Thursday, October 19, 2006

Airpower Maximalist Zombie Lies

A while back, I wrote a post comparing the oft-repeated promises of airpower maximalists - that wars of the future would be fought entirely from the air, that they would be cheap to the victors (and ruinous to the losers) and that the airplane was an invention that fundamentally changed the laws of war - to the reality of history. I'm making no claim to originality here, but I think it's useful to put my own writings in context - I am not, and almost certainly never will be, an airpower maximalist.

The simple reason for that is that the practice or threat of aerial bombardment has never, on it's own, won a war. (Milosevic endured months of bombing during Kosovo, only to fold days after rumours started that Clinton was considering a land invasion.) This isn't to question the real potency or success that airpower does have in wars - The Gulf War is a fantastic example of how airpower can exceed even the optimistic expectations. But the idea that America can fight and win wars exclusively with aircraft is an idea that just doesn't die - it is, as Atrios has called similar examples, a zombie lie.

What surprises me - though it shouldn't, I suppose - is how common airpower maximalism is today, when the United States, NATO, and Israel have all demonstrated in the last 6 months the severe limitations of airpower against a determined, trained, and decently-armed foe.

Via Rob, Charles Dunlap (USAF, ret, natch) gives us almost the Platonic ideal of the airpower maximalist zombie lie. What's bizarre is his assertion that airpower is America's "asymmetrical advantage" - that is, because America's foes can't respond with F-16 fighters of their own, America should use airpower as much as possible.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the idea that an armed force should play to its strengths. But in case you missed it, America has been using airpower as much as possible in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel used airpower quite a bit in that mess in Lebanon. And in no case has airpower provided the decisive victory. Dunlap quotes some Taliban fighters from 2002:
This new, high-tech air power capability completely unhinged the resistance without significant commitment of American boots on the ground. Indeed, the very absence of American troops became a source of discouragement. As one Afghan told the New York Times, "We pray to Allah that we have American soldiers to kill," adding disconsolately, "These bombs from the sky we cannot fight." Another equally frustrated Taliban fighter was reported in the London Sunday Telegraph recently as fuming that "American forces refuse to fight us face to face," while gloomily noting that "[U.S.] air power causes us to take heavy casualties."
And as we all know, the Taliban never resurfaced again, and Afghanistan is now a peaceful democracy exporting apples and cherry blossoms, not heroin.

Then, of course, Dunlap changes gears entirely and says that America also needs airpower for the symmetrical advantage - that is, deterring China. (God, it always comes back to China for these guys.) Dunlap says that there's no way that the US can possibly keep up with China's land forces, so the US needs to maximize it's air advantage. This implies that while ground-based competition is doomed, Chinese/American airpower competition is not. Dunlap never explains either side to that assertion.

For example, it's not clear to me that China's current backwardness (in military equipment) is any more detrimental to airpower than to ground-power. The M1A1 tank is a pretty expensive and advanced piece of gear, and I've seen no evidence that the Chinese have anything comparable. If the Chinese start to exceed American firepower on the ground, I find it hard to believe that Chinese airpower would be far behind.

Dunlap actually comes to within shouting distance of reality at one point:
Yet despite these realties, the [boots on the ground zealots] are waging a relentless campaign against air power. A favorite tact is to denigrate air power as "Cold War weaponry.".... Unexplained is the fact that, despite the awesome personal valor and energy of the troops, U.S. land forces have yet to begin to dominate their domain the way American air power does its domain.
Ah, the "air war" fallacy - that is, pretending that somehow the air campaign and the land campaign are separate, hermetically-sealed events with no connection to each other:
"See - America is bombing the shit out of Iraq, and hasn't lost a plane. We must be winning!"
Of course, reality manages to elude Dunlap - just barely. American ground forces have not managed to acheive victory, even with America's air supremacy in Iraq. For some people, that would be a sign that the status quo isn't working. For the airpower maximalists, it's a sign that real airpower hasn't yet been tried. Like old Marxists, and modern Republicans, it's not the theory that failed, it's the facts that failed the theory.


Mike said...

I believe it was Wesley Clark that once said "you can bomb something for days with impunity until it is gone, but you can't say its yours until an 18-year-old with an M-16 can sit on it)"

Or something like that.

Olaf said...


Great post. Wars are today nothing like they were previous, and can only be won with a physical presence on the ground, which must be substantial in many cases.

There, I did it... commented on all six posts! Except that last one you put up, I'll read that tomorrow.