This past fall, the military blogosphere was awash with think pieces on “Lethality,” a focus of the 2018 National Defense Strategy released over a year ago.  A few of the articles were quite good, while many others constituted little more than hand-wringing and overwrought consternation over what this new focus will mean.   Perhaps the better question might be why previous Pentagon documents over the decades have not emphasized lethality, given that the raison d’être of any military is to kill enemy personnel and destroy their equipment as efficiently as possible in order to break the enemy’s will to fight, all in support of national objectives.   One wonders if there would be similar dismay if the State Department published a guiding document articulating “Diplomacy” as the priority of effort.  

The renewed focus on lethality should not be dismissed as macho chest-thumping or a repudiation of counter-insurgency.  It should be seen as reinforcing a core attribute of the military and enabling success across the range of operations from deterrence through major combat.  Such renewed focus is necessary because throughout history, the U.S. military has not always maximized its lethal capabilities through training, weapons, targeting, and mindset. 

Realistic Training.  Recognizing that most pilots were killed during their first ten missions in Vietnam, the Air Force created the Red Flag exercise program in an effort to re-create the stress and confusion of large-force combat.[i]  The other services soon followed suit.  Although there are many reasons for the overwhelming victory U.S. forces achieved in Operation Desert Storm, much of it can be attributed to the revolution in training that occurred in the fifteen years prior. Unfortunately in our modern age, there are limits to what can be simulated on an actual training range, especially with regard to the nexus of traditional domains (land, sea, air) and more nascent ones (space, cyber).  Our training methods must keep pace with and fully leverage the advancements in virtual and constructive simulation brought about by our tech industry.     

Effective weapons.   Having the best-trained force in the world is not enough if your weapons don’t achieve the desired effects.  During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force, despite high levels of training and preparation, did not have torpedoes that worked effectively until September 1943, almost two years into the war.  Even with direct hits, due to a poorly designed detonating mechanism not fully tested in peacetime, “the best shooting was rewarded by duds, and submarines returned from war patrols with sad tales of hearing as many as nine torpedoes go bang against the hull of a Japanese ship, without a single one exploding.” [ii]  Early in the Vietnam conflict, U.S. infantryman struggled with the newly-fielded M-16 and its propensity to jam mid-firefight.[iii]  As the services begin a new thrust of modernization, we must remember these historical lessons and ensure, through rigorous operational test and evaluation, that our shiny new toys actually create lethal effects -not just prior to achieving initial operating capability, but throughout the lifespan of the weapon system.   

Discipline and discrimination.    Lethality is more than just firepower:  lethality requires discipline and discrimination to ensure rounds/effects hit the correct target without expending unnecessary resources.   In June of 1950, as part of the initial U.S. response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the U.S. Air Force flew hundreds of missions against DPRK air and ground units.  “In the first few hours they did more harm than good,” wrote T.R. Fehrenbach.  “Without ground control parties, and with the situation on the ground so confused, [U.S.] pilots could not tell friend from foe,” rocketing and strafing friendly South Korean columns.[iv]  The proper application of lethal firepower requires discriminating sensors and resilient networks, especially in potential future conflicts where we will have far more targets than ammunition, and many of those targets will be hidden amongst decoys and jamming.  We will need to make every missile count in such a data-rich yet information poorenvironment.  Discipline and discrimination are obviously just as important in counterinsurgency and other applications of military power short of major combat.  General Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff during Vietnam, lamented the effect imprecise intelligence had on winning hearts and minds: “We have not enough information.  We act with ruthlessness, like a steamroller.”[v]

Mindset.  Lethality is a state of mind:  being “ready to fight.”  Such readiness requires more than just making boxes green on a reporting chart.  Commanders must give significant thought to the potential conditions in which their units may fight, in order to delineate appropriate goals and expectations.   On-line snarky comments aside, focusing on lethality absolutely includes making sure personnel receive flu shots and MOPP gear training.  Survivability, force protection, and deployability status are all pre-requisites to ensuring personnel are ready and available to withstand the dangers of combat and deliver lethal effects.

Of course, there is danger that a focus on lethality will become all-encompassing, and a label slapped on anything in an effort to gain resources and the approval of higher headquarters. Some things do not require lethality, such as humanitarian assistance and other soft power initiatives.   However, they do support “Strengthening Alliances and Attract New Partners,” a separate NDS line-of-effort that certainly reinforces the lethality effort by gaining access and ensuring interoperability. 

Lethality should not be considered a fad or a buzzword.  The concept is at the heart of our profession and should be given the seriousness it deserves.  Otherwise we do a disservice to the men and women we send in harm’s way.   

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.


[i]Stephen Budiansky, Air Power: The Men, Machines, and Ideas that Revolutionized War, From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War II(New York: Viking, 2004), 398.

[ii]Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the Unites States Navy in the Second World War(New York: Little Brown , 1963), 495.

[iii]Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975(New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 408-409.

[iv]T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History(Dulles: Potomac Books, 2008), p. 55

[v]Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History(New York: Penguin, 1997), 452.

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