The False Death of Airpower

Aug. 1, 2011

In October 1957, five years before he wrote Seven Days in May, Fletcher Knebel was with Look magazine when he penned an influential feature, “Coming Death of the Flying Air Force.” It detailed how guided missiles were on the brink of making manned combat aircraft obsolete.

“It can be heard in the corridors of the Pentagon, in our bases flung around the world, in statements of the brass and in the design rooms of industry: The flying Air Force is being grounded by the missile,” Knebel wrote just a decade into USAF’s official existence.

It was an early take on a notion that regularly resurfaces. One finds a similar theme in military historian Martin van Creveld’s new book, The Age of Airpower. Van Creveld does a creditable job surveying the broad and complex history of airpower in military operations, but goes off the rails during his frequent switches from historian to commentator.

Airpower reached its peak in World War II, van Creveld argues, and “fierce debate soon developed as to who had done what, how effective the attacks had really been, and what the overall contribution of airpower to the unfolding of operations was.”

His arguments are straightforward: War between nuclear armed states is unthinkable; new aircraft are operationally no more effective than old aircraft; rising cost and complexity vastly reduces inventories and makes commanders unwilling to risk aircraft in combat; space systems and drones are making manned aircraft obsolete; and airpower is not decisive in war.

The book has been well reviewed. Unfortunately, the spurious arguments have received the attention.

“Seen in retrospect airpower has now been in decline for six decades and more,” van Creveld writes. Yet his examples frequently fail to support his thesis.

Consider close air support: “Less than a year before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, told Congress that field units normally had to wait about 25 minutes for air support,” van Creveld writes. “That only represented a marginal improvement on what the RAF in Egypt had achieved in the Western Desert during the second half of 1942.”

But even this careful comparison of a pre-OIF estimate to a specific time and place in the past contradicts another example. Discussing Allied air operations from France late in World War II, he notes “ground troops who asked for air support could hardly expect to receive it within less than an hour of the request being made.” Twenty-five minutes would be a marked improvement, and one thing that has undeniably changed is accuracy. The Air Force today frequently delivers precision weapons against enemy positions, with much less risk of fratricide than in the past.

Van Creveld also questions whether advanced technology is worth the cost. “Weapons systems regarded as too expensive and too few in number to be lost cannot be used in war,” he says, which would no doubt surprise the B-2 and F-117 crews who flew into the teeth of Serbian, Iraqi, or Libyan air defenses in recent years.

Technological advances have a way of canceling each other out, he continues, as an F-15 is roughly equivalent to a MiG-29 in the same way that a P-51 Mustang was comparable to a Japanese Zero. What has changed is the cost, which has led to vastly smaller air fleets worldwide.

Yet “there is no sign that, on a one-against-one or even squadron-against-squadron basis, modern aircraft are more capable than their predecessors 60 or even 90 years ago,” he says. But in his discussion of the 1991 Gulf War, the author eloquently shows what happens when a nation is on the wrong side of technology. After listing all the capabilities the US had but Iraq did not, van Creveld dismisses the victory out of hand as “a case of an elephant stamping on the worm that had provoked it.” You can’t have it both ways—either technology matters, or it doesn’t.

Then there is the argument that satellites and drones are displacing manned aircraft. Many capabilities have migrated to space, and unmanned aerial vehicles are multiplying at the same time that combat aircraft inventories are declining. But USAF is the primary military developer and operator of these systems, and satellites and UAVs are still, in a word, airpower.

The Age of Airpower goes on to cite a litany of post-World War II examples where air forces proved critical:

• Thanks to airpower, the 1967 Six Day War was “a spectacular victory” for Israel, but allegedly “represented the swan song in an age that was already on the wane.”

• Just five years later, in Vietnam, the Linebacker operations “reconfirmed the old lesson … that no large-scale conventional campaign is feasible in the teeth of enemy command of the air.”

• The idea that airpower is in decline is further contradicted by Operation Desert Storm, in which Iraq’s military forces were so gutted by the USAF-led air assault that land combat only took 100 hours.

Of course the Air Force is most effective in combined operations. That’s not the point. Even Operation Allied Force, the US-led air-only effort to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo in 1999 was ultimately successful. Despite a slow buildup of effort and maddening political limitations brought on by NATO concerns, “airpower did indeed prove decisive,” van Creveld acknowledges.

Today’s complaints about the Air Force often center on its supposed ineffectiveness in counterinsurgencies. Airpower has difficulty winning a war against enemies who hide among civilian populations and fight with hit-and-run tactics, but this is not a unique problem. Land forces and sea power have been equally hamstrung.

As we saw in Vietnam, twice in Iraq, and in a handful of larger battles in Afghanistan, if the enemy masses, they will be destroyed from the air. This will be done with far less human cost than force-on-force ground operations require.

This is America’s asymmetric advantage. The Air Force can project US power quickly, accurately, and with few casualties. Despite the unending harping by its critics, airpower isn’t going anywhere.