“Precision weapons embolden terrorists.” – Not a real quote from the White House, but is it true?
Concept of “limited war”
“Limited warfare” is now the only globally accepted form of war that is seen as acceptable in the eyes our allies. The theory of limited warfare is based on the Clausewitz tradition that teaches war is limited by what a country is willing to spend and/or risk to achieve victory or resist defeat. The inherent danger is the tendency for war to escalate to total war in which all of a country’s reserves, treasure, and even society is bend on obtaining victory. WWII would be the closest American example of total war in the 20th century.
Then nukes changed the world.
Once a country has achieved nuclear capabilities, escalation to total war is no longer an acceptable position. America is always forced to fight a limited war and not allow things to spiral into a total war situation. Rarely does the stronger competitor see the need to go to a “total war” stance to achieve its goals.
Then the world changed again with the widespread use of precision munitions.
The development of precision munitions and ability to perform “surgical” strikes has allowed a new political force to develop that did not exist until the 1990s. The old days of bombing a city until it is flat is not acceptable in the international community. Even the unintentional damage of civilian structure placed beside military targets is condemned by the media and public opinion. The name “precision bombs” make us all feel we can bomb only the bad guys and leave everyone else to go about their lives.
Precision munitions are a huge advantage to the non-state terrorists that we face today.
The ability for a small terrorist network to drain the will, treasury and resources of a stronger nation is evident. Also, their relative safety (from total annihilation) is ensured by the inability of a political power to eradicate them due to accurate modern weapons. The individual terrorist can often hide among the civilian population and be relatively safe from precision munitions.
At the same time, the civilian population cannot be coerced into turning on the terrorist because they do not feel the pain of war in the way that they did in past wars. The traditional military is a difficult tool of national power against the modern terrorist.
Therefore, it may be that the most practical and expedient method for dealing with threats to international security or sovereignty is the old WWII method, fire bomb until nothing is left. This however, cannot be achieved without total condemnation from the rest of the world.