A Curious Aspect of Air Power

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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.

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov)

W.J. Astore

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated.  In a word, calamity.  The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.

In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow.  We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled).  We like to think that airpower is uniquely American.  We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.

To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche.  That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.”  They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.

This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower.  The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon.  The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things.  Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically.  Why?  Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.  What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point.  Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria.  And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.

We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.

Send in the B-52s

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Sixty Years of B-52s (U.S. Air Force photo)

W.J. Astore

Perhaps there should be a “new rule” on the American military scene: When the B-52s are called out (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), it means America has well and truly lost.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, since April of this year, B-52s flying out of “Al Udeid airbase in Qatar … have conducted more than 325 strikes in almost 270 sorties, using over 1,300 weapons” against ISIS and now in Afghanistan, notes Paul Rogers at Open Democracy.

For those of you unfamiliar with B-52s, they are huge long-range bombers, originally deployed in the 1950s to carry nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union.  In the 1960s and early 1970s, they were called upon to carry conventional bomb loads during the Vietnam War.  Their enormous bomb tonnages did not serve to win that war, however, nor has the subsequent use of B-52s in places like Iraq and Afghanistan served to win those wars.  They have become a sort of stop-gap weapon system, their ordnance called upon to stem the tide of American military reversals even as their presence is supposed to demonstrate American resolve.

In a way, America’s B-52s are like the Imperial Star Destroyers of the “Star Wars” universe.

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An imperial star destroyer loses yet another chase

Big, lumbering ships that never seem to provide a winning edge vis-a-vis the smaller, “rebel” forces against which they’re deployed.  But the empire, which never seems to learn, keeps using them, even as it seeks even bigger, “Death Star” weaponry with which to annihilate the resistance.

Of course, when Americans think about air power, they don’t think of “Star Wars” battles or B-52s on bombing runs.  They think of audacious and cocky fighter pilots, like Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in the highly popular movie, “Top Gun.” For me, the most telling scene in that movie is when the flashy, undisciplined, and self-centered Maverick puts his F-14 Tomcat jet into an irrecoverable flat spin. That wouldn’t be so bad, except Maverick has a backseater, “Goose,” who dies during the ejection.  Maverick, of course, ejects safely and lives to fight another day.

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It’s too late for Goose, but Tom Cruise lives on to make more bad movies

Again, most people probably remember the cheesy ending to this movie where Cruise is shooting down MiG after MiG.  But take another look at the flat spin scene.  America, like Maverick and Goose’s jet, is dropping from the sky, spinning wildly and uncontrollably all the way.  And while a few Mavericks may be lucky enough to get away unscathed, many Gooses in the process are going to end up dead.

Goose didn’t deserve to die in “Top Gun,” and neither do the many “gooses” around the world caught in the violent and all-too-real backwash of America’s jet-fueled wars.

The End of Air Power?

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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.