Since 2001, the U.S. military has been going through a painful process of relearning the art of counterinsurgency. Fighting nonstate forces, be they insurgents, terrorists, or criminals, is a fundamentally different type of war from the state-on-state conventional war to which the Armed Forces are oriented. Getting warfighting right requires an understanding of not only an environment that is far more complex than conventional war but also of a wide variety of organizations, tools, and methods. Airpower is an important tool in counterinsurgency, and the Army/ Marine Corps doctrine in Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, lays out some basic guidelines for the employment of airpower in counterinsurgency.
This essay is not about defending the airpower doctrine in FM 3-24. Given the space limitations of the Army/Marine Corps doctrine, which at 267 pages ended up considerably longer than the authors expected, the discussion of the various aspects of military operations in counterinsurgency was kept to basic theory and guidelines. The doctrine was addressed to the strategic planner and operator and was not intended as a guide to the employment of specific technologies and tactics. Indeed, those subjects are better addressed in tactical level manuals. What the doctrine does stress is the need to understand the context of counterinsurgency and how airpower fits into that context.
Back to Basics
In discussing counterinsurgency doctrine, it is best to start with basic principles. By reviewing the dozens of major insurgencies of the last 60 years, we can identify two requirements for the conduct of effective counterinsurgency--and success is not possible without them: good strategy and good intelligence. Good strategy is comprehensive, effectively applies all the elements of national power, allows for coordination of those elements, and sets intermediate goals and a realistic endstate. The strategy must be flexible enough to meet changing conditions, and it must be supported by the right kind of civilian and military organizations and personnel.
In a conventional conflict, the military normally has the paramount role. In counterinsurgency, this is not the case. A counterinsurgency strategy that relies overwhelmingly on military forces and military operations-and ignores the social, political, and economic aspects of the insurgency--will not lead to the desired endstate or even close to it. In fighting an insurgency, addressing the political, informational, and economic aspects of the strategy is just as important as the military side. One lesson is emphasized throughout the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine: the solution may not be a military one. (1) A military approach may kill a lot of insurgents, but unlike conventional war and its focus on fielded forces, killing insurgents is not all that matters. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns are usually concluded with political settlements. To reach a political solution, one needs to deal effectively with the issues driving the insurgency.
The emphasis on the nonmilitary factors of counterinsurgency in a sound strategy means that the military is often a supporting force and not the main effort. This goes against U.S. military culture and that of most Western nations. It also means that airpower is a supporting force and not the main thrust. This is not to say that the military effort and the employment of airpower are not important, but it does mean that we have to consider the role of military force and more specifically airpower within a broad and complex political context. An effective strategy might focus on the economic, social, or political issues--and most likely a combination of the three. In combating the insurgency in El Salvador from 1981 to 1992, 80 percent of the U.S. funding and effort went into economic aid to that country while 20 percent went into training and equipping the Salvadoran armed forces. …