Tag Archives: attrition

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.

Attrition, Maneuver, and Air Sea Battle

Since the development of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Air Sea Battle concept (ASB) became public knowledge, discussion of its merits has proliferated faster than you can say “multi-axis saturation attack by advanced precision-guided munitions.” (That’s still reasonably fast, I promise.) Many analysts have debated ASB’s implications for alliance politics, U.S. strategy, force structure, and crisis stability, among other topics. Several have proposed well-reasoned alternative concepts intended to address ASB’s limitations. Few, however, have asked whether or not ASB is likely to work at the operational level of war.

One tool available for addressing this question is military and naval theory. Though prominent in the debate surrounding doctrinal changes that led to AirLand Battle in the 1980s, theory has recently taken a back seat in discussion of Air Sea Battle. [1] Placing ASB in context in the realm of military thought enables us to examine the concept’s underlying logic. Theory isolates the key mechanisms of victory or defeat out of the mass of detail to be found in the history of warfare. In doing so, it provides a guide for how—not what—to think when developing operational concepts for application to specific present and future scenarios.

Good theory, grounded in history, is a point of reference. Where an operational concept or its key assumptions deviate from theory, developers should look to specific technological and tactical circumstances of the case to determine whether these deviations are appropriate. This permits informed decisions about departures made from what naval historian Julian S. Corbett termed the “beaten track” of successful precedent.

For example, any operational concept predicated on “dominant battlespace knowledge,” rather than Clausewitzian fog and friction, would receive special scrutiny from a theoretical perspective. Similarly, theory would cast doubt on concepts like Effects-Based Operations, which assume—contrary to historical evidencethat political will can be directly targeted by kinetic effects. In both cases, the validity of the concept would depend not whether it agreed with theory but on whether the unprecedented capabilities or causal relationships the concept required could be realized.

Two paradigms in military theory are attrition and maneuver. Like the wave and particle models of electromagnetic radiation, the applicability of each to a given situation depends on context. The context for ASB is the (re-)appearance of the anti-access/ area-denial (A2/AD) network (nee reconnaissance-strike complex) composed of a variety of weapons and sensors distributed over a wide geographic area, and linked together for mutual support. Specifically, ASB is intended to serve as a general guide to how a strike campaign against such an A2/AD network would be best conducted in order to secure U.S. maritime forces freedom to operate in the context of war.

Published accounts of ASB suggest the concept is all about attrition. That’s a good thing. This line of thinking emphasizes things that matter in maritime wars: minimizing operational risk and ensuring favorable combat-loss exchange ratios.

Open-source assessments of the capability of potential adversaries suggest that high-risk approaches associated with maneuver theory would be prohibitively costly. That ASB eschews this type of risk is grounds for confidence in the path the concept’s development is taking.

Attrition vs. Maneuver

Maneuver theory sees victory as the result of destroying the enemy’s cohesion. In this view, making decisions faster than the enemy allows friendly forces to seize and hold the initiative. Maneuver theory posits enemy dispositions composed of distinguishable strong and weak points. Separated from one another by time and space, these represent potentialnon-cooperative centers of gravity.” Exploiting these weaknesses depends on “reconnaissance pull,” or the direction of attacks by organic reconnaissance assets, rather than higher command. Rapid, unpredictable attacks against enemy vulnerabilities produces psychological and organizational collapse, preventing effective cooperation between segments of the enemy force. [2] 

In contrast, attrition theory prescribes victory through the cumulative destruction of the enemy’s material strength. For attritionists, battle can further at least one of two ends—physically destroying the enemy’s fighting power, and breaking his will to resist. This school of thought emphasizes that one’s own military strength and political will are also at risk in battle. This produces a tactical focus, or a search for methods to maximize the adversary’s losses while minimizing one’s own.

Where maneuver looks to dispersion of forces to confuse and disorient the enemy, attrition tends to favor concentration for effectiveness. This view is reflected in the logic of the Lanchester Square Law: the more firepower massed against the enemy, the faster and cheaper the victory. 

At the heart of ASB is the “Networked, Integrated, Attack-In-Depth” to “Disrupt, Destroy, and Defeat” (NIA-D3) enemy A2/AD networks. NIA-D3 aims to win the “salvo competition” by attacking both the sensor and shooter components of A2/AD networks, reducing their effectiveness. On land, NIA-D3 targets integrated air defense systems (IADS), theater ballistic missile sites, command and control nodes, and long-range sensors. At sea, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare efforts would destroy cruise missile-armed surface ships and submarines. In the air, tactical aircraft—initially operating from distant bases and aircraft carriers at standoff distance—would attack long-range airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms as well as enemy fighters and bombers.

What all these provisions have in common is a focus on maximizing tactical advantage in every battle, and ensuring U.S. forces take much less punishment than they deal out over an extended period of time. Although CSBA’s report identifies certain high-value targets—especially over-the-horizon targeting radar sites and command centers—neither the DoD or CSBA accounts of ASB envision causing the systemic collapse of a robust A2/AD network. ASB envisions the defeat of enemy A2/AD networks through cumulative erosion of their capabilities, not causing their sudden collapse by attacking their cohesion. 

Theory Meets Reality

Maneuver theory appears a poor guide to addressing A2/AD challenges. There are two reasons a maneuver-style campaign would be a poor choice. First, reconnaissance-strike complexes do not share the same vulnerabilities as adversaries organized along the lines of 20th-century conventional forces. Second, the decentralized command and control system required by maneuver theory would be unable to cope with the scale and interconnectedness of an advanced A2/AD network.

Central to maneuver theory is the proposition that rapid attacks against isolated points of weakness can disorient the enemy, causing the fragmentation and systemic breakdown of the ability to resist or counterattack. This assumption appears inapplicable to a sophisticated reconnaissance-strike complex like that visualized in open-source accounts of ASB.

The imperative of decision speed requires the decentralization of command authority through “mission-type” or “objective” orders. Maneuver advocates admit that this “inherently results in diffuse operations.” [3]

First, the inherent and self-imposed ISR limits of maneuver forces will require them to accept greater losses in searching for appropriate targets. Second, capable adversaries will concentrate defenses around key A2/AD network nodes. Third, the nature of a theater-sized reconnaissance-strike complex—a network characterized by the mutual support and redundancy of many components–suggests that its wholesale collapse would be difficult to achieve.

Decentralized control is integral to maneuver concepts, which require tactical commanders to discover enemy weaknesses by reconnaissance pull. The limited view provided by tactical ISR, however, will be insufficient for attacks on dispersed reconnaissance-strike complexes. Tactical ISR platforms would soon become priority targets for a capable adversary defending itself against a maneuver-style operation. Only higher echelons seem likely to have the resources to form and support the comprehensive “picture” of a theater-sized battlespace. Given the complexity and dispersal of integrated air defense systems (IADS), among other high-value military targets, such a picture seems necessary for adequate battle damage assessment.

In searching for weakness, a maneuver-inspired operational concept would run into strength. As amply demonstrated in the course of Operations ALLIED FORCE and DESERT STORM, IADS components and missile launchers can exploit terrain, mobility, and controlled emissions, making such searches time-consuming. [4] To minimize the risk advanced surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles pose to the tactical aircraft and surface combatants that shoulder much of the strike mission, the time available for future Scud Hunts will be necessarily reduced.

Against continental adversaries with the ability to exploit buried fiber-optic communications, generating “non-cooperative centers of gravity” seems a tall order. It seems likely that capable adversaries will guard key nodes in reconnaissance-strike complexes—long-range sensors and C2 sites—reducing the possibility that surprise could compensate for dispersion in securing a favorable outcome in a given engagement.

Battle networks are designed for mutual support between their component systems. One example is the typical integrated air defense system (IADS). In such systems, the vulnerabilities of long-range tracking radar to low-altitude threats are mitigated by short-range radar and anti-air artillery systems placed to guard against such approaches. 

So if ASB is an attrition concept, and an attrition mindset is the right one to deal with A2/AD challenges, is ASB in keeping with the precedent of previously successful attrition campaigns? While no definitive answer is possible, there are reasons for confidence on this score. Successful attrition campaigns of the past, such as U.S. Army GEN Matthew Ridgway’s “limited objective attacks” in the Korean War, have consistently maintained a focus on minimizing losses as the best way to deliver the maximum damage over time.[5]  

In naval warfare, purely tactical advantages—tactical surprise and the concentration of firepower— have produced favorable loss-exchange ratios. [6] The cumulative destruction of Imperial Japan’s fleet played a central role in inducing that country’s surrender. It did so through the effects of defeat on Japan’s national leadership as well as indirectly through permitting the capture of the Marianas as forward air bases for a strategic bombing campaign. [7]

For generations of military leaders and analysts reared on tales of World War I’s Western Front and U.S. Army GEN William Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy operations in Vietnam, “attrition” may be something of a dirty word. Yet it appears an attrition mindset—that appearing in ASB—is the right one for tackling advanced A2/AD networks.

Critics argue that ASB is not a useful concept because it emphasizes the erosion of the enemy’s conventional forces and largely ignores questions of escalation and political will. [8]

Yet—unfashionable though it might be to say—killing people and breaking stuff can pay political dividends. The increased cost and length of time required to acquire major platforms and weapons systems suggests their importance as a source of strategic leverage has also grown. If potential adversaries cannot fight a conventional conflict without confronting the likelihood of losing, rather than gaining, military strength relative to the United States and its allies, a potential threat to stability will recede. ASB may yet play a role in bringing about this favorable scenario.

ENS Adam Humayun is a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and has completed coursework at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] Edward N. Luttwak, “The Operational Level of War,” International Security vol. 5 no. 3 (Winter 1980-1981): 61-79; Edward N. Luttwak, “Attrition, Relational Maneuver, and the Military Balance,” International Security vol. 8 no. 2 (Autumn 1983): 176-179; John J. Mearsheimer, “Maneuver, Mobile Defense, and the NATO Central Front,” International Security vol. 6 no. 3 (Winter 1981-1982): 104-122.

[2] William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985 (5-6). See also Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict presentation (hyperlinked in paragraph).

[3] Robert R. Leonhard, “Maneuver Warfare and the U.S. Army,” in Richard D. Hooker, ed. Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), 42-56 (45).

[4] Arend G. Westra, “Radar Versus Stealth: Passive Radar and the Future of U.S. Military Power,” Joint Force Quarterly no. 55 (October 2009): 136-143; Benjamin S. Lambeth, “Reflections on the Balkan Air Wars,” Air Power History, Spring 2010: 31-43.

[5] Carter Malkasian, “Towards a Better Understanding of Attrition: The Korean and Vietnam Wars,” Journal of Military History vol. 68 no. 3: 911-942 (918-928, 939).

[6] Wayne P. Hughes, Jr. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000) 40-44, 193-202.

[7] Robert A. Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security vol. 18 no. 2 (Fall 1993): 154-201.

[8] See among others Thomas P.M. Barnett, “Big-War Thinking in a Small-War Era: The Rise of the Air-Sea Battle Concept,” China Security vol. 6 no. 3 (8-9).