A Curious Aspect of Air Power

Crash Site
Crash site of Israeli F-16 Fighter Jet

W.J. Astore

Over the past several days, Russia and Israel have lost fighter jets over Syria.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those countries.  When jets attack people on the ground, those people tend to fire back (if they have weapons at hand), and sometimes they even hit their targets.

What is interesting is the Russian and Israeli reaction, which was in essence identical: immediate escalation.  More air attacks.  More bombs.  All justified as “reprisal” raids that are couched in terms of self-defense.

The mentality goes something like this: How dare you little people on the ground have the temerity to fire back at us and actually hit our planes?  For that you must be punished with more air attacks and more bombs until you stop firing at and hitting our planes.

I think this reaction is linked to the imagery of jet aircraft as a symbol of technological superiority, a marker of power, potency, and prowess.  Losing a jet over Syrian lands isn’t just seen as a mundane loss of military equipment in combat: it’s seen as a loss of potency by the attacker.  This “loss” necessitates a bigger show of force so as to punish the enemy while regaining that sense of inviolate power from the skies that advanced countries like Russia, Israel, and the USA believe they are entitled to, simply by being “advanced” countries, as measured by military hardware like sophisticated jets.

Air power is a tricky thing.  Students of the American involvement in the Vietnam War may recall that in 1965 U.S. Marine units were initially sent in to guard air bases from attack.  Of course, their mission quickly escalated from static defense to “active” defense to “taking the fight to the enemy,” i.e. full-scale, offensive, military operations.

Today, U.S. ground troops are similarly involved in places like the Middle East and Africa, helping to establish and protect air and drone bases.  Yet, as history teaches us, those missions often expand quickly to aggressive military operations on the ground, often in the name of “securing” those very air bases.  Air attacks may lead to ground operations, which lead to more air attacks in support of the ground ops, which lead to air planes being shot down and then reprisal attacks …

Air power, as I’ve written before, is neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive.  It also often creates its own escalatory dynamic, which is what we’re witnessing now in the skies over Syria.  Israeli jets, Russian jets, American jets, all attempting through force to alter the facts on the ground, but all instead creating conditions that are likely to generate more violence, more instability, and more war.

Curious indeed.