Saturday, March 26, 2011

The limitations of airpower

Today the headlines are full of news of the United States wanting to add more firepower to Odyssey Dawn. Wait, I thought we were just establishing a no-fly zone? Now that the Tomahawks have flattened all of the SAMs and associated radars and the combat air patrols (CAPs) have either shot down or grounded the Libyan aircraft, we still need to add more firepower?

And not just any firepower, the Obama administration wants to add the AC-130U (pictured above) to the fray. Gunships are not about denying the enemy the use of their aircraft, gunships are all about destroying the enemy's ground forces. But I thought this wasn't a war?

The Obama administration is not the first to become enamored of airpower only to find it does have limitations.

I have been involved in and studied airpower for over 30 years. The Holy Grail of airpower during WWII was daylight precision bombing. However, technology at allow precision bombing was still some 40-50 years away. The lack of precision bombing is one of the reasons the United States and Britain resorted to fire-bombings Tokyo and Hamburg.

During the Vietnam war, laser-guided bombs began to make an appearance. However, fighting guerilla warfare (or as they now say "asymmetric" threat) with modern technology usually gives the advantage to the guerilla fighter.

In both WWII and Vietnam, airpower was used to support ground conflict. Ground troops were still expected in both conflicts to concur and occupy territory.

A little known USAF colonel named Jack Warden had a different idea. Warden created a theory of five rings based on five levels of system attributes. The idea behind Warden's five rings was to attack each of the rings to paralyze their forces, an objective also known as physical paralysis. To optimize a strike attack the attacker would engage as many rings as possible with special emphasis on taking out the center ring, which is the enemy's leadership.

By attacking the rings, as opposed to say ball-bearing plants, the enemy's decision cycle would be interrupted. If the attacker is faster than the enemy's ability to react and counter-attack, the attacker should.

Warden's Five Rings sat pretty much ignored at Maxwell, AFB at the Air University until Operation Desert Storm. Warden's Five Rings became the doctrine for the air campaign. Coalition forces flew 100,000 sorties dropping over 88,000 tons of explosives. Unlike in previous air campaigns, guidance technology finally caught up to where is was now possible to guide a 2,000lbs Mk 84 down an airshaft of an underground bunker if needed.

USAF pilots discovered a new role for the diminutive GBU-12 (500lbs). Precision guidance had advance to the point where the pilots where able to drop a 500lbs bomb right through the turret of Iraqi tanks. No amount of armor on a tank could withstand that strong of a blast. Perhaps that is why in part Army planners admonished USAF planners for the use of the term "tank-plinking".

Warden's Five Rings finally gave airpower the legitimacy it been seeking since the first pilots in WWI dropped hand grenades on ground troops. Tomahawk missiles were the preferred method of the Clinton administration for dealing with terrorists attacks. It made a statement without actually deploying ground forces. You didn't need to worry about long-term strategic objectives or exit strategies. Someone attacks just launch a few dozen Tomahawk missiles, or later some GPS guided bombs, and call it a day.

Unfortunately no matter how advanced your airpower becomes, you still need ground forces to capture and occupy territory the same way armies have been doing such ancient times. Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom both required large number of ground forces. The ground forces weren't there because airpower had suddenly become irrelevant, they were there to occupy territory. It is simple physics, if your troops occupy territory then your enemy can't. Occupy more of his territory than he does and you win.

Gaddafi's aircraft and air defenses have been neutralized but he is still going strong. The Obama administration and NATO now face the question of what else can they do to make Gaddafi surrender (because remember we aren't trying to kill him). Introducing the AC-130 to mix keeps it an air campaign but the targets have changed.

Ground forces have the bad habit of engaging with their targets at close range. Shooting at Gaddafi's ground forces drastically increases the possibility of hitting civilians by accident. Social media sites will fill with images of wounded or dead civilians hit by coalition weapons. How will a war-weary US public deal with such images?

One last point, this has never been a pure air campaign to establish a no-fly zone to protect the rebels. Remember the British SAS that were captured towards the beginning of Odyssey Dawn? Besides identifying targets for the airstrikes, they were also there to gather intelligence. If the British special forces were there, I guarantee US and French special forces were also on the ground. All of which means we knew weeks or even months before the start of Odyssey Dawn that were going to launch some kind of attack.

If we already have ground forces in-country, don't be surprised if we start seeing Marines or Army units being called upon to support the rebels. Remember though, this is not a war!

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