Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bombs Away!

They’re at it again. They being the cult of Air Power as the ultimate weapon. Even as counter-insurgency is the goal of military operations in Iraq, Air Power will not be left out. Air Power is rarely excluded from American military operations. Air Power claims to have won WWII. Complete dominance of the air space over Vietnam combined with sophisticated American technology was supposed to easily subdue a local insurgency. Air Power is not new to the mideast; Winston Churchill hoped Air Power would be an inexpensive substitute for direct rule when he created Iraq after WWI. We all know how well that worked out.

Still, the myth dies hard, if at all. Last week, the Washington Post carried a paean to Air Power worthy of any of its early high priests.
"Part of this is announcing our presence to the adversary," said Kahl, who recently returned from a trip to the air operations center. "Across this calendar year you will see a reduction in U.S. forces, so there will be fewer troops to support Iraqi forces. One would expect a continued level of airstrikes because of offensive operations, and as U.S. forces begin to draw down you may see even more airstrikes."

Nowhere in this scenario is the option for fewer airstrikes, only the same or more.. Pretty slick. The Air Force and Navy (I guess) keep flying no matter what, always a good strategy for demonstrating indispensability. And here in the Washington Post, readers learn how precise and thoughtful Air Power can be, how it always works and is not used carelessly. The story is almost a bloodless (for Americans, mostly) one. Accurate. Necessary.

I don’t buy it. War is always messy, technology sometimes unreliable and everything s subject to human error. If you accept that American military operations in Iraq are legitimate, air operations are a logical part of that effort. Even granting, for the sake of discussion, that the American occupation is legitimate, I don’t trust in the infallibility of Air Power.

The Washington Post sure does. Filled with whiz-bang language and technical jargon, the article describes ”... a very deliberate process honed by intelligence, targeted and aligned to get the desired effect in a particular area.” An AGM-114P Hellfire missile kills three extremists. The 250-pound GBU-39 small-diameter bombs makes “...blasts safer for civilians.” A show of force clears the area of civilians before engaging a house and fighters with a 500 pound bomb. Everything works.

The United States has, without doubt, the most sophisticated, technologically advanced aircraft and weapons in the world; American arms can blow just about anything up, including large portions of the Earth at a moment’s notice. Whether all this comes to anything like a meaningful policy for engaging with other nations and peoples is another matter all together. And that’s where stories like this one ring hollow to me. Sure we can do all this. And, yeah, it’s good that it protects our troops–tactical close air support is always welcome when you’re on the ground against an adversary. Even that limited, focused action can wreak significant harm to civilians. Quintuple those operations, with greater tonnage and the cost to civilians, property and infrastructure escalate dramatically? We may win the engagement but lose the trust of the people who are destroyed and dispossessed.

Maybe it’s just the Army grunt in me that resents Air Power ideology. After all, pilots kill without seeing their adversary; they aim at targets in what seems to me to be a real separation between killer and killed. The risk is usually far less for the pilot than the infantryman; few targets of America’s recent wars offered significant anti-aircraft defense. The pilot sleeps in a bed at night unless he’s one of the unfortunate few taken prisoner. Then it really sucks. And, in the end, Air Power cannot secure an objective. Air Power can reduce an objective to rubble or shape the battlefield but someone else must fight that battle and hold that position. That some one is the infantryman.

What amazes me most about the story is the amazing willingness to buy the idea that America can win a war from the air, that such a “war” is somehow less costly and bloody. The language and precision quoted in the Washington Post are today’s versions of the “surgical strikes” in Vietnam that only killed bad guys.

Air Power separates us from the human beings who are our targets. We don’t need to think about them when they are blips on a screen.


addendum

My thoughts about Air Power do not include helicopters. Unlike the Air Force and Navy, Army aviation is relatively close to the ground and far more vulnerable. These guys are are the ones who provide virtually all close air support for troops on the ground. In many respects, they are grunts who operate flying gun platforms. And my Air Force nephew, trained to parachute out of helicopters and rescue downed pilots, is stationed in Iraq. I suspect he gets more calls from the Army than the Air Force. None of this is part of the Air Power cult. We're still talking close combat here.

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1 Comments:

OpenID cdupree said...

Right on. I'm currently reading H.R. McMaster's Dereliction of Duty, apparently the definitive internal study of how we dug ourselves into the horror of the war in Vietnam. Curtis LeMay, the head honcho of the Air Force at the time, is notorious for his view that every problem could be solved by the application of a shitload of bombing. I suspect he believed marital problems could be solved by air power.

The funny thing is, it's never worked, not a single time, yet it continues to be an accepted doctrine. Why? My take is that it meets the McNamara requirement of inflicting maximum damage to the enemy with minimal risk to us, i.e. it maximizes the cost/benefit ratio. We kill a lot of them without exposing many of us. We call that courage, but it's the opposite.

Plus, it makes money for our war machine. Which is why we keep having wars. Otherwise, our economy would go south. Paging Chalmers Johnson…

5:01 AM  

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