Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: War as a Single Short Blow

(UPDATE: beaten like a rented mule by Cheryl Rofer; see

Apologies in advance for exceeding the recommended “above-the-fold” limit:

If war consisted of one decisive act, or a set of simultaneous decisions, preparations would tend toward totality, for no omission could ever be rectified. The sole criterion for preparations which the world of reality could provide would be the measures taken by the adversary — so far as they are known; the rest would once more be reduced to abstract calculations.

… if all the means available were, or could be, simultaneously employed, all wars would automatically be confined to a single decisive act or a set of simultaneous ones — the reason being that any adverse decision must reduce the sum of the means available, and if all had been committed in the first act there could really be no question of a second.

— Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Book I [On the Nature of War], Chapter 1 [What is War?], section 8 [War Does Not Consist of a Single Short Blow]), 1832

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? — Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

— Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, 27 January 1838

Time-of-flight equation for a ballistic missile:

t – t0 = √a3/µ [2π + (E – e sin E) – (E0 – e sin E0)]

— Bate/Mueller/White, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics (Dover, 1971)

Having deliberately refrained from reading any of the other roundtable contributions so far, lest I become overwhelmingly intimidated, resign from my contributor status, and tell Lex to forget he ever heard of me, I have decided to comment on one very small portion of Book I, specifically Chapter 1, section 8 (page 79 in the edition we are reading). Because, of course, for an American baby boomer, no war that directly affected the entire population was, prior to the late 1980s, expected to be anything other than a single short blow.

So, with the sure knowledge of my limited qualifications ever before me, and the entirely unmanaged risk of merely restating, and poorly, what someone else has already said, I begin …

What Clausewitz could conceive, but regard as a purely theoretical point, and what Lincoln could conceive, but dismiss entirely, became an existential threat to the United States no later than the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The pace and intensity of large-scale military activity in the age of Napoleon, as measured by the duration and distance of, and losses during, the invasion of Russia, had been on the close order of 10 kilometers of movement and 10,000 casualties incurred per day. By the 1980s, a single Soviet SS-18 missile, carrying eight 550-kiloton warheads, was capable of incinerating an entire metropolitan area of several million people on half an hour’s notice, and there were more than enough such weapons in launch-on-warning status to destroy every major city in the northern hemisphere simultaneously. Even a strictly “counterforce” attack, aimed only at the other side’s missile silos and airbases, would have killed tens of millions in a few weeks from biomolecular damage caused by ionizing radiation. A handful of warheads used to generate a nuclear electromagnetic pulse in the ionosphere would leave a major nation without electricity, motorized transport, or telecommunications, again resulting in tens of millions of delayed casualties (due to the very small number of weapons required, this will remain a serious threat even if all nuclear-weapon states nearly eliminate their inventories by treaty).

As Clausewitz effectively predicted, once the prospect of striking such a blow became a technical possibility, those nations that deemed it within their reach devoted enormous efforts toward preparation. The vast majority of rocket booster types were first developed to carry nuclear warheads, and nearly all boosters actually in existence at any given time during the Cold War were ICBMs in silos or SLBMs on submarines (the vast majority still are, even with today’s greatly reduced arsenals). Ancillary developments included space telescopes with optics comparable to the Hubble, but launched decades earlier and pointed down, for use as spy satellites and to detect clandestine nuclear tests. Related infrastructures were physically and electronically hardened, and telecommunications decentralized, to provide second-strike capability in the event of an initially unanswered attack. The superpowers developed limited ABM systems before curtailing them by treaty, and later more technically ambitious initiatives in antimissile defenses bogged down in political infighting in the US, though not without spending perhaps $100 billion. The cost of the arsenals themselves ran well into the trillions, in a world far poorer than the present.

The arc of history toward thermonuclear hypertrophy was perhaps not inevitable — my own belief is that had either Nixon won the 1960 presidential election or LBJ been the Democratic nominee, the Vienna Summit would have been a very different experience for all concerned, with dramatic and (relatively) positive repercussions all over the world in the following quarter-century. But once it had been demonstrated, sixteen months later, that a nuclear crisis could indeed happen, the technological imperatives became obvious, just as they were obvious to Clausewitz. Within another five years, exponentially growing stockpiles ensured that mutually assured destruction was a reality.

With the end of the Soviet Union, much of the danger passed, but the feasibility of nuclear proliferation remains. The ideologies that threaten the West in the 21st century are both less susceptible to direct deterrence and less economically constrained by the impulse to build thousands of bombs and rockets. A single nuclear-tipped Scud missile launched from a relatively small vessel in the North Atlantic — and by a crew that fully accepted the possibility of its own death — could render the northeastern US virtually uninhabitable for months, if not years; and the Iranians are rumored to have practiced just such a launch. No imaginable American administration would destroy Tehran, population 15 million, to forestall (or perhaps even in response to) this. How then to deter, or respond, in a way that applies discriminate force, but applies it on the timescale of minutes-to-hours characteristic of the nuclear age?

I have argued before in this forum (see that a huge missing piece in American defense is the ability to project force other than that of mass destruction around the planet on a moment’s notice. An intercontinental rocket transport capable of carrying two battalions of soldiers anywhere in the world, from the continental United States and in three-quarters of an hour, was seriously proposed in the late 1960s; it could undoubtedly have been a reality by 1980 if the political will had been present. In the near-future environment, something capable of deploying a large number of suitably armed UAVs might be more appropriate, though for psychological reasons we would probably want to be able to put boots on the ground as well. Thousands of American troops, arriving seemingly out of nowhere and with close air support, could strike a “single short blow” without killing millions of innocents.

Is this politically realistic? It is not entirely fanciful: almost-President Obama is already said to favor some kind of merger of civilian and military space efforts. (I suspect that the next four years will bring many only-Nixon-can-go-to-China moments; imagine the outcry if a Republican had expressed such a preference.) Perhaps creative employment of Clausewitzian principles in near-Earth space will be among them.

2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: War as a Single Short Blow”

  1. Jay, I agree that the advent of large scale nuclear arsenals on the two sides of the Cold War approximated Clausewitz’s Absolute War, with the prospect of a single blow deciding the whole thing. Of course it also tracked Clausewitz’s discussion of war as policy with an admixture of other means. A full blown, launch ’em all exchange would have been other means only, primeval hatred, maybe, but no polilik, and hence not war but mere pointless violence, without any means/ends rationality in it at all. This shows that Clausewitz was right, that absolute war will not happen (leaving aside accidents and miscalculations — a major caveat) because various other factors will interfere, especially the calculation of the parties about what they are out to do and what is in it for them.

    As to the projection of a battalion of troops around the world in an hour … . I must say, the prospect of such a thing has a lot of appeal, if only because I grew up on Starship Troopers. However, the tradeoffs in terms of cost, versus air and sea delivery seem to be way too high. Also, we see that air mobile troops categorically face a unique problem. They have strategic mobility, but once they are on the ground they lack tactical mobility and armor and heavy firepower and staying power. You drop the 101st airborne behind the Normandy beaches, and you have scattered light infantry against motorized and mechanized opponents with artillery. You put helicopter-borne infantry into the jungle in Vietnam and you end up with a bunch of under-armed guys in Indian country surrounded by more numerous and better equipped foes, hence creating a bunch of Fort Apache scenarios over and over again. Sending a bunch of guys to some remote Hell Hole in 45 minutes would simply mean that the supporting firepower, the reinforcements and the medical evacuation capacity was days away while they fight swarms of locals. Black Hawk Down, delivered from orbit. I don’t see the upside.

  2. “I have argued before in this forum (see that a huge missing piece in American defense is the ability to project force other than that of mass destruction around the planet on a moment’s notice. ”

    There is such a force, though it relies on sea-based troops. It is a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Granted, they cannot be catapulted through the ether to arrive just anywhere within an hour, but then again, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know where such forces might be needed in the coming weeks, and consequently they can be easily positioned within striking distance of the enemy.

    The standard that MEU’s train to is eight hours from receipt of warning order to the beginning of operations. This is extremely rapid, and it is unlikely that the gains from reducing this response time further would be economical over currently-existing methods. Space-ship delivered battalions? What a waste of money for a huge increase in risk and a rather marginal decrease in response time!

    MEUs have their downsides, of course. Though they can “punch above their weight class” (due to organic infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, helicopters and jet aircraft), they are still a tiny force of ~2200 Marines, incapable of sustainable presence beyond a couple of weeks once ashore. Though 2200 Marines sounds like a lot, it really isn’t when marooned in a far-off country, especially when operating in urban environments.

    Diplomacy rears it’s often-ugly head whenever MEUs are deployed to non-mature theaters, which emphasizes that such military force is still only a function of policy. This allows the enemy to use diplomatic initiatives to defeat the military force, allowing the enemy to also punch above its weight class. This has the tendency to negate many advantages of rapid deployment.

    Still, MEUs are a necessary part of the defense infrastructure, and do allow for rapid response to quickly-growing situations. But there are still many ways the enemy can defeat the strengths of rapid deployment.

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