Airpower and the Other Forces

June 1, 1997

According to retired Gen. Michael J. Dugan-who was Air Force Chief of Staff when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990–“the airpower hero of the Gulf War” was Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Had General Schwarzkopf, as joint force commander, followed traditional thinking, he might have relied primarily on a ground counterattack, supported by airpower and seapower, to roll back the invasion. Instead, he asked the Air Force to devise an air campaign option.

Then, for the first 38 days of combat–from January 17 to February 24, 1991–General Schwarzkopf held off the ground offensive and let airpower destroy Iraq’s command-and-control system, neutralize its air force, and render a high percentage of the enemy force militarily ineffective. The ground phase of the war took only four days, ending with the cease-fire on February 28.

The US and its coalition allies won the war with only a fraction of the casualties that had been predicted ahead of time. Schwarzkopf “had been exposed to what airmen said they could do, and he decided he’d give them a chance,” Dugan said. He trusted the people on his team, and they “made him the most famous military man since MacArthur.”

Dugan spoke during a “colloquy” on strategy, requirements, and forces put on March 7 at the National Press Club by the Eaker Institute. Newly formed, the Eaker Institute is the policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation.

Although he did not say so, the Gulf War also proved Dugan something of a prophet. In a bizarre turn of events on September 17, 1990, the Secretary of Defense relieved Dugan from his position for “demeaning the contributions of other services” in statements to news reporters. Dugan had predicted that the coming conflict would be carried principally by airpower.

Joining Dugan on the Eaker Institute panel were retired Col. John A. Warden, initial planner of the Gulf War air campaign and now a private consultant in Montgomery, Ala.; Dr. Philip Gold, director of the Aerospace 2010 project at the Discovery Institute in Seattle; and Gene Myers, senior civilian doctrine analyst at the Air Force Doctrine Center, Langley AFB, Va.

“The United States is, first and foremost, an aerospace power,” Dr. Gold said. “We are not a land power or a sea power as these terms have been traditionally understood. Other countries have certainly had very strong air forces to support land or sea forces. We are uniquely dependent on aerospace. We are uniquely competent at it. As a rule of thumb, if something can be done from the air, it probably should be done from the air.”

One Target, One Airplane

A major factor in bringing military airpower to the fore has been the stunning advancement in what it can achieve. The combination of stealth, precision, and information technology is widely seen as representing a “revolution in military affairs.”

In World War II, Warden said, “if we wanted to put one bomb in this room with 90 percent probability, we had to drop over 9,000 bombs from B-17s, which meant 1,000 airplanes, which meant putting 10,000 men over the target. In the Gulf War, if we wanted 90 percent probability of putting a bomb on that table, we’d send one F-117, one guy, and he drops one bomb.” When weighing the cost of modern airpower, he said, the measure must include the comparative cost of maintaining 1,000 B-17s and putting 10,000 lives at risk.

Since the Gulf War, the improvements have continued. For example, the Air Force has demonstrated that it can attack 16 targets with precision on a single sortie with the B-2 bomber.

“I find it difficult to think of things that can be achieved by regular forms of military power that can’t either be done by airpower of some sort, or at least where airpower cannot make a significant, substantive contribution,” Warden said.

Gene Myers pointed out that despite these changes and the evidence of the Gulf War, the emphasis in joint doctrine is still on surface warfare and that, to some, the decisive phase of war is still synonymous with the insertion of land forces. It is a struggle to break the tradition in which land forces are automatically regarded as the “supported” component and thus the center of attention in a joint operation. It may work out that way in some conflicts, but at other times, airpower may be the central and “supported” component with land forces taking a secondary role or acting in support of airpower.

In maneuver warfare, Dr. Gold said, “sometimes the main thrust will be air. Sometimes the main thrust will be ground. Sometimes it will be a combination. Sometimes you’ll start a war and have to shift halfway through. You can’t have that doctrinal rigidity as regards who supports whom anymore.”

Recent developments, Myers said, deliver “the capability to fulfill a promise that the US Air Force has been making for a long time-to be decisive by going to the enemy’s heartland.” The concept of parallel warfare, in which the Air Force expects to engage up to 1,500 targets in the first hour of conflict, means “we can fight at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels simultaneously.”

For those who wonder if airpower can be decisive on its own–the question never seems to be asked about the other components–Myers pointed to examples ranging from the Battle of Britain and the Berlin Airlift to the Persian Gulf War.

The Difference in Perspective

“Overwhelming power is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” Warden said. Often, we talk about “decisive force” when what we really mean is “decisive results.”

Dugan agreed, noting that there can be a big difference between the target and the objective. From the perspective of the captain who flew the mission, the objective was to take out a bridge, whereas “the operational commander’s objective was to delay, deny, destroy, or do something with men and materiel moving in the vicinity.” Achieving the tactical objective-destruction of the bridge-does not always achieve the operational objective.

Similarly, he said, “the perspective and the interest of the front-line ground commander are with the very first enemy soldier standing in line. [The perspective] is not with whatever is in reserve and it is not with whatever is in the strategic reserve and it is not with the supply system behind them. The perspective of the ground fighter is that you deal with the first one in line, then you deal with the second one. You fight from the front back.”

The joint force commander, who is obliged to look at the overall theater and consider what things he would like to see happen or not happen, often has different perspective. In many instances, the joint force commander will find airpower the component with the best chance of meeting his needs. “The Air Force does bring some special capabilities,” Dugan said. “They can fight from the back forward. The other forces can’t.”

Myers said the Air Force must go beyond stating its core competencies and decide what it is that distinguishes the Air Force from the aviation arms of the other services. The answer, he suggested, is one of perspective. The other services use airpower “in relation to their other environments, on land or at sea.”

The Air Force, by contrast, is “the service that has strategic perspective-the world’s only true global aerospace power.” The Air Force can function “at the strategic and operational level of war, as compared to other services that operate primarily at the operational and tactical level of war.”

Type B Wars

The panel agreed that sweeping changes lie ahead in the nature of warfare itself.

Dugan made a distinction between “Type A” wars–“the kind we know about, maybe with new technology”–and “Type B” wars, which may be so different we do not yet know what they look like.

“If I were a state-run entity that had interests and objectives inimical to the United States, I would not take you head-on in this day or in this decade,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I would give up my objectives. But I would not do it in a straightforward manner. I would pursue an indirect strategy.”

In the years ahead, “high technology is going to favor the weak,” such as computer hackers and others operating around the edges of power, Dr. Gold said. Technology tends to become commercially available, and all comers can acquire it. “It costs a whole lot less to buy it or steal it than it does to develop it.”

A measure or a countermeasure, cheaply acquired, may be sufficient to defeat–for the user’s purposes anyway–elaborate systems that cost far more. “We may be witnessing, in terms of high technologies, something equivalent to the shift from the aristocratic knight to the democratic cannonball or the democratic bullet,” Dr. Gold said.

With technology that is four orders of magnitude better than what we had before, we should look beyond “marginal extrapolations” and find “entirely new concepts of operation,” Warden said. For example, the term “battle” may lose much of its meaning if we take “a top-down perspective and figure out ways to use that technology so we don’t have to have battles, so perhaps we don’t even have to have a person flying over a target, let alone a fellow on the ground with a bayonet.”

In the Halls of Jointness

Meanwhile, not every theater commander and joint service official is as open to the relative value of airpower as Norman Schwarzkopf was in 1990.

Subsequent to the Persian Gulf War, Dugan told the Eaker Institute panel, a display was set up in the Pentagon, between the Joint Staff area and the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to commemorate the nation’s victory in Desert Storm.

The illustration chosen to symbolize that victory, however, was of “Desert Sword,” the four-day land operation, rather than the air campaign that had destroyed Iraqi’s military infrastructure and left its armed forces reeling and unable to put up much of a fight.

It was a most interesting example, Dugan said, “of how joint force participation is recorded and remembered.”