Tough Calls: In Today's Wars, Air Strikes under Fire

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Tough Calls: In Today's Wars, Air Strikes under Fire


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


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For decades, the Air Force and the Army have feuded over who gets to be in charge of the "big guns" on the battlefield.

That rivalry has become irrelevant in current wars, where one doesn't win by killing, but by gaining the trust of the population. But even though the "hearts and minds" doctrine is all about boots on the ground, it has not necessarily slowed down the Air Force, which has reported a spike in the numbers of aerial strikes in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is different now is that, unlike previous conflicts in which the Air Force would run the "air" side of the war, it is the Army commanders on the ground who call the shots.

Regardless of who pulls the trigger, counterinsurgency experts have questioned the frequent use of air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan. where enemy combatants hide among civilians. The Air Force says its precision-guided munitions are designed to hit targets accurately so as to minimize unintended casualties, but these conflicts have shown time and again that no matter how surgical a strike might be, civilians often are wounded or killed--undermining U.S. efforts to win over the population.

Charles V. Pena, military analyst and author of "Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism." says the recent surge in air strikes in Iraq appears to be at odds with Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy. Pena says that in 2007 U.S. forces executed 1,100 air strikes--five times more than the previous year.

"It doesn't matter how accurate they are, when you are dropping ordnance from high altitude when pilots cannot see the ground, there is collateral damage. That's inevitable no matter how precisely you drop munitions," Pena says in an interview.

The problem is that the Defense Department and particularly the Air Force are too enamored with technology. In Iraq, strike aircraft are dropping smaller bombs--often 500-pound instead of 1,000-pound or 2,000-pound bombs. But the counterinsurgency manual that Petraeus himself authored recognizes that "bombing, even with the most precise weapons, can cause unintended civilian casualties," Pena says. The manual states that "an air strike can cause collateral damage that turns people against the host-nation government and provides insurgents with a major propaganda victory."

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The use of aerial bombings in counterinsurgency is a classic Catch-22, says Pena. "Insurgents or terrorists may be killed, but no matter how much you try to avoid civilian casualties, innocent bystanders may also be killed."

This does not mean the U.S. military should be paralyzed into inaction, Pena says. "But we have to understand the nature of this war that is not going to be won by military force but by winning hearts and minds."

A recent Rand Corp. report, "War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency," contends that air strikes have a limited utility in counterinsurgencies, but that aerial weapons are still necessary.

"Strike, generally conducted as close-air support, occurs less frequently in counterinsurgency than in conventional combat but still plays an important role, for example, in reducing insurgent strongholds," the Rand study says.

"The primary goal of counterinsurgency is to protect the population in order to obtain its tacit and active support in putting down the insurgency ... Until recently, this key tenet has been overlooked in Iraq. Until early 2007, the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in Iraq neglected the protection of the people, a policy oversight that adversely affected the overall effort to rebuild the nation."

Blue-suit officials like to remind critics that when it comes to air strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are just taking orders from the commanders on the ground who depend on aerial fire support to protect their troops. …

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