Academic journal article The Historian

Insurgent Airpower in Historical Perspective: An Introduction and Prospectus for Research

Academic journal article The Historian

Insurgent Airpower in Historical Perspective: An Introduction and Prospectus for Research

Article excerpt

NEARLY A CENTURY after the air weapon's debut as an instrument of counterinsurgency (COIN), questions about the utility and effectiveness of airpower in irregular warfare remain a source of heated--if not impassioned--debate among scholars and military professionals alike. Advocates and defenders of the air weapon point to the steady improvements in the capabilities of platforms--and the techniques that determine their employment in combat--since the first recorded use of aircraft in the COIN role by the Italians in Libya during the Italian-Ottoman War (1911-1913), and by the French against rebellious Moroccan tribesmen in 1913. (2) Since then, airpower proponents argue, the airplane, the helicopter, and, more recently, the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) have evolved into some of the most formidable and versatile weapons in the counterinsurgents' arsenal. (3) In particular, they highlight the potential inherent in using airpower as part of joint and interagency endeavors framed by comprehensive strategies that fuse military operations, police and civic action, economic and political reforms, and public relations efforts. (4) To support their claims, they point to a broad historical spectrum of "small wars" in which an imaginative application of both kinetic and non-kinetic forms of airpower served as an integral component of successful strategies that permitted counter-insurgent forces to overcome unconventional adversaries, including the Greek Civil War (1943-1949), the Hukbalahap Insurgency in the Philippines (1946-1956), the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman (1970-1975), and the civil wars in El Salvador (1980-1992) and Guatemala (1963-1986). (5)

Detractors of this rosy view of airpower's effectiveness in the COIN context have been just as strident in undermining such wide-reaching claims. Airpower critics' case, too, is buttressed by an impressive array of historical examples: the Royal Air Force's inability to cope with the Palestinian Arab revolt of 1936-1939, Germany's ultimately

futile operations against Soviet and Yugoslav partisans in the Second World War, France's unsuccessful efforts to crush anti-colonial insurgencies in Indochina and Algeria, America's frustrating experience in Vietnam, and the equally frustrating Israeli experience in Lebanon, to name just a few. These episodes, airpower skeptics contend, clearly demonstrate just how ill-suited the air weapon has been in "asymmetrical" conflicts whose outcome depends less on an overwhelming application of superior firepower delivered by technologically sophisticated weapon-systems, and more on the ability to win "hearts and minds," manipulate public opinion, and secure political legitimacy while denying it to the enemy. (6) What lends an even sharper edge to the skeptics' claims concerning airpower's allegedly peripheral role in COIN is that their arguments in this respect are part of an even broader and much more controversial contention, namely, that with the gradual emergence of low-intensity conflict as the dominant form of warfare in the twenty-first century, "there probably is no compelling case for independent air power at all." (7)

While much ink has been spilled in debates concerning the relative merits of airpower in irregular warfare, such debates have tended to focus almost exclusively on the advantages that the air weapon offers to the counterinsurgent. Missing almost entirely from the canon of historical and theoretical studies of airpower in irregular warfare is a systematic and comprehensive analysis of insurgent airpower: the use of air assets and the air domain to advance their military and political goals by (rather than against) insurgents, guerrillas, rebels, terrorists, and other armed non-state groups. What makes the need for such a study especially pressing is the mounting evidence that insurgents world-wide are becoming increasingly interested in, and capable of, acquiring and operating both manned and unmanned aerial platforms of varying levels of technological complexity and operational capability. …

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