September 1, 2006  

America’s asymmetric advantage

Is air power the new face of successful war-fighting? Much to the dismay of the boots-on-the-ground zealots, or BOTGZ (pronounced bow-togs), the answer for today’s democracies may well be “yes.” During the summer, while U.S. ground forces in Iraq were distracted investigating potential war criminals in their midst, air power delivered a major success. The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was, if not a decisive victory, still the best news of the season.

The summer was also marked by Israel’s extensive reliance on air power against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Although debates rightly swirl about the propriety of the use of any force, if force is to be used, it is always useful to note the form it takes when employed by what many believe is the leading counterterrorism and counterinsurgency military in the world.

As Tom Ricks’ new book about Iraq, “Fiasco,” argues convincingly, absent overwhelming numbers, it is virtually impossible for even well-equipped and conventionally trained ground forces to defeat terrorist insurgencies in the midst of sullen populations often sympathetic to the enemy. The struggles of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, the finest ground forces in the history of warfare, are ample evidence of the strength of Ricks’ thesis.

How to deal with such perplexing situations all too often falls into two related proposals: One, provide overwhelming numbers of conventional troops; or two, embrace the traditional unconventional wisdom about counterinsurgencies and ape the methods of such “successes” as the British in the 1950s in Malay, or even the U.S. experience in the Philippines at the turn of the past century. Actually, such solutions are unworkable for contemporary American forces.

Why? With respect to the overwhelming numbers scheme, there are daunting practical problems. Specifically, the end of conscription obliges the U.S. to provide costly incentives to populate our all-volunteer force. With personnel costs soaring, not even the wealth of the U.S. can support the hundreds of thousands of troops that, for example, flooded Germany and Japan at end of World War II to prevent resistance to occupation from taking root. Today, such numbers do not exist and it is unrealistic to believe they are politically feasible to recreate.

Even if the numbers could be assembled, boots on the ground carry significant emotional costs. As television screens fill with heartbreaking stories of dead and wounded soldiers and their families, such images over time often create political limitations as to how long a democratic society will sustain an operation like that in Iraq. This is true even though the casualty rates are, in purely historic military terms, relatively low. This media effect is a fundamental change from earlier eras.

There is also a dark side. Stephen Ambrose observed in his book “Americans at War” that when you put weapons in the hands of young men at war, “sometimes terrible things happen that you wish had never happened.” Ambrose notes that atrocities such as My Lai were not an aberration but, sadly, “a universal aspect of war, from the time of the ancient Greeks up to the present.” The problem is exacerbated when the insurgency embraces ruthless methods that make even the most innocent-looking grandfather (and even more tragically, a child) a potential suicide bomber. Fear, frustration and youth mixed with firepower are a deadly combination and can produce dreadful results. What is more is that relentless reporting by globalized news outlets turns such incidents into strategic catastrophes.

When thousands of troops are on the ground fighting an insurgency such as that in Iraq, it is, regrettably, all but inevitable that you will have situations such as Abu Ghraib and Hadithah arise from time to time — horrific and tragic, but predictable and even unavoidable. Yet, to a degree unprecedented in past conflicts, real and perceived illegalities are subject to exploitation not just by adversaries but also by legitimate political opponents. Regardless, the result is an erosion of the public support that democracies need to conduct any kind of protracted military operation. The point is that, again, information-age realities limit boots-on-the-ground options.

What about the unconventional wisdom approach? Quoting counterinsurgency manuals from the horse cavalry era is trendy these days, but the techniques are impractical to implement on a large scale today. Most involve boots on the ground as a kind of carrot-and-stick force that ingratiates itself with the locals, gains intelligence that makes the enemy vulnerable to debilitating military action and wins hearts and minds by offering the populace such benefits as democracy and economic advancement.

There are a number of problems with such methods. In the first place, they assume the military dimension of the insurgency mirrors the protracted war principles of the post-colonial guerrilla warfare era, which reached their apogee in Vietnam. Despite the many differences from conventional fighting, such efforts nevertheless sought decisive victories recognizable in traditional military terms. Think Dien Bien Phu. Today, however, insurgencies entertain no real expectation of achieving significant military victories against U.S. troops. Instead, they wage a sort of vicious ritual war, almost wholly aimed at undermining national will.

Most important, their hearts and minds are simply not amenable to the reasoned techniques that underlay classic counterinsurgency texts. They are not rational actors in the sense that they are propelled by some political or social ideology; instead, they are driven by unyielding religious fanaticism. In the past, such insurgencies did exist and were crushed the old-fashioned way: by annihilation. That is not exactly a viable option in a world where human rights groups, the media and others too often choose to find something good about the most sadistic terrorist organizations.

Inadequate Western solutions

In contemporary debates, it is fashionable to say that better living conditions, job opportunities, education and health care will win over hostile populations. If only it were that simple. These are inadequate Western solutions to the far more complex challenge of religious fervor. Few of our most recalcitrant foes express much interest, for example, in mere economic development; indeed, it can be a big part of what some explicitly reject as morally corrupt.

Moreover, Americans — at least for the next several generations — will not be able to execute the kinder, gentler kind of civic action approaches intrinsic to the formula the popular counterinsurgency disciples preach. In the Iraq and post-Iraq era, it will be easy to upend well-intended boots-on-the-ground efforts by U.S. forces. Rightly or wrongly, America’s power and status make any U.S. person on the ground a walking target capable of providing the most modestly talented insurgent a strategic victory.

In fact, a few assassinations or a couple of kidnappings place a civic-action/community-outreach strategy in trouble. Before it gets a chance to jell, a hearts-and-minds effort gets closed down. Why? Today’s technology makes it too easy for heartless insurgents to turn a group of Americans innocently handing candy to schoolchildren into a gory, front-page horror story about improvised explosive devices, mangled bodies and traumatized parents. Who gets blamed? Rarely the insurgents. Instead, the incident becomes another example of unmet expectations about American power.

There is another aspect to this issue that the BOTGZ find infuriating: Recalibrating the U.S. military to fight counterinsurgency wars is bad for national security writ large. In too many ways, it amounts to preparing to fight the last war — that is, strategically speaking, Iraq. The current American generation is likely the last for decades that will try to impose a Western-style democracy on societies that are clearly not ready to embrace it. It is too costly in every respect, and the people the effort is intended to emancipate are too ungrateful.

Thus, about the time the Army and Marine Corps perfect their counterinsurgency/counterterrorism methodologies, the last planeload of American troops will be seeing Baghdad disappearing beneath the clouds. The U.S. will be left with a lot of light infantry, plenty of Arab linguists and loads of democracy-in-a-box kits. What the boots-on-the-ground force, so configured, will not have is any relevance to the truly scary threats of the 21st century: a rising China or other peer competitor emerging from the rapidly changing economic dynamics of the new century.


So where does that leave us? If we are smart, we will have a well-equipped high-technology air power capability. Air power is America’s asymmetric advantage and is really the only military capability that can be readily applied across the spectrum of conflict, including, as is especially important these days, potential conflict. Consider the record. It was primarily air power, not land power, that kept the Soviets at bay while the U.S. won the Cold War. And it was not just the bomber force and the missileers; it was the airlifters, as well. There are few strategic victories in the annals of military history more complete and at so low a human cost as that won by American pilots during the Berlin airlift. Armageddon was avoided.

And the flexibility and velocity of air power also provides good-news stories in friendly and low-threat areas. For example, huge U.S. transports dropping relief supplies or landing on dirt strips in some area of humanitarian crisis get help to people on a timeline that can make a real difference. Such operations also illustrate, under the glare of the global media, the true American character the world needs to see more often if our strategic goals are to be achieved.

Air power also doesn’t have the multi-aspect vulnerabilities that boots on the ground do. It can apply combat power from afar and do so in a way that puts few of our forces at risk. True, occasionally there will be a Francis Gary Powers, and certainly the Vietnam-era POWs — mostly airmen — became pawns for enemy exploitation. Yet, if America maintains its aeronautical superiority, the enemy will not be able to kill 2,200 U.S. aviators and wound another 15,000, as the ragtag Iraqi terrorists have managed to do to our land forces.

And, of course, bombs will go awry. Allegations will be made (as they are currently against the Israelis) of targeting civilians and so forth. But the nature of the air weapon is such that an Abu Ghraib or Hadithah simply cannot occur. The relative sterility of air power — which the boots-on-the-ground types oddly find distressing as somehow unmartial — nevertheless provides greater opportunity for the discreet application of force largely under the control of well-educated, commissioned officer combatants. Not a total insurance policy against atrocity, but a far more risk-controlled situation.

Most important, however, is the purely military effect. The precision revolution has made it possible for air power to put a bomb within feet of any point on earth. Of course, having the right intelligence to select that point remains a challenge — but no more, and likely much less so, than for the land forces. The technology of surveillance is improving at a faster rate than is the ability to conceal. Modern conveniences, for example, from cell phones to credit cards, all leave signatures that can lead to the demise of the increasing numbers of adversaries unable to resist the siren song of techno-connection.

Regardless, eventually any insurgency must reveal itself if it is to assume power, and this inevitably provides the opportunity for air power to pick off individuals or entire capabilities that threaten U.S. interests. The real advantage — for the moment anyway — is that air power can do it with impunity and at little risk to Americans. The advances in American air power technology in recent years make U.S. dominance in the air intimidating like no other aspect of combat power for any nation in history.

The result? Saddam Hussein’s pilots buried their airplanes rather than fly them against American warplanes. Indeed, the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces was not, as the BOTGZ would have you believe, mainly because of the brilliance of our ground commanders or, in fact, our ground forces at all. The subsequent insurgency makes it clear that Iraqis are quite willing to take on our ground troops. What really mattered was the sheer hopelessness that air power inflicted on Iraq’s military formations.

A quotation in Time magazine by a defeated Republican Guard colonel aptly captures the dispiriting effect of high-tech air attack: “[Iraqi leaders] forgot that we are missing air power. That was a big mistake. U.S. military technology is beyond belief.” It is no surprise that the vaunted Republican Guard, the proud fighting organization that tenaciously fought Iran for years, practically jumped out of their uniforms and scattered at the sound of approaching U.S. aircraft.

This same ability to inflict hopelessness was even more starkly demonstrated in Afghanistan. For a millennium, the Afghans have been considered among the toughest fighters in the world. Afghan resistance has turned the countryside into a gigantic military cemetery for legions of foreign invaders. For example, despite deploying thousands of troops, well-equipped Soviet forces found themselves defeated after waging a savage war with practically every weapon at their disposal.

So what explains the rapid collapse of the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001? Modern air power. More specifically, the marriage of precision weapons with precise targeting by tiny numbers of Special Forces troops on the ground. The results were stunning. Putatively invulnerable positions the Taliban had occupied for years literally disappeared in a rain of satellite-directed bombs from B-1s and B-52s flying so high they could be neither seen nor heard.

This new, high-tech air power capability completely unhinged the resistance without significant commitment of American boots on the ground. Indeed, the very absence of American troops became a source of discouragement. As one Afghan told the New York Times, “We pray to Allah that we have American soldiers to kill,” adding disconsolately, “These bombs from the sky we cannot fight.” Another equally frustrated Taliban fighter was reported in the London Sunday Telegraph recently as fuming that “American forces refuse to fight us face to face,” while gloomily noting that “[U.S.] air power causes us to take heavy casualties.” In other words, the Taliban and al-Qaida were just as tough as the mujahideen who fought the Russians, and more than willing to confront U.S. ground forces, but were broken by the hopelessness that American-style air power inflicted upon them.


Today it is more than just bombing with impunity that imposes demoralization; it is reconnoitering with impunity. This is more than just the pervasiveness of Air Force-generated satellites. It also includes hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles that are probing the landscape in Iraq and Afghanistan. They provide the kind of reliable intelligence that permits the careful application of force so advantageous in insurgency and counterterrorism situations. The insurgents are incapable of determining where or when the U.S. employs surveillance assets and, therefore, are forced to assume they are watched everywhere and always. The mere existence of the ever-present eyes in the sky no doubt inflicts its own kind of stress and friction on enemy forces.

In short, what real asymmetrical advantage the U.S. enjoys in countering insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan relates to a dimension of air power. Strike, reconnaissance, strategic or tactical lift have all performed phenomenally well. It is no exaggeration to observe that almost every improvement in the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is attributable to air power in some form; virtually every setback, and especially the strategically catastrophic allegations of war crimes, is traceable to the land forces.

While it will be seldom feasible for America to effectively employ any sort of boots-on-the-ground strategy in current or future counterinsurgency situations, the need may arise to destroy an adversary’s capability to inflict harm on U.S. interests. Although there is no perfect solution to such challenges, especially in low-intensity conflicts, the air weapon is the best option. Ricks’ report in “Fiasco,” for example, that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program never recovered from 1998’s Operation Desert Fox and its four days of air attacks is interesting. It would appear that Iraq’s scientific minds readily conceded the pointlessness of attempting to build the necessary infrastructure in an environment totally exposed to U.S. air attack.

This illustrates another salient feature of air power: its ability to temper the malevolent tendencies of societies accustomed to the rewards of modernity. Given air power’s ability to strike war-supporting infrastructure, the powerful impulse of economic self-interest complicates the ability of despots to pursue malicious agendas. American air power can rapidly educate cultured and sophisticated societies about the costs of war and the futility of pursuing it. This is much the reason why air power alone delivered victory in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, without the need to put a single U.S. soldier at risk on the ground.

At the same time, America’s pre-eminence in air power is also the best hope we have to dissuade China — or any other future peer competitor — from aggression. There is zero possibility that the U.S. can build land forces of the size that would be of real concern to a China. No number of troops or up-armored Humvees, new radios or advanced sniper rifles worries the Chinese. What dominating air power precludes is the ability to concentrate and project forces, necessary elements to applying combat power in hostile areas. As but one illustration, think China and Taiwan.

Saddam might have underestimated air power, but don’t count on the Chinese to make the same mistake. China is a powerful, vast country with an exploding, many-faceted economy with strong scientific capabilities. It will take focused and determined efforts for the U.S. to maintain the air dominance that it currently enjoys over China and that, for the moment, deters them. Miscalculating here will be disastrous becasue, unlike with any counterinsurgency situation (Iraq included), the very existence of the U.S. is at risk.


Yet despite these realties, the BOTGZ are waging a relentless campaign against air power. A favorite tact is to denigrate air power as “Cold War weaponry.” (Query: What then, is a tank, a rifle or, for that matter, a soldier?) They exhibit all the imagination of World War I generals who, befuddled by the implications of machine-gun technology, nevertheless called for more boots on the ground as the all-purpose solution to every military problem. Millions died in the ensuing battles.

Even so, these neo-Luddites obsess about air power and wield their keyboards to fire op-eds, journal articles and letters to the editor in a frantic effort to turn back the scientific revolution in favor of their beloved ground formations. They gasp their attacks on talk shows and symposiums at every opportunity. Unexplained is the fact that, despite the awesome personal valor and energy of the troops, U.S. land forces have yet to begin to dominate their domain the way American air power does its domain. Air power is not only America’s most flexible military capability, it is also the best hope to present a truly show-stopping impediment to the nefarious schemes of her enemies.

The BOTGZ want to believe that human nature will change, that peer competitors will not arise and that the rest of the world will not attempt to challenge U.S. air power with inventions of their own. Thus, they believe that American air power can be allowed to atrophy toward obsolescence in favor of, you guessed it, more boots on the ground. Unfortunately, there is every indication that, regardless of whatever changes the land forces may make, they will be of little strategic import in the next war — the one we ought to be thinking about and planning for now.

Of course, we will always need land forces (although it is becoming more difficult to see why we need both an Army and a Marine Corps). Among other things, land forces can provide vital targeting information and also corral enemy forces into killing fields vulnerable to the air weapon. Ground forces employed in support of air campaigns can produce many synergies eminently in the interest of the nation. And, yes, the country also needs a large National Guard ground force for domestic emergencies and as a strategic reserve. To be clear, it is beyond question that America will always need a powerful ground component.

The point is how much of our air power — our most effective national security component — do we want to sacrifice to maintain large active-duty formations of ground forces useful only in selected contexts? Does anyone truly believe America will do a nation-building “Iraq” again anytime soon? Are we likely, with the benefit of our experience in Vietnam and now Iraq, to attempt yet another hearts-and-minds campaign the BOTGZ seem to desire? Or is the more likely scenario one in which the need is to destroy an adversary’s capacity to project power that damages U.S. interests? If so, air strikes to demolish enemy capabilities, complemented by short-term, air-assisted raids and high-tech Air Force surveillance platforms, are the answer, not colossal boots-on-the-ground efforts.

No one debates the classic romanticism of the land warrior. Cavalry formations were also splendid formations in their day, and provided real combat power. Yet things do change, and the technology and capability of the air weapon has changed dramatically. That said, it is, of course, true that military force is often (but not always) most effective when conducted in a joint and interdependent way. When war does happen, it is especially important for U.S. land forces to have confidence in the skies above them, as it has been more than half a century since any soldier or Marine suffered an enemy air attack.

In the sober analysis of the zero-sum calculus of national security decision-making, the weight of the effort must go to America’s asymmetrical advantage, that component of the national security establishment that has the most flexibility, effectiveness and deterrence value — as well as cultural compatibility. It’s about putting our resources into the odds-on favorite, the component that best fits the needs of America’s democracy in the 21st century. The stakes are enormous, and the risks to our air power advantage are very, very grave.

Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is the deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force. He has more than 30 years’ service and is a distinguished graduate of the National War College. He has served in Korea and has deployed for numerous operations in the Middle East and Africa. The views expressed in this article are his own and are not necessarily those of the Air Force or U.S. government.