The “Real Fight,” Reconsidered

July 1, 2006

That recent Air Force wipeout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi must have come as a thunderous surprise to many. How could it not? Everyone knows the Army and Marine Corps do the “real fighting” against terrorists, and our airmen just hold their coats, right?

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has lectured the Air Force that it has little future except in “the mission on the ground” in aid of “young corporals and sergeants engaged in the real fight.” To columnist Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer, land units—and only land units—do “the actual fighting.”

Soldiers and marines are doing “virtually all of the fighting and dying” in this war, wrote retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College, who discerns that the Army and Marine Corps are “at war” while USAF is “at peace.”

Usually, that type of sniping safely can be ignored, given its blatant service-centric bias. Yet such claims feed the widespread perception that USAF has little to offer in the global war against terrorists. That, in itself, could lead to real danger.

Let us stipulate that land forces have suffered grievous losses in Afghanistan and Iraq and in numbers that far exceed those of USAF or the Navy. The question is: How, exactly, does that show that USAF’s 21,000 in-theater airmen are non-contributors

The primary allegation seems to be that USAF provides only so-called “enabling” capabilities—transport, medevac, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) work, and so forth—while “real” warriors on the ground engage in the “real” combat against terrorists.

“The perception is that, if you’re not out there on the street, boots on the ground, dying, then you’re not in the war,” noted one Air Force veteran of combat in Southwest Asia.

Such claims took serious battle damage at 6:15 p.m. on June 7, when a lone F-16 pilot, given mere minutes to prepare, pumped two 500-pound precision guided bombs into the not-so-safe safe house of the notorious al-Zarqawi, whose grisly career is now at an end. According to Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF’s Chief of Staff, the F-16 pilot was on a routine patrol but was “dynamically retasked” to attack the site.

This should have surprised no one. Effective air attacks are common in the war with terrorists, as seen in US Central Command reports for a recent week in June. Among the multitude of actions:

“A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and a B-1B responded to troops in contact. … A-10s performed strafing passes, ending the engagement.”

“The B-1B expended precision guided JDAMs on the enemy positions, ending the engagement.”

“The Predator expended Hellfire missiles on the enemy positions, killing four extremists and ending the engagement.” [Emphasis added.]

While they rarely make headlines, such operations have been conducted, to great effect, hundreds of times over the years. In many cases, ground forces act in support of airpower. In other cases, the reverse is true.

The Air Force puts up B-52 or B-1 bombers able to loiter for a full day and strike any target in 30 minutes. F-15, F-16, A-10, and AC-130 pilots use 20 mm, 30 mm, 40 mm, and 105 mm guns to attack ground forces with little collateral damage. Predators put their Hellfire missiles in specific windows or attack terrorists planting roadside bombs.

The second criticism, ironically, seems to be that USAF isn’t providing nearly enough “enabling” capability. Air Force leaders expend huge amounts of time deflecting calls to divert funds away from combat aircraft to buy more airlift, ISR, and similar capabilities.

It’s easy to see why ground forces want more; such capabilities are extremely useful. Example: USAF uses spacecraft and aircraft to find individual terrorists for ground forces to attack. “You could look at that as an enabling force,” said an officer, “or, you could say ground forces could do nothing without me.”

As for airlift, direct delivery of troops and cargo in the theater greatly reduces the vulnerability of soldiers and marines on the ground. Is that “enabling,” or is it a part of effective force protection? What’s beyond doubt is it saves lives.

Col. Steve Pennington, an operations officer at Air Force headquarters, summed up the situation with this comment: “Airmen, as part of the joint team, bring these enduring capabilities to the fight. Without the airmen, [soldiers] won’t know what’s around the corner, they’ll be surprised, and they’ll die. Without the airmen, they won’t be able to quickly respond to an adversary. …The airmen bring both of those capabilities to the fight, and are the only ones who do.”

A related criticism seems to be that Pentagon expenditures on airpower somehow are starving the ground forces of resources. The claim is usually phrased as a criticism of “worthless” F-22 and F-35 fighters useful only in a high-intensity conventional war.

It’s only natural for those engaged primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan to focus on today’s fight and slight a war that may be a decade away. Yet the services are the only defense institutions capable of sustaining a long-term view, and USAF must ensure it has the capabilities required for such a future fight.

If Army and Marine Corps needs are not being met, the solution is to persuade Congress to meet them, not to gut the Air Force.

“There will be some fights where the Air Force carries a disproportionate share of the load and others where we are primarily in support,” said retired USAF Gen. Richard E. Hawley, who formerly led Air Combat Command. “In those cases, we should accept reality, embrace our role as an enabler, … all the while quietly reminding people that other kinds of fights are not only possible but likely.”

We think that’s good advice. We also think there’s been quite enough jabbering about who is, and is not, a “real” warrior in the fight against terrorism. The nation is getting a tremendous performance from its ground forces, but also from its air, space, and naval forces. They are all “in the fight.” Misrepresentation of this basic reality could lead to disaster, with the major victims being the ground forces themselves.