“John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power” – John Andreas Olsen

Olsen, John Andreas. John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power. Washington,

DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2007.

'About the Author':

John Andreas Olsen is the dean of the Norwegian Defense University College, head of its division for strategic studies, and visiting professor of operational art and tactics at the Swedish National Defense College. He is an active-duty colonel in the Norwegian Air Force and has lectured widely in Europe and the United States. His previous publications include Strategic Air Power in Desert Storm (Frank Cass, 2003) and John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Potomac Books, 2007). He lives in Oslo, Norway.

Key Points':

Olsen’s biography of John Warden details his life from childhood past his retirement and early employment in the civilian world.  His purpose is to examine the thought process, influences, theories, and impact of John Warden.  Although Olsen tries to maintain his objectivity, at times his analysis suffers from bias favoring Warden.  Nonetheless, his book reveals John Warden’s self-imposed bumpy ride through his Air Force careers and his willingness to promote airpower innovations regardless of the cost.

(x) According to Meilinger, Warden was scarred by his Vietnam experience (gradualism and lack of strategic objectives).

(x) Warden’s Instant Thunder plan was flawed in that it failed to consider the possibility that airpower would not be able to coerce Saddam’s withdrawal from Kuwait. 

(2) Warden insisted the USAF should move away from “brute-force oriented warfighting” and focus on strategic paralysis and systemic effects.  Ground forces may not be the doorway to victory.

(3) “Warden’s view of the enemy as a “system” and of the primary importance of the enemy’s command, control, and communication apparatus within that system, combined with his belief in bombing for functional disruption, strategic paralysis, and systemic effect, has played an important role in changing the US view of war fighting at the strategic and operational levels.”

(19) “The entire US strategy in Vietnam suffered from a fundamental problem: President Johnson and his advisors underestimated the enemy’s determination and compounded their mistake by misreading the nature of the conflict.”

Lessons Warden Learned from Vietnam:

a. (20) “Warden felt as though he had participated in two different kinds of wars: the first applied air power against ground forces, where the threat was basically small-arms fire, while the latter used air power against infrastructure and supplies to affect the enemy at the operational level of war.”

b. (22) “Warden concluded that the limits of air power stemmed from the limits put upon air power: air power was being misused by politicians who picked targets in the White House during the infamous Tuesday luncheons, and by a gradualist approach that sought to send signals rather than win the war.”

            c. (22) “good tactics cold not compensate for a flawed strategy.”


(24) Warden believed that air superiority was the first priority, but forces must be concentrated in the right time and place (with big wing tactics).  Moreover, he believed the Air Force must identify missions beyond nuclear missions and/or CAS missions supporting ground forces.

Warden was greatly influenced by JFC Fuller and emphasized the moral dimension.

(37) Warden believed once the decision was made for the use of force, maximum use of force should be employed.

(44) Warden consistently emphasized the need to plan for conflict in the Middle East.

Warden had the reputation for implementing ideas without consideration for logistics requirements, sustainment, and or subsequent order of effect.

(66) “Center of Gravity” – [to Warden] “was in essence a point against which a given level of effort would accomplish more than it would accomplish if applied elsewhere”

(66) Warden’s The Air Campaign:

            a. Defines four levels of warfare: grand strategic, strategic, operational, tactical

            b. Warden believed the operational category had been ignored because:

                        - it is difficult to deal with

                        - it was viewed as obsolete due to nuclear weapons

c. (67) AIR SUPERIORITY is the first priority – “having sufficient control of the air to conduct air attacks against the enemy without serious opposition and being free from the danger of serious enemy air incursions.”

            d. (67) Air dominance was based on three factors:

1.     Skilled Personnel

2.     Material

3.     Position

            e. (67) Warden offered two absolutes:

1.     “the key to winning battles is to have greater forces at the key location than the enemy does”

2.     Concentration of force

            f. (68) Intelligence is vital

            g. (68) Five air centers of gravity:

1.     Equipment

2.     Logistics

3.     Geography

4.     Personnel

5.     Command And Control Structure

(70) INTERDICTION – “any operation designed to slow or inhibit the flow of men or material from the source to the front, or laterally behind the front”

1.     Distant

2.     Intermediate

3.     Close

(71) CLOSE AIR SUPPORT – “any air operation that theoretically could and would be done by ground forces on their own if sufficient troops or artillery were available.”

(72) Unlike previous war theorists, Warden believed that “reserves could lessen the fog, friction, and uncertainty of war in two ways: fresh troops might break an enemy attack and restore the line of defense, or they might give the commander the resources to exploit an enemy error or weakness and lead to an offensive breakthrough.”

(78) Warden believed that perfect information was possible and he did not consider the difference between “conventional warfare and protracted revolutionary warfare.”

            a. His approach was Jominian and deductive

            b. Did not consider the Clausewitzian intangibles of war

(79) His “systematic linkage of ends (political objectives), ways (strategies to attain those ends), and means (identifying specific targets to execute the chosen strategy) led many airmen to regard his work as an extremely useful guide to planning air campaigns and thinking at the operational level of war.”

(109) Warden’s Five Rings Model:

 (116) ”This new approach means carrying the war to the enemy’s state organization (system warfare) rather than to the enemy’s armed forces (military warfare).  Destroying the best targets would render the enemy’s strategy and decision making irrelevant.”

(123) Warden was a proponent of the Composite Wing organizational scheme.  He called such arrangements, “Air Legions.”…benefits would be:

1.     An operational rather than a tactical focus

2.     Greater flexibility to respond to different types of crises worldwide

3.     Greater Force projection capability

4.     An operating team whose members knew each other well

(152) Intelligence cooperation was a major barrier Instant Thunder planners had to overcome.  Col James Blackburn had many reasons for his lack of cooperation but ultimately believed that matters needed to be worked through the chain of command….Col Blackburn and Warden could not reconcile 6 key items that seem to be still prevalent today (given my ISR background)

(160-161) See these pages for General Russ’s objections to Warden’s plan…..see also P-163 that compares TAC’s plan to another version of ROLLING THUNDER

(171) When briefing Schwarzkopf, Warden stated that Instant Thunder was “A focused, intense air campaign designed to incapacitate Iraqi leadership and destroy key Iraqi military capability in a short period of time and it is designed to leave basic infrastructure intact.  What it is not: a graduated, long term campaign plan designed to provide escalation options to counter Iraqi moves.”

(187) “To Warden and Deptula a reconstructed and reformed Iraq was the ultimate goal, and they believed that the ability to supply or deny assistance in restoring the oil and electric power industries would give the United States leverage over Baghdad.”

(192) General Horner changed Instant Thunder to include two phases:

            a. An offensive air campaign for air superiority and the destruction of high-value targets

            b. A parallel campaign

(192) General Schwarzkopf insisted that the campaign include three phases:

He wanted it done serially

a.     Air superiority

b.     High value targets

c.     The ground campaign

(214) Schwarzkopf insisted that ground forces were necessary to complete Iraq’s defeat.

(218) “Without Deptula’s conceptual insight, operational perspective, and flexibility, and is central role in the planning, many of Warden’s ideas would never have been implemented.”

(223-224) Warden understood that his air campaign needed political support:

            a. His political campaign angered Colin Powell

            b. He successfully used insider connections to get an appointment with the President (via

Lutwak, Senator John Warner, and General Merrill McPeak)

(227) Warden writes a memo to Secretary Rice regarding the end of the war after the Jan 1991 US strikes

(235-236) Intelligence stovepipes between the intelligence community and the operations community presented a major hurtle to effective targeting.  Targeteers needed to know the capabilities of advanced weapons systems while operators needed detailed targeting data.

(238) After the 1991 Gulf War, Paul Nitze believed that PGMs had replaced nuclear weapons because of their ability to achieve objectives without radiation and collateral damage.

(239) The Gulf War Air Power Survey (GWAPS) included significant interservice politics and collusion.  The survey did not reveal airpower’s sole decisiveness in the Gulf War.

            a. air campaigns needed ground forces

(240) Warden wrote “The Future of Air Power: Strategies for a Changing World”:

            a. (241) “precision weapons, used in conjunction with stealth, made I possible o achieve

maneuver, mass, and concentration on an entirely unprecedented scale.”

            b. (241) “The world has just witnessed a new kind of warfare – hyperwar.  It has seen

airpower become dominant.  It has seen unequivocally how defenseless a state becomes when it loses control of the air over its territories and forces.”

(282) As compared to the SIOP or AirLand Battle, “Warden offered a much broader perspective on how air power could serve the nation’s interests.  By linking specific categories of targets to stresses in the enemy system as a whole, and by daring to suggest that air power be used for offense rather than merely defense, he created the framework on which others could build.  More important, he had the moral courage to insist that his ideas be heard and considered.”

(283-284) Wrap-up of Warden’s airpower theory.

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