The Airpower Partisans Get it Wrong Again


Airpower, according to Elliot Cohen, who directed the Gulf War Air Power Survey, “is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” Yet the idea that air power is a panacea or superior to land operations is mistaken. Last month, in their essay at War on the Rocks, “Airpower May Not Win Wars, But It Sure Doesn’t Lose Them,” two senior Air Force pilots, Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken, argued that the United States had departed from “the successful post-Vietnam template that relied on airpower to seek limited objectives.” Instead, they argued, the United States was mistakenly pursuing a “ground-centric approach” that “failed to achieve stated goals” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is plenty to take issue with regarding their use of historical evidence. In their effort to explain the utility of airpower and condemn inter-service rivalry, Pietrucha and Renken engage in a rewriting of history, notably in the case of the Vietnam War and NATO involvement in the former Yugoslavia. Their arguments, ironically, represent the worst aspects of inter-service rivalry at a time when what the United States needs is objective assessments of how it can best deploy national power to achieve national interests in regions ranging from the Asia-Pacific to the Middle East.

The authors’ decision to use the Vietnam War as an example of the weaknesses of land operations and, conversely, the strength (objective or relative) of airpower is an odd choice. Perhaps that’s why the authors dedicated only one sentence to Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68). It’s impossible to discuss airpower as a vehicle to advance U.S. interests in the context of the Vietnam War, however, without giving Rolling Thunder a much more thorough examination.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Vietnam War became land-centric because of the limits of airpower. Pietrucha and Renken have their history backward: the vulnerability of air assets and the failure of airpower to achieve even limited objectives early in the Vietnam conflict dragged the United States into its ill-fated escalation of the ground war.

On February 7, 1965, Viet Cong insurgents attacked an airbase in Pleiku, South Vietnam and killed eight American servicemen. Up to that point, U.S. airplanes and helicopters had been supporting South Vietnamese troops who were being advised by U.S. forces. Two days later, General Westmoreland, commander of the advisory command in South Vietnam, requested troops for the express purpose of securing U.S. air bases which laid the groundwork for widening the land war. Meanwhile, after the Pleike attack, U.S. forces launched Operation Flaming Dart, which involved limited air strikes on North Vietnamese Targets. After a month, Flaming Dart hadn’t accomplished much, which led U.S. commanders to order Operation Rolling Thunder.

Operation Rolling Thunder was planned as an escalating system of air strikes against the government of North Vietnam to cause it to end support for the Viet Cong insurgency. In addition to failing to accomplish that end, Rolling Thunder was born from the very type of inter-service rivalry that Pietrucha and Renken denounce.

In response to General Taylor’s directive to end the North Vietnamese government’s support for the Viet Cong, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay advocated for a coercive operation based on airpower and downplayed the need for land forces. Other services disagreed, but, as is often the case with the seductive nature of airpower, the lack of available land forces was a key selling point for Rolling Thunder. Airpower seemed to offer policymakers a silver bullet to achieve objectives at minimal cost. Of course, we know that this was a pipe dream. The bombings strengthened the resolve of the North Vietnamese, who became increasingly proficient at designing fortifications and anti-aircraft weapons sites. Numerous pilots were shot down, including Senator John McCain, who has advocated for a mix of airpower and land forces in recent conflicts.

Given the failure of Rolling Thunder, it’s easy to see why Pietrucha and Renken essentially ignore the operation in their article. Indeed, this is a clear counterexample to their thesis that airpower can further United States policy alone, or in combination with allied ground forces.The more recent case of U.S. airstrikes against Serbia to bring an end of the conflict in Kosovo, which, like Serbia, had been part of Yugoslavia, is more compelling. Prima facie, it seems as though the Air Force bombed targets, the Yugoslav Army was demoralized, civilians were unhurt, and finally Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic surrendered in the face of the overwhelming superiority of NATO airpower. However, if Rolling Thunder demonstrated the failure of air power in furthering national goals, then further examination of the Kosovo air campaign will demonstrate the inability of airpower alone to conclusively end limited wars.

The most important weapon the Americans had in Kosovo was not an aircraft or a bomb, but an agreement between the Russian government and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After the 1998 financial crisis, the USDA had agreed to sell the Russian government food at discounted prices. The Russian government quickly became dependent on that aid to remain intact; when war broke out in Kosovo, Russia was forced to abandon a long-time ally in favor of the country that was feeding it. It is interesting to note that NATO began bombing on March 24, 1999 and continued bombing for 78 days. On June 3 – 71 days after NATO strikes began – the Russians told Milosevic that he should surrender. He agreed to NATO demands a week later.  The combined diplomatic pressure of the Americans and the Russians was decisive.

This was apparent at the time to General Sir Michael Jackson, then commander of KFOR, the Kosovo Force, that the Russian statement “was the single event that appeared to me to have the greatest significance in ending the war.” Sixteen years after the “end” of the war, KFOR – including U.S. ground troops – remains in place as a stabilizing force. Pietrucha and Renken conveniently neglect to mention this ongoing requirement for ground forces when they assess the Kosovo intervention as an example of successful and decisive victory from the air.

These critical pieces of background knowledge demonstrate the poverty an airpower-centric worldview. As limited wars become more militarily complex and politically delicate, it is illusory to believe or propose that one tool of national power can be used successfully in isolation to achieve national goals.

More importantly, purportedly strategic discussions attempting to determine the ultimate tool of national power are ultimately self-defeating. They hamper development of creative and varied solutions to new and unique problems. They create a culture of mutual distrust and rivalry between branches. And, most dangerously, they reinforce the cynicism that creates strategy based on identity rather actual necessity.

Don’t be seduced by the myth of limited, decisive airpower. It sometimes offers too little gratification and far more commitment than you bargained for.


K.A. Staron is a Captain in the United States Army. He has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. This essay is a product of not having enough activities planned during a recent week of leave. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Army.


Image Credit: U.S. Air Force