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Category: Robert Farley

Clausewitz and Airpower

[ 2 ] September 5, 2014 |

Can the contributions of a general who died seventy years before the first powered flight lend us some tools for thinking about airpower? Apropos of another recent LGM conversation, it may be that time has passed the old soldier by, and that Carl von Clausewitz no longer represents an important touchstone for discussions of military strategy and history.  But if this is the case, then Bill Sweetman should inform the United States Air Force. Arguing that zombie Clausewitz was re-animated in the wake of the Vietnam War by “boot-centric warfare zealots,” Sweetman contends that the Napoleonic era theorist has little place in modern strategic theory. By contrast, let me suggest airpower theorist have long been engaged in a conversation with Clausewitz.

Identifying a central theorist of airpower, or group of theorists, invariably generates controversy.  Most agree that the Italian general Giulio Douhet was important, but few grant that he lends much direct insight into modern warfare.  William “Billy” Mitchell is a critical figure in the institutional history of the USAF, but his influence of airpower thought was much less important.  Trenchard and Arnold were more organizational pioneers than airpower theorists.

That said, almost everyone who’s studied post-war American airpower agrees that John Boyd and John Warden were important influences, even if they disagree as to whether than influence was good or bad.  Although both Boyd and Warden struggled at times with Air Force bureaucracy, they both reached the rank of colonel before retirement.  Warden served as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College.

And both Warden and Boyd engaged deeply with Clausewitz. A conversation with Clausewitz animates Warden’s entire approach to the influence of airpower on war. Warden uses the term “center of gravity” thirty-three times in his seminal work “Air Campaign,” directly citing Clausewitz on nine separate occasions.  To be sure, Warden uses Clausewitz as a jumping off point to make his own argument about the relationship of force to political outcomes, but he nevertheless saw value in engaging with the old Prussian.

Similarly, Clausewitz deeply influenced John Boyd.  The center of gravity, friction, and fog of war concepts all contributed to Boyd’s understanding of how organizations function, and of how airmen could use military force to prevent them from properly functioning.  Again, Boyd hardly agreed with everything in On War, and didn’t believe that the CvC could (or should) be imported directly into modern warfare, but he still understood and appreciated the contribution Clausewitz had made.

It’s fair enough to say that Warden and Boyd do not constitute the entirety of Air Force thought, but it would be absurd to suggest that they aren’t important, influential figures in the history of American airpower thought. Indeed, Warden famously argued that airpower alone, with only a residual ground presence, could quickly defeat Saddam Hussein and overturn the Baathist regime in 1990. In case you’re wondering, 1990 is 24 years ago, not 90 years ago.

But if you’re not convinced, a quick search of Air and Space Power Journal, the Air Force’s peer-reviewed scholarly journal, turned up eighty-two articles referencing Clausewitz since 1966.  With (about) 250 issues of the journal, this means that roughly one out of every three issues includes an article referencing Clausewitz. By comparison, Alfred Thayer Mahan was referenced twenty-five times, Giulio Douhet thirty-nine, Antoine-Henri Jomini twelve, and Billy Mitchell about sixty.

In short, I use Clausewitz to engage with the Air Force because the Air Force has seen fit to engage with Clausewitz.  I suspect that airmen have found value in Clausewitz for the same reasons that every other warfighter finds value in the Prussian. As Sweetman has helpfully shown, it is easy to disastrously misread Clausewitz, but productive readings of Clausewitz can apparently generate insights even for people who aren’t “Boot-centric warfare zealots.”

This is because Clausewitz provides a useful vocabulary for describing many of the most complex problems in military strategy, including the relationship between politics and force, the meaning of victory, and the power of uncertainty.  This, rather than his helpful tips for Napoleonic logistics, is why people still read Clausewitz today.  Clausewitz isn’t the end of strategic theory, but for a great many people he’s an excellent beginning.

The easiest critique of Grounded might be that none of the connections between Clausewitz and the history and practice of airpower are particularly novel.  Many analysts have criticized the Air Force for a desire to bypass the gritty work of destroying fielded enemy military forces, for a fetishism that puts technology ahead of politics, and for a failure to appreciate the critical role of friction in military affairs.  The (modest) contribution of Grounded is to bring these three critiques together, identify the institutional sources of the problems, and propose a bureaucratic solution.

And so while Bill may stress about the specter of “Boot-centric warfare zealots,” clutching copies of On War while villainously slipping 1763 F-35s into the pocket of an unsuspecting Air Force, I would advise him to relax. A working knowledge of Clausewitz doesn’t spell doom for the Air Force, even if it should generate some difficult questions about what we want for our military forces, and how we want to organize them in order to further our ends.


Friday Dinosaur Blogging: Dreadnoughtus

[ 63 ] September 5, 2014 |

Well, this brings together a couple of LGM obsessions:

Scientists have discovered the fossilized remains of a new long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur that has taken the crown for largest terrestrial animal with a body mass that can be accurately determined.

Measurements of bones from its hind leg and foreleg revealed that the animal was 65 tons, and still growing when it died in the Patagonian hills of Argentina about 77 million years ago.

“To put this in perspective, an African elephant is about five tons, T. rex is eight tons, Diplodocus is 18 tons, and a Boeing 737 is around 50 tons,” said study author and paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara at Drexel University. “And then you have Dreadnoughtus at 65 tons.”

Dreadnoughtus, meaning “fears nothing,” is named after the impervious early 20th century battleships. Although it was a plant-eater, a healthy Dreadnoughtus likely had no real issues with predators due to its intimidating size and muscular, weaponized tail.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a Dreadnoughtus unless it carries at least 8 12″ guns. Maybe if bspencer could get to work on that…


[ 2 ] September 4, 2014 |

Last week I did an interview on airpower and stuff with the Buter. Check it out.

Scratch Two Flattops

[ 34 ] September 3, 2014 |


Classe-Mistral-Vladivostok-2014” by QuoiqueOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

France has halted the delivery of RFS Vladivostok, first of two Mistral class amphibious assault ships:

The French government can not go ahead with the planned delivery of a first of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, the president’s office said in a statement on Wednesday, citing Moscow’s recent actions in eastern Ukraine.

“The president of the Republic has concluded that despite the prospect of ceasefire, which has yet to be confirmed and put in place, the conditions under which France could authorise the delivery of the first helicopter carrier are not in place,” President Francois Hollande’s office said.

Plenty of wiggle room there, perhaps intended to force Putin to abide by the cease-fire.  No indication as of yet regarding what would happen to the ships if they don’t get sold to Russia.


[ 17 ] September 2, 2014 |

I have a piece up at Real Clear Defense discussing the latest Air Force white paper:

Alex Ward of the Atlantic Council thinks the world of the Air Force’s new strategic white paper, A Call to the Future, suggesting that the document is the best of its kind. Contra Ward, I think that the white paper concentrates so much on the future that it ignores the present problems that will inevitably structure how the organization moves forward.

Addressed to “Airmen and Airpower Advocates,” America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future sounds a lot of familiar notes. It hypes the concept of “strategic agility,” a worthy contribution, but ends up defining the service’s contribution in reactive terms. A Call to the Future tackles procurement failures and speaks to the need for partnerships, but fails to contribute seriously to the most gripping procurement problem the Air Force currently faces – the F-35 – or to provide a framework for thinking about the failure of airpower partnerships in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, the legendary Bill Sweetman on Grounded (squee!):

It’s unlikely that the U.S. Air Force will be abolished in anyone’s lifetime, whatever University of Kentucky professor Robert Farley, author of Grounded—The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force, may think.

A few commentators have already raised the obvious issues: that the USAF already provides essential enablers to the Army and Navy, rather than being obsessed with bombers and independent airpower; that neither the Army nor the Navy would be well suited to take over things like space launch and operations, or airlift; and that not much money would actually be saved without eliminating entire missions.

But Farley’s book makes a bigger argument: that the case for an independent air force is based on the false assertion that airpower can win wars on its own. In doing so, the book exemplifies a toxic, and irrational skepticism toward airpower, and only airpower, which pervades some military thinking.

More on this one later.

Everything Becomes Crystal Clear…

[ 114 ] September 1, 2014 |

Now, at this late hour, we finally come to understand:

Thirty-six hours after the Obama administration banned importation of the classic brand of AK-47 assault rifles as part of sanctions against Russia, a Maryland dealer specializing in the weapon took stock of its inventory.

There was nothing left.

Laboring almost nonstop, workers at Atlantic Firearms in Bishopville, a Worcester County community on the Eastern Shore, had shipped hundreds of Russian-made AK-47s — an assault rifle prized by both consumers and despots — as buyers wiped out gun dealers’ inventories around the country. The frenzy was brought on, in part, by a suspicion among some gun owners that the Russia-Ukraine conflict was a backdoor excuse to ban guns many Democrats don’t like. Some customers bought eight to 10 rifles for nearly $1,000 each or more, stockpiling them as investments.

Did Putin and Obama meet secretly at the G-20 in September 2013, arranging a plan by which Putin could carve up Ukraine and Obama could carve up our Second Amendment rights? It would be irresponsible not to speculate!

Sunday Links

[ 105 ] August 31, 2014 |

Some links for your reading pleasure…


Assertive Status Quo?

[ 11 ] August 29, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat suggests caution in interpretation of China’s assertive behavior:

We can agree on certain things. Chinese pilots are not going rogue; there is a logic behind these intercepts, and it’s worthwhile to expose Chinese provocations. All of this tells us less about China’s long-range aims than we might think, however.

Sometimes it’s hard to see whether a state is pro-status quo or revisionist.  Russia appears only recently to have determined, after 15 years of struggle, that it simply cannot live within the international order created and maintained by the United States. For a very long time Imperial Japan sought to understand its own foreign policy as part of the broader colonial project that the European powers had created, before rejecting even that as insufficient. On the converse, in the Cold War the United States determined, eventually, that Soviet Russia was basically an ornery status quo power, different in character from either Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.


[ 48 ] August 27, 2014 |

So this is happening:

The mayor of the town on the Sea of Azov confirmed rebels had entered, as jubilant rebel supporters shared photos of advancing tanks on social media.

Ukrainian forces said they were still in “total control” of the town.

The rebels have been trying for weeks to break out of a near-encirclement further north in Donetsk.

Russia denies it is covertly supporting them on the ground.

Here’s Dmitri Gorenburg:

I should be clear that I don’t think Russia is currently planning a full takeover of any part of eastern Ukraine. The goal remains what it has been for months now: to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable and weak. For now, in order to accomplish this goal, Russia needs to make sure the separatists are not defeated and remain a viable force. Both the escalation in assistance and the opening of the new front are a response to the losses that the separatists had suffered in recent weeks.

In the long run, the only acceptable end to the conflict for Russia is one that would either freeze the current situation in place with separatists in control of significant territory in eastern Ukraine (the Transnistria variant) or the removal of the pro-Western Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian one. Participants in peace talks have to understand that this is essentially a red line for Moscow. Putin will not allow the restoration of control over eastern Ukraine by the current Ukrainian government by peaceful means and is clearly willing to directly involve Russian forces in military action to ensure that it doesn’t happen through a Ukrainian military victory.

As I argued some time ago, it was extremely unlikely that this conflict could end with a string of Ukrainian military victories. The pressure on Moscow to escalate, along with its likely dominance at higher levels of escalation, meant that Ukrainian gains were almost certainly going to spur a Russian reaction. At the same time, it was tough for the Kiev government to restrain itself, given its weak domestic position. Relenting while the Ukrainian military apparently held the upper hand would have opened a wide flank to the government’s nationalist critics.

At this point, however, Russia appears to be dealing the Ukrainian military a serious blow. Although this hurts, it also gives Kiev a way out; the Ukrainians cannot beat Russia, and no one thinks NATO intervention is plausible. The issue for Kiev now becomes to achieve a cease-fire before the Russians get to far. The question now is how strongly Russia and it proxies will play their hands. My bet is relative restraint (no march on Kiev), ensuring that the disputed provinces remain in Moscow’s orbit.

See also this excellent piece on Germany’s view of the crisis.

And We’ll See How it Feels, Goin’ Mobile…

[ 16 ] August 26, 2014 |


Our mobile site should be active once again, and should also represent a significant improvement on the previous site. Let me know in comments if there are any problems.




[ 13 ] August 26, 2014 |

Because everyone needs some hot Fulcrum on Typhoon action on their Tuesday morning:

Via Foxtrot Alpha.

ESPN Blows It

[ 10 ] August 25, 2014 |

Screenshot 2014-08-25 13.47.51If Marcus Mariota makes a dime off this, then my enjoyment of college football will be ended forever.

Oregon is selling 25 different jerseys, counting colors and sizes, of No. 8, quarterback Marcus Mariota…

The NCAA and its schools have long contended that numbers don’t necessarily correspond to current players, but common sense, as proven by all the cases above, suggests otherwise.

I think it’s grossly irresponsible for ESPN to imply that the popularity of the number “8” with fans of Oregon football has anything whatsoever to do with Marcus Mariota. In fact, had Darren Rovell managed even the faintest degree of due diligence on this matter, he would have come to understand the deep connection that many in Eugene have to “The Sideways Infinite.” It’s not my job to explain things to ESPN, but let’s just say that a lot of drugs are involved.

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