The limits of air power
No one following the record of air power as an instrument of national whim should be surprised that Moammar Kadafi’s army remains apparently uncowed, even driving Libyan rebels back in headlong retreat despite an onslaught of NATO bombs and missiles. In fact, history is repeating itself in more ways than one.
The very first bombing raid ever occurred almost 100 years ago on Nov. 1, 1911, when an Italian airman hand-dropped four 4.5-pound bombs on forces defending Tripoli against Italian invaders. This momentous event went down well with the press: “Italian Military Aviator Outside Tripoli Proves War Value of Aeroplane,” headlined the New York Times. But it had little effect on the fighting, thus commencing a pattern of disappointment that has recurred with monotonous regularity in subsequent conflicts, irrespective of advances in technology. Precision bombing, touted as an instrument of victory in World War II and Vietnam, turned out to be anything but, leaving the wars to be decided by foot soldiers on the ground.
The 1999 NATO air campaign against Serbia is often cited as a turning point in this sorry narrative. Despite the fact that it lasted 11 weeks rather than the three days predicted by NATO commanders, not a single U.S. serviceman was killed. Furthermore, the attacks ended when the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, agreed to withdraw from Kosovo, thus permitting the return of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees freed from the threat of Serb persecution. Not only had the operation apparently vindicated liberal interventionists in the Clinton administration, but it also indicated that at long last, air power alone could win a war.
Subsequent inquiry gravely tarnished this shining example. The Serbian army deployed in Kosovo had been the principal target of bombs and missiles, yet at the end of the conflict allied military observers were surprised to see Serb formations withdrawing in good order, morale and equipment apparently intact. And despite contemporary official claims that more than 300 tanks had been destroyed, the actual number, according to sources on the command staff and an internal Air Force study, was 14. Most strikingly of all, the cease-fire terms were almost identical to those accepted by Milosevic before the war.
Nevertheless, the rapid eviction of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 appeared to refute the doubters finally and unequivocally. A combination of very precisely guided bombs and missiles, deployed in conjunction with unmanned surveillance drones and select teams of Special Forces target designators on the ground, were deemed to have destroyed large numbers of enemy and routed the rest. Dangerously, this rapid triumph convinced then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that his preference for brief campaigns waged with few troops and high-tech precision weaponry had been totally vindicated, with disastrous consequences on planning for the invasion of Iraq.
As it turned out, the Taliban had not been destroyed (the number of wounded left by its retreating forces was tellingly small). For the most part, they stood down when their sponsor, Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, ordered a tactical retreat. In more recent years, the Taliban has steadily re-extended its grip over much of Afghanistan despite constant and heavy air assault.
None of these salutary qualifications appear to have had much effect on air power enthusiasts in the current administration, particularly those veterans of the Clinton years who cherish warm, if inaccurate, memories of the Kosovo campaign. So the hard lessons will have to be learned all over again: Jet fighters flying at 15,000 feet — standard altitude in these conditions — have great difficulty spotting targets such as tanks, especially when they make some effort to hide or camouflage themselves. Additionally, in the last week, forces loyal to Kadafi have reportedly taken to moving in pickups identical to those used by the rebels, rendering the task of airborne targeteers even more difficult. For even minimal success, U.S. personnel acting as ground spotters are indispensable, and they, of course, will require further troops to protect them and train local allies — a role now reportedly being delegated to the CIA.
It is worth bearing in mind that following that inaugural bombing raid in 1911, for which the invaders had such high hopes, and despite the infusion of ever-larger numbers of Italian troops, the war lasted another 20 years.
Andrew Cockburn is the author of, most recently, “Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy.”
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