The Mystique of U.S. Air Power

Courtesy Reuters


Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment. Francis Bacon wrote of command of the sea that he who has it "is at great liberty, and may take as much and as little of the Warre as he will," and a similar belief accounts for air power's attractiveness to those who favor modest uses of force overseas. Statesmen may think that they can use air attacks to engage in hostilities by increments, something ground combat does not permit. Furthermore, it appears that the imminent arrival of so-called nonlethal or disabling technologies may offer an even more appealing prospect: war without casualties.

This rise in air power's stock comes from its success in the Persian Gulf War. In the view of some, that conflict represented the opening shot of a fundamental transformation in the nature of warfare, a "military-technical revolution" as the Russians have termed it for more than a decade. Thus the Russian military sadly read the outcome of a war that vindicated their predictions even as it sealed their profound sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the United States. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney agreed: "This war demonstrated dramatically the new possibilities of what has been called the 'military-technological revolution in warfare.'" Others, outside the Bush administration, expressed this view no less enthusiastically. William Perry, now Deputy Secretary of Defense, wrote in Foreign Affairs that "a new class of military systems...gave American forces a revolutionary advance in military capability."1

The lopsided struggle with Iraq has already affected the way Americans understand modern war, inducing the ornithological miracle of doves becoming hawks. More than one distinguished commentator who had reservations about aerial bombardment in the Persian Gulf expressed a newfound belief in its utility as a tool of American foreign policy in the Balkans. Thus, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times wrote during the Persian Gulf War in

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