October 1, 2006  

From the ground up

Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap’s essay on air power, “America’s asymmetric advantage,” in the September AFJ was a blast from the past — a throwback to the days before Goldwater-Nichols, when service advocates would write “my service uber alles” articles (or alternatively, odes to land power, sea power or air power), often as a prelude to the upcoming budget cycle. While General Dunlap knows a lot about 21st-century air power, his unbalanced article would be at home in the 1970s.

Dunlap’s essay has offensive and defensive components. He attacks the unnamed opponents of air power and defends the utility, power and precision of today’s air power assets. The latter task is an easy one. We have the best Air Force in the history of the world, and its exploits are well-known. General Dunlap is right to laud the power of its UAVs, combat aircraft and its often-overlooked transport and tanker fleet. The general also defends air power modernization programs and recommends that we put them ahead of the repair and modernization of the far less useful land forces.

While General Dunlap correctly points out many of the extant capabilities of U.S. air power, he also immerses the reader in a number of mysteries:

• Was this article a thinly camouflaged statement from Air Force leadership? In my 12 years in the Pentagon, no general-officer-authored article or speech of this type would have been cleared without a blessing from on high. If the Air Force leadership doesn’t disavow it, Pentagon insiders will see Dunlap’s signed article as a quasi-official statement.

• Who are the so-called BOTGZ (“bow-togs” — boots-on-the ground zealots) Dunlap is criticizing? Is he ranting and raving at the likes of Ralph Peters, John Nagl or Andy Krepinevich? Or is he concerned about Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed, two members of the boots-on-the-ground chorus on Capitol Hill? Or is he worried about a recent secretary of defense guidance to improve our capabilities for irregular warfare and stability operations? Or are his real targets the chief of staff of the Army and the commandant of the Marine Corps, who have recently gone to the Hill to ask for billions to reset their forces — billions that, if they go to ground forces, may well complicate the procurement of new fighter aircraft?

What does Dunlap think of sea power? His article is cast in terms of air power vs. land power. He never mentions sea power, even when he is talking about East Asian scenarios involving China and Taiwan. This is an odd omission given the spirited budgetary competitions in the past between the Air Force and Navy.


In making his points, Dunlap employs a number of unproven assertions. He also takes liberties with recent history.

For example, Dunlap states — without evidence — that “[i]t “was primarily air power, not land power, that kept the Soviets at bay while the U.S. won the Cold War.” How do we know this? What about the hot wars during the Cold War — are they part of this calculation? Did our allies play a role, or did U.S. air power do all of the heavy lifting for everyone?

Most mysteriously, Dunlap insists (does he intend this to be as insulting as this sounds?) that “almost every improvement in the military situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is attributable to air power in some form; virtually every setback, especially the strategically catastrophic allegations of war crimes, is traceable to the land forces.” In two wars where air assets have become an important but secondary tool, his claim could be true only if our land forces were hopelessly incompetent.

Moreover, is there no room for enemy action in Dunlap’s analysis? Can’t the enemy be the author of a setback, or are all setbacks the fault of some defects on the part of the home team on the ground?

General Dunlap might want to read up on the Marines in the second battle for Fallujah, the operations of the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom II and the recent exploits of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Anbar province. Expert observers judged that these ground operations contributed to improvements in the military situation.

Other historical examples of air power in action are also not what Dunlap portrays them to be. He begins the essay by complimenting the wisdom of Israel’s air-dominant campaign plan in Lebanon, which clearly did not work. When Israel’s attempt to fight a Kosovo-style campaign failed, the Israeli leadership turned to its valiant but poorly postured ground forces. They came on with too little, too late. Israel’s only hope now is that the United Nations or the Lebanese Army will disarm Hezbollah. No one should take bets on that happening.

Dunlap gives air power full credit for killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but this came after ground and special operations forces tracked the target for weeks and called for the airstrike. The killing of Zarqawi was a quintessential joint tactical operation. Claiming it as a great victory for air power is an incomplete description, at best. Indeed, if any one element of our forces deserves the laurel for taking out Zarqawi, it is our tactical intelligence assets from all services who found the needle in a haystack the size of California.

Dunlap’s description of the early days of the war in Afghanistan is also one-sided. It was not just “modern air power” that “explains the rapid collapse of the Taliban and al-Qaida in 2001.” It was also great work by our special operations forces (which Dunlap acknowledges) and tough fighting by the Northern Alliance and Pashtun tribal infantry that won the day. On separate fronts, U.S. Army Rangers and Marines also fought well in southern Afghanistan early on in the war. By all estimates, however, a few weeks later in the east, it was the lack of expert infantry that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora, even as our mighty air power — previously so devastating against the Taliban — shook the mountains for miles around to little effect.


Many of General Dunlap’s recommendations for the future are important. We need strong air power and it must be built around diverse, interlocking capabilities, from more robust unmanned aerial vehicles to new fighter aircraft. The Air Force’s unsung hero is the C-17 transport and its associated tanker aircraft. Our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would not be sustainable without them and their supporting systems. With global mobility as the cornerstone of U.S. power, supporting transport and tanker aircraft should be a top priority.

Dunlap’s advice that we not become fixated on counterinsurgency or stability operations is also well taken. We need to look at all potential conflicts, including East Asian scenarios, that would put a premium on long-range air power. Indeed, the requirements for mobility assets and long-range combat power in East Asia are also a great argument for a strong Navy shipbuilding program.

General Dunlap’s central conclusion that land forces “will be of little strategic import in the next war — the one we ought to be thinking about and planning for now” is questionable for three reasons:

First, we have a poor track record of predicting the locale and character of the next war. Some examples: Because of the atomic bomb, we were convinced that ground forces and surface navies were outmoded in 1949. The Korean War (for which we had no plans) proved otherwise. The force that did so well in Desert Storm was designed to meet an enemy on the plains of Europe. Afghanistan was the last place on earth that the Pentagon thought we might have to fight. Sadly, our advances in technical intelligence have not improved our ability to predict any specific war.

Accordingly, we ought not prepare our forces for a single war scenario — neither “the one” in East Asia, as Dunlap would prefer, or the global war on terrorism, as some single-focus, ground-force advocates would advocate. Rather, we must be prepared to fight whatever war is deemed by the president and the Congress to be in our national interest. We must have a full-spectrum military for a full-spectrum world.

Second, Dunlap’s misunderstands what ground forces are supposed to do. He believes ground operations should be adjuncts to air operations, but the opposite has been the more usual case. Even in the 21st century, the seizure of territory and its occupation will be essential in wars of various stripes, even if it increases our casualties and opens us up to the possibility of the abuses attendant to close combat.

Third, counterinsurgency and stability operations will likely be a significant part of many future conflict scenarios. Post-Desert Storm, we marched into the 1990s content with our conventional general-purpose forces, only to find that peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and stability operations were the dominant items on our agenda. Nearly 15 years later, that trend shows no sign of letting up.

We have not been able to dodge these low-end commitments, even knowing that our national character prefers wars such as Desert Storm: quick, clear-cut and decisive. Preferring this type of war did not keep us out of Somalia, Bosnia and Afghanistan. In Iraq, our preferences for a neat, “Mission Accomplished”-type ending did not prevent the emergence of nasty insurgents who had the nerve to contest what we thought was a clear-cut victory.

In the future, can we choose to avoid protracted ground commitments on the low end of the conflict spectrum? The record suggests a mixed answer. We dodge commitments all the time, and in some cases we push them off onto the United Nations or some regional power. In other cases, like it or not, the president commits the nation. Sometimes, it is because of our humanitarian urges. At other times, it is the press of circumstances or the fact that the U.S. alone can create the conditions for success. It is the exceptional future cases — especially when the war on terrorism is involved — where we will become seriously involved in protracted, low-end scenarios.

In the next decade, the long war against radical Islamist terrorists will continue. The next decade may also bring a dangerous tango with China or North Korea; or it may bring complex strike operations against the proliferators of weapons of mass destruction; or it may bring more stability operations in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa or the Caribbean. More likely, it will bring some devilish combination of these scenarios. If recent past is prologue, in the next decade, “colossal boots-on-the-ground efforts” are not only possible, they also are likely, even if we would rather avoid them.

The U.S. should continue to transform all of the armed forces for a complex future that might include war at any point on the conflict spectrum. The top priorities should be the development of a balanced force, mastery of joint and combined operations, networking the force, improving our understanding of foreign cultures and educating our young officers to see war in all of its many guises.

The U.S. will need modern air, land and sea forces and the resources to sustain them. This will require a large defense budget, at a time when we can see budget cuts on the horizon. The coming battle for resources will be the first battle of our next war, and it is a battle that Donald Rumsfeld’s successors must win.

To prepare for war in the next decade, we will have to maintain the best and most sophisticated air power in the world. There is nothing to gain by denigrating U.S. air power, or any other type of U.S. military power. The scenarios we may face are diverse and demanding, and no single type of military power will lead in every case. Each of the services can only be a vital part of a synergistic total force, not its master. As tight budgets approach, we shouldn’t unleash the dogs of interservice rivalry, lest we be consumed by them.

JOSEPH J. COLLINS is professor of national security studies at the National War College. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations from 2001 to 2004 and is a retired Army strategist and joint specialty officer. The views in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department or U.S. government.