On Fighting Irregular War

Oct. 1, 2007

“Airpower is usually the last thing that most military professionals think of when the topic of counterinsurgency is raised.” So states an important new Air Force doctrine paper, quoting the words of a recent RAND report.

The RAND study said planners have “undervalued” USAF’s potential contribution in low-grade irregular wars, of which Iraq and Afghanistan are examples. The capability has been “downplayed, taken for granted, or simply ignored,” said RAND.

This doesn’t necessarily mean planners see no use for airpower, just that different capabilities—infantry and special operations forces, mostly—are accorded much higher priority.

If the United States continues to indulge this habit, we will steadily lose ground in the Global War on Terror.

Victory over our deadly and determined foes will require effective use of all our capabilities, but especially the air and space weapon. Airpower has proven to be a—maybe even the—crucial US edge in the fight against insurgents and terrorists.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force targeting data, intelligence, communications, and airlift greatly magnify the strength of ground troops. More important, small groups of enemy fighters and even individuals are highly vulnerable to precision air attack.

The reality is clear enough: USAF is about more—much more—than “traditional” combat.

At long last, USAF has begun raising airpower’s “small war” profile. Air Force Doctrine Document 2-3, “Irregular Warfare,” is out, released on Aug. 1. This 103-page paper offers a glimpse of what airmen are saying to each other and to the world on the topic.

It is a strong presentation, showing that USAF’s thinking has deepened and matured. It delivers a sharp punch to the view that the US needs only ground forces —small, simple, and mostly suited to commando raids. Indeed, airpower is portrayed as pivotal.

This claim does not sit well with everyone. The Army and Marine Corps concept of irregular war ascribes far more value to, well, themselves. That is, to say no more, a debatable proposition.

Without question, certain valuable capabilities are unique to airpower. The doctrine paper cites three advantages that, while not always obvious, may prove vital to US success.

Minimal intrusiveness. Introduction of a large US ground force is a highly visible act, often breeding political resentment, especially in Muslim lands. US troops quickly become targets for attack by insurgent bullets, bombs, and broadcasts. This amounts to a grave weakness for a force engaged in irregular warfare, in which support of “the people” is of paramount importance.

Air Force units, notes the doctrine paper, have a far smaller “footprint.” A joint commander can “mobilize, deploy, employ, and redeploy” airpower without “highlighting” the role of the United States. In addition, these kinds of operations can be sustained for a long period with scant risk of US casualties. Both factors weigh heavily in a long, irregular campaign.

Swift response. The speed and range of aircraft and cyber weapons dramatically compress the “kill chain” and give the joint commander his best—in some cases only—way to attack fleeting, high-value targets.

This was made evident in the 2006 air strike on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. In another vein, rapid air transport of small teams over great distances can produce a vital result—tactical surprise. Air- and space-borne sensors likewise can be rapidly refocused on a specific target. The combination of range and responsiveness, unique to airpower, shapes up as “an enormous force multiplier,” says the paper.

Sharp awareness. When fighting cagey insurgents, the gold standard is “actionable intelligence,” information precise enough to permit effective strikes and avoid civilian casualties. Getting such information takes time, requiring patient and persistent overwatch.

Among the services, the Air Force is uniquely able to monitor, map, and survey vast areas quickly and for long periods. Equipped with its “staring” Global Hawk and Predator UAVs, not to mention spacecraft and other systems, it can spot “safe havens, assembly points, and potential avenues of attack,” said the document. It can detect trouble lurking in the path of land forces.

These three characteristics, properly exploited, offer the joint commander enormous benefits available from no other source.

Maj. Gen. Allen G. Peck, commander of the Air Force Doctrine Center at Maxwell AFB, Ala., and overseer of the doctrine paper, summed up matters in these words: “Airpower, in all its forms, brings a vast array of direct-effect weapons and joint-force enablers to the fray, a fact not always clearly recognized.”

The Air Force’s new assertiveness comes none too soon. The services are embarked on what is sure to be a contentious effort to write, for the first time, joint doctrine for irregular warfare. The effort appears likely to affect service budgets, programs, and more.

The timing of the paper is no accident. USAF leaders are more or less openly sending the message that they will not be ignored in these deliberations.

The main challenge comes from the Army, backed by the Marine Corps. They argue that boots on the ground, not airpower, matters most in the irregular fight. The Army, moreover, has been given the lead in writing the joint doctrine.

We should anticipate a long struggle—with no assurance of success.

There are reasons for caution here. USAF officers, for example, are at pains to say there will be no “counterinsurgency air force.” The doctrine paper states flatly: “Traditional warfare and [irregular warfare] are not mutually exclusive.” The nation, in short, needs an Air Force able to do both, not one or the other.

Yet to be seen is whether the other military services will be able to dispense with long-standing views and accept airpower as a co-equal in the field of irregular conflict.

“We’ve proven airpower can effectively support other agencies combating counterinsurgency but can also operate in a supported component role,” Peck noted at the start of the doctrine-writing process. “It doesn’t always have to be about having lots of ‘boots on the ground.'”