war on the rocks

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

August 19, 2015

“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.

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.

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.


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.