James Holmes

What Air Power Can and Cannot Accomplish

The war against ISIS can’t be won from the air, but air forces can keep IS from winning.

James R. Holmes
What Air Power Can and Cannot Accomplish
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans/Released

Air Week is shaping up in these pixels. Writing over at the Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Air Force colonel and CFR fellow Clint Hinote presents a nifty analysis of how coalition air forces are prosecuting their campaign against IS, ISIL, ISIS, or whatever we’re calling the evildoers rampaging across Syria and northern Iraq. Read the whole thing.

Colonel Hinote harnesses Colonel John Warden’s famous “five rings” taxonomy of enemy societies to explain what airmen are hitting. In brief, Warden proffers a set of strategic preferences for air power different from the ones that govern the terrestrial and maritime domains.

In order of preference, Clausewitz sees the enemy’s military, capital, alliances, leadership, and popular morale as the best centers of gravity — hubs of “all power and movement, on which everything depends” — to assail. Sun Tzu favors attacking (or balking) an opponent’s strategy, breaking his alliances, going after his forces, and, if unavoidable, besieging cities. In so doing, commanders can unravel enemy resistance.

Warden, by contrast, argues that air power opens up strategic vistas beyond the landbound. Warplanes can bypass the enemy’s armed forces, the core of his strength, and strike directly at a society’s vitals. To paralyze a foe strategically, urges Warden, pummel the leadership first, then the processes that bind his society together — food production and distribution, for instance — then infrastructure, then the populace, and only then forces in the field. Avoid strength and strike weakness, as Sun Tzu counsels.

The nonlinear approach makes sense in theory, but putting theory into practice is difficult. Thankfully, Hinote abjures the excesses to which Warden is prone. He prescribes modest aims. For one thing, aviators can protract the conflict. It’s doubtful that stretching out the campaign’s duration will drive up the price of victory beyond that which IS grand wizard Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co. are prepared to pay — prompting them to capitulate. Those guys are nothing if not resolute. They’re unlikely to tire. If you place infinite value on the political object, you invest every resource available for as long as it takes — or until you meet your maker.

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Still, time remains crucial. Rather than claim air power can defeat or eradicate IS, Hinote contends that aerial bombardment can give Iraq, the Kurds, and other combatants arrayed against IS a breathing space to marshal a robust ground counteroffensive. The war can’t be won from the air, but air forces can keep IS from winning.

The air campaign, meanwhile, advances the war of perceptions and narratives. In effect aviators are using ordnance to reply to the Islamic State’s claim to statehood. States are sovereign, and they control territory within a given set of boundaries on the map. Monologuing about how you rule a caliphate impresses few when you constantly have to duck and cover. Over time, grandiose pronouncements from IS could lose credence with prospective recruits and other important audiences. Al-Baghdadi would find himself inhabiting the same category as another Iraqi laughingstock, Baghdad Bob.

And that would be a good thing. Discrediting the opponent is no small contribution. If Hinote projects humble goals for the air campaign, though, Warden thinks air power can do it all. He reputedly proclaimed, for example, that “Real exploitation of air power’s potential can only come through making assumptions that it can do something we thought it couldn’t do …. We must start our thinking by assuming we can do everything with air power, not by assuming that it can only do what it did in the past” (my emphasis).

Huh. It’s one thing to postulate new warmaking methods, quite another to go into an enterprise assuming an implement of war is omnipotent. That betokens hubris. And indeed, Hinote concedes that limits on tactical intelligence circumscribe what flyboys can accomplish over Syria and Iraq. It’s harder than Warden’s bullseye diagram implies to place al-Baghdadi in the crosshairs. From a purely visual standpoint, then, the five-rings model conveys a false impression of simplicity and precision. Hit the bullseye and you win!

Not necessarily. Ambiguities multiply, moreover, when battling a non-state opponent — an opponent that claims statehood but hasn’t fully assembled the lineaments of statehood that Warden advises air chieftains to assault. A non-state foe’s leadership stays on the move rather than occupying a palace or other fixed dwelling. Societal processes are immature, infrastructure incomplete or nonexistent. Warriors mingle with noncombatants. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to hit the wrong targets — setting loose diplomatic blowback that degrades alliance relations and popular morale at home.

Give the Naval Wild Blue Diplomat the hardheaded realism of Vietnam sage John Paul Vann any day. Vann insisted that unconventional war puts a premium on “discrimination in killing.” The best weapon for such campaigns is a knife, because you have to come face-to-face with your adversary to use it. Getting up close and personal reduces the likelihood of self-defeating mistakes. The worst weapon “is an airplane.” Next worst is artillery, for similar reasons. “Barring a knife,” concludes Vann, “the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.”

Bareknuckles wisdom. Air power is an exceedingly useful implement, to be sure. But beware of prophets touting wonder weapons. Seldom if ever does war yield to neat solutions.