Opinion: At Arm’s Length

Airpower offers our most flexible, affordable, and cost-efficient option for military operations in the Middle East.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, the US moved away from more than a decade of successful containment using airpower, and we found ourselves drawn into two ground conflicts, at a very high cost in lives and treasure and for very limited gains. In retrospect, these air operations were not only significantly less costly than the massive ground operations that followed, but they obtained better results.

Conversely, the ground campaign in Iraq did not prevent the disintegration of the country along sectarian lines and the emergence of ISIS as a formidable force; militants had the benefit of almost a decade of US presence to allow them to develop tactics and season fighters.

The secondary effects of the defeat of the Iraqi dictatorship led to the emergence of strong extremist elements in Syria and greatly expanded Iran’s influence in Iraq, while overseeing the destruction of the regular Iraqi military in favor of sectarian militias used to guarantee the security of Iraq—or at least the Shia part of it.

The contrasting results speak for themselves. The enforcement campaigns over Iraq and the opening chapter of Enduring Freedom relied entirely on airpower, local forces, and special operations. Air campaigns were successful in containing Iraq, protecting Kurdish and Shia civilians, and unseating the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties were minimal and sporadic. The air operations were far more economical than the ground-heavy approach taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, had a much lower footprint, and were well-supported by the network of bases that has been in operation for a quarter century.

Our positive experiences with airpower make a solid case for moving back towards an airpower-centric approach in the Middle East.

Airpower Application

Projecting power with airpower allows national command authority to apply the military instrument at the appropriate “volume” setting, increasing or decreasing in response to rapidly changing conditions or objectives. By contrast, the ground commitment is automatically deep and relatively long term, requiring long deployment and redeployment timelines, heavy logistical support, and a massive commitment of funding and lives. For a status quo power like the United States, airpower is a much more flexible and cost-effective military option in the Middle East or Southwest Asia.

Air forces are flexible and can shift operational areas rapidly without relocating. Air campaigns do not typically provide training opportunities for irregular adversaries—there is no adversary ability to bring air forces into close combat for training or propaganda purposes. Most importantly on the cost side, casualties are rare; over 350,000 sorties were flown in support of Provide Comfort, Southern Watch, and Northern Watch without a single US casualty due to hostile fire.

Admittedly, there are practical limits to the use of military power, regardless of the type. In 2001, the expectation for Enduring Freedom was that we could partner with local forces to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and neutralize Afghanistan as a base for global terrorist operations. We achieved those goals by the close of 2001.

The next year mission creep set in, and the horizons had expanded. The rationale behind two ground campaigns was that we could effectively secure the ground, establish governance, and assure the emergence of US-aligned states with democratic trappings by winning “hearts and minds.” This was fantastically optimistic, given that the US had failed this same task in Vietnam and that the only place in the region that has a robust democracy is Israel, which has relied heavily on Ashkenazi (European) governance norms since the state was founded.

The expectation that either Iraq or Afghanistan would follow suit after their totalitarian regimes were eliminated was not met, and illustrates the effective limits of what an Army occupation could achieve even when backed by massive monetary investment. In hindsight, the US would have been far better served by not establishing large ground footprints in either country and instead enabling proxy forces—a technique Iran is using successfully today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States is not a traditional imperial power, and the use of imperial techniques is inappropriate. We have not seized territory since the Spanish-American War, and even that war was fought for limited objectives. The idea that we can invade a foreign country, particularly a non-western one, and build a functioning, allied democracy has been repeatedly proven false, and we should be leery of trying again. The US must accept that there are limits to the effects that can be achieved with any kind of military power, and that differing forms of military power come with substantially different risks and costs.

In all cases, the use of mass ground forces is the option that is likely to be the most expensive, least flexible, and entails the most casualties over the longest duration. There are clear applications for massed landpower, most notably in Korea and Europe, where heavy ground forces are an effective security guarantee against Russia and North Korea. The Middle East is not one of those applications.

At Arms Length

The US still has clear national interests in the greater Middle East, including the security of Israel, combatting Islamic extremism, the containment of Iran, and securing NATO’s southeastern flank. None of those objectives should require the presence of ground forces engaged in either direct combat or large-scale occupation, when other alternatives are so clearly available.

The demonstrated success of airpower application since Desert Shield, contrasted with the comparative lack of strategic success demonstrated by the ground campaigns of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, should impel the US towards more limited, achievable goals that are realistic within the context of a disintegrating traditional order in the region. The US should first turn to the patient application of airpower to stabilize the region and to achieve policy goals while keeping the increasing regional disorder, and its effects, at arm’s length.

Recent Activity

Our recent decades of active military involvement in the Middle East date to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. After Saudi Arabia requested US forces, the first deployment order from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was issued to the 1st Fighter Wing, which had by then been on alert for five days. Twenty hours later a fully armed squadron of F-15Cs was airborne from Virginia; 15 hours after that the last flight landed at Dhahran, and four hours after that the aircraft were standing alert.

The 82nd Airborne’s ready brigade started deploying after the fighters arrived and was completely in place five days later, by which time there were 14 B-52s, five fighter squadrons, and the AWACS detachment in place. Desert Shield was rolling, and air combat assets got there first.

After substantial buildup, Desert Storm led off with a 40-day air campaign that virtually destroyed the Iraqi military before the first coalition tank crossed the border. Ground combat lasted for only 100 hours. The first US Army units arrived home a mere two months after Desert Storm ended, but the Air Force never left. The USAF has sustained a continuous deployment of combat aircraft in the region for over 9,000 days.

Desert Storm officially ended on Dec. 31, 1991, after which USAF maintained several wings of combat aircraft in theater continuously. From 1992 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the USAF, Royal Air Force, and US naval aviation maintained a continuous series of air campaigns that successfully contained Iraqi ambitions with no coalition fatalities.

The cost of this effort averaged less than $1.5 billion per year, which is a bargain compared to the over $800 billion spent on Iraqi Freedom, or the $58 billion Iraq received from the US in foreign aid from 2003 to 2013, according to the Brookings Institute Iraq Index. As a model of military engagement in the Middle East, airpower-only containment operations had far better outcomes for far less blood and treasure than the ground-centric Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom.

A Less-Vital Interest

The Middle East has been regarded as a vital interest for decades, initially because of the massive oil wealth and later because of our close relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The conditions which forged those relationships have changed, with the US dependent on the Persian Gulf for only 10 percent of our consumption, a figure that will become even less significant as the US moves towards net energy independence in 2030.

In 1973, Israel required massive US support in the Yom Kippur War and in 1979 Saudi Arabia and the US both supported North Yemen in the Yemenite War. Today, Israel is the dominant military power in the region, possessing well-trained conventional forces backed by a presumed nuclear deterrent. Saudi Arabia is substantially more powerful than it was in 1990, with the largest and most powerful air force on the Arabian Peninsula, and is entirely willing to deal with Yemen on its own. The American allies in the region are militarily and economically formidable, and not under the constant Soviet threat typical of the Cold War. Iraq has been removed as a credible military threat and Iran’s conventional forces are weaker, comparatively, than at any time since the fall of the Shah.

With the US no longer required as the sole guarantor of the region’s security, we can afford to reconsider what kind of commitment the US makes to the region. Absent the emergence of a credible existential threat in the region, the future commitment should not involve any significant number of ground combat forces that do not come from the local powers themselves.

With the exception of advisors and prepositioned equipment maintenance, long-term US military operations should not involve US ground forces at all. There are more compelling security threats, notably Russia and China, and our recent history of ground-heavy military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has failed to improve the security of the region and in Iraq has worsened it substantially. At this time, the region is ripe for regional powers to assume full responsibility for their own security, backstopped with US airpower.

Col. Mike Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E, Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or US government.