Printer Friendly

Context and Theory: Lessons from Operation Allied Force.

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began Operation Allied Force on March 24, 1999, it fought two wars at the same time. One was the air war over Serbia, waged between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The other was a conceptual struggle between the tenets of traditional air power theory and the unique situational context of this contemporary conflict. It was, in fact, this underlying conflict between theory and context that would ultimately determine the outcome of the other more visible war.

The Allied Force air campaign can be divided into two distinguishable phases. In the first phase, the overarching situational context of the conflict in the Balkans prevailed over NATO's effort to exercise the theories of air power's renowned founders--Guilio Douhet, William "Billy" Mitchell, and Sir Hugh Trenchard. During the second phase, a fundamental change in the context of the war allowed Allied air strategists to successfully apply this traditional air power thought. According to historian John Keegan, there "have really been two air wars, the first lasting a month, the second six weeks." The first was a measured failure and the second--a success. [1] The contextual impact on NATO's efforts to blend traditional air power theory with enduring principles of war highlights the stark differences between these two phases and reveals some lasting lessons of the air campaign.

During the first month of Operation Allied Force, situational limitations severely restrained air strategists' efforts to adhere to five principles of war basic to the teachings of Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard: (1) objective, (2) mass, (3) unity of command, (4) offensive, and (5) economy of force. While these theorists differed markedly on the margins, most of their work bore striking similarities in conjunction with these principles. First, these three air power pioneers agreed that, aside from "command of the air," the sole objective of aerial bombardment was, as Mitchell explained, to "wreck an enemy nation's vital centers and destroy the enemy's capability and will to keep fighting." [2] Douhet argued that air power "should keep up violent, uninterrupted action against surface objectives, to the end that it may crush the material and moral resistance of the enemy." [3] Initially, however, this total war theory of aerial bombardment simply did not fit well into the context of limited war in the Balkans . Every target required the approval of every NATO country and reluctant participants severely restrained the numbers and types of targets hit during the first weeks of the air campaign. In accordance with the teachings of the early air power theorists, Lt. Gen. Michael Short, Allied Force's Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC), testified after the war that he "would have gone for the head of the snake on the first night. I'd have turned the lights out the first night. I'd have dropped the bridges across the Danube. I'd [have] hit five or six political and military headquarters in downtown Belgrade. [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and his cronies would have waked [sic] up the first morning asking what the hell was going on." [4] The delicate consensus among NATO participants during the planning and initial execution of Allied Force, however, did not allow General Short to achieve the objective of his predecessors' air power theories.

Nor did the contextual limitations of coalition warfare allow military planners to capitalize on the air power pioneers' related insistence on the principle of mass. While Douhet called for "a mass of battleplanes...acting decisively and exclusively on the offensive," Trenchard urged air war strategists to "hurl a mass of aviation at any one locality needing attack." [5] And yet, NATO strike aircraft averaged only 92 sorties per day for the first thirty days compared to a "mass" of 1,300 strike sorties flown every day during Operation Desert Storm. [6] "In terms of level of effort, it took NATO 30 days to do what Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the Coalition did in about three days of the Gulf War." [7] Replete in the writings of Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard is the underlying assumption that literally thousands of aircraft would be available to prosecute the air war. By that yardstick, an air campaign so restrained to start with a mere 120 strike aircraft is not likely to accomplish the ambitious goals set by the interwar theorists. While the precision guidance capability of modern weapon systems admittedly increases each individual aircraft's effect, such paltry numbers clearly fall short of the intent of the air power pioneers. Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson, USAF (Ret.), a key planner and air boss for Desert Storm, submitted that, when "you fly [fewer] than 50 bombing sorties per day for seven days, you're not serious about what you're doing. At best, it's sporadic bombing." [8] Arizona's Senator John McCain was more succinct: "Limited actions beget limited results." [9]

Beyond their unanimous calls for objective and mass, the interwar theorists' strong words about the principle of unity of command fell on deaf ears during the air war over Serbia. Mitchell said, "the one thing that has been definitely proved in all flying services is that a man must be an airman to handle air power. In every instance of which I have known or heard the result of placing other than air officers in charge of air power had ended in failure." [10] Such thought culminated years after Mitchell's writings with the creation of the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) concept, a single airman who would command joint air forces in combat. However, once again, context prevailed over theory; Allied Force was not commanded by a single airman. Instead, political considerations required that Allied Force be controlled well above the JFACC level, by senior civilian leaders of the nations comprising NATO and by Wesley Clark, the Army general in charge of the campaign. Furthermore, the "most senior mili tary leaders in the chain of command were all soldiers, not airmen." [11] General Short, by his own admission, was relegated to the level of "an executor," largely unable to influence the employment of NATO air forces supposedly under his command. [12] "As an airman, I'd have done this a whole lot differently than I was allowed to do. We could have done this differently. We should have done this differently." [13]

Douhet, Mitchell, and Trenchard also agreed that the principle of the offensive was inherent to the concept of air power. In fact, the allure of the aircraft in the aftermath of the carnage and stalemate of World War I was its overwhelmingly offensive answer to the puzzle of positional warfare. Yet, NATOs compromise of air power theory in the face of dominant contextual factors--its reluctance to mass a concentration of force against the enemy's vital centers--relegated the initiative to the enemy. While context protected Serbia's soft underbelly from attack, it left NATOs center of gravity--a delicate alliance of reluctant participants--exposed and vulnerable. The bombing campaign favored the offense in a tactical sense, but the alliance was clearly on the strategic defensive during the first month of the operation. While NATO waged war in the skies over Yugoslavia, Serbia conducted an equally ferocious war over the airwaves throughout Europe and all over the world. Whether NATO was winning the air war was questionable; that it was losing the propaganda war was clear for a while. The appropriate application of traditional air power theory is to seize and maintain the offensive. Conversely, its misapplication may unwittingly pass the initiative to the enemy, leaving the aggressor to defend the morality of its bombing campaign and the unfortunate instances when the bombs go astray.

While NATO was still learning this difficult lesson, President Milosevic was turning another principle of war against the alliance: economy of force. After sustaining two days of light bombing, and with the initiative firmly in hand, the Serb president began a concerted effort to forcefully evict the ethnic Albanians from Serbia's Kosovo province. To NATOs political leaders, the image of Kosovar refugees fleeing their burning homes and flooding across Kosovo's borders demanded action. Milosevic's brutal "ethnic cleansing" campaign had pulled NATOs rudderless air armada in a direction opposite from the teachings of the air power pioneers. Douhet had warned that "no aerial resources should under any circumstances be diverted to secondary purposes, such as auxiliary aviation." [14] For Douhet, such a use of combat aircraft to target fielded forces was, in fact, "worthless, superfluous and harmful." [15] But "when Kosovar refugees began streaming into Macedonia and Albania on 26 March, horrified NATO leaders pro mptly ordered a shift of emphasis." [16] Milosevic had compelled NATO to dilute its already meager force to initiate a difficult and largely ineffectual effort that would bring more embarrassment to the alliance than success. Additionally, perhaps unwittingly, he had awakened in NATO military leadership the age-old debate between the utility of tactical aviation versus strategic bombardment. In so doing, the Serb president had driven the contextual wedge even further into an already divided alliance.

And it almost worked. In fact, had Milosevic maintained the strategic offensive and continued to divide both NATO forces and NATO opinion, he may very well have driven off Allied Force. But the contextual factors that proved so favorable to him during the first month, and so detrimental to the theoretical tenets of NATOs bombing campaign, began to change. In fact, Milosevic became his own worst enemy and the victim of his own success. The same ethnic cleansing campaign that had initially worked to his advantage became so unpalatable to NATO leaders and their peoples, that they turned against the Serb president. The Kosovar refugees, not the Serb people, became the victims. The propaganda game that Milosevic had played so well during the first month of Allied Force no longer attracted a sympathetic audience.

When NATO planners emerged for "part two" of Operation Allied Force, they found that the rules of the game had changed in their favor. Context no longer prevailed over theory. A more permissive situational atmosphere allowed for a more appropriate application of the theories of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard and turned the recalcitrant principles of war in NATOs favor. The alliance's objective became increasingly clear, achievable, and commensurate with traditional air power theory By this point in the air campaign, NATO aircraft had battered enemy air defenses to the point where they could indeed claim to have achieved "command of the air." General Michael Ryan, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, would declare that "Serbia's air force is essentially useless and its air defenses are dangerous but ineffective." [17] Relaxed contextual restrictions unleashed the most modern embodiment of Douhet's "battleplane," the B-2 Stealth bomber, with devastating results. Mitchell's vital centers were no longer shielded b y political restraints, exposing both the electrical grid and Serbia's petroleum industry to continuous and successful attack. In accordance with Trenchard's targeting strategy, "NATO aircraft also intensified attacks on key war industries, especially vehicle and weapons factories and repair shops." [18] Every bridge across the Danube was hit and more than 50 percent were completely destroyed. Even Serb television, Milosevic's primary propaganda war weapon, was bombed off the air.

By the end of April, favorable context allowed NATO to achieve the previously elusive principle of mass and concentrate its greatly increased numbers on the enemy, conducting non-stop, 24-hour operations on multiple targets throughout Serbia. The alliance reclaimed the strategic offensive and never again relinquished the initiative. "NATO began to ratchet up the pressure, doubling the total number of targets it struck between day 30 and day 45. The gradual escalation would continue until it peaked on May 31, with 778 total sorties, of which 319 were strike sorties." [19] But NATO did not only optimize mass through increased numbers of sorties flown and weapons delivered. The precision capability of modern U.S. weapons led NATO to claim a 99.6 percent accuracy rate and may have redefined the principle of mass in ways that even Douhet had not foreseen. [20] The contextual shift during Allied Force allowed for a marriage between modern air power technology and traditional air power theory that brought about decisive results. When Milosevic capitulated to NATO demands on June 10, 1999, the dogmatic assertions of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard that air power could alone be decisive was no longer an article of faith but--within the confined context of t he 78-day air campaign--an irrefutable reality.

As air power strategists look to aerospace warfare in the next millennium, NATOs experience in the last air war of the twentieth century clearly carries with it some important and enduring lessons. First, it appears increasingly difficult to refute the axiom that "Douhet was right!" While the early air power theorists may have been blind to the very real technological constraints that would hinder the application of their theories during World War II, modern technology has caught up to their progressive ideas about war. Aerospace power was immensely effective in Desert Storm, but the short, ferocious ground war invalidated any air power claim of "decisiveness." Even Deliberate Force had its share of ground activity coincident with air operations. Allied Force, however, validated the ideas of air power's pioneer theorists.

Although the air pioneers won in terms of Allied Force's decisiveness, they would hardly have rejoiced to see the debate over air power's unity of command continue unresolved. Thus, while the requirement for a JFACC was written into law and technically exercised during the air war over Serbia, the JFACC works directly for, and is clearly subordinate to, the regional combatant commander-in-chief. Additionally, the CINCs report to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President's chief military advisor. Since the inception of Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986, these top military billets traditionally and almost exclusively have been held by the top brass of other services. Consequently, the JFACC is relegated to the executor of air power strategy, as he was in Allied Force. The vitally important decisions and advice on air power application are made at higher levels by military leaders in uniforms other than Air Force blue. "At a time when aerospace power has become the force of is imperative t hat both at the level of the national command authority and the top levels of military commands there be a senior airman in position to give advice on aerospace capabilities and employment options." [21]

Beyond unity of command, Allied Force also left largely unresolved the principle of economy of force. Rather than laying the dispute to rest, the Kosovo conflict only exacerbated the on-going debate over targeting Mitchell's vital centers. In a more general sense, Allied Force did no better than Douhet to resolve the fundamental question of targeting. What brought Milosevic down? Was it Mitchell's "capability" or Trenchard's "will," industry or the morale of industrial workers, the bridges, the airfields, the oil, the electricity, or the fielded forces that convinced the Serb president to sue for peace?

Perhaps the most important lesson from the air war over Serbia was the overriding significance of contextual factors. Theories and ideas are immensely important, but it was the context of the Balkans conflict that initially held those ideas in check. Only a vital shift in that context allowed the traditional air power theories to prevail. Thus, while Operation Allied Force may have validated the theories of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard, it more accurately demonstrated the superiority of context over theory. Consequently, in looking ahead to the next air war, it will be a consortium of ideas--and not any single theory--that will hold the key to aerospace power's success.

Major Ellwood P. "Skip" Hinman, IV, is a student at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, and a senior Air Force pilot with 2,600 flying hours in F-117A, A-10, T-38, and T-37 aircraft. He has flown A-10 and F-117 sorties in support of numerous contingency operations, including Desert Storm, Provide Comfort, and Southern Watch. During Operation Allied Force, Major Hinman flew several combat missions in the F-117. As mission commander, he planned and led twenty-five-aircraft strike packages deep into the most heavily defended target areas in Serbia. Major Hinman's decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal, and Air Medal. He has articles appearing in Strategic Review and Aerospace Power Journal.


(1.) John Keegan, "Please, Mr. Blair, Never Take Such a Risk Again," London Daily Telegraph, Jun 6, 1999, P. 1.

(2.) Mark A. Clodfelter, "Molding Airpower Convictions: Development and Legacy of William Mitchell's Strategic Thought," The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Air power Theory (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1997), p. 101.

(3.) Guilio Douhet, The Command of the Air (New York, N.Y: Coward-McCann, 1942), p. 129,

(4.) Robert S. Dudney, "Verbatim," Air Force Magazine, Dec. 1999, p. 58.

(5.) Douhet, The Command of the Air, p. 129; Clodfelter, "Molding Air power Convictions," in The Paths of Heaven, p. 84.

(6.) Stephen P. Aubin, "Operation Allied Force: War or 'Coercive Diplomacy'?," Strategic Review, vol. 27. no. 3 (Summer 1999): p. 6.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) J. Hayward, "NATO's War in the Balkans: A Preliminary Assessment," New Zealand Army Journal, Jul. 1999, 7.

(9.) "Verbatim Special: The Balkan War," Air Force Magazine, Jun. 1999, p. 50.

(10.) Clodfelter, "Molding Airpower Convictions," in The Paths of Heaven, p. 90.

(11.) John T Correll, "Airpower and Its Critics," Air Force Magazine, Jul. 1999, p. 3.

(12.) Aubin, "Operation Allied Force," in Strategic Review, p. 11.

(13.) "Verbatim Special: The Balkan War," Air Force Magazine, Jul. 1999, p. 43.

(14.) Douhet, The Command of the Air, p. 128.

(15.) Ibid., p. 94.

(16.) Hayward, "NATO's War in the Balkans," in New Zealand Army Journal, p. 8.

(17.) Correll, "Airpower and Its Critics," p. 3.

(18.) Hayward, "NATO's War in the Balkans," p. 13.

(19.) Aubin, "Operation Allied Force," p. 7.

(20.) Col. Phillip S. Meilinger, "Gradual Escalation." Armed Forces Journal International, Oct. 1999, p. 18.

(21.) Aubin, "Operation Allied Force," p. 11.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Air Force Historical Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:air war vs. Serbia 1999
Author:Hinman, Ellwood P.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:4EXYU
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Salvation from the Sky: Airlift in the Korean War, 1950.
Next Article:The Final Scene: Howard AFB, Republic of Panama.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |