The Coming War

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2001

The president has said that the United States is now involved in a war against terrorism. Will this be a "war" as traditionally understood. If so, what will be its character? If it not war, what is it? These questions may seem obvious but they are critically important.

As the Prussian "philosopher of war" Carl von Clausewitz wrote over a century and a half ago, "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."

But it is also the most difficult because the answer ultimately depends on the interaction of the belligerents. Since both sides can adapt and change, the kind of war we will be fighting will not necessarily remain constant but will be mutable and may change as conditions change.

To understand the kind of war we will be fighting, it is necessary to ask other questions about ourselves and our adversary. To begin with, what is our desired end state, the outcome at which we aim? What conditions must prevail for this outcome to exist? What combination of the various instruments of power, e.g. diplomatic, economic, informational, and military, is most likely to bring about the desired end state? What is our preferred strategy for employing these instruments of power in order to achieve the end state? What are the defensive and offensive components of our strategy?

But this gets at only part of the problem. The adversary, as Clausewitz reminds us, possesses an active will that responds and adapts to our actions. What are the enemy’s objectives? What is his strategy? What does he perceive to be our critical vulnerabilities? What will he target as our "center of gravity"—"the hub of all power and movement on which everything depends….The point against which all energies should be directed?" On the other hand, what does our adversary value? What is his center of gravity? What weaknesses can we exploit? While the tools of war may change and while the character of war may change as a result, these questions must always be asked and answered.

The goal of war is to achieve a favorable peace. Strategy is designed to achieve the objectives that make this favorable peace possible. Strategy is the art of using time and space in the pursuit of one’s political objectives. It also links end and means. The strategy we follow in this war will depend a great deal on what our objectives are. The president placed the bar very high when he stated that our goal would be to root out and destroy terrorism everywhere. To do this, we must destroy the terrorists’ moral and material support structure, a structure that is not easily localized. But although the task is a difficult one, it is not insurmountable.

There are a number of strategic approaches available to the United States. They include, but are not limited to, strategies of annihilation, attrition, exhaustion, and paralysis. Will the US war against terrorism partake of any of these options, or will in involve something different?

Someone once observed that "it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we know that just ain’t true." This applies to the oft-repeated cliché that the military always prepares to fight the last war. The fact is that the military and policy makers have come a long way since Desert Storm in 1991. Even before the events of September 11, Pentagon planners were war-gaming a concept called "effects-based operations (EBO)," an approach employing the full spectrum of national power—economic, diplomatic, military, and informational—"to simultaneously influence, deter, and coerce a potential adversary."

In security circles over the past decade, there has been much discussion of a putative "revolution in military affairs" (RMA). Some analysts have stressed the central role of technology in creating an RMA, but some of the most important military revolutions in history have resulted primarily from the innovative use of new organizations and concepts. This seems to be the case with EBO.

EBO is applicable to the war against terrorism, although the character of this war may be more closely related to the suppression of piracy in the 18th and 19th century than it is to state-centered conflict. The war against piracy was a long an arduous one involving not only actions against the pirates themselves but also the states that supported or tolerated them.

Like the suppression of piracy, the war against terrorism will utilize the military instrument but in close cooperation with the other tools of power. Steady diplomacy, backed by economic sanction and military action, would seem to be the key. Success in this type of war depends on patience and maintaining domestic support as well as the international coalition.

The president said in his speech to Congress that the war on terrorism will include "dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success." Thus we can envision not only air strikes against the terrorists and their support structure, but also special operations against individuals and groups, economic operations to dry up the enemy’s sources of funding, information operations designed to deceive the enemy and destroy his communications networks, and psychological operations to sow distrust and discord among the terrorists and their supporters.

The president also warned in his speech that this is going to be a long campaign. Just how long might be illustrated by another passage from On War: "…even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date." The key to success will be to make it clear to our adversaries that our war on terrorism will hurt them worse than their terrorist war will hurt us. In so doing, it will take a concerted effort to maintain the unity of the American people and the coalition. Let us hope we are up to the challenge.

P>Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.