September 1, 2009  

Air power’s limits

Airborne sensors and systems can’t replace boots on the ground

I read Phillip Meilinger’s article “Lowering risk: Air power can reduce civilian casualties” [AFJ, July-August] with great interest. I then re-read it with great alarm. I was floored to read that there are still theorists who ardently believe that air power can be unilaterally decisive, and that somehow it is possible to fight and win an insurgency with technology from above as opposed to winning with people on the ground.

Meilinger contends that improvements in intelligence gathering combined with the application of precision-guided munitions mean it may well be possible to supplant the need for ground forces with aviation-based technologies. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I feel that I must rebut two points that were presented in the article.

First, air power has never proven to be independently decisive. It is a critical enabler and crucial enhancement for the combatant commander, but it has never been the singular element that has delivered victory. Coupled with an immense invasion of Europe, air power was vital in crushing Hitler’s Germany, and as a part of a hemispherical ground, naval and air strategy, it was just as fundamental in engineering the fall of the Japanese empire. Neither success was brought by air power alone, however; it was brought by a cohesive integration of air power into a cogently executed campaign.

Those were big wars. Air power, when applied to a peer competitor in such a big war, is arguably at its best. In smaller, less clearly defined conflicts, it becomes less decisive. Air power did not stop the Chinese from coming within an ace of seizing the entire Korean peninsula in 1950, nor did it prove effective in interdicting the flow of supplies and personnel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail a decade and a half later. The shock and awe of Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom were arguably the most significant applications of modern air power, but in and of themselves could not deliver victory.

The great limitation of air power is that it cannot take or hold ground, and it cannot interact with human beings, be they friend or foe, on the terrain in which they live. The decision is made by he who plants our flag in the citadel of the enemy and then deals with the aftermath.

To propose that ground troops can be removed from the battlefield and replaced with sensors and airborne systems is analogous to proposing that cops can be taken off the street and detectives allowed to ensure the public’s safety from the precinct station. Sure, the detective can get some intelligence from various systems and through good investigative work, but what about the lawlessness that erupts when active police presence is removed from streets? To think that everyone will behave just because the law says they are supposed to is naïve, just as it is naïve to think that removing ground combat troops will in some manner allow purely airborne combat power to quell an insurgency.

The second point concerns Meilinger’s discussion of how air power is employed on the battlefield, particularly in troops-in-contact situations. The entire basis of the discussion of air-ground integration is fallacious and represents how aircrews supported troops on the ground circa World War II: That the aviators would be notified of friendly personnel in contact with the enemy, and that the aircrew, according to the article, “does its best to identify the enemy and deploy its weapons to protect the lives of the friendly troops below.”

That wild assertion flies in the face of nearly 60 years of dynamically developed close-air support doctrine. Joint policy, to which all services are signatories, requires that the application of air power in close proximity to ground forces be integrated and deconflicted to reduce fratricide. That integration and deconfliction is performed by the commander’s tactical air control party and is executed by highly trained joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) or airborne forward air controllers (FACs) in consonance with the mountain of rules, regulations and doctrine that direct how close-air support is to be performed. In virtually every case in which an airstrike is performed, there is an absolute requirement for the aircrew to receive clearance to release their ordnance from a JTAC or an airborne FAC whose responsibility it is to ensure that the proper weaponeering is performed, that the risks are mitigated and that the location where the ordnance is to hit is the proper target. He does this at the behest of the maneuver commander, who is the landowner within the operating environment.

Unfortunately, there are times when the employment of ordnance while in contact with the enemy results in non-combatant casualties. It is the duty of every JTAC, FAC and maneuver commander to do everything possible to mitigate such a possibility, but it is impossible to expect that such things will not occur, particularly in an insurgency where our enemies have no compassion or desire to protect the indigenous population.

In short, the thesis that air power can be the singularly decisive element of combat power is not consistent with the operational reality of the world in which we live and fight. The enemy gets a vote, and unless we remove his ability to influence the civilian population, they will vote with him. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that it is an absolute necessity for troops on the ground to provide the security for stability to flourish, and the only way to create that stability is to use an integrated strategy that integrates all disciplines available, not just one. Air power is one of many tools that have proven crucial to success, but it is just that — a tool. And sometimes the best tool is a cup of chai with a village elder, which is something that air power simply can’t bring to the table.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Mike Grice is the commanding officer of the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Marine Corps or the Defense Department.