Washington Watch

March 1, 2007

The Petraeus Doctrine

In a counterinsurgency, airpower is mostly useful as a means of hauling around ground forces while keeping an eye on the bad guys. Air strikes are probably too blunt an instrument to be of much value, and ground commanders should think twice before asking for them. If air strikes are used, though, a ground forces commander definitely should control them.

Quaint musings from a dusty, pre-“joint” Army field manual? Nope. Fresh ink from Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, tapped by President Bush to be the new commander of Multinational Force-Iraq.

The strange comments about the applications of modern airpower are contained in the dead-last, five-page annex to a brand-new 335-page Army-Marine Corps combined arms doctrine on counterinsurgency (or “COIN”), co-signed by Petraeus and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James F. Amos. Field Manual 3-24 was published in December.

Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. whose dissertation was titled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” took on the rewrite of the counterinsurgency doctrine because the Army hadn’t updated it in more than 20 years.

As commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the 2003 major combat phase of the Iraq war, he frequently told reporters that the Army was ill-prepared to fight insurgencies and failed to learn from the history of such conflicts. He left Iraq in 2005 to take up command of the US Army Combined Arms Center. In January, he was confirmed by the Senate, 81-0, for his new job in Iraq.

The views in FM 3-24 reflect a limited knowledge of airpower’s true role in the current operation and suspicion that airpower can all too easily prove counterproductive. This is all the more distressing in light of the view that Petraeus will set direction for the ongoing fight in Iraq.

The new doctrine argues that airpower is best put under control of a tactical ground commander or, at the highest level, the multinational force commander, but not an airman.

It usually takes a while for a government to realize that an insurgency is under way, Petraeus and Amos wrote. The insurgents “take advantage of that time to build strength and gather support.” When the fight erupts, defenders “have to ‘come from behind'” and catch up to the situation.

In short, counterinsurgencies don’t go too well at first. Western militaries “falsely believe that armies trained to win large conventional wars are automatically prepared to win small, unconventional ones” and fight COIN with a similar mind-set.

Militaries that are successful in beating an insurgency are those that “overcome their institutional inclination to wage conventional war” in doing so, Petraeus and Amos wrote.

Army’s Little Helper

Petraeus and Amos damn airpower with the faintest of faint praise, cautioning that, aside from the purely supportive functions of battlefield mobility and persistent ISR, airpower can be too heavy-handed to be of much use.

In the COIN fight, airpower “will most often transport troops, equipment, and supplies” for ground forces “and perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions,” Petraeus and Amos argued. These are air- and space power’s greatest contributions in the COIN fight, they said. Such a use offers “asymmetric advantages” over the enemy, allowing immediate movement of “land forces where they are needed,” especially in rough terrain.

Modern airlift can also “quickly deliver humanitarian assistance,” especially in isolated areas, and this builds great credibility and favor with the local population.

Offensive air strikes are useful if the insurgents “assemble a conventional force” and huddle together for easy air attack.

“However, commanders [should] exercise exceptional care when using airpower in the strike role,” they warned. They asserted that errant bombs causing civilian casualties and destruction of civil facilities “provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory.” Even when such attacks are justified, media coverage of such attacks “works to the insurgents’ benefit.”

The doctrine portrays the decision to call in air strikes as one requiring heavy deliberation, as commanders must “weigh collateral damage against the unintended consequences of taking no action.” And when summoned, air attack must be based on “timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse” to achieve the desired effects without blowing up anything unintentionally.

“Inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations,” the two ground generals wrote.

However, they acknowledged that being too cautious with airpower isn’t good, either, noting that “avoiding all risk may embolden insurgents while providing them sanctuary.”

Airpower offers advantages in collecting ISR and signals intelligence for spotting and tracking insurgents and pinpointing their positions. Helicopters—the main air asset employed by the Army—“have been especially useful in providing overwatch, fire support, alternate communications, and medevac support,” the doctrine explains.

However, air assets should be at the disposal of the ground commander, according to the new doctrine manual.

“At the tactical level, air support requires a decentralized command and control system that gives supported units immediate access to available combat air assets and to information collected by air reconnaissance and support assets.”

While the COIN fight is on, the Air Force should work as fast as it can to help the host nation build up its air capabilities, according to the doctrine. Those should focus on mobility and surveillance.

What the Air Force Thought

The Air Force wasn’t thrilled about the Army-Marine Corps counterinsurgency document, which the service said gave short shrift to airpower’s capabilities, as proved in the ongoing counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. Allen G. Peck, commander of the Air Force Doctrine Center at Maxwell AFB, Ala., said he had seen the doctrine penned by Petraeus and Amos, and said that it reflected “a very two-dimensional view of how to fight a counterinsurgency.” If airmen had written it, it would be “different,” Peck observed.

The Air Force provides “maneuver” capabilities by backing up ground troops with kinetic and nonkinetic means, Peck noted.

The Air Force is working on its own COIN doctrine and is proposing to the Pentagon that a joint doctrine be developed. The Air Force version is on a fast track to be finished in August. The service is simultaneously pushing for a joint doctrine.

When that process is under way, “it will be helpful for us to have our Air Force doctrine in hand,” he said.

USAF agrees with Petraeus and Amos that air mobility is a powerful “asymmetric” capability and certainly endorses the view that ISR—air and space-based systems alike—are critical.

However, Peck said he was concerned about the doctrine’s tendency to low-rate the value of force applied from the air. He said FM 3-24 does “probably a bit too much hand-wringing over the potential for collateral damage,” because the Air Force exercises great care in selecting targets and uses the minimum explosive power possible to achieve the desired effect.

The notion that the Air Force applies “indiscriminate” power is obsolete and wrong, he said, adding, “We do not go out and do carpet bombing.” Moreover, worries about errant attacks should be extended to “include artillery and mortars,” which are imprecise when compared with laser or satellite guided bombs.

Peck went on to say Petraeus and Amos did not adequately take account of the contribution of airpower’s speed, range, and flexibility. “I would have liked to have seen more discussion, throughout the document, … about how ground commanders can leverage this asymmetric capability in the fight,” said Peck. “I think that is a shortfall.”

The Air Force did make “some rather extensive inputs” into the Army and Marine Corps process of writing 3-24, Peck said. “Some were accepted and some were rejected,” he said. “They are under no requirement to include our views.”

He noted that it was “a bit of an uphill battle” to get the Army to accept that airpower should be under centralized control and not simply tethered to a tactical ground commander.

“I would give General Petraeus some credit for including some of these constructs that, frankly, not everybody was universally thrilled about,” Peck observed.

China’s Satellite Shot

China on Jan. 11 destroyed one of its own space satellites with a ground-based interceptor missile, making it the third nation to demonstrate an anti-satellite capability.

It was the first to do so in more than 20 years. The US and Soviet Union tested such systems in the 1970s and 1980s.

The shot destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite at an altitude of 500 miles above Earth. The explosion created a huge debris belt in space and threw Washington into a tizzy over the security of its own satellite constellations and the prospects for a new arms race in space.

Confronted with news of the test, Chinese press officers professed to know little about it. That is unusual for Beijing, which normally orchestrates a major defense demonstration with statements from throughout its government.

Space experts speculated that China may not have been expecting success and was caught unprepared. The government later confirmed the test and offered indirect comments that they are not seeking to launch a new arms race in space.

The interceptor consisted of kinetic vehicle mounted atop a ballistic missile, directly hitting the target satellite in orbit. The shot demonstrated sophisticated guidance and maneuvering capability—at an altitude where most American intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance satellites operate.

Space watchers estimated that the destroyed satellite shattered into at least 800 pieces and possibly 1,000 creating a hazard to space navigation that may persist for 20 years.

A week later, the White House issued a statement that China’s development and testing of ASATs is “inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.” A National Security Council spokesman said the US had communicated its “concern” to the Chinese.

The test may have been a response to earlier White House action, however. In October, a new US Space Policy was released, in which President Bush insisted that the US reserved the right to deny space access or capabilities to any adversary and resisted the idea of treaties that would ban ASATs or in any way restrict the US use of space for military purposes.

The US owns more than half the 840 or so active satellites now in orbit and is heavily dependent on space assets for communications, navigation, and ISR.

The only space weapons treaty in force prohibits the basing of weapons of mass destruction in space. The US is a signatory to that agreement.

2007 Threat Briefing

China’s Jan. 11 anti-satellite test took place on the same day that Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned Congress in testimony that China had joined Russia in likely possessing an ASAT capability.

“Several countries continue to develop capabilities that have the potential to threaten US space assets,” Maples told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “and some have already deployed systems with inherent anti-satellite capabilities, such as satellite-tracking laser range-finding devices and nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.” He added that “a few countries are seeking improved space object tracking and kinetic or directed energy weapons capabilities.”

Air Force officials have confirmed that on at least one occasion, China “painted” American satellites with a ground-based laser.

Maples went on to tell the Senate panel that developing these ASAT capabilities is “financially taxing” and that nations seeking to deny the US use of its space assets could rely on more terrestrial means, such as “deception, electronic warfare, or signal jamming, and ground-segment physical attack.”

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said China’s test showed that there is an urgent need to establish a new international treaty on space weapons.

Orbital systems represent the “soft underbelly” of the American military, Markey said, “and it is urgent that President Bush move to guarantee their protection by initiating international agreement to ban the development, testing, and deployment of space weapons and anti-satellite systems.”

Sen. Jon L. Kyl (R-Ariz.), however, argued that the Chinese test is a “wake-up call” that the US must take more physical steps to protect its assets in space.

Kyl argued against the treaty idea as wishful thinking, saying that such agreements would do little to dissuade other countries from developing ASAT capabilities or other space weapons. Kyl, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology, and Homeland Security, told a symposium of the conservative Heritage Foundation in late January that any hostile nation with ballistic missile capabilities—including Iran and North Korea—could conceivably have or be close to possessing an ASAT capability of its own.

Space treaties are hard to enforce, Kyl warned. Surprises such as China’s ASAT test can occur with little warning. Nuclear anti-proliferation treaties have done little to stem the spread of nuclear technology to countries such as North Korea and Iran, he said.

Kyl also noted that US “space denial” systems now in development seek only to temporarily blind or silence adversary satellites, not destroy them. (See “Space and Counterspace,” June 2006, p. 42.) “Clearly, the Chinese do not feel similarly encumbered,” Kyl said.