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Airpower, Terror, and Alienation

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Spencer, noting the recent research indicating that civilian deaths in Afghanistan generate hostility towards the United States:

Additionally, some in the military consider a preoccupation with civilian casualties to be a media-driven phenomenon. Last December, the Air Force’s intel chief, Lieutenant General David Deptula, told Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman that “there appears to be an almost complete lack of indication to support the conventional wisdom, popularized in the media, that air attacks have been provoking deep hostility toward the U.S. and the Kabul government.” Deptula was talking specifically about the air war, and the researchers found that only about six percent of civilian casualties caused by ISAF come through air strikes. (Of course, that’s after McChrystal and his predecessor, General David McKiernan, scaled back ISAF’s use of air strikes.) But after the study, Deptula might want to reconsider his contention that “there is little reason based on the admittedly limited data available in open source to expect that drastically reducing the civilian casualty issue would produce game changing results on the political battlefield.”

Noah, tweeting on same:

I know. “Civilian Casualties Create New Enemies” seems mega-obvious. But top Air Force officers actually disputed it.

Yes, shocking. Of course, in the twentieth century much airpower doctrine has been based on the premise that bombing could terrify subject populations into complaisance; it’s hardly an exaggeration to note that Arthur Harris’ strategic bombing campaign against Germany in World War II was designed to kill German civilians until the survivors decided to give up. Lemay’s campaign against Japan was based on a similar premise. The affinity of airpower to terror stretches back a touch farther than that, even. From a British Air Ministry Memorandum of June, 1921:

As an outcome of the war, countries such as Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Persia have increased the commitments of the Army, since in these law is to an abnormal extent dependent on the presence of adequate armed forces; in these countries it may be proved that the Air Service is capable of maintaining order at a small cost as compared with military occupation. If these “policing duties” can be successfully carried out by the utilisation of air power, the enlargement of the Air Force to meet greatly increased responsibilities must follow; it is in such work that the commitments of the Royal Air Force are likely to show their greatest present increase.

For a sense of what “maintaining order at a small cost” means, and of how long the argument about the effectiveness of airpower in COIN has been going on a British Army memo of February 1921:

There is general agreement that the moral effect of continued intensive air action on the inhabitants of towns and villages is great. The inhabitants, in order to avoid casualties, are obliged to leave their houses by day and seek cover from view in palm groves and orchards, returning to their houses only after dark. All business is thus suspended and the life of the community rendered intolerable. Night raids carried out in addition to raids by day naturally increase the moral effect.

In the case of nomadic or semi-nomadic tribes, or in fact any tent dwellers, such effect cannot be hoped for. The difficulty of keeping track of their movements, or identifying changing targets, and of disentangling the camps of hostile from thos of friendly tribes with which they purposely mingle, renders continued intensive air action unlikely to be either effective or confined to the guilty.

Errors both in intelligence, and in identification of targets from intelligence, must inevitably be relatively frequent, unless the alternative of extreme caution is adopted, which involves the surrender of one of the greatest factors in the moral effect of aircraft, rapidity of action.

The effect of such errors is naturally exasperation, and, even in dealing with the guilty, the opinion expressed that the initial state of terror produced by intensive air action is followed by a sense of exasperation rather than of submission. This is largely due to the fact that in many cases, women and children and the infirm are apt to suffer equally with, or more than, fighting men. Hatred and a desire for revenge are likely to be engendered thereby…..

The general consensus of opinion is that is that in their present stage of development aeroplanes cannot be replied upon as the main weapon of an administration in its task of preserving law and order… Although the moral effect of intensive air action is great, it is transient, and the indiscriminate destruction of life and property which will inevitably result must tend to alienate the sympathies of the inhabitants from the administration.

The question, then, of the relative levels of terror and alienation generated by air attacks has been going on for a very long time. For institutional reasons, the Royal Air Force had every reason to minimize the latter and emphasize the former. Although circumstances have changed (few if any USAF officers make arguments about the positive utility of terror in savage wars), that the minimization of alienation remains an important institutional consideration for the Air Force is hardly surprising.

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  • RepubAnon

    Pop quiz:

    1) When the terrorists attacked on 9/11, did Americans:

    (a) Get very angry and decide to fight back?

    (b) Decide that the civilian casualties were just unfortunate collateral damage, and forgive them?

    Hint: despite what the brains at the USAF believe, the answer isn’t “b” for bomb…

  • rea

    “few if any USAF officers make arguments about the positive utility of terror in savage wars”

    “Shock and Awe”

  • Mojo

    Let’s take this from the beginning.
    Deptula was “talking specifically about the air war” and “researchers found that only about six percent of civilian casualties caused by ISAF come through air strikes.” Given that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that there is no evidence that a 6% (or less) decrease in civilian deaths “would produce game changing results on the political battlefield.” Why do you think it would?
    Furthermore, that 6% is “air strikes”, not “Air Force strikes”.
    Somehow, every time a soldier at a checkpoint fires on a car carrying civilians or an Army heli strafes a random car on a city street, the cause turns out to be that Curtis LeMay was an a$$hole. Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

  • Mojo

    One clarification. I totally agree that LeMay was an a-hole. It’s the idea that everything would be fine if we just turned all the aircraft fixed-wing jet aircraft not operated by the Navy over to the Apache pilots that I find hard to swallow.

  • Dave

    Nuke the troops.

  • alphie

    “Palestine” was never a country.

    No sir!

    • Larry

      Not relevant whether it was a “country” or not. Israel was never a “country” either, asshole.

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  • Brett Turner

    Doesn’t this confuse strategic airpower with tactical? No one thinks an Arthur Harris-style strategic bombing campaign will win Afghanistan. The debate is whether the cost of using tactical airpower to support ground troops is worth the cost. Using airpower saves the lives of coalition troops, but costs the lives of local civilians. This seems like a classic cost/benefit decision, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking whether the cost (apparently 6% of all civilian deaths) is justified by the benefit (the lives saved through use of tactical airpower). What the answer is, I have no idea, but the question seems legitimate.

  • Anyone the six per cent figure as not ‘producing game changing results on the battlefield’ or as being a tradeoff between the lives of coalition troops and civilian casualties is missing the point. Counterinsurgency operations are not primarily about military success; they are mostly political. The goal is not to kill the enemy ‘troops’ but to win the allegiance of the civilian population. Obviously, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the line between who is a civilian and who is an enemy combatant is blurry. But civilian casualties from airstrikes, even if only 6 per cent of the total, can be used effectively as propaganda, even if the surviving friends and relatives of the civilian casualties don’t immediately become enemy combatants.

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