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Document posted: 1 June 04
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2004

Air & Space Power Journal

Doctrine NOTAM

Effects-Based Operations

Charles Tustin Kamps

The Joint Forces Command Glossary defines effects-based operations (EBO) as “a process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome or ‘effect’ on the enemy, through the synergistic, multiplicative, and cumulative application of the full range of military and nonmilitary capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels” (http:// www.jfcom.mil/about/glossary.htm). As such, all types of armed forces have performed EBO for centuries—albeit without the same dynamics as have appeared since the beginning of practical airpower in the early twentieth century.

During World War I, ground forces proved adept at killing the enemy in large numbers but equally unable to achieve a decision. Postwar air theorists, including Italy’s Giulio Douhet, Britain’s Hugh Trenchard, and America’s William “Billy” Mitchell, championed an alternative to attrition in the form of what we now call EBO. Using “strategical” bombardment, they envisioned achieving the “effect” of destroying the enemy’s army by attacking his population centers, critical industries, or logistical infrastructure.

These ideas, developed during the 1930s by the US Army’s Air Corps Tactical School and the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, formed the basis for the Combined Bomber Offensive of World War II. EBO conducted by “strategic” air arms in that war received mixed reviews but undoubtedly affected the outcome of the conflict. In truth, although the theory was sound, interdiction by tactical aviation and submarines may have proved the concept more convincingly than did heavy bombers.

Nevertheless, EBO and the ability to strike directly at enemy centers of gravity were instrumental in securing an independent US Air Force in the postwar era. After an institutional hiatus in strategic thinking during the nuclear-dominated Cold War, the application of airpower in a conventional EBO role reemerged in the 1980s in the writings of John Warden and later under his protégé, David Deptula. This reemergence of EBO invoked the advantages promoted by early airpower visionaries; however, the emphasis shifted away from populations and industry toward targets such as electrical grids and command and control networks. The Warden model of analyzing the enemy as a “system of systems” has become a definite factor in Air Force planning thought since the Gulf War of 1991.

The proverbial “long pole in the tent” for EBO has always been accurate assessment, which, in turn, has depended upon imperfect intelligence. By their very nature, second- and third-order effects from military operations can take time to come to fruition and may be difficult to discern. Ironically, even though the Air Force has fully embraced the modern interpretation of EBO, after-action reports from Operation Iraqi Freedom indicate that, for the most part, the service measured “success” by traditional attrition methods because of the high tempo of operations and the resultant inability of headquarters to gauge or assess effects.

In the final analysis, EBO has indeed transformed modern military thought, thanks in part to the latest generation of weapons and platforms that facilitate its execution. The Air Force and the joint community now look forward to a future in which decisive action takes place directly against an enemy’s critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity in order to achieve “effects” formerly attainable only after long periods of tactical and operational attrition.

To Learn More . . .

ACC/XP. ACC White Paper: Effects-Based Operations. Langley AFB, VA: USAF Air Combat Command, 2002.
Grossman, Elaine. “U.S. Forces Unready for ‘Effects’ Approach.” Inside the Pentagon, 25 March 2004.
Mann, Edward C., III, Gary Endersby, and Thomas R. Searle. Thinking Effects: Effects-Based Methodology for Joint Operations. CADRE Paper no. 15. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2002.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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