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Air Power


Evidence cannot discredit revolutionary doctrine, as the revolutionaries simply interpret new evidence in whatever way they see fit. Air power enthusiasts have taken rather a hit lately, first with the failure of air power to tame Hezbollah in Lebanon (to the extent that the IDF did damage to Hezbollah, it was almost entirely with ground force), and second with the recent Lancet report suggesting that the use of air power, in spite of increased precision, had led to tremendous Iraqi civilian casualties.

Undeterred, Major General Charles Dunlap Jr. (USAF) insists that air power is best available option for the delivery of US power. Disparaging “boots on the ground zealots,” he argued that great recent successes like the killing of Abu Musab al -Zarqawi point to the great capacity that air power still has to deliver victories.

Is air power the new face of successful war-fighting? Much to the dismay of the boots-on-the-ground zealots, or BOTGZ (pronounced bow-togs), the answer for today’s democracies may well be “yes.” During the summer, while U.S. ground forces in Iraq were distracted investigating potential war criminals in their midst, air power delivered a major success. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was, if not a decisive victory, still the best news of the season.

The summer was also marked by Israel’s extensive reliance on air power against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Dunlap did not, apparently, give any thought to the fact that the killing of Zaqawi has had no noticeable effect on the insurgency, or that it has been widely recognized in Israel that the air campaign was a mistake, but nevertheless. Dunlap argues that air war avoids events like Abu Ghraib and Haditha, but mentions nothing of the incident of Qana or the bevy of similar misdirected attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dunlap then insists that air power can win not only conventional conflicts but also counter-insurgency campaigns, and suggests that the Marine Corps should be folded into the Army, since excessive ground forces are unnecessary. That the liberal use of air power in conjunction with extensive use of ground troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq has notably failed to destroy the insurgency doesn’t appear to have occurred to the General. General Dunlap bemoans the fact that we can no longer simply Exterminat the Brutes,

Most important, their hearts and minds are simply not amenable to the reasoned techniques that underlay classic counterinsurgency texts. They are not rational actors in the sense that they are propelled by some political or social ideology; instead, they are driven by unyielding religious fanaticism. In the past, such insurgencies did exist and were crushed the old-fashioned way: by annihilation. That is not exactly a viable option in a world where human rights groups, the media and others too often choose to find something good about the most sadistic terrorist organizations.

but his laudatory remarks about the Viet Cong were, of course, not in evidence during the actual fighting, when it was commonly argued that Asians, Communists, or both put no value on human life and therefore could not be considered rational. I won’t bore you with additional quotes, as General Dunlap launches from this into simple fantasy, asserting against all evidence that US ground forces had no major impact on the collapse of Iraqi forces, that attempts to develop a counter-insurgency strategy to fight in Iraq amount to “fighting the last war”, and that developing an Arabic linguistic capability is useless. It’s important to remember in the context of so many senior officers coming out in opposition to the administration handling of the war that there remain portions of the military utterly hostile to any of the goals that progressives ought to hold, and furthermore that such officers tend to be concentrated in the Air Force, the branch most friendly to neoconservative doctrine (and, notably enough, to particularly virulent forms of evangelical Christianity).

A recent editorial in Warship:International Fleet Review captures the air power zealotry problem in particularly blunt language:

The culprits are the false prophets of air power. An air campaign starts with a target set, which might be informed by adequate intelligence and consists of targets, which are related to the casus belli and susceptible to accurate targeting. The promise of so-called surgical strikes against legitimate targets makes the use of force acceptable to policy-makers and opinion-formers on the left and the right of politics. However, as the air campaign progresses the intelligence becomes poorer and the targeting more challenging, even for precision weapons (which are only ‘precision’ in terms of means of delivery but are otherwise just as indiscriminate in such circumstances as any other munition). Therefore, inevitably there is ‘collateral’ damage. At the same time the intelligence becomes less reliable and the targets become more and more remote from the original set. Eventually the campaign ceases altogether to be intelligence-led and becomes capability-led: Rather than search out those targets which contribute to the campaign, the planners seek desperately for the targets which are susceptible to their available technology

The result is the destruction of anything that can be targeted, even if it has no military value. But the editorial reminds us why air power and its advocates remain so seductive. To civilians who want to vigorously use military power to achieve America’s ends, air power is a godsend. Wars can be fought cheaply, cleanly, and often. Weak minded, casualty conscious civilians can be ignored. Military advice can also be ignored, as long as it comes from either the Army or the Navy. In fairness, civilians who do not hold to neoconservative principles have been seduced by the idea of airpower, but the promise of airpower for a neoconservative foreign policy should be clear.

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