By Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Jyri Raitasalo

Editor’s Note: In this two-part article, Dr Jyri Raitasalo considers what he argues are the two fundamental fallacies concerning the application of strategic air power by Western states in the modern era. In this first part, he considers the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. The second part of this article can be found here.

Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, the Western strategic discourse on air power has accentuated the role of high-tech precision-guided weapons together with good situational awareness and reliable command and control systems in solving modern conflicts. After the lessons learned from Operation DESERT STORM were drawn, one of the main tenets of western strategic thinking has been the (over-)reliance on the possibilities to solve political conflicts with modern weaponry – from the air. This notion did not emerge out of thin air. It was one answer to the many demands that Western statesmen – first and foremost among them the President of the United States – made immediately after the Cold War had ended. Since the early 1990s, the international security environment developed positively – at least from the western states’ perspective. However, the world was still infected with many low-level threats that rose in significance simultaneously as the Soviet threat evaporated.

The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has been expected to deliver positive outcomes to political crises with little risk to Western soldiers or national interests – whether in Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) or Libya (2011). Many western ‘wars of choice’ – under the headings of ‘humanitarian interventions’, ‘military crisis management operations’ or ‘expeditionary missions’ have been made possible – and in some cases necessary – by the demands of the contemporary 24/7 media, high-tech ‘revolutionary’ warfighting capabilities and the fading of the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Display of might
A US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing static display with weapons, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, in 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the 25 years of the post-Cold War era, Western air power ‘theory’ – based on the expectations of Western political leaders – has entertained the notion of strategic success in war just by deploying air assets against chosen adversaries. During this time we have witnessed the mystification of air power – the new ‘silver bullet’ – to epic proportions in a way that practical results from recent wars lend little support. Analysing recent western air wars from Bosnia (1995) to Libya (2011) one can easily detect that none of them has proved to be strategic successes for the west. Thus the ‘brand’ of contemporary Western air power is better than its actual track record. None of the often mentioned ‘successes’ have facilitated long-term positive outcomes.

The contemporary Western air war paradigm is based on two fallacies: the idea that high-tech military capabilities facilitate easy solving of political problems and the notion of almost casualty-free warfighting. Both of these should be subjected to strict scrutiny. It should be noted that it is not the militaries’ fault that political leaders have expressed repeated demands to the use of military force that are beyond the boundaries that existing military capabilities can deliver. However, to facilitate better strategies in the future, these fallacies will be elaborated next.

Fallacy 1: The use of military force is an effective tool to solve political problems

It is good to acknowledge that the number of armed conflicts – and the average number of people killed in these conflicts – has decreased during the post-Cold War era. As the Human Security Report Project noted in 2014, we have witnessed:

the rapid decline in international wars (anti-colonial wars are included in this category) over the past 60 odd years. The average number of international wars being fought every year per decade shrinks dramatically – from over six in the 1950s to less than one in the 2000s. […] From the early 1990s to the present day, overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.

Despite the positive trend in warfare since the end of the Cold War, there have been many brutal cases where large-scale human suffering and damaged infrastructure have caused concern within the western security community. First of these instances was ‘born’ out of the result of the 1991 Gulf War: the predicament that the Kurds (in the north) and the Shia population (in the south) faced after Saddam Hussein was defeated – but remained in power. Moreover, many others have followed: from Somalia to Haiti, and from Timor-Leste to Kosovo.

The humanitarian suffering brought to our living rooms by the 24/7 media – and later by social media, smartphones and tablets – has become a new factor influencing western decisions in the use of military force in the world. Although most of the (air) wars that the West has waged during the post-Cold War era have almost nothing to do with Western national security directly, there has been the need to do something to ease humanitarian conditions and suffering around the world in the many crises that have been ongoing – from Iraq to Somalia and Haiti to Libya. Thus, the western approach to ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) emerged to fill in the void that the end of the Cold War caused within the western threat perceptions.

Facing no existential threats, for the past 25 years, Western states have had the luxury of focusing on crises around the world where large masses of people have been violently oppressed. Moreover, the tools of the ongoing RMA – precision air strikes as the forerunner – seemed to propose a possibility to manage these humanitarian crises with little cost – in either blood or treasure. As was noted after the Gulf War:

A significant part of that edge [US’s edge versus Iraq] can be attributed to the revolutionary new military technology used by U.S. forces for the first time in Gulf War.

In other words, the lessons learned from the Gulf War – where Saddam Hussein’s big Army was easily defeated on the battlefield – have influenced the way that Western political leaders have been trying to solve violent political crises out-of-area.

However, the problem lies exactly here: the complex, violent crises around the world cannot be solved by precision bombing or by killing the ‘bad guys’. The politicisation of ethnicity and religion, the criminal elements involved and the contradictory political goals of multiple adversaries in most of the contemporary violent crises mean that externally imposed military solutions will not work. As has been noted in connection with the 2001 US-launched Global War on Terror, it is hard to kill enough terrorists without at the same time facilitating additional terrorist recruiting and providing additional PR for the terrorist cause.

It is understandable that political leaders resort to the use of military force relying on advanced weaponry to solve nasty crises around the world. The humane instincts of Western strategic decision-makers are understandable and praiseworthy. However, the sad part is that strategically, the use of military force has not been able to bring about political reconciliation or stability into ongoing conflict zones. On the contrary, the first ‘RMA air-war’ in history – the 1991 Gulf War – produced a political stalemate that resulted in a war of attrition against Iraq between 1991-2003. This attrition warfare manifested itself through the enforcement of no-fly zones and punitive air strikes against Iraq every time Saddam’s troops violated the rules imposed on them.

Even though the first Gulf War did not bring a politically favourable outcome vis-à-vis Iraq, the lessons drawn from that campaign at the operational level influenced how air power was used in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. The two air wars in Europe – in Bosnia 1995 and over Serbia in 1999 – have not till today produced lasting strategic outcomes that would be favourable to western states. Both are practically failed states, which can take a turn for the worse at any time. Also, in today’s tense international environment, the very unstable situation in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample opportunities for Russia to manipulate the West.

It is noteworthy that immediately after the Kosovo air war, the US Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that:

[…] what we were able to achieve through this [Kosovo] campaign reminds all of us that the revolution in military affairs is fundamentally changing the way in which we fight. […] In Operation Desert Storm, […], there were only a handful of sophisticated aircraft that could carry precision-guided munitions, […] In Kosovo, nearly all of our fighters could deliver these devastating weapons.

Cohen’s remarks are spot on when looked from tactical or operational perspectives. On the strategic level, however, the effects of “devastating weapons” do not automatically turn into political objectives.

To be fair, it must be noted that air power was eventually able to stop ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, but whether the level of violence increased because of the air wars or not, is still debatable. In any case, both Bosnia and Kosovo have shed light also on the negative impact of western air power:  the mere existence of highly capable western (read: US) Air Forces – together with the global 24/7 media – facilitated the increase of violence both in Bosnia and Kosovo as the West was lured into these crises by attacks on the ground that aimed to escalate the conflict – not to end it. The Western humanitarian intervention approach was in its formative years, and the belligerents on the ground in Bosnia and Kosovo knew how to take advantage of it. After the terrible case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it was easy to exploit the willingness of the West to do more – even by escalating ethnic cleansing to draw the West into the conflict.

The second round of large-scale air warfare against Iraq took place through a campaign of ‘shock and awe’ in 2003. It was accompanied and followed by mechanised thrusts to destroy Saddam’s Army, a task that the United States and its allies succeeded to do. However, this operational success was not followed by the fulfilment of strategic goals. Air power was not able to solve the post-Saddam political crisis in Iraq – a fate also shared by the Army and the Marine Corps throughout the subsequent counter-insurgency (CI) operation, which resulted in the withdrawal of US troops after years of fighting and thousands of casualties. The breaking up of Iraq’s state structures, administrative routines and security forces also facilitated the birth of ISIL and the increase of violence and instability in the region. In all, the 2003 war in Iraq – and the chaos that has followed – has proved to be a strategic mistake of massive scale. The possibilities of quick high-tech warfare against much weaker traditional conventional army lured the US into a process that eventually became uncontrollable. This is the true essence of war – that competitive advantage in one sphere of war-fighting (e.g. technology) can be mitigated or even nullified by another (e.g. tactical asymmetry). There are no ‘silver bullets’ – at least not for long.

RAF Tornado GR4 Aircarft During Operation Ellamy
Two fully armed RAF Tornados from RAF Marham transit the Mediterranean Sea en-route to Libya as part of the UK’s Operation ELLAMY to enforce the UN no-fly zone in March 2011. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

Finally, the air war against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 – NATO operation Unified Protector – helped to set in motion a crisis that will influence European security for years to come – negatively, not to mention the additional suffering to ordinary Libyans. Today Libya is a failed state with multiple armed forces fighting over power and economic benefits. Also, Libya has become one of the bases for extremist terrorism. Operation Unified Protector showed the might of advanced air power by destroying the Gaddafi regime, but the strategic consequences of the operation will haunt the West – and Europe particularly – for years to come.

Header Image: An F/A-18 Hornet of VFA-94 carrying out operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Visible on the wing are two 500-pound Laser Guided Bomb Units (GBU-12) (left), and an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

2 thoughts on “It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

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