Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

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It’s always so much more awful on the ground

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general.  Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us.  Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).

Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake.  Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives.  But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.

Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.

2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.

3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.

Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.

Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.

4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.

5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.

6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.

7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.

8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.

9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.

10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.

The Road to Perdition

If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…

In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.

To read all of this article, please go to TomDispatch.com.b52

12 thoughts on “Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

    1. Fatigue of the air crews? The people being bombed? Americans in general?

      There’s no fatigue in what the U.S. is spending on war. Congress approves whatever the Pentagon wants. We’re on a war budget with few Americans even bothering to notice. Maybe we need ration cards like in World War II.

      If no one is asked to sacrifice (except for the troops), how can there be fatigue?

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Great article, Bill. I also cover the futility of U.S. bombing campaigns in recent wars in my book, When Will We Ever Learn? and essay (please add links). I add the absurdity of spending (wasting) billions on the Petraeus/Mattis conceived “win hearts and minds” counterinsurgency strategy in Iran and Afghanistan – while we bombed the local populations daily as I witnessed over 8 years. The fact-on-the-ground in Afghanistan over the 18 years of fighting is that the more we bombed; the more territory the Taliban gained control over. I advocate for the Air Force to get out of the bombing business since, as you point out, bombing is inherently an offensive (and expensive) strategy unrelated to defending the U.S. homeland. Of course, defense contractors and their pals in Congress will never let that happen.

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    1. It really is like a cult, with a fervid faith that survives the most contrary and damning evidence against it. Thanks for the comment, Ron.

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  2. Colin Powell stated something to the effect ; you break it, you own it.

    with regards to iran ; what if we don’t ? own it after we break it ?
    these days it would take remarkably less tonnage to go full Curtis LeMay.
    then after we we’re done, do absolutely nothing. it could be a worthwhile experiment.

    your analysis of korea and viet nam omits the blatantly obvious political component. as was pointed out by general giap, his military loses were irrelevant to the result of his war.

    Colonel Bacevich said, among other things, we have tried to do middle eastern wars on the cheap. though he never did quite recommend we should truly mobilize to do it on the expensive, as i recall.

    for now, it would seem the iranians are too smart to provoke djt. i hope they remain so. for their sake. their strategy, as is the rest of this country’s optimists without a cause is to wait until the next president. jf kerry says it’s the way to go, good enough for me.

    what, me worry ?

    i mentioned awhile back the post modernists and the frankfurt school. William, you are much more in the loop than someone like me. it would be interesting to read an analysis from you of the current evolution where that world outlook has presently arrived. perhaps a few observations of mass migrations. cloward piven , modern monetary theory, the green new deal, transgender 11 year olds. failed nation states, cock roach infested drug cartel run governments, apocalyptic middle eastern religions, never letting a crises go to waste. maybe even the objective. is it still the marxian utopia where government fades away since it is no longer required in that nearby utopia ?

    fwiw, if 1984 does turn out to be a how to manual, we better get with the program quick. my guess is O’Brien’s admission is much closer than marx’s con job.

    or is there any hope at all for a government of consenting citizens based on the liberty of individuals. admittedly i have never been much of an optimist. but having a ring side seat here in silly con valley, it looks like huxley won the debate … for now. they have freeways full of programmers perfecting the surveillance state just around a few corners from here. and from the way they drive, they better get those self driving central state controllable cars in production pdq.

    ( with the pictures of the buffs, it just looks to people like me, you are fighting the last war )

    last confession, i failed english 1A the first time. F

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    1. OG: Nothing shouts “air power” like a B-52. And we’re still using them! They’ll be used in the next war, believe me, as Trump likes to say.

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  3. Just returned from US. My father died in grace at 93, my Mom at 100 still alive; well taken care of TG! Neither of us drive anymore, so I take Suffolk County & Huntington busses.
    I can’t believe the negative changes in America. Each year I visit it seems to get worse. Always meet a decent person on the bus. Remember Huntington includes enormous Veterans Hospital in NorthPort. What you see on the bus is a disgrace: decent people who foolishly believed America was in danger. They’re basically in poverty, with wounds they’ll never recover from. Meanwhile, the affluent areas of Huntington never looked better.
    I left with a bitter taste in my mouth: America’s wars overseas are destroying America!

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    1. EXCELLENT article WJA! All I would add is that what always galls me about US bombing (whichever country it is this week) is the staggering double-standard that the US press and most of our citizens have towards bombing. It’s shoulder-shrugging OK for the US to carpet bomb or ‘precision’ bomb other countries, killing 100’s & 1000’s (some years more) of people each year, but if just ONE bomb goes off in this country every DECADE or so (e.g. – homegrown versions like the Sterling Hall bombing @ UW-Madison, WI in 1970, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Boston Marathon bombing, etc) THEN the perpetrators are animals with no morals or concerns about the innocent men, women & children who died in these terrorist attacks. It’s as-if US citizens can’t or won’t let themselves imagine what it must be like to to be in a country where ‘Oklahoma City level’ bombing is happening weekly or even daily, where parents are seeing their little children blown into pieces as well as other family & friends. If the roles were reversed, and we were being bombed (say, for instance, because another country believed Trump to be a tyrant), I suspect all of us wouldn’t give a good-goddamn what the ‘altruistic’ motives/intentions of the bombers were, we would hate them for killing/maiming our children and family.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. In 1937 the bombing of Guernica killed 1600, largely non combatents, and it shocked the world. In 1945 the in the incendiary raid on Tokyo perhaps 100,000 died in a firestorm and nobody blinked. No need to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    Bombing is mostly just murder and the only time Americans ever thought about the victims was 9/11. An imperfect analog but a good one. While America has surely killed well over a million non combatants since the end of WWII they don’t mean a thing. The 2996 who died in the Twin Towers mean everything.

    I’ve got no explicit point with this you can fill in the blanks. Just know America seem destined to kill millions more by bomb and missile

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  5. Good essay Rapier, though I think your figures on Guernica casualties are a little low.
    Basques were mercenaries for the Roman Empire: strong, tough. They know the Real Jesus Christ. So they maybe 99.9% ‘Catholic’ but don’t expect the Pope to visit them. In fact don’t want him. Abortion, divorce, homosexuality, etc. are family issues – not the Church. Jesus never spoke of them! Gospels they read.
    Churchill is just as guilty as Fascist Italy & Nazi Germany to destroy a market day that horrible day. He knew, as did France allowing bombers to use their airspace.
    Yeah, these Christian people just wanted to help their downtrodden. Still do!
    Franco hated them: they we’re ‘Pinko’. Yet today Basque Region of Spain far exceeds capital gains to the rest of it.
    Yes Churchill. He knew of this mass murder & did nothing. As history comes out we must study who got us into such calamities. The answers are amazing. Churchill’s England is DEAD folks: bankrupt, immoral, corrupt.
    But sleep tight in Basque. Honest commerce is their game; plenty of money to help the poor.

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    1. If by some chance your Basques had their own powerful country with air power and an enemy then they would be just as thoughtless about bombing them as everyone else.

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