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Air Power: An Enduring Illusion
Israel hoped that air power would avoid the need for a ground war against Hezbollah. It was not the first to be beguiled by bombs
London, August 25, 2006 – VICTORY is not a matter of seizing territory, Dan Halutz once explained. It is a matter of "consciousness". And air power, continued Israel's chief of staff, affects the adversary's consciousness significantly. Indeed, the very concept of the land battle is "anachronistic". Lieut-General Halutz, an air-force man, is said to have persuaded Israel's militarily inexperienced prime minister, Ehud Olmert, that the task of destroying Hezbollah in Lebanon was the perfect job for aircraft.
It did not quite work out that way. Yet the seductive idea that air power can provide swift victory with light casualties has been around almost as long as the aeroplane itself.
The belief that a few bombs could spare all the bloody butcher's bill of infantry fighting proved especially appealing to many of the military men--and politicians--who had witnessed the horrors of the trenches in the first world war. Even if it meant inflicting civilian casualties, the prospect of a short, decisive war waged from the safety of the skies was far preferable to the spectacle of "morons volunteering to get hung in the wire and shot in the stomach in the mud of Flanders," argued Arthur Harris, an airman who rose to become head of British bomber command in the second world war, earning himself the name of "Bomber" Harris for his relentless obliteration of German cities.
Airmen like Harris argued in the 1920s that armies could fight only other armies, whereas aircraft could strike right to the heart of the enemy's territory, crippling its ability and, more important, its will to wage war. Success, it was claimed, would come mostly through influencing the psychology of the enemy. The first chief of Britain's Royal Air Force, Hugh Trenchard, repeatedly asserted that the "moral effect" of bombing "stands in a proportion of 20 to one" to any physical destruction it might cause. Trenchard once even said that not bombing a town could be as effective as bombing it: "The anxiety as to whether an attack is likely to take place is probably just as demoralizing as the attack itself."
Although it was the potential of air power in large wars that galvanized such thinking, airmen were also quick to argue that aircraft could be equally potent in small wars against irregular or guerrilla forces. An early opportunity to put this to the test presented itself in 1919 when the Emir of Afghanistan declared jihad against Britain's forces in the North-West Frontier Province. The RAF shipped a single Handley Page biplane bomber to Karachi. It flew over Kabul and dropped four 112lb bombs and 16 20-pounders. The emir sued for peace shortly thereafter.
The political capital and prestige which the RAF reaped from the incident were enormous. Basil Liddell Hart, a military writer, declared that "Napoleon's presence was said to be worth an army corps, but this aeroplane seems to have achieved more than 60,000 men did."
The RAF repeated its triumph to much Ã©clat the next year. This time the target was Mohammed bin Abdullah Hassan, the "Mad Mullah" of Somaliland. The mullah, a precocious Muslim fanatic, had been a thorn in the side of the British for decades. He had adopted a particularly puritanical form of Islam after a pilgrimage to Mecca, which inspired him on his return home in 1895 to emulate the Mahdi who had defied the British in Sudan. The British army then sent four expeditions to Somaliland to try to deal with the mullah, the last one involving 15,000 troops. Each time the mullah regrouped. In 1909 his men, waging a jihad against local tribesmen who had accepted British rule, slaughtered a third of the territory's inhabitants.
When the War Office balked at repeating the effort yet again, the war minister, Winston Churchill, proposed to have the RAF do it. Six small aircraft were ferried to East Africa on warships, the mullah's fort was bombed for two days, and a month later it was all over. Churchill crowed in Parliament that the previous land expedition had cost the Treasury Â£6m--about Â£120m ($220m) in today's money; the RAF had done the job for Â£77,000.
But there were hints even amid the glee that the truth was murkier. The mullah was never captured. He and 700 riflemen slipped out of the country only after being pursued by ground forces, whose commander dismissed the airmen's claims of victory as "something of a hoax". The bombing, he said, had actually made his work harder by dispersing the enemy.
Something approaching a mystique, though, soon began to surround the claims of the airmen. When, in 1922, the RAF was given the job of maintaining British authority in Iraq by similar means--by then the formal name had become air control or air policing--the airmen insisted that only they were qualified to judge just when and where to strike to achieve the exact psychological effect required to bring insurgents to heel. The local British army commander sarcastically described the RAF "appearing from God knows where, dropping their bombs on God knows what, and going off again God knows where." He had a point. Although the RAF claimed it could hit the house of a particular sheikh in a particular village, the airmen often failed to get even half their bombs to land within the village at all.
But the saving in money and lives of troops swept aside most criticism. To the objection that little logic seemed to lie behind their choice of targets, the air commanders merely insisted that their real target was a concept--enemy morale and will--rather than any particular physical object. That proved to be a remarkably resilient theme over the decades. "Bomber" Harris, more honest than many of the Allied air commanders of the second world war when it came to acknowledging the imprecision of the bombing technology of the day, conceded that it was not possible accurately to destroy from the air any targets smaller than a few square miles. For that reason, he argued, the right targets to hit were the only things that were bigger--ie, entire cities. This, he insisted, would win the war.
The possibility that air power would make a ground invasion of France unnecessary tantalized some American politicians right up to the Normandy landings. Harris, too, continued to press his case, even during the final planning for D-day. "Harris told us how well he might have won the war had it not been for the handicap imposed by the existence of the other two services," commented General Alan Brooke, an army compatriot, after one pre-invasion conference of top commanders.
Similarly, 20 years on, when some of Lyndon Johnson's advisers objected that bombing North Vietnam's factories and rail lines would not do much harm to an agrarian country in which industry accounted for only 12% of its minuscule GNP, America's air-force chiefs argued that since its industrial sector was so small, the country was that much more dependent on it, and would suffer all the more if it were destroyed. In fact, the North Vietnamese responded to the bombing of their oil tanks and railways by dispersing fuel across the country in small drums and hauling supplies around on bicycles. But zapping railways, factories and oil tanks was something the air force knew how to do.
By that time bombing, whether effective or not, seemed much more attractive than sending in more troops. As America's ground forces in Vietnam found themselves increasingly impotent against an elusive and resourceful foe, the military commanders proposed endless variations on the same bombing strategy that had so far failed. Johnson one day dressed down the army chief of staff in front of his underlings: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, that's all you know. Well, I want to know why there's nothing else. You're not giving me any ideas for this damn little pissant country. Now, I don't need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb."
The coming of age of precision guidance did sharply change conventional warfare involving conventional armies, as the two Gulf wars showed: aircraft were able to destroy hundreds of armored vehicles and paralyze Saddam Hussein's ground forces well before they could engage American or British ground troops. And as NATO's air campaign against Serbia showed in 1999, precision weapons can nowadays destroy selected targets, even in the heart of cities, without causing a thousandth of the civilian casualties that were routine in the second world war.
But when it comes to rooting out guerrillas and insurgents, wishful thinking still tends to outweigh technological capabilities. A study of the use of air power in small wars over the past century by James Corum and Wray Johnson, two former professors at the American air force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies, concluded that insurgents and terrorists "rarely present lucrative targets for aerial attack". Air power has been used to greatest effect in such campaigns only indirectly: to gather intelligence, move troops or maintain communication.
And as others besides the Israelis have found, trying to wage an air campaign against irregular forces is especially vulnerable to the backlash that invariably arises as civilian casualties mount. Since terrorists and guerrillas blend into the civilian population, fight in small units and rely on surprise and mobility, accurate and timely intelligence is crucial, and bad intelligence always results in civilian casualties, sometimes lots of them. Moreover, dropping a bomb in an urban area, even when the intelligence is correct, and even when the bomb is precision-guided, is likely to kill innocent neighbors.
Israel's excellent intelligence in the occupied territories has enabled it to carry out lethally successful precision air strikes against the leaders of Hamas and other outfits there. But even these attacks have often resulted in casualties to bystanders. In Lebanon the Israeli air force found itself in the worst of both worlds, killing civilians without achieving military objectives. No crucial Hezbollah leaders were killed and almost none of their mobile rocket-launchers were destroyed. Only the fixed launchers for their longer-range missiles north of the Litani river appear to have been much damaged.
Not by bombs alone
Israel was hoping, through its use of air power in Lebanon, not just to hammer an irregular guerrilla force; it was also seeking to put pressure on the Lebanese government and others to disarm Hezbollah and secure its southern border. In this General Halutz was said to have been strongly influenced by NATO's war of psychological pressure against Slobodan Milosevic, which aimed to force the Serb dictator to take a specific action--pull out of Kosovo and halt his ethnic cleansing--through an air campaign that kept ratcheting up the costs by destroying power plants, bridges, factories and other bits of infrastructure.
But, in the end, Israel found that even in a war that hinged on psychology and "consciousness", air power had inherent limitations. In the 48 hours before the ceasefire went into effect, Israel sent a surge of ground troops into southern Lebanon to engage in the "anachronistic" pursuit of seizing territory--precisely in order to create the conscious perception of tangible military victory that air power alone had failed to deliver. The truly smart bomb remains as elusive as the silver bullet.
SOURCE: The Economist