Limiting Risk in America’s Wars
Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm
Phillip S. Meilinger
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2017, 304 pages
Book Review published on: October 5, 2018
Phillip Meilinger has been a consistent voice emphasizing the capabilities and challenges associated with warfare and airpower theory, and he has produced another engaging and thought-provoking book on airpower and strategy in Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm. Meilinger provides insightful yet controversial ideas regarding American military strategy. As the title suggests, he stresses the need for the American military to adopt a “new” strategic paradigm that emphasizes airpower and leverages American asymmetric advantages while reducing political and military risk. In many ways, Meilinger’s argument revitalizes the pioneering airpower spirit of Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell but without the emphasis on strategic bombing. His ideas are also peppered with a healthy dose of Col. John Warden’s more recent notions of airpower employment. In sum, Meilinger’s “new” strategic paradigm rests on four distinct but mutually reinforcing capabilities: airpower; special operations forces (SOF); an indigenous ground capability; and a superior intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system.
Meilinger suggests that airpower should be the primary arm in current and future conflicts. He based his argument on his analysis of warfare since World War II. He concludes through an assessment of multiple case studies that the use and deployment of large numbers of conventional ground forces has resulted in strategic failure and unnecessary casualties to American forces. Meilinger believes limited war is the United States’ most likely future scenario; he foresees little need to deploy large numbers of U.S. ground forces to achieve American security objectives. Given this prediction, Meilinger concludes that airpower, in conjunction with SOF and indigenous ground troops informed by accurate and actionable ISR, can succeed with limited risk, lower casualties, and greater effect. Moreover, if airpower should fail, it will do so without the political, psychological, and physical costs associated with large numbers of deployed conventional ground forces.
In many ways, however, Meilinger’s new paradigm is reminiscent of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) air control concept employed during the interwar era. Air control promised effective results with lower costs and fewer casualties, relying primarily on airpower in conjunction with RAF security forces and indigenous levies supported by intelligence. Today’s air and ISR platforms and systems are far more precise and ubiquitous than those the RAF used, but the concepts are eerily similar, and perhaps Meilinger’s strategic paradigm is not as new as he suggests.
Military Review readers will also be interested in Meilinger’s advocacy of B. H. Liddell Hart’s strategy of the indirect approach. Through his analysis of select historical case studies, Meilinger dissects the successes and failures of states that have used this strategy. The failures, such as the Athenian Sicilian expedition, and the successes, such as Operation Torch, should inform the political and military decision-makers’ strategic choices, demonstrate the importance of proper net assessments, and identify force employment options. With American superiority in strategic force projection through its powerful Navy combined with U.S. air and space dominance, Meilinger suggests that the indirect strategy coupled with his new strategic paradigm is the best option for U.S. national security needs.
art of Meilinger’s justification has to do with the U.S. Army’s perceived predisposition towards annihilation of the adversary’s ground forces. Meilinger attributes this tendency to the Army’s infatuation with Carl von Clausewitz and his concept of absolute war. Most Military Review readers and those who study Clausewitz will likely disagree. For example, Meilinger fixates on Clausewitz’s observations that the enemy’s center of gravity is always the enemy’s army and its annihilation. Clausewitz, however, acknowledged and characterized more than one type of war and identified other centers of gravity. Limited war was just as likely as total war. Moreover, Clausewitz cautioned political and military leaders to understand first the type of war they sought, and that the use of force should be proportional to a state’s political objectives.
From Meilinger’s perspective, the commitment of large numbers of U.S. ground troops in places such as Afghanistan needlessly increased risk for American, enemy, and civilian casualties. By implication, had the United States employed his airpower-centric approach supported by SOF and local forces as it did during the initial phases of Operation Enduring Freedom, there could have been less bloodshed, lower costs, and reduced political fallout. Of course, this is inferred from Meilinger’s argument, but it is consistent with his overarching thesis.
Meilinger’s book is recommended because it addresses critical issues of military strategy and airpower theory. His emphasis on an indirect approach and an airpower-centric strategy may not be particularly new, but Meilinger does provide a coherent argument worthy of discussion. Readers may not agree with Meilinger’s analysis, conclusions, or recommendations, but those do offer fertile ground for critical debate on how the United States should approach modern warfare.
Book Review written by: Tony R. Mullis, PhD, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas