November 1, 2009  

Are boots always necessary?

I read with great interest Lt. Col. Mike Grice’s article [Air power’s limits,” September], and while he was very eloquent, I think he missed the boat on some key issues. Grice says that Phillip Meilinger [“Lowering risk,” July-August] believes air power alone could be used to fight and win an insurgency. This is a key mistake, because Meilinger was discussing war in general, not specifically an insurgency. Why does this matter? Because there are instances when air power as the main effort of an operation can allow us to defeat an enemy’s strategic objectives, and we don’t need to put heavy ground troops in harm’s way. Grice says the big limitation of air power is that it “cannot take or hold ground, and it cannot interact with human beings.” He needs to realize that in some instances, America may not need or want to go to that extent. Maybe we have an adversary who needs to be compelled to stop doing something, yet we don’t have the strategic will to put grounds troops into conflict. It seems to me that he proposes ground troops are a necessity for all future operations, and like many airmen, I would say that’s wrong. Every operation needs to be considered on its own, and we need to carefully weigh all our options.

Airmen who think air power alone can win wars belong in the same asylum with ground-pounders who think air power is solely a support function and that we always need boots on the ground. As a former combatant command campaign planner, I’d like to offer this perspective: In some instances, picking an air power course of action is the right choice. In others, we require a mix of joint capabilities, and depending on the situation, we may very well need a large ground footprint. The key is knowing when and where those choices should be made.

Grice points out that air power is not a decisive element of combat in the world in which we live and fight — and if he means Iraq and Afghanistan, I’d agree. But he should not box himself in, thinking only about today’s wars. Can he see any instance when we might pick an air-centric course of action? What if action is needed in North Korea six months from now? What if we need to compel Iran’s leadership? Could we win our strategic objectives without a heavy ground footprint? The answer is simple: It depends — and joint war fighters need to be aware of and present all options to our leadership.

Lt. Col. Bert D. Sparrow, Air Force

Instructor, Air War College

Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.