Wednesday, April 1, 2015


By Ronald T. Fox


Last week the U.S. initiated air strikes on ISIS in Tikrit in an effort to retake the city.  Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the commander of the Islamic State operation, assured us that “these strikes are intended to destroy ISIS strongholds with precision [italics added], thereby saving innocent Iraqi lives while minimizing collateral damage to infrastructure.”  He went on to say that "this will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit."  In the same week, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said “to stop Iran’s bomb, we must bomb Iran.”  Implicit in these statements is the belief that air power is the critical ingredient for achieving strategic objectives.
There is perhaps no greater myth in America than belief in the efficacy of air power, or, more specifically, strategic bombing.  This myth persists in spite of the fact that independent air operations have never proven decisive in any war in which the U.S. has been involved: not in World War II, not in Korea, not in Southeast Asia (where the US dropped twice as many tons of bombs as were dropped in the entire Second World War), not in the Gulf War (where we were told a "shock and awe" air campaign against the Iraqi leadership would end the war in just days), and not in Afghanistan or Iraq. Constant pounding from the air has also done very little to deter Islamist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS from prosecuting their war of terror.  If bombing campaigns employing increasingly accurate and lethal technologies have failed to deter our Islamist enemies, let alone produce victories, why do Americans remain so attached to them?

Billy Mitchell
General Billy Mitchell
The American love affair with air power traces back to the 1920s and 1930’s when the iconoclastic General Billy Mitchell enthralled audiences with his strategic theories and bombing demonstrations. He preached that strategic bombing, by destroying the enemy’s leaders, morale and capacity to sustain the fight, would be the decisive vehicle in future wars, superseding clashes of armies on the ground.

This enthrall emerged generally unscathed from World War II, despite the highly authoritative 1946 Strategic Bombing Survey (it included 1000 military and civilian experts), which concluded that strategic bombing had not won the war. “At most,” it concluded, “it had eased somewhat the task of ground troops who did.” (The Survey also denied that the atomic bomb proved the “winning weapon.”)  This has been the lesson of America's experiences in war:  air power has been most effective in support of, and as a complement to, ground power.  Air operations may be the hammer, but ground forces are the anvil.

After World War II, when the defense budget began to shrink, the Air Force strongly played the air power card in an effort to command a larger share of the defense pie than the Navy and Army. Senior commanders and the AF public information office worked tirelessly through various media to reinforce the idea that air power had won World War II and remained the essential element for victory in any future war, especially now that we had entered the nuclear age. Their message was well received, evidenced by the huge portion of early 1950s defense budgets that went to building nuclear bombers and other aircraft that never reached the Korean theater. Our first official nuclear strategy, announced in 1954, was called "massive retaliation."  It made the Air Force the cornerstone of our detterence strategy.

Throughout the post-war years the Air Force has continued to proselytize air power, quite successfully, I must add, even in the face of contrary evidence about its effectiveness.

Victory Through Air Power
The utility of strategic bombing has been promoted by a number of so-called “defense intellectuals” from major academic institutions and think tanks, like the RAND Corporation and Brookings Institute, who preach the virtues of air power. As their thinking has coincided with that of pro-military advocates, their council has been actively sought as national security advisers at the top levels of government. Through films, publications, commentaries, editorials, and political advising, they have proven valuable advocates for aerial warfare. One such defense intellectual is Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at Brookings, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and co-founder of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Kagan has been a foreign policy advisor to several U.S. Republican presidential candidates as well as to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. He, along with other pro-military thinkers, has had an enormous influence not only on security policy, but public opinion as well.

It has become painfully obvious to many thinking people that aerial warfare has especially not worked out well when used against quasi-military extremist organizations like al Qaeda and now ISIS. Unlike other Islamist organizations, ISIS has organized itself as a state rather than an ideology, sustaining its fighting capacity through such activities as extortion, bank robberies, and selling antiquities and oil from territories it occupies. It’s been able to seize weapons from territories abandoned by the Iraqi army. A large cache, for example, was captured when it took Mosul.  Since it lacks a centralized command, doesn't mass troops or travel in convoys, and can live off the land, it presents a difficult target for strategic air campaigns.   

All the money we have lavished on the Pentagon to buy high tech weapons like land- and carrier-based jets, stealth bombers, cruise missiles, drones and attack helicopters to conduct war from the sky has failed to achieve promised results. We’ve scored some notable kills, but have failed to sap the capacity and will of terrorist groups to fight. Worse than that, the air campaign has caused such widespread enmity it has helped ISIS recruit new jihadist fighters from among disaffected men and women, including foreign fighters from outside the Middle East region.

Yet the Obama administration, along with most members of Congress as well as the American public (polls show that the public overwhelmingly favors it), continue to stick to the fantasy that American aerial warfare can do the job. Two factors contribute to this persistence.

First, two decades of questionable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where goals have been unclear, success illusive, and far too many of our soldiers have died, have drained the tolerance of the American people for wars involving “boots on the ground.” Americans have become sick of armed conflicts and the sacrifices they demand. At the same time, however, the deeply ingrained American belief that the United States always wins, indeed must win to be true to its view of itself as exceptional, means it is imperative we achieve victory, or at least the appearance of victory.

With the American public reluctant to support the deployment of ground troops, aerial warfare seems the next best option: it is far “cleaner” and more antiseptic than face-to-face combat, minimizes the number of dead Americans, can be sustained seemingly indefinitely, and in showing force it plays to our perceived international responsibilities as a superpower. Credibility must be maintained, which in Washington's view mandates the use of force. (We wouldn’t want to be called a “paper tiger.”) Aerial warfare doesn’t always satisfy American militarists, many of whom prefer the deployment of combat troops, but it’s better than doing nothing, and if done with vigor it puts on a pretty good show.

Air power also enables us to show off sophisticated—mind-boggling—technology, a second reason why it so captivates people raised in the United States. Americans, as a number of studies have shown, have an extraordinary, deep-seeded belief in technology and technological solutions to problems. It is something that bolsters belief in our exceptionalism. Opinion leaders constantly remind us that our military is the greatest in the world, an indispensable force that can’t help but shock and awe any enemy that should incur its wrath. Aircraft are our high tech superstars. Hardly a week passes when Americans aren’t shown a video of a precise drone or missile hit on a group of alleged terrorists. It’s like a video game, clean and sanitary.  The target is there one second, then, poof, it’s gone. Awesome! Friends of mine love to circulate such images. It seems to validate their belief in American prowess.


John McCain and other air hawks apparently believe that destroying buildings, terrorizing civilian populations, blowing up some vehicles on a road, and killing enemy leaders will sap the morale and wherewithal of Islamists to fight and thus turn the tide of war in our favor. They claim to also believe that unleashing the Air Force early in response to a threat may prevent a war from occurring in the first place. Our recent experience in the Middle East, however, tells a different story. Our air campaign has killed thousands of people, including women, children, and even wedding parties, as well as numerous figures in all sorts of terror groups, and yet in not one of the countries where such force has been used have we made much progress in achieving our goals. On the contrary, bombing, by alienating whole populations on the ground, has only made things worse.

While this fact has been obvious to counterinsurgency experts, it has failed to resonate in official Washington and with much of the wider American public.  When bombing fails to achieve intended results, its advocates often counter that we acted too late, had too narrow a target list, or lacked sufficient fire power. Such is as it is with much air power “thinking.” When things don’t work it’s because we didn’t do enough. The problem is, enough is never enough.

To paraphrase George Santayana: “if we do not learn from the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.” Perhaps nowhere does this aphorism ring truer than as it applies to the enduring American belief in the efficacy of air power. One wonders what it will take to get Americans to learn from history.


  1. Nice piece. Interesting takeaway for me was the fact that even inside the massive propaganda machine that is the US Armed Forces, the Air Force itself was forced to propagandize the "importance" of air superiority to ensure future funding post WW2. Nice piece. Thanks for writing.

  2. Ron,
    I don't entirely agree with your argument about air power. In one basic sense, iIt undervalues the role strategic bombing had in past, large conventional wars, where the ultimate decider of the outcome was not military at all, but ultimately the size of a combatant nation's industrial capacity and civilian population needed to sustain and win traditional wars of the past, the first example of which was the U.S. Civil War. (Indeed, the notion of "unconditional surrender" originated with the need to rally the home population's participation in the war effort. No such concept would have been tolerated in the earlier dynastic wars.) It could easitly be argued that WWII was decided in Dec. 1941 when the US, with its invulnerable industrial base, entered that war. (Side note: Stalin may have decimated the Soviet high command, but he did recognize that he had to use time achieved by the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-agression pact to move much of his war production industry behind the Urals.) Thus, I'd have to say that to the extent that strategic bombing dimimished the enemy's industrial base, it played a significant role in expediting the war's end.
    But that's the past, today's problem is an unrealistic belief in the effectiveness of military solutions in general, whether on land, sea or air. 60,000 dead Americans in Viet Nam should have taught us that. Not just B52s failed, the conventional army failed (I know, the hawks argue that we held back...Really? Again, 60,000 dead.) I think it boils down to fighting for the wrong reason (falling dominoes, oil) in countries with polulations that don't see us as a desired model (yet, anyway) or maybe just think that their thousand-year struggles are none of our business. What we sometimes overestimate is our appeal; sometime the devil you know, is far superior to the (unreliable) devil you don't. Bay of Pigs anyone?


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