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 The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat, by John A. Warden III

In August 1990, the first wave of American airmen arrived in the Middle East to shield allies in the region from the territorial ambitions of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Kuwait had been overrun, and back home little-known U.S. Air Force Colonel John Warden briefed the head of Central Command and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on his vision for the air campaign to repel the invaders from the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf state. Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell were both wowed by his presentation.

Warden had risen through the fighter pilot ranks. After graduating from the Air Force Academy, he went to Vietnam and flew 266 combat missions as a forward air controller. He eventually commanded a fighter wing in Germany, where he introduced new tactics.

In 1986, while studying at the National War College in Washington, D.C., Warden wrote his thesis on planning the modern air campaign. His slim treatise was published two years later by the National Defense University Press, with the first commercial printing in 1989. The study was subsequently issued in numerous editions and in six languages.

Warden’s book became an instant sensation when its concepts were successfully put to the test in January-February 1991. The late-20th-century air warfare blueprint that he had laid out in generic form served as the intellectual foundation for the very effective air component of Operation Desert Storm. In just 42 days of air-centric combat, Saddam’s forces were decisively routed.

Warden’s theory contended that the enemy is a system, which needs to be attacked in parallel rather than in serial fashion. A focus on the essential centers of gravity, he posited, would make it possible to defeat an opponent without ever having to deal with its field forces. Instead, an air force could take down command and control nodes to blind opposing forces and throw them into disarray.

Woven into Warden’s text are enduring principles: Air superiority is a prerequisite to victory, and an air war must be fought offensively. His ideas melded with the introduction of such emergent technologies as precision munitions, ubiquitous satellites and multi-spectral stealth to create a winning construct for the times.

Warden has suggested that in “many circumstances” airpower alone can win wars. In the 1990s, events seemed to support his claim—or nearly so. Yet in the years since then the West’s nemeses have increasingly morphed into irregulars, who propagate insurgencies that foster ill-suited pairings and protracted engagements. The plan that worked against conventional forces in Hussein’s day doesn’t have the same applicability against roving bands of fanatical fighters. For the ingenious Warden, whose stature is secure alongside other visionaries such as Giulio Douhet and Billy Mitchell, the challenge today is to map out how airpower can vanquish the West’s frustratingly resilient low-tech enemies.