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The Second Gulf War And The Debate On Military Transformation
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by Prof Christopher Coker

According to writer Colin Gray, one of the principal weaknesses of the American way of warfare lies in its strategic tradition. Principal historian on The American Way of War, Russell Weighley echoes Gray’s point. Weighley bemoans the fact that traditionally American generals have a shallow understanding of strategies – the political agendas of the wars they have been called upon to fight in the nation’s name. 1 American generals from McClellan to Pershing, even George Marshall have been stubbornly resistant to the political realities of war. The politicians from Lincoln to Roosevelt , by contrast, have had a much greater grasp of strategic realities.

The war against terrorism has found that both generals and politicians have little understanding of the strategic principles that have served the country so well in the past. This is due in part to the “war” itself, which is not a conventional war but a frame of reference within which the United States has fought two separate (and it would seem unrelated) military campaigns: one in Afghanistan (2002), the other in Iraq (2003). This has permitted the U.S. military to privilege the tactical over the strategic in the absence of any real understanding of the political agendas set by the Bush administration. It is this strategic vacuum which has also enabled the most enthusiastic exponents of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) to make claims for it in the Second Gulf War that are not supported by the evidence. If anything, the Afghan war bears out some of the claims for network-centric warfare more than the war against Saddam Hussein. In the run up to the Second Gulf War (unlike the first) Saddam’s generals sought the counsel of several senior Russian military advisers who did their best to draw up a war plan that would outfox the Americans. They failed mostly because the Iraqis had little or no grasp of the future face of battle.

Al-Qaeda, by contrast, was a different enemy. Like the U.S. , it was able to communicate with its troops in the field through encrypted global communications systems, using cellular, fibre optic and fax modes. Both the U.S. and Al-Qaeda used small teams of specialised forces to assist in terminal guidance. U.S. Special Forces used lasers to direct B-52s to their targets: Al-Qaeda used suicide squads that were just as effective to direct planes to their targets. Both ran their military operations from headquarters half-way round the globe: General Myers from the War Room in the Pentagon, Bin Laden from the Tora Bora cave complex. Both forces employed fuel air bombs to destroy high profile targets: Daisy Cutters carrying 12lbs of explosives in the case of the U.S. , commercial airliners carrying 10,000lbs of jet fuel in the case of Al-Qaeda.

According to writer Bruce Berkowitz, the two organisations were distinctly different, both politically and morally but the comparison, while crude at best, is useful for it explains the difference between the Iraqi military and Al-Qaeda’s central command. The former had no grasp at all of “network-centric warfare”. 2

Flaws in RMA thinking

The Information Revolution has undoubtedly transformed military power through the application of micro-electronics to military purposes which has resulted, in turn, in a quantum increase in accuracy (and hence destructiveness) of conventional munitions. Equally important is the introduction of smart weapons and the provision of real-time information, which has given commanders an overview of the battle, which has dispelled much of what Clausewitz called “the fog of war”. But it has done little to challenge two essential features Clausewitz claimed gave war its universal nature irrespective of the age that fought it, or the society that pursued military aims.

Non-Linearity The first is the idea that war can be made predictable, that it is possible to abolish fiction. It is the term Clausewitz used for the perennial problem of war: that it never goes according to plan. Within months (these days within days) things start going wrong.

Linearity is derived from the old futurology of the 1960s and 1970s that postulates one can predict what would happen over a 25-year cycle. Unfortunately, you cannot. And this is why scenario planners in business come up with a range of different futures on which they base their own strategic planning. The basis of scenario planning rather than linear projections is chaos theory.

Perhaps, the best-known aspect of the theory is the metaphor of a butterfly that flaps its wings in the Pacific producing a hurricane over 3000 miles away. While it may be a crude metaphor, it stimulates the mind to consider the variables of chaos theory. Chaos theory tells us changes in weather patterns are not a matter of cause and effect but rather cascading effects. War is like weather. There are too many independent variables for us to predict accurately. One striking example of this was an incident in Atlanta ’s airport in November 2001 when a passenger, on realising that he had left his carry-on luggage in the airport lounge, decided to go back and retrieve it. Not wishing to be unduly delayed, he bypassed a security checkpoint and ran up an escalator, which was moving in the opposite direction. This was a typical example of human behaviour. We all tend to forget things; we all take short cuts from time to time; we often act impulsively. The result of this particular occasion was the cancellation of all air traffic going in and out of Atlanta . 10,000 people were evacuated from the airport. And the cascading effects? For the next few days, flights across the country had to be re-routed and rescheduled, and tickets re-issued. Flight cancellations were frequent.

Similarly, in war, a setback on one front, or one sector of the battlefield can produce a cascading effect that changes the whole campaign. War is not an active system (cause and effect); it is “interactive” and what makes it so is that the enemy is not inanimate but animate, it tries to prevail by doing the opposite of what we expect.

The absence of friction in the Second Gulf War was due, as in the First, not so much to U.S. technological dominance as the inability of the Iraqis to act unpredictably. As James Webb (a former U.S. Secretary of the Navy) remarked in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, “If the Vietnamese had placed 60% of their army in one spot where there were no trees, the U.S. Air Force would have blown it apart in forty days too.” 3

In future, however, the Americans must expect the unexpected, or what Donald Rumsfeld has been mocked for calling “unknown unknowns”. Even their advantage in information must not be exaggerated. War, as an interactive process will always throw up surprises. It did so in the first week of the Second Gulf War when plans began to go wrong. Thus, plans had to change. While U.S. armed forces enjoyed a decisive technological advantage over the Iraqis, this had almost nothing to do with what the Americans understood as “military transformation”.

What chiefly distinguished the U.S. effort in the Second Gulf War was the high level of education and training in the armed forces. The average age of a soldier was 21 years. That implies that the average new soldier is likely to have undergone some level of further study and had some college experience. The soldiers were well informed on world events through the internet, CNN and Fox News channels. They knew who the key players and the essence of the policy debates were. One embedded journalist found them well-trained, thoughtful, ethical and intelligent. 4

Indeed, the U.S. army today is perhaps the best-educated in history, heir to the western rationalist system of thought. Beginning in the 1980s, it adopted an extensive integrated training programme for whole units. High quality volunteers were recruited; sergeants were schooled before promotion; commanders were given special training courses. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent each year in stressful operations training for battalions, brigades and even divisions. Expert observers during military exercises provided detailed, objective analysis of unit flaws. Education permits adaptability, and that is what U.S. forces displayed in the Gulf War: changing the time of attacks; changing the routes the units were asked to take; changing the objectives when the primary objectives could not be attained; and, of course, re-directing air power to different targets.

War as an ecological system The Americans have also discovered that war has many of the properties of an ecological system. The word “ecology” was first coined in 1869 and it is now used by scientists to describe everything from organisms to population pressures and weather patterns, everything – in a word – that interacts in a “single eco-system”. Some military units in the U.S. have been encouraged to see war as a total environment. We do not know the consequences of our acts and therefore we must always be willing to “manage the outcomes”. This is the very basis of environmentalism, and it is becoming the basis of military planning.

Indeed, “The Marine Corps After Next” (MCAN) Branch of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory is exploring what it calls a “biological systems inspiration” for future warfighting. The following extract was taken from the MCAN website:

For the last three centuries we have approached war as a Newtonian system. That is, mechanical and ordered. In fact, it is probably not. The more likely model is a complex system that is open ended, parallel and very sensitive to initial conditions and continued “inputs”. Those inputs are the ‘fortunes of war’. If we assume that war remains a complex and minimally predictable event, the structures and tactics we employ will enjoy success if they have the following operational characteristics: dispersed, autonomous, adaptable and small. 5

The characteristics of an adaptable, complex system closely parallels biology. To deal with the biological is to do least damage to the environment, understood as the social, political as well as ecological context within which war is fought.

What matters is the outcome of victory i.e., stability, durability and the sustainability of a society once the war is over. Sustainable growth is the buzzword in economics: sustainable development in the politics of foreign aid. Sustainable societies should be the buzzword of regime change, especially when one country has the means, as it showed in the Second Gulf War, to effectively eliminate another’s entire leadership, public administration and justice system in a matter of weeks. The aim of war is increasingly designed to preserve as much of a society as possible as well as to preserve the human habitat that enhances the quality of life and thus makes life worth living.

In the run up to the war, the U.S. Army War College was asked to review possible models for its prosecution. Traditionally warfare unfolds through 4 stages: “deterrence and engagement”; “seize the initiative”; “decisive operations”; and “post conflict”. Reality is never quite that neatly divided but the College report stressed that Phase 4: “post conflict” had to start before Phase 3: “decisive operations” or the war itself. In the end it listed 135 tasks
which the military would have to undertake when Baghdad fell. None of these was adopted prior to the campaign. The same was true of the detailed recommendations included in the 13-volume study drawn up by the State Department in the immediate run up to the conflict. The fact that the campaign went very well but the post-war phase very badly only highlights the length of time it takes for a new paradigm to establish itself in the military mind. 6

Confusing Tactics and Strategy

Perhaps, the main blind spot of American thinking, which the post-war operations phase in Iraq illustrates is that there is no quick victory. The problem with the RMA is that it does not tell you how to fight. All it offers is a way to address three traditional problems all armies face, which is bound to deliver the U.S. an advantage and often a critical one but not necessarily a war-winning one.

The first is the culminating point of operations – the point beyond which you cannot logistically support forces in the field, the point at which you are so successful that you are unsuccessful. This was the point that the German Army reached outside Moscow in November 1941 – it advanced too far to be logistically supported.

One of the successes of the Second Gulf War is that U.S. forces raced 400 miles to Baghdad in a few days, the quickest military advance in history. The Americans call it “pulsing” i.e., how an army can now operate 24 hours successfully at night time as in the day, and in all weathers. As an all-weather military the U.S. Armed Forces have a unique advantage. They can operate 24 hours round the clock.

Secondly, the Second Gulf War also illustrates how the U.S. now has the advantage of “information dominance” – almost complete knowledge of enemy dispositions. Satellite link ups; UAVs like the Predator watching the battlefield hours at a time; as well as the GPS system help it to pin-point targets when they are found. These technologies enabled military planners to fight a single, uninterrupted, decisive operation by merging the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war into a single one. In other words, the U.S. was able to fight more rapid, decisive, continuous operations.

The technologies helped the U.S. pioneer a more effective form of war in terms of the tempo of operations. It took only two months to destroy the Taliban and in only three weeks, the Baathist Party structure in Iraq . And tempo means reducing latency in the decision cycle. The U.S. Chiefs of Staff call it “decision dominance”: the time it takes to arrive at a decision and then execute it.

Finally, the war showed that the U.S. has the ability to paralyse an enemy’s command, control and communications system: its true centre of gravity. In other words, the U.S. was able to destroy the Iraqi army’s “situational awareness”: destroying their command and control over their own forces. Once this occurs, an enemy is paralysed and it becomes possible to mop up forces in a few days as the Coalition did in the last days of the war.

It helped that 70% of the ordnance dropped was precision guided – so accurate that individual headquarters, houses, and even individual artillery pieces could be targeted. Most Republican Guard divisions outside Baghdad were not reduced in number by 50% (as some reports at the time claimed) but they were reduced to only 20% of their original combat efficiency by the bombing. With a thousand Coalition planes in the sky, coupled with a number of Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, and thousands of munitions directed to precise locations by ground spotters, the U.S. infantry was able to obtain the auxiliary power of several traditional armoured divisions.

In all three respects, the RMA technologies have certainly given the U.S. a decisive tactical advantage. Unfortunately many RMA enthusiasts tend to confuse tactics with strategy. Indeed, some fall into the trap of mistaking an operational or tactical victory on the ground for a decisive strategic victory once the conventional phase of operations is over. Before the war, some Air Force spokesmen even claimed that battle as formerly understood could be eliminated – that surgical strikes by air would eliminate the need for a clash of arms on the ground. To use the language of surgery, this form of warfare could be called an “invasive procedure”. But the hard fought land battles that are still being fought on the ground clearly illustrate that battle has not been eliminated, and that tactical effectiveness by ground units is still required.

There have been many examples in history of generals confusing tactics with strategy. Napoleon, after all, won most of his battles except the last few. His victories, numerous as they were, never produced a permanent peace as he was never able to find a way to strategically defeat Britain or Russia in his 25 years in power. The same can be said of the Pacific War. After twelve months of uninterrupted victory in the field, the Japanese still had no strategy to defeat the United States : they merely hoped that their initial string of tactical successes would demoralise it so much that it would agree to a compromised peace.

The U.S. certainly has a strategy to defeat terrorism but it exaggerates the importance of technology not only as a force multiplier (a way of reducing casualties and maximising limited manpower) but also as a war winner. Technology may help a country prevail on the battlefield but it does not always determine the outcome of the war.

A second problem with conflating tactics and strategy is that speed can become the enemy of the good especially when an enemy collapses too quickly before ground forces of sufficient size can be committed. In Iraq , “going in light” meant sending 150,000 troops, half of the force that General Franks told Rumsfeld would be needed to turn victory into peace. In Afghanistan the situation was ironic in another respect. The campaign was over too quickly. The air war may have destroyed Taliban but it did so before troops could be committed on the ground (they were another month away). The result was that both Mullah Omar and Bin Laden were able to slip out before being killed or captured.

A month or so later during Operation Anaconda in the Shah-i-Kot mountains in Afghanistan, assaults employing precision munitions such as the Joint Direct-Attack Munition (JDAM) and fire from AH-64 Apache attack helicopters both failed to destroy the resistance of many Al-Qaeda fighters concealed in well entrenched defensive positions. In the end, two battalions of ground troops, from the 101 st Air Mobile and 10 th Mountain Divisions were forced to resort to orthodox combined arms, as well as fire-and-manoeuvre tactics.

One of the main military lessons of Afghanistan would appear to be that advanced armies continue to require dismount-led combined armed forces for close combat in potentially complex terrain. Drawing an analogy with the over reliance of artillery bombardment in World War I, a recent study of the campaign concluded:

Just as weeks of bombardment failed to kill the entirety of 1916’s trench garrisons so 2001’s precision-guided fire support killed many but not all of its Al-Qaeda opponents... The key to success, whether in 1916 or 2002, is to team heavy, well-directed fire with skilled ground manoeuvre to exploit their effects and overwhelm the surviving enemy. 7

What the Second Gulf War showed was that there is no such thing as a short war, or a decisive political outcome independent of the national reconstruction phase that takes place after conventional hostilities are over. The military can win wars but it cannot impose victory. Often the international community is left with the messy aftermath of limited wars that neither its commanders nor political leaders are willing to fight to a finish. Of course, in the case of Iraq , the U.S. was willing to put in $87 billion and lead an international reconstruction effort, as was not the case in Afghanistan . But if Iraq taught anything, it was that embarking on wars in the hope that they will be over quickly offers no plausible definition of victory. Indeed, it can often be a recipe for short-term strategic failure.

There is as yet little evidence that advanced technology has the answer to Iraqi-style insecurity. By the time power was transferred to the interim government, there were around 1,169 attacks by insurgents per month compared with 411 in February 2004. Long before then, the Navy and Air Force had gone home, their own jobs completed. On the ground, urban areas cannot be controlled by surveillance technology, and good human intelligence remains the most valuable resource. Admiral Arthur Cebowski, Director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Force Transformation has argued in favour of a rebalancing away from capabilities for sustained war fighting towards those for constabulary duties and quick reaction forces. 8 Whether such a transformation is what the Americans understand by the “transformation of military affairs” is a moot question.


The belief that technology can substitute for strategy is a dangerous one. Williamson Murray and McGregor Knox have both warned that the cluster of innovations that constitute the military transformation lacks coherence and that this strategic vacuum is symptomatic of its deficient understanding of the political context of war 9. Nothing that happened in Iraq immediately after the cessation of main ground force combat would suggest this view needs revision.

And as another American commentator Eliot Cohen has pointed out, a revolutionary change in warfare stems not only from technological developments but also from an adaptation of the military instrument to political purposes 10. Enjoying an information edge over one’s enemies does not mean that one will always choose the right enemies or the right allies. Indeed, history affords many examples of how tactical success on the battlefield has often resulted in strategic ruin.

While the RMA tends to be concerned with the conduct of large-scale, high-speed and high-intensity wars, America ’s enemies will seek as they have done in both Afghanistan and Iraq to play the asymmetric card. The conflicts likely to dominate the headlines in the immediate future will probably involve instability in or the collapse of, weak states and be characterised by prolonged low-intensity warfare. Modern wars will no longer have defined fronts. They will be largely fought by guerrilla forces and involve the civilian population, and be distinctively low tech.

Asymmetrical warfare of course is not usually taught in military academies as a practice. It is rarely pursued as a strategy of first choice by states. It is usually stumbled into by failing societies when the state fails, and the war goes “civil”. The military war evolved into a civil war in Iraq the moment the Baathist regime collapsed. Massive looting took place – a shocking outcome, which could have been predicted given the absence of civil society in Iraq itself. By comparison, the post-war occupation of Germany and Japan (which the State Department began planning for only days after Pearl Harbor ) eventually succeeded because neither society turned upon itself. Their museums were not looted nor their citizens targeted by suicide bombers. Both societies held together even with their cities in ruins.

Western powers do not understand civil wars. Clausewitz never discussed them. Hobbes feared them above everything else because they produced non-state actors, private armies and armed political factions – what he graphically described in The Leviathan as “worms in the intestines of the state”. It is those “worms” – Fedayeen and Al-Qaeda operatives, ex-Baathist party cadres, as well as criminals whom Saddam released from prison just prior to his fall that defy the certitudes of so many of the exponents of military transformation. On the political front, that transformation may merely lead the U.S. into a strategic endgame, an irony that Sun Tzu for one would have appreciated.


1 Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of Warfare: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), pxvii-xviii.

2 Bruce D. Berkowitz , The New Face of War ( New York : Free Press, 2003) p75.

3 See Chris Coker’s Asymmetrical Warfare ( Oslo : IFS Info 1/2001) for further examples of the Iraqi army’s inability to do the unexpected.

4 Leonard Wong, Thomas Kolditz and Raymond Millen, “Why They Fight: Combat Motivation in the Iraq War”, US Army War College , Strategic Studies Institute ( Carlisle , PA : July 2002). Publication available online at

5 Dr. Steven Metz, Armed Conflict in the Twenty-First Century: The Information Revolution and Post-Modern Warfare (US Army War College: Strategic Studies Institute, April 2000), p34.

6 See James Fallows, “Blind into Baghdad ”, The Atlantic Monthly, Jan/Feb 2004.

7 Michael Evans/Alan Ryan (eds.), “From Breitenfeld to Baghdad : Perspectives on Combined Arms Warfare”, Working Paper No 122 ( Canberra : Land Warfare Studies Centre, 2003), p22.

8 Alice Hills , “On Patrol In Iraq”, The World Today, December 2003, p8.

9 Williamson Murray and McGregor Knox, “Thinking about Revolutions in Warfare” in The Dynamics of MilitaryRevolution, 1300-2050, edited by Knox and Murray, ( Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2001).

10 Eliot Cohen, “A Revolution in Warfare”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996, p51.

Prof Christopher Coker is a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, U.K. since 1982. He is an expert in British foreign and defence policies and on the ethics of war. Prof Coker has published several books over the years and his more recent works include: Humane Warfare (2001); Waging War Without Warriors (2003); and The Future of War: The Re-enchantment of War in the Twenty-First Century (2004). Prof Coker has also published a number of papers with think tanks including The Centre for Policy Studies, The Institute for European Defence Studies and The Royal Institute for International Affairs. He is also a Member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Journal Advisory Board.
Last updated on 24 Apr 2010
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