The Hard Truth about “Easy Fighting” Theories: The Army is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter

April 15, 2013

The new wisdom around the Washington Beltway is that when the greatest dangers lie in a naval theater, and when the nation has little inclination to venture into land theaters to sort out complex conflicts, then naval power conjoined with airpower is the defense investment of choice. But what is the basis of this belief? And should the nation act on such logic?

In the spring of 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced at the Air Force Academy that AirSea Battle “has the potential to do for America’s military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what AirLand Battle did near the end of the 20th.”1 Thus an idea that began life as a concept for overcoming the new and envisioned anti-access tactics of a great and modern power like China gained legitimacy as the new American way of high-end war, laden with the faulty logic of its predecessor of a decade ago, Rapid Decisive Operations (RDO). RDO informed the logic and design of the 2001 and 2003 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to depose the Hussein and Taliban regimes; both invasions depended on overwhelming precision air and naval firepower and a light presence of U.S. ground forces to change intolerable situations on the ground. The approach endorsed by Secretary Gates would rely entirely on overwhelming precision air and naval firepower. This approach applies the logic of economic sanctions to bring a foreign government to terms by indirect pressure on the public it governs.

Since the First Gulf War, the belief has grown that the power to change intolerable situations on the ground can be achieved without hard and bloody fighting by Soldiers and Marines. I call them “easy fighting” theories— conceptions that promise low-risk and high-gain solutions to complex world problems through air and naval military power. The hard truth about such “easy fighting” theories is that it is extremely difficult, when a specific outcome matters, to convince any implacable enemy—particularly one willing to blow himself up to achieve his aims—to yield to U.S. or coalition terms. And the inconvenient truth is that “easy fighting” theories cannot be relied upon to deliver high-stakes results.