Document created: 6 December 01
Published Aerospace Power Journal - Winter  2001

Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited.


Editorial Abstract: Speed is the mantra of the Air Force. We seek rapid aerospace dominance and push to cow enemies quickly with shock and awe. But does fast always mean successful? The doctrinal “cult of the offensive” in World War I championed quick victory in theory but experienced disastrous stalemate in practice. Suggesting the relative newness of our worship of speed, Dr. Hughes uses historical precedent to show that a more gradual approach to warfare can achieve military objectives as well as the quick strike.

The Cult
of the Quick

Dr. Thomas Hughes




cult: great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing . . . such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad or fetish.

––Webster’s Third New
International Dictionary

IN OCTOBER 1999, the US Senate Armed Services committee heard testimony from American leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) air war over Kosovo the previous spring. In his remarks, Lt Gen Michael Short, US Air Force, found fault with the targeting and pace of Operation Allied Force (OAF). Had he been in charge, he told the senators, “I’d have gone for the head of the snake on the first night. I’d have dropped the bridges across the Danube [River]. I’d have hit five or six political and military headquarters in downtown Belgrade. [Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic and his cronies would have waked up the first morning asking what the hell was going on.” Throughout OAF, Short had clashed with his superior, the US Army’s Gen Wesley Clark, NATO commander, on a score of issues––to the point that some staff officers for both men believed Clark should have relieved Short. However, on the matter of the proper pace of military operations, Clark agreed with his aggressive subordinate. “I think one of the lessons that comes out of Allied Force,” Clark testified, “is the need that once you cross the threshold to move as rapidly as possible to the decisive use of force.”1

Like the relationship between Clark and Short, the one among US military services is often marked by differences, particularly on issues relating to the nature, preparation, and conduct of warfare. These differences, manifest to even casual observers, make Department of Defense (DOD) efforts such as the Quadrennial Defense Review and the process of writing joint doctrine difficult and often acrimonious. But also, like Clark and Short, Pentagon officials appear to speak with one voice on the matter of speed in war. Universally, across all services, among military officers and civilian staffers, and from the chairman’s office to the enlisted corps, those charged with the stewardship of national defense view speed as 

Current DOD orthodoxy, however, makes no adequate distinction between time and speed. Rather, military thinkers prescribe rapidity of action as the only way to leverage time in the conduct of war.

an inherent advantage in warfare. In their view, speed has intrinsic value in the strategic, operational, and tactical conduct of war. With increasing unanimity, professionals and pundits alike extol the virtues of velocity. They link it inexorably with the decisive use of force and judge any suggestion or effort to restrain the pace of military operations as anathema to the sound principles and long experience of warfare.

War is far too variable and local circumstances are far too diverse to sustain any such hoary maxim. Time, as distinct from speed, is of course an essential element of war; one keen observer believes it “will rule tactically and operationally” and is “undoubtedly the least forgiving of error among strategy’s dimensions.”2 Current DOD orthodoxy, however, makes no adequate distinction between time and speed. Rather, military thinkers prescribe rapidity of action as the only way to leverage time in the conduct of war. But the utility of time across all levels of warfare also requires the willingness and ability to reduce the pace of military operations, as any careful examination of military experience demonstrates. Ironically, without tolerance for the gradual and incremental conduct of war, the American military has undercut the value of its vaunted capacity for speed. It is the willingness to modulate operations over time, far more than a simpleminded pressure on the throttle, that makes speed an advantage in war and best defends against enemies who may employ patience––time of a different sort––as a weapon.

Of Doctrine and Dictate

References to speed are everywhere in the DOD. Service doctrine is full of it. “The military’s ability to respond quickly and decisively,” asserts the Army’s basic manual on operations, Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, “is fundamental to Army operations doctrine.”3 For its part, the Navy’s capstone doctrine claims that the forward presence of its ships and aircraft is “essential to permit the United States to act quickly in meeting any crises that affect our security.”4 Beyond this, the Navy believes that “rapid high tempo actions” are among the best ways to exploit the dynamics of war and that “tempo is more than a means to employ weapons better; it is a weapon itself.”5 The Marine Corps, sometimes self-described as the nation’s 911 force, agrees. “Of all the consistent patterns we can discern in war,” Marine Corps Doctrine Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting, explains, “there are two concepts of universal significance in generating combat power: speed and focus. Speed is rapidity of action. It applies to both time and space. Speed over time is tempo—the consistent ability to operate quickly. Speed over distance, or space, is the ability to move rapidly. Both forms are genuine sources of combat power. In other words, speed is a weapon” (emphasis in original).6

The Air Force, the fastest of the services, also extols speed. Its slender 85-page Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, contains at least 22 references to speed as an advantage in war.7 Elsewhere, Air Force doctrine asserts a “new American Way of War” that “uses the rapid employment of sophisticated military capabilities to engage a broad array of targets simultaneously, strongly, and quickly, with discriminate application, to decisively shape the conflict and avoid the results of previous wars of attrition and annihilation.”8

DOD joint doctrine mirrors service pronouncements. Joint Publication (Pub) 1, Joint Operations of the Armed Forces of the United States, proclaims, “American arms seek rapid decision in simultaneous application of all appropriate dimensions of combat power.”9 Moreover, the basic goal in all war operations is a “rapid” decision, and “arriving first with the most capability clearly remains the objective.”10 The basic joint manual for operations goes a step further, mandating that objectives in war “must directly, quickly, and economically contribute to the purpose of the operation.”11 Clearly, at a time when disputes among the services have compelled some Pentagon observers to liken the DOD to a schizophrenic as it tries to relate ser-vice and joint doctrine, the entire military pays uniform homage to the important element of speed in war.12

This reverence for rapidity is not limited to doctrine. From the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s (JCS) Joint Vision 2010 to Marine Corps Strategy 21 to an Air Force booklet titled 10 Propositions Regarding Air Power, official publications revel in speed.13 Gen Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, promises to convert the Army from a plodding, cold-war behemoth to a swift, new-world dynamo in a series of shifts known inside the Army as the “Transformation.”14 Gen John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, has a similar initiative. His Global Strike Task Force “is a rapid-reaction, leading-edge, power-projection concept that will deliver massive around-the-clock firepower” in a bid to become the nation’s “kick down the door force.” Through something called “predictive battle-space awareness,” Jumper believes that the Air Force should strive not merely for swift reaction but also for fast preemption in the conduct of war.15 For its part, the Joint Staff’s professional journal, Joint Forces Quarterly (JFQ), regularly trumpets the virtue of quickness. The Summer 1998 issue, dedicated to “a look back at the best of JFQ,” underscored the value of speed. One article claimed that “the need to identify, target, and attack in near real-time is now a fact of life” and that “the commander can no longer afford the luxury of thinking in terms of days, weeks, or months to phase campaigns or move forces.”16 Another article, which grandly identified time as the fourth dimension of war alongside air, land, and sea, insisted that speed was the only way to exploit time.17 President George W. Bush reflects all this stress on speed. “Military power,” he has asserted, is “increasingly defined not by size and mass but by mobility and swiftness.”18

Perhaps commentary about the 1999 air war over Kosovo best reveals this ingrained dictate for speed. Dozens if not hundreds of news accounts as well as many academic, scholastic, and professional articles added weight to General Short’s carping about the pace of OAF.19 The Air Force, the service with the preponderant responsibility in Kosovo, loudly criticized the conduct of the campaign. A leading Air Force surrogate complained, “Allied Force began as an attempt to signal Milosevic that NATO was serious about using force rather than as a decisive military operation designed to achieve victory.” As a result, “it took NATO 30 days to do what General Norman Schwarz-kopf did in about three days in the Gulf War.”20 An official Air Force report, while careful to claim the “decisiveness of airpower,” also decried the gradual approach of the war. “Admittedly, the campaign did not begin the way that America would normally apply airpower—massively,” the report’s authors wrote. But as soon as the “air campaign grew in intensity,” it “achieved its desired outcome.” The authors then set out to undercut whatever precedent might exist in OAF for the gradual application of force:

Because air power offers the potential for great destruction while ordering relatively few warriors into harm’s way, its use becomes an attractive political option. By default then, it becomes acceptable to commit incrementally to military operations calibrated by the success or failure of the previous increment of military action. The attraction is obvious, in that one can avoid a commitment to the intensity and violence required by a decisive and rapid military victory. The risk is failure.21

In isolation and at a glance, the DOD’s glorification of speed appears reasonable. Strategic circumstances certainly exist in which rapidity of action could be valuable—even critical. However, this bias for speed ignores local conditions. Surely, speed’s legitimate advantage in warfare under some circumstances does not ensure its value under all circumstances. Kosovo is not the entire Balkans, Persian Gulf, Korean Peninsula, or Chinese mainland, which in turn is not the new topog-raphy of international terrorism. At a time when the American military has global commitments arrayed at variable threats, both real and potential, the Pentagon’s single-minded view of speed leaves the nation’s defenders poorly prepared for the range of military opposition and enemies they may face.

The Journey to Speed

The DOD’s love affair with speed is neither ageless nor inevitable. Emerging over time, it is the product of larger cultural trends as well as the Pentagon’s perceived lessons of past warfare and its assessment of present threats. Military institutions are part of larger societies, and since the Enlightenment, Western populations have generally pursued the capacity for quickness as an intrinsic good. This pattern, especially prevalent in industrial societies like the United States, has fostered a host of scholastic and popular commentary. The modern computer age has acted as a kind of steroid in this process, elevating speed to a virtual theology.22

Larger cultural trends are not the only influences that condition martial ideas, however.23 Well-developed military institutions are marked by a high degree of internal cohesion. Morever, they maintain rigid entry requirements and provide internal training and education. In other words, they are capable of internal intellectual trends. Within the DOD, then, the quest for speed stems also from beliefs about past military experience and present assessments of future threats.

Rapidity was not always a touchstone in American military thought, despite positive references to it in many of the strategic analyses favored by the Pentagon. In the War of Independence, George Washington’s Continental Army leveraged a patient, incremental, and modulated campaign against the world’s greatest military force. Eventually, the British Empire decided that further hostilities in the New World were not in its interests. During the Civil War, the Anaconda Plan reflected the Union Army’s strategic preference to defeat the Confederacy through a slow and deliberate squeezing; it was the South, the weaker military power, that sought a swift outcome on the battlefield. Throughout the frontier wars, which stretched from well before independence to shortly before 1900, the American Army marched westward no faster than expanding white settlement demanded and required.

The desire for speed gathered momentum in the twentieth century as America’s strategic obligations broadened across the globe. After the Spanish-American War, the United States needed to provide a naval defense in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans using a navy adequate for the protection of only one ocean at a time, a condition that stressed mobility and speed. The Navy’s Great White Fleet voyage of 1907–8 was designed to test the nation’s ability to reach Earth’s four corners, and the Panama Canal was built in large part to ensure a speedy transfer of fighting ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Before World War I, War Plan Orange, the Navy’s operational plan for combat with Japan, stressed the need to project power quickly across the vast Pacific to protect the nation’s new colony in the Philippine Islands. In the interwar years, Orange was also a powerful impetus to the development of aircraft carriers, increasingly seen as a means of rapid movement. In fact, from the genesis of Orange in 1904 until World War II, the speed of a fleet movement across the ocean was the central determinant of the war plan’s many variations.24

Land-based military aviation furthered this speed-mindedness. In the 1920s, airplane theorists and advocates like Brig Gen William Mitchell trumpeted aviation’s capacity to culminate war quickly, an attractive proposition to a generation soured by the memory of long, deadly, and seemingly indecisive trench combat during World War I. In the 1930s, America’s growing strategic interests around the world, the memory of the Great War, and the promise of a quicker war next time encouraged a concentration on rapidity among war planners. As a result, by the eve of World War II, no one seriously questioned the dictum of Gen George Marshall, Army chief of staff, that no democracy could endure a 10-year war.25

For good reason, the atomic age further accented the virtues of velocity. During the cold war, the United States, for the first time in its history, stood vulnerable to widespread destruction at a moment’s notice. As a result, America’s strategic deterrence rested on the tactical ability to deliver a nuclear strike of its own in a matter of hours, even minutes. The military organization first entrusted with this deterrent mission, the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, came to dominate both the fiscal and cultural dimensions of the DOD by the late 1950s. At the same time, the nation’s strategic posture in Europe and the Pacific mandated the capacity to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. This caused the positioning of vast amounts of war materiel and service members around the globe, hair-triggered to spring into action—a condition that survives today. By the beginning of the Vietnam War, American military organizations had come to value both speed in war and speedy wars as intrinsic goods, preferences not obvious in earlier eras.

These beliefs banged against the reality of limited war in Indochina. American military leaders had hoped to wage a fast, massive air campaign against North Vietnam, but political fears of a wider war with China, or perhaps the Soviet Union, compelled an incremental approach to the war. Operation Rolling Thunder, a gradual escalation of bombing to coerce North Vietnam into surrender, raised hackles among military leaders. The senior American commander for much of the war, Adm U. S. Grant Sharp, labeled this slow campaign a “retreat from reality” that avoided the difficult decisions and “treaded the mushy middle ground.” In his view, this incremental approach to war not only betrayed a weak resolve but also emboldened enemies; it was “guaranteed to produce a true strategy for defeat.”26

After the Vietnam War, the vast majority of military officers and Pentagon observers adopted Sharp’s criticism of a gradual approach to warfare.27 By the 1980s, this view of Vietnam had become conventional wisdom. It was enshrined in Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s famous tests for military involvement abroad as well as in the dictum of Gen Colin Powell, chairman of the JCS, to employ overwhelming force in military operations. Beyond their advocacy of massive force linked to clear objectives, the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Corollary also embodied a strong bias toward speed in war. “Decisive means and results are always to be preferred,” Powell once explained, “so you bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the desired result isn’t obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation. History has not been kind to this approach.”28 Drawing on his memory of the Vietnam War, Powell later told the New York Times, “As soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not.”29

Of Speed and Decision

The short Gulf War of 1990–91 appeared to validate the wisdom of massive force applied with lightning speed. At about the same time, the Pentagon’s exultation of a contentious personality reflected an increasingly codified belief in speed. Since the 1960s, Col John Boyd, a maverick Air Force officer, had conducted a lonely campaign to champion his OODA Loop (the observe, orient, decide, and act decision cycle). A fighter pilot, Boyd had derived this schematic from his experiences dogfighting North Korean MiGs, during which he had learned that quicker decisions often led to victory in aerial combat. After the Korean War, Boyd extrapolated this concept from the tactical level of war to a new principle for everything from procurement to national strategic behavior.30

For years, the DOD was hostile toward Boyd’s ideas, in part because the imperatives of combat at the tactical level of fighting did not easily translate as guidelines for the operational or strategic conduct of war. In the 1990s, however, an appreciation for war’s complexity was combined with the growing potency of tactical weapons to compress and sometimes to obliterate the analytical boundaries between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. In an influential booklet published in 1995, Col David Deptula (now a major general), US Air Force, described how new precision-guided munitions might profitably be used in “parallel war” to “exploit three dimensions—time, space, and levels of war.” Using the Gulf War as an example, he exhorted his colleagues to “focus on systematic effects rather than individual target destruction” and argued that new weapon systems could simultaneously shape each level of war.31 That same year the Pentagon’s Joint Pub 3, Doctrine for Joint Operations, proclaimed that “advances in technology, information age media reporting, and the compression of time-space relationships contribute to the growing interrelationships between the levels of war. Commanders at every level must be aware that in a world of constant, immediate communications, any single event may cut across the three levels [tactical, operational, and strategic].”32 

Deptula and others were advocating more careful thought about compelling enemy behavior. However, this exhortation also served to diminish the analytic utility that had buttressed the levels-of-war paradigm for at least a century. As a result, Boyd’s ideas of war were more likely to meet acceptance in the nation’s military. Before this development, strategists often believed that the factors which shaped speed’s value in war varied across the levels of conflict, as Carl von Clausewitz had suggested in On War.33 But with the growing inconsequence of these levels of war, the way was clearer to proclaim speed an intrinsic, inherent advantage in war—in all conditions and at every level.34

The Marine Corps was the first to warm to Boyd, and its capstone Warfighting doctrine now revels in the idea of the OODA Loop. For marines today, warfare is necessarily a function of decision making, and “whoever can make and implement decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage. Decision making in execution thus becomes a time-competitive process, and timeliness of decisions becomes essential to generating tempo.”35 Boyd’s own service, the Air Force, which had earlier been belligerent to him and his ideas, now praises the OODA Loop. But in the process, the service confuses speed and time. As explained by one Air Force booklet recommended to all incoming officers,

Air power increases speed of movement by orders of magnitude. This conquest of time by air power provides surprise, and surprise in turn affects the mind, causing confusion and disorientation. John Boyd’s entire theory of the OODA Loop . . . is based on the premise that telescoping time—arriving at decisions or locations rapidly—is the decisive element in war because of the enormous psychological strain it places on an enemy.36

Concurrent with this development, swift military operations became officially identified with the decisive use of force, which has constituted the Holy Grail of military strategy since at least the Battle of Waterloo.37 For the American military, this quest for decisive action has fueled some of the great intramural service squabbles. The Army Air Forces’ (AAF) assertion of aviation’s decisive effect in World War II drives an ongoing debate, and today each combat arm carefully lays claim to decisive ability in official statements of doctrine and strategy. Through most of the twentieth century, however, the search for and debate about decisive force rested on traditional concepts of decisiveness, classically defined as the ability or capacity to decide some issue or compel some decision on the battlefield.38 The AAF did not claim to have won World War II quickly, after all; it merely claimed it was the most important element in deciding the contest.

All this changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Speed became, if not synonymous with decisiveness, at least an indispensable adjunct to the concept, a link seen in the 1992 iteration of the National Military Strategy:

Once a decision for military action has been made, half-measures and confused objectives exact a severe price in the form of a protracted conflict which can cause needless waste of human lives and material resources, a divided nation at home, and defeat. Therefore, one of the essential elements of our national military strategy is the ability to rapidly assemble the forces needed to win—the concept of applying decisive force to overwhelm our adversaries and thereby terminate conflicts swiftly and with minimum loss of life.39

Subsequent versions of the National Military Strategy rooted the bond between decisive force and speed deeper into the military lexicon. Today, each service routinely appends the concepts together. Soldiers believe “it is the Army’s ability to react promptly and to conduct sustained land operations that make it decisive” (emphasis in original).40 Sailors stress the forward presence of ships around the world as a means to attain a “rapid, favorable end to hostilities,” while criticizing slower attrition warfare as “frequently indecisive and inherently costly in terms of personnel, resources, and time.”41 For their part, flyers boldly assert that “decisive maneuver requires rapidly deployable, highly mobile joint forces that can outpace and outmaneuver opposing forces.”42 All this finds reflection in joint doctrine, which holds that “the most important” characteristic of American arms is “the visible ability to act rapidly and decisively in regions of U. S. interests” (emphasis in original).43

For those in charge of the nation’s military strategy, then, a patient approach to war has become antithetical to the decisive use of force. Speeding, already embedded into the military’s worldview, had now appropriated the strategic high ground of decisive effect and was no longer the sort of cultural preference all militaries, and societies, exhibit. The demand for speed in war had now become a decree, to be pursued without regard to local circumstance, strategic condition, or enemy character. The quest for speed had become cultish.

Speeding is Dangerous

This dangerous dictate rests on a facile, even contrived, sense of military experience. Recent history demonstrates the value of rapidity in both combat and war, but it also teaches patience and perseverance. In World War II, both Japan and Germany based their tactical, operational, and strategic war plans on speed; when compelled into longer fights, they lost. In the Korean War, the combatant that struck first and fast eventually lost. In the Vietnam War, the combatant with perseverance and a modulated campaign won the day. Although it is too early to derive sound conclusions, this past decade’s fights in the Balkans also seem to buttress incremental war. In 1995, for instance, Operation Deliberate Force saw NATO jets dropping bombs on just 12 of the campaign’s 22 days with at least one pause of five days.44

A different view of the past also challenges the positive correlation between speed and decision so prevalent in doctrine and strategic thought. When the abrupt end of World War I fuelled theories of conspiracy between the German government and Western powers, discontents like Adolf Hitler seized upon the war’s swift conclusion to rise to power and help make the Great War an indecisive conflict. In World War II, despite great emphasis on the Battle of Midway as a turning point and the atomic missions as the culminating point, the basic outcome of the Pacific War turned more on the attrition of combat in the South and Southwest Pacific theaters and the sustained submarine assault on Japanese shipping. Likewise, the incredible crucible of the eastern front, played out over four years, contributed more to the basic decision of the European war than any lightning attack conducted by any combatant.45

More recently, the swift pace of the Gulf War may well have worked against its potential for decisive effect by catalyzing a strategic moment on the highway to Basra before military commanders and political leaders could properly interpret plans and modify objectives. Instead, the coalition led by the United States simply stopped the war, which allowed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein to survive and badger the region. Beyond these hot wars, the modulated, patient, and half-century-long cold war was perhaps the most decisive war in American history. In the 1990s, the quest for swift war, replete with exit strategies and premature cease-fires, has led to less, not more, decisive war, as Edward Luttwak argues. For him, wars nowadays rarely “run their natural course” to “burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement.” Instead, they “become endemic conflicts that never end because the transformative effects of both decisive victory and exhaustion are blocked.” The present struggle against terrorism may well prove an acid test for Luttwak’s point.46 

These thumbnail assessments of America’s recent wars are not infallible. They do assert, however, an alternative view of military history in which the value of speed and its link to decisive effect are not uniform. The past is a dangerous lover. It promiscuously proclaims lessons to please a variety of insights and interests and seduces suitors according to cultural preference and institutional faction. The Pentagon’s insistence that slower wars are necessarily less effective and intrinsically more expensive in material and lives may be intuitively plain to American officers, for instance, but it is not an inherent truth based on military experience or possibility. Only in a society obsessed with speed and only within a military sensitive to civilian restraint, for instance, could the lesson from the Vietnam War be to conduct faster operations next time. A more balanced assessment would certainly include an appreciation for the patient approach, a weapon deployed with great success by North Vietnam. Moreover, nuclear war, certainly swift war by any measure, is materially expensive to prepare and would be immeasurably expensive in lives to conduct. 

For the future, the American military’s simple view of the temporal dimensions of strategy leaves it vulnerable to adversaries who may place different measures and different values on time. In the physical world, scientists are unsure of time’s consistency, and Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity rests on time’s elasticity.47 In the political world, cultures use discrepant measures of time. Western societies tend to mark time by constant velocity in standard ways: minute, hour, day, month, and year; this is a pattern especially true of colder-climate societies with large populations and prominent urbanization. However, societies elsewhere may reference time not to clocks but to events; in this worldview, time is less discrete and more variant.48 Certain languages, moreover, contain no functional analogue to the word time, and the conjugation of verb tense is not universal.49 Surveying the variety of time, one keen observer notes that “some Mediterranean and Arab cultures define only three sets of time: no time at all, now (which is of varying duration), and forever (too long).”50 Clearly, different cultures approach time with different attitudes.

This potential mismatch is evident between Eastern and Western cultures. The preeminent pieces of strategic writing in each culture, Clausewitz’s On War and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, approach time differently. One scholar argues that “differences in worldview and in concept of time” make for distinct strategic precepts in these books. Sun Tzu conceived strategy over a longer period of time than did Clausewitz, and each marked his own time in the tactical and strategic conduct of war. Sun Tzu characterized time in prolonged, cyclical, and integrated units while Clausewitz measured time in distinct, short, and linear increments.51 These writings do not correspond directly to strategic choices made by nations in the contemporary world, of course, but their continuing influence indicates enduring national preference in the business of strategy making. At a time when the Pentagon increasingly looks to the East, to strife in the Arab world, and to strategic competition on the Asian landmass, these potential differences in time ought to matter. 

Evidence of time’s physical and cultural determinants should worry those responsible for the nation’s defense. The Pentagon’s decree for speed across all levels of war commits a cardinal sin of strategy by assuming a consistent value of velocity between ally and adversary. This decree ignores cultural variety regarding time, and in the process, strategists dismiss their own exhortations of the dangers of mirror-imaging enemies. In making speed a mandated weapon in its repertoire, the Pentagon makes patience an asymmetric threat in the quivers of those who would wait out an impulsive America.

A Way Forward

As with most cults, the range of military thought contains within it the path to reform. Although not numerous, there are skeptics of this demand for speed. Two civilian analysts argue that “the fast, overwhelming and decisive application of maximum force in the minimum time . . . may produce effective, short term results [but it may] be irrelevant, probably even counterproductive, when matched against the very difficult internal problems that form the underlying problems in target countries.”52 A small contingent of officers concurs and believes that the crux of this potential mismatch is a doctrine that prescribes quick and massive force. One experienced pilot, for instance, argues that Air Force doctrine “provides the nation with one and only one way to prosecute an air campaign.” This doctrine “prepares airmen quite well to fight their political masters over the right way to prosecute war, but leaves them empty-handed when forced to fight an adversary in a politically constrained environment.”53 Gen Joseph Ralston, NATO supreme commander, believes that while massive application of force may be more efficient and popular than an incremental strategy, “whether or not we like it, measured and steadily increasing use of air power against an opponent may be one of the options for future wars.”54 Although Ralston and others view incremental war as a possible political necessity, instead of as a potentially positive way to conduct operations, they do point to doctrine as one place to remedy the obsession with swift, overwhelming force.55

The relationship between doctrine and strategy is close and complex with no one model of interaction adequately describing or explaining their respective orbits. Yet, they undoubtedly influence each other. Doctrine, derived from the Latin verb doctrina (to teach), does indeed offer alternatives for the conduct of conflict. Doctrine for military operations other than war (MOOTW), sometimes called simply operations other than war or small-scale contingencies, does not demand speed in war. While it does not openly advocate a patient approach, MOOTW doctrine does recognize conditions under which an incremental approach might work best. Joint Pub 3-07, Joint Doctrine for Military Operations other than War, describes MOOTW as actions “more sensitive to political considerations,” which are conducted within “more restrictive rules of engagement” than war proper.56 Often designed to “keep the day-to-day tensions between nations below the threshold of armed conflict or war,” operations short of war “may last for an extended period of time.”57 This approach to operations is reflected in service doctrine, especially that of the Air Force. AFDD 2-3, Military Operations other than War, defines MOOTW as “those military actions not associated with sustained, large-scale combat operations” and “as a result, the objectives of MOOTW usually do not include overwhelming a military opponent.”58

Because of perceived differences from war, joint MOOTW precepts promulgate a distinct set of principles to guide commanders in operations short of war. Among these are restraint to “apply appropriate military capability prudently” and perseverance to “prepare for the measured, protracted application of military capability in support of strategic aims. Some MOOTW may require years to achieve the desired results.”59 For its part, the Air Force extols its commanders to use only “appropriate ‘tailored’ force” to attain and maintain legitimacy while pursuing “the patient, resolute, and persistent pursuit of national goals and objectives,” which “is paramount” in MOOTW.60 Moreover, compared to its war-fighting doctrine, the Pentagon’s pronouncements on MOOTW are more sensitive to contextual influences on strategy: these pronouncements advise commanders to understand local conditions, especially religion, through effective interaction with other government agencies and private organizations via an “international civil-military operations center.”61

Doctrinal publications on MOOTW could moderate the military’s love affair with speed in war. But this reformation faces obstacles. Although many observers view MOOTW as far more likely than war in the near term, military professionals have long been ambivalent toward operations short of war. In their doctrine, they have sought to fire-wall MOOTW from war by espousing very different principles for each; war is guided by offensive, surprise, and mass, while MOOTW relies on restraint, perseverance, and legitimacy.

As a result, military professionals tend to view any action through the prism of war, whether or not those operations fit the definitional parameters of war. Commentary on OAF reveals best this hesitancy toward MOOTW: virtually every professional critique of the operation sprang from a conception that OAF constituted war, when it may have more closely resembled MOOTW. Allied Force was an operation sensitive to issues of legitimacy, designed to keep a smaller problem from becoming a larger one, and conducted within political and coalition constraints. Disputes among Balkan states were not, and are not, ripe for any mature political settlement, and OAF (as well as Operation Deliberate Force, for that matter) was designed to manage, not solve or decide, contention in the region. Seen through the lens of MOOTW, the conduct of OAF becomes less objectionable, if not quite yet a textbook case of the use of coercive force. 

If reform through MOOTW doctrine is improbable, it is not impossible. But whether through greater appreciation of MOOTW and its doctrine or by some other mechanism, the DOD should temper its obsession with speed and decisive effect. Speed has not the intrinsic value claimed for it, and its relationship to decisive effect is unclear. Undoubtedly appropriate under some conditions, the ideal of swift, decisive action may not always square with broader geopolitics. The very quest for decision on the battlefield is misplaced in an era when combat is used to manage, shape, and adjust ongoing conflict and tension. Graduated and moderated military campaigns, for instance, might well prove more effective than swift, decisive strikes in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the fight against terrorism.62 Many military officers believe that in war today, “a commander can no longer afford the luxury of thinking in terms of days, weeks, or months to phase campaigns or move forces.”63 Actually, the opposite will sometimes be true. War will sometimes value thought stretching beyond the horizon even as the technical capacity for rapid movement pulls the mind in another direction. In conventional or nonconventional war, the ability to think counterintuitively just might be a commander’s greatest asset in the future.

Obsession with speed denies the fundamental truth that in strategy, everything is contextual, and circumstance is paramount. It transforms doctrine into dogma, a condition that undercuts careful, clear, and nuanced thought about the relationship between power and purpose—the nexus of strategy. When the modern experience of war and its contemporary tools eroded the analytic utility of the levels of war, officers and pundits alike wrongly assumed a uniform value for speed across all levels and in all kinds of conflict. The Air Force’s advocacy of preemptive military operations, for example, may well deliver great tactical and operational advantages in the context of war, but their costs at the strategic level of conflict may well be prohibitive, and their effects counterproductive. At a time when the American military faces state, substate, and interstate threats and challenges across the globe, devotion to speed is akin to a dangerous one-kind-fits-all mentality. The Pentagon rightly strives for the capacity to conduct war quickly, but it should not allow that capacity to drive all planning and execution as, for example, the cult of the offensive did at the start of World War I. 

In the end, current military thinking about speed mistakes an important and expensive capacity for an inherent and intrinsic advantage. This thinking also brokers little tolerance for competing views that may point the way to success under some of the conditions America may face. To be sure, this cult of the quick is partly the result of broad cultural trends. Some might even argue that today’s constant news cycle requires the military’s devotion to speed. But this devotion also comes from trends and pressures internal to the Pentagon, as well as its own assessments of military history and future threats. Having had a hand in creating it, the Pentagon is not impotent to curb this cult of speed.

Gen Charles Krulak, former Marine Corps commandant, believed that John Boyd’s OODA Loop taught officers how to use “time as an ally.”64 This is true only if they appreciate that timeliness may be slow as well as quick. Instead of leveraging time, devotion to speed shackles military professionals to a simple view. Time becomes the master, and soldiers, sailors, and pilots are enslaved to adversaries who might make a different use of strategy’s temporal dimension.


1. Senate, testimony before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, 21 October 1999 (Federal Document Clearing House [FDCH] Political Transcripts). In his recent book Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat (New York: Public Affairs, 2001), General Clark seems to moderate this belief slightly, going so far as to say that the classic principles of war may not be well suited to modern conflict. However, he could not let go of speed: “In US military thinking, we seek to be as decisive as possible once we begin to use force. This meant that the sooner we could strike the most sensitive targets, the greater the coercive leverage against the Serbs” (449).

2. Colin Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 43.

3. Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, April 1995, 1.

4. Naval Doctrine Publication (NDP) 1, Naval Warfare, 28 March 1994, 20.

5. Ibid., 40–41.

6. Marine Corps Doctrine Publication (MCDP) 1, Warfighting, 20 June 1997, 40. 

7. See Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD)1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, 1 September 1997.

8. AFDD 2, Organization and Employment of Aerospace Power, 17 February 2000, ix.

9. Joint Publication (Pub) 1, Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, 14 November 2000, III-2.

10. Ibid., IV-8. See also Joint Pub 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, 10 September 2001, vii.

11. Joint Pub 3-0, A-1.

12. See, for example, Alan Zimm, “Desert Storm, Kosovo, and ‘Doctrinal Schizophrenia,’” Strategic Review, Winter 2000, 32–39.

13. See, for example, Marine Corps Strategy 21 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Navy, 3 November 2000). The last decade has seen literally dozens of books published on the virtues of speed in war. For an edited work reflecting this development among senior military officials, see Harlan Ullman et al., Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (Washington, D.C.: Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology, 1996).

14. For a popular assessment of this transformation, see USA TODAY, 16 January 2001, 1A; and a more careful analysis can be found in Brian Dunn, “The Path to the Future Army,” Military Review, September/October 2000, 91–95.

15. Gen John P. Jumper, “Global Strike Task Force: A Transforming Concept, Forged by Experience,” Aerospace Power Journal 15, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 24–33.

16. Frederick Strain, “The New Joint Warfighter,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1998, 39 (originally published Autumn 1993).

17. Ajay Singh, “Time: The New Dimension in War,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1998, 124–29 (originally published Winter 1995).

18. President George W. Bush, cited in USA TODAY, 16 January 2001, 2A.

19. For an example of the former, see William Matthews, “Military Analysts Say Air War Is Lost, Send in the Troops,” Navy Times, 3 May 1999, 18. For an example of the latter, see Andrew Bacevich, “Target: Belgrade,” National Review, 3 May 1999, 29–31.

20. Stephen P. Aubin, “Operation Allied Force: War or ‘Coercive Diplomacy’?” Strategic Review, Summer 1999, 4–12.

21. Brig Gen John D. W. Corley, Initial Report: The Air War over Serbia: Aerospace Power in Operation Allied Force (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air force History, 2000), 33, 36.

22. See, for example, James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).

23. For a good case study of culture’s influence on military doctrine, see Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War: French and Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997). See also Gray, 28–29.

24. For a masterful analysis of War Plan Orange, see Nathan Miller, War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan, 1897–1945 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991). Miller identifies planners who advocated a quick strike across the Pacific as “Thrusters,” while planners who supported a more methodological fleet movement to the western Pacific were “Cautionaries.”

25. For a good account of the influence exerted by war planning on the valuation of speed, see Colin Gray, “Defense Planning and the Duration of War,” Defense Analysis 1, no. 1 (1985): 21–36.

26. U. S. Grant Sharp, Strategy for Defeat: Vietnam in Retrospect (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1993), 105, 131. 

27. James Kitfield, Prodigal Soldiers (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 1997), describes the officer corps’s general vilification of the gradual approach in Vietnam.

28. Colin Powell, “U. S. Forces: Challenges Ahead,” Foreign Affairs, Winter 1992–1993, 40.

29. Editorial, “At Least Slow the Slaughter,” New York Times, 4 October 1992, E16.

30. The best exploration of Boyd is Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001).

31. Gen David Deptula, Firing for Effect: Change in the Nature of Warfare (Arlington, Va.: Aerospace Education Foundation, 1995), 5.

32. Joint Pub 3-0, II-2.

33. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 209.

34. Boyd’s theories of time were more complex than most people believed; he stressed speed not as some absolute objective but as a relative measure of time, and he allowed for the modulation of speed across time. However, this nuance fell on deaf ears in a sound-bite era, and even today, the DOD “finds it easier to address Boyd’s complex truisms with simple models rather than lengthy discourses in their capstone and derivative manuals.” (Robert Polk, “A Critique of the Boyd Theory—Is It Relevant to the Army?” Defense Analysis 16 [2000]: 272.)

35. MCDP 1, 85. 

36. Phillip S. Meilinger, 10 Propositions Regarding Air Power (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1995), 31–32. Like other defense publications, this booklet equates decision with action, which of course is not the case. It also misstates the OODA Loop’s basic thrust; the real object for Boyd was to think more rapidly than the opponent, which is different from an absolute devotion to speed.

37. See Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), for a history of this most elusive military goal.

38. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines decisive as something “having the power or quality of deciding.”

39. Colin Powell, National Military Strategy of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1992), 8–9. Although this document used several standard principles to guide strategic behavior (forward presence, collective security, and technological superiority), its emphasis on decisive force stood out. For further reading on decisive force as both a phrase and an analytic construct, see F. G. Hoffman, Decisive Force: The New American Way of War (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996). 

40. FM 100-5, chaps. 1 and 2. 

41. NDP 1, 9, 33.

42. AFDD 2-1, Air Warfare, 22 January 2000, 4.

43.  Joint Pub 1, III-1. 

44. For the Air Force’s tortured assessment of Deliberate Force, see Robert Owen, ed., Deliberate Force: A Case Study in Effective Campaign Planning (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 2000). Owen acknowledged Deliberate Force’s success, but he worried that the campaign might encourage “half-hearted or incomplete air operations,” which “would be indecisive” (476). Lacking any appreciation or framework for the potential of a graduated air campaign, another author of the study wrote in bewilderment of “Deliberate Force’s remarkable success, which was largely unpremeditated and resulted from the unforeseen impact of the stopping and restarting of the air campaign” (127). In fact, the study devotes an entire chapter to an excellent counterfactual scenario that explores the possibility that another, more robust, operation would have worked better. See Lt Col Robert D. Pollock, “Roads Not Taken: Theoretical Approaches to Operation Deliberate Force,” in Deliberate Force, 431–53. This fine introspection stands alone in the annals of official air surveys; other reports on air operations more closely aligned with preconceived ideas do not benefit from similar questions, though the inquiry has validity independent of individual cases. See, for instance, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey (New York: Garland Publishing, 1976) (World War II); and Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen, Gulf War Air Power Survey, 5 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Air Force, 1993).

45. For World War II’s strategic contours, see Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). 

46. Edward Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1999, 36, 45.

47. For a short description of the physical qualities of time, see Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1988).

48. Robert Levine, A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist (New York: Basic Books, 1997).

49. The Sioux language, for example, has no word to express time, lateness, or waiting.

50. Grant Hammond, “Time, Elasticity, Tempos, and Rhythms,” unpublished manuscript in author’s possession. I acknowledge a debt to Hammond for pointing out the cultural determinants of time. For a published view of similar matters, see Robert Bathurst, Intelligence and the Mirror: On Creating an Enemy (New York: Sage Publications, 1993).

51. Laure Paquette, “Strategy and Time in Clausewitz’s On War and in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War,” Comparative Strategy 10 (1991): 37, 48.

52. Donald Snow, From Lexington to Desert Storm: War and Politics in the American Experience (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), 325–26.

53. Ellwood Hinman IV, “Airpower’s Political-Military Gap,” Strategic Review, Fall 2000, 26.

54. General Ralston, cited in Elaine Grossman, “Ralston Sees Potential for More Wars of Gradual Escalation,” Inside the Pentagon, 16 September 1999, 1. 

55. For supporting commentary, see Lt Col Paul Strickland, “USAF Aerospace-Power Doctrine: Decisive or Coercive?” Aerospace Power Journal 14, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 13–25; and David Tucker, “The RMA and the Interagency: Knowledge and Speed vs. Ignorance and Sloth?” Parameters, Autumn 2000, 66–76.

56. Joint Pub 3-07, Joint Doctrine for Military Operations other than War, 16 June 1995, vii, I-1.

57. Ibid., viii, I-7.

58. AFDD 2-3, Military Operations other than War, 3 July 2000, 1.

59. Joint Pub 3-07, II-4.

60. AFDD 2-3, 1.

61. Ibid., 5. Air Force exhortations on religion reflect an understanding of the importance of circumstance in strategic choice: religion “will often play a major role in the lives of local inhabitants. An understanding of host nation or regional religious beliefs is vital to the success of many types of MOOTW” (47). For Air Force experience in MOOTW and its future possibilities, see James Corum, “Airpower and Peace Enforcement,” Airpower Journal 10, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 10–25; and Carl Builder, “Doctrinal Frontiers,” Airpower Journal 9, no. 4 (Winter 1995): 6–13. 

62. For insight into the nature of decisive war, see Michael Howard, “When Are Wars Decisive?” Survival 41, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 126–35. After 40 years of patience, the Korean Peninsula may be one place increasingly ripe for some kind of decision to be found on a battlefield.

63. Strain, 39.

64. Krulak, quoted in Hammond, 3.


Dr. Thomas Hughes (BA, St. John’s University; MA, PhD, University of Houston) is an assistant professor at the USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He is the author of Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II, which is on the USAF chief of staff’s professional reading list. Dr. Hughes is currently writing a biography of Adm William F. Halsey Jr.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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