political problems. The toys, of course, are the array of capabilities that the US Department of Defense can provide, courtesy of the National Security Council and with the blessing of the President; especially combat aircraft and the best trained crews for them in the world.

With all the handwringing about the future of warfare and the 21st century “threat”  being bandied about in security policy circles, perhaps the new norm should be identified as the US’s propensity for “loaning out” its air power and fires capabilities. These tend to be assigned to causes US leaders perceive as “righteous” or at least worthwhile enough (to US interests) to apply the military component of national power. The Kurds for example might provide the ground troops and we provide the air/fire power to help them achieve their goals (and maybe even air defense and ballistic missile defense).  Or perhaps to simply prevent US enemies (like ISIS) from achieving their goals, or rather, more of their goals.

This approach to the use of military power seems to be something we previewed for everyone as early as World War II, and then practiced more deliberately in places like Vietnam, Iraq (1990- present), Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria (whose conflict now overlaps with Iraq). In order to provide value, a brief review of the history of the evolution of Airpower-R-US is in order. As a reminder, the pattern we are discussing is a tendency to eschew the commitment of ground forces in favor of commitment of air power (including things like sea-launched land attack cruise missiles and Predator drones with hardkill payloads).

World War II: The Pattern in Preview

The US first previewed a pattern of providing high tech additives, primarily air power, in its strategic planning and initial execution of operations in World War II.

Its leaders, especially President Franklin Roosevelt and the air power lobby, initiated this practice during World War II, providing first the equipment (Lend-Lease) and then the manned air forces to sustain the major ground fights, primarily in the Soviet Union but also as a strategy for the Pacific in China.  Claire Chennault, for example, was sent to Nationalist China to help build, train, and employ its (American-built) air force against the Japanese in 1937. As for Europe, the air power advocates produced the overall air plan designed to achieve victory shortly after the war in Europe began in 1939 and over the course of 1940 and early 1941. It was designated AWPD-1.   Here is a summary that leaves no doubt about what it intended to do:

The primary target systems were selected on the basis of an air offensive embracing the entire strategic air force, after it had reached full strength and lasting for six months. Moreover, the offensive was planned to be completed before the invasion, if an invasion should prove necessary. Target schedule for the beginning of the main air offensive was taken as one year and nine months after the outbreak of war. One year was for the production, training, and organization of the force. Nine months were reserved for deployment overseas, build up, and initial combat experience of the force. By that time, we anticipated there should be a total bomber force of nearly 4,000 bombers in place. [emphases original]

However, both of these we-provide-the air-(and navy) and you-provide-the-troops strategies did not completely pan out.   It may have in Europe had the US accepted the probable loss of Western Europe to the Soviets. In any case, large numbers of US ground troops ended up being committed in combat.  This was a preview of an emerging pattern.

This pattern, it might be assumed, had proven itself somewhat less than efficacious, at least in terms of avoiding the commitment of US ground forces, although what was committed was the result of a gamble, that air power would work and the US only needed 90 divisions at most to win the war.  In fact it came dangerously close to running out of ground power by the end of the war.  The World War II pattern in many ways repeated itself just five short years later in Korea, when deterrence with atomic weapons delivered by air power came up short and there was precious little conventional air power on hand to help not only the South Koreans but even US ground forces until the crisis at Pusan had passed.

Vietnam and Beyond

At this point the pattern seemed to take a holiday.  That holiday was known as Vietnam; or more correctly the years of primarily advisory support to the government of South Vietnam (1959-1965).   However, with the failure of the advisory effort by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V), the pattern re-emerged as President Lyndon Johnson intervened with ground forces, initially as security forces for US and South Vietnamese air bases at places like Bien Hoa and Da Nang. However, ground forces soon got sucked into the fighting and the war assumed a two track character:  General William Westmoreland and the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) fought the ground war while five separate air forces (four of them US) fought the air war.  The crowning jewel of the air war was Operation ROLLING THUNDER, an air campaign intended to actually win the war by sending “signals” to the North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi to cease and desist with their aggressions in the south.  It failed miserably and was cancelled by Johnson during the chaotic year of 1968.  In contrast, the ground war achieved a stalemate as a result of the defeat of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive.

                              B-52 bombers at Andersen AFB, Guam

Failure and stalemate in Vietnam in 1968 led to the first realization of what today’s pattern, on display in places like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, might look like.  Johnson’s successor as commander in chief, Richard Nixon, decided to “Vietnamize” the war.   Critical to this approach was the withdrawal of ground combat forces (as in Iraq and Afghanistan, today).   However, Nixon gave the South Vietnamese leaders assurances that their military would be supported by US air power and in 1972 this was successfully tested as the ARVN bore the brunt of the so-called Easter Offensive by the NVA in its attempt to conquer the south in one fell swoop.  Massive application of US air power in the two LINEBACKER air campaigns, along with some hard fighting by the ARVN, saved the day, albeit only temporarily. The Pattern (it now deserves formal noun status), had worked.  US air power and indigenous ground forces had staved off disaster, against one of the best armies in the world.  Until they didn’t—after two years (50 years ago this year) and Nixon was no longer President.   The US refused to use Airpower-R-US in 1975 to help its “abandoned” client in Saigon and the NVA achieved its long sought goal of unifying Vietnam under communist rule.

There was something like the Pattern in the US support of the Afghan Mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets during the last decade of the Cold War, but instead of US pilots, the hardware was of the smaller variety, most especially surface-to-air missiles, an Anti-Airpower-R-US variant.   Similarly, the small Gulf States accessed a sea power version of US power in the late 1980s with the reflagging of Kuwaiti ships in response to Iranian mining threats.  In that case the US provided all of the maritime firepower during Operations . But these operations reflect something of the Pattern.  One might advance the idea that it was also a partial component behind Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, especially the seven week air campaign that preceded the ground offensive.  During the planning for that component of the operations, the air force chief of staff was relieved for suggesting that air power might do it alone, without the commitment of substantial US and coalition ground forces to actual combat beyond their coercive value as a threat.  As it turned out the US had to make good on that threat to use ground forces after all to retake Kuwait.

However, the Pattern, now in its mature form, emerged after the end of the Cold War.   The author experienced it directly while flying missions for the Navy during operations DENY FLIGHT and DELIBERATE FORCE, wherein NATO conducted overlapping air campaigns to stabilize the situation in Bosnia from 1994 to 1995.  NATO air power finally conducted limited bombing attacks, measurably aided by an offensive of Bosnian-Croat ground forces that led to the signing of the Dayton Accords in the Fall of 1995 by all parties (including the Bosnia Serb factions).  This same dynamic occurred again four years later with Operation ALLIED FORCE, the air campaign against Serbia and in support of the Kosovar Albanians.  It has been characterized as “winning ugly,” but for those folks interested in limited war, Airpower-R-US provided more evidence to support the efficacy of this approach, no matter how messy.  The commander of US forces in Europe, General Wesley Clark, even cached the experience into a book proclaiming that this was the face of modern war.

As with all things, after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the US entered something of an interregnum, or interval, in which the Pattern was not the primary choice.  Both the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, although relying heavily on air power, employed substantial ground forces. Of the two, the initial phases of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM in Afghanistan most closely approximate the Pattern when US air power, special forces, and indigenous forces took the fight to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001.  However, by Operation Anaconda in March of 2002, substantial US ground forces were back in the game and the utility of the Pattern presumably inadequate to achieving further national interests in that desolate place.

The sobering experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014 led to a full-fledged return of the Pattern.   Its first widespread use has already occurred with the proliferation of armed drones, sometimes with the permission of governments, and, in the case of Pakistan, sometimes not .  The point at which use of the Pattern can definitely be characterized as the norm came with the so-called “Arab Spring,” most especially in the oddly named Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, although the bulk of NATO air power employed to help the Libyan insurgents against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi was US. Questions of its ultimate efficacy aside, it did get the job done of pairing up US/NATO air power (and sea power) in support of indigenous “boots on the ground” to accomplish regime change.  Whether this result was for better or worse is a different matter and beyond the scope of this discussion.

Which brings us back to today’s headlines and the current air campaign in Iraq and Syria—Operation .  The Pattern here supports a variety of different entities and their ground forces including: the government of Iraq, various rebel groups fighting ISIS, the aforementioned Kurds, and whether we like to admit it or not, Bashar Al Assad.   We might even throw in the enemy of our enemy, Iran.   The Obama administration’s embrace of this approach, similar to that of the earlier Clinton administration, has potentially far reaching implications in what it tells us about the evolving American Way of War.  Are these really “new” norms, or are they now established norms?  And based on this review of pertinent recent history, how new are they, really?

Today: Old-New Ways of War

In sum, The US has established a pattern of providing high tech capabilities, primarily air power, to the ground forces of others (nations as well as non-states like the Kurds and the Kosovo Liberation Army), as a means to achieve its national interests and objectives.  This US approach places air power alongside venerable mercenary icons such as the Swiss Landsknecht and the Italian Condottierri of the 15th and 16th Centuries.  Is Airpower-R US an updated version the infamous army of General Albrecht von Wallenstein that hired itself out to various bidders during the 30 Years War? Has it become a sort of paradigm mercenary force available for hire as a means to maintain and defend US (and sometimes Western) interests?  Instead of receiving money as payment, though, the US forgoes commitment of ground troops and gets stability in return (or maintains the stability of the existing system).

Is this approach worth preserving, or even improving?  Whatever the road ahead, it is here and it is in active use today in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.   It might be in use in the near future in Ukraine and it is incumbent on US policymakers to think a bit more intensely about what they design the military instrument of national power to do, and not do, for the future.   In a time of relatively low risk, it makes some sense.  But does it need to be so expensive, and can we get the same bang for the buck for a lot less?  These are the questions we should be asking ourselves about Airpower-R-US, and certainly a few other related issues, as we await the next crisis in which we might employ it.

About the author:

Dr. John T. Kuehn is the General William Stofft Chair for Historical Research at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College CGSC).  He retired from the U.S. Navy 2004 at the rank of commander after 23 years of service as a naval flight officer flying both land-based and carrier-based aircraft.  He has taught a variety of subjects, including military history, at CGSC since 2000.  He authored Agents of Innovation (2008), A Military History of Japan:  From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century (2014), and co-authored Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco as well as numerous articles and editorials and was awarded a Moncado Prize from the Society for Military History in 2011.  His latest book, due out from Praeger just in time for the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is Napoleonic Warfare: The Operational Art of the Great Campaigns.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

TLAMs and ISIS: Insane and Cynical Ways to Blow Things Up

Several days ago (Tuesday September 23), I drove to work listening to the report of the United States’ government’s latest military adventure in the area of the Levant at the confluence of northeastern Syria and western Iraq.     The National Public Radio (NPR) announcers intoned dryly on the launches, among other things, of 50—yes fifty—tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAM) as part of a major strike against the threat de jour of this season, the brutal Islamic State.[1]   At 1.4 million dollars a pop, tomahawks[2] are a very very expensive way to kill people and blow up their sinews of war, the most expensive of which were captured from the Syrian and most recently Iraqi armies—in other words less expensive stuff (like towed artillery and armored personnel carriers) that originated mostly in Russian and US factories.[3]


USS WISCONSIN launches a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile against a target in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
USS WISCONSIN launches a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile against a target in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

23 and a half years ago the US launched its first TLAMS as a part of the opening air campaign of Operation Desert Storm, the combat phase of the US-led coalition’s successful effort to liberate Kuwait from the military forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and to restore stability, of some kind, to the Persian Gulf region.[4]   That use was part of an overall suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) campaign that built on the lessons learned from Vietnam in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and finally the Israeli Bekka Valley SEAD campaign in 1982. TLAMS served as a means, along with electronic countermeasures like radar jamming and use of anti-radiation missiles (ARM), to suppress Iraqi air defenses. Their use made sense because they were part of an overall campaign to achieve air superiority before launching the ground war that quickly liberated Kuwait under skies dominated by US and coalition aircraft.

Since then, TLAMs have been used in a similar fashion in Bosnia (Deliberate Force, 1995), Kosovo (Allied Force, 1999), Iraq again (Desert Fox, 1998, and Iraqi Freedom, 2003), and most recently in Libya (Odyssey Dawn, 2011).[5] One sees a trend here, with the exception of Iraq in 2003, of using these weapons as a means to show resolve without risking the lives of US service personnel on the ground.     Arguments can be made to support this use, although similar arguments can be made against their use, especially in the air-only campaigns. Today, they are again supposedly a part of a larger air campaign against the thug-regime of the Islamic State (for our purposes here ISIS).   One supposes that they were being used because of the air defense capabilities of ISIS, especially captured surface-to-air missile (SAM) equipment, anti-aircraft artillery, and radars.   Some of this concern for both manned and unmanned aircraft attacking ISIS is also directed at the Syrian regime, which has not guaranteed that its air defense system will remain silent during this expansion of the air war into Syria to attack the “capital” of the ISIS caliphate at Raqqa. However, ISIS’s air defenses have been assessed by some as being “relatively limited.”[6]

One must ask the question, why expand the war, both geographically and in terms of means, for the purposes of this essay, the means equating to TLAM use?   Has anyone done a cost benefit analysis (CBA) of this usage or is their use more an informational tactic meant to show sexy pictures of TLAM use to convey the seriousness of the intent by the Obama Administration?   A CBA notwithstanding, these other things may all be true to varying degrees, but it points to a more troubling suggestion. Is the use of TLAMs, like the use aircraft carriers to deliver the air power to these land-locked regions, simply a reflection of the strategic poverty of American thinking?

There are very few positive benefits in all these results.   Strategic poverty? Or cynical public relations campaign? Or wasteful expenditure of high technology smart ordnance against a very weak target (the ISIS air defense “system”)?   None of these choices offers much in the way of reassurance to this writer.

Further, the criteria for the use of these expensive “kamikaze drones”—my characterization for TLAMS—seems to be lower and lower. More and more, in the 1990s and since, when the US government wanted to blow up some meaningless bit of sand or dirt to display US resolve it sent these weapons in to do the job—or not do the job in most cases. We think we are sending a signal of resolve but our enemies, like the North Vietnamese during the ineffectual Rolling Thunder campaign, “hear” us sending a message of weakness, lack of resolve, and even cowardice.[7]   A friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, refers to the TLAM as: “the 20th Century equivalent of a diplomatic note, meant to convey disapproval without really doing anything.”


Alcoholics Anonymous—among others—has a saying: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”   This latest gross expenditure of US tax dollars by the US Navy at the behest of its strategic masters to blow things up in a remote corner of the globe provides more evidence that US policy is either insane, impoverished, cynical, or all of the above. Let us hope it is impoverished, because that we can change; one day, and one election, at a time. But first the US must quit its knee jerk reactions to these sorts of events, like an alcoholic going on another binge.


John T. Kuehn’s views are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1], (accessed 9/23/2014).

[2], (accessed 9/23/2014).

[3], (accessed 9/23/2014).

[4] Ed Marolda and Robert Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 167-183.

[5], (accessed 9/23/2014); and, (accessed 9/23/2014).

[6], (accessed 9/23/2014).


SURVIVABILITY OVER NORTH VIETNAM,” 2014, unpublished masters thesis (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combined Arms Research Library, 2014), passim.