The New Role of Air Strike in Small Wars
A response to Jon Compton
By Richard Andres
In a recent Small Wars Journal article entitled "The Demise of Secretary Wynne," Jon Compton offered some observations about the role of airpower in counterinsurgency operations. The article has received a good deal of attention and spurred some debate. Like most other readers, I agree with some parts of the article and disagree with others. However, since Jon cited me and my name has been linked to his in what has become a contentious discussion, I would like to offer some thoughts of my own.
I should begin by saying that I have no intention of laying out a complete summary of counterinsurgency theory here. I will talk mainly about the role of airpower, and particularly airpower in an ISR and strike role. Except where these subjects are concerned, I am generally in agreement with John Nagl on transforming the Army for the COIN mission and with James Corum on the role of airpower. I will leave it to the reader to determine the delta.
I'll begin with what I consider the two pillars of counterinsurgency. First, counterinsurgencies are not won by U.S. armed forces, ground or air; they are won by indigenous governments. Our goal must be to increase the strength and legitimacy of the indigenous regime. Anything we do that reduces the power of the government to develop legitimate and stable institutions moves us further from victory. Second, the most serious threat we face is strategic, not tactical. Insurgents generally win by wearing down an occupier's political will to fight over a prolonged period, not by defeating them on the field.
Nevertheless, one of the main ways an occupying power can contribute to stability is by suppressing enemy forces. The objective is not to wrack up a Westmorland style body count; it is to weaken and deter insurgents long enough for the indigenous government to get on its feet. The usual argument is that it can best do this by providing a large occupation force. A ratio of 20 troops to 1000 population is often recommended.
Large occupation forces make good tactical sense, however, there are two serious problems with an outside power like the United States injecting tens of thousands of troops into a foreign country. First, foreign soldiers are often viewed with mistrust and their presence has a tendency to stir up nationalist hostility in the local population. The more visible the occupation forces, the easier it is for insurgents to use their presence to discredit the indigenous government. Thus, a large force can undermine the legitimacy of the government it is there to support. Second, large expeditionary armies are expensive and hard to maintain. As a rule, the larger the army, the shorter the period the United States can maintain it in the field. Thus, increasing the size of the force used in a counterinsurgency operation has a tendency to decrease the amount of time Congress will be —to dedicate to the war.
There is no easy solution to these quandaries. In the Vietnam War and the British occupation of Mesopotamia, the major power occupier erred on the side of a large ground force—50 per 1000 population in South Vietnam and 60 per 1000 population in Mesopotamia. In each case, the population saw the foreigners as invaders and the major power could not kill or suppress insurgents fast enough to overcome enemy recruiting. In each of these cases the population of the occupying power tired of the war before the insurgents and withdrew its army.
The usual answer to this problem is to make the ground force more effective and less obtrusive using classical COIN techniques such as those described in the Small Wars Manual and FM 3-24. The idea is that troops using these techniques will be more effective at suppressing the enemy, because they have better relations with the local population, and more capable of helping the population build their own institutions.
The problem is that is that it is difficult to force a conventional army to adopt these methods. I have heard a number of senior U.S. Army leaders argue that in Iraq today between 5 and 15% of the Army is engaged in types of operations suggested by this approach. They point out that a large part of the U.S. force in Iraq is "tail" and that a large portion of that force is engaged in tasks that can be irritants to the indigenous population. Abu Ghraib, highly publicized rape trials, and reports of collateral damage are dramatic examples but the simple presence of large U.S. bases and heavily armed U.S. troops engaged in force protection are also problematic. While we are making progress in transforming our ground forces I have not encountered much optimism about transformation coming from Army leadership outside of the public press.
A second solution to the problem is to use airpower technology to make up for numbers. The idea is that technology might be able to allow the occupier to maintain stability with a smaller and less obtrusive force than would otherwise be necessary. This was tried by the U.S. in Vietnam, the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan and the French in Algeria. In each case, airpower greatly increased the occupying force's tactical capability and decreased the pressure to send more ground troops. However, far from making the force less obtrusive, the general view was that imprecise bombing was extremely obtrusive and acted to turn local opinion against the occupying force. In each of the above cases the negative effects of imprecise weapons and collateral damage appears to have more than counteracted the tactical advantages derived from greater battlefield effectiveness. These experiences form part of the basis for the truism that COIN is about boots on the ground and that airpower is counterproductive in COIN in a strike role.
When General Petraeus took command in Iraq, the new counterinsurgency doctrine he was presented with reflected these experiences and this history. The doctrine as a whole says nothing about airpower. A short appendix does, however, describe the utility of airpower in a non-kinetic role and, importantly, discourages its use in a strike role.
Then something changed. After a short time in Iraq, Petraeus began to increase air strikes. As the surge commenced, he increased the average daily weight of ordinance dropped by the Air Force by 1000% (at my request this number has been independently verified by several organizations). This increase in air strikes represents a sea change in tactics.
Why did General Petraeus defy doctrine and increasingly call on airpower in a kinetic role? The answer is that air and space technology have come a long way since Vietnam. New communication technology allows air and ground forces to work together much more effectively than in the past. The synergy that joint forces derive from this interaction vastly magnifies the power of the force. Soldiers and Marines' situational awareness increases dramatically when married to airborne ISR and their firepower increases by orders of magnitude when combined with precision guided munitions.
The effect of this increased air-ground synergy has been to make the surge far more effective than the 20% increase in ground forces or even the increase in the number of forces employing COIN tactics would suggest. The actual tactical increase in the joint force's ability to suppress insurgents has been enormous. Thus, although the media generally portray the surge as entirely about an increase in ground forces this characterization misses the bigger picture. One of the most important factors contributing to the success of the surge has been the integration of airpower technology into joint operations.
An effect of the increased use of airborne ISR has been to decrease collateral damage. The ability of ground troops to call on airborne ISR has increased their ability to find and track insurgents. This has the effect of making U.S. forces less conspicuous and more precise in their ability to engage the enemy without causing collateral damage. It has increased the ability of the joint force to follow the enemy back to their safe houses and to confront them at the time and place of our choosing rather than theirs. Rather than engaging them in populated city streets, we use eyes in the sky to follow them out to less populated areas and fight them there.
PGMs have had a similar effect. Unlike the imprecise bombs of the 1960s, modern bombs cause little unintentional damage. When linked with good human intelligence and eyes on the ground that can identify targets as hostile, they are a radically effective way of applying firepower without killing noncombatants or putting U.S. troops in harms way. Evidence of the unobtrusiveness of this form of military power is that the press has remained almost entirely ignorant of the tenfold increase in the amount of air launched ordinance used in the surge.
How effective is this new air-ground synergy? Since the surge began, the vast majority of enemy dead have been killed by air strikes. The vast majority of noncombatants killed have not been killed by air strikes. More importantly, insurgents have become increasingly reluctant to mass or to take action in the open. Put succinctly, the answer to why General Petraeus disregarded the new doctrine's advice on the use of airpower in a strike role in COIN is that the doctrine got it wrong. Airpower technology has changed and General Petraeus recognized those changes and acted on them.
The new air-ground tactics have a number of strategic implications for U.S. policy toward Iraq. First, by weakening insurgent groups they are making it easier for indigenous troops to fight and win and, consequently, for the Iraqi government to get on its feet. Second, by reducing U.S. casualties they are providing the American population with strong evidence that the surge is working and reducing pressure for an early withdrawal. Together these outcomes are increasing the chances of victory in Iraq.
Until now, the new role of air strike in COIN has gone unheralded by the services and unrecognized by the media. Militaries are slow to accept change and too often inter-service rivalries interfere with mission analysis. This is a problem. Lesson that are not recognized and disseminated are often lost. Unless a lesson is ingrained in the public consciousness it may not survive till the next war. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appears to agree and has increasingly cited ISR and air strike statistics in recent speeches.
In a commentary on Jon Compton's original article, a poster to the Small Wars Journal blog compared my rhetorical style to Ann Coulter. The comparison is not entirely off. For much of the past half decade I have beat the drum for less obtrusive ground forces in Iraq and greater use of airpower as a means of making this possible. This has not always been a popular argument. I am pleased that MNFI has come to many of the same conclusions and more pleased to see they have contributed to the success of the mission.
Professor Richard Andres is a Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Air Force. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any other individual or institution.