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Posted on Apr 19, 2011 in War College

Wars Without End – The Challenge of ‘Arab Spring’

By John Antal

US Navy ship launches a missile toward Libya during opening phase of Operation Odyssey Dawn. US Navy photo.As the "Arab Spring" explodes across our television screens, Western politicians are searching for answers on how to deal with the complexities of the Arab world. Riots and bloodshed in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Bahrain and Sanaa, fill the newscasts. In Egypt, where the Egyptian military rules, a relatively peaceful transition occurred. In Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia, the results of the Arab Spring have yet to play out. The Arab peoples deserve better government than they have had in the past and it seems that the people realize this and are therefore forcing change. Is Democracy on the march, or is this the birth of a new era of instability, terrorism and war? No one can be sure, but even in these opening steps of the Arab Spring, there are lessons to be learned about the utility of military force.

In Libya, civil war has erupted. As of this writing, a seesaw battle along the cities, towns and villages of the Libyan coast rages with the forces of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi pitted against a shadowy group of rebel “freedom fighters.” There is no doubt about the villainy of Gaddafi and his henchmen. No one stands with Gaddafi except his own military forces and a few Libyan tribes. The UN, the Arab League, the United States and NATO have all condemned Gaddafi’s actions and told him that he must "go." As a result, the US and NATO intervened on the request of the UN and the Arab League with the noble goal of preventing the slaughter of "civilians."


NATO, now in command of military operations, is acting as the rebel’s air force. Those rebels are brave, enthusiastic and untrained. Their ability to successfully execute close combat operations, let alone combined air-ground operations, is in doubt. It seems clear that regime change, even if it is not the open policy of the US and NATO, will take more than enthusiasm, protests and a fusillade of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Eventually, Gaddafi will be removed, but how long this takes is anyone’s guess.

Colonel Gaddafi may be a madman, but he knows how to use force and realizes that his options are few. He must fight or die, which brings us to the subject of military force and the lessons we can learn from the opening moves of this conflict. If the hope was to shock Gaddafi into submission with the opening barrage, that goal seems to have failed. As the battle for Libya goes on, there are three emerging lessons on the use of military power that are worthy of review. These lessons are the role of firepower; the targeting of firepower; and the repercussions of the indecisive use of military force.

Firepower, delivered by air from missiles and aircraft can kill and destroy, but it cannot hold ground. Firepower can deny the enemy the freedom of movement, but it cannot take cities. In previous conflicts in this decade, in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006, air and missile forces have delivered firepower with increasing accuracy and lethality. Precision firepower is an extremely effective tool to destroy military forces in open terrain, fixed installations, bridges, factories and command and control centers. In each case—Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Hezbollah 2006 War—the opponent adapted, hid and dispersed. In the initial stages of each conflict it was hoped that precision firepower would decapitate the enemy’s leadership, but this goal was elusive in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Even our most sophisticated robotic precision firepower systems have not been able to bring about a decisive result on their own.

Precision firepower can freeze enemy movement and force the opponent to hide in bunkers or amongst the people, but without the double-punch of ground forces maneuvering on the enemy, airpower alone has never been decisive. When the enemy hides amongst the people, he transforms the role of firepower from a decisive tool to one of prolonged siege from the air. The Bosnian conflict of the 1990s is a case in point, as it was only resolved when US ground forces were committed. This lesson appears to have been lost or misinterpreted by the current generation of decision-makers.

Targeting this firepower without boots on the ground to assist in marking and clearing fires is also problematical. Without Special Forces teams on the ground, trained and equipped to designate targets, it is extremely difficult to insure that friendly forces and civilians are not struck in the chaos of close-quarter battle. In Afghanistan, in 2001, the combination of air and ground power was better executed. United States and coalition Special Forces were on the ground supporting the Northern Alliance and leveraging the power of precision firepower as the ground forces of the Northern Alliance moved to engage the Taliban. Against a decisive combination of firepower and maneuver the Taliban were forced to disperse and flee.

The fact of war is that firepower without maneuver is indecisive. Air and missile strikes to “defend civilians” is not a strategy, it is a tactic. The application of military force must be aimed at a decisive result if we expect a positive outcome. War is still a multidimensional affair, even in 2011, and waging it in one-dimension promises only prolonged bloodshed and misery.

To modernize the wisdom of Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, “There is no democracy having benefited from prolonged warfare.” These words ring true today and the application of indecisive military force in the internal rebellions of the Arab Spring will surely have second- and third-order effects that we do not fully appreciate. It is time to reevaluate our military concepts and create military solutions that provide rapid decisions suitable for our Republic. Nation building and counterinsurgency operations play to our enemy’s strengths, weaken our military and deplete our treasure. We should rediscover the concept of the strategic raid, where air, land and sea forces work together to go in, break things and kill enemies, to achieve a quick decision on the ground and then withdraw. We must be willing to risk casualties on the ground and in the air in pursuit of vital national interests, or we should not commit military force. The alternative, unfortunately, is to wage wars without end. With the United States already committed to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and in fighting terrorism around the world—and $14 trillion in debt—this is something that we can ill-afford.

Editor’s Note—To view an animated map with information on Middle East history prior to the First World War, see our April 2011 Map of the Month.

About the Author
John Antal, Colonel U. S. Army, ret. is the regular author of ACG magazine’s popular Combat! interactive department. He has written 10 books, including Hell’s Highway (Random House).