AirLand “Reversal” or Continuing Tactical Adaptation?

February 28, 2014

I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t understand the premise of air power evangelist Benjamin Lambeth’s recent article, “AirLand Reversal” He argues that airpower has killed a lot of enemy in America’s recent wars, especially when supported by the threat of ground maneuver. So what is it that’s being reversed, exactly?

For hundreds of years, armies (and later, joint forces) have been adapting to technological change by articulating forces into separate arms with differing strengths and weaknesses, then developing tactical approaches to maximize their effectiveness in destroying enemy troops.

Sometimes this has involved the use of firepower (archers or infantry) to fix the enemy for disorganization by shock action (swordsmen/pikemen or cavalry) and eventual destruction in close combat and pursuit (horse).

Sometimes it has meant using the threat of shock action (cavalry or armor) to fix the enemy (by forcing him to form square and/or reorient his front to protect a flank) for destruction by massed firepower (artillery and/or air).

Sometimes it has been the threat of massed firepower (infantry, artillery, and air) that has caused the enemy to disperse, thinning his lines and broadening his frontage to allow for breakthrough by heavy forces (armor) supported at the decisive point by concentrated indirect fire (artillery and air), exploitation by fast-moving follow-on forces (armored cavalry or tank armies), and roll-up of the bypassed enemy positions in the flanks and rear by rifle fire (mechanized infantry).

What all of these approaches have in common is the use of combined arms to place the enemy in an untenable position: to force him to either move and be destroyed or hold in place and be destroyed.

Technological change has meant that the coordinated effects of combined-arms fire and movement can be felt at greater ranges, as in the case of “operational” air interdiction. This has been the case for decades, and was demonstrated with devastating effect during the breakout of Allied forces from Normandy in 1944.

Airplanes can perform a lot of useful missions, but Lambeth is focused narrowly on the destruction of enemy forces. And in this context, airplanes are just another means to move a weapon system around and deliver firepower on the enemy—albeit a means that escapes some of the constraints of having to move in two dimensions.

German landpower enabled by aircraft (zeppelins, in this case) killed plenty of the enemy at Tannenberg. American airpower enabled by land forces killed plenty of enemy in the Falaise Gap. U.S. landpower enabled by air and sea forces killed plenty of enemy at Okinawa. And Arab tanks enabled by infantry killed plenty of enemy in the Yom Kippur War. None of these approaches conclusively solved warfare forever, or represented a permanent “reversal” in the character of war.

 

Christopher Mewett is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brett Clashman