Air Power in Small Wars

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 3 months ago

The Marines take a close one.

In Can the Air Force Contribute to Counterinsurgency?, I posted my response to Major General Dunlap’s comments concerning the use of the Air Force in counterinsurgency.  Dunlap made other interesting observations in his comments.

FM 3-24 reflects an outdated notion of airpower in its annex. Specifically, with respect to the collateral damage issue, it expresses a ‘fossilized’ view of airpower’s propensity to cause collateral damage and openly discourages commanders from employing it.

Mysteriously, FM 3-24 has no such cautions about other kinds of fires (MLRS, artillery, etc.) In fact, today’s airpower’s precision targeting pods, smaller warheads, weaponeering, ISR, and ground-based controllers, etc., have all served to vastly reduced collateral damage – from even the high standards of 2003’s major combat operations.

Perhaps the video above is an example of what Dunlap discusses.  Dunlap is trying to put meat on the skeleton of theory concerning the involvement of air power in small wars, while in fact the increased use of air power is occurring at this very moment.

Four years into the war that opened with “shock and awe,” U.S. warplanes have again stepped up attacks in Iraq, dropping bombs at more than twice the rate of a year ago.

The airpower escalation parallels a nearly four-month-old security crackdown that is bringing 30,000 additional U.S. troops into Baghdad and its surroundings — an urban campaign aimed at restoring order to an area riven with sectarian violence.

It also reflects increased availability of planes from U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. And it appears to be accompanied by a rise in Iraqi civilian casualties.

In the first 4 1/2 months of 2007, American aircraft dropped 237 bombs and missiles in support of ground forces in Iraq, already surpassing the 229 expended in all of 2006, according to U.S. Air Force figures obtained by The Associated Press.

“Air operations over Iraq have ratcheted up significantly, in the number of sorties, the number of hours (in the air),” said Col. Joe Guastella, Air Force operations chief for the region. “It has a lot to do with increased pressure on the enemy by MNC-I” — the Multinational Corps-Iraq — “combined with more carriers.”

The Air Force report did not break down the specific locations in Iraq where bombings have been stepped up. But U.S.-led forces also are locked in new and dangerous fronts against insurgents outside Baghdad in such places as Diyala, a province northeast of the capital.

Left unaddressed in this account is whether the increased use of artillery would have caused the same collateral damage as ordnance delivered by air, or whether the rise in civilian casualties is even related to the use of air power.

The air force (and navy) has said “we want back in this war.”  The Multinational Force has said, “it’s good to have you back.  As to how this all happens, we’ll have to work those details out as we go.”  And Dunlap’s project remains interesting.

**** UPDATE ****

The Strategy Page has a related commentary, large parts of which are reproduced below:

A major problem in Iraq is that there are two, quite different, solutions to the violence problem. Most of the bombings, and violence in general, are the work of Sunni Arab groups, desperate to get back into power, and avoid being brought to justice for atrocities committed during Saddams long reign. The Iraqi solution is the traditional one; punish the entire Sunni Arab community. Since the Kurds and Shia now have far more men under arms than do the Sunni Arabs, this approach would result in a series of battles against Sunni Arab neighborhoods (in large cities) and towns (out in the countryside). These areas would be cut off from the outside world. Food, water and electricity would cut off as well. Surrender or die. Those who surrendered would be disarmed, taken to a border area, and forced out of the country. In some areas, there might be massacres as well. It’s an Iraqi tradition that’s hard to shake.

The other approach is less popular among most Iraqis, and it is the American one. This involves getting Sunni Arab leaders to tame the terrorists in their midst, and become law-abiding Iraqis. Few Kurds or Shia Arabs feel they can trust the Sunni Arabs, but if they want to keep American troops in the country (which keeps the Iraqi casualty rate down, and unfriendly neighbors out), they have to go along with the current “surge” campaign. This has resulted in two interesting developments. First, many more Sunni Arab leaders are switching sides, coming over to the government, and joining the fight against the Sunni Arab terrorists groups (a mélange of  nationalist and religious fanatic organizations, plus al Qaeda and other foreign factions.) Sunni Arab militias are not much more effective against the terrorists (who are certainly more fanatical, a major military advantage in the Arab world), than the Iraqi security forces. But these new alliances have led to more information about where the terrorists hang out, and this has resulted in the greater use of American smart bombs. So far this year, about 250 have been used. That compares to the 229 dropped for all of 2006. In Afghanistan, where the number of terrorists is much lower, and the tips more numerous, nearly a thousand smart bombs have been used so far this year. Iraqis have also adapted to the use of smart bombs, and civilians are more quick to get out of the way when terrorists invade, and take over, their homes. Thus while the smart bomb use has more than doubled this year, the number of  civilian deaths from these weapons is only up about 25 percent (that’s about fifty people so far this year). In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the terrorists try to use civilians as human shields. Understandably, the civilians are reluctant to cooperate.

This is interesting on a number of levels.  First, as I have hinted in my articles on rules of engagement (and especially see The NCOs Speak on Rules of Engagement), the protest that more robust ROE would infuriate the population and lead to high civilian casualties turns out to be incorrect.  The ironic truth appears to be that when civilians learn that a home is no protection from U.S. combat action, when the insurgents show up they leave the home or drive the insurgents out.  If the presence of the insurgents means less security (as has been the case so far), then U.S. refusal to deal with the insurgency due to ROE means a prolonging of that insecurity (consider also the calamitous British failure in Basra and the degradation of security over the last three years, a subject for a future article).

Second, in using the phrase “religious fanatic” (there are surely some of them in Iraq) the authors at the Strategy Page appear to be ignoring Kilcullen’s view, i.e., there are no religious fanatics in the insurgency in Iraq.


You are currently reading "Air Power in Small Wars", entry #518 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Air Force,Iraq and was published June 5th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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