by James A. Russell
The unlearned lessons of America’s recent failures in war took an ominous and strange twist last week as yet another state embraced the false promise of aerial policing in the Middle East. Russia represents the third country in the modern era to mount an aerial campaign to try and police the region’s politics from 10,000 feet.
All three states —the United States, Saudi Arabia, and now Russia—stand little chance of imposing their will on their opponents on the ground as they drop bombs on the people below. Neither the United States nor Russia can effectively referee the internal struggle for political power in Syria from the air, just as Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies cannot impose their will on the struggle for power in Yemen from 10,000 feet.
Following the US lead, Saudi Arabia and Russia have helped create a cauldron of death, blood, and destruction for innocent civilians and may have set in motion unforeseen strategic consequences that could far outweigh their misguided attempts to police the region’s restive politics.
In baseball, three strikes and you’re out. Yet the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia continue to swing and miss.
The idea of aerial policing is dangerous and deeply flawed, yet mysteriously it has become a panacea for states seeking to apply force in the modern era. It is only the latest example of states struggling to grapple with the strategic contradictions of fighting what they believe to be a limited war for limited objectives—and they’re only willing to pay limited costs to achieve those limited objectives.
The obvious contradiction is the inherent asymmetry between the participants in these wars. Not all parties in the war regard their objectives as limited and hence are prepared to pay far greater costs in pursuit of their goals. This enduring contradiction cost thousands of lives in the national wars of liberation after World War II in which the developed states struggled to fight and subsequently lost their limited wars in places like Algeria, Yemen, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere.
Aerial policing is an intellectual and strategic house of cards built on shaky foundations that would make the great German strategist Carl von Clausewitz turn over in his grave. It represents the triumph of tactics over strategy, turning fundamental truths about the nature of war on their head. How did we end up here?
The Past as Prologue
Aerial policing grew out of theories of airpower by Emilio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and others who believed that the airplane had revolutionized war by making it unnecessary for armies to clash on the ground and destroy one another. Instead, they argued, an opponent’s armies, his means of waging war, and even his will to fight could be destroyed from the air via strategic bombardment.
The conduct of this strike war, they argued, reduced operations and warfare to an engineering problem of identifying and striking targets. Analysts created the discipline of operations research as one way to quantify the effectiveness of these strikes. Robert McNamara and his colleagues in the Strategic Bombing Survey—which convened after World War II to assess the impact of the strategic bombardment of Germany—then applied this analysis to subsequent conflicts.
World War II was the great laboratory to try out the ideas of Douhet and Mitchell, as the United States and Britain sought to pound Germany into submission via strategic bombing. The lessons of the war for strategic bombardment, however, went unlearned. The allied bombers missed most of what they were aiming at, did not end Germany’s means to wage war, and did not convince the German people to give up the fight.
The strategic consequences of the bombing campaign, however, were by no means insignificant and profoundly shaped the postwar environment. Unlike the case of World War I, German citizens in their flattened cities knew they had lost the war when the American and Soviet armies arrived on their doorsteps.
These broader lessons went unlearned by airpower advocates like Hap Arnold who were determined to see their visions realized through the creation of separate air forces, whose mission of strategic bombardment was buttressed by the arrival of atomic bombs—a weapon that did not depend on accuracy for effectiveness. Airpower advocates found their greatest booster in Dwight Eisenhower, the former Army general who became president and adopted their ideas in his New Look strategy of the 1950s.
The Modern Era
The mythology of the airpower advocates endured through the Vietnam War, despite another failure of airpower to achieve strategic effect. In the 1990s, airpower advocates got a shot in the arm as advances in sensors increased the accuracy of weapons. Americans watched in fascination during Gulf War I as gun-camera footage showed bombs being dropped down ventilation shafts with apparent pinpoint accuracy. What opponent could stand against such prowess?
During America’s 15-year irregular war in Iraq and Afghanistan, airpower advocates watched as their role was subordinated to the land forces, which had their own struggles closing in on and destroying their elusive guerilla enemies. But all was not lost for the airpower advocates with the growth of America’s Special Forces bureaucratic empire over the 15-year period.
Although America’s special forces gave lip service to the need for cultural and political awareness in operating in far flung parts of the globe like Iraq and Afghanistan, they in parallel set about creating an insurgent targeting methodology that had its roots in the engineering approach employed by the airpower advocates. The targeting methodology was eagerly seized upon by airpower enthusiasts to assassinate suspected terrorists around the world with America’s new generation of robots in the sky.
Also drawing upon France’s failed counterinsurgency tactics in Algeria and Vietnam, America’s Special Forces employed these targeting methods to disrupt insurgent networks and kill insurgents on an industrial scale in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Special Forces kill team methods quickly migrated into the America’s conventional forces, which also set up their own dedicated targeting and kill cells. Insurgents confronting our forces in these wars discovered that life was nasty, brutish, and short if they chose to directly confront us in battle.
America’s armies in Iraq and Afghanistan creatively married its lethal and non-lethal targeting methods under the rubric of effects-based operations, which, like the airpower advocates of an earlier generation, believed that strategic battlefield effect could be achieved by clever and imaginative tactical targeting. Many believed that adapting this approach to the ideas of counterinsurgency forcefully championed by a cadre of civilian analysts and military leaders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal finally provided us with a way to fight and win these persistent limited wars in the developing world.
Back to the Future
America’s strategic retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan after 15 years is a monument to the failure of these theories and fighting methods. Clever tactics championed by counterinsurgency advocates and their precise targeting methods did not drive our enemies from the field. Nor did they convince them to lay down their arms and abandon the causes for which they were fighting. Yet America’s response to this strategic failure has been to double down, showering more money and responsibility on the Special Forces and similar organizations that achieved no positive strategic effect in battle over the last 15 years.
America’s failure to impose its will on its enemies on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to an understandable reluctance to re-deploy its land forces to yet another open-ended policing operation in Iraq and Syria. Yet, strangely, the Saudis and the Russians are following in our footsteps, also failing to learn the lessons of failure over our 15-year wars. They cling to the misguided ideas of airpower advocates in fruitless and destructive bombing campaigns in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
But the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) cannot be destroyed from the air by either Russian or American airplanes, no matter how accurate the weapons. The Saudis cannot control who wins the contest for political power by its bombing in Yemen and are arguably making the situation far worse with yet another unfolding regional humanitarian catastrophe.
The contests for political power in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are happening on the ground, with military force being used as an extension of a political argument over the shape and identity of the state. Wars are not ultimately engineering problems that can be solved by clever tactics and effective targeting. Wars are manifestations of competing political arguments. IS is an idea and an ideology with deep roots in the Middle East’s history. The antagonists in the Middle East’s wars do not view these conflicts as limited, and it is up to them to settle their disputes either in battle or at the negotiating table. We in the West hope that the anti-modern extremists don’t win, but we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that they might, just as the communists won in Russia and China all those many decades ago.
Meanwhile, the long-term strategic consequences of the fruitless bombing campaigns mount, contributing to the death and destruction, and displacement of an entire generation of innocent families caught in the crossfire. One can only wish that the three-strike baseball maxim in fact applied to these fruitless and destructive bombing campaigns, but it apparently doesn’t.