Synergy of Coercion

Posted on December 17, 2012

This post originally appeared as a guest post at The Prying Eye

“Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.”

Eliot A. Cohen, “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” Foreign Affairs. January/February 1994.

In the quote above, Cohen references in post-Gulf War I infatuation with the technological leaps achieved in coercing irresponsible states without the risk of U.S. casualties. I don’t intend here to rehash the significant debate, operational history, and strategic musings related to the air campaigns of the 1990s (or air campaigns in support of larger war efforts for that matter). However, I would like to discuss, albeit briefly, a trend occurring in the coercive use of air power to achieve foreign policy objectives. This trend, I believe, dispels the fallacy of air power being the harbinger of future military options for U.S. policy makers.

In recent history there have been four operations that have been characterized as examples of the decisiveness air power to achieve foreign policy objectives: Operation Deliberate Force (Bosnia and Herzegovina-BiH), Operation Allied Force (Kosovo), Operation Enduring Freedom I (Afghanistan), and Operation Unified Protector (Libya). On the contrary, the operational history of each of these suggests that objectives were met in large part by a land component supported by an air component. In each operation, the land component was represented by indigenous forces acting independently, indigenous forces acting in concert with U.S. or Allied special operations forces (SOF) or paramilitary units, and/or the credible threat of or introduction of general purpose forces (GPF).

Operation Deliberate Force (BiH)

In August 1995, NATO conducted an air campaign to deter and undermine the ability of the Army of the Republic of Srpska’s to attack United Nations safe areas in BiH. As operational history shows, this air campaign was conduct whilst the Croatian Army, the Army of the Republic of BiH and the Croatian Defense Council prosecuted the ground campaigns Operations Flash, Storm, and Mistral. These two operations are credited as contributing factors to forcing Serbia back to peace negotiations in Dayton. In December 1995, NATO deployed its’ Implementation Force (IFOR) under Operation Joint Endeavor to enforce the Dayton Peace Accords.

Operation Allied Force (Kosovo)

In March 1999, NATO conducted an air campaign to end the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Kosovar Albanians, force the withdrawal of Yugoslavian military, policy and paramilitary forces in Kosovo, introduce a peacekeeping force that would allow the establishment of a political framework for the future administration of Kosovo. Again, whilst this campaign was being prosecuted, Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) insurgents were conducting ground operations in Kosovo against Yugoslav forces. Most of these operations were effective in drawing Yugoslav forces out into the open and subject to targeting by from the air. Further, while some contend not a factor in Yugoslavia’s concession, NATO planning efforts were underway for a potential ground intervention. In June 1999, after Yugoslavia accepted the terms of an international peace plan, NATO deployed its’ Kosovo Force (KFOR) under Operation Joint Guardian to conduct follow-on peacekeeping operations.

Operation Enduring Freedom I (Afghanistan)

In October 2001, in response to the infamous September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda, the United States in concert with other NATO allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom to dismantle al-Qaeda and its’ networks of operations in Afghanistan and oust its’ Taliban sponsors. In a matter of weeks, indigenous Afghan ground forces in concert with U.S. SOF and paramilitary units supported by a massive air campaign, ousted the Taliban and began hunting down the al-Qaeda network. In November 2001, U.S. Marines deployed south of Kandahar Afghanistan to begin what would turn into the ongoing operations to establish Afghanistan as a stable democratic state.

Operation Unified Protector (Libya)

In March 2011, in support of a United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) condemning the use of force against anti-government protestors by the Libyan regime of Maummar Gaddafi, NATO launched Operation Unified Protector to enforce a no-fly zone, naval blockade, and protect Libyan civilians. In response to the lethal repression by the Gaddafi regime, an armed rebellion escalated into a civil war pitting armed militia and army defectors who formed the National Liberation Army to fight against the Libyan Armed Forces and paramilitary groups. In October 2011, the air campaign ended after the death of Gaddafi and the National Interim Council was established as the de facto government of Libya.


Setting aside the recent diplomatic ineptness that failed to secure a UNSCR for international action in opposition to the brutal campaign of repression by the Assad regime in Syria, it is important to note what military policy options are available if action was to proceed. Based on the declaratory statements of the Obama administration, a coercive air campaign, much like the one in Libya is an example of preferred policy options. However, such an option, as I have briefly demonstrated, requires the commitment of a land component. Coercive air campaigns to change objectionable behavior requires the threat to use land forces or the actual use of land forces whether they be indigenous forces acting independently, indigenous forces acting in concert with SOF or paramilitary units, and/or the credible threat of or introduction of peacekeeping forces. Recent operational history has proven that the combined deployment of air and land power synergistically increases costs threatened to and absorbed by an opponent and has been effectively used to compel change.

So what may this mean for a military option in Syria? If enough air power can be patched together after the expense of the air campaign in Libya, a credible land component is necessary. Anything short of this will prove frustratingly ineffective. The question is who would contribute to the ground effort? The U.S.? Hardly. Much for the same reasons NATO would abstain: war weariness and ongoing operations in Afghanistan. That leaves a regional solution. Hegemon aspirant Iran is first to be written off. A coalition of Arab League states? Yet a credible peacekeeping force would be difficult to cobble together. Perhaps the other regional aspirant regularly snubbed by Europe? Turkey offers a NATO credible land force that is a ready made component of a larger allied air campaign.

Posted in: Warfare