Friday, June 8, 2007

The (Air) Force strikes back

True believers in air power never lose faith. No matter how many times experience in the real world fails to live up to their expectations. A new technological innovation like unmanned surveillance flights, a new approach like the famous "shock-and-awe" campaign, an adjustment of doctrine to allow even more bombing with even fewer restrictions, something has always just been developed or is just around the corner that will make air power invincible and ground forces obsolete.

Of course, in the world of military budgets and organizations, inter-service rivalry among the Army, Navy and Air Force play a major role in perception of which approaches are more effective. Sometimes, the results can seem very counter-intuitive. For instance, the Marines may point out embarassing deficiences in the performance of Army units, problems that the Army generals would prefer not to publicize any more than they have to.

I recently came across this classic case of air power True Faith, as applied to counterinsurgency operations. Counterinsurgency by air power, you ask? Faith knows no bounds. The article is
America's asymmetric advantage by Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, Jr. Armed Forces Journal Sept 2006. He begins in the first paragraph by sneering at advocates for ground forces:

Is air power the new face of successful war-fighting? Much to the dismay of the boots-on-the-ground zealots, or BOTGZ (pronounced bow-togs), the answer for today's democracies may well be "yes."
Bowtogs? You know a high-minded essay is under way.

He proceeds to say that while those pokey Army and Marine doofuses were screwing around and spinning their wheels, the Air Force was getting things done:

During the summer [of 2006], while U.S. ground forces in Iraq were distracted investigating potential war criminals in their midst, air power delivered a major success. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was, if not a decisive victory, still the best news of the season.
Of course, that "major success" seemed to have approximately zero effect on the course of the war. Other than that, it was spectacular. But notice also that in his first paragraph, he highlights the "war criminals" among the Army and Marines.

He does go on to call the Army and Marine "the finest ground forces in the history of warfare" - but from the true believers in air power, that's scant praise. In parts of the article, she sounds a bit like Noam Chomsky arguing against American imperialism:

As Tom Ricks' new book about Iraq, "Fiasco," argues convincingly, absent overwhelming numbers, it is virtually impossible for even well-equipped and conventionally trained ground forces to defeat terrorist insurgencies in the midst of sullen populations often sympathetic to the enemy. ...

... With respect to the overwhelming numbers scheme [of fighting counterinsurgency], there are daunting practical problems. Specifically, the end of conscription obliges the U.S. to provide costly incentives to populate our all-volunteer force. With personnel costs soaring, not even the wealth of the U.S. can support the hundreds of thousands of troops that, for example, flooded Germany and Japan at end of World War II to prevent resistance to occupation from taking root. Today, such numbers do not exist and it is unrealistic to believe they are politically feasible to recreate.
Plus, there's the eternal bogeyman of our generals, The Media:

As television screens fill with heartbreaking stories of dead and wounded soldiers and their families, such images over time often create political limitations as to how long a democratic society will sustain an operation like that in Iraq. This is true even though the casualty rates are, in purely historic military terms, relatively low. This media effect is a fundamental change from earlier eras.
Those assumptions are axiomatic for those who want the armed forces optimized for conventional warfare. But it's all based on bad assumptions, not least among them the notion that the US military "won" in Vietnam but were stabbed in the back by The Media and cowardly civilian politicians.

And here we get to the pitch for air power, based on those bad assumptions, that has been persuasive to military and civilian leaders alike - combined with another swipe at those undisciplined ground forces:

When thousands of troops are on the ground fighting an insurgency such as that in Iraq, it is, regrettably, all but inevitable that you will have situations such as Abu Ghraib and Hadithah arise from time to time — horrific and tragic, but predictable and even unavoidable. Yet, to a degree unprecedented in past conflicts, real and perceived illegalities are subject to exploitation not just by adversaries but also by legitimate political opponents. Regardless, the result is an erosion of the public support that democracies need to conduct any kind of protracted military operation. The point is that, again, information-age realities limit boots-on-the-ground options. (my emphasis)
Besides, it's no longer the good old days when the ground forces could just go in and massacre a bunch of natives and be done with it:

Most important, their hearts and minds are simply not amenable to the reasoned techniques that underlay classic counterinsurgency texts. They are not rational actors in the sense that they are propelled by some political or social ideology; instead, they are driven by unyielding religious fanaticism. In the past, such insurgencies did exist and were crushed the old-fashioned way: by annihilation. That is not exactly a viable option in a world where human rights groups, the media and others too often choose to find something good about the most sadistic terrorist organizations. (my emphasis)
Dang, boy, if it wasn't for all those sissy human rights organizations, we wouldn't have to worry about all this counterinsurgency crap!

Fortunately, a solution is at hand: air power!

So where does that leave us? If we are smart, we will have a well-equipped high-technology air power capability. Air power is America's asymmetric advantage and is really the only military capability that can be readily applied across the spectrum of conflict, including, as is especially important these days, potential conflict. Consider the record. It was primarily air power, not land power, that kept the Soviets at bay while the U.S. won the Cold War. And it was not just the bomber force and the missileers; it was the airlifters, as well. There are few strategic victories in the annals of military history more complete and at so low a human cost as that won by American pilots during the Berlin airlift. Armageddon was avoided. (my emphasis)
Yeah, the Berlin Airlift was pretty much like the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars except that, well, it wasn't.

But this is the pitch. Air power minimizes American casualties. And it doesn't risk so much bad publicity, because when you drop a 2,000-lb. bomb on a village or an urban neighborhood, you can claim that all the bodies lying around down there afterwards are terrorists, or Al Qaida, or Taliban:

Air power also doesn't have the multi-aspect vulnerabilities that boots on the ground do. It can apply combat power from afar and do so in a way that puts few of our forces at risk. ...

And, of course, bombs will go awry. Allegations will be made (as they are currently against the Israelis) of targeting civilians and so forth. But the nature of the air weapon is such that an Abu Ghraib or Hadithah simply cannot occur. The relative sterility of air power — which the boots-on-the-ground types oddly find distressing as somehow unmartial — nevertheless provides greater opportunity for the discreet application of force largely under the control of well-educated, commissioned officer combatants. Not a total insurance policy against atrocity, but a far more risk-controlled situation.
Then he soars into a mystic state of visionary bliss. Not only does air power save American lives and kill lots of foreigners without too much bad publicity. It puts the fear of God into those backward natives! Then they won't mess with us Americans any more. Hail, we didn't even need those useless ground forces for the initial invasion:

The advances in American air power technology in recent years make U.S. dominance in the air intimidating like no other aspect of combat power for any nation in history.

The result? Saddam Hussein's pilots buried their airplanes rather than fly them against American warplanes. Indeed, the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces was not, as the BOTGZ would have you believe, mainly because of the brilliance of our ground commanders or, in fact, our ground forces at all. The subsequent insurgency makes it clear that Iraqis are quite willing to take on our ground troops. What really mattered was the sheer hopelessness that air power inflicted on Iraq's military formations. (my emphasis)
This is part of air power dogma. Bombing breaks the will of the enemy, including the enemy population. Despite the fact that this theory got an extensive laboratory test in the Second World War, and even more so in the Vietnam War (where a greater tonnage of bombs was dropped than in the entire European theater in the Second World War), and it didn't work out that way - the dogma still has to be true. At least for the faithful.

He sees the same smashing success in Afghanistan:

So what explains the rapid collapse of the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001? Modern air power. More specifically, the marriage of precision weapons with precise targeting by tiny numbers of Special Forces troops on the ground. The results were stunning. Putatively invulnerable positions the Taliban had occupied for years literally disappeared in a rain of satellite-directed bombs from B-1s and B-52s flying so high they could be neither seen nor heard.

This new, high-tech air power capability completely unhinged the resistance without significant commitment of American boots on the ground. Indeed, the very absence of American troops became a source of discouragement. As one Afghan told the New York Times, "We pray to Allah that we have American soldiers to kill," adding disconsolately, "These bombs from the sky we cannot fight." Another equally frustrated Taliban fighter was reported in the London Sunday Telegraph recently as fuming that "American forces refuse to fight us face to face," while gloomily noting that "[U.S.] air power causes us to take heavy casualties." In other words, the Taliban and al-Qaida were just as tough as the mujahideen who fought the Russians, and more than willing to confront U.S. ground forces, but were broken by the hopelessness that American-style air power inflicted upon them.(my emphasis)
Of course, if all this were true, no one would be fighting the Americans or our NATO allies today in Iraq or Afghanistan. But they are. And air power didn't succeed in nailing Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants in the Battle of Tora Bora. Bin Laden and most of his most trustworthy cadre got away.

In the end, this boundless faith in the terror-inducing power of bombing is the core of the air power gospel:

It is no exaggeration to observe that almost every improvement in the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is attributable to air power in some form; virtually every setback, and especially the strategically catastrophic allegations of war crimes, is traceable to the land forces.
So why give those clowns any budget dollars? Just send it all to the Air Force and we'll build a Star Wars missile shield and everything will be all right. And if some of the natives in far-away countries get restless, we'll just go crush them in sanitary strikes from the air by making them quake in fear at our power:

This illustrates another salient feature of air power: its ability to temper the malevolent tendencies of societies accustomed to the rewards of modernity. Given air power's ability to strike war-supporting infrastructure, the powerful impulse of economic self-interest complicates the ability of despots to pursue malicious agendas. American air power can rapidly educate cultured and sophisticated societies about the costs of war and the futility of pursuing it. This is much the reason why air power alone delivered victory in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, without the need to put a single U.S. soldier at risk on the ground. (my emphasis)
The Kosovo War is superficially a case in which air power lived up to its potential. But it's not nearly that simple, as I plan to discuss in a future post. Let's just say here that it's been in the news this week that the Western powers and Russia are still disputing over Kosovo's independence. Substantial NATO forces - those useless ground forces - are still there keeping the peace. And the peace is reportedly pretty precarious. Eight years later, the absolute victory supposedly won by air power is still of uncertain prospects. Dunlap would probably assure us that had we just patrolled Kosovo with airplanes and occasionally fired rockets at suspicious-looking characters instead of wasting time having NATO ground troops there, that everything would be fine now.

He goes on to argue further about the general obsolescene and irrelevance of ground forces and the incredible fecklessness of the "bowtogs". Besides, his argument suggests we need to forget about all this counterinsurgency nonsense and keep preparing for war with Russia, or China, or Islamofascomism, or whatever else keeps the bucks flowing to the Air Force. And if we do have to fight one of these silly counterinsurgency wars, we'll just handle it with air power:

The point is how much of our air power — our most effective national security component — do we want to sacrifice to maintain large active-duty formations of ground forces useful only in selected contexts?Given his general argument, it's hard to imagine he thinks their useful in any context.

Does anyone truly believe America will do a nation-building "Iraq" again anytime soon? Are we likely, with the benefit of our experience in Vietnam and now Iraq, to attempt yet another hearts-and-minds campaign the BOTGZ seem to desire?
This was the grand post-Vietnam solution embraced by the officer corps of all services: just don't do counterinsurgency any more.

Or is the more likely scenario one in which the need is to destroy an adversary's capacity to project power that damages U.S. interests? If so, air strikes to demolish enemy capabilities, complemented by short-term, air-assisted raids and high-tech Air Force surveillance platforms, are the answer, not colossal boots-on-the-ground efforts.
Yep, air power does it all.

This desire to market their talents and accomplishments is presumably why the Air Force provides regular summaries at its public puff-piece Web site on the air attacks it's making in Iraq and Afghanistan. For instance, in the
June 7 airpower summary (published 06/08/07), we read that there were 42 combat ("close air-support") mission flown in Afghanistan and 62 in Iraq. If what Dunlap writes is correct, you would think that after over four years in Iraq and well over five years in Afghanistan, that the terrified Tabliban and Iraqi terrorists and all the other bad actors would have long since laid down their weapons and stopped causing trouble. Maybe another four or five years of hundreds of air missions a month our invincible Air Force will persuade everyone to cower in terror and not fight the Americans.

Or not.


1 comment:

ng2000news said...

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