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Mitchell Institute 25 Year Desert Storm Anniversary

Good evening.  It’s great to be here tonight and to see so many familiar faces. 

I want to thank Dave Deptula for extending me the invitation to speak at this event commemorating the 25th anniversary of desert storm.  I’d like to recognize the many veterans of that campaign that are here with us tonight. 

Tonight, i wanted to talk about desert storm as the first real manifestation of what bill Perry and Paul Kaminski refer to as the 2nd Offset Strategy.  As theorists of military revolutions would have it, Desert Storm was the “defining battle” of the 2nd Offset Strategy—or as I like to call the “big reveal.”  Desert Storm demonstrated how the awesome combat power of a joint, theater-wide battle network employing guided munitions would change the conduct of conventional warfare in the 21st century.

Now let me take a few minutes to define some terms so that there is no misunderstanding among us.  A battle network is simply a combination of three interconnected grids: a sensor grid; a command, control, communications, and intelligence grid; and some kind of effector grid.  I would argue that the first modern battle network was the British Integrated Air Defense system developed by Air Marshall Dowding before, and perfected during, the battle of Britain.  It had a capable sensor grid with spotters, radio interceptors, and radar.  It had a country wide, hardened C3I grid, with a central brain at Fighter Command connected through sectors all the way down to individual airfields.  And it had a deadly effector grid consisting of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft artillery, and very good air superiority fighters in the Spitfire and Hurricane. 

This IADs was an astounding technological-organizational construct, and contributed in no small way to the defeat of the German air campaign.  But the battle network effector grid, still, by and large, relied upon unguided munitions.  As a result, it really only took the surprise out of the equation, allowing the British to mass their fighters against German massed bomber raids. It wasn’t until the advent of guided weapons that the nature and character of battle networks began to change.

Now up until desert storm, most campaign battle networks were defensive in nature. The semi-automated ground environment, or sage network was the U.S. intercontinental air defense network in the 1950s and 60s.  The U.S. navy cold war ASW battle network was primarily defensive in nature, designed to prevent soviet submarines from penetrating the GIUK gap.  The IADs system over North Vietnam was among the most modern and deadly in the world at the time.  But what made the battle network in desert storm so unique was it was, by design, offensive in nature, incorporating precision attacks and guided munition attacks throughout the breadth and depth of an enemy’s battlespace.

How did we get there?

World War II saw unguided munitions warfare on a global scale.  And the key characteristic of unguided weapons warfare was that most weapons that were fired, dropped or launched missed their targets, and the miss distance increased rapidly over range. In 1944, for example, the CEP of bombs dropped by the Eighth Air Force was about 3,500 feet. Understandably, then, unguided munitions had an inherent bias towards massed fires.

In world war II, two potential alternatives to unguided munitions revealed themselves. The first were atomic weapons, which sought to take the CEP out of the equation. The second were guided munitions, which tried to drive the CEP towards zero.

Now, in the early Cold War period, because it enjoyed nuclear superiority, the U.S. opted to concentrate on atomic warheads for both strategic and conventional deterrence. The 1st Offset strategy relied on battlefield nuclear weapons, which provided a ready alternative to unguided munitions warfare and a ruthlessly efficient solution to the operational challenge posed by the Soviet Union’s massive conventional superiority on Europe’s central front.  Of course while the threat of raining down atomic fire on the inter-German border contributed to conventional deterrence, it was not entirely appealing to Germany and other NATO allies.

But thinking about how best to bolster conventional deterrence began to change in Vietnam as advances in electro-optical and laser guidance offered a glimpse of what was possible with guided munitions warfare, which promised accuracy independent of range. Indeed, in 1972, the last year of the air war over Vietnam, about 10,000 guided munitions were employed, giving the first true glimpse of the potential of air-delivered guided munitions fire at the operational or campaign level of war.

Soon thereafter, the Yom Kippur war demonstrated both the growing strength and lethality of air and ground defensive battle networks that employed guided munitions.  Yet, for a variety of reasons, the potential marriage of guided munitions with offensive battle networks initially failed to catch fire within the air-to-ground community. 

As the United States exited Vietnam, however, U.S. defense strategists confronted a soviet union that had achieved nuclear parity with the us, and that had conducted a massive conventional buildup, postured in a way to make it difficult for the us to employ battlefield nuclear weapons.  Warsaw Pact forces were organized to attack in powerful echelons to punch through NATO’s forward defenses and open the way for Operational Maneuver Groups (OMGs) to penetrate deep into NATO rear areas, making it difficult to employ tactical nuclear weapons.  NATO’s response was “active defense” – a phased withdrawal while trying to wear down soviet columns with short-range guided munitions. It was a losing strategy.  It ceded the initiative to the enemy, gave up too much allied territory. Worse, analysis showed that NATO units would quickly run out of missiles before stopping soviet armor.  A new approach was needed.

Consequently, in 1975, the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP), after carefully studying the use of guided munitions in Vietnam and the middle east concluded that united states should, as a matter of policy, pursue conventional weapons with “near zero miss.”  That report was complimented by a 1976 defense science board study that proposed developing a deep strike system made up of high resolution synthetic aperture radars, a target fusion center, and long-range missiles that employed tank killing sub-munitions.  

The DSB recommended these technologies be combined, tested, and demonstrated. Harold Brown and William Perry realized instinctively that a special management scheme would be required to do this. Perry thus put DARPA in charge of the project, which was called “Assault Breaker.”  Congress was skeptical and initially put off funding but DARPA went ahead using available funds. 

The Assault Breaker demonstration combined the pave mover targeting radar, a ground based data processing station, and sub-munition dispensing missiles. Key to the overall program was the “attack coordination center” for sensor fusion.  And while the final assault breaker tests involved some flubbing, in the last test, five direct hits were made on five stationary tanks.  DARPA did all this for a little more than $200 million. 

The impact of this demonstration on the Soviets was profound. As Norman Friedman wrote, Assault Breaker was a disaster for the soviets who now “believed that their American rivals were scientific magicians; what they said they could do, they could do.” 

But it would take more than a demonstration to change the course of us defense thinking. In essence, DARPA demonstrated the potential power of an operational level defensive battle network that employed guided munitions in the conduct of a combined arms defense.  But it would take the services to apply its lessons. And, while some in the U.S. military establishment questioned assault breaker’s value, several visionaries in the army and Air Force—Don Starry and Bill Creech among them—took the technological sauce of Assault Breaker to cook whole new technological-operational constructs known as AirLand battle, and later follow-on forces attack, or FOFA. 

In the end, Assault Breaker didn’t remain a single integrated system; its parts were later fielded as the Air Force JSTARS, the army’s ATACMs, and various tank-killing sub-munitions. But AirLand battle became doctrine in the us armed forces, and FOFA became the operational concept for NATO.  And, as it turned out, the implications of Assault Breaker, AirLand battle and FOFA were most quickly discerned by the soviets, who could see clearly where it was all leading. in fact, they even gave the destination a name: “reconnaissance strike complex.”  in 1984, the head of the soviet general staff, Marshall Ogarkov, famously stated “reconnaissance strike complexes” could make it possible to achieve destructive effects on soviet tactical formations similar to low yield nuclear weapons. 

Now there were certainly other aspects of the 2nd offset strategy. For example, brown and Perry saw the potential of other promising new technologies, such as stealth. But as we kept stealth tightly under wraps until 1989, I would argue that the creation of an operational-level defensive battle network employing guided munitions fire was the key to the 2nd Offset Strategy. And we know from the historical record that the mere articulation of the 2nd Offset Strategy injected great uncertainty in the minds of Soviet planners, compelling them to change their war-fighting calculus. The offset strategy made their old operating models obsolete, and the prospect of making the investments for new operational models was likely impossible given the state of the Soviet economy. It thus strengthened us and NATO conventional deterrence, and contributed in no small way to the end of the cold war.

So let’s fast forward to 1990, when Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Of all the times for a dictator of a relatively small country to take on the United States, that was not the time. The all-volunteer force had fully matured; we had shrugged off the debilitating effects Vietnam had on our conscript force and had high quality people top to bottom.  The post-Vietnam recapitalization of our battlefield and air platforms was well underway.  Along with the doctrinal revolution evident in AirLand battle, there was a revolution underway in training.  Motivated by results from Vietnam, the Air Force took to heart the lessons from the Navy’s Top Gun school that pilot proficiency was as important as new weapons in driving up kill ratios and began its Aggressor program and then Red Flag in 1975.  The army also greatly expanded training realism with establishment of the National Training Center, at Fort Irwin.  And the 1986 Goldwater Nichols act had strengthened the ability of the combatant commanders to achieve unified action of the armed forces. 

All these human capital, technological, doctrinal, and training advances were in full stride when Saddam Hussein made the ill-advised decision to invade Kuwait.  So i feel quite confident we would have beaten the Iraqi forces like red-headed step children regardless of circumstances.  But the way we actually beat them was not a sure thing.

In hindsight, we sometimes forget that our development of a campaign-level offensive battle network employing guided munitions fire was not a sure thing.  There were significant cultural impediments to our adoption of guided munitions, stealth, and other technologies that had to be overcome.  Bill Perry had to take oversight of the F-117 program because some in the Air Force were unconvinced that stealth would work, and the resources being spent on the F-117 took money away from the F-15, F-16 and A-10. The Air Force was reluctant to fully embrace guided munitions because the European theater was often cloud covered.  The navy saw at as a purely economic decision, because aircraft did not have the bring-back margins to land on carriers with unexpended guided ordnance.  As a result, they would often jettison them into the sea before coming back aboard. So, to some degree, both the Air Force and the navy air community went into the gulf war presuming that unguided munitions would carry the day. 

But present in the “black hole” planning cell under General Horner were a number of key people who saw things differently.  Those like John Warden, Dave Deptula, and the Checkmate planners were determined to create a new type of offensive battle network that employed precisely directed and guided aerial fires throughout the depth and breadth of the enemy’s battle space.  They connected the awesome capabilities of the national space constellation, developed primarily to support strategic commanders leading up to and during strategic nuclear war, directly into the sensor grid.  Although not called so at the time, they created an operational brain called the combined air operations center, that would direct most operational fires, and they reconfigured the GPS constellation to synchronize the entire battle network in time and space.  They integrated stealth into the campaign and the first GPS-guided munitions to pry apart the Iraqi IADs and to deliver pinpoint strikes against strategic targets. And they cleverly used a strategic messaging campaign to highlight the impact of a relatively few number of guided munitions, therefore suggesting the potential of future battle networks employed massed guided munitions fire.

I’ll leave it to the historians to decide whether or not Desert Storm marked a revolution in military affairs.  But what we know is this: the nature of war does not change but its character is constantly changing.  As Barry Watts says, changes over time in underlying technology, weapons, tactics, and methods, operational concepts, organizational arrangements, and military doctrine have clearly produced dramatic changes in war’s actual practice.  And, without doubt, from General Horner’s “black hole” cell to the innovative thinkers in checkmate, a collection of Americans were shifting the paradigm of how 2nd Offset capabilities could be applied far beyond the defensive, conventional deterrence scenarios for which they were designed.

And all one has to do is look back over the past 25 years, at Desert Storm, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and today over Iraq and Syria to see what an impact that they had.  Because of just a few visionary individuals willing to experiment with new technologies, new ideas, and new concepts, the U.S. accrued the strategic benefits of being an aggressive first-mover in the guided munitions regime.     

Now, however, the old ways of warfighting that we became comfortable with during the 2nd offset strategy period are becoming, well, old.  Andrew Marshall predicted that “recce strike complexes would emerge as a new organizational form,” and he was right.  Initially, the guided munitions revolution proved difficult to replicate at scale, primarily because of cost.  Now, our adversaries are rapidly developing 2nd offset technologies – guided weapons and battle networks -- eroding our long-held advantages.  Whether it's the 1000 nautical mile anti-access, area-denial challenge, or the last 100 yards our infantry forces grapple with, we need to ensure the Joint Force is preparing for new ways of warfighting.  

So, we now think it is time to pursue a 3rd Offset strategy, which is based on the premise that advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy will allow the joint force to develop and operate advanced joint, collaborative human-machine battle networks of even greater power.  Artificial Intelligence will allow new levels of autonomy – the delegation of decision-making authority – within joint battle networks, leading to entirely new levels of human-machine collaboration and combat teaming. 

These networks will be designed to support specific service and joint combat tasks and will manifest themselves differently in each domain in the way of new operational and organizational constructs.  But, like the 2nd Offset strategy, the 3rd Offset strategy will ultimately be defined by these constructs, not the technologies that enable them.  It will be this combination of new technologies, new concepts, and new organizational constructs that provide operational overmatch, thus strengthening conventional deterrence. 

Let me close by emphasizing this point.  I think I have some people in the audience tonight that will really get this, because you’ve lived it.  To make the 2nd Offset possible, you leveraged a technological edge to be sure.  But you had to go much further.  You organized differently, you trained differently, and you even thought differently, sometimes going against established doctrine – and its guardians in the forms of the established authorities – to try something new.  It took human creativity to put all of these things together into a winning combination… to take stealth, PGMs, GMTI, Electronic Warfare, precision navigation and timing, systems analysis, beyond line-of-sight communications, and just-in-time logistics and create a way of warfighting that gave a 40-year advantage. 

So I salute every veteran of desert storm. They demonstrated the breathtaking power of a Joint Force, with outstanding people, creative doctrine, unmatched training, cutting edge, well-maintained equipment.  This combined Joint Force demonstrated the ability to put pressure on an adversary across their entire depth and breadth at a tempo that induced in our enemy a level of uncertainty and paralysis rarely seen in war.  For a time, the world experienced an offset strategy that was fully realized, and it was our people – you and your brothers and sisters in arms – that connected the dots to make it happen.

And I especially want to salute those who had the vision to create an operational-level, offensive battle network that employed guided munitions fire to shape the battlefield, pave the way for maneuver, and finish the enemy wherever they were or tried to hide. I hope you are the inspiration for a new generation of leaders tasked with pursuing the 3rd Offset strategy. 

In many ways, our job in the Department of Defense is to give them the tools and the freedom to create something new, just like the Bill Perrys and the Harold Browns of the world gave you the opportunities to create the battle network that dominated in the desert 25 years ago.  You set a high bar.  By any measure, it will be difficult for any generation to produce a level of conventional superiority – and by extension, conventional deterrence – as you did.  Having been around some of our young people, however, I wouldn’t bet against them.  In fact, one of the things I am looking forward to the most is seeing what they come up with.

Thank you.