4 November 2014


November 02, 2014 

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq in September after conducting air strikes in Syria.

President Obama’s refusal to consider committing U.S. ground forces to the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, has revived a debate about the effectiveness of airpower that is as old as military aviation itself. The question involves the degree to which airpower alone can win wars.

In response to the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, airpower theorists such as Italy’s Giulio Douhet and America’s Billy Mitchell conceived the idea of bombing targets in the enemy’s heartland, destroying both its capability and will to make war, a concept now known as strategic bombing.

Strategic bombing has been conducted in a limited way against ISIS, mainly to destroy ammunition dumps, high-level headquarters, and the oil facilities that fund the terrorist organization. Most coalition air strikes have involved tactical operations in the form of either interdiction or close air support.

Interdiction involves attacking enemy forces close to an ongoing battle, but not so close as to require direct coordination with the ground forces. At times, such as during the World War II battle for Normandy, interdiction has been successful in delaying or even preventing enemy forces from reaching the scene of the fighting.

By failing to employ airpower against ISIS forces as soon as they moved out of Syria and were easy targets, the U.S. lost a significant opportunity to deal a decisive blow to the enemy.

What remains is close air support (CAS), in which airpower is used in direct support of troops in combat where close coordination between air and ground forces is required to make sure the right targets are hit while avoiding friendly casualties.

Of the many air strikes I called in during my two tours in Vietnam, one particular strike comes to mind in this respect. The South Vietnamese Marine battalion to which I was an advisor was in a particularly tough fight against a North Vietnamese unit in bunkers that could withstand anything but a direct hit from a heavy bomb. I called for CAS, and two attack aircraft arrived along with an airborne forward air controller (FAC).

Unfortunately the jungle foliage prevented the pilots from seeing the targets, the friendly forces, or the smoke normally used to mark friendly positions. I was left trying to talk the pilots onto the target blind. To complicate matters, two South Vietnamese Air Force planes showed up and joined the attack. I ended up talking to the airborne controller on one radio while my Vietnamese counterpart was talking to the Vietnamese pilots on another. We eventually succeeded in getting bombs on the target without any friendly casualties, but that wouldn’t have been possible without someone on the ground who could see what was going on.

There are no jungles where American air strikes are being made against ISIS forces, but similar problems of identifying targets can occur in a city, particularly if the target area is covered by smoke and no FACs are available on the ground.

One of the dangers of comparing actions from an earlier war with those of today is that no two situations are ever exactly the same. By and large most airpower advocates today also adhere to the joint view that wars are won by a cooperative effort between more than one service.

A good example of this approach can be seen in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, where U.S. special operations forces worked with Afghans from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to bring American airpower to bear using modern technology including laser target designators.

On the other hand, some experts point to the success of NATO airpower in fighting Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, during which no NATO ground forces were employed, as a better pattern for the future.

Because no NATO forces were on the ground, CAS was not an issue. As a result, strike sorties during the war involved either bombing strategic targets or locating and attacking Serbian Army units.

Although the latter effort was largely ineffective, many commentators agreed with President Clinton that, under the right circumstances, airpower alone can “stop an army on the ground.” Some Air Force officers disagreed, fearing that such an assessment would create an unrealistic expectation for future air operations.

Unlike Kosovo, U.S. air forces today are directly supporting friendly forces on the ground in their fight against ISIS. Like Kosovo, they are doing so without the benefit of American FACs on the ground.

The administration may be hoping that Operation Inherent Resolve, the air operation against ISIS, will duplicate the success achieved in Kosovo. It’s possible, but don’t bet on it.

Col. Theodore L. Gatchel (USMC, ret.), a monthly contributor, is a military historian and a professor emeritus of joint military operations. The views here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

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