Sky High: Illusions of Air Power

By Crane, Conrad C. | The National Interest, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Sky High: Illusions of Air Power


Crane, Conrad C., The National Interest


THE 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review season is hard upon us, but this year's energies are being expended in a new context. Previous exercises were mainly about preserving Service resource shares in a mostly stagnant intellectual and budgetary environment. This year there is, first and foremost, the major review undertaken by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a review that promises-or threatens, depending on one's point of view-a significant reallocation of resources among the Services. Additionally, the defense dollars available to the Services for existing missions are being squeezed from two sides: by a large bill for national missile defense, and by a large tax cut. What has not changed is the art of special pleading. Thus have some commentators claimed anew that the NATO bombing campaigns against Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999 herald a new era of warfare in which precision weapons and air-power alone promise swift and decisive results with little loss of life or collateral damage. As historian John Keegan h as put it, not only did the Kosovo campaign demonstrate that "war can be won by air-power alone", it also provided a showcase for the Western world's "superior technology and higher public morality."'

It's just not so. On the one hand, the weapons themselves are still hardly free of major glitches, as the failure in February of Navy Joint Standoff Weapons used in attacking Iraqi air defenses showed. Even the newest technology is susceptible to inclement weather, enemy countermeasures or, in this case, just wind. [2] More important than technical problems with the weapons are misconceptions about how tactics accumulate into a strategy for their use. A close examination of the 1999 Kosovo air campaign demonstrates that, talk of humane warfare notwithstanding, air bombardment remains an extremely destructive action that is most effective in achieving strategic goals when targeted against the civilian elements of a society

Unpleasant as this conclusion may be, it should not surprise anyone familiar with military history. It is not uncommon that new technologies which appear to have decisive application on the battlefield soon end up being turned upon civilians. In 1870, for example, the Prussians decided that the quickest and ultimately the most humane way to reduce French fortresses was to shell the civilian population with modern artillery until it forced the garrison to surrender. Giulio Douhet incorporated this and similar lessons into his post-World War I theories about bombing cities. American airmen in the 1930s, however, developed a different approach based on the promise of precision attacks. Studying New York City as a model, they concluded that destroying only seventeen targets within its transportation, water and electrical systems would render the city uninhabitable without inflicting mass casualties. They expanded their concept of exploiting key vulnerabilities in the economies of industrialized nations and devel oped a coherent precision-bombing doctrine that has shaped the evolution and application of American airpower ever since. [3] Resulting Air Corps studies asserted that the principal mission for airpower was "the attack of those vital objectives in a nation's economic structure which will tend to paralyze the nation's ability to wage war", while service school texts proclaimed: "Direct attack of the civil populace is rejected as an air objective due to humanitarian considerations."

Unfortunately, practice has let theory down. Though technology has continued to advance, public expectations and U.S. Air Force promises about airpower's decisiveness and accuracy have advanced faster. As a result, key decisions about the application of military force in most American wars in the air age have been shaped by an overestimation of airpower's effectiveness against military and industrial targets, and disappointing results have led repeatedly to the escalation of aerial operations against civilians-- confirming Douhet's theories and confounding America's precision bombing enthusiasts. …

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