Colonel John A. Warden, III, USAF (Ret.) is arguably one of the most influential American air power theorists since the Second World War; he is also one of the most controversial officers in the United States Air Force (USAF), drawing both praise and condemnation nearly on a par with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell. An outspoken advocate of using air power as the dominant and decisive element in a military campaign, rather than merely as support to the ground commander's scheme of maneuver, he had acquired a reputation as a radical thinker by the late 1980s. When General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of Central Command, asked the Air Staff to put together a plan for retaliatory air strikes in response to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in August 1990, Warden led an effort that presented Schwarzkopf with an outline for a full-blown strategic air campaign plan, advocating precision attacks on the Iraqi leadership; command, control, and communication apparatus; and a selection of electrical facilities, supply dumps, and key infrastructure. His offensive and daring scheme for "victory through air power" stood in stark contrast to prevailing ground-centric doctrine, newly updated contingency plans for the region, and standard Air Force practice at the time. Warden's "Instant Thunder" became the conceptual underpinning for the air portion of Operation Desert Storm, by many regarded as the most successful air campaign in modern history.
Schwarzkopf acknowledged Warden's contribution in his biography, It Does Not Take a Hero, and he wrote a personal letter to Warden stating "together we mapped out the strategic concept that ultimately led to our country's great victory in Desert Storm." (1) The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin L. Powell, suggested in My American Journey that Warden's "original concept remained at the heart of the Desert Storm air war." (2) Award-winning author David Hal-berstam took it still further in War in a Time of Peace.
If one of the newsmagazines had wanted to run on its cover the photograph of the man who had played the most critical role in achieving victory, it might well have chosen Warden instead of Powell or Schwarzkopf. He was considered by some military experts to be an important figure, emblematic not just in the air force but across the board among a younger generation of officers eager to adjust military thinking, planning, and structures to the uses of new weaponry. The principal opponents of Warden's radical ideas turned out to be not, as one might expect, army men or civilian leaders, but senior officers in his own branch of service, especially the three- and four-star officers who dominated much of the air force strategy and technology and came from the Tactical Air Command (TAC). They had a much more conventional view of the order of battle and believed airpower was there to support the army on the ground and interdict enemy forces. They despised Warden and his ideas, a hostility that never lessened. (3)
Several distinguished historians, officers, and other experts have concluded that Warden and his team defined the direction of the 1991 military strategy and thereby introduced a new paradigm to the conduct of war, (4) but the controversy that surrounded Warden's role and impact has lingered on and still causes emotions to run high. (5) This article examines Warden's influence on the USAF more than a quarter of a century after the GulfWar of 1991 by exploring his role as a theorist, strategist, reformer, wartime planner, and educator. It revisits his writings, advocacy for change, involvement in Operation Desert Storm, and efforts to institutionalize his way of thinking at the Air Command and Staff College. Along the way, the article highlights the views of Warden's supporters and detractors alike. (6)
Theorist: Writings on Air Power
John Ashley Warden III, born in McKinney, Texas, on December 21, 1943, started to delve into military strategy during his days at the Air Force Academy, 1961-65. His early flying career, positions in the Air Staff, and operational assignments at home and aboard--including a tour as an OV--10 Forward Air Controller working with the Army and flying over Laos in the Vietnam War--further strengthened his interest in war planning and political decision-making At Texas Tech in 1974-75, he used the opportunity to read widely and ponder anew aspects of the Second World War in a master's thesis on grand strategy. While a student at the National War College (NWC), 1985-86, he turned his attention to the application of air power.
The Air Campaign
This occurred at a time when the Air Force seemed content to grant the Army preeminence in warfighting, most profoundly articulated in the AirLand Battle Doctrine, FM 100-5, published in 1982 and refined in 1986. (7) That doctrine dealt with air power on the tactical level only, and the overarching concept was that air power should support the ground commander on the battlefield. The approach was defensive, gradual, force-on-force oriented, and attritional. The book he wrote during his time at the NWC, The Air Campaign, countered such a narrow interpretation of air power's potential, leading Major General Perry M. Smith, then commandant at NWC, to comment that "this is the most important book on air power written in the past decade." (8) General Charles L. Donnelly, at the time commander of United States Air Force, Europe (USAFE), thought the book provided "the air commander the intellectual wherewithal needed not only to avoid losing, but to win." (9) Air Force historian Richard P. Hallion described the book as "the clearest American expression of air power thought since the days of Mitchell and Seversky... [it] provoked widespread discussion, controversy, and review throughout the Air Force. It catapulted Warden into the first rank of modern air power theorists." (10)
First published in 1988, The Air Campaign has since become a standard text for air force academies and staff colleges worldwide. Warden's systematic linkage of ends (political objectives), ways (strategies to attain those ends), and means (specific targets to prosecute in order to execute the chosen strategy) became a useful guide to planning air campaigns at the operational level of war. Warden introduced terms such as "air campaign" and "center of gravity" that today are taken for granted in doctrines and operational planning documents throughout the world. The real significance of The Air Campaign was that Warden introduced a way of thinking about air power separate from ground forces and the immediate battlefield, a line of reasoning that was largely absent in the mid-1980s. The book attracted a far wider audience than doctrinal manuals.
The Five Rings Model
Lieutenant General Michael J. Dugan, who became deputy chief of staff for plans and operations in the Air Staff (AF/XO) in March 1988, concluded that Warden was the right man to spearhead an effort to promote air power as a leading military instrument. He had found The Air Campaign "...original, refreshing, focused and easy to read"; he believed it expressed a coherent foundation for thinking about air power at the operational level of war. He made sure the book was distributed within the Air Staff. Having discussed the matter with Major General Charles G. Boyd, the director of plans (XOX), they placed Warden in charge of the Directorate of Warfighting Concepts (XOXW) in July 1988, to advance air power decisiveness. (11) The new directorate was staffed by approximately eighty officers assigned to five divisions: Doctrine (XOXWD), Strategy (XOXWS), Requirements (XOXWR), Long-Range Planning (XOXWP), and Concepts (XOXWC). The latter was referred to as "Checkmate," but the term has since been used loosely to refer to the entire directorate.
Warden now had a top-cover mandate to reinvigorate Air Force thinking about air strategy, the independent use of air power, and the operational art of war. (12) He quickly ensured that these divisions had strong connections with the Department of Defense, Congress, the national intelligence agencies, the Joint Staff, and a range of think tanks. Warden created an intellectual atmosphere that encouraged the explicit linkage of air power as an instrument to national security objectives. He became the Air Staffs conceptual leader for change and the catalyst for resurrecting the idea of air power being used offensively, for strategic effect, rather than for destruction and attrition.
Warden now had a top-cover mandate to reinvigorate Air Force thinking about air strategy
Warden presented his "Five Rings" model for the first time in May 1988, in a paper titled "Global Strategy Outline." (13) Although he had articulated the basic idea in The Air Campaign, and many of the arguments echoed those of the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS), Warden explicitly portrayed "the enemy as a system" with five center of gravity categories. The Five Rings model, graphically presented as concentric circles, reflected the relative importance of the target-sets within a nation-state. He labeled the bull's-eye "the command ring." The circle surrounding this inner core he identified as the state's "critical war industry": the key production centers. The third circle contained the state's "infrastructure," primarily industry and transportation links such as roads, bridges and railways. The fourth circle represented "population and agriculture"--the citizens of the state and its food sources. The final ring was the state's "fielded military forces." The order of the rings explained not only the relative importance of the centers of gravity, but also their vulnerability to attack. It was Basil Liddell Hart's "Indirect Approach" in the third dimension. The names of the rings changed over time to where they are today--leadership, processes, infrastructure, population, and fielded forces--but the basic concept has endured. (14)
From this model...