Airpower’s Crucial Role in Irregular Warfare

Frank Hoffman draws my attention to a piece in Air & Space Power Journal by Major General Allen Peck entitled, “Airpower’s Crucial Role in Irregular Warfare.” Having recently written about the problems with relying on air power for COIN, I was interested in getting the alternative view from an unquestioned expert. I remain unpersuaded.

He starts strong:

Historically, democracies tend to grow weary of fighting relatively quickly, as reflected in this country’s experiences in the Civil War, Vietnam, and the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is undeniable. It’s true in all forms of warfare to an extent, but it’s especially problematic for small wars. In conventional combat, our massive air power advantage can radically speed up success. But, as Peck acknowledges, small wars are a bit different:

In an IW environment, the traditionally recognized ability of airpower to strike at the adversary’s “strategic center of gravity” will likely have less relevance due to the decentralized and diffuse nature of the enemy. The amorphous mass of ideological movements opposing Western influence and values generally lacks a defined command structure that airpower can attack with predictable effects.


Still, airpower holds a number of asymmetric trump cards (capabilities the enemy can neither meet with parity nor counter in kind). For instance, airpower’s ability to conduct precision strikes across the globe can play an important role in counterinsurgency operations.

We’ve seen time and again that “precision strikes” are insufficiently precise for COIN, given that we’re almost certain to kill more civilians than bad guys. The propaganda advantages that affords the enemy almost always trump the military advantage.

Numerous other advantages (including information and cyber operations; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance [ISR]; and global mobility) have already proven just as important. These capabilities provide our fighting forces with highly asymmetric advantages in the IW environment.

The ISR advantages gained from the air are indeed useful; I simply wouldn’t define that as “air power” in any meaningful sense.

Innovation and adaptation are hallmarks of airpower. Cold War—era bombers, designed to carry nuclear weapons, can loiter for hours over the battlefield and deliver individual conventional weapons to within a few feet of specified coordinates.

That’s not close enough.

Fighter aircraft, designed to deliver precision weapons against hardened targets, can disseminate targeting-pod video directly to an Air Force joint terminal attack controller who can then direct a strike guided by either laser or the global positioning system (GPS).

To what end? How often will our adversaries be in “hardened targets” yet not surrounded by scores of non-combatants?

Unmanned systems such as the Predator, once solely a surveillance platform, now have effective laser designation and the capacity for precision, kinetic strike. Airborne platforms offer electronic protection to ground forces, including attacking insurgent communications and the electronics associated with triggering improvised explosive devices (IED). Exploiting altitude, speed, and range, airborne platforms can create these effects, unconstrained by terrain or artificial boundaries between units. Forward-thinking Airmen developed these innovations by using adaptive tactics, techniques, procedures, and equipment to counter a thinking, adaptive enemy.

This sounds potentially useful. I’d need more information on how it’s actually being used on the COIN battlefield, though, to be convinced that this constitutes a “crucial role.”

There’s substantially more at the link. It is, however, more of the same.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Is it worth mentioning that making the case that the author is attempting to make is critical for increasing (or maybe even maintaining) budgets for the Air Force in an era in which irregular warfare is most of what we’re likely to encounter?

  2. Anderson says:

    JJ, you are much more likely than I am to know the answer to this: has anyone written a good book on the history of the airpower delusion? (By which I mean, the notion that airpower can not merely provide tactical support, cripple heavy industry, and incinerate cities, but also do whatever else the army and navy do.)

    We seem to have heard the same thing from the mouths of airpower advocates for nigh-on 100 years now … surely there’s a good study of this?

  3. James Joyner says:

    critical for increasing (or maybe even maintaining) budgets for the Air Force

    A fair point. Still, I think most of it is just that, as Anderson suggestions, the Air Force ALWAYS thinks hitting people from the air is the way to win wars.

    has anyone written a good book on the history of the airpower delusion?

    I’m not aware of a book length treatment, although the idea is out there. Carl Builder wrote about it extensively in MASKS OF WAR and, shoot, even my dissertation included quite a bit on the topic.

    There was a pretty good article about a year ago in the ECONOMIST: The illusion of air power

  4. Andy says:

    I know it would be impossible at this point, but it sure would be great to roll the Air Force back into the Army Air Corps.

    It would be Constitutional, efficient, cheaper, and probably lead to better tactical and strategic integration with ground troops.

  5. legion says:

    Even though I’m one of those AF types, I gotta agree with Dave – this sounds very much like a desperate attempt to keep the AF relevant in the combat arena that’s getting all the bucks these days. Not that airpower isn’t vital to national defense (especially in the deterrent role), but guerilla warfare really doesn’t call for much beyond Close-Air Support, with occasional interdiction or precision strike missions as critical C2 or logistic nodes are found.

    For instance, airpower’s ability to conduct precision strikes across the globe can play an important role in counterinsurgency operations.

    Sorry General, but no. CI ops aren’t global for the simple reason that insurgencies aren’t global. The AQ elements in Iraq aren’t going to really notice if we hit the AQ elements in, say, Africa. Being able to launch a precision bomb attack from Omaha vice Qatar doesn’t really matter to them either. They’re not impressed. If you need that kind of response time, you put the aircraft near the battle.

  6. Wayne says:

    Being a ground pounder, I hate to feed AF ego but they do play a crucial role on IW. The best way a finding small units is by the use of small units. This may make the leftist scream but I think our troops should be allowed to wear civilian cloths. It wouldn’t be a violation of Geneva conventions since according to Geneva conventions we do not have to follow the rules if the other side doesn’t but that is getting off subject.

    Anyway, when you moving around in very small units, you need to be able to increase your firepower in a very short order. Artillery is usually not in the right place and QRF are fast but usually not fast enough. That leaves airpower. Yes there are collateral considerations difficulties in urban environments but that is being refine. Air reconnaissance assets can also greatly complement the ground reconnaissance assets.

    I would agree that most overestimate air power but that is another subject as well. However few probably appreciate airpower as much as the SF and LURPS.