Air Power Alone Cannot Win Wars

August 12th, 2009 at 2:53 pm | 8 Comments |

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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.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    ……..Of course it can’t….one would have thought this was obvious to even the most homicidal neocon……the penny seems to have dropped with Guardiano. He even realizes that it is not a realistic option in Iran which is very wise…..Iran is a geographically huge, very sophisticated country of 75 million people……the notion that we or the Israelis could bomb nuclear installations without provoking a major war in the middle east is totally insane……which brings us to the subject of the war against the Jihadists and in particular the whys and wherefores of our situation in Afghanistan. Below is a link to a blog which has some interesting things to say on this subject and is packed with links to other blogs and articles on the subject……To me one of the most telling which basically reflects my own opinion is link to the Times of London where the British General who is just about to take over as Chief of Defense Staff predicts a 40 year (no that wasn’t a misprint) a 40 year effort in Afghanistan and even then as other commentators point all you’ve done is pacify a bit of geography……really there’s some very good stuff.

  • Geoff C

    My late Grandfather fought with the Canadians in Korea. He always said that the number one mistake that the US made in Vietnam was that they didn’t think holding group was important. They would drop troops in via helicopter, route the enemy around a target hill or location, then fly out. The next morning more Viet Congs would move back into the hill. Nothing gained. No matter your technology, wars are still won and lost by inches on the ground.

  • sinz54

    To some extent, the author and “ottovbs” both conflate two separate issues: The efficacy of air power, and the wisdom of launching a pre-emptive strike on an enemy nation.

    There’s no question that if Iran, or North Korea, launched missiles at one of our allies (say Israel or Japan respectively), an Air Force is a great thing to launch a crippling retaliatory blow. (What are we going to do after a Hezbollah nuke has blown up Tel Aviv–send in little squads of men into Iran? What are they going to do there?) Once the enemy has attacked, you get a much better idea of the size and shape of their attacking forces, and even what their game plan might be. That makes your counterattack much more effective.

    But whether you launch a pre-emptive strike by the Air Force, a naval air armada, a large army, or Special Forces, the risks are extremely high. We already had one such disaster with Iraq, where our intelligence proved way off base. So I’m no fan of pre-emptive wars.

  • JohnMcC

    The history of airpower–at least the THEORY of airpower–is interesting (at least to me, USAF 1964-68). Between the World Wars military theory tried really hard to find a way to avoid the horrible slaughter of the trenches. Two modern inventions seemed to offer solutions: the tank & the airplane. Does anyone remember that Charles de Gualle basically wrote the book on tank warfare and ‘blitzkreig’. (I find that sort of stuff fascinating.)

    An Italian, Giulio Douhet wrote the book on strategic bombing. It made a sort of sense; if capturing the enemy’s capital equaled “victory” why not just bomb the shit out of it and spare all the bloody business of invading? And then in Pittsburgh back in the 20′s there was an explosion that knocked out a factory that made ball bearings. Turns out that factory was the only plant in America that made ball bearings. For a time industrial production in America almost crashed because there wasn’t an alternative source. Well of course that did not escape the attention of the professional military guys who figured that if the US had been in a war and our enemy had bombed that factory, the US might have lost a war. Enter Gen Billy Mitchell with his idea that we could defend America’s shores with precision bombing of approaching battleships and you get a really persuasive argument for winning a war with precision strategic bombing. Which we set out to prove in WW2. And failed.

    After WW2 it turned out that the Germans, even under the most amazing 24hr bombing attacks by tens of thousands of US and British aircraft actually increased their production of Messerschits and Panzers!!! (Getting fuel and moving those items to where they were needed was something else. There the bombing was effective. Which leads us to the futility of bombing the HoChiMinh Trail…about which I have some personal expertise.)

    Anyhow, Our Host Mr Guardiano is totally correct that there is no substitute for the soldier on the ground. As someone told me once: “All wars are won by some scared son-of-a-bitch with a rifle who’s up to his ass in mud and has dust blowing in his eyes”.

    I would point out however that tactical airpower (refer to the ‘blitzkrieg’ above) as a part of a ground force is pretty damn important. In the Faulklands in ’82, the Brits forced a landing without control of the air. Their ships were badly mauled and several sunk. The force put ashore lacked transport and ended up humping for three days under pretty severe Argentine air attack before they got to Stanley and with wonderful courage took it. Hundreds of British soldiers paid with their lives for the lack of air superiority.

    Well, obviously Mr Guardiano and I could have a wonderful time sitting at some beer summit (in an NCO Club not far from Bum Fuckistan Somewhere, probably). And I can’t imagine that any reasonable person is still reading this. But anyhow…thanks, Guardiano. Keep up the posts here on this theme.

  • ottovbvs

    sinz54 // Aug 13, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    “There’s no question that if Iran, or North Korea, launched missiles at one of our allies”

    …….But they are not going too….duh……and we’re not going to launch a preemptive air attack on them and neither is Israel….duh

    johnmcc // Aug 13, 2009 at 9:36 pm
    ………even tactical air power has it’s limitations, particularly in assymetric warfare, as the American and Israeli experience demonstrate……it’s like all weapons systems….. horses for courses

  • JohnMcC

    Ahh my friend MrOtto, the limitations of airpower are many; refer to the ‘HoChiMinh Trail’ reference. By tactical air I was referring to the aircraft that blows up the people shooting at you. Which aircraft is much more likely to be a helicopter I guess these days and so doesn’t seem to be the topic of the original post. Still…you are completely correct in your observation. (As you are so often correct on these pages.)

  • ottovbvs

    6 johnmcc // Aug 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    “likely to be a helicopter I guess these days and so doesn’t seem to be the topic of the original post.”

    ……..I think he’s talking about tactical and strategic airpower, although he does jumble it up a bit, the Govt spent a lot of money teaching me the difference between tactical and strategic…….funny thing was lots of brass much higher up the food chain than me seemed to have forgotten…… see you were with the skyboys……I was on the ground at almost exactly the same time…..artillery and intel……..I would have thought the definitive books on Blitzkrieg were written by Guderian, J.F. C. Fuller and the other Brit military thinker whose name escapes me for the moment(Capt?)……De Gaulle did write a book on the topic but it was essentially derivative……to be honest I’ve never read it just summaries but that’s my sense of it…….I don’t entirely dismiss strategic bombing in WW 2…..particularly when it had precise objectives as it did in the run up to D Day….or in the oil disruption programs……frying women and children was and is a waste of time in Hamburg and Afghanistan.

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