Jeffrey Collins: The Continuing Seduction of Airpower

The longing for American airpower by the Maliki regime in Iraq merits a more contextual analysis than what has been provided thus far. I contend that the thirst for an American intervention from above is the reflection of a longstanding view which posits airpower as a quick solution for winning wars.

As early as 1911, when aircraft were first used in warfare  (by Italy against Libya), a chorus of writers (often pilots) have articulated visions of planes flying over enemy territory, pulverising a variety of cities and armies until capitulation – without the use of ground forces. Given the slaughter of World War One, it is not surprising that such opinions took root.

Thus, it was an Italian General (a 1911 veteran and witness to WW1), Guilio Douhet, who first popularized the notion of airpower’s potential for quick success with his 1921 book The Command of the Air. Douhet was soon followed by other ‘practitioner-theorists’: Billy Mitchell, Hugh Tranchard, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris and most recently, John Warden and John Boyd. Each writer pushed the idea of aircraft winning wars decisively with little expense in friendly blood or treasure (at least on land).

This idea remains an attractive proposition for democratic political leaders whose publics have become rather adverse to casualties. The notion of airpower as a quick fix remains even more seductive given the emergence of precision-guided munitions, stealth technology, and digital information systems, first displayed in the 1991 Gulf War. The footage from that conflict, fostered an anti-septic view of warfare among the public. Of course, this perception conveniently ignored the fact that it took a half-​a-​million US and allied ground troops to evict Saddam’s army from Kuwait.

Next, was Kosovo in 1999 where NATO, in an attempt to avoid deploying ground forces and jeopardize public opinion, carried out an aerial bombing campaign to bring Serbia to heel. While NATO thought it could compel Belgrade in four days, it took 78, Serbia’s diplomatic isolation, and the threat of a ground force to broker a retreat. Furthermore, the quick Serb withdraw created a chaotic vacuum that thousands of NATO troops continue to fulfill to this day.

While the seduction of airpower is tempting airpower’s history remains one of great promise that, instead, masks a more complicated reality where well thought-out political and ground force decisions are required. In the case of Iraq, more is required than quick fixes from above.

The Hustings