Air power, special ops can deliver a punishing blow
The recent discussions in the defense and general media about stresses on our military personnel and the increasing calls among members of Congress for early withdrawal from Afghanistan bring up yet again a concern I have had for some time: In fighting the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan the way we have, we may be fostering a military force destined by its very structure for manpower-intensive warfare.
If you neglect the ability — using technology as well as technique — to project power over great distances rapidly, you may be putting national leaders in a position where ground force deployment is the only option. Yes, that does imply greater attention to aerospace power — and I can already hear the lamentations among the ground force advocates. Three points that I think are very important here:
Most of our current adversaries, if they must fight the U.S., want to do it on their terms: Bring our troops in close so they can cause as many casualties as possible, that being the centerpiece of their strategy. Do we have to oblige them? Do we have to rebuild (or build from scratch, as in Afghanistan) the opposition’s home country every time we must make “corrections” in the international status quo, thereby keeping our troops in harm’s way even longer? Colin Powell was right: You break it, you own it.
We seem to have forgotten the tremendous success we had early in the Afghanistan campaign with the combination of special operations forces and air power. I believe this inventive amalgam of air and ground is a viable option for many of the “twilight wars” against elusive irregular foes we seem destined to fight. The prospect of a never-ending series of 10-year ground wars is less than appealing. Of course, it won’t always be the answer, but we must have another option.
Let’s hope we learned a lesson from starting another ground force war, of choice this time, in Iraq, at the same time we were engaged in a war of necessity in Afghanistan. Our soldiers and Marines have been paying for that one for nine years now, some of them in harm’s way for their fifth or sixth tour. We had Saddam bottled up in his own country, with our air forces providing the cork. In my opinion, we blew it. Some will say that we thought Iraq had chemical weapons and a nuclear program, and that alone justified the attack. Of course, the truth was they didn’t, and we never really could make a solid case it did.
Does this imply another pitched battle between the ground and air force bureaucracies for dominance in the race for funds, funds that are increasingly in short supply? Probably. Remember, the prime directive for any bureaucracy is self-preservation and advancement.
In a blog post earlier this year, defense writer William Arkin argued that “firepower isn’t what is going to win these wars, any more than a larger military or an Air Force/special operations dominated head-hunting campaign would.” In other words, I suppose, he is saying that conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are not winnable militarily, regardless who “wins” the homefront battle for money. I’m not sure that is true.
While I agree that the jury may still be out on Iraq, current indications are that it will hold together despite a series of horrendously bad campaign management decisions by the Bush administration after the initial victory in 2003. Afghanistan is another story. We just don’t know yet, even though al-Qaida and the Taliban have taken a nasty beating from air power in the form of drones and special operations forces. What I think Arkin should have said is that there are no military-only solutions. We learned that lesson — again — in Iraq.
To my mind, the real argument now is not that the U.S. military cannot do the tasks assigned, even the nation-building ones that they are not trained for. They clearly have. The problem is that we have allowed ourselves to be drawn into decade-long simultaneous conflicts as we try to build responsible governments and electorates where none existed before, while at the same time holding off the insurgents. A recent discussion on the television political forum “Meet the Press” came to the consensus that the U.S. military was not “broken,” but it was tired. The stress of multiple tours was showing among the few within our forces who actually bear most of the burden of combat in these marathon campaigns.
And, of course, there are the deteriorating relations with Kabul and Hamid Karzai’s government, which have led to increasing calls for early U.S. withdrawal from Congress. Some would argue — me included — that the combination of lack of education in their defense forces (the majority can’t read), rampant corruption within the Afghan government, and Taliban infiltration within the defense and police forces, spells eventual disaster for a much-hoped-for democratic Afghan nation standing on its own. I do hope I’m wrong.
The prime alternative to hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground there and other places in the future — an aerospace-centric defense strategy — is not without its issues.
The first is force structure. This involves the short-range systems we have now and continue to build in limited numbers. Predator UAVs are pretty effective against dispersed, irregular forces on a one-on-one basis, but would not contribute much against a sophisticated enemy with a large, modern force structure. (Remember North Korea, China and even Syria.)
Our shrinking fleet of short-range fighters is good for countering air threats and attacking important targets within range of their bases, which includes aircraft carriers. But they must be deployed into the theater in fairly large numbers to be useful. A large number of aircraft are required to inflict major short-term damage; their bases, which have to be fairly close to the action, could become vulnerable.
While generally not as time-responsive as fighters, bombers can be far more responsive over long ranges, operate from bases that are more secure due to distance from the combat zone, and are highly effective against multiple targets. But we are not likely to have very many for a number of reasons, not the least of which is cost.
The bottom line here is that in putting all our dwindling number of eggs in the drone and fighter baskets, we are limiting the versatility of the entire force across the range of possible missions, not just counterinsurgency and counterterrorism.
The second issue is coordination with other forces. Despite the aerospace emphasis of this discussion, nobody can claim that aerospace forces can do such tasks alone, but the argument is that in order to avoid multiyear stalemated conflicts on foreign soil, we need to be far less free with using ground forces in large numbers. Some traditional axioms of American warfare, like the synergy between ground force maneuver and air interdiction, and the battlefield dominance of the infantry, may have to be modified, if not abandoned, to fit the conflict. That may be a difficult adaptation.
Hand-wringing and political finger-pointing of blame for our history’s longest wars, of which we have had plenty lately, is not a solution to this or any other problem. Decisions have to be made.
Here’s the rub — what all the pointed fingers seem to miss: The United States cannot abandon its global leadership role in future conflicts, nor can it commit hundreds of thousands of its young people and hundreds of billions of dollars to open-ended twilight conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan. I am among those who think Afghanistan was a war that had to be fought, or at least al-Qaida and the Taliban had to pay a big price for killing 3,000 people on U.S. soil. In that light, let’s finally call Afghanistan what it truly is: a punitive war. With that in mind, I’m not sure we had to dispense our justice the way we did, especially the part about taking our eye off Afghanistan to fight a war in Iraq.
What a punitive war means, at least to me, is that we quickly, violently and single-mindedly impose a cost for egregious actions, which we clearly did in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and again in 2011 with the dispatch of Osama bin Laden. We make it very clear we will quickly do it again if need be, and we go home. We do not try to build a fine upstanding democratic nation where none even remotely existed before. We do maintain a powerful sword of Damocles over our adversary’s head. Aerospace forces, special operations forces and small, rapidly mobile ground units play the major role here. This suggests an expeditionary mindset, but on a more limited scale than we are used to.
Next time, and there will be one, perhaps the “adults” in our political leadership should decide how we want to apply our forces — the young people we put in harm’s way — before the fight begins. A one-size-fits-all deployment is not always the answer, something the president understood in his dealings with Muammar Gaddafi. That would be really refreshing. Keep in mind the old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For God’s sake, let’s have some viable options, backed up by a flexible aerospace force structure, beyond the hammer of long-term boots on the ground.
Gene Myers is a retired Air Force officer and combat pilot, independent defense consultant and a contributing editor at Armed Forces Journal.