Thursday, December 6, 2012

Speaking of seapower...

Brief article in The Diplomat regarding differences between the USN and USAF regarding the employment of their respective forces outside of shooting war. The author's nut graf reads:
"The Navy has devoted substantial intellectual and material energy to developing “smart” and “soft” power tools for engaging with diplomatic partners, and has indeed made such engagement a critical element of its overall approach to maritime security. The Air Force has yet to develop a conception of “soft power” more complex than “friends make the exercise of hard power easier.”
But here's my thought; given the by-its-nature-ephemeral quality of airpower is there really any way for the USAF to develop an approach similar to that of the USN?

An armed vessel, like an armed man may on land, may physically occupy a space of ocean (and from there over the nearby land) and, through its sensors and weaponry, control access to and through that space. It may loiter there for long periods, providing a continuous presence and a potential deterrent to action merely BY that presence. This is, in a very real sense, the essence of "gunboat diplomacy"; the sight and the knowledge of an armed ship presents a dilemma to anyone who might need to dispute with that ship to accomplish their ends, whatever those ends might be.

This is true even if the warship is on a "soft" mission. It's simple physical present is impossible to ignore. What's big, gray, and dominates the harbor? A USN guided missile frigate delivering humanitarian supplies.

An aircraft - by the transitory nature of flight - is less intimidating. It's hard to imagine aircraft enforcing a physical restriction short of actually attacking something on the ground. And many potential recipients of the sort of warning the air assets are meant to convey lack the sensors to track the aircraft when not in sight, so the "gunboat" effect is markedly less.

A C-17 "raisin bomber" is smaller, less imposing, and its presence is easier to overlook. And add to that it is easier to destroy and located in a threat environment less amenable to characterization and control than the sea. So I suspect that the USAF sees a smaller upside and higher downside to such missions than the USN does to its "soft power" cruises.

So I'm not sure that this difference doesn't reflect on a difference in USAF/USN outlook so much as the physical difference between airpower and seapower, a difference that will perforce produce very different ways of thinking about force.

Update 12/6: Sven of the blog Defence & Freedom provides correction to my original post in his comment; "soft power" is supposed to be less about the "gunboat effect" than about using the capabilities of a military force to attract rather than deter people outside the force's own nation, and he provides some good examples.

But I would opine that, again, the nature of airpower still makes this a tricky problem. Warships are complex, expensive, and many nations or peoples don't have the wherewithal to construct or maintain them. So a navy may find that they can provide non-kinetic services to foreign states or groups that those groups both desperately need and can't afford, as well as being a more visible example of soft power and one that is less vulnerable to random threats.

Meanwhile there isn't all that much that a military aircraft can do that a civil one cannot, and the physical fact of flight means that the aircraft tend to come and go rather than loiter making an impression on people. It's the difference between the clouds and the sea; the sea remains, the clouds change, pass over, and are gone.

But Sven's points are good ones. Anyone - Andy, in particular, you are our USAF "insider" - have any insight into why this interservice mismatch?


  1. I think you have totally missed the nature of the meaning of "soft power".

    "Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion."

    Visits by hospital ships, showing flag, friendship cruises to distant places where civilians don't mind seeing some interesting ships in harbour for a change - these are soft power. It's not about bullying by showing off superior stature.

    The USAF could do more soft power.
    (1) A squadron of friendly-painted Hercules with priority for transportation of USAid packages, maybe reviving the "Rosinenbomber" (Raisin bomber") image of '49 by sometimes dropping of (ballistically harmless) gifts prior to landing.
    (2) A squadron of a ~"Harlem globetrotters" aerobatics and air combat exercise/aggressor F-16 squadron (again sympathetic blue-white-red paintjob) which travels the world, training with foreign air forces, visiting air shows and flying displays on air shows - maybe even with a flight of P-51s.
    (3) A program for going on hunt for records for publicity and the opportunity to associate some sympathetic faces to the USAF (not always only the anonymous F-16 pilot who bombs an Afghan wedding party).
    (4) A program to support flying doctor programs in foreign exchange-poor with flight training etc.
    (5) Some cooperative efforts with foreign air forces, coast guards, border guards and civilian air services to accomplish something useful.
    (6) Sponsor a new F-5 "Freedom Fighter" export aircraft, adopt it as trainer ~T-38 and maybe as aircraft for (2).

    Another question is whether the benefits would be worth the taxpayer's expenses, of course.

  2. All good points, Sven, and the post has been corrected to reflect that.

    But I would simply add that there is a continuum between the two as well, and that the bottom line is that "soft" military power is based on the attraction provided by the capabilities of the armed force; otherwise you could do the same sort of thing with a commercial air fleet.

    So the "something useful" provided by an air force would nearly always involve some component of force, no?

  3. A commercial air fleet flies the flag of its brand, the USAF flies the flag of the U.S..
    That's a difference in representation; shareholders <-> nation.

    Repair State Department if you want something useful be done abroad without uniforms.

  4. We could have some awesome airships for the price of a few F-35s.

  5. FD Chief-

    Nice thread. The USAF isn't even in the same game as the USN as you point out. So, why must they be? Turf battles? Promoting USAF interests? How far this argument goes only indicates our level of strategic confusion/dysfunction imo . . .

    Sven's right on "soft power".

    Btw, I would add that organizations that are good at "soft power" are by definition not military ones. In fact Joseph Nye stated that the organization I work for "discovered soft power in 1934" and has been using it effectively ever since. I'm currently working on a project which could be a major source of soft power in the future if it works out . . . which is why being a strategic theorist comes in handy when working for a soft power organization . . . who would have thought?, certainly not the Neocons who only think in terms of large explosions . . .

    Perhaps the USN should be pushing their role in "smart power" which is a combination of both hard and soft following Prof. Nye . . .

  6. The Navy has been providing soft power since its inception. American ship captains in the late 18th and early 19th century acted as honorary ambassadors when anchored in foreign ports. Although there were some high level founding fathers who served as Secretary of State or as Ambassadors to a few important countries the early State Department was a poor relation. Many countries had no ambassador or even a consul. Most foreign service personnel were not professionals who had attained their position through nepotism, corruption, or political horse trading (still goes on).

    So navy officers were expected to act as roving ambassadors of American goodwill. And still are today. There is a long history of teaching that in many naval officer educational institutions. Doesn't always sink in though. Too many horn dogs maybe? Those cruises can be way too long.

    I realize that Army and AF brass are expected to do the same, but it is just not at the same level as they are usually at a more permanent base in an allied country.

  7. My father (1935-2005) lived in Berlin from 1941 to 1963, usually in western sectors, the only exception were the first half of 1945 which he spent in Westpreussen, so no real improvement.

    In 1948 it happened that he and his mother lived in the Soviet sector of Berlin and had to observe the "Luftbrücke" (Berlin Airbridge) from the other side of the fence.

    However, the only time I can remember that my father cried was when the German TV commemorated ín a very good documentation the crew members of the USAF and RAF planes who died during the Berlin Airbridge. This was for me as young man the most impressive example that soft power really works.

  8. Ulenspiegel –

    That was soft power at its best. Planes shuttling in and out 24 hours a day for 324 days. As your father certainly was aware – and perhaps you too - the man most responsible for starting that airlift was General Lucius D. Clay, US Army Corps of Engineers. At his burial plot at the cemetery in West Point the citizens of Berlin put a marble tablet at the foot of his grave with the words:


    Clay was also extremely influential in defeating the attempt by many of the Allies – and Americans - to impose a Carthaginian peace on Germany. Long before the Marshall Plan started Clay was the one that inspired Marshall’s predecessor at the State Department to urge for reconstruction instead of desolation. That was probably due to his Southern heritage, his family had suffered through desolation after the American Civil War.

    One of his other contributions to Germany was his saving of many German art treasures from reparations teams of both the US and Allies. He was also the originator of the theory of an 'intellectual cold war'.

    Some claim that the applause and cheers for President Kennedy’s "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in 63 were due more to Clay being on the podium next to him rather than to Kennedy’s gift of rhetoric.

    1. A reminder that maybe it's compassion and sympathy that drives soft power, not a top-bottom command to do soft power in order to sway people whom you don't like in the first place.

  9. Chief, I think you have it about right.

    Farley is known as someone who really hates the idea of an independent Air Force. Nothing wrong with that opinion, but it tends to skew his perceptions.

    For example, in his rebuttal, he makes a mistake he often does, which is to confuse air power with the Air Force. The fact is that the Navy, Army, Coast Guard and even the State Department, all have air power assets and air power is not (or should not be) a service-specific term.

    Maybe it's a bad choice of words, but I think the air domain is inherently more tactical than the other domains. Geography is less relevant and there are no resources to take or defend. That limits, I think, what air power can do in the realm of "soft power." Air power is also more situational when it comes to soft power than military forces that operate in the other domains. So while I don't think one can diminish the "soft power" effects of something like the Berlin Airlift, such cases are relatively rare and never exist in isolation from the other instruments of national power.

    So, looking at the bigger picture, I would question the whole premise of service-specific "soft power" concepts since the military will always be a supporting player in that regard. The services can and should certainly analyze how their assets can be utilized or assist in soft power, but IMO, the State Department should always be driving that bus. And, historically, that's been the case. When I was in the Navy, for example, port visits were always closely coordinated through the US Embassy - This wasn't the "Navy" engaging in soft power, this was the United States engaging in soft power and part of that engagement included Naval forces conducting a port visit.

    So I tend to view these service-specific concepts and "strategies" (I use that term loosely) as parochial documents primarily designed to protect budgets. And so Farley's criticism is a bit besides the point IMO.

  10. Svwnn -

    There was certainly compassion and sympathy in the bottom-to-top candy bomber operation that was started by one man - "Onkel Wackelflügel" - and which later was adopted as official policy. Did you by any chance see him at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 winter olympics with the German team?

    But as for Clay, a great man IMHO, I am not convinced he acted out of compassion. It was more a good government imperative in his mind. His father, born in the 1850s, had grown up under the heel of a military government in Georgia. Clay knew on a personal gut level through the stories of his father, uncles and their friends that the radical reconstruction policies of 1867 through 1877 were a disaster. Those policies were not started by Lincoln, but by a radical Republican wing of his party after he was gone.

    Clay is largely forgotten now in America. My father was a big fan of Clay, perhaps because he too was an Army engineer and was from the south. He always claimed that Clay, as the mobilizer of American industry to produce war materials for the American army and navy and for the UK, the Soviets, and the Chinese, had more influence on the outcome of WW2 than Ike, Zhukov and Montgomery. Not sure why he is passed over now in the American imagination. Other than Ike, most other Army generals were jealous of him. They either wanted his job, or did not like his policies, or they considered him what is called a "perfumed prince" in other words a general with political connections in Washington that had never led troops in combat. Also he was the one that relieved Patton as military governor of Bavaria, so maybe there was bitterness there too. Clay's biographer claims it was not personal as he admired Patton. He was trying to evict all military governors and replace them with German minister=presidents. He was in some cases as guilty as Patton in undermining the de-nazification policy when he thought it was in the best interest of good government.

    Jean Edward Smith did a great job on his bio. Not sure if there is a German language edition?

    1. I was trying to say that the Clay policies and similar soft power applications were founded on at least someone in power believing they're the ring thing to do in themselves.

      They were not a PR stunt in reaction to the insight that you can pursue your aims better if those stupid foreigners like you more.

      People from the U.S. often display a great skill at PR/marketing, and appear to emphasize it a lot as well.
      I can't count the instances of U.S. companies and government agencies trumpeting their newest idea as the next big thing while me knowing the stuff had been either in use in Europe for decades or rejected after trials years ago.
      My professional career involved smacking one such company down when it submitted samples for comparative testing to European products they did not know about during their own R&D: Their product ranged from horrible to mediocre.
      Also typical U.S.: They liquidated the entire subsidiary responsible for the product and fired the personnel (save for the managing director, of course!), instead of assigning the established team to do something more useful, maybe even by taking foreign developments into account.

      So whatever soft power can solve do; it won't work as a mere PR stunt.
      You need to be seriously nice and then you can message this. You can't message you're serious about being nice without being nice.

      Bluntly stated; soft power in theoretical writing sounds quite often like a PR strategy, not as a natural by-product of doing the right thing or of being simply big and capable.

      Soft power as a strategy is bound to fail, but it may be achieved as a by-product of an overall attitude.

    2. Svenn -

      The foreign relations of every country is driven by that country's best interests and not by what is the right thing to do. And I am not aware of any PR stunts done in order to get what you call "stupid foreigners" to like us. Although I do admit that we, like every people, wish to be liked. By everybody, not just your so-called "stupid" ones.

      There may have been vindictiveness by a few Americans in 1945 and 1946, but that was an extremely small number. And it was miniscule compared to French, Brit, and Soviet vindictiveness. Clay knew, and the average American on the street knew, that it was in America's best interest to not impose another Versailles on Germany.

      And BTW there is no more of a "typical US" than there is a "typical Germany". I certainly do not believe that price-fixing, bid-rigging and bribery is typical of all German businessmen just because Merck and Siemens indulged.

    3. You may not be able to see it, but there are typical U.S. things. I don't say these things are typical of every American, but it's easy to win bets by guessing where certain things originate from without being told they're from the U.S.. There are certain patterns of behaviour which are rare elsewhere.
      For example, I've never seen a non-U.S. businessman making sure everyone on the congress knew he (supposedly) did not like his government's policies (always done before trying to do business). This has been a striking pattern of U.S. businessmen in Europe in 2003-2008.

      About the "country's best interest" thing: I call out BS. It's not even about perceived best interest.

      Foreign policy is the outcome after lots of influences have pushed into different directions; personal character, lobbyism, myths, bureaucratic inertia, group think, internal intrigues, personal pet projects, media pressure/expectations, fashions, misinformation, political and diplomatic bartering, psychological issues blocking rational thought, personal aversions, personal sympathies, personal experiences - actual best interest of the country is served only by chance.

      As example I bring forward the German Afghanistan policy since 2002. Do you know why we joined the nation building and didn't leave long ago?
      The biggest domestic supporters are the greens, supposedly anti-war, anti-military, anti-militarised foreign policy folks.
      Why do they support it? Well, they had a most influential top politician, Fischer, who was among those hippies who made a globetrotter travel to India for spiritual reasons long ago. Along that popular hippie route was Afghanistan - the 70's Afghanistan; friendly, hospitable people and so on.
      These ex-hippies were in power by 2002 and pushed for nation building to help Afghanistan back to better times.
      Afterwards the "conservatives" came to power together with the social democrats (the senior coalition partner of the greens when the AFG nonsense began). The new chancellor Merkel didn't withdraw (the reds wouldn't have liked this reversal of the policy which by then they owned) and so the conservative Merkel began to own the deployment as her deployment as well. Being conservative and generally avoiding major battles, she just kept the troops rotting in AFG.

      Now feel free to tell me how having 4k troops in Afghanistan for a decade was foreign policy in my nation's best interest.

    4. Svenn -

      Of course a country's foreign policy is not always in its own best interests. But it "should be". We learned that from a great historical statesmen in your part of the world.

      As for your typical Americans, I would suggest that there are many hundreds of millions of us that you have not met. A few travelling businessmen do not make constitute a plurality.

  11. Thank you all for your comments; as usual, lively and well-thought out. A couple of thoughts of my own precipitated by yours.

    I'm not sure that I buy your idea about the intrinsic nature of "soft power", Sven. Certainly there needs to be a component of genuine interest in cooperating with another nation or people. But I don't think that for a friendly gesture to succeed it HAS to be exclusively spontaneous and genuine. There is room for some degree of calculation there. Mike is quite right; Clay and his fellow anti-Morganthauians weren't fuzzy bunny huggers, and many of them had fought hard against the Herrnvolk just a few years earlier. But along with genuine compassion for the civilians they saw struggling out of the ruins of Germany they knew that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar and that a strong allied West Germany was important to confronting the Warsaw Pact.

    But I do agree that many of the U.S.'s attempts at "friendly gestures" are easily seen as hokey or insincere because they take place alongside acts that make their strategic intent obvious.

    But...while Americans (I think) tend to see foreign countries as less "advanced" than themselves and thus tend to be kinda crude in their largesse that trait is hardly exclusive to this country...

    And I agree with you, Andy, about Farley's skewed perception re: the USAF. Not saying I don't share a bit of his prejudice on the subject of CAS (I often envied the USMC their own dedicated CAS assets...) but I didn't intend to use his article as more than a starting point for this discussion.

    And as I was reading your comment it struck me; the huge factor is the "airbase" issue.

    The USN doesn't NEED a mapspot to do their "goodwill tour" thing (tho as you point out quite correctly they often coordinate with State in "showing the flag") but the USAF has got to have an airfield or at least something secure to land and takeoff. That makes the whole business much more dependent on the goodwill, stability, and technical/political abilities of the host nation than a naval mission which can go right over the beach if need be...

    So perhaps that has a lot to do with the differing levels of interest in this business of "soft power"...

  12. A commercial air fleet flies the flag of its brand, the USAF flies the flag of the U.S..That's a difference in representation; shareholders <-> nation.

    Which was my point; many of the "soft power" examples you presented were just as easily accomplished if not MORE easily by a commercial aviation outfit. I understand how the USAF COULD get a benefit from doing them, but that using military aircraft also adds a considerable element of risk, and that risk might be one of the reasons that this serious consideration of "soft power" missions hasn't taken the hold in the USAF that it has in the USN...

    Repair State Department if you want something useful be done abroad without uniforms.

    First, that wasn't the point of the post; it was to scratch our heads and wonder why two different uniformed services took such very different approaches to the issue of "soft power", and, particularly, whether it had to do with the very nature of sea- versus airpower.

    And second, while I agree with you about the problems at and the need for improving State, simply saying "repair State" is like saying "Gee, Bernd, just buy a couple of decent players or three and F.C. Hansa Rostock'll be playing for the Bundesliga meisterschaft any day now!" The problems there are a whole issue in and of itself, and are far beyond the scope of this post.

    And I'm frankly not sure that the issues surrounding soft power have as much to do with problems at State as they do with problems in how the U.S. political parties and the Washington Rules sees the world beyond the oceans and how to deal with it.

    "Repairing State" won't help a lick if the first impulse of any U.S. administration is to look to the Pentagon for the answer to any problem or opportunity that arises overseas. The repeated use of the hammer has made all overseas problems look a hell of a lot like nails.

  13. Just for some additional perspective, instead of talking about what the AF isn't doing, let's remember what they are doing because I think it is relevant.

    Land, Sea, Air. Those are the old domains, and we have three traditional services that each have their own dedicated domain. Space and Cyberspace have officially been added as domains (Space has been there for a while, Cyberspace is only a recent addition). The AF has lead in Air, Space, and are the leaders in Cyberspace (AF has written a greater quantity and quality of Cyber policy than the rest of DoD and DHS combined).

    Elements of soft power such as partner engagement (both with state and non-state actors, which includes private sector) is absolutely critical in the cyberspace arena, and with China and soon Brazil entering space, believe it or not, space is getting pretty crowded as well. The AF has a lot more to manage than just the blue skies.

    Another element of soft power used very well by the DoD is culture, specifically, military culture. Officer exchange programs allow the AF and other services to educate and indoctrinate foreign officers into future friends (based on the theory that countries only send the best and brightest to represent their countries, these are future senior leaders in foreign nations who drank our Kool Aid). I think this is a very under appreciated formed of soft power, but I can't tell you for sure if the AF does this worse or better than other services.

    And while we are on the tangent of State Department, I do think it relevant to ask the question why the Armed Forces are being asked to take such a prominent role in soft power. The reason is simple, because State Department isn't resourced. Cliche alert, but we have a $600B hammer (vs. a $50B wrench set), so everything still looks like a nail. How many people work at the State Department, I think 10K, in the entire world? No wonder we keep turing to DoD for public diplomacy, state-building, civil affairs, etc.

    If we want to fix how we apply force of any kind (Hard, soft, smart, whatever), we have to balance our tool kit.

  14. Mike is spot on about the Navy's rich history and traditions in "soft power", a subject that was covered in past, present and future terms when I was a NWC student. In fact, the Army students, in the main, found it quite intellectually refreshing. Keep in mind, there are aspects to Naval operations that are unique in their ability to project "soft power". A ship's contingent in port is far easier to pull off than an equivalent amount of "Blue Suiters" at an airfield.

    As to Lucius Clay, yes, indeed, he tends to be overlooked. His strong opposition to JCS 1067 (Almost the "Morganthau Plan") was key to the subsequent and more enlightened policy. However, many would say that is was his statement that "given the choice between 1,000 calories per day under Allied occupation and 1,500 per day under Stalin, one can expect the German population to choose accordingly", that ultimately tipped the scales. Compassion was less a factor in DC than the "red Scare".

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