The True Worth of Air Power

Courtesy Reuters


For more than a decade, advocates of precision air weapons have argued that wars can be won by selectively taking out an enemy's leaders, its communication systems, and the economic infrastructure of its major cities. Before the Persian Gulf War, Air Force Chief of Staff General Michael Dugan promised to end the war in days by targeting Saddam Hussein directly. Later, in Kosovo, General Michael Short, commander of allied air forces in Europe, ordered air power to "go for the head of the snake." And last year, in the Iraq war, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sponsored a "shock and awe" air campaign against the Iraqi leadership. Whether it helps kill enemy leaders, isolate them from their troops, or make them vulnerable to overthrow by local groups, precision air power is advertised as a force that can win wars on its own.

Decapitating the enemy has a seductive logic. It exploits the United States' advantage in precision air power; it promises to win wars in just days, with few casualties among friendly forces and enemy civilians; and it delays committing large numbers of ground troops until they can be welcomed as liberators rather than as conquerors. But decapitation strategies have never been effective, and the advent of precision air weaponry has not made them any more so.

No doubt, precision technology has increased the accuracy of bombing. Today, 70 to 80 percent of guided munitions fall within 10 meters of their targets, even at night, with overcast skies, or in moderate winds. This is a remarkable improvement compared to World War II, when only about 18 percent of U.S. bombs fell within 1,000 feet of their targets, and only 20 percent of British bombs dropped at night fell within 5 miles of theirs.

Yet greater accuracy has not enabled air operations alone to win major wars any more than they did before the precision age. Independent air operations have rarely been decisive. From World War I until the 1980s, they were most effective in

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