Political Airpower, Part III: Boots Off the Ground

Airstrikes in Syria

Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of the “Political Airpower” series.  The first two installments are: “Say No to the No-Fly Zone” and “The Seductive Allure of Precision Weapons.”

“Even small groups of combatants, such as a handful of enemy troops manning a mortar position, may eventually be deemed worthy of a precision-guided munition in some circumstances.”

Though the above statement sounds like some visionary revelation, it is not.  It is not even from the 20th century.  The above was in a late 2001 report on airpower application against terrorism.  It perfectly captures the essence of how quickly the conditions surrounding airpower have changed since — and will continue to change.  In addition to providing hundreds of thousands of air support sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan, airpower birthed a new way of war.  Under the auspice of “drone strikes,” conventional, special operations, and remotely piloted aircraft have conducted presumably thousands of airstrikes against so-called “high-value” targets — the hammer of airpower to the special operator’s anvil.  The United States has used airstrikes to conduct military operations in the absence of large numbers of ground troops, avoiding risk and preserving political capital — a tool that keeps boots off the ground.

The playbook has become well-worn, mainstream, and almost mundane in repetition: Collect intelligence, work the way up the hierarchy of leadership, then use an airstrike to decapitate some lieutenant, shadow governor, or other high value individual.  On a tactical scale, we succeeded in removing some valuable and capable pieces from the board.  These minor victories serve a critical nonmilitary purpose — allowing leadership and the public to view the Long War though “victory-tinted lenses” that tend to keep the politics of warfare (and the metrics of success) within the news cycle.  However, from a strategic viewpoint, even an effort that we declare to be tactically successful may not have been effective at all in inching closer to victory in battle or resolution of conflict.

Today the Taliban, have more power and hold more ground than they did in 2001 and the air-centric counter-Islamic State (ISIL) operations have surpassed two years and $10 billion spent, arguably without significant progress — despite seemingly contradictive statements of continual, strong advances against a resilient adversary.  It is easy to jump on the bandwagon and proclaim that airpower has once again failed us, which incites advocates of the extreme opposite view that airpower alone can win wars.  The truth is somewhere in between, but airpower is not the culprit — it is the victim.

The Compelling Need to Do Something

Airpower is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.  –Eliot Cohen

Since Vietnam, airpower has provided civilian leadership with some very useful cards, including the ability to take military action without diving headfirst into a wider military conflict.  But it is much harder than it looks.  President Johnson tried using airpower incrementally in Vietnam and failed — the first deployment of Marine units into Vietnam was intended to protect U.S. airbases, but the conflict instead drew more and more ground forces in until it was ultimately a ground war — and a failed ground war at that.

President Reagan set the precedent for “boots off the ground” with the successful strike into Libya in Operation Eldorado Canyon after less successful adventures in Lebanon — all attempts to influence events by gingerly pulling on the military lever of power to avoid another Vietnam.  Airpower provided an effective tactical tool for employing military force while limiting the involvement of ground forces and avoiding strategic blunder.  The 1990s ushered in a time when deployments of airpower became more common and more valuable — limited operations for limited objectives.

After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the aversion to boots on the ground mimics the post-Vietnam era and for good reason.  The ground-centric occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were expensive in terms of both lives and treasure and ultimately unsuccessful beyond the removal of the existing regimes.  The obvious costs of massive ground presence make it even more enticing to keep reaching for political airpower as the solution for otherwise-intractable problems that may call for use of force.

In 2011, Libya’s Operation Odyssey Dawn was not a smooth campaign, but the messy aftermath should not obscure the fact that the air-centric mission achieved its limited goal, preventing the Gaddafi regime from using regular forces against its own population. But, this is arguably a tactical objective in a limited war, not a strategic objective with an end-state that is translatable to victory — where the military lever is reset and the complementing instruments of power continue to implement a policy that has a strategic end-state.  Alas, the subsequent civil war fostered the rise of ISIL in Libya, the return to airstrikes in 2015, and a new air campaign in 2016.  Under Operation Odyssey Lightning, the United States conducted nearly 500 airstrikes over the course of four months (and $20 million) to assist the Libyan Government of National Accord’s counter-ISIL efforts.  But, this is unlikely to be the end of intervention in Libya.

The past several years of various “limited operations” have shown that there is still much to learn, the most glaring revelation being this: Today, airpower is easier to employ politically because the moral barriers of entry into conflict have largely abated but harder to use effectively because the strategies behind tasking airpower in these circumstances have not evolved.

Blunted Instruments

“At least 75% of ISIL fighters have been killed during the campaign of US-led airstrikes, according to US officials.” — CNN, 14 December 2016

“That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Colonel Nguyen Don Tu, Peoples Army of Vietnam, 1975

Generically, airpower is far less destructive than it used to be. We cannot just carpet bomb the land and call it a day.  No air force, including the U.S. Air Force, can deliver the massive amount of ordnance that characterized air warfare from World War II (47,000 tons/month) to Vietnam (65,000 tons/month).  This is a feature not a bug. The increased precision of modern air-delivered weapons allows us to attack specific targets, sometimes down to the level of individual combatants, and limit the widespread destruction that characterized earlier eras or air warfare.  In 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom it took just 9,500 tons of ordnance in the campaign to topple the regime largely because 68 percent of those weapons were guided munitions.

But, precision weapons are no more effective than dumb bombs if the targets are the wrong ones — especially when the adversary is not a traditional nation-state (and the mark of victory is very different).  A task to “destroy ISIL” is vastly different from “defeat ISIL as a military force on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.”  The former is a 3rd century objective that is unsuitable for the 21st century. The latter is a task that is both difficult to achieve from the air and lacks a means to gauge success.  If, however, your task is to destroy ISIL’s finance system in order to hasten the unraveling of a key control mechanism, then “destroy all of the banks where they store cash” is a task that airpower can accomplish.

It is possible to go overboard in the other direction, too. If the task instead was “destroy all of the banks where they store cash without hurting anybody,” then we have exited the opposite side of the stage with yet another task that is unsuitable for military force at all.  Sure, U.S. aircraft might be able to hit some targets that do not involve unintended casualties, but they are probably not targets that matter.  The value of precision airstrikes encompasses more than just the accuracy afforded by a guidance kit.  They must have precise intelligence in order to achieve a targeted effect which itself must be accurately assessed.

Oddly enough, the one example of unambiguous airpower-only victory is also a textbook case of how not to do it.  Operation Allied Force over the Former Republic of Yugoslavia was disconnected from realistic policy goals, suffered from a lack of achievable objectives or even a strategy, had miss-assessments in battle damage reporting, and relied on the unproven idea of “aerial coercion” reminiscent of Vietnam’s failed Rolling Thunder.  After 78 days of airstrikes, it worked primarily by using precision airpower as a club to pound a round strategic peg into the square hole that was Kosovo.

The campaign against ISIL shares many similarities with Allied Force.  The United States underestimated ISIL’s will to fight, over-estimated the effectiveness of an air campaign with limited intelligence, and was initially slow to modify strategy to adapt to changing ISIL tactics.  However, with extremely limited numbers of troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the age-old debate over the potential for airpower as the primary agent of victory is resurrected but with a twist.  The coalition is fighting a non-state organization with a heart based in a non-partner country.  What objectives are appropriate for a campaign overly relying on airpower?  Will those objectives suffice to meet the nation’s national security goals?  Surpassing two years into Operation Inherent Resolve, these questions should be relatively easy to answer — except that it’s not clear if they were ever asked.

To make matters worse, the infatuation of metrics has skewed how to properly gauge success.  The Department of Defense often falls into the trap of relying on things that are easy to measure rather than metrics that matter, which is misconstrued as documenting progress.  Seeking to use a metrics-based reporting to gain insights into strategy is backwards — a well-crafted strategy should be measured by metrics that inform the strategy.  “50,000 ISIL fighters have been killed using 32,000 airstrikes,” makes for good press, but this has little to do with strategy and objectives.  The achievement of material effects (destruction of enemy capabilities) is most applicable under industrial-era warfare (like the world wars), not today.  As it turns out, the correct metrics are damnably hard to gather, particularly with respect to intangibles like the enemy’s will to fight.

The Imbalance

Ideally, a campaign planner would use intelligence-derived metrics to shape targeting aimed at accomplishing specific objectives, thus driving precision airstrikes to pick apart the enemy system while simultaneously applying a joint-domain force, alongside the application of the other traditional instruments of power (diplomatic, information, and economic).  However, lacking in this dialogue and evolution of strategic studies are the consequences of what happens when the military lever itself becomes unbalanced.

While some tactical gains can be had by applying traditional, doctrinal functions of military force, strategically the joint force is only as strong as its weakest element.  A boots-off-the-ground policy purposely strains this interdependent relationship by exuding an over-reliance on the fires function (air strikes) and the negation mass and maneuver (ground force).  This is readily seen in Operation Inherent Resolve, where the deliberate policy choice to rely “by, with, and through” local partners assisted by special operators sub-contracts out the “mass and maneuver” function of the joint force.  To further complicate this, this policy brings a host of external variables beyond the control (and sometimes command and control) of America’s leadership.  The “by, with, and through” construct is a different shade of warfare, suitable for less overt efforts where enduring tactical gains can have strategic effects — as seen in Somalia, Tunisia, Chad, Colombia, the Philippines, and others.

Up-scaled to a large campaign and constrained to operate within such an unbalanced model, airpower degenerates into destroying objects that may be completely divorced from the objectives needed to bring a suitable end to the conflict — the recipe for perpetual war.  Killing people and breaking things is often what airpower does, but that is not a strategy.  Alas, airpower is relegated to recycled World War II tactics like “softening up” ISIL with airstrikes before a ground offensive.

The stark reality is this: No amount of iron dropped from the air can kill an idea — but no amount of bullets can either.  As long as the adversary retains both the ability and the will to fight, there will be no conflict resolution and certainly not one that favors the Western powers.  In effect, the airpower campaign against ISIL is no more than an especially destructive form of containment.  Whether designed that way deliberately or not, the constant rain of destruction visited on ISIL has constrained its ability to gain territory or even hold what they already control.  But, without a major ground commitment, “destructive containment” may very well be the furthest limit of the military option — trying not to lose a limited war that the adversary is devoted to win.

Political Airpower

Today, the apparent ease by which airpower may be ordered into the fray is belied by the very real difficulty of planning an effective campaign that can achieve policy objectives with the tools at hand.  Unfortunately, the evolution of strategic thought has not kept pace with the evolution of policy.  What this airpower-heavy policy does achieve is largely domestic.  It satisfies the need to be seen doing something, even if that something is largely ineffective.  It endures that policymakers do not often have to deal with the reality of war’s impact on vulnerable civilian populations.  Of course, it limits American casualties.

What it doesn’t do is bring a satisfactory end to conflict over the short term.  In fact, the current airpower strategy in Iraq and Syria is highly constrained — accepting a reduction in military effectiveness to likewise reduce the aspects of military employment that politicians find unpalatable.  In the end, the willingness to employ military force without the willingness to accept that such force is neither neat nor controllable has a series of impacts: limiting operations tempo, protracting coalition involvement, and testing long-term commitments, all while providing a vehicle for the enemy to continually adapt, thereby prolonging conflict.


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 U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow.  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.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch