Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Air power

This is a source on the general history of conventional air power from the US perspective that addresses some key issues that are found too infrequently in the mass media:  Air Power Theory: An Analytical Narrative from the First World War to the Present by Tami Davis Biddle  (Chapter 25 of the U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Policy and Strategy, 2nd edition,starting on p. 331) June 2006.

The concluding paragraphs of the chapter focus on how the predicted effects of air power on the enemy were often not realized in practice:

Organizational cultures, the impact and memory of World War I, public fears and pressures, assumptions about technology, bureaucratic politics, and service rivalries all have major roles in this story.  In general, the expectations of the major air power theorists ran well ahead of what could be achieved in wartime, and many who lobbied for independent air power were guilty of over-claiming and over-promising.  They tended to assume that enemy states had weak points that could be exploited readily.  Their reasons for holding these views were, in many respects, understandable.  But advocacy often got in the way of critical thinking, and the theorists were disinclined to examine - or even countenance - those arguments that might challenge their underlying assumptions.

The complexity of modern societies and economies does not make them inherently fragile, as many air theorists assumed they must be.  Human beings are adaptable creatures capable of adjusting to and accommodating new circumstances - even very stressful ones - if necessary.  It, therefore, is often the case that what planners and analysts identify as readily exploitable weaknesses turn out to be much less exploitable than expected.  And, because the process of exploitation is itself difficult, often it becomes rather more iterative and protracted than planners assumed it would be.  In the meantime, the enemy can continue to learn, to adapt, and to adjust to the pressures imposed.  Under these circumstances, the attacking air force often will be tempted to broaden or intensify the campaign in some way.

There is an inherent tendency among planners to mirror-image the enemy:  to assume that he is like us, that he values what we value, and that he will respond to threats and punishments as we assume we would respond.  But this tendency has proven, again and again, to be a misleading and dangerous one.  Precisely because societies are complex, we are prone to misinterpret and misjudge them.  The relationship between dropping bombs and producing a desired political outcome (a relationship that one perceptive observer recently has called the “exchange mechanism” in air power theory) still is inadequately understood.  There is much to be learned, yet, about how and when different enemies will respond to aerial threats, punishment, and coercion.  As they move into their second century, air forces - while more technically skilled and capable all the time - still have much to learn about the use of violence to achieve political aims.  (my emphasis in bold)

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