Why Air Power Alone Won’t Beat
By Max Boot
Wall Street Journal
December 8, 2015
Ever since the dawn of the air age
more than a century ago, military strategists have been prone to the delusion
that bombing by itself can win wars.
Today the air-power fantasy is
that dropping enough bombs on Islamic State jihadists will get the job done in
Iraq and Syria. The approach is a bipartisan, indeed multinational, daydream,
shared by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and now
by Britain and France as well.
Military history offers little
justification for such faith.
As early as 1918, Billy Mitchell,
an army general who is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force, proclaimed:
“The day has passed when armies on the ground or navies on the sea can be the
arbiter of a nation’s destiny in war. The main power of defense and the power
of initiative against an enemy has passed to the air.”
Mitchell and other interwar air
advocates were convinced that bombers, in particular, were wonder weapons that
would quickly break the enemy’s will to fight. The influential Italian
strategist Giulio Douhet predicted that “normal life would be unable to
continue under the constant threat of death and imminent destruction.”
U.S. and British leaders of the
1920s and 1930s invested heavily in developing strategic bombing. As British
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it: “The bomber will always get through.
The only defense is in offence.” Yet when strategic bombing was unleashed in
World War II, it didn’t prove nearly as decisive as its advocates had
expected. “My Luftwaffe is invincible,” Hermann Göring had crowed, but the
Luftwaffe couldn’t bring Britain to its knees in 1940.
“Victory, speedy and complete,
awaits the side which first employs air power as it should be employed,” said
Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Britain’s Bomber Command. But
even when the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces combined to unleash
their bombers on Germany, they didn’t produce speedy victory. Germany managed
to increase industrial production under bombardment.
The limits of air power were
revealed again in Vietnam. No one was surer of air power’s centrality than
Gen. Curtis LeMay, the cigar-chomping chief of Strategic Air Command. “If we
maintain our faith in God, love of freedom, and superior global air power, the
future looks good,” he said. LeMay advocated bombing North Vietnam “back
into the Stone Age.” The U.S. dropped more bombs in the Vietnam War than in
World War II, but North Vietnam prevailed anyway.
Lately there have been echoes of
LeMay in statements by Mr. Trump, who vowed to “bomb the s---” out of
Islamic State, and by Mr. Cruz: “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will
carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but
we’re going to find out.”
Mr. Cruz’s veiled suggestion
that he would use nuclear weapons on Islamic State, or ISIS, was a macabre touch
but hardly practical. Aside from the fact that the U.S. has a strong interest in
maintaining an international norm of no nuclear use, what would the target be?
ISIS doesn’t have an industrial infrastructure or tank armies in the desert
that can be eliminated. The jihadists are mixed among the people they terrorize,
and killing civilians is likely to create more terrorists than it eliminates.
The only places where U.S. air
power has worked against ISIS so far has been in battles such as Sinjar and
Kobani, where effective ground forces, chiefly made up of Kurds, were also
involved. This confirms the lessons of the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the
Iraq war: In all those conflicts, American air power was decisive only when used
in tandem with effective ground forces, whether belonging to the U.S. or local
proxies such as the Kosovo Liberation Army or Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance.
Bombing by itself—like Bill Clinton’s 1998 airstrikes on Iraq, Afghanistan
and Sudan—achieved little.
Predictably, where the U.S. has
bombed ISIS without effective follow-up on the ground, the results have been
negligible. The Pentagon claims to have killed 23,000 ISIS fighters, yet
estimates that ISIS forces remain at around 20,000 to 30,000—roughly where
they were before the bombing started. This suggests that ISIS is able to replace
fighters as quickly as they are killed, just as the Viet Cong were able to do in
There is a case for ramping up air
power against ISIS, but that would require sending tactical air controllers into
battle to accurately call in airstrikes, which President Obama so far has
refused to do. Even then, destroying ISIS would require effective ground forces,
and given the inability of the U.S. to mobilize enough effective proxies in
either Syria or Iraq, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. will need to
provide at least some of the troops itself. Polls suggest that a majority of
Americans now support using ground troops against ISIS. But President Obama
again ruled out this option in his national-TV address on Sunday night, saying:
“We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war.”
No one wants “a long and costly
ground war,” but just as in the past, air power alone won’t win this war.
Any administration strategist or presidential hopeful who pretends otherwise
isn’t serious about achieving victory.