Terrorism and Military Force

Sept. 1, 1986

Six months ago, Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft — in significant numbers and employing theater-quality weapon systems — struck at targets in Muammar Qaddafi’s terrorist state of Libya. Time may prove this action to have been of extraordinary instructive value in the difficult struggle against international terrorism.

In the immediate aftermath of the raid, there was widespread speculation that the United States had set off, unwittingly, a chain of increased violence and reprisals. So far, that has not happened. Nor has the Third World rallied to Qaddafi, as some had feared.

This would seem to bear out the contention of Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, that the “Cycle of Violence” theory is fraudulent. In a new book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win, Ambassador Netanyahu makes a strong case that when terror victims strike back, the terrorists are deterred, not incited to do more and worse.

The results of the Libya raid also figure to have a major impact on decisions, now being made, about the role of military forces, particularly air forces, in the fight against terrorism. The United States is obviously determined to overcome the frustration and indecision of the past two decades and establish a more substantial counter-terror capability.

The means of doing so, however, are hotly disputed. The debate presently centers on budgets, equipment, and organization for low-intensity conflict and Special Operations Forces, although neither of these is totally synonymous with antiterrorism. (See “Dealing With Ambiguous Warfare, p. 26.) And beyond this, both theorists and decision-makers are still struggling with some basic concepts.

The stickiest of these is the traditional view that the military is not well suited to conducting counter-terror operations. So long as terrorism was a hit-and-hide enterprise, there was seldom a clear objective that could be resolved by military means. When the objective was clear, it typically required application of minimum force. Military units are good mainly at applying maximum force. But if the military did not perform this mission, who would? And if it were a military mission, should it not be carried out by unique forces, with emphasis on small numbers, low technology, and independence of operation

From there, it was only a short step to the next conceptual break. When people thought about counter-terrorism, they lumped it together with other forms of low-intensity combat and began to regard it as something apart form the spectrum of military conflict. This is reflected in various ideas that seek to formalize the split, the most extreme of which is a proposal from Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.) to create a separate military service for special operations.

Opponents of that idea were quick to point out that the boundaries of low-intensity conflict are hazy and that once fighting begins, it is subject to rapid escalation. Special Operations Forces cannot be parceled out neatly from other military missions, because they have vital tasks in conventional and theater warfare. Disjoining them from regular military forces would degrade overall combat-flexibility. Conversely, line units — especially fighter and attack squadrons — have now demonstrated their value at the low end of the spectrum of conflict.

While the players were arguing about the counter-terror game plan, the game itself was changing. Most of the terror gangs have been networked for a long time, but it has been only in recent years that terrorist states revealed themselves, giving open support and outright sponsorship to international atrocities. These states have fixed geographic locations. They can be targeted and struck.

If air forces are used in this role, the capabilities they need are not that different from the requirements for regular theater combat: high-quality intelligence information; improved systems for target acquisition; weapons that are accurate and precise, perhaps delivered from standoff range; lethality on the first pass; tactical surprise; and survivability from ingress to egress.

Military force is not the only instrument — and not even the main instrument — for response to terrorism. Diplomatic and economic options should be exhausted before the nation resorts to military action. There may be instances when the only course is to do nothing, because there is nothing that can be done.

If, however, the nation decides to commit military forces, it should not do so casually or with fuzzy intention. The Libya raid demonstrated the long reach and telling impact of modern airpower, properly employed. Half measures are dangerous, as well as ineffective. Warfare at any level in the spectrum of conflict is inherently risky, unpredictable, and bloody. The consequences, including collateral damage, cannot be controlled with assurance. Nor can reprisals and escalations be ruled out. The “Cycle of Violence” theory may not be wrong 100 percent of the time.

All of this should be understood going in. I t he objective is not important enough to justify the realities of armed conflict, or if the nation lacks the determination to see it through, then it had best keep its aircraft on the ground and leave its troops in the fort.