In Today’s Wars, Air Strikes Under Fire
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.”
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.
“If air strikes are incompatible with counterinsurgency, we’re sure getting a lot of requests for precision delivery of ordnance,” says Gen. T. Michael Moseley, chief of staff of the Air Force. “People who say that it’s not compatible with counterinsurgency probably are not the people engaged on the ground who are asking for the weapon,” Moseley says.
The Air Force during the past several years has sharpened its urban close-air support skills and has acquired smaller and more accurate precision weapons, but Moseley acknowledges that in this conflict the enemy has the strategic advantage.
“The challenge of this, from my time in Afghanistan and my time in Iraq, is that the enemy now moves among friendlies and the enemy moves inside urban areas,” he says. “Your requirement for being absolutely precise, whether it’s artillery or small arms … is there regardless of whether it’s delivered by air or delivered ground to ground.”
The only way to defeat this enemy is by covertly penetrating his inner circle, he says. “To begin to understand the counterinsurgency game you have to be amongst the opponent, you have to have a reasonable amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, you have to have an actionable amount of situational awareness, and you have to have the right weapon at the right time to address the right problem” regardless of whether it is a 2,000-pound bomb or a 9mm pistol, Moseley says. “You have to have the full spectrum available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Air Force strategist Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. has argued that the service gets disproportionately blamed for civilian casualties, and has criticized the Army’s counterinsurgency manual for “marginalizing” air power.
“While it is certainly true that air attacks can — and do — cause civilian casualties, it is not clear why Field Manual FM 3-24 singles-out airpower from other kinds of fires, except to say it represents an astonishingly ‘fossilized’ take on current and emerging airpower capabilities,” Dunlap writes in “Shortchanging the Joint Fight?” — an essay published by the Air Force’s Air University. “The manual looks to be excessively influenced by historical myths about airpower and its association with civilian casualties.”
He adds that FM 3-24 “undervalues technology, misunderstands key aspects of 21st century warfare and, frankly, marginalizes air power.”
In a January op-ed piece in the New York Times, Dunlap again chastises naysayers who say air power does not belong in counterinsurgency operations.
“While the new counterinsurgency doctrine has an anti-technology flavor that seems to discourage the use of air power especially, savvy ground-force commanders in Iraq got the right results last year by discounting those admonitions. Few Americans are likely to be aware that there was a fivefold increase in air strikes during 2007 as compared with the previous year, which went hand in hand with the rest of the surge strategy,” Dunlap writes.
The inter-service tension that underpins Dunlap’s arguments, however, does not trickle down to the real world of war fighting, contends Fred H. Allison, a retired Marine reserve major and historian at Marine Corps University.
“Close-air support pilots personally become part of the ground battle,” Allison asserts in the Air & Space Power Journal. “Close air support has proven to be a hot button issue because it is an emotional issue, not only at the joint and command level but also on the battlefield,” he says.
“The gulf between tactical pilots and infantrymen would seem to be an almost unbridgeable chasm, but such is not the case,” says Allison. “In the mission of close- air support these two military cultures merge, albeit temporarily.”
If the United States, as the Pentagon’s own analysts predict, will be fighting urban insurgencies for the foreseeable future, the Air Force consequently will need to boost its close-air support skills and weaponry. “This has implications for aircraft and weapons acquisitions,” Allison says. “It has implications for conduct of the air war, the need to balance what is actually required for air support as opposed to what ground troops have come to expect from their aviation ‘buddies.’”
While the Air Force has moved to upgrade its close-air support fleet — notably the A-10 Thunderbolt — its arsenal consists mostly of weapons that are designed for extensive bombing campaigns.
The Rand study says the Air Force should “develop survivable daylight air platforms with gunship-like characteristics — comparable to those of the current AC-130 aircraft — to support counterinsurgency operations.”
One of the most valuable technologies the Air Force deployed in the current conflicts is not a weapon but a $15,000 video terminal — the remote-operations video-enhanced receiver (ROVER), a portable laptop computer that receives streaming data from airborne sensors.
“Equipped with ROVER, a joint tactical air controller can see pictures gained by sensors mounted on unmanned aircraft, fighters and bombers,” says the Rand report.
The newest version, called ROVER IV, includes a point-and-click feature that allows the operator to designate a target on the display and send that designation to the attack aircraft.
“This is especially useful when the air controller and other observers do not have line-of-sight to the target and therefore cannot determine its location by lasing. Moreover, it eliminates the need for a verbal description of the target, which can be time consuming,” the study says.
The Air Force is developing smaller bombs to fill the gap between guided missiles, such as the Maverick, and general-purpose bombs that traditionally weigh 500 pounds or more, says Rand. “The United States is also improving its capability to laser-designate targets and communicate target coordinates digitally. Fighter aircraft are a very expensive way to provide constant coverage. Gunships are more efficient platforms, but during daylight, they are vulnerable to low-level air defense. One promising alternative would be a new platform that has most of the characteristics of a gunship but employs missiles rather than guns. Another solution, already being implemented with the Army’s multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), is the use of the Global Positioning System to guide indirect fire.”
Smaller, less destructive munitions are part of the Air Force’s acquisition strategy, says Lt. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, the service’s top procurement officer.
Pilots in air-support missions used to only have a choice of either a big bomb or a Hellfire missile, Hoffman says at a news conference. The plan is to provide more options in the future, he says. “Up until a year and a half ago, we did not have an accurate 500-pound bomb. We now have that … Sometimes we carry bombs without any explosives in them. Just the kinetic impact of a precise bomb will have the effect we need.” In urban counterinsurgency, Hoffman says, a pilot doesn’t have to “take out the whole building, just the corner of the building where a sniper is.”
A recent addition to the arsenal is a 250-pound “small diameter bomb.” An even smaller variant, the “focused lethality munition,” is in early development and will not be available until at least 2009, officials say. This weapon is designed to minimize injuries caused by shrapnel, Hoffman says. “In a typical bomb, anyone 3,000 feet from a 500-pound bomb will have shrapnel coming their way.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory earlier this year awarded a contract to Alliant Techsystems to develop a small, lightweight warhead known as BattleAxe. The warhead would be even smaller than those used in the Hellfire missile, program officials say.
One Air Force officer who directed air strikes from the ground in Afghanistan as a “joint terminal attack controller” says close-air support tactics and technologies have changed dramatically.
“The forward air controller business had been the same since World War II until about two and a half years ago,” says Lt. Col. Greg Harbin. In the past, “you relied on flares, smoke, screaming, whatever you had to do to get the target. Today, every U.S. and U.K. FAC has ROVER video downlink. It’s like cable TV. We get streaming video from Predator unmanned aircraft, from targeting pods. We’re able to reduce fratricide; we can see children.”
Harbin says that in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters have been deft at hiding among the population, and have tricked U.S. and coalition forces into striking the wrong targets.
Smaller weapons are far better for counterinsurgency, he says. “What you want to avoid is the 2,000 pound bomb — it has such a large frag. That’s normally not an ideal close-air support weapon,” Harbin says. “Normally what you are targeting is one or two individuals planting an improvised explosive device, or a sniper,” he says. In those situations, “what we need is strafing.” Other useful munitions would be laser guided small-diameter bombs and laser-guided Maverick missiles.
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