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The Folly of Air-Power Hubris

Our stunning military success in Afghanistan shouldn't mean that our airmen can do it all when the next challenge comes along.

January 13, 2002|DEREK LUNDY

NEW YORK — U.S. air power is flying high for its role in the war against terrorism. And it should be. The combat performance of U.S. aircraft was largely responsible for our quick and decisive victory in Afghanistan. It can even be said that air power, as an instrument of military power, has turned a corner, at long last realizing the dreams of some strategic thinkers who regarded air war as a civilizing force because it could shorten conflicts. Yet, all this success shouldn't rush to the heads of policymakers, who may be tempted to use air power to pursue ambitious--and risky--goals abroad.

Some analysts, policymakers and politicians already believe that air power can fight and win our conflicts. In the Dec. 3 issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria wrote that many in the Pentagon remain trapped in land-power nostalgia. He urged them to face the facts that bombing works. Similarly, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has complained that we "underestimate the impact that air power can have." Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, notes there is "a tendency among our political leaders to view air power as a cheap and easy military solution to all our foreign policy problems."

Yes, technology such as Global Positioning System equipment, advanced communications, airborne sensors and weapons that can be guided by ground commandos allows us to put a bomb within 30 feet of a target from miles away. During World War II, we were satisfied if we bombed the correct city and lost only 5% of our airmen. Today, we practically expect to hit a windowpane from 30,000 feet without any loss of life. According to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 90% of the munitions used in Afghanistan were precision-guided, the highest percentage ever in a major U.S. conflict.

But victory over the Taliban is hardly the measuring stick we should use to evaluate the future role of U.S. air power in the making of foreign policy. Afghanistan has little infrastructure and few economic centers. The Taliban had virtually no air defenses. Furthermore, Northern Alliance fighters on the ground in Afghanistan were pivotal to the success of our air operations. They forced the Taliban to amass their forces and fight a more conventional war, which created ready-made, easily detectable targets.

Air-power promoters tend to gloss over such details and concentrate on how few American lives have been lost in the war in Afghanistan. From here, it's a short step to advocating air power as an alternative to ground troops, a tactic with obvious political appeal.

Yet, a decreased tolerance for putting American troops in harm's way, coupled with unrealistic expectations about U.S. air capabilities, is a recipe for misadventure abroad. Policymakers might use air power in humanitarian missions deemed too dangerous, or not important enough, to send in ground troops. That could result in a mismatch between means and ends, with unhappy consequences.

Take Kosovo. Many politicians and strategic thinkers consider that mission to have been a victory for air power. Yet, truth be told, complicated political imperatives determined which military tools were employed to achieve the stated goals. From the outset of NATO's involvement, former President Bill Clinton dismissed the idea of deploying U.S. troops in the region, proclaiming that airstrikes alone would prevent then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from "continuing and escalating his attacks on helpless civilians." But airmen understood that their mission was to destabilize Milosevic's regime, not to aid the refugee population. Aircraft had the ability to bomb fixed targets, but were helpless when it came to stopping lightly armed military police from killing unarmed civilians.

If Pentagon leaders are constrained by political imperatives in their use of air power, as in Kosovo, it will leave us unprepared for future threats and limit the overall capability of the military. "Air power is a superbly powerful and versatile tool," explains Capt. Jeff Niner of the U.S. Navy, "and only an insane military strategist would want to enter a modern war without it. However, airpower is but one tool in the toolbox. It would mark the strategist equally insane if he thought air power was all that is required for modern warfare."

Acceptance of air power as the centerpiece of our military response will inevitably create funding problems in the Pentagon. The push to pump up U.S. air power would at some point cut into the budgets of the other armed forces. For the price of one F-22, priced at nearly $200 million, the military could buy 30-plus M1A1 Abrams tanks, the backbone of U.S. armored ground forces.

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