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.

Ground-centric critics have argued that putting destruction of hostile air forces at the top of the to-do list is a mistake. They say that fighter pilots want to chase MiGS, make ace, and sleep between clean sheets. (If charged, I plead not guilty but will settle out of court.) The critics overlook one astonishing result brought about by the emphasis on air superiority: no U.S. soldier or marine has been killed by enemy aircraft in 50 years, half the history of manned flight.

Moreover, stripping away the opponent's hammer has freed the U.S. anvil to maneuver as it wishes, including, for example, to stay out of the fight entirely, as it did in Kosovo or at al Khafji in the Persian Gulf War-a battle that will surely be studied at the war colleges. When Pape says that "tactics commonly used by large mechanized armies ... have not changed with the advent of precision weaponry," he must be talking about the large, mechanized U.S. Army, whose tactics have not changed because they have not had to. On the other hand, as Pape also notes, enemy soldiers facing precision air power now simply separate themselves from their equipment. One can hardly imagine a more pronounced change in tactics.

Targets are what give a war its character, so it is worth turning to the "never effective" decapitation strategy. Pape objects to using air-delivered PGMS to target enemy leadership. Yet he never explains why it is a bad idea to pursue decapitation with PGMS, as opposed to, say, the soldiers who killed Saddam Hussein's sons and captured the man himself. As of this writing, Osama bin Laden is still being chased with both ground and air forces, and I presume Pape joins in the hope that the results will be precise. If, for whatever reason, the United States decides to attack enemy leadership, it is a no-brainer to do it with accurate instead of inaccurate weaponry.

Pape also says nothing of stealth, even though it and precision weaponry are the two technologies on which the future Air Force must be built. It is worth noting, however, that stealth restores tactical surprise to aerial warfare-a development of enormous significance and another topic that might have found its way into a discussion of air power's "true worth."

Pape does make one important point about PGMS: in the era of precision weapons, bad intelligence means hitting the wrong target precisely, as with the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. But the sad fact that targets will sometimes be misidentified is an argument for better intelligence, not less precise weaponry.

Wars are not all alike. Air power will be "worth" more in one contest, less in another; decapitation will be a winning strategy in some, a less effective one in others. Thus Pape would do well to make the more modest argument that not every military problem can be solved with air-delivered weaponry, precisely placed or not. The current fighting in Iraq, for example, genuinely calls for boots on the battlefield. It is important to note this, since the conduct of the Iraq war will inevitably produce still more controversy over whether we can and should rely on technology-principally aerospace technology-to replace heavy, slow-moving ground forces. That question has been settled in the affirmative for all but the most determinedly sightless. But the United States still needs the Army, and probably a larger one, to meet a variety of twenty-first-century security challenges.

With the history of aerial combat less than 100 years old, it should come as no surprise that there are few certainties about the appropriate uses of air power. But in trying to provide some answers, Pape is a throwback to the earlier, unhappy age of carpet-bombing: he simply misses the target.


McPeak writes a spirited critique of my article, but he disagrees with me less than his tone might suggest. I challenge the claim that the advent of precision air power means that wars can now be won simply by taking out an enemy's leadership, national communications systems, and economic infrastructure. Precision air weaponry has revolutionized warfare, as its advocates claim, but not by making leadership targeting the way to win wars. Rather, it has multiplied the combined power of air and ground forces to smash the enemy army-a strategy that proved decisive to U.S. victories in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Iraq (in 1991 and 2003). McPeak does not disagree. If anything, he appears to concede that, even in the precision age, the coordinated use of air power and ground power is the key to victory.

McPeak does, however, raise four important issues. First, he wonders whether securing air superiority should be the Air Force's "first job." Yes, it should. In fact, the virtues of air-to-air combat are so plain and uncontroversial that air strategists have not seriously debated the point since World War II. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and twice in Iraq, the United States' lead in air-to-air combat was so great that its command of the skies was virtually assured even before its first bombs hit the ground. The last time an enemy even tried to contest U.S. air dominance was in the 1991 Gulf War. After a few days of combat, Iraqi aircraft chose to fly en masse to Iran, its bitter enemy throughout much of the 1980s, rather than take on U.S. fighters waiting for the kill. In total, the coalition's air forces shot down 38 Iraqi aircraft, losing only one plane in the process (which might, in fact, have been shot down from the ground).

Second, McPeak suggests that I attribute too little importance to the benefits of stealth. Stealth has advantages, of course, and much of the expense of developing stealth technology has already been paid with the F-117 and B-2. But McPeak's point still begs the crucial question of today: whether the Air Force should be reconceived, and its tools updated, to favor leadership decapitation rather than a hammer-and-anvil strategy. The F-22, a fighter originally designed to secure air superiority, has recently been modified to carry bombs for strikes deep into the enemy heartland. Given that the United States already dominates the skies, the current plan to buy more than three hundred new F-22s will likely push the Air Force further toward leadership decapitation-with only marginal benefits for air superiority. Buying some F-22s is a wise hedge against unforeseen developments, but the best way to maintain command of the air in the long run is to skip that generation of technology altogether. Otherwise, the Air Force will face the threats of 2025 with 1990s technology.

The future Air Force should strive to balance capabilities rather than pursue the hollow hope of victory through air power alone. Over the next decade, it should develop a new generation of "bomb trucks," possibly unmanned, to replace the B-1s that will be retired from the force after 2015 because they are too expensive to maintain and any B-52s that might be lost to improved enemy defenses. Because the B-2 strategic bomber is fragile and the Air Force has drawn down the forces that specialize in putting bombs on the ground (B-52s, F-111s, and A-10s), even modest losses could have dramatic effects. The Air Force has not designed a new aircraft to attack the enemy army in over 30 years. Now is the time to do so.

McPeak's third argument is that, if the Air Force is to engage in decapitation, it should do so with the most precise weapons available. I agree, but my underlying point remains that relying on leadership targeting carries hidden risks. When leadership strikes fail, they can fail catastrophically. In March 1999, NATO air strikes hit 51 key targets in and near Belgrade. Far from coercing Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO's demands, however, the Serbian army lashed back, killing more than 2,400 Albanian civilians in Kosovo and expelling nearly 900,000 from the country. With no army on the ground and only a handful of aircraft, NATO was powerless to blunt the ethnic cleansing campaign.

It is important to remember, too, that even "precise" leadership strikes can cause significant civilian casualties, because key targets often lie in populated areas. According to the Pentagon, air strikes against 50 leadership targets in Iraq in March 2003 failed to get a single leader, but they probably inflicted more than 30 civilian casualties each. "Shock and awe" harmed thousands of Iraqi civilians for little good.

Given these risks, leadership targeting should be used sparingly. Taking a shot at bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders makes sense, but only with solid intelligence about their whereabouts and the understanding that decapitation is not a comprehensive solution to the threat of terrorism. Striking national leaders may also make sense on occasion, provided heavy air and ground power are deployed to take over the fighting and maximize disruption.

McPeak charges, finally, that my endorsement of the hammer-and-anvil strategy is a "throwback" to World War II-style carpet-bombing. Yes, I argue that the hammer-and-anvil strategy of the past has lasting relevance for the future. But the key point is that the relative weight of these two instruments has shifted extraordinarily over time. Consider Operation Cobra, the breakout from the Normandy beachhead in July 1944, often cited as one of World War II's most successful air-to-ground attacks: with 14,600 five-hundred-pound bombs dropped on a single German division, the 8th and 9th Air Forces destroyed just 66 German tanks and 11 heavy guns-a ratio of bombs to equipment destroyed of 190:1, or 0.5 percent. Contrast this to the 1991 Gulf War, during which the United States dropped some 9,800 PGMS on the Iraqi army, destroying about 2,500 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces across all of Iraq's 42 divisions. At that hit rate-4:1, or 25 percent-air power is now 50 times more effective than it once was, at least in some important circumstances.

Air power used to play a supporting part to ground power's main role. Bombing's greater accuracy means that, now and in the future, these roles are likely to be reversed-so long as the Air Force stays on target.

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