Security Studies Program Seminar

Air Power: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Thomas Keaney
Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University

February 9, 2005

Air power achieved a wonderful reputation after the first Gulf War. However, there have not been prominent studies or triumphs cited for the role of air power in Gulf War II (Operation Iraqi Freedom). And, air power is very seldom noted in current news reports, and it has not seemed to be particularly useful during the counter-insurgency campaign. But, on a broader scale, air power has become more, not less, important. At the same time, air power, particularly strategic air power, is changing in focus.

Can air power alone win wars? Anything is possible, but the question itself is based on an incorrect premise. The decision to end a war is a political judgment, not a military one, and is influenced by many factors, not all of them military. Therefore, I will avoid that debate completely in this presentation. I am interested in what air power, particularly strategic air power can accomplish in the military sphere.

1. The role of air power and its evolution.

What can air power do? Below are cited some basic roles

-Air control

-Offensive counter air
-Defensive counter air

-Force application (air to ground)

Strategic air power
Air interdiction
Close air support

-Force enhancement

Air Refueling
Electronic Countermeasures

These are roles that have existed, with the exception of the last two listed, since World War I. Today, we have improved equipment and capability to accomplish them, but they remain much the same. One can make an argument for the force enhancement roles being the more important for dealing with an insurgency, but today I want to focus this talk on the force application roles alone.

First, let me define strategic attack, the current term of the Air Force for the more traditional term, strategic bombing. The term means bombing operations that seek the attainment of strategic military objectives (sometimes defined as victory) directly , not through the support or assistance that bombing would provide to ground, naval, or other air operations.

Historically, the key aspects of strategic air power have been:

A. Focus on economic warfare, with targets such as industry, transportation, power generation, and government infrastructure.

B. Speed of application. Speed creates shock value, not just damage, and employment theories have stressed the importance of speed of application as a vital aspect in attaining the desired results.

C. Emphasis on the combined factors of capability and will of the enemy. Douhet and Mitchell talked about undermining the enemies' capability and will to resist. The aim is to attack them both, and strategic bombing theory invariably combines the two factors as being in close support of one another.

There was a significant debate after World War II about the effectiveness of strategic air power in that war, but it remained the central tenant of Air Force doctrine and a necessary link to the Air Force's drive to become independent.

Problems with strategic air power.


2. The US Experience (Post Cold War to first Gulf War)

A. Strategic Air Power

During the Korean War, the US did not emphasize strategic attack. Subsequent to that war, the theory became caught up in the nuclear revolution. For the length of the Cold War, the idea of strategic bombing was linked to the nuclear balance and the fear that strategic attack could trigger a nuclear exchange. Theoretical development froze for thirty years. Technological progress also slowed on the delivery of weapons, since nuclear weapons needed less accuracy to be effective than did conventional weapons.

B. Tactical air power.

Tactical air power for this discussion includes the roles of close air support and air interdiction.

For the role of close air support, a similar set of problems have plagued tactical air power since its inception and have been cited in post-war reports from World War II and Korea: lack of adequate communications between air and ground units, lack of the same sight picture for air and ground units, slow response times, and delays and inaccuracy in damage assessment. Progress on these issues occurred during Vietnam, but the real success came in the first Gulf War.

Vietnam showed innovations in accomplishing air to ground attacks. Rather than just employing just fighter-type aircraft, cargo aircraft converted to gunships, and attack helicopters played prominent roles. In addition, air refueling, and airborne command and control aircraft were added to the mix, essentially expanding and providing better coordination to the attacks . Then, the major post Cold War innovations were stealth, precision, computing power, and sensors. These innovations opened up new target sets. There was no longer a need for rollback campaigns: all targets from the first day, and often could be hit simultaneously.

Strategic bombing reemerged as a possible role for conventional bombing after Cold War. With possible retaliation by the Soviet Union no longer a factor, going after the regime change in a country (a Soviet client state like Iraq, for instance) was not as dangerous politically. And, leadership targets became viable with precision weapons. Ironically, at the same time that economic targeting became more easily done, they became largely irrelevant. Precision allowed bombers to destroy fixed economic targets, like power generation, with ease, but the shortness of the wars left no time for economic strangulation to take effect.

After the Cold War, the United States gained the ability to maintain a continuous presence in the skies over enemy territory. Prior to the first Gulf War, air power had been executed in spasm attacks, which might come three to four times a day, but not continuously. Now it could be sustained, even at night. This signified a shift from land to air power. It became much more difficult for land forces to move without air superiority, as seen by the success of air interdiction in the first Gulf War.

3. The First Gulf War, some results of the bombing:

A. The old-time strategic industrial targets (oil generation and electric power) were neutralized or destroyed within days, but this success did not make much difference because of the shortness of the war.

B. The Scuds and WMD targets were a different story. Intelligence assessments were wrong. The US thought it had destroyed the two nuclear sites identified and crippled the Iraqi nuclear program. After the war, UN inspectors found more than twenty other nuclear sites that we had not known about, meaning that the Iraq program had not been nearly as damaged as believed. And we did not destroy any Scuds by air attacks during the war, despite the reporting at the time.

C. The story of success against leadership and command and control targets is less certain. With precision weapons, we could now go after these targets. We could take out phones and fiber optics cables. We could hit rooms in buildings. The success of these attacks was hard to gauge, however. Physical damage was apparent, but not the effects on the leaders. (If still interested, the US could try to get that information now by rounding up and questioning some of the generals involved.)

D. Unlike these three categories, the attacks on the Iraqi army had nowhere near the level of planning and synchronization, but these attacks were key factors in the campaign. Being pinned down and demoralized had a dramatic effect on the Iraqi army's ability to fight. Thus, even though these attacks were tactical, they had a significant strategic effect.

What made this success possible were technological advancements in the weapons themselves, along with air refueling, satellite reconnaissance, and enemy tracking with JSTARs and command and control by systems like AWACS. These assets will make attack on enemy armies more important and more decisive in the future.

Some problems persisted. Intelligence was not perfect. We still hit the wrong things and killed innocents.

Improvements in communications technology allowed far better communications between air and ground and common sight picture to be shared by air and ground forces. Sensors improved the ability to do close air support. In short, these new technologies have served to address rather directly the previous impediments to effective close air support.

The Army and the Air Force still disagree about how much airpower can do to help attack a ground army. The Army still considers air power as an adjunct to support a ground attack. But now we can attack an army in depth throughout a theater, possibly making air power the direct factor in its destruction.

4. The Second Gulf War

The analysis from Gulf War II does not show much about how the Army has changed or altered their view of air power. The Army units were clearly less concerned about their flanks, however — more willing to depend on air to defend them.

The war also demonstrates that the lines between strategic and tactical are blurry. The lines between strategic bombing and interdiction, and interdiction and close air support were considerably mixed. It is probably better to erase the rhetorical board and just talk about how we attack the enemy and undermine his strategy. Today the Air Force has introduced the term "counterland," which includes air interdiction and close air support. They have also introduced the term "direct attack."

Gulf War II also underlined the shift in emphasis in strategic attack from economic warfare to targeting leadership and suspected WMD sites. Moreover, the idea of destroying the enemy's will to resist did not play role. In this war and in others, I fact, the US has emphasized that the Iraqi people were not the enemy.

Thomas Keaney is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University. He is a former professor of military strategy at National War College and director of its core courses on military thought and strategy. Keaney served most of his career in the U.S. Air Force, holding positions including associate professor of history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, planner on the Air Staff, forward air controller in Vietnam and B-52 squadron commander. He was a researcher/author with the Gulf War Air Power Survey.


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