Airpower: Just Part of the Counterinsurgency Equation

Airpower: Just Part of the Counterinsurgency Equation

Christopher A. Lawrence

In the past couple of party nomination debates, the subject of bombing ISIL has come up several times. It seems that the candidates are determined to outdo each other in tonnage dropped and destruction wrought. I am not aware of any systematic analysis of the effects of airpower on an insurgency (which in itself is a significant observation). My gut reaction is that air power is just part of the equation.

The airplane was invented in 1903. They were first used in war in 1911 and starting in 1915, the airplane went through an incredible development as a weapon of war. World War I (1914-1918) established the airplane as a weapon in war and World War II (1939-1945) showed just how much death and destruction it could produce.

The airplane was first extensively used by the United States as a counterinsurgent tool in Nicaragua in 1927-1933. Using de Havilland DH-4 biplanes, they provided reconnaissance against the insurgency led by Augusto Sandino and provided air support for the U.S. Marines. Augusto Sandino actually declared war against the United States in June 1927, an early case of an individual or head of a revolutionary movement declaring war on a country. Sandino served as the inspiration for the Sandinistas of the 1970s and 1980s, a Nicaraguan insurgency movement that is still a major political party in Nicaragua. At the Battle of Ocotal on 16 July 1927, the Sandinistas suffered over 150 people killed and wounded. This fight included five DH-4s armed with machineguns and four 25-pound bombs conducting dive bombing attacks in support of ground troops. As a result of this slaughter from the air and ground, the Sandinistas never did massed attacks again.

Since that time, there have certainly been well over 100 insurgencies that involved air power (we [Dupuy Institute] have not put together a master list). I am struggling to think of a single insurgency that was defeated by airpower, primarily defeated by airpower, or even seriously undermined by airpower.

Two cases do come to mind. First is Vietnam, which has the distinction of being the perhaps the bloodiest guerilla war ever. It also has the distinction of being the counterinsurgency effort that used the most airpower and dropped the most bombs. Certainly airpower played a major part in the war, with the helicopter almost becoming the symbol for the war (like in the opening scene of the movie Apocalypse Now). Clearly airpower played a big part in halting the 1972 offensive by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC). Still, we all know the final results of the Vietnam War. It is certainly not a case of an insurgency being defeated by airpower.

The second case was the initial U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, where we provided airpower to an insurgency. I would have to think long and hard to find another case of an insurgency having any significant air power. In this case, we started bombing government targets in Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. This process continued for almost four weeks, resulting in the quote from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on 9 October 2001 “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is!” We then switched our air support in early November to providing more direct support for the tens of thousands of allied insurgent forces in the north, with the Afghani Army collapsing quickly. On 14 November, the “Northern Alliance” marched into Kabul and by the middle of December they had effective control of the entire country. Although the Taliban dominated government had folded and the Taliban was on the run, they have since returned to carry on an insurgency in Afghanistan. Again, this is certainly not a case of an insurgency being defeated by airpower, as the airpower actually supported the insurgency. It also shows the limitation of a pure air campaign vice one in support of ground troops.  

So, we are left to state that we cannot think of a single insurgency that was defeated by airpower, primarily defeated by airpower, or even seriously undermined by airpower. Perhaps there is a case we are missing. It is probably safe to say that if it has never successfully been done in over a hundred insurgencies over the last hundred years, then it is something not likely to occur now.

Does bombing create insurgents? This is an issue we have never examined. We did examine whether rules of engagements influenced the outcome of insurgencies, and we have a chapter on it in my book (Chapter 9: “Rules of Engagement and Measurements of Brutality,” America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, pages 83-95). What we ended up with was a series of charts, not quite statistically significant, that showed that as rules of engagement became stricter the chance of a counterinsurgent victory (blue win) increased, rising from around 40% for “unrestricted” rules of engagements to around 75% for “strict” rules of engagement. While this was a pattern, we are not sure there is direct cause-and-effect here, although we suspect so. It also showed that the “brutal” approach also generated counterinsurgent victory around 75% of the time. A sample chart from the book is shown below:

But probably more immediately relevant to the discussion is the work we did on “General Level of Brutality” (pages 92-95). In that analysis, we compared the outcome, a counterinsurgent victory (blue win) vice an insurgent victory (red win), to civilians killed per 100,000 population. We examined this for 40 insurgencies from 1948 to the present (at the time it was 2009). What we showed was:

  1. Low civilian loss rates (less than 8.00 killed) results in 14% red wins (14 cases)
  2. Medium civilian loss rates (8.91 – 56.54) results in 38% red wins (21 cases)
  3. High civilian loss rates (115.54 – 624.16) results in 60% red wins (5 cases)

Or conversely:

  1. Low civilian loss rates (less than 8.00 killed) results in 79% blue wins (14 cases)
  2. Medium civilian loss rates (8.91 – 56.54) results in 43% blue wins (21 cases)
  3. High civilian loss rates (115.54 – 624.16) results in 20% blue wins (5 cases)

For the total of 40 cases, 33% result in red wins, 15% in “gray” outcome (ongoing or drawn), and 52% in a blue win. We put the data into a three-by-three matrix and tested it to Fisher’s exact test and obtained a two-sided p-value of 0.1135. For the non-statisticians, what this means is that there is an 89% chance that this relationship is not due to chance. When we remove the “gray” results from the table, then the two-sided p-value is 0.0576. This is even more significant. The data used is in the book if anyone wishes to go back and re-test or re-categorize it.

Our conclusions were:

“Therefore, we tentatively conclude that increased levels of brutality favor the insurgency when the number of civilians killed each year averages more than 9 per 100,000 in the population.”

We then expanded that conclusion:

“The inverse is that it is to the long-term advantage of counterinsurgent forces to limit damage to civilian populations, whether caused by their own or by insurgent actions. This means tightly controlled rules of engagement and probably requires a strictly limited use of artillery and airpower. It also means properly protecting the host population, which would probably require the deployment of significant security forces as port of a total counterinsurgent force.”

When one compares these results to the desire to add more ordnance to the effort to defeat ISIL, and the stated opinion by some that we should also target their families, then one wonders how effective such an air campaign will be. Will it really attrite and reduce an insurgency, or will the insurgency grow at the same or faster rate than they are attrited? This is clearly something that needs to be studied further (and analytically) before we make it a matter of policy. This is assuming that one is comfortable with the moral implications of such a policy.

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If you're looking for an insurgency that was largely decided by airpower, you should look to the Dervish uprising in British Somaliland that stretched from before until shortly after World War I. A Somali leader called Mohammed Abdullah Hassan led an uprising against British colonial forces, drawing together some of the diverse tribes in the area as part of a Dervish movement.

After World War I, the British were looking for a way to cheaply patrol their colonies and the Royal Air Force was looking for a way to stay relevant in the post-war world. The RAF volunteered to lead the counterinsurgency effort and brought a couple small aircraft down to Somaliland to supplement what was basically a small police force and some locals. The RAF was able to locate and bomb the Dervish forts, driving them out of their areas of control and driving wedges between members of the insurgency.

By the time the Dervish were desperate enough to stand and fight, most of Hassan's followers had deserted the cause or split altogether. The ground force barely needed to show up to prompt the surrender of the remaining forces, and Hassan fled into the wilderness to die of disease a couple months later.

It wasn't a victory led completely by airpower, but it was one that was led largely by airpower. Is it a great example? Not necessarily. The idea of aerial bombing was new and terrifying, and the resistance was small-scale and probably deeply flawed before the British showed up.

However, the shock of aerial bombing faded quickly, and the ability of aircraft to patrol and identify concentrations of manpower in the open desert is a lesson to keep. Airpower is excellent at preventing insurgencies from rallying large forces, opening the door for partner forces to much more easily take territory, especially in open terrain. In short, if you're looking for an example that will give you some lessons about how to lean on airpower against an insurgency, look to Somaliland.

Take a look at my post "Chasing the Mad Mullah" on our blog "Mystics & Statistics":

There were 3,600 counterinsurgent forces in the campaign in addition to the 6 - 12 DH-9s. It does appear from reading the detailed account that I linked to in that article that the claims of airpower effectiveness for this campaign are sometimes overstated.

I will confine my comments to Iraq which most closely resembles an insurgency and where there is only one significant air campaign being conducted.

In Iraq it seems clear that tight ROE and the exclusive use of Precision Guided Munitions have significantly reduced the civilian casualty rate. It also seems to me that airpower has accumulatively degraded (as one would expect) ISIL's combat power and constrained its freedom of manoeuvre at the operational level. At the tactical level the impact appears equally marked as is evidenced by how little the Iraqi Security Forces attempt to advance on bad weather days while the obverse is true for ISIL who inevitably attempts to exploit bad weather windows.

None of the above is particularly new though, it is the same in character albeit different in nuance, from what was seen in Western Europe 1944-45. What is unclear in all this to me is the political impact that this use of airpower is having. Airpower presents significantly less risk and therefore less commitment than ground forces, especially when one considers how much airpower is in the form of unmanned air platforms. So although airpower may be able to bring more precise effects to bear and therefore enable greater force to bear at less risk, this is not commensurate with equal or greater political leverage.

It seems to me that, as was attributed to an Iraqi, the use of extensive airpower in the region indicates that this is "a war worth killing for but not worth dying for" which at best is a morally ambivalent perspective view of our actions. This moral ambivalence over the use of airpower means that linking such use of force to a political purpose must be done in the context of a clear cut and unambiguously expressed moral and strategic framework.