Letter: Airpower vs. Ground Forces
Airpower has been getting a bum rap lately largely because its demonstrated effectiveness doesn’t sit well with retired Army talking heads and oped authors who argue for a near-exclusive strategy of boots on the ground. They talk down the impact of air strikes and reject airpower as the major force for defeating the Islamic State (IS). This parochialism is unwarranted, gives airpower a reputation it does not deserve, and greatly overstates the effectiveness of strategies based on boots on the ground.
Land power advocates have taken to the airwaves with the message: “Only boots on the ground, not airpower, can be decisive against IS.” But this mantra overlooks decisive airpower successes and predominance in Desert Storm (Gulf War I, 1991), Kosovo (1995), the initial offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq (2003) and enforcing the no-fly zones over Iraq (1991-2003). It also overstates the effectiveness of ground forces in the counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan after airpower enabled coalition ground forces to take the offensive.
The promises of counterinsurgency strategies based on large ground forces, adopted by both the Bush and Obama administrations after 9/11, are unfulfilled in both Iraq and Afghanistan after 10 years of boots on the ground. Ground forces have been unable to winthe hearts and minds of the populations and create an environment for stable, representative governments. American soldiers became unwanted occupiers, not noble nation-builders.
The strategy for real success is the same combination and timing of air and ground forces employed in the first Gulf War, Desert Storm, in 1991. After 40 days and nights of precise bombing attacks with overwhelming air forces, the Army was able to close the deal after just four days. Airpower was dominant when employed with intense, overwhelming force. Airpower, if applied similarly against IS, albeit requiring far fewer air assets, can create the conditions in a week or two for ground forces to mop up in a few days without the duration and casualties an Army-led offensive would entail.
But the plan outlined by President Barack Obama in his Sept. 10 address does not follow this template and will not have the same overwhelming impact. His strategy continues to conduct air strikes in a piecemeal way, dribbling a few strikes here and there, a gross misapplication of airpower, but not creating conditions for winning quickly and decisively.
The right solution is neither exclusively boots on the ground nor airpower. The right solution is a one-two punch: a massive air campaign followed by a ground force offensive to defeat IS. If executed the way airmen and soldiers have worked together in the past, most notably in Desert Storm, the result is not just a decisive victory, quickly and with few casualties, but the basis for deterrence of any IS-like movement in the future.
John Michael Loh
General, USAF (retired), a former Air Force vice chief of staff and Air Combat Command commander