Welcome to the Post-Precision World
In terms of strategy, there’s still no replacement for landpower in this age of high technology
Irvin Oliver is the author of this post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. No endorsement by the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense is implied or expressed.
Landpower is Indispensable
The development and advancements in precision-guided munitions have increased the military’s ability to successfully strike targets with a level of accuracy previous generations of weapons couldn’t match. While the exponential increase in accuracy and lethality of today’s weapons have increased the efficiency of our killing power, the ability to be discriminate in its use has not kept pace. This fact makes landpower unique and indispensable in discussions on the use of force.
In the application of force, landpower has the most precise rheostat and as populations move closer together and live in the complex terrain of urban areas, landpower will only grow in importance. Its role in the application of military power is irreplaceable. Modern weapon systems clearly have the ability to kill and destroy on an unprecedented scale, but their use needs discernment to be effective tools of policy.
Clausewitz Had It Right
Precision-guidance technology has evolved substantially since the advent of airpower and the dawn of the missile age, which has arguably changed the character of war, but the nature of war remains the same.
The German V-1 flying bomb and the larger V-2 rocket of World War II heralded the arrival of the precision era. Against these crudely steerable yet deadly projectiles there was little British air defenses could do, especially against the larger, faster, and relatively more accurate V-2 rockets that did considerable damage to British cities. Allied air forces had to deliver over 100,000 pounds of bombs to suspected V-2 launch sites to destroy these airborne threats. Ultimately, however, army forces had to seize the launch sites to eliminate the V-2 threat. Precision technology has continued to advance but hasn’t become the panacea many of its advocates hope.
Modern precision-guided munitions saw major advancements during the Vietnam War era and continued to evolve throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This period saw the United States employ laser and video-guided bombs, which improved the American lethality and efficiency from the air. The 1991 Iraq War was really the eye-opener for many people in how far precision strike technology had advanced. Still, the strike technology on display hadn’t yet proven itself to be decisive. Desired American objectives still required decisive operations on land or weren’t realized. Vietnam, Panama, and the Persian Gulf are all evidence of this. Still, the impact of precision technology is undeniable.
Changed Public Expectations
Precision munitions have enabled the United States and other countries to change how they wage war, and they’ve shaped public expectations of war. Operations in the Balkans in the 1990s relied heavily on the use of precision strikes, but ground operations, or their threat, ultimately decided the outcome. These weapons enabled the conduct of the early phases of the war in Afghanistan where small numbers of special operations forces directed strikes in support of large indigenous forces. The ‘shock and awe’ campaign in Iraq in 2003 is also in this vein. Looking at the development and evolution of precision munition technology, there’s an underlying narrative that accompanies it — land operations remain a necessity.
Before the video feeds of individual missile strikes went viral, the public perception of warfare was that it was a messy, violent, and lethal endeavor for everyone involved. Modern strike capabilities have sanitized war in many cases and given the Western public a belief that we can achieve national security objectives with the push of a button. Despite over a decade of war on the ground, it has been difficult to dispel this belief. The nature of war hasn’t changed, and precision strikes may not achieve desired ends.
Landpower as a Vital Strategic Option
The technological ability to strike targets to destroy or deny an enemy is unmatched today, but such an ability provides a narrow range of options for policy makers absent of landpower — destruction of the political object in question, or a persistent requirement to coerce desired behavior through strikes. Such an approach is filled with military risk that the reward may not be worth. Strikes to destroy, while accurate, may only be suitable or acceptable in a limited number of scenarios that are less likely in the future. They may also work against desired political end states. Consider some of the questions that arise from the U.S. drone campaigns in the Greater Middle East. Real questions arise as to whether precision drone strikes weaken the institutions of the states where drone strikes occur.
There is a balance states must find between the immediate security gains of an airstrike and the longer-term political destabilization that may follow. Yemen exemplifies this challenge. This form of coercion by denial risks harming affected civilian populations and raising the costs of maintaining a suitable level of pressure. It becomes unclear when strikes are no longer necessary or worthwhile. This, too, speaks of the need for comprehensive military strategies that include all forms of power. Precision strikes may have some level of deterrent value if they are a part of a larger coercive effort that includes the ability to employ ground forces to compel behavior. Enemies simply don’t feel as much threat when they know they’re just that — limited. Landpower remains essential to security strategy in this era of precision-guided technology because of its unique attributes and the precision it is.
Landpower has the most incremental level of precision. Landpower is scalable and tailorable down to the individual soldier, which has a forgotten utility today. Consider the risks of miscalculation among modern, industrialized countries and potentially nuclear powers. The arrival of attack aircraft or surface warships may up the ante beyond a particular, and unknown, threshold, whereas a measured increase in ground forces may yield little more than protests. The threat the Finns feel today for example, is partially due to the Russian provocations using warplanes and submarines near their borders.
The Russian use of ground forces didn’t create a sufficient threat to many European countries; most land forces have a limited ability to conduct long-range strikes, which often means they will signal their impending use. This keeps relatively modest numbers of land forces below the strategic threshold. The deployment of a bomber or warship may tip the scale; the strategic calculus is different. Similarly, the U.S. decision to temporarily increase its Army forces in Eastern Europe through 2015, as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, has so far received a muted response. Landpower can assure allies while not overtly threatening potential adversaries. Along with this utility of precision, landpower is also discriminating.
The ability to discriminate is a deterrent capability at the strategic level because we have the capacity to discriminately target specific people and limit collateral damage. Collateral damage is a reality with any use of military force. Individual soldiers are the main instrument of landpower and well-trained and led soldiers apply sound judgment during lethal and non-lethal engagements. Soldiers are able to contextualize and make sense of complex situations in a way electronic sensors, cameras, and satellites are still unable to. Direct, unfiltered observation is still often the best way to know and understand. None of this is to say that there’s no role for technology and other forms of military power.
Centrality of Landpower
Landpower is the central element of military power. While other forms of military power — naval, air, space, and cyber — are vital to national security, land is where people live and where decisions happen. Technology has advanced so much and is more lethal than ever, but if we lose sight of the importance of the soldier, or marine, on the ground, we do so at our own risk. Capable land forces never lose sight of the importance of the soldier, and sound strategy never loses sight of the importance of landpower.
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