Air Power's Contribution to Coercion (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2015 - Volume 4, Issue 3)

By Lieutenant-Colonel Brian L. Murray, CD

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Australian Defence Force Journal, no. 186, 2011, and the original spelling conventions have been retained.

Reprint from The Canadian Royal Air Force Journal Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring 2012

One of the frequent debates regarding the use of air power revolves around whether it can decisively win wars by coercing adversaries to accede to a nation’s or coalition’s will. While many theories of air power employment insist that strategic attack, where the adversary’s centres of gravity and will to fight are the main targets, is the best path to victory, other military theories espouse that only battle winning, and the seizing and holding of territory can achieve victory.

Ideally, Service preferences should not drive the “ways” of warfare. In a truly joint environment, the strategic objectives, the most effective ways to achieve those objectives in the given situation, and the available means to achieve them (involving all elements of both national and military power) should determine the most suitable strategy. Coercive strategies, aimed at affecting both the adversary’s will and capability, can be effective tools in the strategist’s toolbox to contribute to the achievement of strategic objectives involving the prevention of war, and if necessary, the prosecution of war.

This paper aims to describe what coercion, coercive diplomacy, and coercive force are, the types of coercive strategies and their goals, and how air power contributes to the achievement of these goals. It will also describe counter-coercion, offer some lessons learned from the analysis of air operations that have successfully contributed to coercion of an adversary, and take a look at air operations in Libya as an example of air power’s contribution to coercion.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines “coerce” as: “to restrain or constrain by force, law, or authority; force or compel, as to do something or to compel by forcible action: coerce obedience,” and “coercion” as “the act or power of coercing; forcible constraint or government by force.” So by definition, coercion implies the use of force to compel someone to do something. In the military context, it is sometimes defined as: “Coercion is the use of threatened force, including the limited use of actual force to back up the threat, to induce an adversary to behave differently than it otherwise would.”[1] It is also defined as: “Coercion, in its broadest sense, is causing someone to choose one course of action over another by making the choice that the coercer prefers appear more attractive than the alternative. In the international arena, coercion is usually intended to change the behaviour of states.…”[2] While the common thread in these definitions involves influencing an adversary’s behaviour, it is the threatened use of force or limited use of actual force that causes this influence.

Diplomacy is defined as “the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Coercive diplomacy would therefore be the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations using threatened or actual force. This force could be generated from any or all of the four elements of national power— diplomatic, informational, military, or economic. If this force is military force, then the term “gunboat diplomacy” is sometimes used. “Although the term ‘coercive diplomacy’ has come to be associated primarily with military force, coercive diplomacy best describes a nation’s coercive use of the four pillars of national power in the foreign relations arena.”[3] While it is appreciated that all forms of national power can contribute to coercive diplomacy and influence the behaviour of an adversary state, this paper will focus on the coercive use of military force, and in particular, the air power element of military force.

Before looking at how air power can contribute to coercion, it is important to appreciate what types of coercive strategies exist, and what are the goals of each of these strategies. While diplomatic effort or military campaigns can and do employ multiple ways to achieve their defined ends, knowing what these ways are meant to achieve and selecting the most appropriate ones for the situation at hand are key to their successful employment.

The two major categories of coercive strategies are deterrence and “compellence.”[4] While these two concepts are related, in general, deterrence aims to prevent an adversary from doing something he would otherwise do or want to do, while compellence aims to alter behaviour already commenced or force an adversary to do what the coercer wants him to do. It is recognised that a significant amount of academic debate surrounds the inclusion of deterrence as a form of coercion. While deterrence is often viewed as a passive act, relying on the adversary’s perceived belief or fear of destructive retaliation by the deterring force or nation, and coercive force or compellence is viewed as an active act that relies on the effectiveness of the coercer’s methods, this author believes that the goals of deterrence and compellence are the same: to affect the behaviour of the adversary, one through fear and one through threat or use of force.

Deterrence can truly be said to be “in the eye of the beholder” and it most often involves the threatened use of force (not the actual use of force). It is aimed at the adversary’s will to commence hostilities, not at his ability to fight. For a deterrent to be deemed effective, it must cause the adversary to decide to forego initiating a possible action. The adversary must believe that the deterring force is capable of inflicting an unacceptable level of destruction on the adversary’s military force or nation, and the deterring nation’s willingness to inflict such destruction. Interestingly, a deterrent based on a perceived (but not actual) threat can be completely effective, while an actual threat of which the adversary is unaware is of no deterrent value at all.

Peacekeeping forces, stabilisation forces, and carrier battle groups are examples of military missions or capabilities used for deterrence of potential aggression or compellence (coercive force) should hostilities break out. Sometimes referred to as representing a coercive military presence,[5] these forces have the capability, mission, and defined methods of escalating their response to aggression that includes the use of force. Even unarmed personnel and observation technologies that have the capacity to view and report adversary action may act as a deterrent if the information they report could be damaging to the adversary nation’s reputation or efforts and incur negative political, diplomatic, or military reactions.

Compellence can involve the threatened or actual use of force, ranging in scale from mildly influencing the adversary’s will to physically removing the adversary’s means to accomplish his goals and to resist coercion through isolation, capture, and/or destruction of his forces. Seizing, holding, and controlling the adversary’s nation are the ultimate ways of compelling an adversary to behave in a prescribed manner. The spectrum of compellence therefore ranges from strategies to affect the will of the adversary to strategies that aim to destroy the adversary’s ability to accomplish his goals and resist the coercer’s will.

The spectrum of compellence can be described (see Figure 1 below) using three strategies: punishment, denial, and destruction. Military campaigns can employ lines of operation that use more than one of these compellence ways, and most likely will employ elements of all three.

Punishment strategies are designed to target the adversary’s will to continue to fight or to continue to behave in a certain way. They seek to increase the costs of resistance or non-compliance with the coercer’s will, and can be directed against anything the enemy values, including military forces, economic wealth, national infrastructure, or international influence. While early air power theorists like Douhet viewed adversary civilian populations as valid targets for aerial bombardment, history has not shown appreciable evidence that the bombing of civilians has significantly decreased an adversary nation’s will to fight, nor is it considered a legally, ethically, or morally justified strategy in the post-Second World War (WWII) era. Punitive coercion is intended to invoke the fear of future pain in the adversary’s key decision-making apparatus.

Denial strategies are aimed at affecting the adversary’s desire and ability to achieve their objectives. The purpose of these strategies is to reduce the likelihood that the adversary’s pursuit of their intended objectives and their resistance to the coercing force’s efforts will be successful. If the adversary is primarily using its military forces to achieve its objectives, denial is most often achieved by attacking the adversary’s military forces, the means to generate those forces, and other systems that move and sustain them.[6] Denial strategies seek to affect the will of the adversary by invoking a feeling of hopelessness due to the physical removal or degradation of the key adversary means being used to pursue their goals.

Destruction strategies are simple in concept, but may be extremely costly to both adversary and coercer alike. They are aimed at eliminating the adversary’s capabilities. While there are psychological effects associated with the loss of capability through its destruction, the aim of destruction is to remove options, and to leave the adversary without the means to resist and with no choice but to comply.

Figure 1. Spectrum of compellence

Air power is a form of military power ideally suited for coercion. Considering its flexibility and its potential for concurrent application on many different types of missions, air power can be employed in various ways, for a multitude of purposes, to simultaneously achieve many different and complementary effects. By taking the air campaign approach to joint air operations, air power can concurrently deter and compel adversaries, in a scalable, variable manner, with minimal footprint in a contested operating environment, with great effectiveness and survivability.

Air warfare theory has largely been focused on using air power to affect the will of the adversary. The original air power theorists were typically army officers who had converted to their respective air arms during the First World War (WWI). Shocked and appalled by the huge cost of human life in attritionist trench warfare during that conflict, their thoughts turned to alternative warfare strategies. Hence, early theorists like Douhet, Sherman, and Mitchell professed that the object of war was to destroy the enemy’s will to fight by attacking their infrastructure and heartland, rather than their fielded forces.[7] Later, Slessor took a more balanced view by realising that in addition to strategic bombing, interdiction of the adversary’s battlefield supply system and supporting land forces were also important contributions air power could make to warfare. Slessor, a product of the fledgling Royal Air Force in WWI, was the first air power theorist to take a truly joint view of warfare.[8] Colonel John Warden, one the most noteworthy air power theorists of the modern era, like the early theorists, was also a proponent of strategic attack. Warden’s view differed slightly in that he saw the enemy as a five-ring system, where each ring represented groups of thematically bound centres of gravity. At the bullseye of the rings was the enemy leadership, which represented the highest priority target for air power. The outermost and lowest priority ring was enemy fielded forces. Warden’s ultimate goal was to force the enemy to comply with friendly objectives:[9]

At the strategic level, we attain our objectives by causing such changes to one or more parts of the enemy’s physical system that the enemy decides to adopt our objectives, or we make it physically impossible for him to oppose us. The latter we call strategic paralysis.[10]

All this is to say that air power theory has been relatively consistent since the first theorists put pen to paper in the early 1920s. It has been very much focused on coercing the adversary’s will to fight, rather than using its brute force purely for the destruction of his fielded military forces, although the methods used to coerce the adversary’s will have varied with time and theorist. While some espouse that air power is best suited for one coercive strategy or another, it is the inherent versatility and flexibility of air power and its offensive nature that enable it to contribute effectively to most, if not all, strategies.

Recognising the differences between theory and practice is important. Air power has inherent characteristics and capabilities that when postured for use or when employed may create many effects, some intended and some not intended. For example, destruction can adversely affect the adversary’s morale and will to fight, but excessive destruction can turn fear into resolve (increase determination to resist). The application of force will incur many effects simultaneously, and to say that you can employ a specific air power capability in the context of a specific coercive strategy and achieve a single desired effect is unrealistic. The situation in which the coercive force is applied, and the combination of many positive and negative influences both internal and external to the adversary force, will ultimately determine the degree to which the adversary’s will is affected. When accessing the effectiveness of air power or air power effects to coerce, it is more realistic to speak of expected or intended effects and contributions to coercion, as opposed to drawing absolute causal linkages between air action and changes to adversary behaviour.

The characteristics of air power make it a particularly effective and economical deterrent force. Speed, reach (in some cases global reach), responsiveness, flexibility, and penetration enable a relatively small force, centrally located, to quickly forward deploy, posture to dissuade or counter aggression, or conduct destructive, retaliatory strikes if necessary. If the reach of this force is global, then the deterrent effect becomes location independent. If the air power force is sufficiently robust (reasonable size, containing world class capability), the deterrent effect becomes adversary independent. While most air forces do not possess true global reach and dominance in all air power capabilities, the deterrent effect of medium and small air forces will likely be regional in nature and dependent on both the adversary strength and the type of situation presented.

The missions that air power elements undertake can produce multiple effects at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. While air power can conduct control of the air operations aimed at preventing adversary air power from influencing friendly force operations, it achieves this objective by concurrently conducting offensive missions (offensive counter air) to destroy adversary air power capability either in the air or on the ground and defensive missions (defensive counter air) to deny the adversary’s ability to achieve its air objectives in friendly airspace. Strike missions like air interdiction (AI) are generally employed to destroy targets on the ground, but these strikes can be tailored to maximise demoralisation (will to fight) effects as well. The following paragraphs illustrate how air power can be or has been employed to achieve coercive effects.

The characteristics of air power and the experience of air warfare have led many theorists to conclude that air power is fundamentally a strategic force with the inherent ability to strike targets of high strategic value. However, in the history of warfare to date, there is not a large body of evidence that says that strategic air attacks, by themselves, have directly coerced a regime to capitulate or appreciably accede to the coercer’s demands. What can be stated is that there are examples of where air power has contributed significantly to a coercive diplomacy or a coercive force strategy.

As previously stated, the goal of a punishment strategy is to use the fear of future pain as the motivator for a change in behaviour. Perhaps the best example of this was the use of atomic bombs against Japan in August 1945. While the real and growing threat of invasion was also, undeniably, a coercive factor in influencing the behaviour of the Japanese leadership to change from resistance to compliance, the use of atomic bombs, and more importantly their continued potential use, was the tipping point:

The continuing [United States] US strategic bombing campaign, culminating in the atomic strikes against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, brought about Japanese surrender prior to an invasion. During his radio address to the Japanese people on Aug. 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito was clear in recognizing the role of the atomic bombs in his decision to surrender. Although casualty projections for the scheduled land invasions are debatable, the atomic strikes undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands of Allied lives, as well as millions of Japanese lives, both military and civilian.[11]

A more recent example of air power’s contribution to a coercive diplomacy strategy using punishment methods is Operation ALLIED FORCE and its air campaign over Serbia and Kosovo in 1999. While this campaign also employed significant elements of denial and destruction strategies, ultimately, the gradual increase in air attacks on targets in Serbia increased the pressure on Serbian leadership. When this coercive force was considered alongside the coercive presence of regionally deployed ground troops, and coercive diplomacy isolating Serbia from its presumed allies, it was enough to cause the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, to accede to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) demands:

[A]ir power might best be thought of as the force driving Milosevic into a deadend [sic] corner and threatening to crush him against the far wall. But had NATO not remained unified, Russia not joined hands with NATO in the diplomatic endgame, and the alliance not begun to develop a credible threat of a ground invasion, Milosevic might have found doors through which to escape from the corridor despite the aerial punishment.[12]

It should be noted that, although air warfare theory sometimes states that punishment strategies or targeting adversary leadership (decapitation) can lead to a severe loss of morale, regime change, or capitulation, some prominent theorists argue against this idea. While Warden’s five-ring theory places leadership at the centre of the enemy system and represents the highest priority target, Robert Pape states:

Decapitation, like punishment, is not likely to topple governments, by fomenting either popular rebellion or a coup. Air attack is a weak instrument for producing popular rebellions, mainly because conflict with a foreign power typically unleashes political forces (such as nationalism and fear of treasonous behaviour) which make collective action against even unpopular regimes unlikely until the opportunity for military victory has been lost.[13]

While coercive strategies based on denying the adversary’s achievement of their goals seem like a compromise between punishment and destruction, they arguably represent the most complementary blend of desirable characteristics of each. Denial strategies recognise the interconnection between destruction and the will to fight. Air power, using its ability to range throughout the battlefield and deliver large-yield weapons with a high degree of accuracy, day and night, has proven to be a very effective weapon in using destruction to change the will of an adversary. Denial strategies are aimed at inducing a feeling of futility or hopelessness in the adversary. While punishment strategies aim to target any centre of gravity the adversary values, in denial strategies, coercive force is normally applied to the primary mechanisms used by the adversary to achieve their objectives. For adversary military operations, this mechanism is most often the adversary’s fielded military force, including their supplies, lines of communication, and command and control (C2) centres.

The most striking example of the effect of air power on fielded military forces was the Gulf War in 1991. Of the estimated 400,000 Iraqi troops deployed to the Kuwait theatre of operations, more than 160,000 deserted before the commencement of the ground offensive, while over 80,000 more surrendered during the 100-hour ground campaign.[14] While it is acknowledged that more than just air power was a factor in this, it was a significant one.

Strikes on enemy ground units were the air campaign’s most significant contribution to the war. This use of air power—which did not rely on the spectacular new “smart weapons” but on traditional “dumb” iron bombs employed in mass—reduced the Iraqi army in Kuwait to a frightened and ineffectual fighting force. The result was light opposition, non-engagement, or surrender by Iraqi units and low casualties on both sides during the ground war. Air power had demonstrated most convincingly that—skillfully employed under the right conditions—it can neutralise, if not completely destroy, a modern army in the field.[15]

The ability to coercively affect fielded military forces from the air is dependent on the situation. Large forces in prepared, static defensive positions like those used by Iraqi forces in Kuwait were susceptible to air strikes. Dispersed Viet Cong forces in Vietnam were much less susceptible. What can be gleaned from examination of the use of air power to inhibit the adversary’s achievement of their objectives through the use of coercive denial is that the psychological effect of attacking fielded forces can at times be the dominant effect and it is often the most underappreciated:

An Iraqi officer told his interrogator that he had surrendered because of B-52 strikes. “But your position was never attacked by B-52s,” his interrogator exclaimed. “That is true,” the Iraqi officer replied, “but I saw one that had been attacked.”[16]

Air power has the ability to effectively destroy adversary targets wherever they can be detected. What makes air power well suited to eliminating the adversary’s means of conducting warfare is its inherent ability to seek out and locate targets, and then rapidly send attacking forces to where the targets are. In addition to holding expertise in conducting devastating campaigns against a broad range of deliberate targets, air power has also developed the ability to bring aerial fires onto emerging, dynamic, or mobile targets equally effectively. While air power planners and strategists acknowledge that certain conditions are more conducive to air attack than others, and that air power is not the sole means of delivering destructive power to the battlefield, the sensors, intelligence resources, situational awareness, and C2 systems, and precision air weapon systems now being employed enable unprecedented levels of responsiveness and destructive capability on the modern battlefield. The battle of Khafji, the only post-invasion offensive operation conducted by the Iraqi forces during the 1991 Gulf War, showed how air power could detect, attack, and destroy emerging adversary ground forces with devastating effect:

On Jan. 29, 1991, Iraq launched its only offensive of the Gulf War—and was promptly clobbered by airpower… Khafji demonstrated to all but the most ingrained sceptic the ability of deep air attacks to shape and control the battle and yield advantages for engaged ground forces. In 1991, airpower identified, attacked, and halted division-sized mechanized forces without the need for a synchronized, ground counterattack.[17]

Air power has also demonstrated the ability to destroy much of a nation’s war-making capacity through strategic attacks. The US Strategic Bombing Survey conducted during the latter stages of WWII by a group largely composed of impartial civilian businessmen, lawyers, and bankers[18] compiled 212 volumes of information and analysis regarding the actual effectiveness of strategic air power in both the European and Pacific theatres. This survey argued that, particularly in the last year of the war, “strategic bombing had a catastrophic effect on the German economy and transportation system, and this in turn had a fatal impact on German armed forces.”[19] Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments and War Production, later stated that May 1944, when the strategic bombing campaign was ramping up to full force, was the beginning of the end, and: “The war was over in the area of heavy industry and armaments.”[20]

Diplomacy, conflict, and coercion are not one-sided affairs. Both sides influence the outcome of any interaction. This concept certainly applies to coercive diplomacy and coercive force. As one side tries to coerce their adversary, the adversary will normally try to recognise and affect the vulnerable aspects of the coercer.

As an example, to avoid nuclear war, the deterrent strategy based on mutually assured destruction or mutually assured destruction (MAD) quickly developed. This strategy aimed to discourage any nuclear nation from threatening the use of its nuclear weapons to achieve its aims by countering with the threat of full nuclear retaliation.

Mutual Assured Destruction, or mutually assured destruction (MAD), is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two opposing sides would effectively result in the complete, utter and irrevocable annihilation of both the attacker and the defender, becoming thus a war that has no victory nor any armistice but only effective reciprocal destruction. It is based on the theory of deterrence according to which the deployment, and implicit menace of use, of strong weapons is essential to threaten the enemy in order to prevent the use by said-enemy of the same weapons against oneself.[21]

A coercer or dominant coercing force will also have centres of gravity that it must protect, as the adversary will most certainly try to apply coercive force against them. As an example, one of the common, critical vulnerabilities or own-force centres of gravity that are exposed to adversary coercion in almost every form of conflict is public support. As this is a “will to fight” vulnerability, the adversary will probably attempt to employ a coercive punishment strategy and escalate the cost of the conflict. The nature of these costs could be political (support for leadership), financial (sustainment costs for large military deployments or the costs of expensive equipment required for the operation), human (casualties), or moral (excessive collateral damage and civilian casualties).

Air power can effectively negate coercive adversary attacks by demonstrating how the above costs can be minimised. In particular, air power can minimise human and moral costs by continuing to employ methods that minimise risk to non-combatants, demonstrate accuracy and proportionality in their offensive action, and maintain high levels of survivability for friendly combatants.

Examination of the ability of air power to apply coercive force has revealed some key lessons for political leaders contemplating the use of deterrence or coercive force, and for military commanders, planners, and strategists charged with devising plans to apply coercive force.

  1. Air power is most coercive when it is used in conjunction with other coercive elements. Coercive diplomacy, other military elements that form a coercive presence, parallel psychological operations and forces that can immediately exploit changes in adversary behaviour all enhance the coercive effect of air power.
  2. Enemy demoralisation (the degrading of the will to fight) should be an air campaign objective.[22]
  3. Coercive strategies, including those employing air power as a coercive means, are often dependent on successfully exploiting one or more of the following three factors:[23]
    1. escalation dominance – turning the heat on the enemy up or down at will;
    2. denial – defeating the adversary’s military strategy; and
    3. magnifying third party threats – reducing the ability of the adversary to defend against a third party. Air power was used successfully in this capacity at the start of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (the Northern Alliance was the third party) and during Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR in Libya (where the anti-government forces were the third party).
  4. Coercion has a good chance of success if the coercer can bring about four related conditions:[24]
    1. adversary feels victory is impossible;
    2. adversary feels resistance is futile (hopelessness);
    3. surrender now is better than surrender later (the future will hold increased levels of pain); and
    4. compliance brings some benefit.
  5. Too much destruction, or destroying the wrong things (including non-combatants), can be detrimental to coercion and expose a coercing force to counter-coercion. Air power must be used proportionally and with discrimination—“For airpower to retain its credibility and hence its ability to coerce, it must be used with restraint.”[25]

Following the passage of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011, authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, establish a no-fly zone, and enforce an arms embargo,[26] US and allied forces commenced military operations against Libya two days later. This action was called Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, and it was a US Africa Command-led combined operation initially involving control of the air and strike missions. Offensive missions commenced with strikes by the United States Air Force (USAF) and the United States Navy (USN), French and British aircraft, and cruise missiles from American and British naval vessels.[27] On March 24, the US handed over control of the operation to NATO, and it became known as Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR.

Since March 24, an unprecedented coalition of NATO Allies and non-NATO contributors have been protecting civilians under threat of attack in Libya, enforcing an arms embargo and maintaining a no-fly zone. As NATO Secretary General Rasmussen explained, under Operation Unified Protector, NATO is doing “nothing more, nothing less” than meeting its mandates under United Nations Security Council resolutions. No NATO ground troops have participated in the operation— NATO’s success to date has been achieved solely with air and sea assets.[28]

At the conclusion of Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, NATO and coalition aircraft had flown over 26,500 sorties, including 9,700 strike sorties, and had destroyed over 5,900 military targets.[29] No doubt, much analysis of the effects of this operation will now take place. This analysis will most certainly include coercive effects and the role air power played in achieving them. It may be valuable to take a cursory look at the way air power was employed in this operation to see if it fits into one or more of the coercive strategies identified in this paper, and if it appreciated the above lessons learned.

In essence, this operation employed what can be viewed as a coercive denial strategy to prevent the then Libyan government from achieving its objective of quelling the rebellion of a large portion of its civilian population by using force. Air power was used to target the Libyan means being used to attack rebel forces and subdue civilian unrest, and in particular the military aircraft and heavy weapons being employed. Whether air power actually achieved denial effects, including the changing of Gaddafi’s or his force’s behavior or will to fight, requires more analysis. If it did persuade Gaddafi forces, and if air power only had tactical, destructive effects, it can still be viewed as being destructively coercive, if the elimination of Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry, including much of his armor and artillery, rendered his forces incapable of defeating the rebel forces.

Interestingly, during the middle portion of this operation, when there seemed to be little progress in the civil war either way, doubts about air power’s ability to significantly influence the outcome began to surface:

We have reached the stalemate that we always seem to reach when there is a great reliance on Western airpower supporting local forces. We saw it quite often in the Balkans and other places. There’s a limit to how much air strikes can do especially when the government or loyalist forces have most of the firepower on the ground. There’s a situation with the geography and the military tactics being used by both sides. To break the stalemate you’d need to have some quite heavy conventional forces move into the country.[30]

While the above comments were written in early August, by the end of that month rebel forces, backed up by air power, had captured the Libyan capital, and Gaddafi’s days were numbered. By the 20th of October, Gaddafi was dead and the rebel victory was secured. While it is difficult to gauge how much air power contributed to this result and how coercive that power actually was, there is little doubt that it contributed to the demise of Gaddafi and his forces.

The lessons learned regarding the coercive use of air power that have been shown previously may be of use in interpreting how air power affected this civil war. Byman, Waxman and Larson’s assertion that coercion could be deemed effective if it defeated the adversary’s military strategy (denial) or magnified a third-party threat[31] seems applicable in the Libyan case. With the denial aspect already discussed above, the levelling of the playing field air power offered by defeating Gaddafi’s air force and heavy weapons may have made the rebel forces (the third party) a bigger threat to Gaddafi’s forces than previously anticipated. Perhaps the indication that the air power-backed rebellion was now being viewed as a serious threat came on September 1st when the press reported that one of Gaddafi’s sons attempted to negotiate with the rebel leadership:

Saadi Gaddafi said on al Arabiya television he had officially been given the power to negotiate with the forces fighting the former dictator for control of Libya. The news was interpreted as being an indication that the colonel may be willing to bring an end to his war with opposition fighters. However, another son, Saif al Islam, spoke on the al Orouba television station—broadcast from Syria—and vowed to continue the resistance. In a recorded message he said his father was ‘fine,’ and urged supporters to continue battling opposition fighters, who he described as ‘rats.’ War of words: mixed messages are coming from Saif and Saadi Gaddafi. Sky News foreign correspondent Lisa Holland said the comments of Saif—who, along with his father, is facing arrest on war crime charges by the International Criminal Court—sounded ‘delusional.’[32]

Interestingly, while Saadi seemed willing to negotiate, his brother Saif, who was under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), was not. This begs the question if the ICC’s action helped or hindered a quick resolution of the conflict. While indictment by the ICC may have lent some legitimacy to the forces opposing Gaddafi and de-legitimised the Gaddafi regime, when viewed against Mueller’s guidance[33] for conditions conducive to successful coercion, it may have hindered. Although, the first two conditions (the adversary feels victory is impossible and resistance is futile) had probably been met by early September, the humiliation of public trial at the hands of the ICC, for Muammar and Saif Gaddafi, may have negated any chance of achieving the last two conditions (surrender now is better than surrender later, and with compliance comes some benefit).

With regard to counter-coercion, it appears that NATO’s employment of air power and their counter-coercion methods were successful. From the commencement of air strikes, media messages like “CF-18s abandon attack on Libyan airfield to avoid collateral damage”[34] were clearly proactive measures to ensure public support for the operation was retained. Additionally, as zero NATO personnel were killed in combat in Libya during the almost 10,000 strike sorties flown, the perceived human cost of this operation remained low and not susceptible to coercive pressure on public support.

Air power’s contribution to coercion in Libya will be judged over time as more information becomes available. There is little doubt that air power had a significant effect on this civil war, and some of the air power effects were coercive.

‘Whether one agrees with the intervention, one thing is clear, and no surprise to objective observers: modern airpower [sic] is the key force that is directly leading to the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime—just like it was the key force that led to the replacement of the Milosevic regime in 1999, and the Taliban regime in 2001,’ e-mails retired Air Force [Lieutenant General] Lt Gen David Deptula, who planned the air campaign during the 1991 Gulf War. ‘Airpower eliminated the Libyan integrated air defense system, instilled a no-fly zone rendering Libyan air forces ineffective, and reduced the organized Libyan Army to dismounted infantry unable to mass to achieve sufficient effectiveness to survive.’[35]

Coercion is not a single or rigid strategy to be used in conflict. It is a tool that a nation or coalition of nations can use to help impose its will on an adversary nation or definable group. The spectrum of coercion contains coercive strategies that aim to achieve the goal of dominating an adversary, but in different ways, including deterrence, punishment, denial, and destruction. These ways can involve all the elements of national power in their application, but one of the key coercive elements is normally military force. Coercive force is rarely one-sided, and most adversaries are able to apply coercion to some of the critical vulnerabilities or centres of gravity, particularly those associated with the financial, human, and moral costs of conflict.

Air power, with its inherent speed, reach, penetration, versatility, flexibility, and precision, is ideally suited for most coercive strategies. While in the past, air warfare theory sometimes exaggerated the likely coercive effects of air power, analysis of a century of air warfare experience has revealed that air power has been an extremely effective coercive force, although sometimes serendipitously so. The demonstrated capability of air power, most often acting in conjunction with other coercive elements, to force behavioural change on an adversary are now well documented. As General Omar Bradley put it: “Airpower has become predominant, both as a deterrent to war, and—in the eventuality of war—as the devastating force to destroy an enemy’s potential and fatally undermine his will to wage war.”[36]

Lieutenant-Colonel Brian “Mur” Murray, CD, has completed operational tours on the CH136 Kiowa and CF18 Hornet, accumulating over 4000 hours of helicopter and fighter flying time since joining the Canadian Forces in 1985. His career highlights include deploying to Italy in 1999 for Operation ALLIED FORCE, acting as officer in charge of the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course in 2000 and 2001, serving as deputy commanding officer of 410 Tactical Fighter (Operation Training) Squadron in 2002, and as 4 Wing Cold Lake Standards Officer in 2003. In 2009, after completing a tour as the Analysis and Lessons Learned Branch Head in the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre, Lieutenant-Colonel Murray became the Canadian Forces Liaison Officer to the Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, Australia.

The author would like to thank Group Captain (GPCAPT) Rick Keir, Director Air Power Development Centre (APDC), and Dr. Sanu Kainikara, Deputy Director Strategy APDC for their review of and significant contributions to this paper.


C2 ―command and control
ICC―International Criminal Court
NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
US―United States
WWI―First World War
WWII―Second World War


[1]. Daniel L. Byman, Matthew C. Waxman, Eric Larson, “Air Power as a Coercive Instrument,” RAND, 1999, 10 (herafter cited as Byman), (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[2]. Karl Mueller, “The Essence of Coercive Air Power: A Primer for Military Strategists,” Air & Space Power Journal – Chronicles Online Journal, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[3]. Alan J. Stephenson, “Shades of Gray: Gradual Escalation and Coercive Diplomacy,” Air War College, Air University, 4 April 2002, 3. (return)

[4]. Mueller. Note: while Thomas Shelling, the noted author of Arms and Influence, also agrees with Mueller’s assertion that deterrence and compellence are both elements of coercion, it is recognised that not all theorists share this view. (return)

[5]. Stephenson, 9. (return)

[6]. Mueller. (return)

[7]. Raymond P. O’Mara, “Clearing the Air: Airpower Theory and Contemporary Airpower,” Air Force Journal of Logistics XXXIV, nos. 1 and 2, annual edition, 52–59. (return)

[8]. Raymond P. O’Mara, “Clearing the Air: Airpower Theory and Contemporary Airpower,” Air Force Journal of Logistics XXXIV, nos. 1 and 2, annual edition, 63. (return)

[9]. Raymond P. O’Mara, “Clearing the Air: Airpower Theory and Contemporary Airpower,” Air Force Journal of Logistics XXXIV, nos. 1 and 2, annual edition, 65. (return)

[10]. Raymond P. O’Mara, “Clearing the Air: Airpower Theory and Contemporary Airpower,” Air Force Journal of Logistics XXXIV, nos. 1 and 2, annual edition, 65, taken from Warden, “The Enemy as a System,” Air Power Journal (Spring 1995): 43, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[11]. Phillip S. Meilinger, “A Short History of Decisiveness,” Air Force Magazine, September 2010, 100. (return)

[12]. Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Washington: The Brookings Institution, 2000), 184. (return)

[13]. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win – Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1996), 82. (return)

[14]. Stephen T. Hosmer, “The Psychological Effects of U.S. Air Operations in Four Wars 1941–1991,” Rand Corporation, 153, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[15]. RAND Corporation, “Air Power in the Gulf War - Evaluating the Claims,” (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[16]. Hosmer, 165. (return)

[17]. Rebecca Grant, “The Epic Little Battle of Khafji,” air force, February 1998, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[18]. Phillip S. Meilinger, “The USSBS’ Eye on Europe,” Air Force Magazine, October 2011, 75. (return)

[19]. Phillip S. Meilinger, “The USSBS’ Eye on Europe,” Air Force Magazine, October 2011, 76. (return)

[20]. Phillip S. Meilinger, “The USSBS’ Eye on Europe,” Air Force Magazine, October 2011, 78. (return)

[21]. Wikipaedia, “Mutual assured destruction,” (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[22]. Hosmer, 189. (return)

[23]. Byman, 29. (return)

[24]. Mueller. (return)

[25]. Byman, 138. (return)

[26]. United Nations, UNSCR 1973 (2011), 17 March 2011, 3, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[27]. Jeremiah Gertler, Congressional Research Service, Report to Congress, 28 March 2011, “Operation Odyssey Dawn (Libya): Background and Issues for Congress,” 7, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[28]. NATO, “NATO and Libya, Operation Unified Protector,” (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[29]. NATO, Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR Final Mission Stats, 02 November 2011, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[30]. Mat Hardy, “The Libyan Stalemate: can it be broken?” The Conversation, 5 August 2011, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[31]. Byman, 29. (return)

[32]. Sky News, “Gaddafi’s Sons ‘At Odds’ Over Ending Conflict,” 1 September 2011, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[33]. Mueller. (return)

[34]., “CF-18s abandon attack on Libyan airfield to avoid collateral damage,” 22 March 2011, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[35]. Noah Shachtman, “So Much For ‘Stalemate’: Libyan Rebels Enter Tripoli, Backed By U.S. Firepower,” DangerRoom, 21 August 2011, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

[36]. Phillip S. Meilinger, “Ten Propositions Regarding Airpower, Air and Space Power Journal,” Air & Space Power Journal – Chronicles Online Journal, (accessed March 21, 2012). (return)

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