One of the great lessons of recent military history is that wars cannot be won through air power alone; you need boots on the ground. Recall, for instance, the exaggerated claims of “shock and awe” prior to the 2003 liberation of Iraq. Exponents of air power had assured us that the decisive exercise of military power, principally through aerial bombardment, could paralyze the enemy, destroy his will to fight, and render him impotent.
In fact, it was only after U.S. soldiers and Marines engaged the enemy in close combat that Iraqi government and Fedayeen forces surrendered and Iraq was liberated. Even then it took additional close combat over several years ─ in Fallujah, Mosul, Najaf, Baghdad, and elsewhere ─ before the military component of the Iraq War was truly won.
And Iraq is hardly the only example that proves the crucial necessity of ground forces in modern-day conflicts. In Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. Marines are today engaging the enemy in close-quarters combat to protect the Afghan citizenry. Jets and air ordinance can’t do this; only soldiers and Marines can.
The Israelis, too, have learned the hard way that ground forces are integral to victory. Indeed, their 2006 battle against Hezbollah made heavy use of air, naval, and rocket attacks, but to little avail. Israeli tanks, moreover, were destroyed by Hezbollah guerillas, who made effective use of advanced technology to fight the powerful Israeli military to a standstill.
The lesson then and now is clear: In significant respects, air power is irrelevant to modern-day conflicts. Military success today requires small-scale infantry units who can fight lethally and with precision in populated areas filled with civilian non-combatants. And our infantry units had better be equipped with the latest and greatest technology: because our enemies certainly are, thanks to the internet, eBay, and other virtual bazaars.
Yet, old habits die hard; the siren song of air power ─ the false allure of “shock and awe” ─ lives on. Its latest manifestation occurred last week in the Wall Street Journal, where retired Air Force General Chuck Wald argues that an American military “bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development…”
Iran, of course, must be stopped from building nuclear weapons. The safety and security of the free world and the balance of power in the Middle East require that. But it is highly unlikely that air power alone can solve this problem. Such a notion flies in the face of recent military history, as even General Wald himself seems to recognize.
“Nuclear sites buried underground may survive sustained bombing,” he admits. And Special Forces and intelligence personnel ─ i.e., ground forces ─ may be required to “protect key assets or perform clandestine operations.”
(Air strikes, I would add, also could create unanticipated second and third-order effects that might ultimately necessitate involving more conventional U.S. ground forces.)
In short, even Air Force General Wald implicitly acknowledges that modern-day conflicts cannot be won bloodlessly and antiseptically from the skies. Wars must be won on the ground by fierce and tough-minded men who skillfully wield guns and knives. This is not an argument for the invasion of Iran; it is an argument for a deeper appreciation of the limits of air power and a corresponding recognition of the centrality of ground forces in 21st century conflicts.
Yet, rather than argue about how we can more expeditiously modernize U.S. ground forces to cope with worsening and proliferating 21st century threats, policymakers in Washington have been busy debating whether we should build more F-22 fighter jets. Never mind that the F-22 has not been used in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and that its prospects for future employment are dubious.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates, meanwhile, have canceled development of the Army’s first new ground combat vehicle in more than a generation. But if we are serious about winning the war against the jihadists, then we need to seriously modernize the military, with an appropriate emphasis upon the ground forces who are doing the fighting and dying on our behalf. However, before we can modernize the military, we first have to modernize the thinking in Washington.