Air University Review, March-April 1979
Group Captain R.A. Mason, RAF
In His introductory essay to the recent Princeton edition of Clausewitz's On War, Michael Howard concluded,
It remains the measure of his genius that, although the age for which he wrote is long since past, he can still provide so many insights relevant to a generation, the nature of whose problems he could not possibly have foreseen,*
To an airman in the last quarter of this century, Clausewitz presents a particular and very important challenge. It is not simply to read and understand him, which in all conscience may well seem challenge enough. Nor is it even to identify and use those insights that transcend the 150 years of mechanized warfare, evolution of air power, thermonuclear deterrence, and the increasingly complex weapon systems of a rapidly advancing micro-technological revolution. I suggest, however, that a survey of some of the insights, in light of contemporary military problems and circumstances, can lead ultimately to a very clear recognition of what the challenge actually comprises.
the political objective
No thinking Western airman would disagree that war must belong to policy and that "Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa. " (p. 607) Sadly, even the most cursory survey of international
*Karl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 44. All quotations in the article are from this book. and the page numbers follow the quotation, For an extensive review of this new edition of Clausewitz, see Lieutenant Colonel David MacIsaac, "Master at Arm' Clausewitz in Full View," Air University Review, January-February 1979.
relations in our own generation will confirm that war, or the threat of war, remains a ready, if uncertain, instrument of policy at all levels below that of direct superpower confrontation. Indeed, it may be plausibly argued that the very presence of nuclear power stalemate places a high, if riskier, premium on more traditional, conventional habits of wielding the military instrument. It may also be that the Soviet government has learned that particular lesson rather more easily than the more liberal minded, diffident Western democracies.
But we would also agree that war is "to be fully consonant with political objectives, and policy suited to the means available for war." (p. 608) How would Clausewitz assess the political objectives of the Western alliance? As an allied airman, I only offer the questions rather than give the answers, which are the prerogative of my political masters.
Yet, are we seeking to check the spread of Communist ideology? Are we seeking to protect the territorial integrity of alliance members? Are we seeking to reduce the existing control and influence of Communist regimes? Are we seeking to preserve essential economic resources or interests? Is anyone objective paramount, or is there a blend of more than one? If there is a blend of more than one, there may also be a conflict of priorities, and before an appropriate instrument of policy is selected, either a clear-cut decision must be made or the consequence of conflicting interests accepted and understood. A few moments' reflection over events in Europe in 1945 and more recently in Southeast Asia will illustrate what can happen when the military instrument is not wedded to clearly defined political objectives.
Nor is it sufficient for political leaders to argue that real life is not like that; that shifting international relationships and changing perceptions of interests cannot be expected to produce such simplicity. Is it too critical to suggest that the evaluation and selection of long-term priorities is the primary responsibility of the statesman?
the centre of gravity
Assuming that the political objective has been clearly defined and assuming that the instrument of policy is to be military, we see that Clausewitz explained quite clearly what the next step should be.
One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed. (pp. 595-96)
In the event of an East-West confrontation, where would the centres of gravity be located? I have an uneasy feeling that ours may not be in our military strength, conventional or nuclear, but in the fundamental nature of democratic Western society or in the sources of economic power that sustain it. If so, then the energies of a shrewd potential opponent might be best directed against our public opinion on the one hand and against the heart of our internal and external economic resources on the other.
The potential opponent's centre of gravity may well be very different. It is unlikely to be the national will in the U.S.S.R. Some may argue that it could be one of Clausewitz's other options: the capital city, especially in a highly centralized bureaucratic state in which there might be national minorities and others resentful of the centralized control. This option, however, would presume that an attack on the capital city would also destroy the central government, and, in any event, such a policy would have horrendous implications for all the nuclear powers and many others as well.
Would alliance cohesion be a likely centre of gravity? Perhaps, but it may well be argued that the first attack, nuclear or otherwise, on Polish, Czechoslovak, or Hungarian territory would immediately validate thirty years of Soviet propaganda and convert potentially patriotic Eastern-European armed forces into bitter opponents of the West. How far, one wonders, would this speculation be borne in mind when nuclear strikes against targets in Eastern Europe were being considered?
Or should we accept Clausewitz's most favored assessment and assume that the centre of gravity of Soviet strength does, in fact, lie in her armed forces and, in the most likely scenario, in those forces intended for use as a military instrument in Central Europe? If we consider the fundamental, original, and enduring roles of the Red Army to be the midwife of the Bolshevik Revolution and mainstay of both external policy and internal structure, then perhaps the idea has much to commend it. It is intriguing, if a little mischievous, to reflect that a catalyst of revolution in 1917 was the military collapse of the previous regime.
what kind of war
There is, happily, no evidence that Western policies of defence, deterrence, and détente are about to fail. There are certainly no envisageable circumstances in which the Western allies would wish to initiate a war of any sort with the Warsaw Pact forces. Nor, indeed, is there any evidence to suggest that the political leadership of the Soviet Union desires anything other than peaceful coexistence; although their definition of that condition may be open to different interpretations.
Assessments of intention, the essential ingredients of a "threat," are again the responsibility of the statesman. But no government in an uncertain age can afford to be vulnerable to the whims of another, and military men in both East and West must plan accordingly. In so doing, they should bear one thought very much in mind:
The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. (p. 88)
In short, let us plan for the war we are quite likely to have to fight, which is not necessarily the war we would like to fight.
In any foreseeable scenarios, war is likely to occur at a time and place of the enemy's choosing. He is likely to possess the advantages of at least an element of surprise and initial concentration of force. Nor may he be deterred by the prospect of heavy losses. He is likely to attack with great speed, seeking specific political objectives. If, on the other hand, war should ensue as the result of a spasm reaction to internal pressures or from any other act of political desperation, Clausewitz's idea of war as an act of violence "without logical limit" would assume a reality that would make the rest of his teaching irrelevant.
So, assuming the first case, rationally explicable in Clausewitzian terms, have we in fact placed sufficient emphasis on detecting surreptitious Soviet military deployments? Have we ensured that enough of our forces would survive a surprise conventional attack along the lines explained in Soviet military literature? Have we adequately identified the essential ingredients of blitzkrieg as speed and concentration of force and prepared our defences and counterattacks accordingly?
If our assessment is correct, our military objective may well be to neutralize the Soviet military forces in the blitzkrieg as an instrument of Soviet policy. Ideally, that would be done by destruction, but it may be accomplished equally well by stopping, blinding, dispersing, or, within the framework of NATO Strategy 14/3, slowing them down sufficiently for appropriate allied political decisions to be taken.
Having reached this point, have we stressed sufficiently the irreplaceable contribution of allied air power to this scenario? In the geographically restricted territories of Western Europe, it may well be that air power, using the third 'dimension, could most speedily evade a first attack. And, certainly, only air power can concentrate firepower, either its own, transported or distributed, quickly enough both within a theatre or from beyond it. Air power offers survivability, speedy reaction, and the ability to concentrate counterforce with a high degree of accuracy, using a wide variety of precision and aerial weapons delivered, if necessary, from outside the range of terminal defences-provided that our aircraft are not dependent on several thousand yards of runway on a small number of airfields lacking hardened facilities for ground crew and engineering support.
Such reflections prompt further questions about the provision and management of our resources, not just for the opening of a conflict but for its continuation. "We must gauge the strength and situation of the opposing state. We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own." (p. 586) We must consider "the governments' strength of will, their character and abilities." Note, all governments, etc.--ours and theirs.
How much effort and resources are our countries prepared to devote? Are our military strategies in harmony with that assessment? The assessment is difficult to make and, even when sought, may prove to be inaccurate. There is reason to assume that President Johnson and his advisers acted very circumspectly between 1965 and 1967 in Southeast Asia, partly because of memories of Chinese intervention in Korea and fear of Soviet response to heavy blows against North Vietnam. But the subsequent policy of carefully graduated escalation seems to have hardened North Vietnamese resolve, allowed for equally graduated responses, and, above all, sapped the determination of the American population to support what appeared to be an interminable conflict with no "victories. " It is, therefore, just as essential today that our choice of military instrument is appropriate to the character of our governments and people. The corollary of military subordination to political control would, however, seem to be the military right to seek assurance from those political leaders that the military instrument, once chosen, will be given the resources and support it requires to discharge its responsibilities effectively.
offence and defence
If we are to be the chosen instrument, we must then carefully assess, with Clausewitz, the relative merits of offence and defence. Could we, for example, choose to wait for a "culminating point" in a Warsaw Pact offensive? If our political objective is to preserve Western European territory, can we afford to fight conventionally westward and then back again, perhaps with nuclear weapons eastward? Would Clausewitz select a strategy that had a good chance of stopping an offensive at the outset but with minimum risks of nuclear escalation?
How will the new generations of precision munitions affect the relative merits of defence and offence? For example, bearing in mind the likely size of a Warsaw Pact massed attack and the attrition rate which it is likely to accept, can we provide an effective defence based on one-to-one weapon characteristics, or should we be emphasizing area sub munitions or airdropped mines? If, on the other hand, we are planning to reinforce rapidly threatened areas, are we paying sufficient attention to countermeasures against area submunitions and airdropped mines? And how can the effects of low yield nuclear devices and perhaps chemical weapons be balanced in the equation? Overall, would Clausewitz, as a European, consider that we are in danger of fighting a defensive war for the enemy's objectives on or over our territory at a time of his choosing while our ability to strike at his heartland is inhibited by optimistic arms agreements?
friction and fog
But however we choose (or are forced) to fight, we can be certain about two ideas as about no others from Clausewitz: "Friction" and "the Fog of War." Friction is the "force that theory can never quite define" which "is everywhere in contact with chance" (p. 120) and is "the resistant medium" that distinguishes real war from the theory itself. Fog is "the general un reliability of all information," which acts like twilight or moonlight "to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are." (p. 140) The two will interact in future wars as never before.
Bad enough with World War II radios, landlines, and signals--how much worse in an environment saturated by electronic warfare. Never will the individual airman have need to call on so much inner strength and common sense; never will he have been so required to understand and remember exactly what is demanded of him.
Clearly, modern command, control, and communication equipments are powerful force-multipliers, but we must ensure that in war, as opposed to commercial displays or simulated peacetime exercises, they really do enhance our strength without imposing a rigidity of operation and dependence that would make us vulnerable to blinding and paralysis. Indeed, if we believe that the potential opposition is heavily dependent on close control for its military effectiveness, are we in fact devoting sufficient effort to projecting fog and friction in his direction?
If there is to be political uncertainty, the need to identify centres of gravity and, at the tactical level, decisive points, to assess the defence/offence equation, and actually to fight a war impeded by friction and enshrouded by fog, then what qualities should we be seeking to inculcate in our generals? Perhaps even the potential Pattons and Montgomerys can benefit a little from advanced training on their way to the top.
In his chapter "On Military Genius," Clausewitz asks for a "harmonious combination of elements" (p. 100) that is almost superhuman: courage, determination, imagination, intellectual gifts of "a power of judgment raised to a marvelous pitch of vision, which easily grasps and dismisses a thousand remote possibilities which an ordinary mind would labor to identify and wear itself out in so doing. " (p.112) One wonders how often that catalogue of qualities has appeared on an officers efficiency report.
Nevertheless, it presents quite an educational and training target; perhaps more educational than training. Perhaps the general's mind is indeed best formed by "the knowledge and the direction of ideas it receives and the guidance it is given," perhaps, indeed, "Great things alone can make a great mind, and petty things will make a petty mind unless a man rejects them as completely alien." (p. 145) I should like to think the training and education that we provide bear that distinction in mind and encourage the emergence of leaders of who Clausewitz would be proud.
The recent edition of Clausewitz's On War by Professors Brodie, Howard, and Paret offers airmen the opportunity to read and reflect on Clausewitz a little more easily. If we do, his fundamental challenge will quickly become evident. His importance to us will be measured not so much by how deeply we think about him as by how deeply he makes us think. The value of On War is not to help us decide precisely what he meant but to help us decide precisely what we mean today.
Royal Air Force Staff College
Group Captain R. A. Mason, RAF,(M.A., St. Andrews University and London University) is Director of Defence Studies, Royal Air Force Staff College, Bracknell, England. He has served in the Education Branch of the RAF; on the staff of the Air Officer Commanding in Chief, RAF Training Command, Bramton; as RAF Exchange Officer to the Department of History, USAF Academy; and as Command Education Officer, RAF Support command. He has lectured at several British universities and had articles and reviews published in journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Review. Group Captain Mason is a graduate of USAF Air War College and the RAF Staff College.
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.