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#WavellReviews Precision by James Patton Rogers

Precision: A History of American Warfare by James Patton Rogers is published by Manchester University Press.

“Precision” is an intellectual history of America’s pursuit of the titular objective—how to target adversaries, their militaries, and their infrastructure with pinpoint accuracy while, reducing harm to civilians and non-combatants. Author James Patton Rogers surveys the evolution of the American military’s noble ambitions that often outreached its technological capacity and how that pursuit shaped the development and execution of strategy and doctrine.

Beginning with the First World War, Rogers seats the genesis of this pursuit in the horror of the First World War, which saw widespread and in many cases pointless slaughter. Morally abhorrent to American (and indeed European sensibilities), military officers sought to prevent the recurrence of such destruction by instead achieving greater accuracy. The advent of airpower began this uneven march towards a perhaps unattainable desire—to make war clean and efficient. Military demonstrations against fixed, undefended targets with early airpower gave rise to the perhaps misguided belief that precision was indeed possible with the technology of the time.

Cover art of Precision

The first test of this was the Second World War. In Europe, the United Kingdom’s area bombardment stood in contrast with America’s ostensible ‘precision’ campaign. Washington sought to target industries, military facilities, and logistics hubs as opposed to applying pressure to civilian populations. Aspirational again, the efficacy of such campaigns remains debatable given the accuracy of bombsights and the cost associated with waves upon waves of bombers pursuing well-defended targets.

In the Pacific, American military leaders managed to convince themselves and the public that the mass fire bombings of Japanese cities were somehow ‘precise’. The apotheosis of this precision campaign was the use of the atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki that helped bring the war to a close. Whether or not the bombings were necessary is explored by Rogers, the debate over which feeds into questions of precision—a single bomb for a single target (military in nature) achieved a strategic effect for proponents of precision.

The nuclear era that followed was, and remains, Strangelovian in the extreme. Rogers’ recounting of the torturous debates about nuclear strategy and doctrine is riveting, if absurd. It is hard to argue that nuclear weapons, especially thermonuclear devices are ‘precision’ by any measure. Yet, that destructiveness was the source of its precision for its advocates—fewer bombs or warheads per target, an idea that was naturally undermined by the presence of ‘overkill’ which would only make the ‘rubble bounce’ in the end. The American military’s efforts to develop a Single Integrated Operational Plan and its component plans for nuclear targeting sought to reduce this overkill and increase precision.

It was not until the Vietnam War that technology arguably began to catch up to the ambitions of precision with the first use of laser-guided munitions. Still in its infancy, it was, of course, overshadowed by the widespread, if ineffective, bombing campaigns such as Operation Rolling Thunder. Where precision truly shined, if at least in the public’s mind, was during Operation Desert Storm and the allied efforts to eject Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait. Even here precision munitions were only a fraction of the total used, yet the widespread coverage on CNN of bombs and missiles striking their intended targets created the impression that the era of precision had dawned.

Precision-strike complex

Perhaps the apotheosis of American precision strike emerged in the wake of the events of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror that followed. America’s precision-strike complex saw persistent surveillance and highly accurate missiles and bombs develop an extremely tight kill chain allowing the elimination of individual targets. This was, as Rogers writes, not wholly perfect as strikes were only as precise as the intelligence driving their execution. Indeed, the pursuit of precision had an inverse effect on the level and quality of debate about American engagement overseas—the more precise the war and the less costly, the less interested wider America was in what happened overseas.

Today, on the battlefields of Ukraine, precision is vividly on display, but so too are the old ways of mass fire. First-person drone videos show Ukrainian forces taking out individual Russian tanks and soldiers, but these drones are in use simply because Kyiv does not have enough munitions to sustain large-scale artillery fires. Loitering munitions and similar weapons offer the ability to deliver effects with great accuracy, but the era of artillery is far from over. Rogers sensible eschews technological fetishism, but technology and the delta between capabilities and ambitions underlies much of the intellectual history about which he writes.

Precision is fundamentally an attacker-centric objective. At the operational and tactical levels it has more practical usefulness—using precise targeting and minimal munitions is simply more efficient and reduces, in theory, the exposure of one’s own forces to enemy defenses. At a strategic level it, however, breeds false hope that with enough accuracy and the application of the minimal amount of munitions applied to the right target an adversary’s will or ability to fight will collapse.

Achieving the aim?

It is rarely the case that such a precision strategic strike or series of strikes can achieve the desired ends of compelling an enemy to act or not act in a desired way. Afghanistan and Iraq, arguably the wars executed with the most precision were unable to achieve their, admittedly amorphous, political objectives. Precision alone is and will remain insufficient.

Societies have demonstrated remarkable resilience (look at Great Britain in the Second World War or Ukraine today) and networks have proven exceptionally resilient. Precision is, therefore, not an objective outcome, but a mechanism to enable the pursuit of a political objective.

The desire for precision has infected other realms beyond the conventional. In cyberspace there is a belief that a precise cyber-attack can bring down complex networks or render an adversary deaf, dumb, and blind. This, thus far, has proven not to be true. In both conventional and cyber domains, the enemy has a say and has demonstrated greater resilience in the face of such attacks and adaptation to such pressure.

“Precision” is a useful contribution to the literature due to its, rather ironic, precise focus on the intellectual underpinnings of the concept. It is rather clear that precision is the desired means for American military operations. The moral and ethical dimension of war, as well as the law of armed conflict, certainly proscribe indiscriminate bombing and attacks. That post-First World War moral foundation that spawned the desire for precision remains and will remain for the foreseeable future and with good reason. The challenge remains, however, of balancing precision’s tactical and operational effects and the desire for strategic ends, and the fact that adversaries do not always abide by the same moral and ethical strictures.

Joshua C. Huminski

Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, and a George Mason University National Security Institute Fellow. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.

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