Chuck Spinney: Myth of Precision-Guided Coercion

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Chuck Spinney Sounds Off....

June 22, 2011

From Serbia to Libya

The Myth of Precision-Guided Coercion

By FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY, Counterpunch

Vieux Port, St Raphael, France

At the end of May the British press was filled with stories headlined “Gaddafi to be told to stand down or face Apache attack.” As of this writing, the Apaches have attacked, but Gaddafi has not stood down.

The Apache threat is a case study in the sterile but financially lucrative marriage of coercive diplomacy to surgical strikes by precision guided weapons. What passes for a war strategy in Libya is now a comic opera starring NATO as an understrength, self-referencing techno bully, who acts as if he is now so fearsome that he does not even need a carrot to go with his stick.

In effect, the British press said NATO forces were telegraphing their punch. NATO was about to deploy eight attack helicopters, four British Apaches and four French Tigers, armed with Hellfire precision-guided missiles, like those fired from US Predator drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Libya. The Hellfires were to be targeted against Qaddafi's forces besieging the Libyan city of Misrata in a desperate hope that that Qaddafi's forces would crumble or withdraw their support from him.

The psychology described in these reports was not an aberration; it reflects a techno-dependency that comes straight out of the US playbook. In fact, the US version of technological supremacy eliminates the need for cleverness in a military strategist. The mental labors of a Sun Tzu, Napoleon, Grant, or a Manstein are no longer needed, because they can be displaced by silver bullets spit out by machines. All that is needed in a ‘strategist' is the ability to construct coarse threats, even when, as in the case of Libya, the bullies making those threats are manifestly out of altitude, airspeed, and ideas.

This kind of primitive thinking proves again the extent to which NATO has bought into the flawed US ideology that its technological advantage gives it the ability to coerce all opponents into doing their bidding, even though NATO's European forces can not afford to waste money on a scale remotely approaching that of the US. You would think a European planner would understand this economic limitation, if not the fallacy of ideology itself. After all, the European planners in NATO have seen this nonsense before — in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The central idea in the compound theory of precision-guided coercion is a marriage of the military theory of techno-war, especially the use of high tech surveillance systems and precision-guided weapons, to the political theory of coercive diplomacy. This marriage is more a product of the Pentagon's advocates of techno-war than the go-along bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom. The Pentagonians sold the succession of Presidents after 1990 on the idea of combining the cold-war inspired theory of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) with post-cold war foreign policies. The RMA (not to mention the Apache attack helicopter) was originally conceived for fighting the tank-heavy forces of the Warsaw Pact on the North German plain, although the roots of using precision guided weapons and surgical strikes can be traced back to the disgraced theory of gradual escalation in Vietnam and the theory of daylight precision bombing in WWII.

Its contemporary reincarnation was spearheaded by William Perry over a twenty year period between the mid 70s and mid 90s. Perry, a quintessential military-industrial operator, equally at home in the Pentagon, the boardroom, or in the lecture halls at Stanford University, got the ball rolling during the height of the Cold War when he was Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the late 1970s during the Carter Administration, and then he sealed it into the post-cold war mindset when he was Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration in the 1990s. The Reaganauts merely followed his script during the interregnum in the 1980s by blindly pouring money into high-cost programs he worked so hard to start during the 1970s.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact evaporated, the threat of a peace dividend terrified the Pentagon, the contractors, and their wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress. Perry helped save the day by twisting old cold-war ideas into their contemporary form by combining the military theory of precision strikes to the political theory of coercive diplomacy that had become so attractive to the self-styled foreign policy elite housed in think tanks and academia, awaiting their calls to government service. Most of these ‘elites' are trained in political science (itself and oxymoron), have little or no military experience, are technological illiterates, and lust after the policy jobs in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom — in short, they are perfect consumers of the fools gold produced by the technically savvy alchemists of the MICC, like Perry and his ilk.

Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment (sticks that would sometimes be accompanied by carrots, but not necessarily) will ineluctably persuade an adversary to act in a way that we would deem acceptable. There is, for example, no carrot in the case of Qaddafi, where Nato is trying to coerce him into leaving office, so NATO can send him to the dock in the Hague to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Some choice! In theory, the precision guidance technologies give the military a capability to carefully calibrate the coercion by surgically striking selected targets with so-called precision-guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage. Hi-tech surveillance systems would enable target identification and selection and then monitor the effects of the surgical strikes — thus reducing strategy to a cybernetic negative feedback control system, a conception not unlike
that of a common household thermostat.

This marriage of primitive pop psychology with the simplistic promises of hi-tech weapons makes war look easy, safe, and cheap — and therefore easy to sell to Presidents with little or no military experience but who are under political pressure to do something ‘decisive.' These benefits quickly became evident in the United States' increasing addiction to pointless drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs in the 1990s — e.g., bombing a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, or destroying an Al Qaeda obstacle course in Afghanistan, not to mention the endless attacks on Iraq's air defense sites in the 1990s. This mode of thinking is now clearly evident in NATO's operations against Qaddafi in Libya.

The military dimension of this theory was eagerly adopted by the US foreign policy elite during the 1980s and 1990s, because it mechanized their simplistic theories of coercion by giving them a tool to play their game. Madeline Albright, in particular, as Clinton's Secretary of State, became addicted to coercive diplomacy in the Balkans, backed up by tit-for-tat surgical strikes. According to General Colin Powell's memoirs, she once almost gave him an aneurism by demanding, “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about, if we can't use it?” Albright and Perry got their first chance to strut their stuff in Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in September 1995. While they claimed it was a stunning success, and notwithstanding the uncritical acceptance of these claims by the mainstream media, the results were ambiguous, to put it charitably.

Some might argue I am being unfair. Surely, the damage done in 11 days by the 708 guided weapons striking 48 target complexes forced Slobodan Miloševic to the bargaining table at Dayton. Did that not prove, to paraphrase Richard Holbrooke's remarks to the annual convention of the Air Force Association in 1996, that more bombing leads to better diplomacy?

That argument, however, ignores the decisive effects of Operation Storm, the August 1995 Croatian ground offensive that cleansed the Krajina of more than 200,000 Serbs and changed the situation on the ground in Bosnia by cutting the Bosnian Serb supply lines. It also fails to consider that all the belligerents were exhausted and needed a rest. Nevertheless, the lesson the marriage partners wanted to learn, namely that a weak-willed Miloševic would respond predictably to precision-guided coercion, did have one effect: It set the stage for the gross miscalculation at the so-called Rambouillet peace conference.

This can be seen in an intelligence analysis of Miloševic's psychology in late 1998 and early 1999. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 1998 (quoted in the Washington Post of April 8,1999) said, “Miloševic is susceptible to outside pressure. He will eventually accept a number of outcomes [in Kosovo], from autonomy to provisional status with final resolution to be determined, as long as he remains the undisputed leader in Belgrade.” An interagency report coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency in January 1999 (reported in the April 18, 1999 New York Times) went even further, saying “After enough of a defense to sustain his honor and assuage his backers [Miloševic] will quickly sue for peace.”

The Rambouillet “Accord” aimed to give Miloševic a chance to defend his honor. That NATO's demands were unacceptable should be no surprise. Like the infamous Austro-Hungarian diktat to Serbia in 1914, they were blatant infringements on Serbia's national sovereignty. The Accord's military implementation annex (Appendix B) proposed to give NATO forces “free and unimpeded access throughout the FRY” [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo], immunity from “arrest, investigation or detention,” and authorized NATO to “detain” Serbian individuals and turn them over to unspecified “appropriate authorities.”

The plan backfired. Miloševic did not react predictably like a mechanical thermostat, but chose instead to escalate rapidly by unleashing his forces in Kosovo — whereupon the “carefully calibrated” limited bombing campaign aimed at changing one man's behavior exploded into a general war against the Serbian people. NATO had expanded the target list to include the Serbian power grid and civilian infrastructure, the war settled into a grinding siege of attrition, and planners worried about running out of cruise missiles. The conduct of the bombing campaign was shaped more by the speed with which targets got through the approval cycle than by any strategy linking a particular target's destruction to a desired tactical or strategic effect. As a result, NATO bombers effectively destroyed the economic infrastructure of a tiny nation with an economy smaller than that of Fairfax County, Virginia.

U.S. military planners had predicted that a “precision” bombing campaign would force the Serbs to capitulate in only two to three days, but the air campaign ground on for seventy-nine days. At war's end, U.S. forces had flown only 15 per cent as many strike sorties as in Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991, but had expended 72 per cent as many precision-guided munitions and 94 per cent as many cruise missiles.

When it was over, NATO intelligence determined that only minute quantities of Serbian tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and trucks—all high-priority targets—were destroyed, in part because the Serbs fooled our complex surveillance and precision guidance technologies with simple decoys. There are even reports that they used cheap microwave ovens as decoys to attract our enormously expensive radar homing missiles. Serbian troops marched out of Kosovo in good order, their fighting spirit intact, displaying clean equipment and crisp uniforms, and in larger numbers than planners said were in Kosovo to begin with. Moreover, the terms of Serb “surrender,” which the undefeated Serb military regarded as a sellout by Serbian president Miloševic, were the same as those the Serbs agreed to at the Rambouillet Conference, before U.S. negotiators led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright inserted a poison pill (in the form of the
military annex mentioned above) to queer the deal.

Of course, the weapons makers love the marriage of high-cost precision weapons to coercive diplomacy, because it generates an astronomical need for a never ending flow of money into their financial coffers with orders for new weapons, even when the quantity of those weapons decreases. Congressmen love it because the money and patronage continues to flow to their districts. So, the economic result is what we in the Pentagon used to call a self-licking ice cream cone. And the cone has become particularly tasty in the age of perpetual small wars we have created after the Cold War ended in 1991. [Readers interested in the domestic causes of this perpetual war are referred to my essay, The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War.]

Will precision guided coercion get lucky and eventually work for NATO in its pissant operation in Libya?

Perhaps. After all, Qaddafi's forces are tiny, ill equipped and poorly trained. They can not possibly be compared in terms of effectiveness to the Serb Army in the 1990s. On the other hand, England and France cannot afford to waste money on the scale of the US. Moreover, it is by no means certain that the theory will work in Libya: it did not and has not worked in Iraq or Afghanistan, where the decapitations of Saddam and Osama were done the old fashioned way via lots of detective work coupled with by activities that looked more like those of a police SWAT team than a military combat operation. In any case, it is not at all clear that these decapitations are silver bullets that achieve anything beyond soothing our pride. The Pentagon and its wholly owned subsidiaries in Congress certainly do not want these decapitations to end the perpetual war. Indeed, Buck McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is madly trying to legislate the
idea that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda has mutated and the long war will continue for the foreseeable future.

If the marriage of coercive diplomacy to surgical strikes succeeds in Libya, its proponents will trumpet it as a canonical proof of their theory. If it fails again like it did in Kosovo, it won't matter. There will be no divorce in the US, and the union will live on and grow richer. The high-cost of precision guided coercion may bankrupt England and France and reduce the foreign market for US weapons, but that is a small price to pay. It will not affect the money flowing into the coffers of the US Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex. That is because new, more-expensive weapons are always on the drawing board to discount any failures in the present weapons. In this way, the promise of new technology repeatedly washes the inconvenient truth of history from what is left of the critical faculties of the mind.

No one will question what is a patently silly way of thinking, because, as the late American strategist Colonel John Boyd used to say, ‘the real strategy is don't interrupt the money flow, add to it' — and that always works like a charm in Versailles on the Potomac, if not Brussels.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at

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