June 1, 2006  

Lessons unlearned

The history of air power in unconventional warfare

Any publication with insurgents and terrorists in its title is certain to attract a certain amount of attention these days, but a 2003 book by James S. Corum and Wray R. Johnson deserves to be noticed on its merits alone. “Airpower in Small Wars: Fighting Insurgents and Terrorists” analyzes more than 20 conflicts — from European colonial wars in the early 20th century to the American interventions in Latin America during the 1980s — to draw important and timely observations about the uses and abuses of air power against a diverse range of insurgencies.

The authors wrote this book after having taught the subject for several years at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and found few readings to assign. Not surprisingly, the resulting product has something of a textbook format, with each of its nine chapters laying out the context and course of a particular insurgency or conflict, then the role that air power played in it, and then offering conclusions.

In researching “Airpower in Small Wars,” Corum and Johnson relied almost exclusively on secondary works — a definite limitation, but their analysis provides excellent insights nonetheless. While little new is said about counterinsurgency warfare in general — a topic already receiving plenty of consideration in both new and reissued literature — the book’s broad survey of air operations is an extremely valuable contribution to the field of study.

The authors also draw a remarkably consistent series of lessons out of their analysis — primary among them, the ineffectiveness of air-only campaigns. In particular, Corum and Johnson examine the air-control strategy of the British in the Middle East and Africa during the 1920s and 1930s, in which the Royal Air Force suppressed insurgencies by bombing rebellious tribes and bandits. The use of aircraft in these campaigns was lauded then and has been since as an efficient way to control land and people and at lower cost than with ground forces. “Airpower in Small Wars” challenges this assumption, however, arguing that air power alone has been only temporarily effective and, at times, even counterproductive in many counterinsurgency operations.

Bombing insurgents, in fact, has often presented the same sort of problems as the use of conventional warfare against them. The intended targets use cover and concealment to mitigate the effects and often develop defenses against the attacking aircraft. Results, too, have varied greatly based on the strategic objective of the bombing. When the goal was simply punitive — the purpose of many of the early colonial campaigns — air power could be used with some confidence. However, post-World War II counterinsurgencies usually involved combating ideologically driven movements, which called for achieving complex political-military objectives not easily attained or even measured. In these situations, the authors conclude that direct actions by air power were much less useful.

While downplaying air power’s direct application, the authors find tremendous benefits for its indirect roles in counterinsurgency, such as reconnaissance, communications and transportation, including the evacuation of casualties. Here they note how air power, because of its flexibility and mobility, can offset these same advantages typically enjoyed by guerrillas against conventional forces. Drawing on examples from several operations, they describe the tremendous value of aerial resupply, air cover for convoys, locating and tracking enemy units, and close-air support of ground forces. All these roles emphasize the joint employment of forces — and by “joint,” the authors mean coordinating air actions not just with regular ground forces, but with civilian, intelligence and police authorities as well.

In many cases, in fact, the most prominent use of air power in counterinsurgency has been in its rapid insertion of police or army forces; in other cases, it has been in supporting ground troops operating untethered from their bases. Particularly noted by Corum and Johnson are the patrols and outposts employed by the British in the Malayan insurgency in the 1950s, which were often completely dependent on aerial resupply.

Details on the aircraft employed in the various counterinsurgencies receive extensive attention from Corum and Johnson as well. Aircraft able to fly low and slow, the book observes, are well-suited for aerial reconnaissance and maintaining close contact with either friendly or enemy ground forces, while helicopters have superb versatility. At the same time, countries that are short on money, skilled pilots or spare parts may need to set aside such considerations and instead prioritize planes that are cheap, easy to maintain and easy to fly.

This calculus is further complicated as threats to aircraft have proliferated, becoming increasingly dangerous and complex. No insurgency has acquired an air force of its own, but insurgents have developed effective tactics to bring down helicopters and light aircraft using small-arms fire. The spread of hand-held surface-to-air missiles has further leveled the playing field between aircraft and individual combatants.

In El Salvador in the 1980s, for instance, five fighters, six helicopters and three C-47s, among other aircraft, were destroyed in a commando attack on a Salvadoran air base. Later in that war, four helicopters were shot down and four more damaged by small-arms fire within the span of two months. In fact, the Salvadoran air force would have essentially stopped operating if it had not been promptly resupplied with new aircraft by the U.S. In that time period, Afghan forces supplied with Stinger missiles made Soviet air operations over Afghanistan deadly not only for helicopters but also for any aircraft operating at a low altitude.

One of the strengths of “Airpower in Small Wars” is the attention it pays to American military history, and here the authors find much to criticize. Most directly, they censure the Air Force for its failure to either record or teach its own experiences in unconventional conflicts, as well as for its sparse treatment of the subject in doctrine and military journals. Tellingly, the authors cite remarks made in 1965 by the then-Air Force chief of staff, stating that the service’s role in Vietnam was “truly unique in the annals of aerial warfare.” This from an officer who was on active duty during the U.S. advisory roles (including air operations) in countering the Greek and Philippine insurgencies, as well as during the British experience in Malaya.

Vietnam also illustrates the interservice disputes that have at times complicated the use of air power in counterinsurgency operations, most notably between the Air Force and Army. While the Air Force argued for centralized control of aircraft in Vietnam, the Army argued for the use of its aircraft, especially helicopters, outside of that control.

Corum and Johnson describe how the deadly consequences of this rivalry unfolded in an operation near the village of Ap Bac in 1963. The Army planned a helicopter air assault on a Viet Cong battalion located near the village but did not coordinate with the Air Force liaison officer, who learned of it too late to schedule fixed-wing aircraft in support. In the ensuing operation, the Viet Cong shot down several helicopters, including one attempting to insert troops, and only emergency use of fixed-wing airstrikes drove off the guerrillas. The battle produced well over 100 casualties, including three American advisers killed; of the 15 helicopters used, five were shot down and only one escaped heavy damage.

Interservice cooperation fortunately, has come a long way since 1963, but the employment of air assets at Ap Bac is still eerily reminiscent of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002 — if not in the scale of casualties, then in the lack of coordination.

Operation Enduring Freedom, however, is not taken up by “Airpower in Small Wars,” nor are the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia or Somalia. That’s too bad, because, for all of the success of Corum and Johnson’s survey, the revolutionary technological advances since the end of the Cold War raise a host of questions about the role of air power in contemporary counterinsurgencies that they do not explore. For instance, the development of Global Positioning System-guided precision bombs and close air-ground communications led to a more decisive role for direct air attacks on insurgents? Improved reconnaissance assets, unmanned aerial vehicles and a host of other capabilities now allow constant tracking of ground action, even without relying on low and slow-flying aircraft.

Fortunately, the authors have indicated their intention to produce a subsequent volume that will examine the use of air power in unconventional conflicts over the past 15 years. By the time this new book is released, maybe the U.S. Air Force will have begun to take the subject more seriously in its doctrine and education. “Airpower in Small Wars” is certainly a push in the right direction.

Thomas A. Keaney is the executive director of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.