The End of Air Power?

Usaf.Boeing_B-52
All they are sayin’ is give bombing a chance (U.S. Air Force photo)

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, which you can read in its entirety here, I tackle the American infatuation with air power and bombing.  Despite its enormous destructiveness and indecisive results in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Iraq invasion of 2003, and in the ongoing War on Terror, U.S. leaders persist in bombing as a means to victory, even against dispersed organizations such as ISIS and the Taliban that offer few targets.  As I put it in my article:

For all its promise of devastating power delivered against enemies with remarkable precision and quick victories at low cost (at least to Americans), air power has failed to deliver, not just in the ongoing war on terror but for decades before it.  If anything, by providing an illusion of results, it has helped keep the United States in unwinnable wars, while inflicting a heavy toll on innocent victims on our distant battlefields.  At the same time, the cult-like infatuation of American leaders, from the president on down, with the supposed ability of the U.S. military to deliver such results remains remarkably unchallenged in Washington.

Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald points out, Hillary Clinton’s presumptive Defense Secretary, Michele Flournoy, has already issued calls for more U.S. bombing and military interventions in the Middle East.  Talk about doubling down on a losing strategy.

Yet “strategy” isn’t really the right word.  Bombing is a method of war, not a strategy.  And in this case the method truly is the madness, with the end being perpetual war.

When will the madness end?  To be honest, I don’t see an end in the immediate future, so invested in bombing are America’s leaders and foreign “diplomats.”

Here’s the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com.

Yet despite this “asymmetric” advantage [America’s dominance of the air], despite all the bombing, missile strikes, and drone strikes, “progress” proved both “fragile” and endlessly “reversible” (to use words General David Petraeus applied to his “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan).  In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.

So here we are, in 2016, 25 years after Desert Storm and nearly a decade after the Petraeus “surge” in Iraq that purportedly produced that missing mission accomplished moment for Washington — and U.S. air assets are again in action in Iraqi and now Syrian skies.  They are, for instance, flying ground support missions for Iraqi forces as they attempt to retake Falluja, a city in al-Anbar Province that had already been “liberated” in 2004 at a high cost to U.S. ground troops and an even higher one to Iraqi civilians.  Thoroughly devastated back then, Falluja has again found itself on the receiving end of American air power.

If and when Iraqi forces do retake the city, they may inherit little more than bodies and rubble, as they did in taking the city of Ramadi last December.  About Ramadi, Patrick Cockburn noted last month that “more than 70% of its buildings are in ruins and the great majority of its 400,000 people are still displaced” (another way of saying, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”).  American drones, meanwhile, continue to soar over foreign skies, assassinating various terrorist “kingpins” to little permanent effect.

Tell Me How This Ends

Here’s the “hot wash”: something’s gone terribly wrong with Washington’s soaring dreams of air power and what it can accomplish.  And yet the urge to loose the planes only grows stronger among America’s political class.

Given the frustratingly indecisive results of U.S. air campaigns in these years, one might wonder why a self-professed smart guy like Ted Cruz, when still a presidential candidate, would have called for “carpet” bombing our way to victory over ISIS, and yet in these years he has been more the norm than the exception in his infatuation with air power.  Everyone from Donald Trump to Barack Obama has looked to the air for the master key to victory.  In 2014, even Petraeus, home from the wars, declared himself “all in” on more bombing as critical to victory (whatever that word might now mean) in Iraq. Only recently he also called for the loosing of American air power (yet again) in Afghanistan — not long after which President Obama did just that.

Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive.  That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground.  It can’t dig in.  It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.”  It can’t sustain persuasive force.  Its force is always staccato and episodic.

Its suasion, such as it is, comes from killing at a distance.  But its bombs and missiles, no matter how “smart,” often miss their intended targets.  Intelligence and technology regularly prove themselves imperfect or worse, which means that the deaths of innocents are inevitable.  This ensures new recruits for the very organizations the planes are intent on defeating and new cycles of revenge and violence amid the increasing vistas of rubble below.  Even when the bombs are on target, as happens often enough, and a terrorist leader or “lieutenant” is eliminated, what then?  You kill a dozen more?  As Petraeus said in a different context: tell me how this ends.

Recalling the Warbirds 

From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, dropping bombs and firing missiles has been the presidentially favored way of “doing something” against an enemy.  Air power is, in a sense, the easiest thing for a president to resort to and, in our world, has the added allure of the high-tech.  It looks good back home.  Not only does the president not risk the lives of American troops, he rarely risks retaliation of any kind.

Whether our presidents know it or not, however, air power always comes with hidden costs, starting with the increasingly commonplace blowback of retaliatory terrorist strikes on “soft” targets (meaning people) in cities like Paris or Madrid or London.  Strikes that target senior members of enemy armies or terrorist organizations often miss, simply stoking yet more of the sorts of violent behavior we are trying to eradicate with our own version of violence.  When they don’t miss and the leadership of terror groups is hit, as Andrew Cockburn has shown, the result is often the emergence of even more radical and brutal leaders and the further spread of such movements.  In addition, U.S. air power, especially the White House-run drone assassination program, is leading the way globally when it comes to degrading the sovereignty of national borders. (Witness the latest drone strike against the head of the Taliban in violation of Pakistani airspace.)  Right now, Washington couldn’t care less about this, but it is pioneering a future that, once taken up by other powers, may look far less palatable to American politicians.

Despite the sorry results delivered by air power over the last 65 years, the U.S. military continues to invest heavily in it — not only in drones but also in ultra-expensive fighters and bombers like the disappointing F-35 (projected total cost: $1.4 trillion) and the Air Force’s latest, already redundant long-range strike bomber (initial acquisition cost: $80 billion and rising).  Dismissing the frustratingly mixed and often destabilizing results that come from air strikes, disregarding the jaw-dropping prices of the latest fighters and bombers, America’s leaders continue to clamor for yet more warplanes and yet more bombing.

And isn’t there a paradox, if not a problem, in the very idea of winning a war on terror through what is in essence terror bombing?  Though it’s not something that, for obvious reasons, is much discussed in this country, given the historical record it’s hard to deny that bombing is terror.  After all, that’s why early aviators like Douhet and Mitchell embraced it.  They believed it would be so terrifyingly effective that future wars would be radically shortened to the advantage of those willing and able to bomb.

As it turned out, what air power provided was not victory, but carnage, terror, rubble — and resistance.

Americans should have a visceral understanding of why populations under our bombs and missiles resist.  They should know what it means to be attacked from the air, how it pisses you off, how it generates solidarity, how it leads to new resolve and vows of vengeance.  Forget Pearl Harbor, where my uncle, then in the Army, dodged Japanese bombs on December 7, 1941.  Think about 9/11.  On that awful day in 2001, Homeland USA was “bombed” by hijacked jet liners transformed into guided missiles.  Our skies became deadly.  A technology indelibly associated with American inventiveness and prowess was turned against us.  Colossally shocked, America vowed vengeance.

Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are?  Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted.  When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”?  Here’s a hint: we didn’t.

Having largely overcome the trauma of 9/11, Americans today look to the sky with hope.  We watch the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds with a sense of awe, wonder, and pride.  Warplanes soar over our sports stadiums.  The sky is ourhigh ground.  We see evidence of America’s power and ingenuity there.  Yet people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere often pray for clouds and bad weather; for them, clear skies are associated with American-made death from above.

It’s time we allow other peoples to look skyward with that same sense of safety and hope as we normally do.  It’s time to recall the warbirds.  They haven’t provided solutions.  Indeed, the terror, destruction, and resentments they continue to spread are part of the problem.

5 thoughts on “The End of Air Power?

  1. The conclusion of this article is commendable. To stress the “terrorism” of bombing (through other eyes) and to point to the reality that solutions other than death and destruction can only be attained (and maintained) on the ground is an understanding that is needed. This reminded me of “Goodbye Blue Sky”, a song from 1979

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    1. Mention of the U. S. Air Force and “terrorism” always reminds me of the following observation by Frances FitzGerald (Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam):

      “What was interesting about the [American official’s] statement was the discrepancy between the impersonal bureaucratic language the official used to describe the American actions and the vivid, almost poetic description he lavished on the NLF. Douglas Pike similarly distorted the facts in his widely circulated monograph, “The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror.”

      “Interestingly, Pike’s “working definition” of terror was “the systematic use of death, pain, fear and anxiety among the population (either civilian or military) for the deliberate purpose of coercing, manipulating, intimidating, punishing or simply frightening the helpless into submission.” And by that definition the entire American bombing policy in Vietnam, North and South, was a strategy of terror. Even within the narrower definition of “terror” as an unconventional, clandestine act of violence – an assassination or a satchel-charge bombing – the Allies had been using terror deliberately for a number of years through professionally trained paramilitary units such as the Special Forces and the Provincial Reconnaissance Unites. As head of the Psychological Warfare section, Pike knew this as well as anyone in Vietnam. Only he, like many Americans who backed the Vietnam War, ascribed the best of motives to the Americans and their allies, while laying all the evil at the door of the enemy. It was the same kind of bad faith and bad consciencethat in 1967 inspired all the American rhetoric about “revolutionary development” and “building democracy” in Vietnam. It was the same kind of rhetoric that inspired the unrestricted use of violence upon the Vietnamese.”

      In other words, if the United States government really wished to defeat “terrorism” in this world, it could make no more worthwhile contribution to that cause than immediately grounding the U. S. Air Force, followed by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps (but I repeat myself) air forces. That would not totally eliminate all acts of terror in this world, of course, but it would certainly elimate one of the greatest sources of terrorism. After all, as the Chinese say: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Way past time to take that long-overdue first step.

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  2. Sir, having no relevant credentials, I’m the ultimate civilian. My question for you is, What happens when the USAF goes up against the Russian Air Force, against someone who has the high technology and skilled pilots to fight back?

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    1. We both lose a lot of pilots and planes. But much worse than that is the risk of full-scale war, to include nuclear weapons.

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  3. While I fully agree that the United States’ various “bombing campaigns” during and since WWII and now compounded by the all too ubiquitous “drone strike” have been nothing more than acts of terrorism, there is a much more relevant question that needs asking, “How’s that working for you”?

    Using a metric that anyone should understand, the U.S.’s “winning percentage” using “massive bombing campaigns” stands at a mere .500 with one win (WWII), one tie (Korea) and one loss (Vietnam) with the jury still out on our Middle East bombing campaigns. Any manager or head coach who can only muster a .500 record over 76 years would be looking for a new job.

    Moreover, our largely ineffective airborne terrorist campaigns have done nothing but inspire our enemies to redouble their efforts to strike back and spawned increased hatred for the “ugly Americans,” as noted in W. J. Astore’s article.

    Maybe it’s time for the United States to invest in a new playbook?

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