AFA Policy Forum


General Joseph W. Ralston
Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
AFA Policy Forum: "Aerospace Power and the Use of Force"
September 14, 1999

"Aerospace Power and Military Campaigns"


It is my privilege today to share this platform with Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Secretary Weinberger is, as all of you know, a great friend of the military and someone you can only call a great American.

Today I’ve been asked to discuss the application of airpower in the context of a military campaign. Nothing is more germane to such a discussion as our recent involvement in Operation Allied Force. Up front, let me say, in Kosovo, that airpower created the conditions necessary for a diplomatic solution. That is how it is supposed to work. The pundits often forget that the military is a tool in the diplomat’s portfolio. It is not the portfolio.

Milosevic acquiesced to NATO demands because he measured his political longevity as increasingly tenuous. We can only speculate over the cause of his capitulation. But the warfighting commander that was charged with executing the military operations was unequivocal. General Wes Clark, on several occasions, has acknowledged that the air campaign empowered the diplomacy and provided the incentives for Milosevic eventually to surrender. So airpower succeeded as a tool of policy.

But let me make clear that when I say airpower, I am talking about the entire breadth of capabilities contributed by air, sea and land services, space assets, helicopters, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, carrier- and land-based air, and as [Gen.] Tony Robertson, [USAF, commander-in-chief of US Transportation Command], knows, our magnificent air transport fleet that enabled it all to take place. It was this combination that made Operation Allied Force a success. It provides an opportunity to offer a few thoughts on how we will approach military operations in the next century.

With that in mind, we must not forget the warrior’s dictum that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Put another way, once the victory party is over, don’t be shy about taking a hard look at what you just accomplished to draw conclusions.

Before looking at some early lessons, let me set the stage. You all know the history of the Balkans well and the spiral of violence that has been going on since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. By late 1992, we were witnessing a no-holds-barred war between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims that led to a series of UN-authorized, NATO-sponsored military operations that ultimately led to the Dayton Peace Accords, to IFOR [NATO-led Implementation Force in Bosnia] and SFOR [NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia], and it freed Milosevic to begin toying real-time with Kosovo.

By last fall, political events in Serbia led Milosevic to embark upon an internal police campaign that soon displaced 300-400,000 Kosovars. This prompted an OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe]-sponsored Kosovo verification mission to monitor the safe separation between the Kosovars and the Serbs. Early this year, with increasing violence on both sides and mounting Serb harassment of Kosovo verification mission observers, it was apparent that the agreement Ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke brokered would not sustain peace. In February, an initial proposal for peace with autonomy between Belgrade and the Kosovars collapsed when both parties failed to sign up to the Rambouillet accords. In mid-March, a second attempt at negotiation in Rambouillet failed when the Belgrade delegation left Paris. During this same time period, NATO air and naval forces moved into position to prepare for offensive military operations. Once it became clear that President Milosevic was not going to agree to the principles set forth in the Rambouillet accord, Ambassador Holbrooke attempted one final diplomatic surge to convince him to accept the Rambouillet framework or face NATO air strikes. He refused, and what happened next is the launching point for our discussion.

The first Allied Force conclusion is intuitive. Asymmetric strategies are the only effective options that Third World militaries possess. It could be said that, like Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Milosevic used his army as a key component of this strategy. And, unlike Saddam’s army in Kuwait, however, the Serb army was both a warfighting force and a strategic bait. The Serbs knew better than to fight us on our terms. Therefore, they resorted to an asymmetric military strategy that first relied on cat-and-mouse tactics, enduring air punishment stoically, believing that their heads would last longer than our fist. Then they used small, mobile and lightly armed forces to compel the Kosovo Liberation Army to retreat. These small-unit tactics reduced their exposure to air attack, but did not diminish their ability to displace unarmed civilians. Such tactics were an open invitation for retaliatory ground attacks. In a sense, Milosevic was playing poker. His first move was to bluff. When we called him on it, he feigned weakness. Then he placed his bet, wagering that he could somehow drive a wedge in and split our key center of gravity, the NATO alliance. One way to do this would be to attrit NATO air forces, inflicting casualties unacceptable to the alliance. Another way would be to up the ante until NATO was compelled to employ ground forces. The introduction of ground forces would mark a major NATO policy shift and a shift he was certain the Russians would vigorously oppose. It was a gamble, and he had the potential for playing a winning hand.

There is no question that Milosevic, like other Third World dictators, believes forces on the ground to be a vulnerability for Western democracies. Drawing ground forces into battle would conjure up, at least in the U.S. press, images of the Vietnam quagmire that still haunts many Americans. For Europeans, the Balkans have been the flash point for numerous conflicts, most notoriously, World War I. If Milosevic could have capitalized on these sensitivities, he would have gained effective bargaining chips to use toward achieving his political aims in Kosovo.

Another angle certainly had to be his belief that the threat of Russian involvement was sufficiently credible that we would never consider ground forces and thus give him a bye. Having studied our handiwork during Operation Deliberate Force, he must have believed that he could sufficiently disperse and hide his military machine so as to neutralize NATO’s air advantage. Undoubtedly, potential aggressors will study the cleverness that Milosevic showed in playing a weak hand.

Because he and other Third World leaders must think and act asymmetrically, we can draw a second conclusion: Don’t discount any arrow in your quiver. Paradoxically, what is often seen as one of airpower’s greatest weaknesses, its inability to take and hold ground, was precisely what made it a useful tool of diplomacy in Kosovo. It was less provocative than ground forces, while at the same time it lessened the danger of mission creep and it confounded his asymmetric strategy with our asymmetric means. Unquestionably, airmen would have welcomed the presence of ground troops, if it had been prudent for NATO to employ them and if they had been able to deploy. From a strictly military perspective, you never tie your hands. There would have been great merit in a campaign that included land forces, along with sea and air forces already deployed in theater. In the case of Kosovo, however, for many reasons, there wasn’t political consensus within the alliance supporting the use of ground forces. The U.S. could have unilaterally decided to use ground forces, but such a move would have intruded on moral commitments to an alliance built on rule by consensus. Given that a full quiver is the optimum, when we must operate with less than a full quiver, we must confront a third conclusion: Don’t discount any strategy. When Operation Allied Force kicked off, there were many pundits vocally opposed to NATO’s decision to launch an air campaign, but, in reality, NATO had no other military options. While airmen believe that airpower can create conditions for the favorable achievement of political objectives, many still deplored the way airpower was being employed to achieve those objectives. To airmen, the unlikely adoption of a phased-approach that resembled gradual escalation, a hated term that recalled visions of Vietnam, was seen as the worst possible way to employ airpower.

Harvard economist Thomas Schelling first proposed gradual escalation as a concept for employing military force in the mid-1960s. In theory, his idea of steady and ever increasing military pressure against an opponent until he breaks is an understandable one. The mind immediately turns to metaphors — a ratchet that tightens the noose with each turn of the wrench while the neck it is squeezing correspondingly constricts and is unable to breathe. The beauty of such a strategy is that it seems so remarkably rational — the individual applying the ratchet is in total control. He can tighten, stabilize or release as necessary, while the opponent with the noose around his neck is largely helpless. Physical and psychological collapse, surrender, seems inevitable. The theory was popular among the policy-makers managing the Vietnam War.

The reality proved different. In the skies over North Vietnam, the ratchet proved ineffective. No matter how tightly the air campaign squeezed North Vietnam, it was not enough to choke off the flow of supplies to the South, much less could it break the will of the North’s leaders to continue the flow of those supplies. The North Vietnamese believed, correctly as it turned out, that they could endure the punishment longer and more stoically than the U.S. could endure the losses it incurred in dealing out that punishment. It was a lesson the Husseins and Milosevics of the world studied well.

In contrast, U.S. air planners in the Gulf War, many of whom had been junior officers during Vietnam, reacted strongly to their earlier failure. General Chuck Horner viewed the Iraqi air defense system as a living organism. He believed that, if he could induce sufficient shock, the system would be unable to recover, paralysis would ensue and death would result. Ultimately, the air campaign entailed a violent, massive and effective air assault against Saddam’s regime and military forces that began the first night of the war and continued unabated for the next six weeks. However, it appeared that was a history lesson many ignored.

By degrees, the air campaign against Serbia resembled more Vietnam than it did the Persian Gulf. NATO’s political leaders wanted to threaten Belgrade, just as our political leaders in Washington had hoped to do with Hanoi. Bombing in a series of steps it was believed would be the most effective because it would gradually increase the pressure on Milosevic. And just like we did in Vietnam we actually signaled to him what type of targets we would hit. The sanctuary of time actually strengthened Milosevic’s cat-and-mouse strategy just as it had Ho Chi Minh’s. In both cases, it enabled our opponent to shift resources and consolidate power. In some respects, we further helped Milosevic consolidate power by not targeting early on the TV, radio broadcasting and telecommunications capabilities that would have denied him the ability to command his forces and to communicate with his people. It is likely we will be asking ourselves for some time why gradualism seemed to work in Kosovo, but not in Vietnam. I’d like to briefly cover several areas I suspect contributed to its success.

First, the internal character of North Vietnam was markedly different than the internal character of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At the time of U.S. involvement, North Vietnam was largely an agrarian state that lacked a tangible industrial framework. As we’ve learned, they depended almost entirely on external support to prosecute the war. Nevertheless, they possessed an internal cohesion based on political forces the proponents of gradualism may not have fully understood or appreciated. Serbia, on the other hand, is a relatively developed industrial society. It possessed industrial capacities that could be disrupted or destroyed. Contrary to North Vietnam, where there was no credible political opposition to Ho Chi Minh, within Serbia, there were credible political opportunists who would gladly have stepped up to replace Milosevic. Given this, it may be possible to draw a conclusion that suggests gradualism can be a more effective strategy against states like Serbia, Second Wave states in the [Alvin] Toffler construct, than it would be against states like Vietnam, which was a First Wave state. Second, the weight of world opinion played on the diplomatic calculus of the two conflicts. Vietnam was a clash of principles and ideals. Globally, there were many nations that publicly supported U.S. actions in Vietnam, and there were many nations that publicly decried U.S. actions in Vietnam. There were many on the fence. But there was no rallying point, no issue beyond the basic clash of political ideals that overwhelmed international sensibilities.

Like Vietnam, Kosovo was also a clash of principles and ideals that unlike Vietnam possessed a rallying point — ethnic cleansing. Globally, there is general consensus that ethnic cleansing is abhorrent. As a result, this sample of a gradualism strategy confronted Milosevic with a moral dilemma, supported by international condemnation he simply could not avoid. I contend that anyone looking for conclusions may be able to look at the weight of world opinion and correlate external consensus with the likelihood of success. Finally, the weapons we went to war with in 1964 were far inferior to those we used just this year. The air war for Kosovo introduced a new and unique twist to the concept of gradualism. The combination of stealth and electronic warfare, precision-guided weapons, and especially all-weather strike capabilities, enhanced NATO’s war of attrition against the Milosevic regime. Wars of attrition, like that in Vietnam, are generally very costly. Both sides attack, and both sides suffer, but each believes it is stronger and more able to endure than the other. This belief in their own moral strength and superiority prompts adversaries to continue to fight while suffering heavy losses. We saw that during the American Civil War. Long before the war actually ended, the South had been beaten, but a passionate belief in the cause of their struggle urged them on. Over Kosovo, only one side suffered. Despite the weight of bombs dropped, Serbian civilian casualties were amazingly light, estimated at less than 1500 dead. More importantly, this was accomplished with near total impunity. Only two NATO aircraft were lost, and both pilots were quickly recovered. The Serbs were unable to inflict reciprocal punishment on NATO and, as a consequence, their morale declined steadily.

With the now famous visual images from Desert Storm reinforced by even more dramatic successes in Kosovo, PGMs, along with space assets, stealth, cruise missiles, electronic countermeasures, and advanced reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, may have added sufficiently strong teeth to make a strategy of gradualism work. In spite of what might indicate the success of a gradualism strategy, U.S. airmen will no doubt continue to maintain that a rapid and massive application of airpower will be more efficient and effective than gradual escalation. I share this belief. Yet, when the political and tactical constraints imposed on air leaders are extensive and pervasive - and that trend seems more rather than less likely - then gradualism may be perceived as the only option. Whether or not we like it, a measured and steadily increasing use of airpower against an opponent may be one of the options for future war. If this is an option, then it is our obligation to optimize the tools we use to achieve success. We must continue to research, develop and acquire the capabilities that will help us achieve and maintain a premier military force, especially the precision and survivability measures that will enable us to operate at lower levels of risk and that result in our opponents absorbing losses far in excess of what they can impose on us. That is what AFA and this AFA convention are all about. I appreciate the work that all of you do, especially our industry partners that are here today to keep our technology at the absolute top. I am happy to entertain any questions.

General Shaud: The first question regards your position as chair of the JROC [Joint Requirements Oversight Council] and the idea of a system of systems. How well did command and control work in Operation Allied Force in your view compared to previous operations?

General Ralston: I can only give you a perspective on how it worked from the Pentagon. A couple of things you may not realize that technology enables us to do, and this is for better or for worse — and it is something we’ve got to learn to live with. Interestingly, in this conflict, probably for the first time, every morning, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs would sit down and we’d have a video teleconference with General Clark and his staff. Here is an opportunity for better or worse to talk to the field commander on a daily basis, get his views and let him hear the political guidance that he is getting from Washington as well as any military advice from the Joint Chiefs. General Clark also conducted video teleconferences with his subordinate echelons, and one of the issues that was brought out by the Defense Science Board that looked at this, that we need to think about is: we had the CINC giving out guidance that was strategic guidance and operational guidance, and you had tactical employers receiving it. Sometimes the tactics and the operations and the strategic got all intertwined. That is not to say you shouldn’t have video teleconferences or you shouldn’t try to communicate to lower echelons, but it is a by-product of technology that we probably haven’t thought our way through. I throw that out for food for thought. To your broader question of command and control, I think it can always be better, but it was pretty good, and I don’t know of any glaring deficiencies in the command and control side.

General Shaud: What is the status of the Joint Staff’s review of lessons learned in Kosovo? Has it been briefed to Mr. Hamre yet? Will it be publicly released and when?

General Ralston: The status is that it is ongoing. We had the briefing to Secretary Hamre and to myself about 10 days ago. It was a work in progress at the time. It is not a complete report. It was not a complete report at that point. The purpose of the briefing to Secretary Hamre and to myself was to see what were those areas that we needed to dig a little deeper on and dwell on. We identified those as we went through. First of all, I would like to say the Joint Staff, the Services, the CINCs had all done a superb job in gathering data in a very quick period of time, getting it properly correlated and presenting it in a meaningful fashion. That doesn’t mean it is perfect or we have all the answers yet. We sent them back for some additional work in some areas. That work will continue to be ongoing, and it will be released when it is ready, not on a calendar. Whenever Secretary Hamre and I are satisfied with it, we will propose it to the Chairman and the Secretary of Defense. If they are satisfied with it, we will release it. And if they are not, we will send it back for more work.

General Shaud: You had mentioned in your address changing the way we would approach conflict and perhaps using a strategy based upon gradualism. If that is just the way it works out, do we need to change our national military strategy and our force structure given our national tendency to get involved in many multiple regional conflicts?

General Ralston: We will have an opportunity to review our force structure and our strategy as we undertake the next QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review]. That is about 18 months off or so. Having gone through the last one, I’ve got no desire to go through another one any time soon. I think the strategy we’ve got is very good, and I think it will be enduring. There are always things you can do to the force structure to make it better. During the next QDR, people will continue to refine and optimize that. One comment is worthy there. We talk about major theater wars as our strategy. Our strategy is much broader than that if you think about it. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

You know the three buzz words of our strategy: shape the environment, respond across a full spectrum of conflict and to prepare for the future. You can’t just single out one little piece of that. In the responding piece, to be able to respond, when we say the full spectrum, you’ve got to be able to deter nuclear conflict, still very much part of our strategy. You need to be able to wage nearly simultaneously two major theater wars [MTWs]. That is a piece of it. You need to be able to conduct smaller scale contingencies. You need to be able to respond to humanitarian disasters. You need to be able to respond to natural disasters. You have to respond across that full spectrum.

Don’t just pick two MTWs. By the way, as we went through the QDR, if all we had to do was two MTWs, we would reduce the force structure considerably. We would get rid of two more fighter wings. We would get rid of two divisions. And we’d get rid of some aircraft carriers. But that is not our strategy — to do two MTWs. The driver of our force structure is our day-to-day operations.

As we went through all the war games and all of the modeling and simulation, it was the day-to-day shaping of the environment that drove the size of the force structure, not two MTWs. As we got into Kosovo — if I go back to show you the short memories of these things — the question that we got after the last QDR was, why do you have to do two MTWs? Why isn’t one enough? We tried very hard to explain why you needed the ability, if you got tied down at one place, to not give somebody a free ride. When we got involved in Kosovo, the issue was, you can’t do Southwest Asia and Korea and Kosovo. We said, no, that is three. Now you are beating up on us for not being able to do three because Kosovo was a major MTW as far as the air piece goes. If you look at the number of assets we had committed to that, we had just as much committed to that as we would have had in an MTW. Two MTWs? You can pick and choose. But we can’t do three.

General Shaud: Do you think that our perceived success will encourage more use of airpower over other options, and what effect will that have on Air Force operations and force structure?

General Ralston: If it makes airpower any more desirable, I don’t know how that can be possible. Since I’ve been in this job, airpower has been the tool of choice in every situation that has come along. Let’s go back to September of 1996; we used airpower against Iraq when Saddam moved north against the Kurds. In 1997, we had some use of airpower. In 1998, we’ve been at almost constant war since last summer. We had the strikes in Afghanistan against the [Osama] bin Laden operation. We got out of that in time for the Balkans in the fall. Most people have forgotten about the air verification mission and all that we did with the involvement of airpower in the fall of 1998. That gave way in December 1998 to Desert Fox, which was certainly airpower. We got rid of Desert Fox in time to get back to the Balkans and go into Allied Force. Interestingly enough, we have bombed more days in Iraq this year than we did in Kosovo. Not too many people talk about that or realize that, but there is airpower going on around the world every day.

General Shaud: Some have said that alliances are too unwieldy to prosecute military campaigns. Is there a future warfighting role for alliances or will members more likely form coalitions of the willing?

General Ralston: I would think there would be a role for both, and yes, dealing with an alliance of 19 nations is a pretty large alliance, but we prosecuted a fairly successful war with the NATO alliance of 19 nations. We are also doing coalitions as we prepare for the operation going on in Indonesia today. That most likely will be a coalition of the willing of several nations. What we are doing in Bosnia is more than just the NATO alliance. At one time we had 34 nations involved in the operation in Bosnia. We will see a combination of alliance operations as well as coalition of the willing as well as unilateral. Last August, in the Bin Laden operation, it was a U.S. unilateral operation. We’ve got to have the capability to do that. I think we will use all of the above.

General Shaud: Would you comment on the need for the F-22.

General Ralston: I have tried very hard in the present position to articulate the need for airpower for this nation. I leave it to the Air Force to articulate the specific programmatics and needs of the F-22. But I happen to believe as an airman that we very much as a nation need the F/A-18E/F because every day, as I talk to the Chairman or if he is out of town, we are very much involved in moving carriers around and doing the things that carriers are uniquely suited for. We’ve got to have the F/A-18E/F for that. We need the F-22 for airpower of the future. And we need the Joint Strike Fighter. People talk about building all three of these airplanes at the same time. I challenge that a little bit. You’ve got F/A-18E/Fs coming into the force structure today. We are six years away from the IOC [Initial Operational Capability] on the F-22.

We are 10 years away from the earliest possible IOC on the Joint Strike Fighter if we were realistic about it. It is separated in time. It is like someone criticizing you for building a submarine, an aircraft carrier and a destroyer. They all have different missions. They all do something different. The idea that all three of these airplanes do the same thing, and you are building them all at the same time, is just not true.

People talk about airpower and the affordability of it. We’ve looked very hard at that. If you go back 50 years, take any time period you want — 50 years, 30 years, 20 years — we historically spend 15 percent of our procurement budget on tac air [tactical aircraft]. If you look at the next six years of F/A-18E/F, F-22, Joint Strike Fighter, what percent of the budget do you think it is in procurement? It is about 14 percent. What if you take six years beyond that? It is still less than 15 percent. What if you take 18 years? It is still less than 15 percent of the procurement budget. So it is very much in the heart of the envelope for what we have spent any time for the last 50 years on tac air. I have tried to articulate the need for airpower for this nation across the services, and if you look at the facts, the facts are there.

General Shaud: You’ve had a unique perspective on all the services as Vice Chairman. As your last question, what counsel would you give to today’s ROTC students? I will up the ante just a little bit. How should the Air Force and Joint Staff best prepare emerging military leaders to confront future contingencies?

General Ralston: I think, first of all, as young officers, whether they happen to be airmen in the Air Force or airmen in the Navy or airmen in the Marines or airmen in the Army, you’ve got to learn your profession. You have to know how to employ your weapon system and get that well under your belt. Know what you are talking about and know your business. Then it is time to broaden and take a broader view across services. The services do a much, much better job at that then they did when I was a young officer or when [Gen.] Tony Robertson or [Gen.] Dick Myers, [USAF, commander-in-chief, US Space Command], or I were lieutenant colonels. We all got the advice, even when we were colonels, from our respected mentors that said, whatever you do, don’t ever get yourself caught in a joint job. Things have changed dramatically. Goldwater-Nichols came along, and for better or worse — I happen to think it is for better — the quality of the young officer, whether it is major or lieutenant colonel or colonel or one-star, that we’ve got in the joint world today is absolutely superb. That comes at a price. There is no free lunch. It came out of the Service staffs. But, by and large, we are doing a much better job today. The so-called parochialism — you would be amazed at how little, if any, there is at the senior levels. You go to the Joint Staff, to the J-3 shop, they don’t have time to be parochial. In the three and one-half-plus years that I have been the Vice Chairman, I have never yet come across a parochial action on the part of the senior flag officers on the Joint Staff. I don’t think that could have been said 15 years ago.