Up in the Air: the Fallacy of Aerial Campaigns

Since the Second World War, governments across the world have increasingly relied on aerial bombardment in order to achieve strategic and/or political objectives. However, with the aim to reduce exposure to risk, the leaders that employ these measures without any ground support risk merely extending the misery visited upon the enemy but not achieving any decisive breakthrough.

The largest air force in the world, unsurprisingly, is the United States Air Force. The second largest is the United States Navy. Combined with the allied forces that make up NATO, the transatlantic alliance has an aerial capacity that is unmatched. Despite this overwhelming force, they are surprisingly impotent. It took NATO 78 days to subdue little Yugoslavia in 1999. It took eight months in the case of Libya, an even more stunning figure when one considers that the Libyan military had already been denuded of all meaningful capabilities for years itself. Why does it take so long? Aerial warfare can be divided into two predominant forms of assaults: attacks on military infrastructure and general bombing campaign. The former, naturally, requires pre-existing targets, which in the face of a materially superior enemy is quickly depleted. As such, those who launch air wars quickly shift their efforts over towards a much more generalised effort that lacks purpose.

Vietnam is perhaps the clearest example of a disastrous and catastrophic implementation of area bombardment. When President Johnson, at the urging of those who had two decades earlier masterminded the flattening of the German and Japanese landscapes, initiated Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, a strategic aim beyond the degradation of enemy morale was lacking. Yet, like during the Blitz, aerial bombing had the unintended consequence of producing a sense of resilience. This is not to mention that aside from Hanoi’s ability to effectively evacuate large portions of its civilian population (upwards of 80%) and the questionable morality of the campaign, North Vietnam had little industry worth targeting in the first place.

Financially, air campaigns have a rather low return on investment. Due to the absence of any real parity in terms of weaponry, the fighting naturally turns into an asymmetric conflict. As such, it only took a couple of (relatively) cheap stingers in the hands of rural Afghans to take down Soviet helicopters. In the case of the Gaza Strip, Hamas knows well that their so-called ‘rockets’ (arguably glorified fertiliser fireworks, considering their effectiveness) cannot penetrate Israeli air defence system so they resort to balloons with burning coal, much cheaper than any multi-million dollar missile found in the arsenals of strong militaries.

Air campaigns create the wrong incentive structures. Despite any advances made on the technological front, the fundamental use of air-to-surface missiles remains the same, i.e. to physically destroy terrestrial targets. With this in mind, commanders are often times forced to reverse engineer a logic behind their targets. Enemies, in a way, are manufactured out of the debris. For example, the drone war waged by the United States has produced a shift away from defining missions by their ability to hit targets to redefining who they’ve hit. The reliance on vague criteria such as ‘military-age men’ or ‘signature strikes’, all the more problematic since war zones tend to have a disproportionately young population, removes any meaningful constraints that are vital for both a just and effective war.

Arguably the most dangerous component of air wars is the fact that they result in either mission creep or mission stagnation. Without clear and attainable objections, the bombing becomes an objective in of itself. The Saudis, who have shown great unwillingness to deploy ground troops (and instead rely on Sudanese forces to do it for them), have become entrenched in the bombing campaign with little to show besides the immense suffering of the people of Yemen. In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush administration officials made frequent reference to the unsustainability of the unilaterally imposed no-fly zone, which had been in existence for a decade already. In neither case had a materially beneficial change been implemented.

Destruction from above offers the illusion of brevity. In 2011, when asked if the War Powers Resolution should apply to the bombing of Libya, then-senate majority leader Harry Reid answered no since ‘this thing is going to be over before you know it anyway.’ Yet, months later, American missiles were still raining down over the North African desert. Coupled with this problem is the lack of media coverage, which creates a false sense of tranquility. The virtual total absence of public discussion of the US drone war in Somalia, to take just one example, has produced gradations of conflicts with many simply being unaware of their existence and thereby undermining the principle of consent of the governed when a war is being waged on behalf of those who do not know it. In an age of escalating drone warfare, keen awareness of the reality of what it entails is more important than ever.

Naman Karl-Thomas Habtom is a freelance writer with a focus on security policy and co-founder and senior editor of the Middle East-focused journal Manara.