The Age of Airpower

The Age of Airpower:

An Interview with Martin van Creveld

by Octavian Manea

Download the Full Interview: The Age of Airpower

It is stated that Operations Rolling Thunder in Vietnam was the wrong way of using airpower in order to break the will of an opponent. Why? And which is the right way?

As Jesus once said, by their fruit will thou know them. Given the vast cost of Rolling Thunder, and the meager results it yielded, there can be no question that it was a foolish waste of resources. It was only made possible by the fact that it was carried out by the richest nation in history at the very peak of its economic power and psychological hubris.

The real question is, had the "gradual approach" been replaced by a short, sharp, all-out attack, would it have worked any better? To my mind the answer is almost certainly negative. Look at "Shock and Awe" as carried out both in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Both of these offensives employed weapons infinitely more sophisticated, and in many ways much more powerful, than the ones the Americans used in Vietnam almost forty years earlier (though some aircraft, notably the venerable B-52s, may well have taken part in both campaigns). Both depended their success, if indeed one can talk of success, on the presence of troops of the ground. Vietnam, though, was primarily a guerrilla war. Expanding ground operations into North Vietnam, as some in Washington DC demanded, would merely have made things even more difficult for the Americans.

Download the Full Interview: The Age of Airpower

Martin van Creveld is an internationally recognized authority on military history and strategy. The author of 22 books that were translated into 20 languages, he has lectured or taught at many strategic institutes in the Western world, including the U.S. Naval War College. Born in the Netherlands, he holds degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and London School of Economics. He lives near Jerusalem.

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MAJ Thompson,

Well written thoughts, but your viewpoint still only considers how airpower supports the ground effort, based on the items you considered important enough to mention. Those are tactical roles that are important, but by far, not the most important employment of airpower.

Your assumption that the F-15 "...still outclasses most other fighters currently in service..." ignores that newer, more capable aircraft have been fielded by both our allies and potential enemies. While their numbers might not be sufficient at this point, it would only take a production commitment. Even so, I'm not sure I want to enter a fight with just good enough platforms.

I would also submit that fewer and fewer believe we will be fighting the type of low intensity conflicts in which we're currently bogged down for the foreseeable future. Most who still believe that are the ones with the most to gain by perpetuating the heavy "boots on the ground" doctrine. Our nation can't afford and won't long support that level of hubris that believes building nations is a proper use of our military.

Lastly you embrace van Crefeld's belief that airpower has yet to be decisive on it's own. I'd reverse the question and ask whether, since the emergence of airpower, land or sea forces have been decisive on their own? The answer is obviously no, so the "Airpower can't be decisive on its own," argument is a strawman without merit.

Very interesting discussion. However, I think one of the key points van Creveld made in the interview has gotten little attention - What is the role of airpower?
A few respondents have responded reflexively, as many airpower proponents do when such questions arise, in that it is crucial - nay, indispensible - for all ground operations. However, the 'airpower is indispensible line of reasoning treats airpower as binary - so all of its aspects must be funded or you effectively have no longer control the skies and ground maneuver is difficult if not impossible. This approach is generally coupled with the need for continued technical superiority, thus requiring significant funding for upgrading and acquiring cutting edge equipment.
These were part of the justification used to support acquisition of the F22. A truly impressive airplane, but one that is optimized for a high intensity fight in contested airspace. Not all that necessary when 1) the aircraft it replaces still outclasses most other fighters currently in service and 2) when dealing with the Small Wars many of us believe will dominate US military activity for at least the next decade or two. And as the interview mentions, examples of airpower being decisive on its own are difficult if not impossible to find (some of the commenters replies citing only a lack of political will for this in Vietnam should accept that 1) short of an existential threat to the homeland this will likely always be the case in modern conflict and 2) despite leveling nearly every standing structure in the north during the Korean War the fight continued). I think a discussion on the role of airpower in the current and future operating environments is not happening and needs to.
Much of this discussion will be uncomfortable. Are Army AH-64s the best means to support ground maneuver, or would more A-10s be better suited to this mission? Do improvements in targeting of indirect fires reduce or eliminate the need for aircraft to perform these missions? What command arrangements would best facilitate ensuring the best integration of air assets? These are just some of the issues that need to be addressed. Maybe the answer is things should look about like they do today. But I suspect a thorough analysis, considering both effectiveness and costs, would identify an optimal structure that is a little different than what is currently fielded.
The current lack of a near-peer competitor may mean that replacing some of our aging, but still capable, fleet could wait. This provides some time to analyze the situation and determine what role airpower needs to play. From this the systems necessary can be better ranked against the other defense priorities on land and sea. Given the mounting pressure to reduce defense spending in the US, better defining the role of airpower is essential to inform the hard decision on future force structure and acquisitions that are no doubt coming.

G. Scott Thompson
Major, US Army
Fort Lee ILE

Link to interview of Curtis LeMay after his retirement. Pay attention around the 4 minute mark as he talks about Vietnam. We had no intention of winning.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JT7A_pgfmy0

If you have air power you will have arguments over its true value. You will argue whether or not aviation can win a battle or a war on its own. You have the luxury of this debate because you have airpower. If you do not have airpower you will argue over how to get it or how to prevent it from stopping your efforts. If you do not have airpower you will always be looking over your shoulder wondering who is watching. You will wonder if a death will come from the sky.

Astute, well said, my 2 cents.

Aviation represents the single greatest change in warfare since gunpowder became common. It added a 3rd tier or dimension to what had been a two dimensional realm since the first caveman clubbed his neighbor. At one time there were naval forces and land forces. Ships could not march and armies could not swim. The one junction point was at the coastline with amphibious operations. The airplane changed that. Now the struggle for air superiority dominates the battlefield. With air superiority a force can move freely across the surface of the earth.

New weapons have entered the field since the first Wright Flyer entered service. There are missiles and aircraft (manned and unmanned) capable of circling the globe and striking with great force and accuracy. Aviation delivered the atomic bomb. Control of the skies allowed troops from California and North Carolina to land in Kandahar ready to fight. Alexander had to walk. An infantryman with air superiority on his side is hardly ever alone. With one call on a radio he can rain destruction upon a host of his enemy, extract his wounded and move to an entirely new location hundreds of miles away. This is the power of air superiority.

If you have no airpower you are forced underground. You are forced to employ dispersed operations. You are forced to expend massive energies on cover and concealment. You will seek terrain unfavorable to aerial observation. If you cannot camouflage your actions you will die.

If you do not have airpower you will seek "asymmetric" means to counter the enemys air superiority. You may resort to shoulder launched missiles. You may try cyber network attacks to cripple the adversarys airborne command and control. You may resort to hiding in civilian populated areas and using human shields if your enemy abides by the "rules". You may be tempted to employ terror tactics and human weapons. You will dream of engaging the enemy in the air and of bringing down his planes, destroying his satellites, and blinding his drones. You must be creative to survive.

This is what the age of airpower has brought. If you have air power you will have arguments over its true value. You will argue whether or not aviation can win a battle or a war on its own. You have the luxury of this debate because you have airpower. If you do not have airpower you will argue over how to get it or how to prevent it from stopping your efforts. If you do not have airpower you will always be looking over your shoulder wondering who is watching. You will wonder if a death will come from the sky.

Troufion

Hubba Bubba,

Again, yours is a view of the problem limited by tactical horizons. IF politically feasible, you take out the production points and key nodes, not tactical bits and pieces of the LOCs that can easily be reconstituted or detoured. That strategic approach wasn't followed in Vietnam for lots of reasons, good and bad.

Don't place strawman limits on the capability of Airpower to influence events just because the political environment handcuffs actions. Perhaps it just speaks to our misguided propensity to engage in limited wars with non-existential threats where we restrict our war machines unduly.

From my understanding on the supply requirements of the Viet Cong (not the NVA, mind you) in South Vietnam during that period, they required about 15 tons per day of supplies through the Ho Chi Mihn trail network- but based on the massive number of dismounted personnel carrying various material, it was akin to smashing an ant colony in the dark with a strong but relatively small hammer. Even with a 99% efficiency rate of air-strikes over a 24hr period, the USAF would prevent up to 300 tons of supplies from reaching South Vietnam forces- but even a 99% efficiency left about 15-20 tons in that 1% remaining to get to destination. Additionally, much like every other conflict, the biggest hurdle for the Viet Cong resupply operations was not USAF air interdiction campaigns and strategic bombing, but the threats associated with trench foot, illness, and physical hardships of moving heavy supplies by foot (or bicycle, animal, etc) on some of the world's roughest terrain.

Ultimately, any air campaign that used metrics (measures of effectiveness, performance) would look fantastic on a slide to a General, but because of the extremely low tonnage resupply requirements of the enemy and the massive volume of initial supply elements, a 99% strike effectiveness is still a 'FAIL' for accomplishing the END STATE required.

Just some thoughts on the topic;

-Hubba Bubba

Slapout:

I believe you have concisely stated LeMay's objectives; understood that the Joint Chiefs agreed with his plan; and as a junior officer, with no input of course, but in a staff position able to witness more than normal, believed it would have brought North Vietnam to its knees, however, temporarily.

I also observed B-52 strikes, fortunately from a distance, and watched them turn the night into day for extended periods thinking to myself, Thank God I am not under that! Impressive would not even rise to the emotional level needed to describe a B-52 strike. I can't imagine the devastation the Force Recon Marines saw when observing the results for BDA a B-52 strike noted by Backwards Observer.

Also, like most commands we received the very detailed intelligence reports on the so called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the traffic and the volumes being carried down it, the transportation means used, their bypass methods when they ran into obstacles, etc.

Impossible to avoid reading it before filing them away. I forget which agency prepared those particular intelligence digests, but they were incredibly detailed. Of course, they never stated how they obtained that information, but given the jungle canopy over much of the trail, i.e interstate freeway, some of it must have been from personal level observation.

Your description is an apt one that it as a network of many trails and roads. I was surprised by the amount of truck traffic and respectfully amused by the number of animals being used by the NVA. The reports showed by mathematical analysis the NVA was moving the same volume down that trail as our motor transport convoys could move over a comparable distance on a paved road. The report detailed repair stations, medical facilities, fuel dumps, rest facilities, anti-aircraft emplacements, etc. An engineering feat on their part.

Motorhead....that's to heavy metal for me.

Motorhead, too heavy metal!? I'm not even sure what that means! (j/k) Thanks for the exchange.

Just in case:

Motorhead - Bomber (Live In Nottingham, 1981)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD3xZ3PQHTc&feature=related

Backwards Observer, after the North surrendered and if the South Re-united with them and the USA drastically scaled down I don't think the Viet Minh would have been much of a problem,but thats all speculation.

From my understanding the Ho-Chi Min trail it was not like what most people would think when you say trail, it was more a network of many trails and roads that provided many work arounds,in other words if one trail/road was blocked they just switched to another one. Not really a good target.

Motorhead....that's to heavy metal for me. However this is more my speed, just insert the name of any country you want.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iKuMVqht4U

Slap, speaking personally, if you just showed me a picture of a B-52, I'd probably Chieu Hoi. So, I don't know what to make of guys who would walk down the Trail through months of airstrikes and still have any fight in them. But, here's a song for you:

Motorhead - Bomber

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2S9rwyQkJE

Slap, from what I understand, the Viet Minh started out with less than any of the stuff LeMay would've taken down, but I'll take your word for it on bombing them back to the Stone Age. Do you think the insurgency in the South would have been reduced to a manageable level for the ARVN alone following the flattening of the North?

As regards Khe Sanh, wasn't the Trail being interdicted?

Backwards Observer, in reply to your first question could the North have done anything to still prosecute the war in the South? I don't believe so because LeMay was not talking about bombing a few headquarters or SAM sites he was talking about the system wide destruction of everything that a country needs in order to survive. There would have been no electricity,no food,no gas,no ammunition, no Government infrastructure,no port or airfield facilities,large parts of North Vietnam would have been under water and the casulties would have been extreme and not a single Nuke would have been used. Some NVA units closer to the South would have had what supplies,weapons and ammunition they had with them at the time but there would have been no resupply of anything. Most of the people that say Air Strikes cannot be decisive have never seen a massed B-52 Strike, it is total grid squre destuction.

As for Khe Sanh IMO opinion it was essentialy large scale(massive) Close Air Support to ensure the Marines were not overun.It was never designed to be an Air Interdiction operation.

CBCalif, thanks for that rundown. To some extent, I think it's understandable that airpower advocates exhibit a quasi-religious faith in their windy fist of destruction. If I recall correctly, there's a chapter in Force Recon Command where the author writes of Force Recon guys being shaken up just from doing BDA on Arc Light sites and witnessing the devastation.

Great book, by the way:
http://www.amazon.com/Force-Recon-Command-Alex-Lee/dp/0804110239

While I as only a distant but daily observer of what was going on in the air around Khe Sanh, observing by standing next to my boss on a ship out in the Gulf of Tonkin, I suppose one question would be was air power in the form of either B-52's or tactical aircraft from the Air Force, Marine Corps or Navy ever "redirected" to bomb the area directly adjacent to the Lang Vei camp? If I recall it was sort of given back burner status as it was almost entirely Laotian and Vietnamese and only some US special forces. Were aircraft used for more than a rescue mission for the surviving Special Forces troops and maybe some others? The air bombardment effort, as I recall, was directed at the NVA divisions attacking the Marine Corps positions at Khe Sanh.

Regardless, no bombardment from the air or ships or artillery can cover a total battlefield. There will always be penetrable gaps, however, so long as they are of sufficiently small size and only cause minimal disruptions, that is the price unfortunately paid by those in the gap suffering the cost.

I suppose what was important at Khe Sanh was the overall effectiveness of air power against concentrated enemy ground units. And, it appears that massively applied bombing is devastating to concentrated enemy ground forces. Of course that presumes one believes Westmoreland's desire for that fixed piece battle had strategic or even tactical value in achieving America's objectives in Vietnam-- what ever were those objectives. I listened to the air power boys and they were eager to prove their worth in a battle setting tailor made for them, but don't believe most Marine brass or otherwise was particularly happy with Westmoreland placing their ground units at Khe Sanh.

No love lost between I Corps command and Westmoreland. Tough for Westmoreland, presuming one agreed with his positions, as both he and FMFPAC reported to CINCPAC, who generally backed the Marines especially when it came to control of their Air Wings.

Slap, correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't there complete air superiority and a heavy bombing campaign around Khe Sanh (Niagara I and II)? How would you account for the NVA being able to bring up light armor to attack and overrun Lang Vei under such a sustained bombardment?

One's perspective (and version of truth) is shaped by his/her limited horizon. A realist might argue that land forces have often been the supporting or mopping-up forces in recent conflicts--still a very necessary component.

None of our domain components has independently won a war recently, period. If we don't get our collective "stuff" together soon and discard the current touchy-feely, nation-building approach to war, we'll be extremely lucky to win at all against any opponent.

Just briefly, as I'm running out the door:

1. Van Creveld isn't "rewriting history," nor is he the "agent" of the army. Both suggestions are comical.

2. Read more carefully: van Creveld never said "shock and awe" campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan weren't effective, only that their effectiveness was a result of integration with landpower. He makes the point that such a campaign likely would NOT have been suitably effective in Vietnam, if LINEBACKER had instead been executed in that fashion, simply because of the different nature of the guerilla war in Vietnam (vice the deposition of governments and destruction of military formations in the other two examples).

3. That all military action is constrained by politics is a fact so well-understood that it scarcely bears mentioning. (I'm sure I needn't point anyone here to Clausewitz.) van Creveld is here commenting on the very specific claims of airpower zealots that they possess a uniquely powerful tool for precisely targeting popular support and governmental will, and that employment of this tool in this fashion will be decisive in war. I don't think anyone is disputing the overwhelming utility of airpower as a supporting capability in an integrated military campaign, but rather as a decisive and independently useful capability for deciding war outcomes.

All in all, this strikes me as somewhat typical of the tendency of blue-suiters to read any criticism of things that fly and drop ordnance in the most uncharitable way possible, assume that such criticisms are attacking the existential justification for air forces, lose their capacity to read critically and thoughtfully, and react in a reflexively defensive fashion. But that's just me.

I am disappointed thata military historian made these comments because they clearly do not accurately assess the value or lack of value of air power. As Ken and others have pointed out our air power in most conflicts since WWII has been severely constrained by the political side of the equation. If Martin made an argument that due to political considerations we can only expect so much from air power, then that would have made a little more sense. If he made an argument that all military action (regardless of whether it is sea, land, or air) is constrained by political reality that would have even been more accurate. Personally I think the so called shock and awe air campaigns in DESERT STORM, OIF and OEF-A (initial invasion) were very effective, and would like to see the author's justification on why he is claiming they were not?

The effects of air power in WWII were probably decisive in undermining the ability of our foes to sustain the fight, but I have not yet seen a good non-bias study on this. The other factor that was not addressed is the value or lack value of the new high tech air power, which includes the ability to put unmanned aircraft (which changes the political equation) into the fight, which not only to gives our forces unequaled situation awareness in conventional war (and helpful in irregular war), and the ability to conduct relatively surgical strikes. Right now that gives us an asymmetrical advantage to use coercive power at less risk that our foes do not enjoy, although that advantage won't last. I also think the ability to employ coercive force with less risk will make it too easy to make that decision.

Finally, if I recall correctly the author only addressed the use of air power by the West. I think a more accurate view could be garnered by looking at the results of the use of Japanese and German air power during the early stages of WWII, or the use of airpower during the Spanish Civil War, or the USSR's use of air power in Afghanistan, etc. Different countries at different times had different rules for employing their air power, so in an attempt to more accurately determine the value of air power (minus political constraints) we need to widen our field of study. In the end the author may be right, but I don't think he made a case with this article.

Summing it up, I think the wise men above captured the general truth, and that is military power is not determined by one of its components, but by its sum, and all military power is limited by the political to varying degrees.

Like LeMay said "just pick any two week period" and we could have won.

Slap, I'm not saying you're wrong, but do you think this may be oversimplifying things? Can you red-team any scenarios where the North could still have prosecuted a truncated but still credible war effort? If not, why not?

There were 94 primary target sets that the Air Force had developed for Vietnam and if they had been allowed to hit them, Vietnam would have been physically unable to prosecute any kind of war. Like LeMay said "just pick any two week period" and we could have won.

Gulliver,

I guess the strengths of the different domain components are all relative. If Air Power is deemed unable to make the bad guys quit after only a few weeks' use in isolation, what would you consider evidence of Land Power's strength after nearly 10 years of use in near isolation in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Particularly disappointing was van Creveld's characterization of the "failure" of "Shock and Awe" in Iraq. While media focused on the fireworks going off in Bagdhad, the heart of the attack was very effectively destroying the Republican Guard and other armored units before our land forces got within miles of them. How do you think our land forces cruised to victory in OIF, or Desert Storm for that matter, with so little resistance?

If you remember in Desert Storm, the first Iraqis many of our ground forces saw already had their hands in the air because of the effects of Air Power.

Like CBCalif, I'm a big believer in the value of all the domain components, especially when sychronized, I just don't like to see history rewritten by agents of the service component with the most bulk.

CBCalif -- I think you missed van Creveld's point.

Regardless of the above, the current attacks on the methods the USAF and Naval aircraft used in Rolling Thunder as demonstrating the weakness of air power are simply off base as they show a total ignorance of how that air campaign resulted and why it was conducted as carried out.

I'm not sure the campaign is being used to "demonstrate the weakness of air power" so much as to demonstrate the mismatch between the expectations of strategic bombing's proponents and the actual tangible results. Air power certainly has strengths. Those strengths seem not to include "making the bad guys quit," or doing so at a reasonable cost. That's what MVC's point comes down to, at least in his brief response to the interview question.

CBCalif wrote:

Anyone who believes that the above un-restricted war scenario, which politically would never have happened, could not have succeeded is simply unaware of the scope of the fire power this country's military possessed in the 1960's and does not realize that we had the logistical capability to deliver and sustain its application on an ongoing basis. [...]

Of course, this scenario or model defies political reality.

Briefly stated, America's ability to force a swift, possibly even final, solution upon the North Vietnamese was obvious to some in SEAsia. Aside from the political considerations, the perception that the US refrained from the harshest of corrective measures, even to the detriment of their own well-being and the compromising of their objectives, suggested that American values, whether by default or design, seemed to draw the line at wholesale slaughter as a means of policy even against their enemies.

To some extent, this perception may be reflected in the often cumbersome burden of trust that people place on US leadership, and at the same time may be viewed as a 'weakness' open to manipulation. A geopolitical Crown of Thorns, perhaps. As has been stated by others, in a world of naughtiness, the US is probably the most benign of the Superpowers. Just an opinion.

Israel owes its very existence to Airpower,most recently to American Airpower and the Airlift in the 1973 war when they almost ran out of everything. Incredible that he would even write this stuff.

I agree with much of CBCalf's comment.

I particularly agree that a full bore true military campaign had it been politically possible would have forced Uncle Ho to go -- or at least to back off.

Unfortunately, as CBCalif notes Five years or so later they would have returned-- becaue we were never going to stay there...

To me the moral of that is that if you do not plan on staying or upon the generally politically impossible total victory method, you had best select small high value military operations tailored very precisely to the threat or provocation, which are properly targeted and are short, sharp and replicable.

In the future we are even less likely to stay a while; that's no longer affordable

Whether addressed to the use of air power in any ongoing military efforts, during the Vietnam Conflict, during WWII, etc. the question being asked was: "To what extent were the strategic bombing campaigns during [any conflict] decisive in changing the strategic calculus and in forcing the surrender of [a nation's leadership]?" The answer is always the same, in modern conflict no single aspect of warfare is in of itself conclusively capable of changing the calculus when individually applied.

Warfare necessarily consists of numerous components, all of which must appropriately applied if total victory is to be achieved--and that is a political (not a military) decision. Those aspects include more than the means of "just" applying a type of force and include activities such as logistics.

Regardless of the above, the current attacks on the methods the USAF and Naval aircraft used in Rolling Thunder as demonstrating the weakness of air power are simply off base as they show a total ignorance of how that air campaign resulted and why it was conducted as carried out.

The military's list of target types was completely gutted by the Johnson / McNamara team. They even refused to allow the Air Force to attack what were clearly identified as SAM sites being installed in North Vietnam, allowing them to shoot down US aircraft at will.

Reviewing an air campaign's effectiveness when the targets selected were those selected by fools like Johnson / McNamara and carried out under the operational restrictions placed on the military is simply a waste of time.

The other question about the Vietnam Conflict as concerns whether there was a conflict model which could have been employed that would have persuaded North Vietnam by unrestricted application of US force to discontinue supporting the Viet Cong in the South is absolutely "yes."

It would ignore political reality and disregard that the Geneva Accords which settled their (the NVA / Viet Minh) war of independence against the French required country wide elections on the issue of unification be held which the Diem government (for obvious reasons) refused to hold. If the Vietnamese wished to install a socialist or communist style state that was their business and no threat to the US, but that aside, the unrestricted use of American military power, absent use of nuclear weapons, could have been used to drive the NVA out of the war in the South.

A limited objective, not the conquering of the North. The North Vietnamese would not have allowed the Chinese into their country. They used the Russians and the Chinese, but knew they would never leave Vietnam once they entered that nation. They also had a long term view of war. After all, they struggled for more than half a century to secure their independence. Under sufficient pressure the North would have withdrawn from the effort in the South and waited for the next opportunity knowing that in all probability the US would not return a second time.

The NVA under Giap were pragmatic. They learned around Khe Sahn exactly what American air power is capable of doing to their forces, and they sensibly retreated to fight again another day. A massive bombing campaign of the North directed at all aspects of their society such as their cities, rail lines, dams, electrical power, fuel depots, missile sites and arms depots wherever located, the flooding of their food supply and its interdiction thereby starving the people in their cities, and massive Sherman style raids by multiple Marine and Army divisions laying swaths of destruction across their country, the destruction the Haiphong Harbor, its mining, and blockade, the sinking of all their fishing and other junks would have forced Giap / Ho Chi Minh to (temporarily) have withdrawn support from the South Vietnamese VC.

Five years or so later they would have returned.

Anyone who believes that the above un- restricted war scenario, which politically would never have happened, could not have succeeded is simply unaware of the scope of the fire power this country's military possessed in the 1960's and does not realize that we had the logistical capability to deliver and sustain its application on an ongoing basis. Technically speaking, this model could have been sustained and would have succeeded in relatively short order, and coupled with the successful pacification campaign in the South as, in fact, carried out by General Creighton Abrams would have brought the South some time.

Of course, this scenario or model defies political reality.