Interview with John Warden

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • April 21, 2009

    P.K. Gautam [PKG]: Your Warden circle (five strategic rings) is well known in the way you planned targeting in the first Gulf War. How did you arrive at the model? What methods of research and analysis did you use? What is your message for students and practitioners of air power? What is the relevance of theory?

    John Warden [JW]: Einstein once said that he was uninterested in observations unless there was a theory to explain them. Without theory, there is no rigorous way to develop and test new tactics for the strategic effect they may have.

    I developed the Five Rings model first to help explain what air power did for a nation and how it differed from other modes of force application. Next, it became a powerful targeting tool because it provided a high level understanding of any opponent relevant to the objective for that opponent.

    We have just begun to understand what can be achieved with air power and with technology. Our problem to date, however, has been a gross underestimation of its capabilities and a failure to take it to new heights.

    PKG: It is interesting to know that both you and Boyd retired as Colonels. However rank also plays a part in exposing officers to the higher echelons of power. Tell us about how the American system works? Is rank in the military a criterion for getting ideas across to the upper echelons of the higher defence organization and policy makers?

    JW: Ideas are independent of rank and anyone with an idea in which he really believes has a good shot at getting it accepted.

    PKG: Jointness has been recognized globally as an indispensable part of synergy. For strategic targets other than close air support there is probably no doubt in anyone’s mind on joint operations. Assets of the navy, air force, army and the marines can be employed. But how do you resolve the tussle between close air support and troops in contact? Does jointness hinder this aspect? How do you balance service loyalties?

    JW: When jointness comes to mean lowest common denominator committee solutions it is not good, and unfortunately that seems to be happening in many parts of the world. Jointness is one tool among many to achieve an objective. Sometimes it is the right tool, but sometimes it isn’t. However, one should not start planning a strategy or war with the going-in assumption that it must be joint.

    We should really think about close air support as something that happens because of a big mistake on someone’s part. The idea should be to conduct operations in such a way that it is not needed. Finally, if a situation arises where close air support is needed, the decision to use it should be in the context of the operational level situation at the time.

    PKG: How does a combat leader demonstrate combat leadership qualities and lead by example in an age when manned aircraft are becoming increasingly obsolescent?

    JW: The word “combat” may be an adjective that is not needed. Leadership is leadership.

    PKG: What are the evolutionary trends in the balance between fixed and rotary wing aircraft? Will air power get affected?

    JW: Other than carrying people and putting them down in small areas, it would appear that fixed wing aircraft can do almost everything a helicopter can do, but do it faster and more efficiently. In general, there is probably a greater need for more fixed wing capability (which includes UAVs) than for more rotary wing craft.

    PKG: Militaries of the developing countries were impressed on the force on force operations undertaken by you and your allies both in the first Gulf war and the advance into Iraq in 2003. However, we now know that you have not won the war. This shows that there was something wrong with the objectives. What are the reasons for the protracted nature of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Will you term the plans to invade good strategic thinking?

    JW: The political objectives we used to put together the first Gulf War air campaign were as follows:

    • Iraq to be out of Kuwait.
    • Iraq not to be a strategic threat to its neighbours for at least a decade (as a result of losing so much of its offensive capability including its WMD programmes).
    • Iraq functional and able to defend itself against its neighbours.
    • The Middle East/Persian Gulf area to be more stable.

    To achieve these objectives, we operated against appropriate Iraqi centres of gravity and succeeded in affecting Iraq as a system in a very short period of time in such a way as to realize our political end-state. The objectives were limited and could be achieved with or without Iraqi cooperation. We succeeded because our objectives could be realized through the use of force.

    In the second Gulf War, US objectives for Iraq, other than deposing the Hussein government, seemed to be open-ended, but to include an effective end to historical, regional, religious, and tribal animosity; adoption of a democratic form of government; amicable compromise among groups over contentious issues; and ready acceptance of alliance with the US. Unlike the first Gulf War, with the exception of deposing the Hussein government, all of these objectives depended completely on Iraqi acceptance and cooperation. It is not clear that any but the first could be achieved through military force exercised by an outside power in any period of time or at least in many decades now. In addition, the centres of gravity that might have contributed to success were in the open-ended areas and were either not attacked or were approached from a counter-productive direction. For example, the Iraqi military should have been co-opted, not disbanded. Open ended objectives that require the conquered to change their belief systems are always difficult to achieve and always very expensive.

    The first part of the Afghanistan war was strategic: unseat the Taliban government and replace it with one that would not support and protect Al Qaeda; and destroy Al Qaeda operating facilities in Afghanistan. Following success in the first part, however, objectives expanded to include nation-building, democratization, elimination of the drug trade, and suppression of the Taliban. As in the second Gulf War, success required either dramatic cooperation by most Afghans or intense military operations sustained over prohibitively long time periods.

    Strategic problems with Gulf War II and the Afghanistan War after the first phase:

    • Open-ended objectives that required the conquered to change core beliefs.
    • Failure to operate against the right centres of gravity in the right way.
    • Assuming a short war in both cases while being aware that a very long and expensive war was not a palatable option either from a domestic or an international standpoint.

    PKG: There is one opinion that Indians lack the ability to think strategically or think the way it is done in the West. Do you agree with this? What are your views on this given the way you are stuck in West Asia and Afghanistan?

    JW: Good strategic thinking requires an ability to focus on the future, discard the past when it is no longer productive or relevant, and to understand that time is a key part of strategy. It also requires a philosophical assumption that things can be made to change. No nation or group has a monopoly on good strategic thinking nor does the fact that a group was good yesterday mean that it will be tomorrow.

    PKG: Do the nature and character of war change?

    JW: Yes to both but strategic principles seem to be fairly constant over very long periods.

    PKG: Bernard Brodie’s essay” Strategy as a science” argued that strategy must become a social science similar to economics. Where are we today?

    JW: I would agree that in all areas of competition ranging from business to war, strategy is absent or poorly done. We definitely need to get better at it. Given the performance (or lack thereof) of economics, I don’t think, however, that economics would be my model.

    US Air Force Colonel (Retd.) John Warden, who is now Founder and President of Venturist Inc., was interviewed by P.K. Gautam who is a retired Colonel of the Indian Army and currently Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.