AirSea Battle As Presently Conceived

In mid-December, a senior U.S. Navy official delivered a (not for attribution) presentation on the AirSea Battle concept at a Washington D.C. institute.  While AirSea Battle was first introduced in early 2010(1), official Department of Defense explanations of the concept have been minimal.  In the absence of a comprehensive DOD summary, the void has been filled by service publications, defense media, and online journals.  To date, the principal reference point has been two monographs published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, "Why AirSea Battle?" (02/19/2010) and "AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept" (05/18/2010).  Aviation Week produced a comprehensive overview in April 2011.  By contrast, DOD acknowledged the Aug. 12 establishment of an “AirSea Battle Office” composed of 12 to 15 officers -- after the fact on November 9th.  Defense media coverage ranged from objective to underwhelmed.  The week prior to the presentation, Inside the Pentagon obtained a unsigned copy of a new Joint Staff publication entitled “Joint Operational Access Concept”.  In all, the dearth of information is surprising given previous Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s depiction of AirSea Battle as a concept with “potential to do for America’s military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what AirLand Battle did near the end of the 20th.”  As such, the December briefing provided a welcome introduction to AirSea Battle -- the presentation focused principally on its historical antecedents but it also succinctly summarized how the concept is expected to address current operational challenges associated with power projection.  AirSea Battle, as currently conceived, represents a substantive (embryonic) attempt to address anti-access and area denial, but, as with many attempts by civilian and military department leaders, it be may be hindered by the paucity of guidance from elected decision-makers as to America’s national security objectives going forward.

The Core of AirSea Battle

At its heart, AirSea Battle is anticipated to be the basis for “winning a guided munitions salvo competition.”  The key aim is “to disrupt and destroy enemy A2-AD networks and their defensive and offensive guided weapons systems in order  to enable U.S. freedom of action to conduct concurrent and follow-on operations.”  Winning is accomplished by employing both kinetic and non-kinetic means and by scouting the enemy’s network, attacking effectively first, and coordinating operations and fires across dispersed forces.

The presenting official came to this summation by demonstrating how warfare has evolved from engagements between forces wielding massive unguided munitions.  Whether thrown, shot, fired, or dropped, effective unguided munitions had to be delivered in mass to compensate for the low probability of striking the designated target.

Warfare began to transition away purely unguided munitions engagements during World War II when forces began fielding “battle networks” to sense enemy attacks earlier and coordinate defensive measures more quickly.  Guided munitions made their appearance in the form of Imperial Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific theater.  The tactic fared well as a strategem to overcome American networked defenses (and contrasted positively with massive American naval fires) demonstrating guided munitions could achieve comparable effects more efficiently, especially if delivered first.

The breakthrough, however, was underappreciated as the coinciding development and use of the atomic bomb demonstrated how a single munition’s explosive capacity could dwarf an entire arsenal’s firepower and eliminate the problem of missing the target.  Instead of comprehensively exploring the potential of guided munitions, the American military established nuclear weapons as the basis for its offensive arsenal; the development of guided munitions occurred primarily only as part of integrated and computerized network defense systems.

The next catalyst to prompt the U.S. military to begin developing offensive guided munitions was the Vietnam War.  American reliance on unguided munitions had two shortcomings.  One, North Vietnamese air defenses employed guided missiles increasing the risk to American pilots loitering at length in order to discharge unguided bombs.  Two, indiscriminate bombing campaigns resulted in massive civilian deaths, diminishing support for the American war effort domestically and abroad.  The operational performance of guided munitions led the Department of Defense to launch in 1975 after the war’s end the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program.  The priority was to provide American decision-makers with an alternative to choosing “massive nuclear destruction” as a course of action; as the path not yet taken, the Department would develop guided munition capabilities.

Initial progress was uneven as the main munitions-dependent services, the Navy and the Air Force, focused on service-specific tactical objectives, namely countering air and maritime platforms.  Moreover, technology had not yet overcome limitations connected with the nature of delivery systems (carrier magazines, carrier-based air forces) or weather (laser-impeding clouds).

In the end, the decisive factor was the continuing competition with the USSR.  Soviet military theorists, led by Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, readily recognized command and control systems networked via computer systems and armed with guided munitions could usher in a “military technical revolution” in warfare.  Faced with a potential Soviet “reconnaissance-strike complex,” the American military responded by beginning to examine full how campaign planning and execution could capitalize on capitalize on guided munitions (as well as digital networks).  Meanwhile, technology finally advanced whereby new munitions would be less costly and more precise.  Doctrinal application occurred with the formulation of AirLand Battle.

Operational validation occurred in the victory over Iraq in 1991.  After Operation Desert Storm, “the defining battle” in the words of the presentation, relying principally on unguided munitions would have been inconceivable for any of the services.  As successive charts demonstrated, the American reliance on guided munitions increased in volume, proportion, and precision over the time period leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  

For American adversaries, the only conventional countermeasures available at the time entailed denying American battle networks the information needed to execute strikes (deception, jamming) or mitigating the effect of executed strikes (moving assets below the surface or hiding among the civilian population).  Adversaries could seek nuclear weapons but not without a substantial commitment of resources and inevitable attention from the United States.

While American military dominance was assured during this period, the advantage would ultimately be fleeting.  Invariably, the underlying technology spread and adversaries -- state and non-state -- have developed or acquired commensurate capabilities and are prepared to deny the American military the freedom of action to which it has been accustomed.  Referring to slide 26, the presenting official noted how the cumulative effect of layered SAM, fighter, ship, and missile assets would curtail the maneuver space for American forces.

It is in this context the presenting official returned to the opening premise of AirSea Battle as a means for assuring American power projection in an era of guided munitions.  

If Adversary X (and the presenting official repeatedly stressed the concept is not premised on a specific country) employs anti-access area denial measures, then AirSea Battle will have shaped operational planning and resulted in capabilities whereby American forces can neutralize the enemy’s network and attack first.  By first defeating an enemy’s targeting capabilities and delivery systems (as well as demonstrating the ability to mitigate or sustain a strike), the United States will retain the requisite operational freedom of action.  “Air Sea Battle will soon be a necessary precursor before deploying the remainder of the joint force.”  

American decision-makers concerned anti-access and area denial measures would thwart deployed forces or allies worried the United States would not contest such measures would be assuaged.

In this regard, winning the guided munition salvo competition is ultimately about deterring adversaries and re-assuring allies.

The presenting official acknowledged the concept principally remains a joint Navy-Air Force endeavor but speculated a successful AirSea Battle concept could prompt exploration of a successor ground force doctrine -- an “AirLand Battle II.”  The presenting official commented the Marine Corps would be the “bridge” for the eventual incorporation of the Army; whether this incorporation would be into ensuing conceptual development or (later) operational planning was not explained.

Critical to the success of AirSea Battle is “scouting” whereby American forces have successfully established the scope and scale of the enemy’s battle network.  The presenting official indicated intelligence would be integral to successful scouting and made a brief (but unintentionally) pointed reference to network operational capability.  Whether this signifies the use of indigenous service capabilities or the newly established Cyber Command is unknown.

In discussing new platforms and weapons, the presenting officials stated the Department must sustain its investment in directed energy and electronic warfare -- otherwise, the American military will be at a distinct disadvantage in the future.

In discussing present assets, the presenting official asserted the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program is proceeding satisfactorily(2) and stated it will provide capabilities consistent with AirSea Battle as currently conceived.  Moreover, the presenting official contended the aircraft would be purchased by allies throughout the region, providing a complementarity that is rarely available.(3)
AirSea Battle as a Joust?

If a future operational challenge will entail overcoming anti-access and area denial measures via the employment of guided munitions, then AirSea Battle’s focus on neutralizing the enemy’s battle network and striking first with long range guided munitions appears appropriate -- if it indeed can be accomplished.  Each side will still be holding the other at bay with an integrated battle network and guided munitions, just as the Soviets had contemplated earlier (see below top).  Revisiting the Soviet rendition, one is possibly reminded of the medieval joust (see below bottom).  Two opponents, each armed with “long-range” weapons and each trying to exploit very narrow margins for victory.

In this context, AirSea Battle presupposes a parity between the American military and an enemy’s military (even though little evidence suggests parity indeed exists).  Again, the Soviets realized the incorporation of precision weaponry would expand the battlespace and assumed the United States was moving in the same direction.  Developing an equivalent reconnaissance-strike complex would have been their attempt to deter an anticipated American advantage.  

Accordingly, a face-off between opponents with integrated battle network and guided munitions is an instance of mutual deterrence.  AirSea Battle seeks to resolve this standoff by placing a tremendous premium on defensive measures and sustaining superior maneuverability and speed.  If a future operational challenge will entail overcoming anti-access and area denial measures, then AirSea Battle’s focus on neutralizing the enemy’s battle network and striking first with long range guided munitions appears appropriate -- if it indeed can be accomplished.(4)  

As depicted by the presentation, the Soviets conceived of the reconnaissance-strike complex as a maritime application.  The Americans, in contrast, developed its complex to support ground operations in Europe.  At that time, the technology supported only short range combined ground and air operations in a confined geographic space.  In the present, the Department of Defense will need to develop and procure long-range systems and, emphatic disclaimers aside, the expected battlespace will adversaries along the combined enormity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, more than 86 million square miles and approximately 126,000 miles of coastline (WolframAlpha, see below).  

The corresponding number of targets and platform requirements may dwarf what can be attained in the near to medium future.  As Mr. Robert Haddick of Small Wars Journal has pointed out in recent articles, the current configuration of forces in the Western Pacific may simply preclude a quick resolution of any engagement.  Moreover, the military services will have to accept inevitable “large cultural changes” if its members are to accomplish the tall tasks laid out in AirSea Battle, whether it is operating new remotely-piloted long-range systems or synchronizing previously independent planning and programming.

Warning of inevitable cultural changes and expecting adaptation by the warfighter brings to mind (again) the admonition of Air Force COL John Boyd:  “Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.”  The warfighter should not have to adjust to accommodate organizational integration or anticipated platforms -- organization and platforms should.

The Imperative of Broader Structural Restructuring

AirSea Battle is a laudable attempt to address a nettlesome operational challenge, but amidst severe budgetary challenges and the continuing need for reform, the concept should be concomitant with a broader restructuring of American forces.

In a recent Joint Force Quarterly article, retired U.S. Army COL Doug MacGregor outlined force design options warranting additional attention.

In line with the premium placed on maneuver and speed arising from the above salvo competition, COL MacGregor calls for a force structured and equipped for dispersed mobile warfare inside an integrated maneuver-strike-intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR)-sustainment complex that combines ground maneuver forces with strike, ISR, and sustainment capabilities from all of the services.  In COL MacGregor's estimation, military establishments that integrate functions and capabilities across service lines while simultaneously eliminating unneeded overhead not only are less expensive to operate and maintain, but are also likely to be far more lethal.

Again, the US military should be inspired by its former Soviet foe and similarly establish a unified military command structure that compels the integration of core service capabilities under a single operational commander, which permitted the maximization combat power (land, sea, and air) where it was needed and minimization where it was not needed.  Accordingly, a future force would combine strike and maneuver into a single joint operation inside a joint task force command under a lieutenant general or vice admiral.  Subordinate commanding major generals would separately be responsible for maneuver, strike, sustainment, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).  Additionally, COL MacGregor recommends establishing a new self-contained mission-focused capability package -- a Combat Maneuver Group (CMG) of 5,000- to 6,000-man under the command of a brigadier general and capable of limited independent action that “eliminates unnecessary command levels and drives jointness to a much lower level.”  In the aggregate, the future force would feature reduced command overhead(5) combining with existing single-service echelons transitioned into a flatter, multi-service integrative structure to maximize ready and deployable combat power.

Beyond Structural Reform -- Defining Red Lines

COL MacGregor’s recommendations center principally on ground forces and he contends sea control is no longer a mission demanding a large surface fleet.  To ensure access in the same battlespace AirSea Battle is being designed to address, the United States should instead rely on a nuclear submarine fleet employing long-range sensors, manned and unmanned aircraft, communications, and missiles.

The emphasis reflects a final matter AirSea Battle does not address and, admittedly, probably should not have to address.  AirSea Battle is a means for militarily contesting impeded access but whether it will be sufficiently decisive is (again) unknown; does its conception imply a readiness on the part of the elected national decision-makers to proceed up the escalatory ladder?  

Returning to the likely battlespace and, by extension, supposable adversaries in the form of China and Iran, have decision-makers clearly laid out the national interest and what constitute the basis for war?  

Is China’s pursuit of increased flexibility in the western Pacific Ocean a critical threat to American interests?  If the matter is the forcible re-unification of Taiwan, yes; if the matter is increasing naval capabilities to preclude reliance on a foreign power’s navy to safeguard its burgeoning maritime trade interests, then perhaps not.  (Moreover, the guided munition salvo competition is going to occur over the territory of critical American allies like Japan -- have decision-makers broached the matter?)

Is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons a critical threat to American interests?  Yes, but has the continued absence of diplomatic and trade relations and sole reliance on military posturing facilitated American objectives?  The past decade in Afghanistan and Iraq has demonstrated the limitations of applying principally military forces and resources to American foreign policy challenges.  Although reductions must occur in the Department of Defense budget, decision-makers will still have to retain a modicum of diplomatic and intelligence capacity to compensate for the retreat of “military forward” presence; hopefully not all budget reductions will be reserved for deficit reduction.

In closing, AirSea Battle is a laudable attempt to address the continuing challenge of the asymmetric approaches an adversary will undertake to undermine U.S. objectives.  Nonetheless, effective employment of this concept may deter would be adversaries and assure allies, but guidance at the presidential level must be forthcoming to answer how the nation proceeds should such circumstances prove short-lived.

1 The AirSea Battle concept made its official debut in February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report.  It was identified as the means for defining how air and naval forces would “integrate capabilities across all operational domains” and “guide the development of future capabilities needed” for deterring and defeating aggression in anti-access environments, a key element to “rebalance the force.”

2 The assertion was untimely as it came amidst the release of an internal Department of Defense report detailing significant problems in the program (Source:  Project On Government Oversight:  F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Concurrency Quick Look Review (URL))

3 Japan recently decided to acquire the aircraft for its air force.

4 Whether the Soviets ever figured out to triumph in the collision of reconnaissance-strike complexes is unknown -- they never had the chance.  Moreover, after the Soviet collapse, reconnaissance-strike complexes have only been employed against significantly inferior opponents.

5 COL MacGregor recommends reducing the number of geographic combatant commands to four; as previously submitted, the number of geographic combatant commands could alternatively be reduced to two.

Looking To Run Against Barack Hussein Walker Bush

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Observing the disarray that is the party's field of presidential candidates, Republicans have attempted to console themselves by comparing Romney, Perry, and company to the Democratic field of 1992 that ended up in a surprising victory for Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton. Just like the Democratic Party  in 1992, the Republican field is devoid of a frontrunner. Just like Democratic primary voters in 1992, Republicans are reluctant to commit. However, for Republicans, the silver lining is that the field of second-tier Democratic forgettables in 1992 produced the two-term Clinton Administration.  Surely the still fluid Republican race can similarly serve up a nominee capable of unseating incumbent President Barack Obama...

Revisiting 1992

By 1992, after three consecutive losses (by substantial margins), becoming the Democratic Party presidential nominee had seemingly become an exhibition of political masochism.  

In 1980, President James Carter became the first incumbent voted out of office since Herbert Hoover in 1932.  In 1984, so many traditional Democratic voters forsook Walter Mondale that history now remembers them as “Reagan Democrats.”  In 1988, Michael Dukakis blew a seventeen-point lead.  Two years into the Bush 41 presidency, few respected Democratic powerhouses would signal their interest.  

By December 1990, the race was so wide open even George McGovern, the loser of forty-nine states to one in 1972, admitted he was seriously thinking about running.  The first serious Democratic candidate -- former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, a self-described “pro-business liberal,” hadn’t been in office since 1985 after serving only one term -- announced in April 1991.

By the end of the year, a field of contenders eventually emerged consisting of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey, former Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, Tsongas, Jerry Brown, and Clinton.  Brown was the mercurial former California “Governor Moonbeam,” who last ran for president in 1980 and had left office in 1982.

Clinton was considered a riser given his youth, charisma, thoughtfulness on policy, and work to update Democratic liberalism after the 1984 debacle through the Democratic Leadership Council.  Unfortunately, his overly long nominating speech at the 1988 convention diminished enthusiasm for him.

Harkin’s bid led candidates to skip the Iowa caucuses and instead focus attention on the New Hampshire primary, where Clinton was leading Tsongas until his campaign faced explosive allegations of infidelity and draft dodging. Party establishment figures were so despondent the primary would be inconclusive that they considered drafting Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen as late as February 16 -- just two days before the vote.

Clinton came in second but characterized the unexpected second-place finish as a victory and christened himself the Comeback Kid.  Tsongas and Brown stayed in a little longer, until Clinton swept the Super Tuesday states, predominantly held in his native South.  Nonetheless, Clinton limped across the finish line, arriving at the Democratic Convention and polling third behind Bush and independent H. Ross Perot.

The Democratic Convention ended up being a turning point as the event successfully reintroduced Clinton to the country and coincided with Perot’s withdrawal from the race.  Clinton eventually won in November -- but he received only a plurality of the popular vote.  

Why so few first-tier names declined to make the race is no mystery.  Bush 41 proved a historic commander-in-chief, leading a global coalition against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and securing a decisive military victory in the Persian Gulf War.  Amidst a sluggish economy, Bush was rewarded with stratospherically high approval ratings -- 91 percent.  Most Democratic luminaries opposed the Bush Administration and those who didn’t concluded Bush would be unbeatable.  

Only after Bush’s poll numbers fell into the forties did Clinton and others join the race -- a convenience Tsongas derided as “a courage gap of fifty percent.”

Fast Forward to 2012

Today’s Republican hopefuls don’t lack for courage, but they are certainly desperate for affection.  “Weak frontrunner” has been permanently affixed to Mitt Romney’s name as he has been completely unable to break 20 percent in polling.  Meanwhile, Republican voters have cycling through Romney alternatives at a frenetic pace.  

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty never gained traction and dropped out after placing behind tea party favorite Rep. Michele Bachmann at the Ames Iowa straw poll.  Then major party donors persuaded Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enter the race.  Perry quickly supplanted Bachmann only to decline just as rapidly after successive stumbles on nationally televised debates.  Major party donors mobilized again, this time trying to recruit New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who eventually declined.  Businessman Herman Cain gained ground at Perry’s expense by promoting a radical plan to overhaul the tax system, but has now withered in the face of sexual harassment claims (and easy questions on foreign policy).  

In his wake, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, once dismissed as finished, has begun surging.  Current polling (11/17/11) has Gingrich tied with Romney for the lead, but his former employers (the health care industry, Freddie Mac) will definitely come back to haunt him.

Clinton's resilience eclipsed his (many) flaws and inevitably won over his party and the public -- maybe Romney's discipline (or Gingrich’s persistence) will achieve the same.

Perils of the Past as Prologue

However, the comparison only works if Obama runs as inept a re-election campaign as then President George H.W. Bush, which is a remote likelihood. Obama has already raised $88 million and observers are predicting he's prepared to drop "hope and change" in favor of "fear and loathing."

Then again, if one parallel is not enough, then perhaps a second similarity makes the case more persuasive. Unlike Bush 41, Obama has not had to deal with a primary challenge, but like Bush 41, he is approaching his level of success as a commander-in-chief.  

Since spring of this year, Obama has amassed an impressive collection of international rogues’ scalps.  Obama took out Osama bin Laden in May -- and can be commended for choosing the riskiest option, a covert raid, when he decided to do so.  The administration’s unrestricted drone warfare policy lucked out with a strike on a convoy in Yemen that included Anwar al-Awlaki.  Obama and allies just knocked off Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  Obama hasn’t benefited approval rating-wise, but these successes could mitigate attacks on his foreign policy, a perennial Democratic Achilles’ Heel.

With the presidential part of the 1992 analogy falling into place, the Republican contenders may indeed have history on their side.  

...Of course, fortune smiled only on Clinton, not the Democratic Party that reluctantly embraced him.  Only two years after he won, Democrats lost the Senate and its forty-year old House majority and stayed in the congressional minority for the next twelve years...

The Drone Delusion

"[Drone] Air strikes have been the single most effective tool at protecting the American people from core al-Qaeda and other organizations."

Michael E. Leiter, former Director, National Counterterrorism Center, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, The National Conversation--9/11: The Next Ten Years, The Woodrow Wilson Center, September 12, 2011

Drones are emblematic of America's reliance on advanced technology in warfare and have become the principal instrument in the nation's fight against terrorists. While unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is a few decades old, they have become indispensable to American military operations. The manpower-intensive nature of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the requirement for the unique intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities provided by drones by several orders of magnitude in just under a decade. Moreover, armed drone strikes have become central to American counter-terrorist operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In the parlance of national security practitioners, drones constitute an "asymmetric" advantage for the United States -- a unique means of warfare available primarily to one side in a conflict. Indeed, the success achieved by drone strikes, in tandem with the American surge in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden in July 2011, have convinced national decision-makers that Al Qaeda is within "strategic defeat." The conviction would be welcome if it was indeed based on more than the impressive technological of remotely piloted vehicles. As many practitioners will caveat, the enemy has a vote, and in the face of overwhelming American military strength, it will readily employ its own asymmetric advantages. When American drones are contrasted with enemy stratagems, the alleged advantage evaporates. Ascribing strategic advantage to drones exaggerates their effectiveness and obscures needed changes in the way the United States approaches contemporary security challenges.

Asymmetry vs. Asymmetry

In response to American advanced military technology, the enemy introduced two decidedly low-tech measures -- suicide attacks and improvised explosive devices.

Suicide attacks have been a critical tactic in insurgents' and terrorists' playbooks since the 1980s. Once the innovation of Tamil rebels on Sri Lanka, the tactic spread to the Middle East as terrorist groups began to conduct suicide bombings in their bid to eject Israel from Lebanon and Palestinian territories. The Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, marked the most deadly suicide attack in history, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. Following the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of suicide attacks grew enormously in both countries. According to the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), the number of suicide attacks from 1981 to 2009 around the globe totaled 1,941, from which over 25,000 died and almost 66,000 were wounded; attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2002 to 2009 accounted for 1,279 of those attacks, or 66 percent, and just under 14,000 dead, or just more than 50 percent.

Improvised explosive devices are simply just that - munitions cobbled together from available materials. IEDs are usually deployed inconspicuously and detonated by wires, pressure, or remote control. The explosion can be a standalone attack, a diversionary tactic, or part of a coordinated ambush. The device could also be delivered by car or truck. According to, an independent website that tracks casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the number of IED-related fatalities totaled 395 in 2011, 51 percent of all fatalities.

Official data on U.S. drone strikes globally are classified. As such, the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, has completed an ongoing analysis of drone strikes in Pakistan for the period 2004-2011. According to New America Foundation research, 270 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 57 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,661 and 2,601 individuals, of whom around 1,368 to 2,130 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. (For additional information on the New America Foundation "Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011", proceed to

The linked chart depicting the number of fatalities year in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater resulting from the enemy's use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), enemy suicide attacks, and U.S. drone strikes for the period 2004-2011.1
As the chart indicates, the enemy's use of IEDs and suicide attacks (against the U.S. and allies) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater have wreaked far more damage in terms of fatalities than U.S. drone strikes -- 8,030 vs. 2,031 even without suicide attack data for 2010 and 2011.

While relying on body counts as a metric was discredited during the Vietnam War, the contrast underscores the impact of the chosen tactic. U.S. drone strikes have indeed increased in use over the years and high-ranking terrorist leaders have been eliminated, but their use has lagged far behind the enemy's use of suicide attacks, which the enemy employed earlier, more lethally, and, in strategic terms, to greater effect.

"Like the British and the Russians before them…"

After all, President Barack Obama announced in June 2011 that American forces would be exiting Afghanistan in September 2012, closing out the surge he commenced in December 2009. According to the plan presented then, the overarching goal would be "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." To achieve this objective -- over the next eighteen months -- President Obama outlined three steps. The first two steps toward achieving this objective entailed "break[ing] the Taliban's momentum" and "pursu[ing] a more effective civilian strategy."

According to September 2, 2011 reporting by David Ignatius of the Washington Post, a July 2011 Central Intelligence Agency report entitled "District Assessment on Afghanistan" asserted the war was heading toward a stalemate. "Even in areas where the United States has surged troops over the past 18 months to clear insurgents, the CIA analysts weren’t optimistic that the Taliban’s momentum had been reversed, as President Obama and his military commanders have argued." On September 20, 2011, the Taliban capped a series of audacious attacks with the suicide attack assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading peace and reconciliation negotiations.

The final third step involved "act[ing] with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan." Since that time, American special forces had to conduct a unilateral covert raid inside Pakistan to eliminate Osama bin Laden, who had been hiding in a massive compound in the same town as the country's premiere military academy. On September 22, 2011, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress asserting linkages between the Pakistani military and intelligence services and the Afghan Haqqani terrorist network, which had just attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

No matter how well the Obama Administration portrays its stewardship of the war from 2009 to 2012, it will very hard pressed to deny the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a major setback for the United States in the region.

Daniel R. Green, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow and veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, asserted the Taliban and their supporters will present it as a victory and speculated how the enemy would craft its narrative for the all-important ongoing battle of narratives.

In the words of a Taliban propagandist: "The mujahedeen have beaten the Americans! Like the British and the Russians before them, the Americans have tired of their war to oppress Islam in Afghanistan and are leaving."

In the analysis of a Pakistani intelligence officer: “As we have always known, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and, as expected, the task of cleaning it up has fallen to us. … The U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden taught us many things about U.S. capabilities and intentions. They do not respect our sovereignty and are willing to strike targets within our borders without our cooperation. … As the Americans draw down in Afghanistan, we will partner with our Taliban allies to extend their reach into areas the Afghans and the Americans do not control to extend our influence."

In the mind of a senior al-Qaeda leader: "Our strategy of attrition against the Americans is working as they begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their bankruptcy and weak economy are forcing them to retreat from the world, and al-Qaida will take advantage of these new opportunities. … Our affiliates in Somalia and Yemen have grown in significance and our presence in Iraq continues even though our core group has been weakened with the death of Osama bin Laden. Our cause endures."

Michael Scheuer, the former chief of and adviser to the intelligence community's bin Laden unit, recently concluded bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "faces a situation more promising than any al-Qaeda has encountered since its founding. [emphasis added]" Contemporary Al Qaeda is "multiethnic, multilingual, organizationally sound and resilient, religiously tolerant and militarily effective... larger, younger, better educated, much more geographically dispersed and has many more adherents than the one [al-Zawahiri] joined in 1998."

And how do drones fit into this narrative? According to Dr. Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, the use of drones results in a disconnect between the message sent in the war of ideas versus the message received -- "…what about the message that is received? I asked the leading newspaper editor of Lebanon, and there was actually a drone flying above him at the time. This is his quote: 'It’s just another sign of the cold-hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans who are also cowards, because they send out machines to fight us. They don’t want to fight us like real men; they’re afraid to fight, so we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them. [emphasis added].'"

Asymmetrically Vulnerable

Drones maybe attractive as low cost alternatives to pricey procurement programs and satisfy a recurrent search for technological silver bullets to security challenges, but it cannot compensate for what Scheuer ironically notes is Al Qaeda's "[most] reliable ally -- Washington's interventionist foreign policy." Because with intervention comes costs and IEDs and suicide attacks will remain key components of enemy cost-imposition strategies.

IEDs are possible because the raw materials are abundant and cheap. Moreover, IED production will undergo continuous innovation for these reasons and the ability to "open source" the research and development across global networks. The United States has committed approximately $13 billion between FY2007 and FY2010 to fund its Joint IED Defeat Organization within the Department of Defense. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to intervene personally to ensure the department procured more than 16,000 mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles at a cost of approximately $22.7 billion. The costs to care for servicemembers with injuries related to IEDs are substantial and will be borne into the future.

Suicide attacks shock the target population with their suddenness, lethality, and manifest desperation.  More critically, suicide attacks possess the advantage of being undeterrable acts -- and not because they’re the acts of religious zealots.  According to Robert Pape, the academic who led the compilation of CPOST data, the phenomenon of suicide attacks result not from religious fanaticism, but opposition to foreign occupation forces, particularly those from a country with a distinctly different religious background.  

These tactics preceded the American commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Their demonstrated efficacy ensures that if America is intent on supporting the [insert name] regime in [insert country] with forces, then the enemy will be sure to make the decision a costly one.  

The use of drones will be irrelevant.

After Afghanistan, Beyond Asymmetries

Unfortunately, American national security planning defaults are apparently set to intervene and deploy.

America withdrew from Saudi bases -- bin Laden's pretext for the September 11th terrorist attacks -- in 2003, and America will withdraw from Afghanistan in 2012, but it has apparently decided to sustain its presence in the region, via drones. According to September 20, 2011 Washington Post reporting, the Obama administration is establishing covert bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Seychelles to host drones for counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda organizations in the western Indian Ocean region.

As such, American warfighters (and citizens) will have to continuing coping with the enemies’ reliance on improvised weapons, suicide attacks, and whatever means they can conceive or discover.  

The search for an asymmetric advantage is not new in warfare, but the enemy has been concocting weapons out of disparate materials and donning suicide vests in defense of their identity and integrity.  Deposing the Taliban and Baathist regimes was justified.  Direct action against bin Laden and the drone strike against al-Alwaki were justified.  

But American enthusiasm for drone technologies is a defective defense and potentially malignant. Drone technologies will have a place in American military capabilities, but as an integrated component, not the tip of its spear.  Strikes remotely directed from a distance measured in thousands of miles (or worse, autonomously executed by the vehicle itself, a morally reprehensible possibility) is a slippery slope into fully militarizing foreign policy and exacerbating the lawlessness emergent in the global arena.

War is, as it has always been, a clash of wills.  Going forward, the words of America’s finest contemporary strategist, Air Force COL John Boyd, should be heeded “Machines don’t fight wars. … Humans fight wars. You must get into the minds of humans. That’s where the battles are won.”

1 The data has been compiled from the aforementioned sources: (search parameters set to IED fatalities in Afghanistan); CPOST (search parameters set to Afghanistan for all years searchable, 2004-2009), and New America Foundation (in the instance of variable figures (”Militants killed: 3-4”), the highest number was selected). For the supporting data set, please see Google Docs URL.)