Estimated time to read: 8 minutes
Excerpt: The strategic value of airpower admittedly depends on the conditions of every special case as it occurs, yet steadily increases in significance when combined with other arms across the domains and across the levels of war.
By David Pappalardo
When the Vietnam War entered its “Americanization” phase in 1964 after the USS Maddox incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, airpower was barely 60 years old, yet it aroused lofty expectations in a period of doctrinal and technological uncertainty cast under the shadow of strategic bombing. In blunt contrast, post-war assessment underlined both the Air Force’s difficulties to adjust to the ground war in South Vietnam and to achieve strategic aims in the North. Consequently, the gap between expectations and achievements during the Vietnam War triggered a paradigmatic shift which would ultimately structure the Air Force for the years to follow. The examination of recent military history since then – El Dorado Canyon in Libya (1986), Desert Storm in Iraq (1991), Allied Force in the Balkans (1999), Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011) – emphasizes both incentives and shortcomings of airpower in the ever-changing contest of war where theory is forever unfinished. As such, the strategic value of airpower admittedly depends on the conditions of every special case as it occurs, yet steadily increases in significance when combined with other arms across the domains and across the levels of war. Hence, I will examine successively the three critical tenets of airpower which underpin this central claim: flexibility, synergistic effects, and versatility.
Flexibility and the situational strategic value of airpower
Above everything-else, airpower is not a be-all and end-all silver bullet but rather a flexible enabler offering strategic opportunities in respect of political objectives, constraints, and restraints. In fact, airpower’s effectiveness cannot be measured in the abstraction of theories but only in the light of positive and negative aims. In 1999, the United States-led coalition Allied Force conducted a coercive escalation air campaign to stop Serbian exactions against Albanian population living in Kosovo. Air coercion raised grand expectations with the “promise of immaculate warfare,” as coined by Stephen D. Wrage, to simultaneously save the lives of coalition soldiers on the ground, reduce collateral damage, and achieve a decisive victory. These expectations partially failed with the juxtaposition of various political restraints, such as control of the targeting process, which limited the destructiveness of airpower. Therefore, post-war assessment challenged the role of airpower in the Operation’s overall success, in contrast to the threat of a ground invasion and the withdrawal of Russian diplomatic support to Milošević. Ultimately, the “credit for the operation’s success [did] not lie exclusively with the coercive use of air power,” Wrage argues, “but rather with the confluence of several factors.” Albeit a key-enabler, airpower was only one of the factors which led to victory. Kosovo aside, the British-American scholar Colin Gray elevates this assessment to a dictum, declaring that “the strategic value of airpower is [admittedly] situational, but is rarely zero.”
In fact, the ultimate criteria to assess the success of airpower is not to decide whether it could achieve victory alone. This is misleading as airpower is never an end in itself and dangerous since it presumes it can be. On the contrary, the true question cross-examines how well its application contributes to achieving strategic effects, defined by Gray as “the compounded product of all the behavior that shapes the course and outcome of a conflict.” Applied to Operation Allied Force, airpower was flexible enough to wage a significant 78-day coercion campaign, while respecting the negative objectives through precision bombing and accurate targeting, and therefore not damaging the overall political objective with excessive force. Thereafter, the “small wars” following Operation Allied Force will expand the challenge raised by the apposition of political and operational restraints to airpower and therefore, will call for a more integrated battle where airpower will maximize joint effects.
Synergistic effects and convergence of capabilities across the domains
Both the Afghan and the 2003 Iraqi experiences prove that airpower is more effective when applied in synergy with other components across the domains. Like the Vietnam War, these conflicts shifted rapidly into counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism where John Farquhar recalls that “airpower has to be used within a comprehensive political strategy [and that] airpower alone, especially kinetic air strikes, cannot substitute for sound policy.” In contrast to Vietnam, technological and doctrinal enhancement enabled a more effective and seamless integration of means, facilitated by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), precision-guided munitions (PGM) and system of information and communications. Air surface integration (ASI) rose from “the SOF-centric application of precision air power against emerging targets” in the early stage of the Afghan campaign in 2001, as Lambeth explains. While the conventionally led Operation Anaconda in March 2002 dramatically highlighted the need to properly integrate airpower into planning, the synergistic effects of land, air, space and cyber assets in the context of joint operations continuously grew. The comparison by Lambeth of the two Iraqi wars provides reliable evidence of this development in joint warfare since the 2003 campaign “featured a concurrent and synergistic rather than sequential application of air and ground power,” increasing effectiveness overall.
Ultimately, ASI is not limited to the lethal application of airpower but relies on the synchronization of effects, whether they be lethal or non-lethal, against material or non-material domains. In fact, Rebecca Grant argues that “counterinsurgency efforts across Iraq relied heavily on persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance from air and space platforms.” The second battle of Fallujah in winter 2004 epitomizes best the effectiveness of ASI to shape “the joint battlespace” through a seamless combination of persistent air surveillance, swift airlift support, and precision air strikes. By the same token, Fred Kaplan emphasizes the instrumental role of cyber operations as an enabler to “deny, exploit, corrupt, or destroy the enemy’s information and its functions.” In that sense, offensive cyber operations against the insurgents in Iraq authorized by President Bush not only degraded the adversary’s air defense, but also shaped “the joint battlespace” to increase the effectiveness of following air strikes. In other words, ASI takes advantage of synergies between the land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains and maximizes joint effects to achieve strategic aims more effectively. Nevertheless, operating synergistically across the domains is not enough. Airpower shall, in addition, exploit its ability to transcend the traditional levels of war and free itself from a semantic trap.
Versatility to overcome the classical dichotomy between the levels of war
Finally, airpower’s effectiveness lies in its versatility to overcome the classical dichotomy between the levels of wars. After the Vietnam War, airpower progressively shook off the hubris that it could achieve significant strategic effects alone and that its nature was inherently strategic. Brian Laslie argues that in the 1970s, the Air Force underwent a paradigmatic shift where “the separation between ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ uses of air power gradually disappeared.” Therefore, this shift led to innovations in training like the creation of Red Flag, while Tactical Air Command (TAC) strove to develop “a symbiotic relationship” with the army. According to Laslie, Operation Eldorado Canyon in Libya precisely demonstrated that a raid of “tactical” forces over Tripoli (F-111s and navy A-7s) could have strategic effects in its ability to survive [and] strike with precision targets in urban settings.”
Yet, the tension between the tactical and strategic school once again rose over the question of targeting when Warden published The Air Campaign: Planning For Combat and fought to implement it in the 1991 Gulf War. Overemphasizing the role of airpower in his strategic paralysis campaign, he relegated mainly land and sea power to a second league and prompted rebuke from senior leaders, including airmen like Lieutenant General Charles Horner. In hindsight, opposing tactical and strategic effects by the application of airpower was meaningless as airpower’s versatility offers the possibility to operate across all levels of war. As Colin Gray states, “airpower has strategic effects, but it is not inherently strategic” since the outcomes depend on the nature of the target, not on the attacking power.
Therefore, the unique ability of airpower to switch from a ‘strategic’ to ‘tactical’ angle significantly increases its effectiveness. The proper use of versatility was a key accomplishment of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where the air component succeeded in transitioning seamlessly “from its initial strategic air focus to concentrate on destroying Iraqi ground force,” as Lambeth reports. As I previously argued on this journal, describing the future of French Air Force combat systems, “airpower does foster strategic effects by projecting power into the heart of an enemy’s disposition to induce systemic effects. Conversely, airpower does have tactical effects by means of its ability to neutralize the enemy forces to enable ground maneuver. Opposing the two leads to an impasse and undermines the joint campaign. Meshing the two through a continuum is a key to improvement.”
To conclude, the end of the Vietnam War triggered a painful, yet life-saving, period of questioning which airpower did not escape. Years of doctrinal and technological developments thereafter admittedly increased airpower’s weight on the final outcome of war, particularly when applied across the domains, in synergy with other arms and transcending the classical dispute between the strategic and tactical schools. Notwithstanding the remarkable progress in flexibility, integration, and versatility, airpower will never be an end in itself but always an enabler offering strategic opportunities depending on the pressure of political and operational restraints. Airpower’s value will always be situational in the ever-changing contest of war. Winding forward to 2030, the spread of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies will magnify the challenge for airpower and require ever increasing symbiotic relations between actors through multi-domain operations and large spectrum targeting.
David Pappalardo is a French Air Force Officer and student at the Air Command and Staff College. As a multirole Rafale pilot, he is the former commander of the 2/30 fighter Squadron “Normandie-Niémen” and has been involved in several operations over Africa, Afghanistan, and the Levant since 2007.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Ministère Des Armées, the French Government, or the United States Air Force.