Airpower May Not Win Wars, But it Sure Doesn’t Lose Them

August 19, 2015

Ground-centric approaches have failed to achieve U.S. goals time and time again. More American resources should be applied to airpower, where they will do the most good and provide the widest range of options.

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“A modern, autonomous, and thoroughly trained Air Force in being at all times will not alone be sufficient, but without it there can be no national security.”

— General H. H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, USAAF

 

The beginning of the 21st century has been hard on the Department of Defense. Following closely behind two 20th-century successes in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the Department of Defense (DoD) was knocked back on its heels following the September 11 attacks. Departing from the successful post-Vietnam template that relied on airpower to seek limited objectives, the United States engaged in two costly, drawn out, and ultimately unsuccessful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ground-centric approach failed to achieve stated goals, mired the U.S. military in complex local political contests, and so constrained two presidents that they both were forced to choose between losing now, and reinforcing failure (losing later).

In retrospect, the ground-centric military paradigm undertaken in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom was strategically questionable, costly, and did not prevent the emergence of strengthened radical Islamist movements. The outcome, where operational and tactical gains never connected with strategic success, has saddled the services with aging equipment, declining readiness, and spiraling sustainment costs. Now, both the Air Force and Navy are struggling to make up for chronic neglect brought on by a focus on land campaigns that became increasingly difficult to relate to national priorities. Given the lack of military success evident in approaches of the past 15 years, America’s limited resource base should be reallocated toward the elements of national military power that have proven successful, and away from the ground-centric, Army-heavy approaches that characterized Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Clinging to the Prussian Prescription

At the root of the landpower worldview is a belief that other forms of military might cannot win wars. Too often, such arguments envision a kind of victory that only landpower can deliver — with decisive battles, military capitulation, and a unified adversary who accepts “defeat.” It is certainly true that airpower cannot “hold ground” and act as an occupying force. Neither can naval power. But not all conflicts have to be resolved by the seizure of land, and not all political solutions require armed occupations to enforce. For the United States, isolated by two great oceans, air and naval power are the critical elements of national power, and, used correctly, they have been and can be decisive.

This is not to disparage the contribution of land forces, particularly on the European continent, where the Russian conventional threat has always rested on ground forces. As a result, the presence of U.S. ground combat forces in Europe and Korea remains a key contributor to security. But ground forces are slow to move and even slower to leave. Once deployed they require a great deal of support, and once engaged they have proven very difficult to disengage. The introduction of massed land forces into combat deprives policymakers and warfighters of strategic agility and for 70 years has been an ineffective policy tool as often as not. Given limited resources, the United States should return to air and naval power, which are more suitable to our national security requirements and our demonstrated acceptance of limited objectives.

America’s Modern Military Might

The United States has relied heavily on air and seapower for international campaigns for over a century. Our country is a vast one — protected by large oceans, lacking an enemy on our own continent and only challenged from afar by adversaries who can strike us from the skies, sea, space, or cyberspace. Naval power established the United States as an emerging power at the end of the 19th century — and half a century later airpower cemented our position as one of two global powers. In World War II, the United States emerged the most innovative and capable airpower practitioner. In the European theater, U.S. aircraft hunted U-Boats in the open ocean, hammered the Nazi industrial machine, secured air superiority for amphibious landings, and supported ground forces advancing into Germany.

Airpower was an essential supporting force in Europe, but it was the supported force in the Pacific. The story of the Pacific War is one of naval and airpower used in a campaign designed to isolate Japan, cripple its logistics, and eventually advance airbases for direct air attack against Japan. Airfields were the key terrain in the Pacific. Every operation revolved around them. The maritime interdiction campaign, conducted primarily by submarines and aircraft, defeated imperial Japan and starved its forces into submission. The aerial delivery of two atomic bombs in August 1945 punctuated the reality that Japan was completely supine before American airpower. Airpower alone did not win the Pacific War, but it was terminated by airpower without a single infantryman having to dash ashore on Japan’s main islands.

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A shark-toothed B-25J-5-NC Mitchell “Ruthless Ruth,” in action against IJN Coastal Defense Vessel No. 134 on Friday, April 6, 1945 (USAAF)

The Pacific War settled that airpower could end wars, and soon after proved that it could also help avoid war. When the Soviets closed rail and road routes to West Berlin there was no ground option short of war to prevent starvation. Instead, the Allies conducted a massive airlift that supplied Berlin for a year. The Berlin airlift expanded the art of the possible, and airpower’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid remains a key foreign policy tool today.

The Korean War marked the beginning of a 40-year trend during which ground forces held terrain while air forces conducted deep operations and interdicted enemy supply lines. Airpower enabled MacArthur to justify the daring Inch’on landing to a wary president on the assurance that invested forces would be “completely self-sustaining because of our absolute air and naval supremacy.” This conflict also marked the last time any deployed U.S. forces were subject to attack by hostile aircraft. When America’s political objectives must be earned with military power, air superiority is a necessary prerequisite to joint success.

The Limits of Landpower

The war in Vietnam was marked by French and American use of troops to pacify populations. Vietnam would reveal the Achilles’ heel of conventional landpower: Once spilt, blood shed abroad imposes new political imperatives and begins eroding public support. Vietnam would not be the last time an enemy force simply outlasted the United States to achieve a strategic victory. For the North Vietnamese, landpower was an effective military option that the United States could only apply at extreme cost in blood, treasure and popular support.

Landpower in Vietnam, even when well supported from the air, was insufficient to achieve U.S. policy aims. Even when poorly applied, as in Operation Rolling Thunder, airpower provided escalation and reprisal options that were otherwise unavailable. Applied in earnest in 1972, aerial mining of North Vietnamese ports shut down all seaborne commerce, while Operation Linebacker I shattered the People’s Army of North Vietnam’s logistics and offensive capacity — effectively ending North Vietnamese hopes of a unilateral military resolution. By October 1972, the United States had negotiated a framework it could agree to for conflict termination, but it would take Operation Linebacker II in December 1972 to demonstrate sufficient U.S. resolve for President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.

After Vietnam, air and naval power became the instruments of first resort when military force was required. Operation Nickel Grass in 1973 kept the Israeli Defense Force in the fight against Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian forces in the face of mounting losses. Operation Eldorado Canyon struck Libya in response to terrorist attacks, Operations Just Cause in Panama and Urgent Fury in Grenada were spearheaded with airborne assault. Time and time again, U.S. air and naval forces constituted a preferred option for deterring an enemy, and the rapid movement of aviation was used to punctuate American commitment to our allies around the globe.

The Modern Case: Desert Storm and Aftermath

“Both psychologically and physically, it must have been terrible to be on the receiving end of Coalition air power. From the start of the war the dilemma facing Iraqi troops was acute: they got hit if they stayed in their fortifications, they got hit if they fired their heavy guns, they got hit if they moved, and they got hit by Iraqi execution squads if they tried to cross over to us … It was clear that the 38-day air campaign had done far more damage than we had imagined. There was little fight left in the Iraqi divisions facing our troops. Indeed, they must have realized the war was over.”

— Gen. Khaled bin Sultan, Commander, KSA Defense Force

 

Operation Desert Storm highlighted airpower when coalition air forces dismantled Iraq’s military in 40 days of around-the-clock attack. Ground forces remained essential because airpower prevented Iraqi forces from moving and necessitated that they be pushed out of Kuwait. The punishment imposed from the air ensured that when the 100-hour ground maneuver did occur, coalition land forces faced an enemy force that was out of communication, pinned down, cut off, already well below fighting strength, and totally ignorant of enemy force disposition. The victory played out exactly as the designers of the AirLand Battle doctrine had hoped it would, with air setting up highly lopsided battles that mechanized ground forces could quickly dominate.

The real milestone for airpower was the aftermath of the Gulf War. The coalition that gathered to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait had no appetite for an occupation of Iraq (wisely, as it turned out) but did not want to allow him to mass forces to the north or south to threaten regional neighbors or commit domestic atrocities. Operation Provide Comfort started out as a humanitarian operation to support Kurdish refugees and morphed into an air containment effort, where airpower was used to monitor and constrain an Iraqi army still able to slaughter civilians. The no-fly zone (NFZ) in the north kept Iraqi forces from the “green zone,” allowing establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region. The NFZ in the south overlaid a “no-drive zone” to prevent large-scale repression against Iraq’s Shia population around Basra — too late for many. In effect, the United States relied on airpower to frustrate a rogue nation’s capacity to threaten neighbors, and to give comfort and protection to vulnerable populations.

This was repeated in the Balkans, without American or NATO ground forces. Operation Deny Flight enforced a NFZ over Bosnia, carried out air support missions for the United Nations Protection Force, and protected the humanitarian relief effort of Operation Provide Promise. It was capped by Operation Deliberate Force, which brought about conflict termination in Bosnia and forced the Serbs to the bargaining table at Dayton. Four years later Operation Allied Force demonstrated unambiguously that airpower could win a war — successfully achieving political objectives through force, under admittedly limited conditions.

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An F-15E of the 494th FS supporting NORTHERN WATCH pulls up behind a tanker on 30 December 1999 (USAF)

Nearly a decade of NFZ enforcement, punctuated occasionally with airstrikes, generated no U.S. combat casualties and no readiness crisis, and didn’t jeopardize the ability of the United States to meet defense obligations elsewhere. Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo descended into civil war, and Saddam Hussein remained relatively in check. While substantial damage was done to Serbian infrastructure in Operation Allied Force, the damage did not lead to a government collapse, and the relatively few civilian casualties, while tragic, never undermined the execution of NATO airstrikes. Airpower provided flexible policy options that allowed the United States to adjust rapidly to changing conditions and force the Milosevich government to end the conflict on NATO terms. All this was accomplished without the involvement of ground forces, within existing basing constraints, and comparatively cheaply with no long-term expenditure for wounded veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan: Unpalatable Outcomes

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, the country again turned to airpower. Operation Enduring Freedom began four weeks after the attacks. The effort to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban forces combined airpower, indigenous Northern Alliance forces, and U.S. special operations forces, along with regular soldiers and Marines providing security for forward airfields. By the end of November, the Taliban evacuated their last stronghold, ceding power in Afghanistan, and a week later they abandoned their last Afghan border town. The Taliban government of Afghanistan was gone, paving the way for the installation of an interim government.

With the arrival of the United Nations-authorized International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) a cycle began where security and reconstruction efforts needed to show rapid progress. Frustrated expectations became justification for more combat forces, combat support, and contractors. NATO fueled the effort with money, enabling corruption, and the presence of ISAF reinvigorated an agile enemy that stubbornly resisted “defeat.” Thirteen years later, conditions in Afghanistan are no better and arguably worse than they were in December 2001, despite a substantial ground effort that cost the United States 20,000 combat casualties and over $700 billion and counting.

In Iraq, the United States moved from an effective, air-only containment policy to a ground invasion and occupation. The outcome has been intensely unfavorable for the United States; even a long occupation and substantial training effort was unable to generate a policy success. Today, Iraq is a de facto Iranian client, unable to defend its own territory, and a breeding ground for extremists who have been honed by constant conflict. Twelve years after the invasion, conditions in Iraq and the region are not only worse, but much worse. In place of a relatively inexpensive containment strategy — the annual cost for enforcing both NFZs over Iraq was between $1–2 billion annually — the United States engaged in a prolonged occupation that resulted in over 35,000 U.S. casualties (almost 5,000 of them fatal), cost more than $800 billion, and left Iraq unable to provide its own security. In addition, combat operations in Iraq created a cadre of seasoned fighters that dispersed throughout the region, with catastrophic effects in Yemen and Syria. Until recently in these conflicts, airpower was relegated to a supporting role, providing aerial fires in support of a strategy that sought to engage the enemy in close combat, rather than keeping him at arm’s length.

A New Emphasis

In the current context, the use of airpower in Libya and Syria was a reasonable, if imperfect response to the losses in Iraq and Afghanistan. The air mission over Libya neutralized Libyan regular military forces, with no U.S. fatalities and just over $1 billion expended. The air mission ended 11 days after Muammar Gaddafi’s death, with no permanent presence and no occupation. While the outcome there is not what NATO had hoped for, it is not clear than there was any method to achieve a better one.

The air operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), on the other hand, is a necessary follow-on to the chaos left in the wake of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Extensive use of airpower, while not completely effective at stopping the advance of ISIL forces, has proven an excellent substitute for the introduction of large U.S. ground forces back into Iraq. It would be unreasonable to expect anything else, given the current state of the Iraqi military. Iraqi forces have proven unable to defend against Islamic State fighters. Kurdish Peshmerga halted the Islamic State and regained territory with far fewer air assets than the Iraqi Security Forces had available when they lost Ramadi. Airstrikes have been particularly successful in supporting ground forces along Kurdish fronts at the Mosul Dam, Tal Afar and Kobane — where support turned a certain Kurdish loss into a decisive battlefield defeat for ISIL.

Reliance on airpower is not a mistake. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) cost $3.21 billion for its first year, compared to the $79 billion annual cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom. OIR has cost no American casualties, is a fraction of the cost of any ground involvement, and significant enough to accomplish similar objectives. There are no good reasons to commit ground forces to an active combat mission in Iraq when airpower has effectively contained the Islamic State and delivered acceptable outcomes. Should Iraqi forces take the offensive, they can be supported by airpower without the direct involvement of U.S. ground forces, exactly as the Peshmerga have been.

Wrap-up

After the experiences of the past quarter-century, the Department of Defense should rebalance its resource allocation, with funding currently directed at the Army redirected to air and naval applications. Heavy ground forces are still indispensable in Europe and on the Korean Peninsula, but less so elsewhere. Considering that conventional landpower proved insufficient to meet the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should reconsider whether the nation needs such a large active duty Army, or whether limited resources should be spent on other capabilities that consistently offer more and better options to U.S. policymakers.

Many critics of modern airpower only analyze select aspects of airpower applications. Critics claim that airpower is indiscriminate, but any serious look at relevant casualty databases reveals that landpower is vastly more likely to expose civilians to incidental violence. Finally, some critics claim that airpower allows policy makers to “flirt without commitment,” but what airpower actually offers are scalability and reversibility that preserve options for decision-makers. The notion that Americans must always be ready to “fully commit” seems to imply that we must force every fight to a decisive conclusion, preferring a “solution” that is more close, bloody, dangerous, and total, but not necessarily more effective.

In the irregular wars America has actually fought, and remains likely to fight, a combined effort of airpower, special operations forces, and the intelligence community is simply a better instrument for American policymakers than conventional landpower. The record of the last half-century shows clearly that resorting to U.S. ground forces as a military option has frequently produced costly failures that we should not be eager to repeat. In a time of limited resources for the Department of Defense, those resources should be applied where they will do the most good and provide the widest range of policy options.

 

Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E, Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Jeremy “Maestro” Renken is an instructor pilot in the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 170 combat missions in three combat deployments to OIF and OEF. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons Instructor Course and recently returned from AFCENT where he contributed to the design of the counter-ISIS air campaign.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

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26 thoughts on “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But it Sure Doesn’t Lose Them

  1. Ridiculous. The proper balance of armed force in any situation is contingent upon national goals. If the goal in Iraq was regime change and the imposition of a government more amenable to us, airpower, while necessary, is insufficient. This is just special pleading for one force over the others, no different in kind from arguments each of the other services could make about each other and of equal worth (or lack thereof).

    Force structure must be set for whatever conflict or goal we expect to have to meet.

    1. @Kurt Spears

      Reading this article, it was clear to me that the authors could not agree more with your assertion that “proper balance of armed forces…is contingent upon national goals”. America is tired and financially wrecked from the failures in Iraq and Afghansitan, and these outcomes are a direct result of failed strategy largely tied to the limitations of a land-forces focus (also see Vietnam).

      This article isn’t an inter-service jab – it is an attempt to advocate a strategic balance of forces that has demonstrated a much higher degree of success at lower financial and human costs when compared to land focused campaigns.

      Your final thought seems to underscore the whole point of the article – reinvestment in naval and sea power DOES represent the force structure needed to meet future conflicts/goals when taking into account what we have learned in the last 25 years of comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of air, land and sea power.

  2. Did you read your own article?

    let’s just start with the title.If airpower doesn’t win wars and can’t lose them, then you are clearly saying that airpower is not decisive. Pretty sure most of us are tired of pursuing counter-insurgency campaigns that never end.

    Ultimately, your conclusion does not lend itself to your recommendation to grow airpower, it leads us to the conclusion that we need to find an alternative that IS decisive.

    Time to take a step out of your tactical/operational level fox-hole and think about the implications of your recommendations with regard to national strategy and policy.

    1. “In the irregular wars America has actually fought, and remains likely to fight, a combined effort of airpower, special operations forces, and the intelligence community is simply a better instrument for American policymakers than conventional landpower”

      I read the authors intent as an effort to preserve and advance the proper “tools” that will be needed to act decisively. Policy makers would be left to utilize these tools in a decisive manner based on the conflict.

      Without thinking well ahead of time where to spend a declining DoD budget, especially given military procurement timelines, the tools most likely to be required will not be within reach of the policy makers who will execute the plan to win our next conflict.

      1. Concur, the article isn’t an inter-service jab, it is worse.

        The logic in this article is a symptom of generations of strategic and policy-making myopia developed by a nation that believes in its own destiny and the ability to “fix” thing. Let’s find an American counter-insurgency effort that has won anything, i.e. “success.” Do we really want to give our policy makers the impression that we’ve built the “ideal” military force to manage the next regional conflict at “low cost?” There is no such animal. This option does not, and has never existed – and the belief that it does is bleeding us dry – not just financially, but it continues to strip the good will from the relationships we have with the nations from whom we derive our global leadership position.

          1. “Almost pithy, except we were the insurgents in that conflict; a role we are good at.”

            No, he is talking about the wars against the Indians.

        1. Optimizing to limited objectives seems like a start. Recognizing the hefty second-order costs of pursuing “decisive” operations seems like another challenge – especially when brought to bear on a sticky problem like “COIN” (something I’m not convinced was ever really an accurate description of the challenge).

          1. Russia is a country whose military is “optimized for limited objectives.” The difference is that this optimization is inadvertent and entirely a result of financial weakness, not political intent.

            The civilian leadership who sets our objectives doesn’t know how to set limited objectives. Read our pseudo-strategic documents (like the National Military Strategy). See if you can find any recognition that a strategy must actually make hard choices. What you’ll find is essentially a laundry list of how we should fix the world. When this is translated into a DoD budget request, no wonder it is so expansive…you want us to do everything.

            COIN, in its most recent manifestation is just a way to say “half-assed nation building.” A mix of violence and hearts and minds intended to gain time for the “political process” to work….in areas where two thousand years of culture is fighting against you.

        2. ” Let’s find an American counter-insurgency effort that has won anything, i.e. “success.” ”

          The US effort in the Philippines (both the counter-Moro operations at the start of the 20th century, and the counter-Abu Sayyaf effort started post 9/11). Abu Sayyaf has been reduced to a gang of about 200-400 kidnappers, rather than a serious threat to Philippine government control of Jolo and Basilan islands.

          1. Ok, you got me…kind of. Depends on how you define success I guess.

            Now lets bring the discussion back to the article. How decisive was airpower in these two cases? Seems more of a counter-factual than support to the intended thesis.

  3. This has to be one of the worst articles written on WOTR. Providing historic examples against state actors is not a sufficient reasoning for increased future investments (particularly given trending and increased awareness of irregular warfare effectiveness), nor is the geographical location of the US a basis for decreased army numbers.

    Specified force structure for a conflict based on a geographical and political setting is what must be emphasized… If anything this argument against the grunts should indicate that the army needs investment in fluidity and adaptability.

    Intelligent implementation of combined arms will win wars – air power alone is tactically, operationally, and strategically insufficient on its own.

    1. Considering how much I agree with your thinking, I’m confused how the article scored so low in your book.

      “[T]he army needs investment in fluidity and adaptability.”

      I completely agree. 100%, whole-heartedly, and without reservation. But they are unlikely to be agile if the inertia of present designs dominates their development.

      I fail to see how we’ve offended your last point. Airmen have done combined arms incredibly well. Soldiers, Sailors and Marines have too. But well executed combined arms seeking a manner of “victory” that just ain’t in the cards is the failure. Sometimes all you can do, and all you need to do, is limited disarmament / attrition of an enemy while denying him the ability to suck you into a trap.

  4. An interesting read, but the argument is deeply flawed. Not only because it seeks out to diminish the value of combined arms, but also because it omits some historical facts that are critical.

    Let’s look at Desert Storm. As an infantry Marine who was there from the early days of Desert Shield to the push into Kuwait, I was a huge fan of airpower for obvious reasons; especially the CAS variety. I saw firsthand the utter devastation unleashed upon the Iraqi army.

    Nevertheless, the conditions that coalition forces enjoyed during Desert Storm were quite unique and are unlikely to be repeated again in a future conflict on the same scale. I don’t want to take anything away from the military success of Desert Storm, but the fact of the matter is that Iraq’s many strategic blunders and its poor understanding of modern warfare (airpower, mechanized, etc.) were huge contributors to their defeat. They were outclassed in every conceivable way. Indeed, AirLand Battle was validated, but with a lot of help from the Iraqis. Moreover, the U.S. military in 1990-91 was arguably at the peak of it’s Cold War readiness. This cannot be overlooked. The point, once again, is this: The conditions of Desert Storm will almost certainly never be seen again. DoD’s report to Congress on the conduct of the war noted this very early and cautioned against overconfidence in future planning. Make no mistake; others, most especially China, have studied Desert Storm obsessively. Which brings me to another point. Air and naval power would be seriously challenged in an A2/AD environment like the Western Pacific. Apparently geography still matters and it matters a lot. This would have been a good counter argument on the limits of airpower in the article, had one been included.

    Let’s move on to Iraqi Freedom. With perhaps Cheney and Wolfowitz being the exceptions, no one can keep a straight face while arguing that Iraqi Freedom was a good idea. Let’s be clear. It wasn’t ground forces which lost Iraq, it was the political decisions on how to employ them. Recall that Donald Rumsfeld ordered DoD to plan the invasion with no more than approx. 150,000 troops. An arbitrary number that conflicted with the recommendations he received from planners, who were calling for at least twice that number in order to secure real estate. Also recall that Gen. Shinseki was fired because he was pushing for a much larger force that did not conform to Rumsfeld’s vision of a smaller and more nimble force, whatever that meant. Furthermore, Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi military contributed mightily to the insurgency and the subsequent surge to keep Iraqi from imploding. And we know the rest of story. Political considerations lost Iraq, not the presence of ground forces.

    And Libya? The “air war” over Libya was a predominately European operation which can hardly be considered effective. Recall that they could barely sustain their level of sorties because of poor logistics and they very nearly ran out of munitions. Great, Gadaffi was deposed and today we have a Libya that by any measure is a failed state.

    Finally, Syria. At best this is a strategy of containment that more and more is relying on enemy body counts to measure “success.” Meanwhile, 250,000 people are dead and 11 million or half of Syria’s population is homeless. So much for containment.

    1. You’re way more patient with this drivel than I am. This isn’t even an inter-service jab, it’s a single service fantasy. You know why they “may not win”? Because if air-power could win, it would have. You covered Iraq fairly well, but look at the Yugoslavia example. We bombed them and won….except for when we didn’t and needed to send in ground troops for another decade. And why hasn’t Assad won? Just because his planes are too old? Because they aren’t “laser guided”? If we just spend more on the Air-Force, then all of Americas enemies will go away and we’ll have casualty neutral freedom of action! And what’s with the nonsense about the Air Force being bled dry because of land wars in Asia? The F35 after procurement is going to cost half of what the entire Iraq war cost, and they haven’t figured out a way to make it fly when it’s fuel gets too hot.

      The fundamental blame for the amazing squander in Iraq was the strategy, which ironically, was based on the argument made in this article; that we’re beyond large combat operations and you can get away with a small footprint. This is particularly ironic because the Air Force was able to actually do it’s job in OIF. The US degraded Iraq’s infrastructure in 2 weeks, which was great. Until we needed to rebuild it. Tell me, how does an F35, or any other plane, guard the local water station while it’s being rebuilt? Or make sure local elections go smoothly? Oh right- we’ll just kill the the “bad guys” with our super-cool weapons and then we won’t have any more bad guys, so we won’t have to guard anything.

      Yea, Strategy is fundamentally to blame, but this super-awesome-fighter-pilot-technology-drone-Air-Sea-flavor of the week doctrine falls into the same trap of all other poorly designed strategies.

  5. pretty wrong headed… Air Forces can lose wars. just ask John Paul Vann “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.”

    1. Irrelevant. Vann was wrong about Vietnam … ground forces didn’t necessarily know who they were killing, nor did our COIN efforts work. That’s the whole point.

      Fast-forward 50 years … this President is not going to commit ground forces to our current operations. The military’s job is to provide the best military advice on achieving national objectives … that’s it … advice. Here’s the POTUS position: “It is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths or less likely to create enemies in the Muslim world. The results would be more U.S. deaths, more Black Hawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.

      “Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies, unleash a torrent of unintended consequences, are difficult to contain, result in large numbers of civilian casualties and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict.” NDU, 2013

      Sounds like an airpower containment and ISR/kinetic strike/direct action counter-terrorism strategy is currently perceived as the better option for the next 5-10 years of counter-IS operations. Inserting ground forces beyond train and equip and CT would repeat some hard lessons learned. It’s time to take the long-view (improve the NMS), invest, and provide the President with pragmatic military advice.

      1. well, first off, I think you are wrong. Vann was right, just no one listened to him except the Marines with their CAP program. getting down and dirty in with the people (not pulling a drive by on them) is the way to gain allies on the block by block level.
        we can make all the allies we want at the national level.. there is always some expat doctor living in New York that we can hire to be the next president of wherever… its the common person we need to make believe in us as allies. trust me, bombing them wont do it, whether those bombs come from F-15s, B-52s, Drones or death rays.
        as much as the Air Force fantasizes about being the arm of the future, or the arm that is always needed, they are not always needed to make war. everything I have ever read says it is hard for an F-16 to take a hill, or control a city’s center.

        1. We are not going to be taking any hills or controlling any city centers in the counter-VEO conflicts anytime soon. This will continue to be a kinetic strike/CT and train and equip operation.
          The Army is being cut by 40,000 Soldiers — perhaps the monetary savings should be invested in tools relevant to the U.S. strategy.

          1. no, we did not occupy any of Iraq or Afghanistan… nor did we build anything there, or do anything but bomb them… (sarcasm… sorry)
            the army is being cut because we are ending a war. should it be cut? probably not.
            eventually, everyone will realize that you have to have a large(ish) Army in order to be the world’s soul super power.
            Also, you should probably recognize that in order to have t hat SOCOM you have to have a reasonable sized pool of troops to get them from… or do you plan on the fighter mafia and Douhet’s bombers doing that by themselves as well?… the fighter mafia went out after Viet-Nam except for Air Force lovers… and Douhet and company met their Waterloo the moment someone actually read the Bomber Survey after WWII.

  6. Conventional warfare (in which one or both opponents are non-nuclear powers), though mediated by technological advances, still largely adheres to the order of battle that was standard during the time of Napoleon.

    For example, the authors referenced the first Gulf War, as if air power in itself was the only decisive factor; yet it still adhered to the classical model- i.e. land operations were preceded by aerial bombardment (used to soften defensive positions, destroy communications networks), which paved the way for the decisive infantry and cavalry engagements that caused battlefield capitulation and led to a political settlement.

    One could also argue that the invasion of Iraq followed this model, successfully. The failure in Iraq was more political than military… by threatening the regime with destruction and removal from power, we removed the only political players who had any incentive to negotiate and bring hostilities to a close. It was not a failure of the infantry to create the conditions for political victory.

    New trends in low-intensity warfare also hint at the possibility that air power will resoundingly NOT be a decisive factor. One need only look at the proliferation in tunnel warfare in the most recent Gaza war to see the possible future of LIC. The Israelis were forced underground.

    Indeed, one could also argue that warfare, both conventional and less-than, will in the future be conducted in cities as opposed to rural environs, due to the overwhelming air superiority of many developed nations. One need only look at the way IS militants are embedded among the civilian populations of Raqqa and Mosul to note that any form of sustained aerial offensive against either stronghold will cause unacceptable levels of civilian casualties, thus swaying political opinion (and most likely undermining the ability of the military to win the political victory that is the desired end-state of all warfare) against the Coalition.

    While our continuing R&D in and of guided munitions has admirably striven to reduce civilian casualties, there will always be civilian casualties. At least when the boots are on the ground, efforts can be made to reduce the suffering of civilians, as well as pacify areas cleared of enemy fighters (see Charles Krulak’s concept of the Three Block War). As we have seen in nearly a year of aerial bombardments in the current conflict with Daesh, even though we are able to inflict materiel and personnel losses via air strikes, they are largely hollow of meaningful impact unless combined with effective ground forces (in this case, represented by the Kurds).

    Joint warfare is just that: joint. To ignore the infantry and other elements of land warfare, in the naive hopes of bloodless, politically-easy air wars, is reckless. Warfare will always come down to territory, and who controls it at the end of the hostilities. The more you try to bomb the enemy to the negotiating table, the deeper he will dig & entrench, and the harder the land operations to clear him from his holes.

  7. No offensive gentlemen, but your decision to completely ignore unconventional warfare and the ineffectiveness of airpower in defeating these types of irregular forces, displays a two-dimensional reality in which you appear to be living (surprising, considering your academic credentials). Why did you choose to ignore cases where airpower failed to defeat an irregular army? We all remember when the Vietcong got decimated in the Tet Offensive, because they tried to fight a conventional fight against the U.S. Their devastating tactical loss led Vietcong leadership to resort to unconventional warfare because airpower could not destroy every square inch of the Vietnamese Jungle (though we sure tried to!). It should be quite evident that U.S. airpower devastates conventionally fielded military forces, but it is obvious that no conventional military force wants to fight the U.S. conventionally; hence you may want to revise this article and state unequivocally that airpower will always win a conventional battle, and airpower will never win an unconventional fight. Period.

    The opinions espoused in his articles and essays are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of his colleagues, Northwestern University, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other government agency.

  8. True, that airpower does not lead to the loss of wars and it is better to have it than not. But the essential problem is an attempt to divorce airpower from ground operations. I often got the impression as the guy who coordinated kinetic and non-kinetic fire support from multiple sources was the number one problem is some people cannot stand to think they may be support and not the stars of the show.

    Guys (and communities) that spent their entire service life supporting others tended to not have as much problem acknowledging they were there to support the guy on ground. Guys who had been brought up under the notion that their actions were the war winners were somewhat loathed to provide the needed support. Or for that matter acknowledge that the best way to develop targets to hit was the kick ant hill approach. It may be easy to locate and hit a building that is in the BE with a long ago mensurated JDMPI; but locating a maneuver force who does not want to be bombed is a lot harder.

  9. Airpower advocates have been selling this snake oil for a century now, and all they’ve delivered are exaggerated claims and empty promises. Wars don’t end until infantryman close with and destroy the enemy. Old Air Force joke: “How does a fighter pilot change a light bulb? He stands still holding the light bulb while the world revolves around him.”