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Will A Strategic Bombing Campaign Defeat Iran?

by Chuck Spinney


November 24, 2007

Several recent news reports describe a plan to bomb Iran. One things they all share is that they are hyped with the usual overly optimistic predictions of the salutary effects of precision airpower – but frequent references to specifics such as “1,500 aim points” have a ring of truth, and if true, they reflect the kind of thinking that portends real problems.

Aim points multiply

If a bombing campaign of the magnitude they describe were to be initiated, we should expect it to escalate rapidly and unpredictably as the number of aim points proliferates, once the bombing has started. This has happened in every strategic bombing campaign to date. The proliferation of aim points is an inevitable consequence of our "strategic" bombing doctrine, in part, because of the limitations of the decision-making feedback loop describing the actual relationship of "target destruction" on the adversary's "will to resist."

Mismatches leading to disorientation

These limitations will create disorienting mismatches that will disrupt the decision cycle of our bombing "strategists." The disorientation will take the form of differences between the the predicted behavioral outcomes (in this case, on the part of the Iranian leadership and its people) and the planners' fluctuating perceptions of the actual unfolding circumstances.

Theory vs. reality

At the heart of this disorientation is the rigid albeit flawed ideological belief that target attrition destroys the enemy's will to resist – in effect, setting up a simplistic decision-making logic that equates change in the physical state to changes in the mental and moral states of the adversary. Predicting such contingent psychological effects is a dangerous game indeed, but in this case, it is made much worse, because the history of strategic bombing campaigns is replete with counter-examples concerning escalating aim points, reflecting the fact that attrition's physical effects were being offset or mitigated by the mental and/or moral effects unleashed by that destruction, which is the opposite of what strategic bombing theory predicts.

This phenomenon was clearly evident in the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor, the Combined Bomber Offensive against Germany, Operation Strangle I in Italy, Operation Strangle II in Korea, Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, the wild escalation of aim points in both Gulf War I and the bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War. It was even evident, albeit on a smaller, more subtle scale, in the opening phase of Gulf War II, notwithstanding the fact that our adversary, Saddam Hussein, was himself completely disconnected from reality before the bombing began.

Ideology trumps reality

What is predictable is that our planners, when faced with yet another round of disorienting outcomes, will refuse again to examine the flaws in their attrition doctrine. Instead, they will react in accordance with their doctrine and feel compelled to expand the number of aim points in order to remove the "anomalies" between their mindset and unfolding reality – we will see yet another application of the time-honored strategy of trying to redeem failure by doing "more of the same."

As Clausewitz noted, the conduct of war is fundamentally a duel between thinking adversaries who react unpredictably. Given that the United States would enter a war with Iran in a state of weakened cohesion  – 

  • disunited politically

  • with the lowest international moral stature in its history

  • faced with a deteriorating economy

  • skyrocketing oil prices

  • with a plummeting dollar (which makes us dependent on the goodwill of those countries holding large reserves of dollars, like China)

  • and a military that is already stretched by long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

 – bombing yet another Islamic country that had nothing to do with 9-11, in the seething caldron of Southwest Asia, could very well unleash a regional conflagration that escalates far beyond our diminished our moral, mental, and physical capacity to control or contain.

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