The Conversion of John Keegan

Dec. 1, 2009

“A Real Turning Point”

John D. P. Keegan

The Sunday TelegraphLondon

June 6, 1999


Operation Allied Force—NATO’s American-led, airpower-only war against Serbia—opened March 24,1999. Within days, claims of the failure of airpower gushed forth from many critics—among them, eminent British military historian John Keegan (“Airpower simply does not seem to be working.”) Then came June 3; Serbia, reeling from attacks, went belly-up and came to terms. Airpower critics, though temporarily flummoxed, tried to explain away what had happened, but Keegan himself had undergone a dramatic conversion. Writing in The Daily Telegraph on June 4, the longtime airpower doubter called OAF “a victory for airpower and airpower alone.” Two days later, he amplified on that statement, saying the war was a real “turning point” in history, “when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.”

There are certain dates in the history of warfare that mark real turning points. Nov. 20, 1917 is one, when, at Cam-brai, the tank showed that the traditional dominance of infantry, cavalry, and artillery on the battlefield had been overthrown. Nov. 11, 1940 is another, when the sinking of the Italian fleet at Taranto demonstrated that the aircraft carrier and its aircraft had abolished the age-old supremacy of the battleship. Now there is a new turning point to fix on the calendar: June 3, 1999, when the capitulation of President Milosevic proved that a war can be won by airpower alone.

This revolutionary event has been a long time in the making. It is just a few weeks over 81 years since Britain formed the world’s first independent air force, on the expectation that aircraft had ceased to be mere auxiliaries to armies and navies and could achieve henceforth decisive results on their own. That became the creed of the new Royal Air Force, as it was to become that of the eventually much more powerful United States Army Air Forces. The idea of “victory through airpower” was to be held by both as an article of faith, a true doctrine in that believers clung to it in the face of all contrary material evidence.

The countervailing evidence ultimately came to appear overwhelming. After 1945, both air forces conducted detailed “strategic bombing surveys,” dedicated to proving that airpower underlay the defeat of Germany in the Second World War. The facts simply did not suport the thesis. The “bomber barons,” who had bestridden the strategic world in 1943-45, were first marginalized and then derided. “Bomber” Harris was the only British commander of his prominence not to receive a peerage. Curtis LeMay, the most passionate postwar exponent of airpower in the US, eventually came to be known contemptuously as “Old Iron Pants.” By the time of the Gulf War, the air forces had ended up where they started, as the junior partners of armies and navies. Their claims to have an independent role were treated with barely concealed disdain by admirals and generals.

Not any longer. The new bomber barons will be heard with the greatest attention when future peacemaking operations are discussed. There is still a great deal to do before airpower theory can be fully integrated into the diplomacy and strategy of preserving world order. We cannot yet say how the air campaign worked, how it forced Milosevic to accept the terms he had rejected 10 weeks earlier. There will have to be a new strategic bombing survey, and it will perhaps take years to compile before air forces and governments can understand what was achieved and why the effects of bombing yielded the results it did. Nevertheless, the air forces have won a triumph, are entitled to every plaudit they will receive, and can look forward to enjoying a transformed status in the strategic community, one they have earned by their single-handed efforts.

All this can be said without reservation, and should be conceded by the doubters, of whom I was one, with generosity. Already some of the critics of the war are indulging in ungracious revisionism, suggesting that we have not witnessed a strategic revolution and that Milosevic was humbled by the threat to deploy ground troops or by the processes of traditional diplomacy, in this case exercised—we should be grateful for their skills—by the Russians and the Finns. All to be said to that is that diplomacy had not worked before March 24, when the bombing started, while the deployment of a large ground force, though clearly a growing threat, would still have taken weeks to accomplish at the moment Milosevic caved in. The revisionists are wrong. This was a victory through airpower. …

There have really been two air wars, the first lasting a month, the second six weeks. In the first war, NATO—and let it be remembered that “NATO” really means the United States Air Force and the United States Navy’s carrier groups, which flew 90 percent of the missions and launched all the Tomahawk missiles—conducted only about 80 missions a day, not enough to dent Serb bravado and certainly not enough to make Belgrade reconsider its policy of expulsion. … In the second war, NATO sharply increased the strike rate, until, at the end, it was flying 600 missions a day, thereby visiting a true blitz on the Serb homeland. It was the systematic destruction of Serbia’s electricity supplies and fuel resources that sent the message. If a high tempo had been sustained from the start, the war might have been over in the first month. There is a lesson for the future management of airpower—half measures don’t work.