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Waging Ancient War: Limits on Preemptive Force

Authored by Dr. D. Robert Worley. | February 2003

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For decades, the idea of containment held together a political coalition within the United States that maintained a large, peacetime military for the only time in American history. The same strategic conception held together a multinational military alliance. The strategic debate that followed the Cold War includes hegemonic primacy, classic collective security, cooperative security orienting on preventing the acquisition of power, selective engagement, and restrictive or neo-isolationist alternatives. But no political consensus has yet to form around any of these alternatives, nor does a consensus appear to be forming. The current debate is conducted in the familiar language of international relations and the U.S. position within the system of states.

A major conclusion of this study is that the concepts on the use of force and the well-established language of international relations are inadequate to the current ?war on terrorism.? If we cannot ignore our place among the major powers, and if the conceptions appropriate to state on-state conflict are not germane to conflict with nonstate actors, then we must conclude that separate strategies are necessary. Accordingly, a strategy is proposed for waging war against nonstate actors lacking legitimate standing that is separate from and subordinate to the grand strategy that supports the U.S. role in the system of whatever that grand strategy may be.

Sir Michael Howard characterizes the declared ?war on terrorism? as more like a hunt than a war. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies will carry the primary burden internationally, supported by covert operations. The primary overt role of military forces is for short-notice and short-duration raids and strikes against enemy targets as they appear. The largest part of the enemy capability is organized as combat forces that U.S. forces should expect toencounter during peace operations in failing or failed states with significant Muslim populations. U.S. forces must be prepared for warfare in these asymmetric environments. Finally, consequence management is an ineluctable role for U.S. forces to play domestically.


Declaring war against terrorist methods and those who employ them fails to provide a sound basis for strategy formulation. Viewing the conflict as an international guerrilla war waged against the Western secular system of states provides a better starting point. Familiar strategic concepts are found to be irrelevant, either because they are oriented on interstate conflict or because they are exhaustive of resources and unsustainable over time. Preemptive strike emerges as the dominant use of military force in this conflict.

Assuring a state?s security amid the competing interests of other legitimate states is fundamentally different than defending against the use of force by amorphous international networks lacking any legal standing within the international system of states. A comprehensive conception of today?s strategic environment must make the critical distinction between wars waged by states (bellum) and wars waged against those lacking legitimate status (guerra). A national security strategy based primarily on the terrorist threat would be lacking. A separate strategy for guerra , subordinate to the grand strategy, is necessary.

While all elements of national power are relevant to both types of conflict, bellum leads to a predominantly military response after the other instruments of national power have failed. Decisive engagement and war termination are sought. Guerra, on the other hand, argues for a more balanced and orchestrated application of the instruments of national power without end. Strong centralized management of all elements of national power, not within the confines of a single department, is required.

The military should not develop a national strategy for the defeat of terrorism any more than a police special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team should, by itself, develop a strategy to defeat crime in the city. The appropriate military response is to organize, train, and equip to strike quickly and forcefully when and where national authorities so designate, and then return to the ready. Quick response forces provide the military instrument for preemptive strike.

A ?war on terrorism? serves poorly as a basis of strategy. The first step is to form an appropriate conception of the conflict by shifting attention away from terrorism to the specific terrorists that threaten the United States, to their objectives, and to the type of war they are waging. Next, we examine modern strategic concepts guiding the use of force for applicability to the conception and are found lacking. Finally, a strategy for guerra, subordinate to the grand strategy, is proposed with preemptive strike as the primary use of military force.


The United States is in an interwar period with respect to great power conflict, but great power conflict will return. The country?s grand strategy must remain focused on America?s role among the great powers in the long term. America?s influence in the world will erode if, as Francis Fukuyama suggests, opposing the United States becomes the ?chief passion in global politics.?

The guerra strategy must be embedded in and subordinated to the grand strategy. Agencies should not develop their own strategies. There should be no national military strategy to counter terrorism or to counter the international guerrilla war waged against the system of states. Execution of the guerra strategy relies on skillful orchestration of all the elements of national power and, thus, strong centralized direction is required. To be effective, the guerra strategy must be sustainable indefinitely, relevant to the nonstate actor, and rational.

To be sustainable, the guerra strategy must be asymmetric. A symmetric response, characterized by the action-reaction cycle that the aggressor hopes to initiate, allows the attacker to select the time and place of the competition. We must choose the place and time of action to maximize the effect of the resources expended and to minimize ?blowback.? To be sustainable, the strategy must enlist all elements of national and international power rather than imposing the primary burden on the U.S. military instrument. Strategies based on defending everything, against all forms of attack, all of the time, are exhaustive of resources and impossible to implement and sustain. Strategies based on interdicting all forms of attack as they are in progress are exhaustive for the same reasons. The recent reallocation of resources domestically may allay public fear, but it cannot be the basis of a sustainable strategy.

The guerra strategy must be relevant to the nature of the conflict. Strategies based on retaliation will fail; retaliation may feel good, but it will not deter martyrs. Terrorist networks have nothing of value equivalent to the damage they can inflict. Strategies based on preventing rogue states from acquiring the means of attack have merit when directed at limiting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missile delivery vehicles; they are irrelevant, however, when the means employed are commercial aircraft or other readily available means.

The guerra strategy must be rational. Tactical actions must destroy more enemy capability than they create. Strikes and raids should be aimed at discrete targets and then only to destroy meaningful enemy capability decisively. Some targets of opportunity will be bypassed if they conflict with the grand strategy objectives or if target destruction can rationally be expected to produce a response out of proportion to the damage done.

International law enforcement and intelligence agencies enabled by greater information sharing carry the primary burden. The military is in a supporting, on call, role. Preemptive strike?attacking the threat capability before it is used?is the primary use of military force. Consequence management?copingwith the effects after an attack?is an indispensable component of a national strategy for guerra.

The debate about internationalism being the cause of or solution to threats against American security has not been resolved, nor has it changed appreciably, but the consequences are more significant than before. No longer is the ability to attack the United States only in the hands of a few countries that can be deterred. The proliferation of WMD puts the means in the hands of many states and even in the hands of small groups, and the potency of the tools at their disposal will only increase. Administrations must decide on a case-by-case basis whether foreign policy will favor human rights in foreign lands or American lives at home.