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.