We Are Not Invincible

By Lieutenant David Adams, U.S. Navy

Cultivating Strategic Illusions

Some military leaders continue to perpetuate the illusion created by Desert Storm that U.S. technical prowess can ensure victory in a sterile, push-button, near bloodless fashion. Admiral William Flanagan, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, recently boasted of the Navy's invincibility: "I would hate to fight an American right now. You would lose so bad your head would spin." He also suggested that our technical and information dominance can fulfill the public demand for zero casualties:

If we have the technological advantages. . . ; if we have control of the information. . . and we control the time line, why don't we just pitch a shutout? You see the American people have put a standard on us that is good for us. They get zero [casualties]; you get the victory. That's good military thinking.

The Admiral's comments reflect the military's preoccupation with utopian technical solutions and its ignorance of the political danger of cultivating a strategic mind-set that portends prompt, decisive victory with few - if any - casualties. A similar combination of military delusions and political insularity after World War II contributed to our defeat in Southeast Asia. Although the United States should not fall back into its post-Vietnam malaise, we must not forget that a determined adversary can shatter our illusion of invincibility and turn our confidence in low-cost military victory into devastating political defeat.

In particular, the lesson of Vietnam has been lost on American naval strategists. In the past, open-ocean combat enabled the Navy to concentrate on sinking the enemy fleet during decisive battles at sea; the political consequences of naval warfare largely could be left to others. Today, the shift in emphasis from open-ocean war fighting on the sea to joint operations conducted from the sea demands that the Navy "project decisive power ashore" to achieve strategic objectives. For the first time, the U.S. Navy could sink an enemy fleet and still suffer defeat, if its actions fail to achieve the desired political consequences on land.

Yet, naval planners-following the lead of former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Owens-are convinced that precision strikes, information warfare, and the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA) are sufficient to ensure a U.S. victory. They forget that mastering the art of war requires political savvy, as well as physical and technical prowess.

This influential cadre of would-be cyber-warriors has undermined U.S. naval strategy. As Colin Gray noted, "To offer a high-technology-keyed RMA to a machine-minded culture such as America is akin to offering drinks to an alcoholic." Intoxicated by the prospect of a technological panacea, RMA enthusiasts have inhibited the study of the most important question concerning war: How can military means be used to achieve political ends?

A preoccupation with technology at the expense of the contemplation of the utility and limitations of applying force to achieve political ends invites disaster. The myth that "those who contemplate a military clash with the United States will have to face the prospect that it will be able to halt and reverse any hostile action, with low risk to military forces" has cultivated a strategic Achilles' heel-the public expectation of a quick, clean, and decisive victory-that has left the U.S. Navy poised for defeat in the littorals. Competent rogue strategists will exploit this vulnerability by demonstrating that they have the military means and political will to engage in a prolonged, bloody, and indecisive naval conflict. Having been misled to expect a quick, antiseptic victory, the American public will be ill-prepared to accept the carnage of a protracted littoral war.

The Perils of Littoral War

After the Gulf War, rogue navies realize that inviting a symmetric military conflict with the United States is foolhardy. Instead, they will seek to diminish U.S. regional influence by incrementally and ambiguously challenging U.S. presence. Attempting to strike the delicate balance of keeping U.S. forces under constant strain while avoiding a direct military confrontation, their objective will be to undermine forward presence, deter attack from the sea, and, if necessary, wage a protracted conflict in the littorals. Their strategy will be to inflict unacceptable damage to U.S. naval forces and compel the American public to reconsider the wisdom of confronting a determined foe. Their means will include terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, submarines, mines, and missiles.

Terrorism. The United States is quick to respond to direct military challenges, but it has had difficulty reacting to ambiguous acts of terrorism. How many bombings similar to the Beirut or Dhahran barracks tragedies - could the U.S. Navy endure before altering the nature of its forward presence?

Naval ships are uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attacks because they frequently come in close proximity to small craft that could be transformed into floating bombs. Unlike barracks, ships at sea cannot protect themselves by erecting fences and barriers. In the midst of persistent terrorist attacks, commanders would be faced with the dilemma of risking an attack on an innocent vessel or protecting their ships. A single mistake could create a public relations debacle.

In port, terrorist attacks could be aimed at disabling critical ship's systems-such as the Aegis combatants' conspicuous SPY-1A radars. The maximum security environment that would emerge would distort the Navy's image overseas. At best, persistent terrorism would limit our ability to show the flag. At worst, the mounting death toll and our inability to combat the elusive terrorist threat could undermine public support for forward presence altogether. After selling the public on the "no costs" benefit of military presence, U.S. politicians may be hard pressed to justify the high costs of deploying into hostile regions full of ambiguous, yet deadly threats.

Dulling Precision Strikes. Evidence linking a state to terrorism could provoke military retaliation. Consequently, rogue states are preparing to withstand the United States' preferred military option: precision strikes.

The Navy is contemplating a new Precision Strategy that employs information warfare and precision strikes to break the enemy's political and military will. This strategy bears a striking resemblance to the theories of strategic air power - and it carries with it the same problems. As Desert Storm demonstrated, air power can be tactically decisive in supporting an integrated campaign, but it is wholly ineffective at destroying the will of an enemy people. Similarly, the leverage of superior sea power can enable victory on land, but sea-launched precision-guided munitions cannot substitute for placing Marines and soldiers in harm's way on enemy ground.

Even if precision bombing were strategically decisive, the American aversion to inflicting civilian casualties and collateral damage aids enemy efforts to defend important targets. During the Gulf War, Iraq demonstrated that hiding aircraft and other military assets in neighborhoods and mosques can render precision strike weapons virtually useless. The American desire to avoid any appearance of terror attacks on the Iraqi people prevented the targeting of almost all of these dispersed forces. Using their civilian populations as cover, rogue states can dull the influence of precision strikes and force a bloody guerrilla-style war on the ground and in the narrow seas.

Weapons of Mass Destruction . In a confrontation with the United States, the utility of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, is enormous. The prospects that an adversary might "go nuclear" shatters the American image of quick, clean, decisive warfare. Carrier battle groups, conducting air strikes against rogue states, are particularly enticing targets. A nuclear attack against naval forces, located a couple of hundred miles off the coast, would inflict massive U.S. military casualties while avoiding civilian deaths. Chemical and biological weapons might be used to hamper an amphibious assault.

Weapons of mass destruction, however, may have greater political than military utility. The rash use of such a capability against U.S. forces could bring the full and unrestrained military power of the United States, backed by the international community, to bear on a belligerent. The American people would demand unconditional surrender. A restrained capability, on the other hand, might alter the strategic balance in favor of a challenger, because the United States is unlikely to risk provoking a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack and therefore probably would check the scope of U.S. military operations.

Submarines . Rogue-nation submarines can lurk undetected beneath layers of water, defending their coasts, denying naval passage, and deterring an attack from the sea. Their ability to shatter the "no cost" illusion surrounding U.S. military operations can "provide Third World countries with affordable superpower influence." Armed with torpedoes, mines, cruise missiles, and its inherent stealth, a submarine increases a challenger's potential to exact a price for U.S. military action.

Modern conventional submarines are being built or purchased by many of the United States' likely regional competitors, including Iran and North Korea. Technological upgrades-available on the open market-can provide older submarines with enhanced quieting, sensors, and weapon systems that increase their stealth, submerged endurance, and combat effectiveness. Lying in wait near coastal waterways or maritime choke points, these submarines can lay mines, harass commercial shipping, and attack the U.S. fleet while eluding antisubmarine (ASW) forces in the noisy, complex acoustic environment of the shallow seas.

The Falklands Conflict demonstrated the decisive tactical leverage of modern submarines. While the British surface fleet fell prey to attacks from the air, submarines operating with impunity sank the Argentine Navy's largest conventional surface ship, the General Belgrano. Fear of further submarine action bottled up the Argentine Navy's aircraft carrier and the entire escort fleet in harbor.

Argentina, of course, had no sophisticated ASW capabilities, but even the most modern fleet's ability to detect and track submarines in the littorals is doubtful. According to Swedish Navy Rear Admiral Frank Rosenius, "All taken together-shallow water is an ASW nightmare and a submarine haven." Even if the U.S. Navy can detect and destroy rogue submarines, it is unlikely that it could do so before they could inflict unacceptable damage on both the U.S. fleet and allied shipping. Mines. Indiscriminate and anonymous, sea mines are a sharp instrument of naval terror and littoral war. Their explosive shock can rupture hulls, ignite fires, and stifle crew morale. Ships they do not sink often are left crippled to limp back to port, easy prey for other naval predators.

Over the past decade, mines have caused more damage to U.S. naval ships than any other weapon. Discreetly employed by submarines, aircraft, small boats, and other platforms, they are an inexpensive force multiplier that can startle, damage, and deter the U.S. Navy. Their destructive and psychological effects threaten to deny U.S. naval forces the uninhibited access to the choke points, ports, and coastal regions needed to project power from the sea.

During Desert Storm, for example, an amphibious assault on Kuwait was canceled because of the fear that mines might produce unacceptably high casualty levels. Using a few relatively primitive mines, the Iraqis seriously damaged the USS Princeton (CG-59) and the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) and deterred an amphibious landing. Imagine the impact of a more sophisticated and pervasive campaign-conducted under cover of submarine and missile attacks-against U.S. forces in the littorals.

Missiles. Ballistic missiles threaten to be a blunt instrument of the next regional conflict; their high speed and steep trajectories pose a difficult challenge for U.S. forces, and even primitive ones can leak through sophisticated missile defenses. Carrying a typical explosive punch equivalent to more than five direct hits with a 16-inch gun, a single conventional warhead can damage port facilities, sink ships, and inflict casualties anywhere in the theater of operations. Indeed, a single Iraqi Scud destroyed a Dhahran barracks, injuring 97 soldiers and killing 28 - the single greatest loss of American lives during the Gulf War.

Saturation ballistic missile attacks against naval forces, ports, and airfields could disrupt a U.S. buildup during the early stages of a conflict. In addition, the spread of stealthy, sea-skimming cruise missiles makes our battle groups increasingly vulnerable, and the loss of a single multibillion dollar carrier could prove debilitating.

The Price of Victory

These threats make the littoral potentially the bloodiest arena in which a modern Navy has ever dared to fight. To expect that the U.S. Navy will remain invulnerable while it launches decisive over-the-horizon attacks against the enemy defies historical experience, as well as common sense. Beating a determined adversary usually requires enormous resolve, coupled with a willingness to incur a substantial cost in casualties. Thus, a society deluded by the idea of bloodless combat gets trapped in a dangerous paradox: the price of victory (casualties) becomes equated with defeat.

Admiral Joseph Prueher, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Pacific Command, points out that "when military leaders foster the notion that you can do things with zero casualties, they are misleading the public." As our experience in Southeast Asia illustrates, this tendency to mislead can leave the Navy vulnerable to political defeat in battle.

During the Vietnam War, the shock of the Tet Offensive-a military disaster for the communist forces-altered the balance of political will in favor of the North Vietnamese. The erosion of popular support for the war in the United States was less a result of the mounting casualties than of a perception within the population that they had been misled by incompetent military and political leaders. In the minds of the American public, Tet confirmed popular suspicions that the futile military strategy of attrition was inept, that despite General William Westmoreland's claims to the contrary, the end was nowhere in sight, and that victory could not be achieved.

Similarly, the shock produced by heavy U.S. casualties in the littoral could quickly erode public confidence in the U.S. Navy. Expecting future wars to be won by high-technology, information dominance, and precision-guided weapons launched from platforms "safely" situated hundreds of miles off shore, the American public would be hard pressed to understand guerrilla attacks waged against U.S. naval forces. Any substantial loss of American life would be considered the result of military incompetence instead of the inevitable cost of attempting to inflict our will on another people. The resulting distrust could propagate cracks in the national unity and erode the American will to fight.

Resisting the Sirens' Song

Odysseus, to resist the Sirens, placed wax in the ears of his sailors and had them lash him to the ship's mast. Steady on course, he sailed past the seductive singing that offered him the false promise of perfect knowledge. To resist the alluring self-deception that technology can lead to military perfection in battle, the Navy must fix itself to mast of integrity and dispel the illusion that it can achieve a quick, decisive victory with near-zero casualties.

Righting our strategic ship will require that the naval service contemplate the inherent military risks and political limitations of projecting power from the sea. Communicating these constraints to the civilian community is essential to sustaining public support for future naval operations. Fortunately, the prophets of the revolution in military affairs are wrong when they assert that the public expects perfection. The American people do not demand a military that incurs zero casualties but rather a military characterized by determined professionalism built on honesty and integrity. Admitting that the philosophy of zero casualties is less a reflection of society than of a military culture that relishes the image of perfection at the expense of honesty is the first step toward avoiding political disaster in war. We are not perfect, nor are we invincible. Striving for perfection is our virtue, but we cannot make an empty promise of prompt, decisive victory with zero casualties. After all, technology cannot change the fact that attempting to forcibly inflict one's will on a determined foe is an inherently dangerous, bloody, chaotic endeavor.


Lieutenant Commander Adams is executive officer of the USS Honolulu (SSN-718) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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