American Airpower in Counterinsurgency


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It’s been a great couple of weeks for those of us who like to jawbone incessantly about airpower. Superb volleys, counter-volleys, and deliberations from authors like Mike Pietrucha, Jeremy Renken, Tyson Wetzel, and Francis Park have reawakened a long-dormant discussion about the role and relevance of airpower in varying military-operational contexts, and has stirred great debates about how strategy formulation variously accounts for (and doesn’t) its potentialities and limitations.

It’s too rare these days that soundly constructed thoughts about airpower are publicly proposed and defended. This robs other debates about defense and the resources to effectuate it of the foundation necessary for us to expect that they’ll vindicate the grander national interest rather being captured by narrowly rational politics. If you haven’t already, see the articles linked below for some truly great stuff.

The Search for the Technological Silver Bullet to Win Wars,” by Mike Pietrucha.
Reviewing the Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam,” by Tyson Wetzel.
Airpower May Not Win Wars, But it Sure Doesn’t Lose Them,” by Mike Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken.
A Broader View Than Just Airpower,” by Francis Park.

Contrasting with the volumes of veiled political-budgetary hackery on offer from supposed strategic thinkers throughout most of the last few budget cycles, these pieces are contemplative, reasoned, and robust. They’re part of a noticeable resurgence underway at sites like The Bridge and War On the Rocks, among others, that provide reasonable grounds for optimism that the pressures of the last several years are finally starting to produce the intellectual output necessary to advance and innovate our national defense posture. Airmen publicly writing about and debating airpower is an important thread in the American military fabric, even if it’s fallen out of favor among blue-suited autocrats in recent times. 

I’ve been inspired enough by this recent resurgence to unearth something I wrote several years ago but still occasionally revisit, though usually to dig around in the underlying research and foundations upon which it was built rather than peruse the paper itself. It’s a thesis that seeks to explore, theoretically and historically, the role and relevance of airpower in counterinsurgency. 

At the time I wrote this, my impetus was the frustration that despite our overwhelming (and in some cases total) material advantage in airpower, we were unable to convert it into an actual advantage in either military operations or the strategy those operations were conducted to support. The idea was not to prescribe how we might achieve that conversion, but to explore how we should think about our material advantage in different warfighting contexts.

This, in my modest view, is an important point. We’re in the middle of building a $1.4T fleet of light stealth strike aircraft that represent the latest in air warfare technology, but it’s not clear that the material advantage that fleet represents will mean anything important in any current or future battlespace. This is not an argument against the F-35. It’s in argument in favor of a more robust and deliberate thought process to inform how we might employ it, which should in turn inform whether and at what level we procure the F-35 as well as what other capabilities must be contemplated to make it relevant and maximize its role.

Strategy isn’t about material advantage per se. Material advantage is arguably necessary but seldom sufficient, which is one of the reasons it’s possible to win every battle and still lose a war. Strategy is more about thinking. Or more precisely, thinking about the different ways to think about a given security problem, our adversaries, ourselves, and how our adversaries will think about, anticipate, and react to our potential actions.

It was in that spirit that I took the academic journey chronicled in this thesis, which afforded the privilege of interviewing Col. John A. Warden (ret.) at length to understand his theory, which I argue is the only coherent theory of airpower proposed in our modern age, even if it has been widely misappropriated as airpower shorthand.

I focused on counterinsurgency not just because it was the flavor of 2008-9, but because I don’t believe our civilian leaders will ever be able to consistently resist interventionist or otherwise quasi-imperial foreign policy choices … which means “we” … wielders of the military instrument of power … must always be ready to wage “irregular” warfare — rendered in quotes because in our history, small wars have been much more “regular” than big ones.

The Air Force has consistently exhibited an institutional preference for big war, at times wishing and hoping for the war it is most comfortable fighting rather than preparing for the security challenges it should be anticipating. Don’t believe me? Take a quick breeze through the service Irregular Warfare doctrine and look for the lessons of Vietnam (or Afghanistan or Iraq, for that matter). Then reflect on eagerness to retire the A-10, arguably the service’s most consequential counterinsurgency weapon.

This allergy to the messy human sorting problem that manifests in counterinsurgency is understandable, and explains a lot. But it’s also unacceptable, and must change. That change starts with thinking about how airpower matters in small wars, how it might provide an advantage, and how employing it haphazardly could turn it into a net disadvantage.

I hope you’ll get something out of leafing through this, and if it jars questions or catalyzes debates … well, that’s even better.

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