Airpower and Optical Illusions

March 1, 2005

In a Dec. 3, 2001, column, entitled “Face the Facts: Bombing Works,” Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria spotlighted a bizarre aspect of our recent wars.

“Over the last decade,” he wrote, “every time the United States has engaged in a strategic bombing campaign, it has achieved its goals.” Even so, he continued, “after each war, influential experts and journalists have emphasized that the central lesson of the operation is … Airpower alone doesn’t work.”

These commentators acted as if the wars were “optical illusions,” not reality. “What looks to the naked eye like victories produced by airpower,” quipped Zakaria, “were really—with some creative interpretation—victories from the ground.”

Zakaria, unfortunately, could write the same story today. Three years have gone by, yet many still find it easy to discount the value of airpower.

Newspaper analysts—even Pentagon officials—tell us they see a limited role for “traditional” airpower, given the need to put greater emphasis on terrorism and other “nontraditional” threats.

Some claim—erroneously—that airpower hasn’t played much of a role in Iraq during the insurgency there. Elsewhere, one even hears we have too much airpower—“excessive overmatch,” in DOD parlance.

Not surprisingly, questions about the need to modernize USAF’s combat force have multiplied. The assumption, says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, is that the US can delay airpower programs, take greater risks, and divert funds elsewhere.

Indeed, DOD says it will use the $10 billion gained in its recent drive-by shooting of the F/A-22 fighter to fund other programs.

The Theory of the Declining Utility of Airpower has been around for a while. The pattern is clear. First comes skepticism about airpower. Next, shock at its success. And last, tortured claims that airpower was not “decisive” after all.

  • The Gulf, 1991. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In a comment typical of the time, Col. Harry Summers, the late Army strategist, decried “the fanciful notion that a war can be won quickly and decisively by the use of airpower alone.” Early on Jan. 17, 1991, though, air attacks destroyed Iraq’s ability to control its forces or mount a response. Forty-two days of bombing destroyed bunkers, bridges, shelters, and communications, plus huge numbers of tanks and guns. Coalition land forces, coming in at the end, pushed Iraq’s battered units out of Kuwait. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said the decisive factor was airpower. Army backers claimed it was the 100-hour ground offensive.
  • Bosnia, 1995. As the US mulled action against Bosnian Serb forces, analysts warned that Balkan forests, mountains, and poor weather would thwart effective use of airpower. Then, a US-led NATO force conducted a three-week air campaign, hammering Serb heavy weapons, bunkers, ammo dumps, and other targets. The Serbs stopped their “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and sued for peace. Richard C. Holbrooke, the US point man in the Balkans, said the Serbs folded because of airpower. Others claimed the Serbs feared Croat ground forces.
  • Serbia, 1999. When Operation Allied Force began, critics warned that “airpower alone has never been decisive.” That was before NATO aircraft, in a 78-day war, destroyed most Serbian military and industrial targets. As Slobodan Milosevic withdrew his forces from Kosovo, NATO ground troops still had not engaged in combat. It wasn’t long, though, until the world heard a claim that Milosevic caved in because of the threat of “US Army ground forces in Albania”—24 attack helicopters, with about 5,000 support forces.
  • Afghanistan, 2001. Operation Enduring Freedom began Oct. 7, 2001. As Zakaria noted, critics quickly claimed “airpower never works, Afghanistan is ill-suited for it,” and so on. By November, the Taliban and al Qaeda were on the run, defeated by lethal, precise, and innovative USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps bombardment. Within weeks, we heard that the key to success was action by Afghan irregulars, not airpower.
  • Iraq, 2003. Land force partisans worried that planners emphasized airpower at the expense of land troops. What was surprising was the extent to which airpower supported troops on the ground. USAF averaged some 300 strike sorties per day, 80 percent in support of land forces. In a single week, airpower destroyed 1,000 Iraqi tanks and reduced the strength of Republican Guard divisions by at least 50 percent.

    Airpower, in each case, proved valuable in unexpected ways. We will be glad to have such a flexible, hard-hitting weapon the next time we run into a nasty surprise, as we inevitably will. Future air wars might be more demanding than many now expect. Note that, when USAF pilots in F-15Cs recently engaged in mock combat with Indian Air Force pilots, the Indians often won. China is modernizing its military forces faster than anyone expected.

    In today’s dynamic world, it would be unwise to prepare only for threats that are visible now. US power must be flexible and adaptable.

    In every conflict for the past 15 years, airpower has provided that kind of capability. Retired Gen. Richard E. Hawley, former head of Air Combat Command, says Pentagon officials should “have a little humility about their ability to predict what kind of a fight we may be in 15 years hence.”

    Hawley added: “Those who would bet the future security of the nation on their ability to predict the future are on the wrong track. None of us can know what the future holds, and only a balanced mix of forces and capabilities will allow us to face that future with full confidence that our military will not fail us when we need it most.”