Shooting Blind

March 1, 1994

David H. Hackworth is an outspoken infantry officer turned media celebrity and syndicated columnist. For the benefit of those who have not read his 875-page autobiography (About Face, Simon and Schuster, 1989), his newspaper columns come with tag lines explaining that he is “the nation’s most decorated living military veteran.” Colonel Hackworth has a poor opinion of many things, and one of them is airpower.

“Air power has failed in every modern war we’ve fought,” Colonel Hackworth declared in a January column. “From World War II to the Persian Gulf, only the grunts down on the ground, where it gets nasty and costly, have produced the final victory.

“Contrary to the Air Force’s post-Desert Storm hype, air power was not the main event even in the desert, where the Iraqis had no place to hide. . . . Victory came not because of decisive air power, but because of hard-hitting armor attacks against an Iraqi army with no will to fight.”

Colonel Hackworth had said pretty much the same thing in a previous column. He now assures us that “with nine wars under my belt,” he knows what he’s talking about. He does not specify the nine wars, but he is clearly trading on his combat credentials to make assertions that are–not to put too fine a point on it–inaccurate.

The argument that airpower is not decisive is very old and very tired. If Colonel Hackworth can name any recent wars won single-handedly by the other services, we will be amazed to hear about them. As almost everyone except Colonel Hackworth seems to realize, modern warfare is a combined-arms proposition.

Furthermore, he made a strange choice in singling out the Gulf War for his ire. He could not possibly be unaware that airpower destroyed Iraq’s command-and-control system before sunrise on the first day of fighting. Then it closed down Iraq’s supply routes and put the world’s sixth-largest air force out of business for the duration of the war. Before the coalition ground offensive began, the Republican Guard had lost a fourth of its armor to air attacks. Front-line units lost more. Vast numbers of troops had deserted their units because of air attacks. How does Colonel Hackworth suppose the Iraqi army lost its will to fight

We have the highest regard for the bravery and achievement of the ground troops in the last 100 hours of the Gulf conflict, but to claim they won the war by themselves is ridiculous. If a “main event” must be designated, it was the air campaign.

Colonel Hackworth has twice made acerbic personal attacks on Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, whom he castigates for being “enthusiastic” about air strikes on Serbian artillery and US involvement in the Balkan conflict. In January, Colonel Hackworth predicted that General McPeak would eat his words if “air power is used as the final solution” in Bosnia.

In fact, General McPeak said nothing like that. In response to a direct question from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), he said he did not know what effect air strikes might have on the political situation in the Balkans, but that, if ordered to do so, the Air Force could find, target, and destroy the Serbian gun positions–and do it without great risk to the aircrews. Does something in Colonel Hackworth’s infantry experience qualify him to make a better judgment

In his 1989 book, Colonel Hackworth said the next war would be one of insurgency and that US troops would not face large armored formations. He did not anticipate the Gulf War, on which he now lectures us. His contempt for airpower is illogical and unrealistic.

Last year’s Bottom-Up Review–which was trying to cut forces, not justify them–estimated that the typical adversary in a major regional conflict will have at least 400,000 troops, 2,000 tanks, 500 combat aircraft, and 100 Scud-class ballistic missiles. Most likely, enemy units and armor will already be rolling when US forces deploy.

The first task in the strategy is for airpower to halt the armored advance and stabilize the front until sustaining forces can arrive. Virtually everything going in for the first thirty days will go by airlift. When decisive force is in place, an air-land counteroffensive can begin. Many of the important targets will be in the rear echelons or deep in hostile territory where the only way to hit them is by air.

Gulf War operations departed from the standard air-land concept by delaying the ground offensive and extending the air campaign, which was yielding better-than-expected results. That approach may prove useful again, but wars differ. It’s possible that airpower will play a less spectacular role in the next conflict. It is impossible, however, to imagine a modern war in which airpower is not a leading element.

No one who paid attention to the Gulf War can accept Colonel Hackworth’s evaluation that airpower was insignificant. No one who thinks more than a few minutes about the order of battle in a major regional conflict will believe it can be fought successfully without airpower.

Colonel Hackworth was a distinguished soldier, but when he talks about airpower, he’s shooting blind, and he’s wrong.