Blood and Thunder

Jan. 1, 2002

The war on terror will be long and hard. Before it is over, we will need all of our instruments of national power and all of our military forces. It will be important to understand the diverse capabilities that we can bring to bear.

In every conflict for the past 10 years, airpower has been extraordinarily successful for us.

This does not mean we should expect to win our wars with airpower alone. Other capabilities are also essential. It would be foolish to discount them.

It would be even more foolish to disparage airpower, which has been our single best capability in recent conflicts. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.

Air strikes in Afghanistan began Oct. 7. Within the month, an outcry arose that the war was being lost. Airpower couldn’t get the job done, and we had not sent in ground forces for fear of taking casualties.

It would not be possible, said the naysayers, to take Kabul or any of the other cities with airpower and indigenous forces. The operation was bogged down. The Taliban would hold on through the winter.

Our best hope, they said, was a ground offensive in the spring. It would take between 20,000 and 100,000 US ground troops. There would be casualties, of course, but that was to be expected in war. Reluctance to take casualties was said to be cowardly, and bombing from a safe altitude was seen as unfair.

Besides, the critics said, it was ground power, not airpower, that carried the day in the Gulf War and in Kosovo. That story had been invented and spread by the land power lobby, but a surprising number of columnists and commentators bought it. The New Republic, for example, predicted another failure of airpower in Afghanistan, which would not be surprising since “airpower certainly has a rather impressive record of failure.”

By November, the prognosticators began to look less than astute. The Taliban was seriously weakened from previous strikes. When heavy bombers, assisted by US spotters on the ground, began hammering the front-line positions, the defenses crumbled. Afghan irregulars, supported by airpower and a handful of US Special Forces, took Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, swept south, and were soon in control of most of the country.

Even so, not everyone was satisfied. Max Boot, an editor with the Wall Street Journal, complained that “President Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, push-button war, but that is precisely what it has been.” Our success in Afghanistan might come back to haunt us, Boot said, because it “did nothing to dispel the widespread impression that Americans are fat, indolent, and unwilling to fight the barbarians on their own terms.”

There is plenty of fighting left in the war on terror. Boot may yet see all the blood he can tolerate. He may even see it before operations end in Afghanistan.

Surely, though, we will not be so unwise as to “fight the barbarians on their own terms.” The sound strategy is to apply “asymmetric power,” pitting our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses.

One such asymmetric strength is airpower. In the Gulf, in Bosnia, in Serbia, and more recently in Afghanistan, airpower gave us an overwhelming advantage. The enemy couldn’t match it, and couldn’t defend against it.

It is time to put away the tired old story that airpower doesn’t work.

Airpower worked in the Gulf War. The 38-day air campaign left the Iraqi force demoralized, reeling, and degraded by about 50 percent. Coalition ground forces, supported by airpower, needed only 100 hours to chase the staggering Iraqis out of Kuwait.

Airpower worked in Serbia. It was the only military force engaged in a 78-day operation that ended with the Serb surrender. The threat of a land offensive had little to do with it. NATO had no plans to invade Serbia and could not have done so for another six months, if then.

It was a good idea to give airpower a chance to do what it could in Afghanistan. It turned out to be quite a lot.

We were fortunate to have a mix of service capabilities, with carrier-based aircraft generating the bulk of the early sorties and Air Force bombersworking with ground troops as events progresseddelivering the preponderance of the ordnance and accounting for more than half of the targets struck. Many others, including airlifters, tankers, gunships, fighters, and unmanned craft in air and space, contributed as well.

The best policy is to respect and support all of our forces. We are likely to need them, sooner or later. The time may come when we cannot avoid the clash of forces in ground combat or when high casualties are inevitable. However, we should not rush that moment because the peanut gallery is impatient with the progress of the campaign.

Assorted analysts, including retired military officers of a certain persuasion, are scornful of the effort to avoid casualties. We can only wonder at their motivation and take care not to put them in positions of authority.

War is not a sporting event where the playing field is level and both sides are given an equal chance. We want to achieve our objectives with the fewest casualties possible. The point is to make war terrible for the enemy, not for ourselves.