Special Operations, Intelligence, and Airpower: A Lethal Triumvirate


While the long list of recent U.S. military operations involving airpower was impressive, the real insight in a widely read article on the virtues of airpower by Colonels Pietrucha and Renken did not land until their conclusion.  In their last paragraph, they state:

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.

They focused on why airpower offers the best options in warfare, but for irregular warfare operations cited the need for special operations forces (SOF) and intelligence.  Could such a triumvirate actually bring a conflict to a victory without a significant conventional landpower component?  There have been examples of successful irregular warfare campaigns waged with forces like those they propose.

The role of the British Special Air Service (SAS) in Kenya against the Mau Mau from 1952-1960 is known, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) also played an important part, as did intelligence.   The RAF bombed forests where insurgent leaders hid and where civilians were banned from going.  This avoided civilian casualties and eliminated several leaders and many fighters.   Captured leaders described losses of followers to airstrikes as lowering morale to the point survivors gave up.  These airpower operations were based predominately on information gathered by patrols or intelligence from prisoners.   With this triumvirate of force, the British successfully quelled the insurgency.

From 1962 to 1976, the British assisted Oman in Dhofar.   After rebels had large gains, the new Sultan brought in the SAS to conduct patrols and train irregulars.  However, airpower, in the form of close air support by aircraft and resupply and medevac by helicopters, was key to the success of ground operations.  Again, without a significant deployment of landpower, airpower combined with SOF and intelligence proved successful.

Airpower today includes unmanned aircraft, whether for strike or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.  The degrading of core al-Qaeda has been achieved chiefly by U.S. airpower supported by intelligence and SOF such as the now famous raid into Pakistan in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden.

The same triumvirate worked against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen without U.S. landpower.   Airpower eliminated AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 and a successor leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi in 2015.   Concurrently, SOF trained and equipped Yemeni forces and while raids by SOF in 2014 were unsuccessful in saving Western hostages, they were able to conduct operations deep in AQAP territory.

U.S. airpower combined with SOF and intelligence has improved the situation significantly in Somalia.  Key events include the killing in 2008 of Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent commander Aden Hashi Farah AyroIn 2013, U.S. SOF raided a compound near Baraawe, and while they missed their target, it disrupted Al-Shabaab operations and forced them to guard against future such raids.  In September 2014 Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in a drone strike and al-Shabaab’s intelligence and security wing chief, Adan Garaar, was killed by another drone strike in March 2015.  These efforts have allowed Somalia and African Union Mission in Somalia to secure Mogadishu and further liberate the countryside.

The authors stated that airpower alone does not win wars, but in irregular warfare campaigns, when combined with SOF and intelligence, airpower has repeatedly succeeded.   Given the successful record laid out above, I agree with the authors that airpower should be well resourced so when these sorts of conflicts occur, policymakers will have the option to again employ this strategy as an alternative course of action to large deployments of conventional landpower.


Brent Bahl is a Department of State Foreign Service Officer currently studying at the U.S. Army War College.  Most recently served in  U.S. Embassy Sana, Yemen. Previously served in New York, Kabul, Singapore, Addis Ababa, Tbilisi, Seoul and Berlin.  Before entering the Foreign Service Bahl was an infantry Captain, graduated from USMA in 1985.  The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of State, USAWC or U.S. government


Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Stephen Collier