A legend in its own mind

This week the air campaign in Kosovo is examined. The gradualist/risk strategy was employed despite its apparent discrediting in the Vietnam War. This led to a conflict between the commanders. General Short wished for the implementation of a punishment theory. It remains true that ground forces were not committed. However, was it the air campaign alone that achieved the favourable outcome or is there other factors? Was this a true convergence of ‘effects’ generated by the fortuitous or planned combination of offensive military action and the actions of a range of non-military players?

The gradualist (graduated escalation?) strategy was discredited in Vietnam? The elements of strategy and tactics that were discredited in Vietnam (and other conflicts where the same has occurred) were those that were separated from the professionals in those fields and dictated largely by powerful but inexperienced (in warfare) politicians.

Ground forces were not committed in Kosovo? So which famous armoured brigade crawled over narrow mountain roads into Kosovo? (Clue: its emblem is a rodent) Who raced the Russians for Pristina airport? Who’s still there now? While the air campaign may have helped set the scene for a relatively successful positive outcome to the Kosovo campaign, let’s not forget that the other instruments of the DIME (Diplomatic, Informational, Military, Economic) model were also decisively engaged in regional, domestic and international fora; and that these elements also deserve recognition for the roles they played in the campaign.

Russian vehicles mount a road block at Pristina Airport. A British armoured fighting vehicle and Landrover provide assistance

It might actually be argued that Serbian land forces would have been more decisively engaged had a land campaign been conducted in the traditional manner. The ability of the air component to engage Serbian land forces proved to be far more difficult than in the super-optimal environment of Kuwait and southern Iraq, and there is considerable evidence that a large number of targets engaged were ‘spoofs’. As events in the Falaise Gap (1944), Quang Tri province (1972) and the road to Basra (1991) showed, land forces in contact and on the move are significantly easier to engage with aerial fires.


Given that the first Gulf War concluded with a notion of air power being capable of winning wars, how has the employment of air power since then challenged that assumption?

This notion existed in a very few minds and if there is one single reason for air power’s lack of traction as an equal component of military power, it is the constant assumption of achievements that do not exist. Air power did not win the Kosovo campaign, Gulf War 1,or the Battle of Britain any more than my three-legged floppy-eared Spaniel. Not only do the domains operate together as part of the joint environment, there is no solely military solution to conflicts and these military options are employed as part of a whole of government inter-agency and broader comprehensive approach.

The notion that dominated military thinking after DESERT STORM was that of the revolution in military affairs, the dreaded RMA, but not one in air power. DESERT STORM was the first conflict where information had been employed as a decisive tool. As it turned out as the 90s unfolded, much of the hype from that conflict was simply just that, hype; but at the time it had swayed the minds of the world to justify both the conflict and the methods by which it was conducted. While the application of air power may have influenced the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, that movement did not actually start until after the commencement of the ground war. This action offered an unacceptable threat to Iraqi land forces and forced the withdrawal, or maybe rout would be more accurate. While air power advocates may crow over the road to Basra, it is arguable whether that level of destruction was actually necessary or that it contributed anything meaningful to the conclusion of the conflict. For whatever reasons, air power was also unable to deter Iraqi repression of Shia in southern Iraq.

So how have events since March 1991 challenged the assumption that air power won the 1991 Gulf War? Quite simply there has not been a single campaign or conflict that could claim to have been ‘won’ by air power. To flip that around, every conflict since March 1991 has required ‘boots on the ground’ (or ‘boats in the water’ in the case of counter-piracy campaigns) to force a conclusion:

Somalia. 1992-95 and current. Air used for ISR and mobility; a strong air bridge into Mogadishu during the former campaign. All decisive actions fought on the ground with air in support.

Bosnia. Resolved by the deployment of a powerful US force prepared and empowered to play the warlords at their own game, meeting force with force. Primarily a land mission during the decisive post-Dayton phase with air in support.

Rwanda. Air could have played a decisive supporting role here in 1994 by enabling the mass airlift of troops to reinforce the small UN force and reduce if not halt the genocide.

Kosovo. See above: possibly a contributor to the scene setting before the deployment of land forces, however there are arguments that the air campaign was largely counter-productive and actually strengthened Serbian resolve.

Bougainville. The 1997 deployment of peacekeepers (withdrawn in mission success in 2003) was supported by air for ISR, local mobility and maintenance of an air bridge for resupply and reinforcement.

Solomon Islands. 2000, 2003, 2006-current. Land force deployment supported by air for ISR, local mobility and maintenance of an air bridge for resupply and reinforcement; air transport also employed during various NEO during these periods.

East Timor. Major ground force deployment (division level) supported by air for ISR, local mobility and maintenance of an air bridge for resupply and reinforcement; kinetic air support also stood to during the lodgement phase in 1999.

RNZAF Iroquois helicopters fly Australian troops in Dili, Timor-Leste.

South Ossetia. Major, albeit one-sided land force on force confrontation between Russia and Georgia, with air in support (primarily on the Russian side after Day1) for ISR, strike, mobility and CAS.

Chechnya. Primarily a land conflict between conventional Russian forces and irregular Chechan forces; significant air resources employed by Russia to no discernible positive value.

Iraq. The primary effect of the no-fly zone campaign and its associated sporadic strikes into Iraq 1991-2002 was to keep the wounds between Iraq and the US open and festering. While the ‘shock and awe’ aspect of the opening of OIF was feted, the reality is that a decisive land campaign was always identified as the decider in this campaign, both the Plan A campaign to May 2003, and the insurgency to mid-2010. While ‘shock and awe’ can trace its roots through the Powell Doctrine of the 90s back to the ‘triumph’ of Gulf 1, the primary driver behind it was SECDEF Rumsfeld’s belief that greater reliance on technology would reduce defence costs by eliminating large numbers of expensive personnel.

Afghanistan. Neither the British (between the wars) nor the Russians (1979-89) were able to quell local tribesmen by air. OEF was always predicated on a strong land campaign supported by air. The air bridge into Kabul in the earliest days of the campaign was a key enabler for early successes however air has remained in a supporting role to the land campaign. The mission to take down OBL was a land mission supported by air i.e. no UAV-delivered PGM through the window.

Sierra Leone. Primarily a land-based peacekeeping operation. The British JPR mission in 2002(?) was a land force mission supported by air for mobility and CAS however use of kinetics was hindered by misperceptions of proportionality with the rules of engagement.

Israel v Hizbollah. A classic example of how not to do it. Not only would any other aspect of the DIME model been better employed to counter HIzbollah rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza and Lebanon, but the use of air power as Israel’s tool of choice not only illustrated how behind the times Israeli military thinking was but also had the opposite effect to that desired, regionally and in the court of world opinion.

Libya. The ultimate (so far) example of how not to employ air power. Not only has this meddling extended a minor internal conflict into one likely to drag on for years, but it has seriously damaged the credibility of air power as a decisive force and its advocates. Already some NATO nations are trickling land forces (under the guise of training and liaison) into Libya to attempt to recover the situation. This is what happens when you start to believe your own press.

It is to our benefit that the one strategic scenario where the use of the air and space would have had a direct and decisive effect on the outcome of a conflict is the one that has never come to pass…

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