The Use of Force

Dec. 1, 1999

Both Caspar Weinberger, who was Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration, and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who is currently vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bring some personal history to the question of when and how US armed forces ought to be used in combat.

Ralston, an F-105 pilot in the Vietnam War, flew 147 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam. Like other airmen of his generation, he understood firsthand that gradual escalation, a theory devised by Harvard economist Thomas C. Schelling and embraced by the Lyndon Johnson Administration in the 1960s, “was seen as the worst possible way to employ airpower” in the skies of Southeast Asia.

The experience of Vietnam-where more than 47,000 Americans died in a war the nation was not committed to winning-still hung heavily over the armed forces when Weinberger became Secretary of Defense in 1981. A year later, at the insistence of the State Department, US Marines were deployed to Beirut as an “interpositional force” to form a “presence” between factions in the Lebanese civil war. In October 1983, a terrorist truck bomb exploded at a Marine barracks there, killing 241 Americans who, by the rules of the deployment, were limited in the measures they could take to defend themselves.

In November 1984, Weinberger made headlines around the world with the proclamation of six tests the nation should meet before employing US forces abroad. It was immediately dubbed the Weinberger Doctrine (see box).

He said the troops should not be committed to combat unless a vital national interest was at stake and that if we did go to war, it should be with sufficient force to win. There should be clear military objectives for the forces thus committed, and there should be reasonable expectation of public and Congressional support for the endeavor. The nation should not employ lethal military force until all other choices had been exhausted. The armed forces should not be expended as pawns in a diplomatic chess game.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz and others took exception to Weinberger’s declaration, but the troops loved it. Unlike Vietnam, the Gulf War of 1991 followed the Weinberger Doctrine to the letter and was by coincidence the first war the United States had won in many years.

Kosovo and Vietnam

At the Air Force Association Convention this September, Ralston and Weinberger were speakers at a policy forum on the use of force. It included a reassessment of the Weinberger Doctrine in light of developments since 1984, especially Operation Allied Force in the Balkans, which had concluded three months previously.

Weinberger still stands by his doctrine. “I’ve always thought and always felt that there was a great deal more to the decision to commit troops to action than whether it serves some temporary diplomatic cause or whether it was something that seemed to be necessary because of the political situation at the time.”

In his opinion, the operation in Kosovo met the first of his six tests-a vital national interest was at stake–but none of the others.

“What we did was do pretty much what we had done in Vietnam. We did not go in to win,” Weinberger said. “We did not go in to take out the leadership of the country, Serbia, that had caused all of this.” In the first few weeks, hobbled by political constraints and limitations, the air operation was “basically ineffective.” It did not begin to have much effect until “very much later in the campaign when we decided to go after particular kinds of targets that were much more militarily significant.”

Even then, Weinberger said, it “was not the kind of victory that we should have had.” Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was able to “cut a deal” in which “(a) he stayed in power, (b) he could take all of his troops out with all of their equipment, [and] (c) Kosovo was not to be independent.”

In the Balkans, “you had a number of failures which in effect tarnished to a very considerable extent and reduced the value of the enormous contribution made by the Air Force and all of the people connected with it,” Weinberger said.

Ralston saw similarities with Vietnam, too, but his judgment of the Kosovo operation was different. The Serbs lost a gamble that “their heads would last longer than our fist,” and “airpower created the conditions necessary for a diplomatic solution.” However, “the air war for Kosovo introduced a new and unique twist to the concept of gradualism,” he said.

“By degrees, the air campaign against Serbia resembled more Vietnam than it did the Persian Gulf,” Ralston said. “NATO’s political leaders wanted to threaten Belgrade, just as our political leaders in Washington had hoped to do with Hanoi. Bombing in a series of steps, it was believed, would be the most effective because it would gradually increase the pressure on Milosevic. And just like we did in Vietnam, we actually signaled to him what type targets we would hit.

“The sanctuary of time actually strengthened Milosevic’s cat-and-mouse strategy, just as it had Ho Chi Minh’s. In both cases, it enabled our opponent to shift resources and consolidate power. In some respects, we further helped Milosevic consolidate power by not targeting, early on, the TV, radio broadcasting, and telecommunications capabilities that would have denied him the ability to command his forces and to communicate with his people.”

Making Gradualism Work

At least four factors were different this time. “North Vietnam was largely an agrarian state that lacked a tangible industrial framework,” whereas Serbia “is a relatively developed industrial society. It possessed industrial capacities that could be disrupted or destroyed,” Ralston said.

Ho Chi Minh had no internal political opposition to worry about. Milosevic did.

North Vietnam drew moral support from many nations critical of the US war effort. By contrast, the weight of world opinion was against Milosevic, who was confronted by “international condemnation he simply could not avoid.”

The Vietnam War was costly to both sides, but in the Kosovo operation the Serbs were unable to inflict reciprocal punishment on NATO.

“The now-famous visual images from Desert Storm, reinforced by even more dramatic successes in Kosovo, PGMs [Precision Guided Munitions], along with space assets, stealth, cruise missiles, electronic countermeasures, and advanced reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, may have added sufficiently strong teeth to make a strategy of gradualism work,” Ralston said.

“In spite of what might indicate the success of a gradualism strategy, US airmen will no doubt continue to maintain that a rapid and massive application of airpower will be more efficient and effective than gradual escalation. I share this belief.

“Yet, when the political and tactical constraints imposed on air leaders are extensive and pervasive–and that trend seems more, rather than less, likely–then gradualism may be perceived as the only option, and whether or not we like it, a measured and steadily increasing use of airpower against an opponent may be one of the options for future war.”


If so, Ralston said, it is the obligation of the armed forces to develop and acquire the capabilities to achieve success in such an approach.

From a policy perspective, the Gulf War was the high-water mark for the Weinberger Doctrine. The Clinton Administration came to office in 1993 with a strong inclination toward looser rules for the use of the armed forces. Within a year, 18 US Rangers died in Somalia in what began as a peacekeeping operation that got out of hand. They had been trying to capture a warlord who was riding around on US aircraft a mere two months later.

In 1995, the Administration announced a new national security strategy of “Engagement” abroad and “Enlargement” of democracy around the world and said that US armed forces would be used to protect not only vital interests but also when “important, but not vital, US interests are threatened.”

Recent years have seen an emphasis on military operations other than war and the frequent use of the armed forces in limited engagements, typically lasting a few hours or a few days and intended more to send political signals than to achieve major military effects.

Weinberger made indirect reference to these operations in his remarks at the AFA Convention, describing them as “things where our national interest was really not involved and yet the troops were used, I’m afraid, more for political effect than for anything else.”

Asked about the nation’s “irreconcilable penchants” for military involvement all around the globe and the concurrent mind-set to avoid casualties, Weinberger said, “I don’t think the American people have this great penchant or passion for deploying troops all over the world. I think our current leaders do.”

He remains firmly opposed to gradual escalation.

“If you are going to fight a war, you have to fight a war, and I don’t think that you can do [that] with the idea that this week, we will try bombing a few roads, then next week, if that doesn’t work, we’ll try a bridge or two,” he said. “I think if you are going to go [into] a war, you have to intend to win it, and you have to have the forces to win it, and you have to do it from Day 1. I would not want to be [the] one who sent up pilots and told them they must avoid barracks but they can hit ammunition dumps.”

The Weinberger Doctrine

In a classic speech on Nov. 28, 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger declared six major tests to be applied when considering the use of US combat forces abroad. He stated his six points-which have become known as the Weinberger Doctrine-as follows:

“First, the United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. That emphatically does not mean that we should declare beforehand, as we did with Korea in 1950, that a particular area is outside our strategic perimeter.

“Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all. …

“Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives. And we should have and send the forces needed to do just that. …

“Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed-their size, composition, and disposition-must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. Conditions and objectives invariably change during the course of a conflict. When they do change, then so must our combat requirements. …

“Fifth, before the US commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. … We cannot fight a battle with the Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas, or, as in the case of Vietnam, in effect asking our troops not to win, but just to be there.

“Finally, the commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort.”