The US Army has recently adopted an aggressive new warfighting doctrine called AirLand Battle. Its precepts now constitute the Army’s basic “how to fight” principles for a decade of “intense, deadly, and costly” battles. The Middle East is one of three major theaters—along with Europe and Korea—in which the Army intends to use its doctrine.

AirLand Battle, developed at the Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Virginia, is codified in an August 1982 field manual (100-5, Operations). It comes into force just as President Ronald Reagan’s $1.7 trillion, five-year defense spending spree is well underway and gives new teeth to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s 1984-88 Defense Guidance mandate that “whatever the circumstances” the US government “should be prepared to introduce American forces directly into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.”

AirLand Battle doctrine makes war—even nuclear war—in the Middle East more likely for two reasons: it emphasizes “seizing the initiative” and presupposes a clear bias toward offensive strikes; and it promotes small, nuclear-equipped forces as a rapidly deployable substitute for larger, conventionally armed forces.

“The offensive is the decisive form of war,” declares the field manual, “the commander’s only means of attaining a positive goal or of completely destroying an enemy force.” [1] Commanders are advised to “use every weapon, asset and combat multiplier to gain the initiative and to throw the enemy off balance with a powerful blow from an unexpected direction.” US forces should conduct “rapid, unpredictable, violent” attacks that are disorienting to the enemy. This offensive initiative must be exploited relentlessly: “the attack must continue for as long as it takes to assure victory.”

US News & World Report observed that AirLand Battle’s constant promotion of offensive action “is regarded as highly sensitive politically because it seems so aggressive as to hold out the possibility of a US attack.” John Mearsheimer, a Harvard military analyst, is more blunt. He believes the doctrine “comes very close to calling for preemptive strikes.” [2]

AirLand doctrine not only advises early offensive strikes, but recommends that these strikes target troops deep inside enemy territory, before they ever begin to fight. Such “deep battle” attacks would hit reserve troops and equipment (and potentially, civilians) as distant as 72 hours maneuvering time (anywhere from 75 to 150 miles) back from the front line of battle. They are designed to open up “windows of opportunity for offensive actions” at the front line. A favorite and frequent Army example of this long-range interdiction strategy is Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon’s attack across the Suez Canal in the 1973 war which “gave the Israeli air forces access to deep targets by opening a channel through Egyptian air defense.” [3]

This rapid maneuver, deep-battle attack fighting style is designed to meet the full range of “worldwide” challenges to US interests. The enemy might be anything from a heavy Warsaw Pact force in Europe to light, well-equipped “Soviet-supported insurgents” or “sophisticated terrorist groups.” Regarding the Middle East, the Army admits that a “Soviet invasion of the Gulf is the least likely threat. Lt. Gen. Robert C. Kingston, commander of the Rapid Deployment Forces, rates Persian Gulf threats (from most likely but least demanding to least likely but most demanding) in this way: “(a) internal instability, (b) intraregional conflicts, (c) Soviet supported subversion or invasion by surrogates, and (d) Soviet armed intervention.” [4]

Live-Fire Exercises

The US Army is training soldiers to apply AirLand Battle doctrine to Middle East conditions at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. There, on a half-million acres of desert that “resembles parts of the Mideast, GIs are pitted against simulated Soviet units in mock battles” and participate in live-fire exercises and electronic warfare operations training. A computer system provides a “graphic replay of what actually takes place on the ground,” a powerful training device for green troops. [5]

At Fort Lewis, Washington, the Army’s Ninth Division is developing into a rapidly deployable high technology light division, a “prototype” for AirLand Battle-style divisions. Army Secretary John Marsh and Chief of Staff Edward Meyer, in a report to Congress, freely admit that this light division concept “focuses on the Middle East and Southwest Asia” (which they describe as “a land of turmoil, terror, violence and bloodshed”). [6] The division will employ “light-weight vehicles, new weapons, advanced electronic-warfare devices and heavily armed helicopters” to give it the lethal power of a heavy division in a fast deployment form. “It is no accident,” comments US News & World Report, that this new division “will most closely resemble Israel’s lean fighting force.” [7] The light division will require only half as much airlift as the old to the Middle East.

The Army is fielding a new generation of deadly, technologically sophisticated, and therefore enormously costly, weapons to equip its forces to execute the rapid maneuver, deep-battle attack requirements of AirLand Battle. (The concept relies heavily on advances in surveillance and intelligence gathering systems to provide the decisive edge. A good example is Israel’s devastating attack against Syrian SAM missiles in the Bekaa Valley during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The Israeli Air Force wiped out 19 SAMs without losing a jet. The secret? A tiny, pilotless plastic aircraft known as an RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) flew over the SAMs, activating their radars and forcing them to reveal their locations. Targeting and radar frequency data was relayed back to the F-16s that flew in for the easy kill.) “We are moving to make the force more lethal and less personnel-intensive through the exploitation of high technology,” says Army deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, Lt. Gen. William R. Richardson. (It should not be assumed, however, that fewer personnel translates into fewer casualties. The enhanced lethality of modern weapons will mean quite the opposite.) [8]

The Army’s public relations pitch on the doctrine is that their new conventional weapons will have such formidable destructive capabilities that they will make escalation to nuclear war less likely. This argument is hardly borne out by the doctrine itself. In AirLand doctrine, nuclear weapons are not reserved for a last-ditch effort by a losing commander or to salvage a faltering attack on enemy forces. “By extending the battlefield and integrating conventional, nuclear, chemical and electronic means, forces can exploit enemy vulnerabilities anywhere,” says the field manual. “Fighting this way, the US Army can quickly begin offensive action by air and land forces to conclude the battle on its terms.”

US forces have always been prepared to use nuclear weapons first, but previous doctrine has reserved nuclear warheads for use in situations where conventional means prove inadequate to attain the desired goal. The new doctrine sharply alters that concept. If used, they are to be used early on and in depth. “Tactical nuclear weapons” are among “the chief means of deep battle” (along with air-delivered weapons, field artillery, air maneuver units and unconventional warfare forces). Nuclear weapons are “particularly effective” when attacking “follow-on formations or forces in depth because of their inherent power and because of reduced concerns about troop safety and collateral damage.” In plain English, the doctrine instructs commanders to target nuclear weapons deep and fire them early so that the radiation and blast effects only kill enemy troops and civilians and do not spill over onto US forces.

Nuclear weapons use is recommended in a number of other situations as well. After a successful attack, when the force must quickly move to exploit its forward momentum, for example, “nuclear or chemical weapons may be useful for destroying enemy artillery and reserves, closing routes of escape, and engaging suitable targets…. With sufficient nuclear or chemical fire support, the exploitation can be launched shortly after the attack itself.” Or again, during a withdrawal operation, “stealth or a nuclear or ground attack may be necessary to divert the enemy’s attention.

Rapid Deployment and First Strike

AirLand doctrine goes even beyond describing “how to prosecute successfully nuclear and/or chemical conflicts,” writes Army Col. William G. Hanne in the Department of the Army publication, Military Review. He says the doctrine makes “no distinction between first strike and retaliation in the nuclear arena.” [9] This means that the US Army is not only prepared to be the first side to use nuclear weapons (in retaliation for an enemy conventional attack, say); it is fully prepared to use nuclear weapons as the opening shot of a US-initiated war, in a first strike.

In a prescription most dangerous for the Middle East, the field manual promotes the projection of a “relatively small, rapidly deployable force with nuclear weapons” into regions threatened by subversion, invasion, or even terrorism. These nuclear rapid deployment forces are designed to get there first in situations where a “larger, conventional force might deploy too late.”

Supported with nuclear or chemical weapons, small forces attacking at high speed may achieve the same success as larger forces supported with conventional fires. Nuclear or chemical prepratory fires may so reduce the enemy’s strength that deep, multiple, and equally weighted attacks are possible.

In all the numerous references to nuclear weapons use in the manual there is a glaring omission. Nowhere does the doctrine confront what the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute terms the “extremely high risk of escalation to all-out nuclear war” whenever the “threshold from the use of conventional weapons to the first use of any nuclear weapons” is crossed. [10] (If escalation to strategic exchange were to occur, large portions of the Middle East would immediately become prime targets. CounterSpy cites a secret Air Force Nuclear Yield Requirements manual of the early 1960s which mandates US nuclear strikes on some 50 targets in Iran, Syria, Iraq and Egypt—primarily airfields and other military facilities—to “deny” them to the Soviet Union.) The theoretical accuracy and control ascribed to the current generation of tactical nuclear weapons tempt military planners, writes Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer,

to think they can be detonated not only as weapons of genocide or counter-genocide but as if they were conventional weapons, to take out selected enemy targets in a war that would be fought on a limited or at least less than catastrophic basis. In other words, a war with winners as well as losers. [11]

The military terminology itself seduces one into believing that “tactical” (as opposed to strategic) nuclear weapons are all, in British scientist Nigel Calder’s words, “modest little battlefield bombs.” [12] They are not. Tactical refers more to how a weapon is used (“attacks on targets with more or less direct effects on the course of the battle” [13]) than to its intrinsic destructive power.

Many “battlefield” nuclear weapons promoted for use under AirLand doctrine are more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (13 and 23 kilotons, respectively). The Army’s Lance nuclear missile, for example, boosts a warhead with yields ranging from 1 to 100 kilotons. Some 2,133 of these have been built, and an “enhanced radiation” (neutron) warhead for the Lance has been in production since 1981. [14] Pershing I-A missiles, currently deployed, have 60 to 400 kiloton warheads, making “extensive collateral damage” unavoidable. They have a 740 kilometer range and an error margin of less than 400 meters. [15] The Pershing Hs (scheduled for deployment in Europe) are to have pinpoint accuracy, a 1,000 mile range and high speed: eight to ten minutes from launch to target. The Army has 385 on order and may eventually buy as many as 900. [16]

These tremendously deadly weapons are among those the manual mandates US Army officers to be prepared to use. Yet commanders are also rather glibly directed to be ready to “operate without interruption” even after the enemy launches a nuclear or chemical attack. They are advised to quickly “reconstitute or replace lost units [dead soldiers]” and “continue the mission.” In Infantry magazine (a Department of Defense publication) there is talk of fighting on even with “contaminated personnel and equipment” and despite the “large number of personnel casualties and much damage to equipment, as well as psychological stress on an unprecedented scale” caused by the attack. [17]

These army officers cannot yet make the decision to use nuclear weapons singlehandedly. The authority to release nuclear weapons for use still rests with the president. But the presidential decision is limited to “whether or not” nuclear weapons are used. Operational questions, the “when and how” decisions, rest squarely with commanders in the field. “Brigade and division commanders will develop groups of [nuclear] targets” directs the field manual. “The corps will review its divisions’ nuclear fire plans and will integrate them into its plans.”

Nuclear “Pre-Clearance”

Recently, there have been signals that the Army would really prefer to have “pre-clearance” from the president to use nuclear weapons as it sees fit. Representative Norman Dicks reported that during a briefing on AirLand Battle doctrine, “members of Congress were [repeatedly] told that the Army would prefer to have the [nuclear use] authority up front, that they are fearful the existing presidential clearance will come too late.” [18] An Army spokesman told the Washington Post that the Army would like Presidential release of nuclear weapons “ ‘to come earlier in the battle,’ but questioned whether they want it ‘before the battle had begun.’” [19]

Beginning in 1983, Army officers will be getting highly realistic practice in setting off nuclear weapons on a complex, $2.45 million computer system called Janus. Developed by the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory and based at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Janus is to be the “world’s most powerful combat simulator.” High-level officers will play war on screens that can display any 15 square miles on earth—“from the Straits of Hormuz to the Falkland Islands.” Janus Director Donald Blumenthal has noted that officers who have played the game to date have a disturbing tendency to employ nuclear weapons indiscriminately. “If they were caught out of position, they would try to retrieve the battle with nuclear weapons,” he said. MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle, an expert on the effects of computer games, suggests that the training could “have a numbing effect” on these officers, “making nuclear war more thinkable.” [20]

In the Middle East theater, the difficulties of quickly transporting and supplying a sizable conventional force, in the absence of well-entrenched forward US troops and armor, make the nuclear option particularly “thinkable” for the US Army. Whether through the dispatch of a small, nuclear-equipped rapid task force in a time of heightened tension, or through the integration of “battlefield” nuclear weapons into the attack plan of a high-technology, light division deployed to the region, AirLand Battle doctrine has dangerously increased the potential for nuclear war triggered by US Army first use of nuclear weapons.


[1] This and all subsequent “field manual” quotations are from FM 100-5, Operations (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1982).
[2] Robert S. Dudney, “The New Army With New Punch,” US News & World Report, September 20, 1982, pp. 59-60.
[3] See, for example, “Maneuver in Deep Battle,” Military Review (May 1982), p. 58.
[4] Written response to question from Sen. Carl Levin, in Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1983, Part 6, Sea Power and Force Projection, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 12, 1982, p. 3768.
[5] Gen. Glenn K. Otis (commander, US Army Training and Doctrine Command), “Guide During Period of Major Transition,” Army (October 1982), p. 48.
[6] John O. Marsh, Jr., secretary of the army, and Gen. Edward C. Meyer, Army chief of staff, “An Army Befitting a Great Nation,” Statement to Congress, in Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1983. Senate Armed Services Committee, February 10, 1982, pp. 879, 893.
[7] Dudney, “The New Army,” pp. 61-62.
[8] Eric C. Ludvigsen, “Rebuilding for the 1980s With an Eye on 2000,” Army (October 1982), p. 252.
[9] Col. William G. Hanne, “The Integrated Battlefield,” Military Review (June 1982), p. 40.
[10] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), The Arms Race and Arms Control (Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Haim, 1982), p. 126.
[11] Robert Scheer, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (New York: Random House, 1982), p. 4.
[12] Nigel Calder, Nuclear Nightmare (New York: Viking Press, 1979), p. 25.
[13] SIPRI, p. 139.
[14] Ludvigsen, “Rebuilding,” p. 324.
[15] SIPRI, p. 146.
[16] Ludvigsen, “Rebuilding,” p. 323.
[17] Lt. Col. Jimmy Griffis, Maj. Kurt Pierce and Maj. Ed Sherwood, “The Mechanized Infantry Battalion Task Force in AirLand Battle,” Infantry (July-August 1982), p. 22.
[18] Department of Defense Appropriations for 1983, Part 4, Theater Nuclear Forces, House Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, April 1, 1982, p. 424.
[19] Washington Post, July 21, 1982.
[20] Philip Faflick, “Brutal Game of Survival,” Time, August 16,1982, p. 59.

The US Army’s New Arsenal: A Sampler

Over the next five years the Army plans to acquire a vast new arsenal at phenomenal cost in the most comprehensive modernization plan since World War II. For Fiscal Year 1983 alone, the Army requested $22.3 billion for weapons procurement and research and development (out of a total budget request of $60.7 billion). Here is a sampler of the deadly machines the army is buying.

M1 Abrams Tank
The army’s new standard combat tank, already deployed in West Germany, can “routinely hit 5-foot targets over a mile away while moving rapidly cross country.” Its thermal night sight allows it to locate targets at night, through dust, haze, fog or smoke, without disclosing its own location. The Army plans to buy 7,058 by 1990 at a cost of $1.83 million apiece. Prime contractor: Land Systems Division of General Dynamics.

AH-64 Apache Advanced Attack Helicopter
The Apache is critical to the AirLand Battle doctrine’s deep battlefield attack strategy. The Army reported to Congress that the Apache represents “a mobile, credible anti-tank capability that can be quickly deployed worldwide to areas of key strategic concern well in advance of heavier anti-tank systems.” A single Apache carries an impressive ordnance load: “as many as 16 [laser-guided] Hellfire antitank missiles, up to 76 2.75-inch rockets, or up to 1,200 rounds for its 30-mm cannon.” It is the first helicopter with night vision and all-weather capabilities. The Army plans to buy 572 by 1990 at a total Army-estimated cost of $7.4 billion. Prime contractor: Bell Helicopter Textron.

Multiple-Launch Rocket System
The self-propelled Multiple-Launch Rocket System can fire its 12 rockets in less than a minute, scattering 7,728 submunitions (each with the power of a hand grenade) over an area as big as six football fields. The rockets have a 30 kilometer range. The Army plans to build 276 launchers and 400,000 rockets by 1986 at an estimated cost of some $4.22 billion. A new guided warhead is under development for this system in which each of the submunitions will be able to “seek out and home in on enemy targets.” Contractors: General Dynamics, Hughes Aircraft, Martin Marietta, and Raytheon.

Patriot Tactical Air Defense System
The Patriot system can simultaneously attack and destroy several enemy aircraft while tracking scores more in any kind of weather. It uses a guidance concept called “track-via- missile.” After a missile is fired, it informs the Patriot’s radar of its position in relation to the target. The Patriot’s computer then calculates and directs the missile “on a path that insures a kill.” The system actually requires fewer people to operate than those it replaces. The Army plans to purchase 103 fire systems with 4,273 missiles by 1989, at a cost they estimate to be $8.4 billion. Contractor: Raytheon; Martin Marietta Aerospace is the principal subcontractor for the missile.

Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (M2) and Cavalry Fighting Vehicle (M3)
The M2 is described as “the primary means for keeping infantry alive and effective on a tank-dominated battlefield.” It has cross-country mobility, thermal night sight and can even swim. It is armed with a 25-mm automatic cannon, a TOW missile launcher and a machine gun. The M2 and its twin, the M3, are both air transportable. Over 6,800 are to be built in the next decade at a currently estimated cost of $11.8 billion. The first battalion will be equipped in 1983.

The Copperhead is a laser-guided “smart” projectile for a 155-mm howitzer gun. Its guidance system gives it a “high single-shot kill probability” for stationary or moving armored targets within a 16-kilometer range. The laser guidance beam can be projected on the target either by an Apache attack helicopter or a remotely piloted vehicle. The Army’s 24th Infantry Division, a component of the Rapid Deployment Forces, is already equipped with Copperheads and the projected Fiscal Year 1983 production rate is some 700 rounds per month.

Sources: Eric C. Ludvigsen, “Rebuilding for 1980s With in Eye on 2000,” Army Green Book, 1982-83, October, 1982, pp. 248-408; and “Equipping the United States Army,” Department of the Army Statement to Congress, in Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1983, Part 4 Tactical Warfare, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 3, 1982, pp. 2149-2240.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "AirLand Battle Doctrine," Middle East Report 111 (January 1983).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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