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Horizon's Edge: The Coercive Effects of Aerospace Power in the 21st Century

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Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has moved away from its traditional way of using military force to achieve decisive victory. Instead, the U.S. used limited coercive engagements designed to compel an adversary to bend to our will. In these campaigns, the U.S. did not fight to protect vital national interests but to promote less important or humanitarian goals. The national interest was not at stake in these campaigns and legitimacy replaced military effectiveness as the primary factor for maintaining international and domestic support. These operations usually relied upon airpower as the military option of choice to accomplish the objectives. However, airpower experts chafed over the growing number of restrictions placed upon them while conducting coercive campaigns. This paper addresses these concerns by determining how, in an era of limited war, external constraints and self-imposed restraints affect the ability of aerospace power to coerce or punish an adversary. The paper starts with a historical study of another era of limited war the 18th century. Examination of this era of limited warfare builds a foundation of knowledge about how leaders in the past overcame the challenges of limited war. Next, the paper explores four recent military operations and provides an in-depth assessment of aerospace power in coercive campaigns to date since the end of the Cold War. Having established the historical background, the paper then analyzes the parallels and disparities between coercive and warfighting campaigns and provides a template for planners to enhance success when conducting future missions. In the end, the analysis finds that the value of airpower for use in compelling campaigns will increase but we must improve our ability to plan and conduct these emerging types of airpower operations in the next century. Finally, the paper offers operational planners four maxims to enhance airpowers ability to coerce future adversaries.

Subject Categories:

  • Military Aircraft Operations
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics

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