Hit or Miss

A Neater Way to Win

Merrill A. McPeak

Robert Pape ("The True Worth of Air Power," March/April 2004) seems to think that all modern war is of a kind, featuring large formations of mechanized infantry, artillery, and armor. He asserts that wars are still decided "the old-fashioned way," by pounding opposing forces into submission. He concedes that the advent of air-delivered precision-guided munitions (PGMS) has made the task easier; formerly the largely ineffective handmaiden to ground forces, air power is now a "hammer" to be used in concert with the ground forces' "anvil." Still, Pape argues, it would be a mistake to think of air power as useful on its own, particularly when it is put to the service of a "decapitation" strategy-the elimination of enemy leadership-which "has never been effective." As a consequence, tomorrow's Air Force should look much like yesterday's, with perhaps a "few F-22s (or electronically upgraded F-15s)," but mostly lots of relatively cheap "bomb trucks."

Pape concludes that "precision air weapons ... have not brought about the revolution often proclaimed by many air power advocates." Yet he also notes that in just over a decade the United States "has won five major wars ... at the cost of only about 400 combat fatalities overall." This hardly describes old-fashioned warfare; on the contrary, something remarkable must have happened. In fact, the widespread use of PGMS has indeed enabled air power to deliver on its early promise.

As Pape notes, the old way of bombing was to miss the target. The average miss distance for all U.S. bombs dropped on Germany during World War II was about a kilometer. By the Vietnam War, it had improved to 100 meters, still leaving bombs ineffective against many targets. Now, with PGMS, bombing accuracy is about 10 meters-good enough against most targets. Yet Pape seems to think that "hitting" is only a slight variation on "missing." From the target's point of view, however, the outcome is binary.

It is true that the transition to accurate weaponry occurred rather slowly with air-to-ground munitions. But air-to-air weaponry evolved rapidly. Dumb bullets were replaced long before dumb bombs, because flight officers were convinced their first job was to take away the enemy's hammer. Pape ignores this progress, however-a curious omission in an article about the "true worth" of air power.

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