The Limits of Military Force

As the third month of military operations begins, the NATO-led efforts to protect civilians in Libya are subject to a vast array of questions. The most important is whether political leaders are fully cognizant of the inherent limits of military force in achieving humanitarian goals. Whether it is called “kinetic military action” or “war,” all combat is subject to fog and friction in a contest of wills — even when the ultimate purpose is defending innocent bystanders.

One of the paradoxes of using military force to achieve humanitarian goals is that when less than vital national interests are involved, the avoidance of friendly military casualties becomes an imperative.

This dynamic increases the risk to the civilians who are being defended. For example, aircraft fly at higher altitudes to reduce the threat of being shot down and thus make it harder for pilots to distinguish enemy military units from innocent civilians and reduces the accuracy of weapons dropped or launched from the air.

The most effective way of protecting civilians is usually to interpose highly capable military forces on the ground between the objects of protection and their attackers. Yet as has been glaringly evident in the public debates about the ongoing Libyan operations, there is great reluctance to use ground forces because of the fear that they will themselves become casualties or hostages.

If land forces are indeed committed, they face decisions about minimizing deadly force and accepting a much higher threat to their own lives. When uncertain about enemy locations, do they perform “reconnaissance by fire” or expose themselves to a potential ambush by first sending patrols to take a look? When a building must be cleared, shall troops be limited to using small arms at much greater risk to themselves or do they employ tanks, artillery fire and close air support as they would during conventional combat operations and thereby increase the risk to civilians?

When the reason for a military operation is to protect the innocent, the phrase “collateral damage” is insidious when applied to civilian casualties. The primary objective of a mission cannot, by definition, be something collateral. Yet whether directly (civilians accidently struck by “friendly fire”) or indirectly (civilians succumb from lack of medical care, food or sanitation in the combat zone), civilian casualties are inevitable during extended armed conflict. The longer the conflict, the greater the number civilian casualties.

This is the extraordinary challenge of humanitarian military intervention and increases the moral hazard for those who are making the decisions about what levels of risk to intervening military forces and to civilians are acceptable. Without other, arguably broader, national interests to pursue, the question of net benefit is central: how many civilian lives will it cost in comparison to how many saved? This is an extremely problematic calculation.

Additionally, military force is also a surprisingly poor tool for shaping the behavior of other countries, except when only their peripheral interests are involved. When a regime perceives that its very survival is at stake, it is almost impossible to get it to change its ways through military attacks on its marginal capabilities. It is not enough to degrade its armed forces and to eliminate command, communications and intelligence nodes. A much more brutal and concerted effort with overwhelming force is necessary.

Defeating an “implacable foe,” as the American military theorist General Huba Wass de Czege has written, requires eliminating its ability to continue the fight. Historically, this has meant the introduction of ground troops because “only close combat can absolutely foreclose the enemy’s ability to delay defeat.”

Many ardent advocates of intervention in Libya when U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 was debated are now surprised that the operation has drawn out for this long. When justifying the initial involvement of their armed forces, national leaders spoke of days or weeks to complete the mission, not months and certainly not years. However, the U.N. Resolution specifically excludes a “foreign occupation force,” there is no consensus within NATO for sending ground forces, and the Arab states show little interest in providing troops.

Absent the introduction of ground forces or a lucky strike that eliminates Muammar el-Qaddafi, the conflict is likely to draw out for many years, as we’ve seen in Somalia, Darfur and Iraq during the interval between the first and second Gulf Wars. Contrary to the theories of air power enthusiasts, experience shows that protecting civilians or forcing regime change via bombing alone is very unlikely.

Madeleine Albright famously asked Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’ve always been talking about if we can’t use it?” The ugly truth is that military force can be very effective when the purpose is to kill people and break things. However, its utility is much more limited when it comes to tasks that are poorly suited to its nature.

By Christopher M. Schnaubelt, who holds the Transformation Chair at the NATO Defense College in Rome.

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