Small Wars Journal

America's Enduring Dilemma of Fighting Insurgents with Airpower

Forty-Five Years of Frustration

America's Enduring Dilemma of Fighting Insurgents with Airpower

by Dr. Mark Clodfelter, Air and Space Power Journal

BLUF: "The problem for American air chiefs-and political leaders-is that their default position for applying airpower is often its kinetic aspect. American air commanders today cannot be expected to forgo the bombing option when insurgents attack US troops or when intelligence pinpoints "high-value" targets. Yet, those commanders-and their political leaders-must have a complete appreciation for the potential costs of such bombing and for whether the potential long-term price is worth the desired short-term gain. In certain cases, the costs may appear justified. For most, though, restraint is probably the prudent course of action. The emphasis on kinetic airpower helped doom America's pursuit of broad-based political goals against an insurgent enemy in Vietnam and may well to do the same as America follows those footsteps in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Forty-Five Years of Frustration


slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 5:39pm

"Airpower is great for defeating some target, not so good for winning it over to one's position." by Bob

Yes it is about COG's or my definition Centers of Power.
Think Airwaves....information,propaganda,psyops moving through the Air constantly and continuously. Like the old Commando Solo System. If you win the mind... the body will follow and yes it is a struggle over how the Moral...Mental...and Physical resources of the System will be used and distributed. That sure sounds like war to me.

Bob's World

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 10:34am

Ahhh, so it is about employing air power against the COG.?

So, how then in COIN does that work when both the insurgent and the government SHARE the same COG of the affected populace that both emerge from and compete for control over??

This is yet one more reason why Insurgency and COIN are not war. In war both sides have distinct COGs to defend or attack. In COIN and insurgency they must share the same COG. Like two dogs wrestling over a bone, more aptly a young tree of a new species rising from the same plot of earth to compete with the mature tree that already dominates that space. Ulitimately the space can only support one and the tree that is most appropriate, most adaptive, will ulitmately prevail. The COG becomes something to be won rather than defeated. Airpower is great for defeating some target, not so good for winning it over to one's position.


slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 10:00am

It is not changing the subject, the subject is wrong,the article improperly identifies reality. COIN is not dead it is just obsolete. It doesn't matter if it is COIN, UW or mugger jumper warfare that is the point of thinking about using Airpower against an Enemy System. The Enemy was,is and always will be some type of System and Airpower is not just moving bombs or bullets. It can be used to move things,people and information against any COG(target) and the desired effects can be either constructive or destructive. It can be used as actions against the 5 rings of violence or it can used to support the 5 rings of peace.

Bob's World

Sat, 03/05/2011 - 7:56am

OK, Con, again you switch the topic from airpower in COIN to that of airpower in insurgency. To attack Gadaffi's security forces/government in support of the Libyan insurgency is the same as the attack of the Taliban in support of the Nortern alliance. It is airpower in support of insurgency. Again, yes, attacking a government and its security forces with airpower gives a tremendous advantage to the insurgent. Such attacks could speed the collapse of his regime.

On the flip side, to lend assistance to Qadaffi by bombing the insurgent elements of the populace may well suppress the current movement, but would do so in a manner that both deepens the conditions of insurgency among this populace, while at the same time degrading US influence around the globe for taking actions so contrary to our stated principles.

This is not to say that air power has no place in supporting COIN operations and I believe it has been overly restricted in Afghanistan. We had an ODA in a very tight spot in a valley off of route Bear near the Uruzgan/Kandahar border last year that called in some 12 JDAMs on insurgent fighters running the ridges above them. Very remote area, no villages nearby, the bombs broke the attacks like no other option could. Even though there was no CIVCAS (and even if a woman or child had been with such insurgent combat forces during such attacks, they are as much insurgent as the men firing weapons at that point IMO) the SOF CDR took a lot of heat for authorizing that engagement.

This is a tool we need to keep on the shelf and fully available to our commanders on the ground at the tactical level. For those who are looking to the bigger picture though, they need to never forget that bombing a populace into submission ultimately makes the problems driving the insurgency worse. Such attack also embolden the challenged government to continue their poor governance behind the protection of this airpower, rather than taking on the changes necessary to resolve the insurgency.

Air power can also be used as a psychological weapon, especially in cirmumstances when the enemy is vulnerable as presently is in Libya. The following was published on my blog, Guarding The Borders Of Freedom, on March 03 (Australian time-zone).

How to Overcome the Difficulties of a No-Fly Zone and How to Defeat Gadhafi

By Con George-Kotzabasis March 03, 2011

The design of a strategy of the unexpected by U.S. military strategists might overcome the difficulties of a no-fly zone, as expounded by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and might defeat Muammar Gadhafi.

Given the destabilization of his regime, not only because of the revolt of the Libyan people but also because of the widespread defection of politicians, diplomats, and military personnel to the side of the rebels, this chain of events has increased the magnitude of the vulnerability of his own supporters to the call of major nations and of the UN for the ousting of Gadhafi, and hence could ease, and lead to, the abandonment of the autocrat. To ratchet up the momentum of this vulnerability, military strategists should draw up a plan of vaguely defined unexpected threats that would be inflicted on Gadhafis supporters if they continued to defend him. The linchpin of this plan would have two strategic components. The immediate declaration by the U.S. and NATO of both the imposition of a no-fly zone and of no-use of air defences by Libyan forces. In the event that the latter do not abide to these two demands they would draw like fly-stick upon themselves the awesome devastation that will emerge from the military power of the U.S. and NATO. The latter will not have to send one aircraft over, or ground one soldier in, Libya, they will only have to 'send this uncertainty as to the unexpected destruction that would befall on the supporters of Gadhafi.

<i>But that is changing the subject from the effectiveness of airpower in COIN. The things that needed to be "targeted" to acheive the best COIN effect by the goverment is their own laws, policies and how they implement the same. The insurgent is merely a symptom of the problem, and attacking symptoms (with bombs, bullets or development) rarely has much effect on resolving the underlying problems.</i>

True, but perhaps less than relevant to the question under discussion.

Obviously the question of whether we should or should not be engaged in any armed conflict with any given insurgency is critical, and has to be addressed before we think about whether or not to use air power.

If the discussion has reached the point of how best to use armed force in a given situation, or, more specifically, whether or how to use air power, it's safe to assume that a policy decision has already been reached on the use of armed force. That decision may or may not be a wise one, but the folks who have to decide how best to execute the mission they've been handed don't get to make that call.

Certainly if air power or any other use of force is not achieving the desired end, it would be wise to go back and reassess the policy that we're fighting to advance... but that's probably a subject for another thread!

Bob's World

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 10:24pm

Dropping a bomb when and where you are told is not UW, even if the troops on the ground are conducting UW. It's just dropping a bomb. Appreciated, often vital, but not UW.

But that is changing the subject from the effectiveness of airpower in COIN. The things that needed to be "targeted" to acheive the best COIN effect by the goverment is their own laws, policies and how they implement the same. The insurgent is merely a symptom of the problem, and attacking symptoms (with bombs, bullets or development) rarely has much effect on resolving the underlying problems.


slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 7:53pm

"I guess I have to point out the obvious: At the start of OEF we were supporting the insurgents against the government. Only after the Northern Alliance prevailed did they become the government and switch from the role of insurgent to that of counterinsurgent." Posted by Robert C. Jones

So what is wrong with that? I guess I need to point out that supporting an indigenous ground force with American Airpower is an Air Power concept from the.......1950's. The Air Force needs to stop being so shy about their capabilities to wage true UW. In fact read the next article by Colonel John Warden called Airpower and Strategy. As I have said many times he has been right all along we just don't want to admit it. It is all about SBW (Slapout Based Warfare) Oooops!! Sorry. Systems Based Warfare until we understand that we will just keep taking a long time to loose.

Bob's World

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 7:30pm

Cliff and Slap,

I guess I have to point out the obvious: At the start of OEF we were supporting the insurgents against the government. Only after the Northern Alliance prevailed did they become the government and switch from the role of insurgent to that of counterinsurgent.

Airpower works great for defeating governments and their security forces, but as I said, not so good for changing in a positive way how a populace feels toward the bomber. Insurgency is unfair like that.



I have to agree with Slap... airpower did a pretty good job of killing the bad guys at the start of OEF, and with a very limited ground footprint... because we were working by/through/with local allies. Similarly, the drone program has killed a lot of bad guys, and while there is blowback, is there a good alternative that is politically acceptable?



slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 12:19pm

R.J. Jones,
It depends on who directs the killing. When we first went into A'stan and worked by,with, and through the local population, nobody complained about killing the insurgents because it was the people that wanted them killed....that is the missing part of the solution that we don't understand IMO. If we support the people (right side of history thing) our targeting problems and the side effects of collateral damage are greatly diminished. As I have said many times before we suck at targeting but our enemies are very good at it.

Jed (not verified)

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 10:49am

One of the comments I heard a few years ago was that there just weren't good targets for 2K lb bombs in Afghanistan. I don't disagree with that statement, but it highlights what I consider a larger truth. If there aren't targets significant enough for that kind of engagement, why do we have such a large percentage of our combat units deployed.

Bottom line, as has been discussed extensively (even if in a round-about fashion) on this site recently, is that the military objectives associated with Afghanistan have been at the sub-tactical level and don't rise to level of vital interests to the US.

Past time to re-think a policy that puts our forces in this situation.

Bob's World

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 10:33am


Airpower is good for taking down buildings as you point out. It is also good for destroying entire cities as we showed in WWII or for enabling tremendous tactical victories against conventional ground forces or even for killing insugents.

But airpower against civilian targets tends to build the moral resolve of a populace to resist more than defeat it. AQ triggered America's moral resolve and unleashed a 10-year GWOT. Who that favors in the long run will be a matter for the history books to sort out.

Similarly use of air power is incredibly effective in killing insurgents, but is equally incredibly counterproductive to resolving the underlying insurgency. All insurgents are members of the populace. All have friends and family through out the peaceful mass of the populace as well as within the actively rebelling arm. Everytime we kill an insurgent it is a "civcas" as they are all civilians. Everytime we kill innocent as well as guilty civilians (as happens too often with airpower) it is doublly damaging.

The smarter the overall counterinsurgency strategy is, the less negativity there is associated with killing insurgents or the occasional innocent. If the populace as a whole can see that the government is working diligently to address their valid concerns and being forced into a position of dealing with those who refuse to acknowledge the efforts of government to evolve, they are grudginly acceptive of such losses. Much as a populace in a well governed populace does not mourn the deaths of those killed by law enforcement while selfishly in the pursuit is ilgotten gains.

The problem is if the government is not trying to address the valid concerns of the populace and the killing is designed to merely suppress those who dare to complain. When one is conducting a counterinsurgent operation rather than a full-spectrum counterinsurgency.

Just one more metric of the fact that insurgency is not warfare. It is a civil emergency, and bringing airpower against one's own populace during such a civil emergency is widely frowned upon. Just ask Mr. Q in Libya...

(Colonial intervention style COIN is far more about countering the insurgent to preserve the current government than it is about countering the insurgency through addressing the critical flaws of governance while managing the violence).

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 03/04/2011 - 9:50am

How did all this get started? On 911 an Unconventional Strategic Air Attack on New York and The Pentagon. Our enemies understand how to use Airpower in an unconventional way maybe it is time we learn how to do so also, instead of being stuck in Vietnam psychosis.