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Robert Pape, Bombing to Win

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Robert Pape, Bombing to Win (1996)

About the author: Assistant professor of gov’t at Dartmouth & founding SAASS faculty member.

Thesis - Two main points:

a. Punishment doesn’t work. Denial is much more effective.

b. Know your mechanism for political effect you’re trying to achieve.


- Coercion: “efforts to change the behavior of a state by manipulating costs and benefits”

- - tries to achieve the same goal as fighting a war via brute force but at less cost to both sides

- Deterrence: “maintain the status quo by discouraging an opponent from changing its behavior”

- 2 fundamental types of coercion: punishment & denial (punishment raises costs or risks to civilian populations; denial uses military means to prevent the target from attaining its goal)

- Punishment strategies try to raise costs of continued resistance [but possible Pearl Harbor effect]

- Risk strategies (forms of punishment) try to slowly raise probability of suffering costs (best for nukes)

- Denial strategies (best overall in his opinion) try to reduce prob. that resistance will yield benefits by making enemy’s strategy futile (impossible to manipulate enemy’s val. of continued resistance)

- Decapitation strategies seek punishment & denial effects by destroying crucial leadership/com targets

- Combat vs. strategic effectiveness (efficiently destroying target vs. linkage to attaining political goals)

- Must account for linkages in means-to-ends chain: force TO targets TO mechanism TO political change

- Strategic bombing doesn’t work but still around because:

- - Serves the bureaucratic reasons of air forces

- - Desire for cheap easy solutions

- - Ignorance of policy makers by enthusiasm of bombing advocates

- - Deliberate obfuscation (confusion) of bombing’s brutality

- Japan: naval & land power/tactical air mattered most. Strat. bombing & nukes not decisive!

- - Soviet attack on Manchuria scared Japanese that their homeland could not be protected

- - Pape is correct, but underplays the importance of strategic bombing. All these elements in concert caused the defeat. Do not think that the atomic bomb or strategic bombing unilaterally defeated Japan.

- Korea: mixture of conventional & nuclear coercion by pressuring the Chinese to withdraw NK support

- - nuclear deterrence worked in ’53, not ’51, because Soviets wouldn’t intervene later

- Vietnam: American leaders incorrectly linked military action with enemy’s goals (coercion infeasible)

- - we could never effectively target jungle trails & roads

- Iraq, 1991: decapitation strategy seductive & ineffective (need great intel, small tgt set, linkage issues)

- Germany ’42-45’: blockade from air didn’t bring economic collapse, oil shortages not critical

- Strategic bombing doesn’t work because: 1) punishment doesn’t work—high pain thresholds, 2) risk doesn’t work—see 1 (except nuclear coercion), 3) decapitation doesn’t work—leaders hard to kill/short disruptions, 4) denial can work—very difficult to eliminate production of crucial items

- Strat. bombing only matters in long wars of attrition decided by material superiority

- Theater air power combined with ground power is stronger coercive tool (PGMs better used for this)

- Should focus on destroying enemy armies from air- obviously contradicts Warden.

- Threats to civilians wasteful & immoral

- Different definition of coercion. For him coercion is change the behavior by manipulating costs and benefits. Coercion can be punishment or denial. Deterrence is apart and is to maintain the status quo. Punishment is the key to successful coercion.

- Propositions regarding conventional coercion: Punishment strategies rarely succeed, Risk strategies will fail, Denial strategies work best., Surrender of homeland territory unlikely, Surrender terms with heavy additional punishment will not be accepted, Coercive success almost always take longer than anticipated, Decapitation never works.

Strategy Implications

- Ensure mechanisms (popular revolt, coup, social disintegration, strategic paralysis, thwarting enemy military strategy) lead to the desired political change

- Know popular arguments by opponents of strategic airpower (even former SAASS instructors) if you want to logically defend it. Pape provides a great example of how to structure and support an academic argument. The critical failing of Pape is that he analyzes the coercive effect of airpower in a vacuum and it can not be purely isolated from exogenous factors. Punishment, Risk, Denial, and Decapitation are effective subcomponents for defining the different coercion strategies.

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