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Effects-Based Operations: A U.S. Commander’s Perspective
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by LG David A. Deptula

Effects-Based Operations (EBO) is a fundamental concept behind what is required to really “transform” the future of how we conduct national or coalition security in depth. The basic idea behind this construct – that of causal relationships in conflict – has been around for centuries. However, it was only in the last decade that we have begun to reach the levels of technology necessary to accelerate an effects-based perspective to its fullest maturity. Still, capturing the essence of what many past strategists envisioned requires diligent analysis and innovative thinking. Technology alone will not provide future victories. Instead, we must examine what new technologies have to offer as the basis for new concepts of operations. So under the circumstances, how does EBO apply considering that it is neither a framework, nor a system or organisation, and it is not service specific. Rather, it is a methodology or a way of thinking.

Accordingly, EBO is at the heart of merging our security tools, and as such has application across the spectrum of those security tools. It is the exploration of control – which creates the necessary effects to secure desired objectives so as to regulate an adversary’s ability to operate as he or she desires. Ultimately, this mastering of effects allows us to view the traditional military concepts of annihilation and attrition, with their focus on destruction, as only one means to achieve control over an enemy rather than the operative means of doing so.

The goal of war, simply put, is to get an adversary to act according to our strategic interests. Ultimately, at some point in the future, it is in our interest to get our adversary to act in accordance with our strategic interests without them even knowing that they have been acted upon. This would be the logical endgame of EBO – the attainment of security objectives without resorting to destruction or visible disruption. That may not be possible for quite a while, but it is not unrealistic, nor should our current inability to do so stifle our future aspirations. What is possible now are significant improvements in the way the military, as a part of an individual nation, or as a part of a coalition of nations, attempt to affect its adversaries’ decisions.

If one puts the goal of warfare in that context, then one begins to see that desired effects should determine the engagement methods, and that force application becomes only one of a spectrum of options. In fact, EBO is a springboard for better linking military, economic and diplomatic instruments of national or coalition power to conduct security strategy in depth. So, if the focus is on effects i.e., the end of strategy, rather than force-on-force which is the traditional means to achieve it, then more effective ways can be considered to accomplish the same goal more quickly than in the past, with fewer resources, and most importantly, with fewer casualties.

The Impact of Precision and Stealth

Though applicable to all instruments of power, the essence of EBO is manifested in the role it played in the design and execution of the Desert Storm air campaign.

Over 150 attacks on separate targets consisting of well over a thousand aim points made up the master attack plan for the opening 24 hours of Desert Storm. This was a larger number of targets than attacked by the entire 8 th Air Force in the combined bomber offensive in Europe over a period of two years in 1942 and 1943. In fact, it was the largest number of separate target attacks in the shortest period of time planned in history. What enabled this level of impact to be achieved? The short answer is the maturation of aerospace technologies merged with a theory of targeting for effects rather than absolute destruction.

Advanced technology – the combination of stealth and precision – in conjunction with a planning approach based on achieving specific effects rather than absolute destruction, enabled a new concept of operations known as parallel warfare; the simultaneous application of force across the breadth and depth of an entire theater. Combined, these elements became the linchpin of the revolution in military affairs.

Most people are familiar with the dramatic increase in precision that aerial delivered weapons have achieved over the last half of the 20 th century. In some cases, a single aircraft and one precision-guided munition during Desert Storm achieved the same result as a 1000-plane raid with over 9000 bombs in World War II – and without the associated collateral damage. However, not many are as familiar with the leverage that stealth demonstrated in Desert Storm. A case in point involved the first non-stealthy attack on one target in the Basra area (Shaiba Airfield) with three aim points. The strike consisted of four Navy A-6s and four Saudi Tornado dropping bombs; five Marine EA-6Bs jamming acquisition radars; four Air Force F-4Gs taking out one type of surface to air missile system; 17 Navy F-18s taking out another; four F/A-18s as fighter escort; and three drones launched into the area to bring up the enemy radars. That brought the complete force package to 41 aircraft – 8 of them dropping bombs on 3 aim points at one target.

At approximately the same time, there were 20 F-117 stealth fighters, all dropping bombs on 38 separate aim points at 28 different targets. That constituted less than half the number of aircraft hitting over 1200 percent the target base. That leverage equates to a stealth multiplier of around 19, or put another way, it took 19 non-stealth aircraft to accomplish the effect of one stealth aircraft in this circumstance. That was one example on the first night of the air campaign. The effectiveness of stealth over the entire campaign is evidenced by the fact that stealth aircraft flew less than two percent of the total combat sorties flown in Desert Storm, but attacked over 40 percent of the fixed target base.

The impact of the stealth and precision equation enabled us to move from a standard of requiring multiple aircraft to accomplish an objective against a single target, to being able to achieve objectives against multiple targets with a single aircraft. So how do these transformational technologies affect military planning? Let me offer a simplistic, yet applicable analogy. The Desert Storm air campaign strategy capitalized on stealth and precision in conjunction with an effects-based planning methodology designed to paralyze Saddam Hussein’s control of his own forces, neutralizing his capacity, and then his will to fight. The execution of this strategy has become known as parallel warfare, and was based upon achieving specific effects in the shortest possible time. The term “parallel” comes from basic electric circuit design. Anyone experiencing the frustration of trying to find a burned out Christmas tree light on a series circuit versus a parallel circuit will immediately understand the concept. A series circuit requires electrons to flow sequentially through each light bulb. Accordingly, one light must be lit before the next one does. Conversely, in a parallel circuit, the electricity reaches all the lights at the same time – simultaneous flow. Applying the same concept to the application of force in war yields the terms: serial (sequential) and parallel (simultaneous).

In air campaigns before Desert Storm, force was applied sequentially to “roll back” enemy defenses before attacking targets of the highest value. In series warfare, each target-set must be cleared in order to get to the next one. This continues until one eventually gets to the target-set of highest value. In parallel warfare, force is applied against multiple high value target-sets at the same time – leadership; key essentials; command and control; fielded military forces; and the communications between them. This magnifies surprise, widens enemy paralysis, and inflicts fewer casualties in shorter time, and with greater probability of imposing effective control over the adversary.

The Impact of Effects-Based Planning

Targeting manuals include words about targeting to achieve effects, but pages and chapters are written about damage expectancy, probability of damage, and “weaponeering” to achieve levels of destruction. This focus on destruction results from two traditional concepts of war – annihilate an enemy through outright destruction, or exhaust an enemy before he exhausts you (attrition).

An alternative concept of warfare is based on control – the idea that an enemy organization’s ability to operate as desired is ultimately more important than destruction of the forces it relies on for defense. In terms of securing favorable conflict termination, rendering the enemy force useless is just as effective as eliminating that enemy force. Furthermore, controlling an adversary can be accomplished quicker, and with far fewer casualties. In words attributed to Sun Tzu: “Those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and over-throw his state without protracted operations.”

Centuries later, B.H. Liddell Hart expanded on this idea adding, “While such bloodless victories have been exceptional, their rarity enhances rather than detracts from their value – as an indication of latent potentialities, in strategy and grand strategy.” To be sure, neither strategist suggests reliance on achieving victory without bloody engagements. Instead, they advocate seeking alternative means to achieve victory – those that may, with favorable settings, do so more swiftly, and at less cost. Simply put, rather than the operative means to inhibit enemy activity, destruction should be viewed as only one means to achieve control over an enemy. In this approach, destruction is used to achieve effects on each of the systems the enemy organization relies on to conduct operations or exert influence – not to destroy the systems, but to prevent them from being used as the adversary desires. Effective control over adversary systems facilitates achieving the political objectives that warrant the use of force.

During Desert Storm, conventional planners and intelligence personnel tended to think about targeting in terms of “the required number of sorties to achieve the
desired damage against each target.” The bread and butter of a targeting officer involved “determining the quantity of a specific weapon required to achieve a specified level of damage to a given target.” A conventional evaluation of the effectiveness of one of the target sets during Desert Storm by traditional intelligence analysis demonstrated how focus on individual target damage rather than the effects of attacks on the system under attack can be misleading.

On February 15, 1991 , the Iraq target-planning cell received a report from the Central Command intelligence staff on the progress of the air campaign in accomplishing the electric target set objectives. The report stated that because all the individual targets in the primary and secondary electric target set were not destroyed or damaged to a specific percentage, the analysis concluded the objective had not been met. In fact, the electric system was not operating in Baghdad , and the power grid in the rest of the country was not much better off. The effect desired by the air campaign planners in attacking this system was not the destruction of each of the electric sites – it was to temporarily stop the production of electricity in certain areas of Iraq . The planning cell knew the operating status of the Iraqi electric grid and had already reduced actions against electric sites to maintenance levels. The determinant of whether to act (with lethal or non-lethal means) to effect an individual site was whether the electric system was operating in the area of interest, not the level of damage, or lack thereof, to an individual site. During the war, some Iraqi power plant managers shut down their electric plants to avoid targeting thereby creating the desired effect without exposing Coalition members to danger, and freeing up air resources for another task – Sun Tzu’s dictum fulfilled.

While the virtues of planning to achieve systemic effects were discussed early in the conceptual phase of the air campaign planning effort, initial attack planning was done on the basis of traditional destruction-based methodology. For example, early in the process, intelligence identified two major sector operations centers (SOCs) providing command and control of Iraqi air defenses – one in Baghdad and one at Tallil air base in southern Iraq. Each was hardened to protect two underground command and control bunkers. Weapons experts and target planners determined it would take eight F-117s with a mix of Guided Bomb Units (GBU)-27 and GBU-10 2000-pound bombs to destroy the bunkers at each SOC. Since only 16 F-117s were available for planning at the time, destroying the two SOCs meant using all the available F-117s – an 8-to-1 aircraft-to-target ratio.

Intensive planning for the offensive air campaign began in theater on August 21, 1990 . By August 30, the known targets in the strategic air defense system expanded almost tenfold. Further intelligence analysis of the Iraqi air defense network found not just two SOCs in Iraq , but four, and associated with each of these SOCs were three to five interceptor operations centers (IOCs), and associated with the IOCs were a number of radar reporting posts. The new information significantly increased the challenge of attaining the operational objective to “render Iraq defenseless and minimize the threat to allied forces.” For the initial attack plan, the effect desired was to shut down the air defense command and control system in certain areas enabling non-stealthy aircraft to approach their targets without resistance. However, there were not enough stealthy F-117s to destroy each of the newly discovered nodes of the air defense system simultaneously.

The solution lay in effects-based rather than destruction-based targeting. Postulating that a 2000-pound bomb could go off in the other end of the building in which the US air campaign planners were working, a case was made that the planning group might survive, and if so we would abandon the facility to seek shelter. The point was that the SOCs and IOCs did not require destruction. Targeting only had to render them ineffective, unable to conduct operations through the period of the ensuing attacks by non-stealthy aircraft.

By September 6, the attack plan was rewritten putting no more than two F-117 loads on any particular SOC. This greatly multiplied the number of stealth and precision strikes for use against other critical targets. Consequently, the opening 24 hours of the air war found 42 F-117 sorties flying 76 target attacks – almost a 1-to-2 aircraft-to-target ratio. This constituted just over 2 1/2 times the number of stealth strike sorties (from the original plan of 16). Yet, stealth platforms were now attacking 38 times the target base.

Linking Tactical Tasks to Strategic Objectives

The key to the success of effects-based operations is a top down approach where coalition strategy is translated to specific objectives at each level down to specific tactical level tasks. Each tactical level task must be directly related to the highest order objectives of the operation. Failure to do so will result in random attacks of discrete enemy elements unrelated to the ultimate objectives – not unlike what happened in Vietnam, and what some might say happened in the first half of the air war over Serbia in 1999.

In order to establish and maintain this linkage, a system to delineate the ties between the political objectives and tactical actions is required. In Desert Storm, we used the center of gravity model, and identified centers of gravity at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels that became respectively the target systems, the target sets, and the individual targets themselves. For each target set, specific effects-based objectives were identified and used by the principal air campaign planner to determine if additional weight of effort was required to achieve the objective. Additionally, every new target that came into the planning cell for consideration was evaluated according to how well it could contribute to accomplishing those objectives.

So where do we go from here? How should we approach the future? Improved battlespace awareness, stealth, precision, and cyber war enable the production of the effects of mass without having to mass as we have in the past. The ability to impose effects can be independent of the massing of forces – the projection of force is becoming more important than the continual presence of force. Accordingly, what moves into a theater, and when, should be determined by the degree of effect it can have on an adversary. Operational timelines should be driven by the massing of joint effects, not simply numbers of forces.


Technology is enabling new concepts of operations (CONOPS) that if properly exploited have the potential of radically transforming the means of warfare. Some of this potential was witnessed in the execution of Operation Iraqi Freedom where a joint force was effectively employed that was much smaller than legacy force-on-force attrition-based strategy dictate. Yet much more potential exists. In general, traditional joint employment strategies still lag behind actual capabilities that we currently possess. The promise of aerospace power is now reality – we need to capitalize on this capability. It allows for the unprecedented application of joint force simultaneously across the breadth and depth of any theater. New possibilities of engagement such as cyber war, nanotechnology, and biotechnology are emerging rapidly. It is necessary to be open to how they can be applied in concert with, or in lieu of, traditional military means to coerce potential adversaries to act in accordance with our desired strategic interests.

Transformation is much more than simply modernization. It consists of fundamental change involving three principal elements, and their interactions with one another: one; advanced technologies, because of the new capability that they yield, enable two; innovative and new concepts of operations that produce near order of magnitude increases in our ability to achieve desired effects, and three; organizational change that codifies the changes in the previous elements, or enhances our ability to execute our national security strategy.

The evolving security environment requires: Responsiveness – acting within hours rather than in weeks or months; Long range, and effective delivery – spanning the globe, delivering weapons or relief with precision to achieve desired effects, and; High leverage – reducing personnel, support, and overall dollar cost. Future military force structure should be determined by the technology-driven transformation in operational concepts that is affecting the relationship between manoeuvre, fire, and information. Each of the Services has a role to play in this future but it must be remembered that jointness is using the right force at the right place at the right time – it is not using every force, every place, all the time.


Most contemporary military thinking is still burdened to a degree by industrial-age assumptions about change. The weapons engineers of World War II had very few options, almost all of which were bounded by materials. Today, the situation is reversed and one of the biggest challenges is choosing the most potent options from among a near-limitless array of promising possibilities.

EBO has the potential to reduce the force requirements, casualties, duration of conflict, and deployment sizes previously required to prevail in conflict. In other words to achieve the effects of mass without having to mass forces as we have in the past. Accordingly, effects-based methodology should drive our measures of merit, and evaluation. With the leverage this approach delivers, it may be an appropriate foundation for operational decisions, defense planning, and resource allocation. Too many people still view cost per weapon or platform as a valid measure of merit. Cost per target engaged or cost per effect desired is a much more valid measure of value of a weapon system, platform, or a concept of operations.

EBO is not an organization, or a system. It is a methodology, a way of thinking. Accordingly, EBO has value beyond its military utility. As a means of integrating the pillars of national security, perhaps it stands to achieve its most profound value. In fact, the effects-based approach is a springboard for better linking military, economic, information, and political elements to conduct national security in depth. Simply put, focusing on creating the effects underlying an objective forces exploration of the whole array of security options. In those cases where military force is required, this approach will move us away from massing forces to destroy an adversary, to a much broader application of security tools to achieve rapid coercion – an approach inherently less costly in lives and resources.

Winston Churchill once said, “Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most times he will pick himself up and carry on.” If we are to meet the security challenges of the future in an era of constrained resources for defense, we have got to pick up the truth and hold on to it, and an effects-based methodology provides us a means to do that.

LG David A. Deptula is Vice Commander, Pacific Air Forces, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. PACAF is responsible for Air Force activities over half the globe in a command that supports 45,000 Air Force personnel serving principally in Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Korea and Japan. LG Deptula has significant experience in combat and leadership in several major joint contingency operations. He was the principal planner for attack operations for the Desert Storm coalition air campaign. He was also the Joint Task Force Commander for Operation Northern Watch during a period of renewed Iraqi aggression where he flew 82 combat missions. More recently in early 2005, he was the Joint Force Component Commander for Operation Unified Assistance, the South East Asia Tsunami Relief Effort. LG Deptula holds a MSc in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia.

Last updated on 24 Apr 2010
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