Center for Strategic Communication

Last week, CJ Chivers fied a riveting briefing about airpower:

It’s far from perfect, though when a modern Joint Terminal Attack Controller is working with a well-trained pilot and weapon systems officer, and the comm is up, close air support in the age of guided munitions, infra-red targeting pods, Rover links and G.P.S. has become so precise and so effective that people have come to expect perfection. That very idea once seemed an impossible notion. .. It’s a form of warfare that captures many of the contradictions and drives many of the emotions surrounding modern Western war, as it has become so fine-tuned that every mistake fuels anti-foreigner anger. And yet without it many of the remote outposts and operations in Afghanistan would otherwise be in no-go zones. Everyone complains when a strike goes bad, for very good reason. And yet almost everyone who is pinned down finds the mind going to that recurring question: Where the fuck’s the air?

It is true that modern airpower has advanced by leaps and bounds over the decades, particularly in the area of close air support. Of course, many problems remain the same. No matter how advanced air systems may be, enemy workarounds are possible and targeting very much depends on accurate intelligence. Furtheremore, airpower, like any other tactical means, also is dependent on correct policy and strategy to gain strategic effect. Make no mistake–American small wars are sustained in large part by airpower. It is difficult to envision a American campaign without air coverage, and the lack of effective close air support in Vietnam was one of the many reasons why North Vietnamese and Vietcong ground forces were able to inflict such heavy casualties on American forces. Enemy formations were devastated whenever effective air power could be employed. The defense of Khe Sanh and other firebases is a case in point.

Airpower in small wars, however, is only an extension of a larger operational method of power projection. For most of human history, the expense of vehicular transport meant that rivers were often the most effective means of transport. Rivers not only enabled rapid transportation and logistics but also rapid reinforcement and decisive raiding. Both blue and brown water forces enabled a strategy in which small numbers of troops could project power far into large landmasses in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Those forces, superior in discipline, logistics, organization, and tactics to local forces, could spread rapidly and destructively. Technology was more variable–firearms, for example, were common throughout the world during the height of the colonial era. Given superior terrain and doctrine, local forces could inflict stunning tactical and strategic defeats on foreign power-projection units. Local victories were not just achieved by guerrilla units, but also by large land armies.

Airpower added a new dimension to an already rich tradition of land/sea power projection by making it easier to reinforce ground units and strike enemies in distant zones. Aerial resupply, movement, and casualty evacuation also increased the ease with which relatively numerically understrength mobile ground forces could operate in small wars. Both airpower and naval gunfire support were a large part of US “gunboat diplomacy” in Central America, psychologically intimidating opponents and protecting infantry forces. Airpower and naval forces are also dependent on basing for sustained operations inland. Finally, both can also be blocked by enemy standoff weapons such as anti-ship missiles and integrated air defense systems. In an earlier era ships were blocked by mines and coastal fortifications and airpower defeated by dense flak guns.

Critics of airpower often cite T.H. Fehrenbach’s adage that cannot pacify a country simply by flying over it, but the more general problem is that tactical superiority has never easily translated into gaining the control necessary to achieve expansive political objectives. War is not warfare, and it has always been possible to lose the war while still winning the warfare. Distance in particular has always taken its toll. The US could count on more coercive power in Central America, a region with shorter distances from central US bases and one pliable to naval and air forces. Elsewhere the strategic effects of naval and air based tactics is far more ephemeral. The ability to sustain small bases without the ability to gain overall control over the area of operations, most dramatically seen in the documentary Restrepo, hardly suggests the kind of operational dominance necessary to triumph in small wars. Manpower–especially modern military forces–is expensive to sustain and movement even more so. As Jonathan Riley suggests, modern military operations actually make it cheaper to stay still than maneuver operationally.

In Vietnam, supposedly airmobile forces often found themselves landing in hot dropzones preregistered with enemy firepower–if contact could be had at all. The approach of helicopters into some jungle clearings often caused enemy forces to scatter. Worse yet, the need to achieve surprise and avoid ambushes often led to forces being dropped far from the objective and hiking to contact. Of course, the contrasting tactical success of the Rhodesian FireForce operational concept suggests a diferent approach to airmobility could have been had–but the total character of the Rhodesian Civil War was precisely what enabled tactical risktaking and innovation. Consequently, European forces in late 19th century China with limited political objectives (mostly relating to trade) could exert power with tiny ground forces and native proxies because they did not seek to establish control over the whole country. The Imperial Japanese Army lacked such political limits and found themselves floundering despite repeated tactical victories and the destruction of many large Chinese cities.

The paradox of airpower is that it is essential to small wars yet also sustains strategic delusions. Those delusions have little to do with blowback, drones, or even lethal targeting altogether. Strategists frequently believe that air and naval power projection platforms, coupled with a small elite Western force (or a large unskilled native force), can realize expansive political objectives. Given the right policy and strategy, small elite forces coupled with naval and air forces and possibly local armies can have beneficial strategic effect. But these capabilities are often paired with political objectives that accentuate their worst failings and downplay their benefits.