Air Power: Where’s the Love?

By Sandra I. Erwin
At recent inside-the-beltway gatherings of Air Force officials and contractors, the exasperation has been palpable.

Why is air power being blamed for the lack of progress in Afghanistan?

How dare the secretary of defense call air power a “vulnerability?” When did it become acceptable to disrespect the U.S. military’s greatest strategic advantage?

These are tough days for time-honored tactical aviation. World War II style carpet-bombing is long gone. Aerial dog fighting pretty much ended in Vietnam. Air power was the darling of the 1999 Kosovo campaign, when the conventional wisdom was that smart bombs and other high-tech weapons were the answer to avoid putting ground troops in harm’s way. That worldview faded only months after the Iraq invasion.

When bombs need to be dropped now, oftentimes the Pentagon relies on unmanned aircraft, although much of the close-air support in Iraq and Afghanistan is still done by tactical fighters and A-10 attack aircraft. Troops on the ground especially praise the A-10 as the essential “big guns” that they rely upon for protection. But repeated incidents of aerial strikes that killed civilians in Afghanistan have called into question the advantage of such powerful weapons in war zones where combatants hide among the population.

The political fallout from civilian deaths has been such that senior officials at the Pentagon are debating whether to severely curtail the use of aerial strikes in Afghanistan. The commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has endorsed such a policy.

Air power advocates lament that pilots almost always get blamed — sometimes unfairly, they say — for air strikes that miss targets and kill civilians. A pilot may have dropped a bomb on the wrong target, but technically he is not at fault if he follows precise orders from ground-based controllers who are responsible for identifying the targets, said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn, president of the Air Force Association. “It’s not like a pilot decides to drop a bomb. There’s a ground component to this,” Dunn said at a conference last month hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies.

Veterans of close-air support operations concur that in urban combat, confusion is prevalent because combatants and civilians cannot be easily identified.

“It’s very difficult for a soldier on the ground to look across the street and tell with 100 percent accuracy who the noncombatants are,” explained retired Air Force colonel and fighter pilot Michael W. Isherwood, who is now a senior analyst at the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center in Washington, D.C.

In most instances when civilians are killed, it was because the pilot was mistakenly directed there, and it’s up to the troops on the ground to determine whether noncombatants are inside a building, he said at the Mitchell conference, where he unveiled a new white paper titled, “Airpower for Hybrid Warfare.”

When ground controllers direct an air strike to a building that is occupied by civilians, in theory, the pilot is blameless, said Isherwood. “But in reality, you’re never blameless.”

Headlines never say “Private Smith called in this air strike,” Dunn noted. “Legally, the ground is responsible for ensuring there are no noncombatants in the building.”

Believers of air power predict that the backlash will be temporary, at least until commanders witness the “adverse effects of not using air power,” said Isherwood. If air strikes are suspended in Afghanistan, “Let’s see what happens in six months.”

In the coming weeks, supporters of air power also will anxiously await the outcome of a contentious budget battle between Congress and the Obama administration over the Air Force’s F-22 next-generation fighter. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to end production at 187 — only four more aircraft than the Bush administration had recommended — while a number of tac-air proponents on Capitol Hill want to buy up to 20 more.

To tac-air loyalists, this is yet more salt being rubbed in their wounds. “The F-22 is made to survive and establish air superiority to keep our soldiers alive,” Dunn wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times. Critics of the F-22 are “apparently assuming that every conflict of the next 30 years will look like Iraq,” said Dunn. “History shows us that we always guess wrong on the next war.”

At the Mitchell conference, Dunn complained about an excessive Defense Department focus on “hybrid war at the expense of everything else.” That thinking is shortsighted, he said. “Are we at risk of sounding the death knell of conventional war by focusing on hybrid?”

Isherwood pointed out that air power is far more than just aerial bombing, and most of that non-kinetic work done by the Air Force goes unacknowledged. “It’s frustrating that when you talk about irregular warfare, all people want to talk about is close-air support. That’s what they think is the only contribution of air power.” Air power also is about providing transportation, command-and-control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“I’m convinced that air power is going to be in the foundation” of the nation’s military strength, he said.

And non-believers, why can’t you show a little more gratitude?


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