The Limits of Air Power

We can airlift people and also kill them by remote control missile. USA! USA! (Cartoon from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

As U.S. airplanes evacuated so many desperate people from Afghanistan, I got to thinking about all those drone strikes, assassinations by Hellfire missiles, and bombing runs that the U.S. did in Afghanistan over the last two decades (in a quest for peace, naturally). Much like Vietnam in the 1960s, air power kept U.S. forces in a lost war for far longer than they should have been, yet air power made no difference to the ultimate, disastrous outcome.

So what will the U.S. do?  What “lesson” will we draw?  Build more drones and F-35 attack jets, of course!

You simply can’t occupy and control a country from the air.  What America’s dominance of the air emboldens it to do is to intervene on the cheap. Here “cheap” means fewer killed-in-action for America.  It’s not cheap to those people on the receiving end of American air power, nor is it cheap to the American taxpayer.

Remember all those assassinations by drone of HVTs (high-value targets), of “key” Taliban figures and fighters? All for nothing.  As in Vietnam, the U.S. military kept a body count that meant nothing.

A few statistics, courtesy of The Nation. There have been 14,000 confirmed drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2004. Roughly 90% of the more than 200 people killed in Afghanistan via drone strike during one five-month period of the Afghan War were not the intended targets. U.S. drone strikes have killed somewhere between 9000 and 17,000 people since 2004, with an estimated 2200 of these being children. And this is just “precision” drone strikes; the number of bombs dropped (including the MOAB, or mother of all bombs) has been staggering. All these bombs and missiles made war corporations richer, but they didn’t bring victory to America.

If America’s troops had lacked air support in Afghanistan (and this is also true of Vietnam), they probably would have left the war far sooner, which would have been a very good thing for all concerned.

But technology and firepower are seductive. U.S. troops in Afghanistan could call on A-10 and F-16 attack jets, drones like Predators and Reapers, “strategic” B-1 and B-52 bombers designed originally for nuclear war, and that’s just the Air Force side of the equation. Troops on the ground also had Apache and Kiowa helicopters, heavy artillery, mortars, indeed virtually every weapon in the U.S. arsenal short of nuclear weapons. (And President Trump once hinted we could use them, theoretically, but he didn’t want to kill all Afghans. What mercy!)

The Taliban, by comparison, had assault rifles, RPGs, IEDs, a few mortars, and a cause they believed in. Expel the invader. Their strategy was to outlast U.S. forces while profiting from America’s wild expenditure of money there. It was a good strategy and they won.

Will America finally learn that massive firepower, especially from the air, is not only a crime but a mistake?

Update: After I wrote that final line, I got this report in my email: “The largest Muslim civil rights organization in the United States has demanded that the Biden administration immediately put in place a “moratorium on drone warfare” after the U.S. killed at least 10 Afghan civilians—including half a dozen children—with an airstrike in Kabul over the weekend.” Call for Drone Moratorium After Latest Civilian Killings, article by Jake Johnson at Consortium News.

32 thoughts on “The Limits of Air Power

  1. Morality –
    Air strikes on civilian targets are immoral. That includes air strikes to attack supposed terrorists in a civilian setting. It would be like the police bombing your house because a suspect running from the police was hiding in your back yard.

    The Muslim’s are raising this point. Where are the Christians? Who would Jesus target with a air strike?

    Poor strategy –
    By relying on air power we are unable to train foreign military forces to fight without air power. That means they will be ineffective once we leave.

    The American response to seeing innocent Americans killed was to go to war. Well, other people aren’t any different. When they see their innocent relatives and friends killed by air strikes they use that to justify war. Air strikes may kill enemy combatants but they also recruit for the enemy. Body counts are worthless if you are not counting the new recruits.

    As you point out, relying on air power is seductive but ineffective in the long run. It enables war to be palatable to the American masses and profitable to the companies that make the materials but leads the US to engage in wars that are immoral or unwinnable (or both).

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Jesus agrees with you, Bill!

        Most Christian America proclaims God is Judge of ALL the Nations, including Israel and the US, but can’t recognize signs of Divine Justice and Judgment against America in Afghanistan.

        Since WWII, the US has invaded, bombed or attempted regime change in poor, 3rd World Nations and couldn’t get a win in any of them.
        Americans, with the delusional belief in their own indispensable exceptionalism, saw nothing wrong with that picture until this utter humiliation of American Money and Power having it’s ass kicked by the Patriots of a poor, 3rd World Nation the entire Word witnessed.

        It is written, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted!
        The exalted Pride of American Power was humbled before the entire World.

        Returning to your Question and answer, there is the record of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, when a village
        would not receive him.

        His zealous disciples James and John asked him if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven (nukes?) and consume them like the Prophet Elias did some 900 years earlier?
        This is the Biblical Literal record of Jesus’ response, ‘But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.
        For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.’

        Liked by 1 person

        1. On the subject of Money and Power, the Apostle James is very specific in the last chapter of his Book in the Bible.
          Go to now, you rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
          Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth eaten.
          Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire.
          You have heaped treasure together for THE LAST DAYS.

          Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by FRAUD, cries: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord Almighty.

          You have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; you have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.
          You have condemned and killed the just; and he does not resist you.

          Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and has long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
          You also be patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draws close.

          American Christian Leaders living the Lifestyle of the rich and famous cannot see, or deliberately ignore those verses in THEIR Bibles, and never talk about them.
          They all preach this World is at THE LAST DAYS, but can’t recognize they’re the same LAST DAYS James the Apostle saw.

          The non-religious World Media describes the words cited above as the growing “economic inequality” this whole Material World can see developing at the same Time.


  2. Begs the question as to why the US is spending $1.7-trillion on the boondoggle F35 program. These aircraft will have no use in any foreseeable future war scenario. Except bombing little shithole nations maybe.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. The US Congress needs to grow a spine and cancel the F35 program. And while they are at it the obscene and immoral drone program should be put on the chopping block as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. While reading this F35s are flying over my neighborhood really low and loud as they do frequently. I live near Luke AFB in Arizona. It makes me think about how terrifying that sound would be on the receiving end of the ordnance. For me it’s just annoying but can’t say that on any local forums like Nextdoor. It’s always the “sound of Freedom “. I guess I felt the same way when I was flying F-4’s in the early 70s but I find it depressing now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! “Jet Noise: The Sound of Freedom” is a bumper sticker I used to laugh at on base.

      Actually, it’s just noise. Often accompanied by even louder noises of HE, napalm …

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The citizens of Whidbey Island, WA have been complaining to the Navy for years about the Sounds of Freedom from the Whidbey Island NAS F18’s ruining the quality of their life. The Navy is oblivious to their complaints, every year increasing the number of F18’s there, and increasing the number of training flights.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. The Blue Angels annual budget comes to about one five hundredth of a percent of the nominal Pentagon budget. About $40 million. There’s far better ways to start out with cutting the military spending. Just like when I hear calls to cut NASA funding: it’s half a percent of the Federal budget. Not a big part of it. People aren’t dying from lack of single payer health care because of NASA.


      1. Don’t believe that $40- million number RMO – That’s a bogus number put out by military PR.
        Studies have shown that the number is three times that.,cost%20American%20taxpayers%20roughly%20%24112%20million%20every%20year.
        And the Thunderbirds the same.
        I disagree – its a great place to start cutting the military spending

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well they do have some Civi. Pilots Flying their Antique Planes like out of my Local Plymouth, Ma. hometown Airport Air Shows Vintage Bombers & maybe a P-51 if your lucky, but the Sexy High Performance Jets forget about it… One word “Recruitment” back in the 80’s Navy Recruiters were outside Theatres waiting & licking their chops during the Screening of “Top Gun”

          Liked by 1 person

  5. “Jet Noise” try Full Rolling & Take-off Klaxtons Both Air Wings Alert B-52’s. & KC-135’s. when I was in SAC early 70’s. My ears are still Ringing. :/ :o) These kinds of Air Display Demonstrations gets you the kind of advertising / see recruitment that money just can’t buy — so I don’t see them ending any time soon…!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. “All for nothing”? – A very good question! No. The primary purpose has always been to “make War Corporations richer” as you point out. “Technology and Air Power are seductive”, particularly to those influential investors in the military industrial complex who have sequestered the surplus value created by the labour of all those who work in this foul and inhumanly destructive industry.

    The profitability of industrial killing machinery production rests on a quasi-moral tolerance among a population befuddled and numbed by a complicit media/academia, the compliant ideological propaganda outfits which normalise murder abroad, blocking critical thinking in favour of formal illogicalities. Just as domestic gun culture has “normalised” murder at home.

    Capitalism has systemically and functionally deteriorated to the point where rational contemplation of its true nature has been officially outlawed by its fearful establishment. Creationist nonsense has replaced intelligent cognitive interrogation and education has been hijacked by a Taliban-like tribal “elite” steeped in blood and lies. No honest person can ignore this reality much longer and hope for personal peace.

    The remedy is relentless exposure of the monstrous deception which underpins the bogus “values” of comforting complacency. But such fictitious mental comfort is a falsity, the real material world quickly intrudes with all its painful horror.

    As the USRA ruling classes have lost their profit-driven war adventures which brought such suffering and death to Korea, Viet Nam etc. and most recently to Afghanistan, perhaps it is time for the silent majority of decent Americans to do more than speak out clearly and to challenge the enormous lie machine which has spun the web of deceit and manipulation in which they have become trapped.

    Regime change has not been a lasting or successful Federal strategy abroad, but a novel unity among the sane voices could make it so at home. It worked well enough to start an historic process in the 1930s, but this was undermined by the war profiteers in the late 1940s and 50s. Armed with a new authentic understanding of that whole contradictory historical development, the job will be completed now, almost a century later.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was in Vietnam as draftee Grunt, we were sent into Cambodia – I think it was called an incursion. We were out in a rain forest on the side of hill, with an unobstructed view of another hill in the distance covered by the rain forest.

    One of our sister companies was tasked with taking the hill. The NVA had other ideas and the sister company was ordered to back off a safe distance. If I recall right 4 Cobra gunships arrived not long after. First they fired their rockets, then the cannons and finally the mini-guns one after another.

    Once the gunships left, maybe two Air Force planes came diving in. You could hear the roar of the jets as they swooped in special delivery: napalm. You could see the bombs falling. It was very exciting display of raw power.

    Not sure if the sister company ever took the hill or not, I do not remember. Certainty not a Mt. Suribachi moment. Even if we did take the hill, we would shortly thereafter would have abandoned it. This scenario played out all over Vietnam and Cambodia sometimes a village would get in the way.

    I feel confident our War Fighters in Afghanistan could relate to my story.

    Americans are accustomed to when studying history see lines on a map and various arrows pointing to Italy, Germany, Japan and Korea. Guerilla War has no lines or arrows, who is the enemy??

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Total insanity……..”The U.S. plans to buy 2,456 F-35s through 2044, which will represent the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps for several decades. The aircraft is projected to operate until 2070″. 2,456 (!).
    Does anybody think the US military is planning on breaking its habit of trying to win wars solely using air power?
    And how many of these F35’s are going to end up in the boneyards of the Arizona desert like so many of their predecessors? After all the Air Force brass is already talking about a sixth generation of jet fighter to replace the F35.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. China has completed 11,028 km of high speed train network with another 12,000 km under construction, has become the industrial workshop of the World, and is lifting its population out of poverty.

    The US has a crumbling infrastructure, no high speed rail, declining industrial capacity, 40-million people without healthcare, homeless people in its city streets, is $23-trillion in debt and has 2,456 new jet fighters!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not trying to be snarky, but we don’t have the fighters yet. And given the delays and cost overruns I’ve read about I don’t know if we will get them before 2070.


      1. JPA, if you and I had a contract in which the supplier substantially increased the agreed upon price, was years behind in schedule, and the product did not perform as promised – we could get out of the contract eh? Does not seem to work that way with the Air Force. And on top of that the supplier supplied products which were not fully debugged and tested – and they will all have to be recalled and reworked. This F35 procurement must be one of he biggest scandals in US Military procurement ever.

        I’m hoping the program goes the same way as the F22. The initial order for the F22 was for 750, and then it was reduced to 648, then reduced again to 339. Lastly the final order was for a build of 195, 8 for testing and 187 for front line. A reduction of 555 airframes.


      2. The F-35 was supposed to be like a Chevy Truck: affordable, flexible, reliable. It turned into yet another Ferrari jet: expensive and somewhat less than reliable. And this is what the Air Force says!

        They’re being way too hard on Ferraris.


  10. There was a book written back during the WW 2 era – Victory through Air Power. Air power proved beyond a reasonable doubt air craft alone could sink the biggest battleships, even on the high seas. For the most he who controlled the skis controlled the battlefield. Valuable lessons, but given a guerilla war air power does not have a decisive part to play.

    Millions of tons of bombs dropped during our war in S.E. Asia and we still lost. However, if we look through a different lens there was a winner – The Military-Industrial Complex, every bomb dropped was like McDonald’s selling a hamburger – A Sale so to speak.

    I have to laugh when I hear some Neo-Con blabbering about confronting China or Russia. We have Micro-Chip Shortage which has caused serious world wide problems including the Auto industry. I think the old saying goes:

    For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
    for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
    for want of a horse the knight was lost,
    for want of a knight the battle was lost,
    for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
    So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.
    JLA: The Nail DC Comics, 1998

    A Micro-Chip Gap!!!

    Liked by 3 people

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