Explaining military effectiveness : political intervention and battlefield performance
Author(s)Talmadge, Elisabeth Rosemary Caitlin
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Political Science.
Barry R. Posen.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dept. of Political Science, 2011.Cataloged from PDF version of thesis.Includes bibliographical references.The puzzle: Why do states display such remarkable variation in their military effectiveness? This question is different from asking why states win or lose wars, because military effectiveness is not synonymous with victory. States can fight very well on the battlefield but still lose: consider the Germans in both world wars. Or they can fight very poorly but still win: consider the Soviets in the Winter War against Finland in 1939-40. These discrepancies exist because war outcomes hinge on all sorts of factors besides battlefield performance. The political goals for which a war is fought, the terrain, third-party involvement, the balance of material capabilities-all can influence ultimate victory and defeat. Military effectiveness bears on these outcomes but remains distinct. It pertains to the fighting power that each side is able to generate from the resources that it possesses, separate from the question of whether that fighting power is enough to bring ultimate triumph. In thinking about the challenges of U.S. foreign policy, the distinction between victory and effectiveness is especially striking. Given its overwhelming material power, the United States is almost sure to eke out some type of conventional "victory" from whatever military operations it chooses to launch in the contemporary international environment. But the price it pays for doing so is likely to vary dramatically depending on the military effectiveness of opponents. Historically, some of the poor, weak states that America has encountered have fought much better than anticipated, such as Serbia in 1999. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, have collapsed much more rapidly than expected, despite their large armies. These sorts of startling differences in effectiveness can also be found in the militaries of U.S. coalition partners and allies, even though many are rich or have received large infusions of U.S. aid and weapons. In considering these realities, it seems evident that states vary widely in their military effectiveness and that this variation drives differences in the costs, length, and settlement of wars. In particular, states seem to display puzzling differences in their ability to generate operational- and tactical-level fighting power from their resources, a type of power that I refer to in this study as battlefield effectiveness. Battlefield effectiveness requires states to perform three key tasks: to generate cohesive military units, to train those units in the performance of basic tactics, and to endow them with the initiative and coordination needed to conduct the complex operations crucial to effectiveness in modern battle. Beyond the dilemmas of current U.S. foreign policy, even a cursory examination of the last century of warfare suggests that there is significant variation in states' abilities to perform these tasks and therefore to impose costs upon their adversaries in war. Three particular types of such variation stand out. The first is cross-national variation, that is, instances in which some national armies seem to consistently perform better than others for example, the outnumbered Israeli army consistently performing better on the battlefield than its Arab opponents in the series of conflicts between 1948 and 1973. The second type of variation is over-time within the same country-for instance, the Chinese army's excellent performances against the United States in 1950 and India in 1962, followed by a rather poor showing its smaller, weaker neighbor Vietnam in 1979. The third type of variation is across different units within the same military even in the same war-for instance, the 1991 Gulf War, in which some Iraqi units surrendered immediately upon contact with coalition forces, while others stood and fought. What can account for these differences? In trying to answer this question, the study of military effectiveness has generally focused on large structural factors such as wealth, demography, culture, and regime type. But this approach is problematic, because these variables actually behave more like constants, changing very little if at all in individual states over time. As a result, they are poorly suited to explaining much of the variation just described. For example, none of these variables could explain the over-time shifts just mentioned in Chinese performance, or the cross-unit differences in Iraqi performance in 1991, because large structural factors did not change over time or vary across different military units in these individual states. Large structural variables are important, of course, and certainly condition the overall military power one would expect a state to be able to generate. They do constitute a plausible explanation for at least some cross-national variation in battlefield effectiveness. To continue the Arab-Israeli contrast mentioned above, for example, it is probably significant that Israel was a democratic, increasingly wealthy, highly unified society facing fractious, authoritarian, and economically underdeveloped Arab opponents. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that undergird the causal power of these sorts of sweeping structural forces remain poorly understood. While there may be good reasons to think that wealth, democracy, western culture, or societal unity somehow enhance military performance, it is not entirely clear what it is about these factors that actually matters. One might just as easily suspect that authoritarian regimes should have military advantages instead, with the examples of Nazi and Wilhelmine Germany, the Soviet Union, and North Vietnam immediately springing to mind, among others. What, then, can help account for the full range of variation in states' battlefield effectiveness?
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Political Science.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology