Obama – America’s First Air Power President

Even the strongest proponents for the uses of air power rarely claim that action in the third dimension can win a war by itself.  This is ironic, considering that the earliest air power theorists had nowhere near the technology or capabilities that todays air forces have, and yet they believed an air force could finish a war before the army was even mobilized.  Guilio Douhet felt that the bomber and the nation-state had made ground forces irrelevant. If you break the nations will through mass terror-bombing, you can force an enemy to capitulate, easy as that. However, the limited effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaigns of World War Two proved these theories wrong.

Along the way, while presidents used air power, none relied exclusively upon it.  North Korean aggression was met with troops, the same in Vietnam.  The Cuban Missile Crisis contained a contingency plan for both a bombing campaign, and a land invasion, but it was sea power that performed the relevant military maneuvers.   Reagan intervened with air power in Libya, but also ordered invasions and Grenada and Panama with boots on the ground.

The post-Cold War era saw troops deployed to stop Suddam Hussein Bill Clinton may have ordered a pro-longed bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, and short ones in Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan, but in the former it has been argued that it was the threat of ground invasion that led to the end of the conflict, and the latter three were meant to be punitive, not as a strategy for future operations.

President George W. Bush, meanwhile, responded to the 9/11 attacks with not just punitive invasions but occupations and a desire to remake the Middle East into a democratic haven.  This was impossible without boots on the ground, and the importance of air power was at a low ebb.

But, President Obama has brought in a new renaissance of air power.  While it is hard to believe that Obama has poured over the works of Robert Pape, Colin Gray, Gulio Douhet or John Warden, and developed through these the Obama Doctrine, he has been the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power to obtain American goals.  President Obama famously ramped up the drone campaign against al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  This allowed him to continually attack terrorist leaders while remaining to be seen as the president who did not commit any more American troops.  Libya was a campaign performed exclusively through air power, and again we see in Iraq a refusal to send troops to stop ISIS. The Kurds – supplied through American airlift capabilities – are the primary kinetic means Obama is utilizing to fight ISIS. 

One of the few ways that America is reassuring its Eastern European NATO allies against Russian incursions, is through increased air patrols over the Baltic states with American fighters, and AWACS and JSTARS overflights constantly monitoring the Ukrainian situation.  It can even be argued that Obama’s lasting legacy, the SEAL raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, was an operation with air power at its heart: without the air capability to get a SEAL team in and out of Jalalabad, it is extremely unlikely the raid would have taken place.

Clearly Obama is taking this route because of his desire to not get American troops involved in another war, especially in the Middle East.  Air power allows him to intervene while keeping American casualties to a minimum.  It also allows him to sell his interventions as humanitarian, as Libya and Iraq show.  The United States will strike quickly if there is the potential for a humanitarian crisis (with, of course, the major exception of Syria).  In policing the world through air power, Obama has created a policy that is largely popular at home with the electorate.

However, though hard for an air power advocate to admit, the historical record shows that air power alone does not win wars.  It can be the largest factor in destroying an enemy army, especially when there is such a discrepancy in ability such as in Desert Storm, but when the enemy is so non-reliant on traditional centers of gravity like power grids or communication nodes, there is only so much air power can achieve.  However,  bands of guerillas fighting in the desert are much harder to find and engage without boots on the ground, as France in Mali has discovered.

In becoming the first president to rely almost exclusively on air power for military engagement, President Obama has gotten himself into a trap that was thought to be debunked 70 years ago.  Despite the importance of air power, the most important factor is the man on the ground with the gun.[1]

[1] Colin Gray“The Continued Primacy of Geography,” Orbis. (Spring 1996), 257.

Mathew Preston – MA student


The University of Calgary Wins the ISA

In April of last year, the students of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and the students of the Political Science department met with a mission in mind. The idea was to get as many quality representatives from the University of Calgary as possible into the most prestigious conference in the International Relations world: the annual International Studies Association Convention. The students, with the help of the faculty, met several times in the boardroom at CMSS in order to painstakingly analyze each abstract. The atmosphere was candid, and ego had to be put aside, as each abstract was exposed to criticism both constructive and otherwise.

The end results were quite impressive. All told, 9 University of Calgary graduate students got 11 abstracts accepted to the prestigious conference. Not all of the students could make it and some double acceptances were declined, and in the end 8 students presented at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto between March 26-29, 2014.

The first to present was Shaiel Ben-Ephraim, a fourth year PhD candidate from CMSS as part of a panel on “Ethnicity, Authority, and Violence”. Shaiel presented on civil war conflict termination. His major thesis was that civil wars cannot be terminated in a stable long-term manner through political compromise. Instead, stable post conflict outcomes occur either when one side wins clearly or when both sides have an interest in presenting the appearance of compromise to international and domestic audiences. In order to measure which side has won, Shaiel introduced the measure of the “pivotal contested good”, the allocation of which determines the winners and losers in the conflict. The chair and discussant of the panel, Nikolaos Biziouras of the United States Naval Academy was impressed and said that the “pivotal contested good” measure was a “great idea.”

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim presents on civil war termination.

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim presents on civil war termination.

The next to present was Saira Bano, a third year PhD candidate from CMSS. Saira presented on a panel focusing on “New Directions for Constructivist Theorizing in IR” in front of a huge crowd. People were literally turned away as spectators poured out into the hall. Her presentation, entitled “Norms Competition in Constructivist Theory” tries to pinpoint exactly when contested norms are stable and when they are flexible. One of the great puzzles of constructivist theory is how norms can be simultaneously fluid enough to change over time and yet stable enough to influence political outcomes. In order to shed some light on this vexing problem, Saira imports Margaret Archer’s complex yet elegant Morphogenesis theory from the sociological sphere. In this theory, structure and agent work in sequence rather than simultaneously.  One of the discussants told the up and coming constructivist that “this is the most sophisticated paper in this panel”.

Katie Domansky showed incredible poise during her presentation entitled “Innovation and Military Culture: The Civilian Shaping Military Change.” Katie, a fourth year PhD candidate at CMSS fit in perfectly with the theme of her panel: “A Changing Armed Forces?” She utilized the Canadian case of military reform, to argue that substantive changes in military culture should be guided by external civil oversight. She traced the process by which the Canadian Forces, an organization traditionally resistant to change underwent substantial reforms in the aftermath of the “Somalia Affair.” What is so striking about the Canadian case is that the civilian Minister’s Monitoring Committee on Change in the Canadian Forces managed to oversee successful reforms in the CF. Even more striking, is how deeply these changes were internalized by the military brass. One of the audience members told Katie she had come to the panel specifically to see her, and complimented the budding scholar on her performance.

Tim Choi was next to represent with a particularly timely and relevant presentation entitled “Whither the Seas? The Influence of New Manufacturing Methods on Seaborne Trade”. The paper addresses the long-term implications of the development of upcoming manufacturing technologies (for example the “3-D printer) and their influence on seaborne trade. In theory, rapid manufacturing technology could greatly reduce the volume of traditional trade by allowing the creation of those same goods on the spot. In order to demonstrate the advantages of rapid manufacturing over traditional manufacturing, Tim surprised everyone by pulling a fork out of his suit pocket. He said “this might look simple but in fact it requires a specific mold to make each type of fork”, he exclaimed while waving the utensil for dramatic effect. Rapid manufacturing technology meanwhile can be adjusted to make just about anything.

However, opinions differ as to the influence this will have on the international trade system. Tim painted three possible scenarios for international trade: in one scenario trade remains much as it was, in a second scenario anything can be produced at home and seaborne trade becomes completely outdated. However, Choi believes that most -likely basic products will be produced at home, complex products will be purchased online, while some “need it right now” products will be available at stores. Not surprisingly, the naval oriented scholar concluded that “seaborne trade is here to stay.” Discussant Margaret Kossal of the Georgia Institute of Technology praised Choi for approaching the issue in a “novel way.”

Tim Choi presents on rapid manufacturing. Too bad we did not get a shot of him with the fork.

Tim Choi presents on rapid manufacturing. Too bad we did not get a shot of him with the fork.

Next to present was Brice Coates, former CMSS Masters student and current Political Science PhD student. Coates utilized the formative years of the CIA in order to ascertain the factors which shape intelligence agency culture. Utilizing the insights of historical institutionalism, he traced the culture to the early turf wars the CIA was forced into in order to establish its role and later to defend that role. Brice explained that the CIA grew by taking the “path of least resistance”, and the role thus assumed constrained and shaped cultural development through a path dependent process. The characteristics thus developed became what is referred to by members as “agency gospel.” Discussant Thomas Mahnken of the US Naval War College gave excellent comments and noted that Brice delivered a “great paper on the origins of the CIA.”

David Torre, fourth year PhD candidate at the Political Science Department (and as far as we are concerned an honorary CMSS’er) had the ambition and gall to present two papers at the conference. The first, entitled “A Nuclear Rethink: Making Sense of the Nuclear Renaissance in the Developing World” tries to answer the puzzle of why nuclear energy continues to be popular in the developing world, while the developed world seems to be phasing it out. David questioned the assumptions behind the turn the developed world had taken against nuclear energy. There is an erroneous tendency to see the use of nuclear energy as an either/or proposition: when in fact it can be complementary. He also believes that the capacity of developed states to transition renewable energy sources is seriously hampered by the lack of relevant infrastructure.

In his second paper, titled “Some Assembly Required: The Role of the ‘Rogue State’ within the American National Security Debate”, David took on the concept of rogue states. His paper fit in perfectly with an excellent panel on “Discourses of Security”. He argued that the propagation of the concept of of rogue states, which the United States created in order to label states which do not conform to its conception of international norms, was an act of securitization with unintended consequences on an unintended audience. In order to demonstrate this dynamic, David asked the audience to “imagine we are out on a dinner date.” He went on to illustrate that while we tend to think of a date as occurring between the two people directly involved, there may be other people listening to the date and in a very real sense they are part of the date as well and a relevant audience. In the same way, Torre introduced the novel concept of the “secondary audience” in securitization theory. He argued that the US had classified certain states as rogue states in order to appeal to domestic audiences while neglecting whether or not that message was appropriate for secondary audiences such as Western European states. He ably demonstrated that the attempt to label Iraq as a rogue state was counterproductive in garnering support for the Second Iraq War.

The contingent of University of Calgary students did a tremendous job of representing the university and furthering scholarship in fields as diverse as intelligence studies, international political economy, critical security studies, energy security studies, civil war studies and constructivist theory. The students were exposed to the best and most cutting edge research in the field and correspondingly benefitted those around them by contributing to a fertile academic dialogue and process. The contingent is currently working on the abstracts for the 2015 convention in New Orleans, where they hope to go on to even greater success.

The gang celebrates after their presentations.

The gang celebrates after their presentations.

Whither Strategy? The S3C Conference, Crimea, a Freezing Day in Calgary, and the future of Strategic Studies

The 16th Annual Graduate Strategic Studies Conference convened at the University of Calgary hours after initial reports that unidentified and heavily armed forces had begun cementing control over the Crimean peninsula. By the end of the conference, it was clear that a large Russian invasion had been launched with the intention of dislodging Crimea from the Ukraine, presenting a serious dilemma for NATO members. Western nations found themselves completely unprepared for this scenario and with few appealing options for reaction.

Strategic Studies, since its inception as a modern discipline in the 1950’s has been the handmaiden of the security establishment and reflected the concerns of Western governments. Correspondingly, the post-Cold War era saw Strategic Studies moving away from conventional interstate war and nuclear deterrence to different approaches to conflict. As the NATO battlefield shifted from a conventional one to an asymmetrical one, the concepts of terrorism, human security, humanitarian intervention and counterinsurgency dominated the field. The assumption was that the conventional battlefield would become a nostalgic memory as a more complex security reality unfolded requiring the integration of social, moral and technological means far more sophisticated than those utilized in the past. While many of these approaches have reached theoretical and methodological impasses, they have essentially become the new orthodoxy of the field.

Recent events strongly challenge these assumptions. The actions of the Russian Federation fall in line with classic inter-state strategies. While many are reminded of the Cold War, Putin has actually utilized the Adolph Hitler playbook step by step. Here, a dictator passes laws discriminating against a vulnerable minority in his own country and yet is allowed to host the Olympics and turn it into a spectacle glorifying his authoritarian regime. Emboldened by the feebleness of the West and their willingness to pay tribute to him, he takes over a part of a neighboring country for supposedly irredentist reasons, to liberate his ethnic kin. All this is done in violation of an agreement signed twenty-years ago guaranteeing the sovereignty of a new and vulnerable state. The only difference being that, unlike Hitler, Putin did not bother asking the West for permission. Despite the fact that we have seen this entire scenario play out before, we still find the use of traditional power politics surprising. Inter-state war with Russia seems unthinkable to us, but the use of conventional military to improve national prestige and geopolitical standing seems natural to Russia.

The young scholars who gathered at the Rosza Centre on a freezing Calgary weekend allowed us a glimpse at the current state of the discipline of Strategic Studies. Are the future scholars of Strategic Studies prepared for the re-emergence of conventional threats and classic power politics? Has the focus on asymmetrical warfare and social factors given us a deeper understanding of conflict which can be assimilated to any future battlefield or have they distracted us from more powerful and dangerous conflicts with great powers?

The conference focused disproportionately on the “new” battlefield of the 21st Century and the post 9/11 orthodoxy of asymmetry and human security. Roger Patrick Warren of St. Andrews University gave a fascinating insight into the narratives inspiring mujahedeen fighters in Syria. Andrew McLaughlin of the University of Waterloo discussed the role of embedded journalists in the Iraq War, while Harris Stephenson discussed Canadian strategy in Afghanistan. Shaiel Ben-Ephraim of CMSS, highlighted the difficulty of achieving compromise based peace agreements in civil wars. Meanwhile, Ezra Karmel of the University of Victoria discussed the fragility of the Jordanian state.

The metanarrative behind these presentations is the controversy over threat of  “the Clash of Civilizations” and the threat of failed states which former Secretary of State Robert Gates had once called “the main security challenge of our time.” However, from a contemporary vantage point these threats seem almost quaint. Failed states tend to be in strategically peripheral areas, while great power threats emerge in strategically crucial regions such as Europe and East Asia. They also do not involve the potential for nuclear war. Furthermore, Islamic terrorism has proved to be mostly a threat to other Muslims and not to the West. As the University of Maryland START figures have clearly shown, the number of terrorist attacks against Western targets have declined precipitously in the last few years while inter-Islamic terrorism has skyrocketed. What is happening in the Middle East is not so much a war against the West but an internal Islamic conflict.

Nuclear deterrence was mostly absent as a salient topic in the conference. The only presentation which touched on deterrence in a meaningful way, was given by Joseph Andrew Buscemi of the University of Waterloo. In a colorful and insightful presentation, he explained how the United Kingdom had given up its famous blitz era system of civil defense in favor of reliance on nuclear deterrence. After a political battle, the concept of nuclear survivability was abandoned as an option despite the fact that it was an easier sell to the public. The stand Duncan Sandys took in this 1957 Defense White Paper is an example of both strategic foresight and political courage.

The lack of attention to conventional deterrence today among both scholars and practitioners is troubling. Public opinion today does not comprehend the importance of classic deterrence concepts such as credibility, commitment and red lines. This is why the American decision to compromise its credibility by ignoring its own “red lines” in Syria was applauded by the public and the media. The West, and particularly the Ukraine, is now paying the price of this conceptual neglect. The return of nuclear deterrence to the center of both policy-making and strategic studies is necessary to avoid the recurrence of this travesty.

Interestingly, Canada is quite comfortable in the new-old paradigm of geopolitical rivalry. The members of the Canadian establishment who were invited to speak at the conference possessed a remarkably old fashioned concept of geopolitics. Kelly Williams, Director of Strategy and Government Relations at General Dynamics Canada, told the young audience that the pillars of Canadian security do not change, only Canadian ambition does. Rob Huebert, Senior Research Fellow at CMSS and known Arctic hawk, warned that “whatever happens in the Ukraine will spill into the Arctic.” Reil Erickson, pilot in the Royal Canadian Air-Force evinced a very old fashioned view of air power, stating that fighters are there to guarantee air superiority and deny aerospace to the enemy. Interdiction and missions’ related to human security are secondary. Her personal experience in intercepting a Russian bomber in Canadian airspace may have had a hand in constructing this cold war mentality. This mentality may be what is behind Stephen Harper’s swift old-school reaction to the Russian invasion, the withdrawal of the Canadian ambassador to Moscow “for consultations”.

The scholars on the Canadian panel at the conference had a more nuanced vision of the Canadian role but one that similarly stressed continuity. Matthew Wiseman of Wilfrid Laurier University talked of the traditional role that Canada has played as “monkey in the middle” between the United States and Russia, particularly after the development of missile technology which could overfly the Great White North. Therefore, a great deal of the involvement of Canada in great power struggles has less to do with Russia and more to do with the alliance with the United States.

However, this alliance has also traditionally been part of a strategy of homeland protection against a constant Russian threat. Tiffany Vinci of Carleton University pointed out that the focus of Canadian intelligence gathering throughout the cold war was the Soviet air threat. This same threat led to the creation of NORAD as well which heralded an era of increased Canadian-US closeness. Not much seems to have changed on this front. As Rob Huebert summed up the panel he pointed out that those same concerns are as pertinent as ever since Russian bombers continue to fly in Canadian airspace. Thus not only do cold war institutions continue to exist well into the 21st Century, but they continue to be utilized to counter the very same threats.

However, the call for the importance of human security and domestic factors which has dominated Strategic Studies discourse for the past decade or so was still heard loud and clear. In fact, the salience of the term in non-academic settings such as the military and the private sector were particularly striking. Mark Lalonde, Director at CKR Global Risk Solutions spoke of the considerations the private-sector takes into account in assessing investment risk. These are largely human security elements, such as unemployment, literacy, access to water and concerns of corporate responsibility much more so than interstate threats.

The ability to work and fight with diverse groups within nations facing internal security problems requires cultural sensitivity and the ability to work with different social actors, tribes and ethnic groups. Harris Stephenson of the University of Calgary spoke of the Canadian conception of war in this reality, which had integrated human security as a core concept. The War in Afghanistan, he claimed, could be seen as a four-block war integrating peacekeeping, humanitarian operations and civil-military cooperation alongside traditional war fighting. Riley Collins of the University of Calgary described the virtual simulation programs provided by the United States military as an attempt to prepare soldiers for this new and complex battlefield. These included not only the sorts of complex civilian oriented combat situations which are an integral part of COIN, but also intense and surreal cultural orientation training. For example, recruits are put in social settings and taught what the appropriate reaction to social situations would be in the local culture. Collins said that this approach was based on the frightening yet intriguing concept that “empathy is a weapon.”

However, the deconstruction of the state in current Strategic Studies is unhelpful in understanding the extreme nationalism fueling Russian foreign policy. It distances the West from the strategic and cultural concepts motivating its geopolitical rivals. It seems that not much has changed in Russian foreign policy or in the inability of the West to understand it. As Patrick Cabel of the University of Calgary ably demonstrated, French Intelligence in the 1920’s did not know what to make of the Soviet combination of inferior capabilities and intense and aggressive nationalism. At first the USSR was not taken seriously because it was viewed as incapable of launching sustained military operations. However, the USSR surprised the French by signing the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany. By 1927 French Intelligence was increasingly concerned about Soviet intentions, and called the USSR “the most militaristic state in the world.” Misconceptions about Soviet intentions and capabilities would contribute to the Western failure to ally with the USSR against Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and then to predict renewed German-Soviet rapprochement through the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement.

Despite major advances in intelligence technology, our ability to comprehend the motives of Russian foreign policy seem no more advanced today. Perhaps rather than deconstructing the state, it would be more helpful to return to the concept of strategic culture. Iain Johnston argues that ‘different states have different predominant strategic preferences that are rooted in the early or formative experiences of the state, and are influenced to some degree, by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites.’ Not surprisingly, the concept was first coined in 1977 in order to better understand the enigma of Soviet nuclear policy and it remains as useful today as it was when Jack Snyder wrote “The Soviet Strategic Culture : Implications for Limited Nuclear Operations” in 1977.

Samantha Hossack of the University of Calgary gave an incredibly topical talk, in analyzing the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979. She asked the question “what made the USSR invade a sovereign state in 1979?” The answer of course being for the same reason it invaded one now. Just as German aggression was greatly exacerbated by its two-front vulnerability, so is Russian belligerence fueled by legitimate fears. Russia is obsessed with security due to incredibly destructive invasions by foreign powers. In order to prevent that, it has traditionally created buffer states under its control. In 1956, 1968, 1979 and 2014 it attacked when pro-Russian governments lost a grip on power and threatened to remove the protection provided by these buffer states. Yet, the West has forgotten these lessons.

As Colin Chia from McGill University pointed out, great power prestige and nationalism are major factors in the formulation of Russian and Chinese foreign policy. Using Deborah Larson and Alexei Shevchenko’s model, he pointed to the nature of great power ambitions. These elements include the creation of a sphere of influence, the pursuit of deference by other great powers and revanchist impulses. The theory seems to fit Putin’s Russia perfectly. Russia is using the Ukraine and Georgia to establish a wider sphere of influence. It seeks EU and US deference in the Ukraine and recognition of their superior status. It has also utilized its former control over Crimea and its irredentist claims on the local population to justify its aggression in the area. This classic great power policy shocked US Secretary of State John Kerry. He recently accused Russia of behaving “in a 19th century fashion.”

The liberal tradition of Western states discourages this sort of collectivist and statist view of power politics. Chia claims that Canada seeks its identity and prestige outside of geopolitics, by emphasizing its excellence in hockey for example. However, it is not absent from the calculations of Western states either. Harris Stephenson of the University of Calgary made a case for the continuing importance of prestige in Canadian policy. In explaining why Canada had decided to take on the demanding role of COIN in the Kandahar area rather than controlling “an empty hilltop somewhere”, he said that officials had stated that since “Canada was a serious nation” it should take on a serious role.

The United States however has an utterly different concept of national prestige, and this has been both a hindrance and a boon to its global position. This is part and parcel of the manner in which the Obama administration misunderstands Russian foreign policy and its motives. As Tim Anderson of the University of Calgary convincingly demonstrated, much of American thought is based on moral precepts rather than realpolitik. Anderson showed how the neoconservative approach to American foreign policy is fully applicable to the Kantian categorical imperative. Ultimately that approach, and most major American approaches to American foreign policy, stress the benefit of the international community and not just the national interest of the United States. This has increased American cultural appeal, or as soft power. As Anderson said, the conception among policy elites is that “American hegemony is for the benefit of all mankind.” However, this lens of morality and American expectionalism is unhelpful in comprehending the foreign policy interests of classic power politics driven powers such as China and Russia.

The overt focus on the wrong variables and the lack of attention to classic explanations and cases does pose some interesting philosophical questions. Does the academic and Western focus on innovation, change and the individual mean that we are losing sight of the timeless truths of politics and strategy? One thing is for sure, from the vantage point of March, 2014, the insights of history and the classics of strategy seem more insightful than ever while the post 9/11 orthodoxy of asymmetry and human security seems dated and incomplete. Perhaps we should heed Sun Tzu’s advice (quoted in the program) “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim. PhD Candidate.