It would be difficult to dispute that the application of American airpower has had profound effects on the formulation and realization of US military and political goals. The debut of high tech targeting systems and guided munitions during Operation Desert Storm, the protective use of NATO airpower during operations in the former Yugoslavia, the collaborative system of the Afghan Model and the “Shock and Awe” of the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom continued the ascent of the modern American way of war into the wild blue yonder, giving a bird’s eye view of strategic and political objectives.
This perspective, the privilege of a country wealthy, developed, and technologically invested enough to maintain a competent and advanced air force, may also distort the realities of warfighting. This same debate surrounds the utility of Special Forces. Do US capabilities make it easier for political leaders to consider coercive force as a part of the foreign policy spectrum?
This question is far more salient when one considers the use of force against or in weak or failed states, than against mid-to-high level powers. Although, it is important because it requires a thought process that runs across the objectives of American military might, especially when related to changing unamenable political situations in countries we are reluctant to invade with conventional ground forces.
While military-strategic objectives are often effectively and expediently carried out by forces that correctly interpret the theoretical implications of airpower’s operational utility, the political objectives are often half-baked when they are lost in the awe of winning the air war or annihilating the enemy on the ground. The fantastic effects of airpower make this fallacy far more likely to envelope post-operation analysis of victory conditions.
Consider the example invoked into banality, the premature George W. Bush exaltation on the USS Abraham Lincoln, complete with F/A-18s in the background . As the celebration of the shattering of the Iraqi government and army kicked off, the fragments were gearing up to tie down American ground troops for the next 8 years. The war had been won, in large part, by the advantages bestowed upon American combat forces by the use of airpower. Unfortunately, it would be the tough job of ground troops to try to turn the quick defeat and dissolution of the Iraqi conventional military into some kind of political dividend. The same narrative could be used to describe the initial successes in Afghanistan, and then the long slog to create a functioning government to administer the peace, in the face of determined resistance by the Taliban.
An alternative case might be the NATO missions in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Airpower was used in concert with diplomatic openings and the consolidation of political gains, through peacekeeping troops, to bring about an end to the violence that was the impetus of the intervention.
In each of these cases though, airpower achieved its immediate military objectives against its targets with overwhelming success. While airpower might be a highly successful tool in its sphere of effectiveness, it cannot substitute for diplomacy and direct application of ground forces in highly complex politically situations where control is required to carry out American foreign policy. As seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a commitment of ground forces the outcome is variable.
Why then do we see the application of American airpower without the follow-through of diplomacy and consolidation of gains with the deployment of ground forces? Unfortunately, it often appears to be that case that airpower is more politically valuable for what it does not do, rather than what it is truly capable of achieving. This is why Colin S. Gray warns of measuring the effectiveness of airpower against the development of unrealistic expectations of mission success.
The situation on the ground in Libya is a case in point about how limiting American strategic involvement to air strikes is a gamble on the political outcome. The increasingly sectarian nature of the fight against ISIS might also reveal the uglier side of over-reliance on airpower to achieve political objectives. If the overwhelmingly Shiite Iraqi Army (along with Shiite militias and Iranian military advisors), sweep through Sunni enclaves, like Tikrit, carrying out retributive mass murder, the success of American airpower, in weakening ISIS’s position, will form the basis of the regional narrative about the massacre. It’s likely that this will be the case on the ground even if the US is not directly involved in the operations against Tikrit. In that case, the military defeat of ISIS will not net out a positive, regional political solution. The violence will feed on itself, reverberating off the walls of history.
Of course, this is not to say that the solution is to escalate to the use of ground forces in all circumstances where the United States feels its interests threatened. To do so would create an infinite and expensive war. But, the underdeveloped deployment of US airpower without a full appreciation for its costs and effects, outside of the dearth of US casualties and the ability to reach out and touch an adversary, creates a more chaotic threat environment in which the US is at a major disadvantage in shaping events on the ground, and the overall narrative.