By Wing Commander Alec Tattersall

Phillip S. Meilinger, Limiting Risk in America’s Wars: Airpower, Asymmetrics, and a New Strategic Paradigm. Annapolis: MD, Naval Institute Press, 2017. Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Hbk. xx + 277 pp.


The US possesses the pre-eminent military force in the world today. The record of the US in conflict since the Second World War does not, however, reflect this capability pre-eminence. In a recent online article, Harlan Ullman noted that:

President John F. Kennedy tartly observed that there is no school for presidents [but] there needs to be a way to bring knowledge and understanding to bear on presidents’ decisions.[1]

Ullman’s concern is that President’s, and those that advise them, are ill prepared for determining political strategy in the context of using military force.

It would not be inappropriate to suggest that Phillip S. Meilinger’s new book is one way of addressing this knowledge deficit. In simple terms, this is a book about US strategy, or rather re-thinking US strategy in the context of protecting national interests subject to the usual pressures of representative democracy. Pressures that require amongst other things maintenance of public support, which is increasingly sensitive to the costs of war in both people and money. As such Meilinger advocates for a reorientation of US military policy to focus on its asymmetric strengths in areas such as air and naval power, special forces (SOF), increasingly pervasive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and intelligence analysis, against enemy vulnerabilities, and at the same time limit the States exposure to the risk of ‘casualties and cost’. While a simple concept, it is a shift away from current US strategic policy that follows Clausewitzian notions of using conventional ground forces against enemy strengths.

Meilinger starts by reminding us of the main problem to be addressed – designing military strategy to achieve political goals with the highest chance of decisive military victory but at the least cost. Railing against the Clausewitzian model of seeking decisive victory by attacking an enemy’s strength head-on, and its attendant higher cost and risk of failure, Meilinger reviews the work of several renowned strategists including Basil Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, Antoine Jomini and Sun Tzu to identify an alternative strategic direction. The common thread he draws from such strategists is of using an asymmetric advantage to strike at an enemy’s weakness while protecting your own. He draws upon the example of indirect second-front operations that he defines as:

[g]rand strategic flanking manoeuvres involving a major military force that strikes the enemy unexpectedly somewhere other than the main theatre of action (the source of the enemy’s strength) and is directed to achieving clear political objectives. (p.31)

Within the concept of second-fronts, Meilinger sees a basis to provide the US with an asymmetric advantage over enemies, with the promise of limiting the America’s exposure to casualties and cost.

Meilinger then examines both successful and unsuccessful historical incidences of second-fronts from the Peloponnesian war through to the Second World War to determine whether they are conceptually relevant today. This examination identifies that the reasons for opening a second-front exist today. These reasons are to avoid enemy strongpoints, increased morale, gaining an economic advantage, splitting an alliance, denying or gaining access to resources, the base for further operations, taking advantage of a unique strength. Importantly, the contemporary need for states to limit risk and preserve resources makes the most fundamental reason for adopting second-fronts. Also, the use and creation of asymmetry against an enemy by avoiding their strengths and attacking their vulnerabilities to limit risk and cost are of significant relevance to the American public. Similarly, those factors prominent in success or failure of second-fronts such as valid strategy, competent planning, competent leadership, accurate and timely intelligence, friendly or neutralised local population, secure lines of communication, maritime and air superiority, are also still current.

F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighters land at RAF Lakenheath, 15 April 2017. The arrival of these aircraft marked the first F-35A fighter training deployment to the US European Command area of responsibility or any overseas location. The aircraft is assigned to the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

While many of these factors are commonly addressed, Meilinger raises a couple of issues that are perhaps core to the application of an appropriate alternative strategy to the achievement of desired political objectives. Success requires both sound policy and strategy, the setting of which requires the military leadership to provide appropriate advice and guidance to the government. Political objectives must be achievable through an aligned strategy that military planners design to maximise the chance of success while simultaneously minimising risk and costs. As such strategy and the forces to implement it should not be adversely affected by service culture or other factors incongruent with the development of optimal outcomes. Should the government not accept appropriate advice, but instead adopts policy or strategy that inappropriately increases the risk to lives and/or of failure then the military leadership should have the moral courage to seek to positively influence political decision-making or be prepared to resign.

Meilinger highlights the asymmetric advantage provided to the US by its air power capabilities that most, if not all, nations would struggle to contain. Through its reach, speed, ubiquity, flexibility and lethal precision it provides the US direct access to all the strengths and vulnerabilities (centres of gravity) of an enemy, allowing it the ability to undertake direct or indirect attack against them, with drastically reduced risk to its forces and civilians, and a significantly reduced footprint. Concerns over its reputation (psychological, graphic violence, and morality of distance) and risk shifting to civilians, arguably are offset using precision weapons, targeting tools and detailed planning resulting in reduced risk to civilians. In other words, Meilinger claims it is ‘the US asymmetric advantage that limits [US] risk.’ (p. 190)

Since the Second World War, wars have generally been fought with limited means to achieve limited objectives, whether due to avoiding nuclear peers, concerns with maintaining public support, legal restrictions, media, geography, culture or concerns over managing scarce resources. Meilinger’s review of post-Second World War wars undertaken by the US from Korea to Iraq highlights a somewhat chequered record of success premised on US strategy of employing massive conventional ground forces. While air power was used during these wars, it was either used poorly, or when used successfully, the maintenance of an overall Clausewitzian conventional ground force strategy ultimately led to strategic failure.

Meilinger notes that perhaps another model should have been used; one presaged by historical second-front operations that used unique strategies and tactics to solve equally unique problems, with the goal of achieving measurable political results at minimal risk. As such Meilinger suggests that the US should ‘use [its] asymmetric strengths against enemy weaknesses while screening their own vulnerabilities’. In addition to air power, existing asymmetric strengths include SOF and ubiquitous ISR. Combining these three capabilities with ‘determined’ indigenous forces provide a force structure that provides an asymmetric advantage against conventional and unconventional enemy forces, and which when compared to conventional ground force options offers an opportunity for measurable results while saving lives and money.

There is, however, a paradox in Limiting Risk in America’s Wars that is hard to reconcile. The engaging, forthright simplicity of the book is achieved by avoiding overly complex analysis and justification of strategic concepts and their technical detail. Consequently, what makes the book easy to read and understand, also makes it appear shallow in specific areas. While the knowledge of the author is unquestionable, and the notes provide an extra depth of information, there are times when the reader is left to accept the statements of the author as fact, rather than follow an articulated analysis resulting in verifiable deductions or inductions.

US Army 1st Sergeant Henning Jensen of Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, leads a foot patrol with the National Police Transition Team in eastern Baghdad in 2008 while assigned to a military transition team. Transition teams have been replaced by the 1st SFAB to help combatant commanders accomplish theatre security objectives by training, advising, assisting, accompanying and enabling allied and partnered indigenous security forces. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

For instance, a critical position taken by the author is that the US should adopt the asymmetric advantage provided by the ‘combination of air power, SOF, indigenous forces, and ISR.’ (p. 194) There is a succinct analysis of the air power capability resulting in a deduction that air power provides an asymmetric advantage, but there is no such deductive analysis of the asymmetric advantage of SOF and ISR and only a limited prescription for indigenous troops. While there seems to be a dearth of material on the anti-Clausewitzian aspects of these elements, examples exist. The work of retired General Robert Scales, for instance, on mobile land forces in replication of air power capability would seem to offer the prospect of more detailed analysis of corresponding ground force elements, to aid in fleshing out the elements of Meilinger’s overall strategy. The lack of detailed insight into each of the non-air power elements, by consequence results in the absence of explanation or analysis into how the four nominated forces fit together to deliver an overall asymmetric advantage in contemporary conflict. Admittedly, a core thread of the book is about raising the importance of air power in the overall force composition and strategy mix, but the failure to address the other elements and their combination can lead to questions, which undermines the overall premise of the book and could have been quickly addressed.

One such example is the a priori claim that the use of conventional forces increases the risk of casualties (civilians and own forces) – whether from the dangers of ground combat or the application of air power in support of troops in conflict. If you replace conventional forces with indigenous troops, the same risks still seem to exist. In fact, the risk may increase if the indigenous troops are not as professional or well-equipped as the conventional forces they are replacing. The logical conclusion that can be drawn thus appears to be that the only benefit that exists is a movement of risk from US forces (as no conventional troops are committed) to the indigenous forces and civilians.

Meilinger tellingly notes that if:

US leaders determine that our vital interests be indeed at stake and US involvement is essential the case studies reveal timeless truths regarding the most effective and efficient methods of achieving success at low risk. (p. 205)

Conceptually, after reading this book, it is hard to disagree with this statement. There is something powerful in the simple argument that strategy, and force composition, should be built around the use of asymmetrical advantages against enemy vulnerabilities to reduce risk and cost. However, by attempting to advance this concept one step further and identify, without full supporting analysis, a specific contemporary US strategy with a focus on air power and the other elements of SOF, ISR and indigenous ground forces, it strikes me that Meilinger not only comes to a logically weakened position. As such, Meilinger, unfortunately, misses the opportunity to articulate a more robust and appropriate strategy for the conduct of warfare generally.

Wing Commander Alec Tattersall has been a permanent member of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) since 1996. He is a graduate of the University of Tasmania (Bcom & LLB), the University of Melbourne (Grad. Dip. Military Law), the Australian National University (GDLP and LLM), and is currently undertaking postgraduate research into the philosophical aspects of autonomous weapon systems at the University of New South Wales. His recent postings include; Headquarters Joint Operations Command, Air Force Headquarters, the Directorate of Operations and Security Law, and the Air Power Development Centre. Threaded through these postings are a number of operational deployments to the Middle East and domestically for counter-terrorism.  He is the currently seconded to Special Counsel in the Australian Signals Directorate and is the Defence Legal representative to the 2017/18 meetings of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the RAAF, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An MQ-9 Reaper equipped with an extended range modification sits on the ramp on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan before a sortie on 6 December 2015. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

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[1] Harlan Ullam, ‘Why America Loses Every War,’ Defense One, 17 November 2017.

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